Favourite Books of 2012 part 2
In the second of two articles, agency authors pick their favourite book of 2012.
A History of London by Stephen Inwood (Macmillan, 1998)
By a country mile this is the history of our capital. Stephen Inwood has produced a masterly work; 1100 fascinating pages on the greatest city in the world. Despite its length, Inwood has a surprisingly light touch with such a vast subject. My enthusiasm for it comes from the real social insight one gets from such a diverse range of heroes, villains, changing fortunes and downright grit. Everyone knows what Johnson thought; In 1173 William Fitzstephen wrote ‘the city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor’ Forget Boris and his tabloid hacking, he doesn’t even scratch the surface.
When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett (Faber and Faber, 2009)
Beckett has produced a brilliant evocation of an era- recent history at its best and by far the best book I have read this year. As well as meticulously recording the events of a dramatic, depressing and surprising decade, he captures the atmosphere of the Seventies perfectly. I had a ringside seat for the decade’s closing years as one of Jim Callaghan’s Private Secretaries in 10, Downing Street; Beckett’s account of the Callaghan premiership is both sympathetic and completely accurate. I am glad that such an important book gives one of our most under-estimated Prime Ministers his proper due.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)
I came late to The Corrections, but in my defence contemporary novels are not high on the reading list in my family. Discovering it kick-started quite an obsession for the new Great American Novel, though none of my subsequent reads really came close. The language in The Corrections is precise in a way that every word feels like it is the only right one, the characters are fleshed out with detail, and the plot is complex, jumping around in time and between characters, so that every new thing colours what came before it. But The Corrections is also simply a page turner, funny and dark, and very, very true.
For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066-1500’ by Nigel Saul (The Bodley Head, 2011).
Chivalry is of vital importance to an understanding of the Middle Ages, yet it is also an elusive, complex, and at times almost intangible subject. Saul adeptly brings its myriad threads together, weaving a tight but wide-ranging study that encompasses politics, culture, warfare, literature and art. The ways in which chivalry was at the heart of medieval society, how it influenced lives and culture, is vividly depicted. So too are the means by which English kings used the resonating cult of chivalry to enhance and consolidate their rule. This is an exemplary study, eminently readable and accessible to anyone interested in the period.
So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, (Harper, 2011)
Lionel Shriver’s searingly angry tirade of a book gets my vote because not only is it emotionally insightful with a cracking, pacy plot (a combination that is always going to make me happy), but it made me vow to try to be a better person. The subject matter – how a woman with terminal cancer and those around her cope with the approaching end of her life – is unpromising. The characters are uncompromising, prickly, difficult. The writing is funny, raw, evangelical, excoriating. I have been urging everyone I know to read it. Go on, read it. It’s a great ride, and it might make you (try to be) a better person.
Emperor. The Field of Swords by Conn Igguldenn (Collins, 2005)
With little time to indulge in reading of late, I instinctively turned to two authors I find irresistible, Bernard Cornwell and Conn Igguldenn. Good historical semi-fiction can be hugely satisfying and none are more accomplished in this genre than these two. Whilst on holiday I read the third in Igguldenn´s Caesar series, Emperor. The Field of Swords and it didn`t disappoint. It is an epic adventure with his usual mixture of fascinating authentic background detail, this time focussing on Caesar´s Gallic campaign, interwoven with gripping action narrative. Before penning this, just to refresh myself I started to leaf through it once more. An hour later I was still completely absorbed…again.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books , 2012)
People who write about history know how little we ever really say about the past. We sift facts and tell stories; we scour archives and analyse motives; but the past’s emotive charge, its pungency, its power to hurt, are often better laid bare by writers of fiction. My favourite book this year, Tan Twan Eng’s Booker-shortlisted The Garden of Evening Mists maps the devastation, not only physical but psychological, that historical events can leave behind. It’s a novel of slow understanding and cautious forgiveness. Its depiction of Malaysia’s emergency, and the aftermath of the wartime Japanese occupation, is utterly absorbing.
The Girl on the Stairs: My Search for a Missing Witness to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy by Barry Ernest (US, self-published, 2010)
Ninety per cent of JFK books are simply rubbish. This is a poorly produced, badly edited and rather scrappy. But it also happens to be brilliant, utterly compelling, very, very dark and deeply troubling. It takes investigative journalist Barry Ernest 35 years to track down Victoria Adams who witnessed the assassination from the fourth floor of the Book Depository. The problem for history is that moments later, descending the stairs, she saw Lee Harvey Oswald three floors below. Despite the Warren Commission’s desperate and Stalinesque attempts to discredit and humiliate her, it is hard not conclude that she was telling the truth. Oswald had not been on the sixth floor. He was drinking a coke and having lunch at the time of the assassination.
