The best and most overrated books of the year, chosen by some of our regular contributors
Despite the best efforts of publicists, this was not a distinguished year. Truly imaginative novels were thin on the ground, even before the factual onslaught of recent events. The best novel was Fairness by Ferdinand Mount (Chatto, £16.99), a sly and subtle account of how to rise without a trace, and how easy and acceptable it is for a woman to do this if her mind is attuned to present-day values. Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives (Macmillan, £20) sadly reveals the clay feet of a man whom I once respected and for whom I still feel affection. This is a triumphant piece of research, and at the same time a damning indictment. Geoffrey Wall's Flaubert (Faber, £25) is a beautifully balanced biography, written without prejudice but with a clear-eyed view of the strengths and weaknesses of an exceptional writer. Outside the line of duty I reread Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, and once again found it matchless, a grave description of one of life's great traumas, the passage from innocence to experience.
Bevis Hillier 11 September 1951 (Festival of Britain year) was my first day at Reigate Grammar School. Short trousers and a cap you had to raise to masters in the street. Weeks before 11 September 2001 I wrote to the headmaster to ask if I might visit the school on that day to see what had changed in 50 years and what hadn't.
Accordingly, when an invitation came from the publisher to attend on that date the launch party of Christopher Woodward's book In Ruins (Chatto, £12.99), I had to decline it. But to show how demmed sought-after I am, I left the invite on my mantelpiece. Two lines on it stood out: 'In Ruins' and '11 September'. On the day itself I heard the news about the New York atrocity on a car radio. The prophetic tinge of the invite didn't strike me for a few days. Meanwhile, I'd read the book — and it is remarkable. It's about people's attitudes to ruins over the centuries, but the whole thing is infused with the author's personality. Its impact has been something like that of Kenneth Clark's The Gothic Revival, written in 1929, when Clark was 26. Woodward too is a young art historian — at present director of the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath — and, as a happier prophecy, I predict that, like Clark, he will one day direct the National Gallery (or the British Museum or the V&A). He's brilliant and a dynamo.
The other revelation this year has been Mediaeval Children by Nicholas Orme (Yale, £25). It is the summation of almost 40 years of dedicated scholarship; but, though Orme draws on all conceivable sources, he is never overwhelmed by them. The style is easy, imaginative, picturesque. He convincingly takes issue with the idea, advanced by Philippe Aries in 1960, that mediaeval childhood was vastly different from today's; kids haven't changed that much.
Perhaps it is cheating slightly to mention Christopher Wilson's Dancing with the Devil (HarperCollins, £16.99), as it was published in 2000; but it only came my way this year and is so well written and has given me so much amusement that I want to pass on the word. Sometimes, when one has been working hard, there is a smug enjoyment in reading about someone who devoted his life to being worthless — what in old fairy tales is called a 'ne'er-do-well'. Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster's Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure (1968) commemorated one such, the man who was part-original of Evelyn Waugh's Anthony Blanche; and now Christopher Wilson does it again, in this life of Jimmy Donahue, a Woolworth heir who, though a most un-covert homosexual, seems to have had a passionate affair with the Duchess of Windsor, reducing the Duke to something close to a man complaisant. So the book really has the same story line as Bob and Rose, the television series about a gay man who falls in love with a girl — the leopards and spots business. Donahue had bags of charm and pots of money; I think without the latter he might have become, say, a good writer — if he'd had to earn his living. As it was, he put his originality into preposterous practical jokes, funnier to read about than to be on the wrong end of. Some of them took courage: for example, in 1935 he stood on the balcony of a Rome hotel, bellowed, 'Viva Ethiopia! Long live Haile Selassie!', then urinated on the crowds below.
Billy Childish is still best known as the former boyfriend of Tracey Emin, one of the names on her notorious tent. But I think his verse and prose works are touched by genius. His latest verse collection, Chatham Town Welcomes Desperate Men, is obtainable from Hangman Books (11 Boundary Road, Chatham, Kent, ME4 6TS, £10 including postage). There's a marvellous, vengeful poem about the bullying headmaster at his primary school. I am quoted on the back cover as calling him 'the James Joyce of our time': I meant that as both praise and criticism. My view is
trumped by the quote from Andrew Motion, also on the back cover: 'He looks like he's having more fun being a poet than I am.' Two words of warning: Billy is dyslexic, so the spelling is idiosyncratic. And some of the poems will not bear repeating to Auntie Ethel.
