16 NOVEMBER 2002, Page 46

Rupert Christiansen

How embarrassing. The authors of the four books I have most relished this year — Nicola Shulman's elegant monograph A Rage for Rock Gardening (Short Books, £9.99), Virginia Nicholson's exuberant Among the Bohemians (Viking, £20), Giles Waterfield's brilliant satire The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner (Review, £14,99) and Selina Hastings' fascinating biography of Rosamond Lehmann (Chatto, £25) — are all friends of mine, and the etiquette of this exercise therefore inhibits me from nominating them.

So I turn instead to three books which in their different ways prove profoundly illuminating of the dilemmas of 20th-century Mitteleuropa: Eric Hobsbawm's dodgy but enthralling autobiography Interesting Times (Allen Lane, £20), Sandor Maras Blixenish novella Embers (Viking, £12.99) and Sebastian Haffner's pellucid Defying Hitler (Weidenfeld, £14.99). Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (Fourth Estate, £17.99) transcended all its hype — a funny, moving, generous-spirited novel of real artistry. James Fenton's An Introduction to English Poetry (Viking, £14.99) explained verse forms with the utmost eloquence, and The World's Worst Poetry (Prion, $8.99), crisply edited by Stephen Robins, brightened many an otherwise dreary visit to the lavatory.