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman,(Vintage Books, Completed in the Soviet Union in 1960 and first published in 1980).
Grossman’s 864-page masterpiece was a delight from cover-to-cover. Like a Soviet era War and Peace, it is an epic story made up of interlocking tales, taking place at the time of the siege of Stalingrad in 1943. Grossman is a wonderful story-teller and prose stylist, and his intense humanism shines through in the characters he creates. A quote to give a taste: “Time flows into a man or State, makes its home there and then flows away; the man and the State remain, but their time has passed. Where has their time gone? The man still thinks, breathes and cries, but his time, the time that belonged to him and to him alone, has disappeared.”
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (Barry & Jenkins 1969)
Flashman, a cad and reprobate of the first order, is a British soldier who Fraser places at the forefront of major military and historical events of the 19th century alongside the people who actually played their true part. Flashman inadvertently receives the highest honors while in truth he is an abject coward. I first picked up the book in the Gandamack Lodge in Kabul, an apt location since it was the setting for the story about the British massacre at the hands of the Afghans. The book added to my fascination of riding the Jalalabad Road. Despite Flashman’s shortcomings I sympathized with his cynicism and enjoyed his wit.
It’s All News to Me by Jeremy Vine (Simon & Schuster , 2012)
Radio 2 and former Newsnight presenter Vine’s autobiography really kept me turning the pages. As you might expect, the book is full of great insights into the BBC and the world of journalism generally. What surprised me more was that It’s All News to Me is peppered with genuine laugh out loud moments (Vine’s comedian brother Tim was obviously rubbing off on him) as well as a number of heartfelt and touching passages. Vine is very honest about the Corporation (there will have been a few gasps amongst BBC management, I’m sure), but in exposing its flaws you also get an idea of why the BBC is still one of the best news organisations in the world. Given recent events, Vine’s memoirs are a timely reminder of what the BBC does best.
Zero Regrets by Apolo Ohno (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Apolo Ohno’s Zero Regrets had a great impact on me. I tend to focus on attaining my goals – many of us are like that. Actually, we can become overly fixated on that. Apolo puts the matter in perspective. He tells his readers that attaining our goals is not as critical as making the changes we need to make to attain them. This also helps us as we move on to new goals. A great athlete and an accomplished dancer taught me a universal lesson. Very good!
Reporting Conflict by James Rodgers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Reporting Conflict, an academic analysis of the business of war reporting, is refreshing because the author actually has abundant first-hand experience of this often dangerous job. (Too often scholarly tomes lack any real-world perspective, getting bogged down instead with untested theory.) It provided me a useful reference while writing a memoir of veteran hack Clare Hollingworth, who began her career as a cub reporter covering the outbreak of WWII from the front line in Poland. Reporting Conflict meanwhile begins at the Battle of Waterloo, where Rodgers’ own ancestor wrote home to describe “a most Bloody Battle with the French as ever was fought”, and takes us right into the age of social media, “citizen reporters”, and international Public Relations companies competing to shape the news.
Book of Books by Melvyn Bragg (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011)
A vivid, erudite and engaging canter through the creation of the literary artwork that, along with the work of Shakespeare, has most enriched our language: the King James Bible. Shakespeare himself quotes over 1,300 times from the King James Bible’s common source, thus laying the foundation stone for the Bible’s claim to be the Book of Books. Bragg charts the historical significance of the book’s effect on both British and then-emergent American democracy with the poetry of someone in love and with the enthusiasm of the lover’s desire to convey his passion.
Unwilling Passenger by Arthur Osburn (Faber & Faber, 1932)
Researching the British Army in 1914 I had the good fortune to come across this well-written book by the medical officer of the 4th Dragoon Guards, a witness to so many of the key events of the Army’s opening campaign: from the very first encounter with the Germans before the battle of Mons to the hell of trench warfare at First Ypres. Something of an outsider, Osburn displays an insightful honesty rare in military memoirs, although his critical appraisal of events and individuals is tempered by a profound sympathy for the terribly wounded soldiers he does his best to help.
Wellington by Elizabeth Longford (Abacus,2012)
If time travel were possible I would unhesitatingly turn the clock back rather than forward. I want to see where history was made, to meet the people who have shaped our world and fired our imaginations. But until the Tardis is a thing of fact not fiction then I rely on books like the late Elizabeth Longford’s masterly, definitive biography of Wellington to both stoke and satiate my desire to visit bygone eras. Longford pulled off the master stroke of making her volume both magnificently scholarly and refreshingly accessible. Undeniably she had great material in the form of the victor of Waterloo, though I suspect she’d have made the life of a caterpillar appear equally heroic.