Patrick Skene Catling
Now that I no longer enjoy novels about other people's orgasms, I have turned to vicarious travel and scientific speculation. Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands by Edward J. Larson (Allen Lane, £20) helped me to understand some of the finer points of Darwinism, and enabled me to empathise with the Bluefooted Booby. Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole by Fergus Fleming (Granta, £20) reminded me of my early days of aerial navigation and of visiting the Arctic as a journalist, and confirmed my belief that it is silly to suffer to impress non-travellers. Both those books were assiduously prepared and well written. Then I read Stephen Hawking's new blockbuster, The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam, £20). Of course, I didn't understand much of it, but it is beautifully designed, with elegant, clear graphics, and I got a great deal of pleasure from Hawking's dry wit. Even if I don't gain access to the right wormhole before it's too late, I look forward to winter evenings thinking about the meaning of everything.
This year saw an extraordinary libel case. Deborah Lipstadt called David Irving a falsifier of history, and he sued her for it. It fell to Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, to be the expert witness providing the evidence to justify Lipstadt's judgment. Evans's findings in Lying for Hitler (Basic Books, USS27) scupper Irving once and for all with an elegance and finality rare in scholarly books. Strange to say, no English publisher has yet brought it out.
Lee Langley's novel Distant Music (Chatto, £14.99) celebrates Portugal and things Portuguese over a period of several centuries. Like everything she writes, it is a story told with true imagination.
The Death of Comedy by Erich Segal (Harvard, $35) has not only just got through the letterbox, but it too is guiding me through the centuries. Menander to Peter Sellers. A quick skip reveals the closing words to be suitably classic: 'The mind boggles.'
Those of us who buy books from charity shops have a shorter and different list to select from. This makes us consider books we might otherwise reject. My thanks to Age Concern for this year's top-rater, Francois Mauriac's The Unknown Sea. First published in France in 1939, it made AC's Woburn Sands branch in May this year. I
read Mauriac as a 16-year-old because I wanted to disapprove of it since M. Sartre said I should. It was wasted on a teenager. Now, encouraged to read him again by having him just up the road at 50p, I realise how good he is. I shall dig out my old Therese and The Nest of Vipers and search the second-hand shops for all the others.
Michael Dibdin is a different story. A couple of the Italian series bought charitably suggested he might be of the calibre of Michael Innes or William Haggard. So I bought the recent Thanksgiving new. Described by the Guardian as 'probing and delicate', you can't see the plot for smut. This one should not be recycled back to the charity shop. Their shelf space is too precious. I shall bury it.
Much of my year was spent reading for the Booker prize, and it turned up some splendid novels which didn't quite make it. If Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang (Faber, £16.99) was the best thing this great novelist has ever done, my reading also turned up Zvi Jagendorfs delightful and profound Wo16 and the Strudelbakers (Dewi Lewis, £8.99); an extraordinary piece of poetry about hunting, Hound Music (Chatto, £15.99) by Rosalind Belben; and Ciaran Carson's blazingly eccentric Shamrock Tea (Granta, £14.99). V. S. Naipaul's Half a Life (Picador, £15.99) was the most radical construct by the greatest living writer in English; Nick Hornby's rapturous, natural, penetrating How to be Good (Viking, £16.99) was shockingly underrated, and, with Peter Carey's, the novel I felt most passionately about and fought hardest for.
Apart from fiction, Jonathan Rose's magnificent, unforgettable The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Yale, £29.95) entranced me — the most moving book of the year. Nina Lubbren's excellent, fascinating Rural Artists' Colonies in Europe, 1870-1910 (Manchester University Press, £16.99) commanded admiration in its survey of an intriguing cultural moment. Pickering and Chatto brought out the first instalment of something I have longed for, a collected De Quincey, a precious addition to one's library. I very much enjoyed Rachel Cusk's hilarious A Life's Work (4th Estate, £12.99), and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's book on Saint-Simon was not just a penetrating study, but incited one to return to the greatest memoirist in French literature, for which one is always grateful.
Much of my reading over the last few years has been about Afghanistan, in preparation for a long novel about the First Afghan War called The Mulberry Empire which comes out next April. It all seemed rather abstruse at the time, and when I reviewed, in the spring of this year, a study of the Taleban and casually mocked the very idea of Zahir, the old King of Afghanistan, ever returning to his benighted kingdom, it must have seemed to many Spectator readers an eccentric interest. Since then, tragically, everything has changed, and it is worth recommending Michael Griffin's fine, lucid Reaping the Whirlwind (Pluto, £19.99) in these very different circumstances, as annihilation descends on this great land one more time.
Mark Amory, the literary editor of The Spectator, always asks one to suggest overrated books of the year, and rarely have I had such a rich choice. I have absolutely no idea why Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club (Viking, £14.99) was so praised; the way it dragged the IRA, the Nazi Holocaust, the death of socialism etc. into what might have been quite an engaging school story struck me as unusually disgraceful. Ian McEwan's Atonement (Cape, £16.99) was better than that, but there was a weird naivety about both it and its admirers which baffled me — I mean, even Tom Sharpe has given up on the old device of the Wrong Letter in the Right Envelope by now. The most fabulously overrated book of the year, however, was Stella Rimington's memoirs. I know everyone said it was the most incredibly tedious rubbish from beginning to end, but, given that no one conveyed quite how hilariously, unreadably awful it was, it still counts as severely overrated. Basically, civil servants as a class just can't write, and here, at appalling length, was the incontrovertible proof of that sad fact.
Most stylish book of the year was undoubtedly David Edmonds and John Eidinow's Wittgenstein's Poker (Faber, £9.99), a brilliant jeu d'esprit which tells the story of a legendary row between Wittgenstein and Popper. Wearing its scholarship lightly, this little monograph fills in the biographical and philosophical background with great elan and lucidity. I also hugely enjoyed Philip Mansel's magisterial Paris between Empires: 1814-1852 (John Murray, £25) and Ysenda Maxtone-Graham's touching, delicate yet totally unsentimental portrait of her grandmother Jan Struther, The Real Mrs Miniver (John Murray, £17.99). Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (Allen Lane, £9.99) is a cool, rational and devastating account of the history of the Great American Hamburger. After reading it, I swore I would never touch one again, and so far I haven't.
Overrated? Well, alas, I couldn't get past p. 24 of Peter Carey's The True History of
the Kelly Gang (Faber, £16.99). Just didn't find the narrative voice remotely convincing.
Francis King One near masterpiece — perhaps even masterpiece — of fiction came my way this year. This was Requiem for the East (Sceptre, £16.99), translated from the original French of a Russian Andrei Makine. The story of the life of its hero — by turns, doctor, lover, soldier, spy — at once immerses the reader in the tumultous flood of a whole century of Russian history. Grandeur and extreme concision are combined to devastating effect. I also greatly enjoyed Jamie O'Neill's At Swim Two Boys (Scribner, £17.99), by no means free of faults but exhilarating because of the superabundant creative energy surging through its descriptions of life in the Dublin of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. The most overrated novel was Ian McEwan's Atonement (Cape, /1699). The first half was impressively up to standard; but from then on it seemed to be sustained only by formidable technique and a steely exertion of the will.
Anne Applebaum I must have war and death on the brain, at the moment, because after choosing my four best books of the year I realised they all concerned one or the other. My top pick — and a book which was well on its way to becoming a cult best-seller even before 11 September — is, of course, Ahmed Rashid's Taliban (Pan, £7.99), the best account, indeed virtually the only account, of how we got to where we are in Afghanistan. Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who writes as an objective insider, and one way or another he manages to make absolutely everyone — from General Zia to Mohammed Omar to the Saudis — look very bad indeed.
Another writer with precisely the same talent is Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist whose book about Chechnya — A Dirty War (Harvill, £12) — is really a collection of narrated stories, rather than a straight history. She conveys the weirdness of Chechnya (this is a war in which the Russians are covertly selling weapons to their supposed enemies, after all) better than anyone else. Another book about the weirdness of wartime is Stanislaw Likiemik's By Devil's Luck (Mainstream Publishing, £15.99), an account of life in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. As a teenager. Likiemik fought in the Warsaw uprising, and he describes very well the strange atmosphere of conspiracy, exhiliration and desperation which suffused the whole affair.
Finally, for those who can't bear reading about warfare over the holidays, may I suggest concentration camps instead — in French? Try the monumentally ambitious Le Siècle des Camps (J. C. Lattes), the work of two French historians, Joel Kotek and Pierre Rigolout, who set out to write a his
tory of the concentration camp in the 20th century. From the Spanish government's camps in Cuba to the British camps in South Africa, from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia to Bosnia, there are more linkages and more connections than you think. Merry Christmas!
John de Falbe Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese Christian who writes in French. Les Identites Meurtrieres was published in France three years ago; the English translation, On Identity (Harvill, £6.99), has just won the ScottMoncrieff Prize. With haunting prescience, Maalouf describes the dangers of reducing identity to single affiliations. My favourite novel of the year is The Brothers Carburi by Petrie Harbouri (Bloomsbury, £16), where the truth of Maaloufs arguments appears in a very different context. It tells the stories of three brothers who left Cephalonia in the 18th century to make their fortunes in respectively, France, Padua and St Petersburg. An attractive, subtle and unusual book. My third choice is also much occupied with questions of identity: Judith Flanders's brilliant A Circle of Sisters — Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin (Penguin/Viking, £17.99).
Eric Christiansen Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press, £29.95) is good value even at that price, considering the mass of information, coloured pictures and handsome appearance. It would be a fine gift for parents and teachers, and is a knock-out blow for the view that childhood was unknown until modern times, if anybody is gullible enough to believe that. A comparable bargain is offered by the Harvard Press in Virginia Brown's edition and translation of Boccaccio's Famous Women, which is printed (Latin and English) in excellent type, on decent paper, hardback at £19.95. This two-edged tribute to the sex is perfect for all feminists and anti-feminists. The vastly entertaining According to Queeney (Little Brown. £16.99) by Beryl Bainbridge and Ungentle Shakespeare by Katherine Duncan Jones (Arden, £20) are both imaginative portraits of historic figures as seen through rear windows, and will not diminish the respect in which the works of Shakespeare and Dr Johnson are held by lovers of literature.
Nicholas Harman Some writers' biggest fictions are their own lives. After Patrick O'Brian (who didn't exist) and Jeffrey Archer (who invented himself) comes Laurens van der Post in J. D. F. Jones's Storyteller (John Murray, 125), a whole book of belly-laughs, and surprisingly gentle about those the Afrikaner wizard conned. The mugs included Lord Archer's top fan at Number Ten, who also (they said at the time) trusted her Irish counterpart Charles Haughey, disgraceful inventor of the New Ireland where everyone's on the take. From Dublin tribunals and lawsuits CoIm Keena has put together Haughey's Millions (Gill & Macmillan, £7.99), which I'd find funnier if I didn't live in his country. It was a nice change to read about a nice family in Penelope Lively's nice A House Unlocked (Penguin, 114.99). For real literature try Haifa Life (Picador, £15.99), by V. S. Naipaul, whose fictions are truer than the mere truth.
Hugh Massingberd Two new books from departed heroes have made this a bumper year. A Writer's Notebook by Anthony Powell (Heinemann, £14.99) was an unexpected treat for the great novelist's fans — all of whom, incidentally, should join the flourishing Anthony Powell Society — and it surely has potential as a one-man show. The pithy observations and coruscating oneliners crackle off the page ('X never forgot a kindness, never failing to be disobliging about anybody who had done him one'). In Holy Dread: Diaries, 1982-1984 (John Murray, £22.50) James Lees-Milne wishes he had never published these bloody diaries. Can't think what came over me.' But this ninth volume, full of juicy gossip, quickfire obits and elegiac introspection, turns out to be one of the funniest, sharpest and most stimulating in this intensely pleasurable series which happily still has 13 years to come.