Moondust by Andrew Smith (Bloomsbury, 2005)
I was a teenager during the Space Race and I remember every thrilling launch and orbit of it. Andrew Smith tracked down the surviving Apollo astronauts and interviewed them about their experiences on the Moon and the equally interesting stories of what happened to them when they fell back to Earth. When you’ve been to the Moon, what do you do for the rest of your life? The former astronauts’ accounts of finding God, drowning in booze, suffering depression and break-downs, trashing their marriages, searching for fulfilling careers on Earth and in one case becoming an artist are fascinating.
PIU DAS GUPTA
Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting by Donald Sassoon (Harper Collins,2001)
I came across this gem of a book during my research for the book I am currently working on – They eat horses,don’t they? Myths and Facts about the French (Head of Zeus, June 2013). Professor Sassoon is an art historian at London University and this book unravels, with meticulous precision, the web of events and coincidences that turned the Mona Lisa – a rather average portrait of an Italian Renaissance housewife – into a world icon. My own book is itself an investigation into myths about the French, and I found the meticulous and dispassionate detail with which Professor Sassoon deconstructs one of the greatest cultural myths of all time an inspiration. In attempting to interpret Mona’s mysterious smile, we are reading as much of our own dreams as anything inherent in the painting. Could the same be true of our cherished beliefs about the French?
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,(Penguin 2011)
What marks this book as a must-read is the way it makes you its subject. Rather than just reporting the results of psychological experiments, Kahneman encourages his readers to experiment on themselves. This means that you can actually experience the fast and slow thinking that he is writing about. He makes the book personal, revealing and sometimes extremely unnerving. Whether this is really how our minds work remains a deep mystery. But reading this book, it certainly feels like it.
The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt, (Vintage Books, 2011)
Judt cast his eyes back on his own life and the century in which most of it was nested with a clarity and poignancy that is, as he readily acknowledges, inseparable from the knowledge of his slow but inevitable passing. Without a single citation, this is a profound work of history: wide ranging, erudite and thoughtful. Written by a social democrat who abhors ever-rising inequality, Judt is equally scathing of the contemporary left’s obsession with identity politics and its indulgent tolerance of mediocrity. As the author moves one step closer to death with every turn of the page, it is a book that is both horribly painful and immensely rewarding to read and experience.
Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag-Montefiore (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003)
This fascinating account of the private lives of Stalin, his courtiers and their families is superb history. The author’s painstaking archival research reveals an astonishing picture of the corruption and violence of this infamous regime, which he grippingly elaborates with more personal stories of love, hate and revenge. Particularly entertaining are the descriptions of Stalin’s gargantuan banquets and the obligatory drinking sessions which proved such a minefield for visiting dignitaries. The book achieves its aim with consummate skill: to make Stalin ‘a more understandable and intimate character, if no less repellent’. A real tour de force.
Diane Arbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth (Vintage, 2005; first published in the UK in 1985 by William Heinemann Ltd)
The photographer Diane Arbus died just over forty years ago, yet her portraits – featuring nudists, circus freaks, strippers, high society ladies and transvestites amongst much else – still feel ground-breaking in today’s beauty-obsessed age. Bosworth’s well-researched biography covers every aspect of Diane’s strange life, personal relationships, sex life and peculiar obsessions. Letters and interviews with those who knew her take the reader as close as it’s possible to get to one of the 20th Century’s most unique and revered photographers. Diane lived and worked in New York, and this thickly detailed book is almost like an alternative guide to one of my favourite cities, the back streets of which inspired Diane to produce so many extraordinary images.
Museum without Walls by Jonathan Meades (Unbound,2012)
Jonathan Meades isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He holds trenchant opinion.He broadcasts and writes about his adoptive country, France, forensically, hilariously, and for that, if nothing else, I find myself bending towards his views. His latest book, Museum Without Walls, is about places, and the pleasure to be had from looking at places – really looking. Meades’s premise is – there is no such thing as a boring place, and we are surrounded by this great free show. Meades dissects places, buildings and architects with a scalpel, “Appointing architects to conceive places is like getting Hamas to babysit a kibbutz”. In every chapter is a word I haven’t read before, some perhaps even made up by the author – machtergreifung, petro-midas, bruited, sausaging – it’s all a bit showy but great stuff.
MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service by Gordon Corera,( Orion, 2011)
Corera tells the story of Britain’s foreign intelligence service with a gripping and insightful narrative. He is particularly interesting when he writes about MI6’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq invasion- a shocking tale of error and deliberate distortion that partly reflected the service’s radical internal reorganisation at the hands of ‘reformers’. Corera emphasises that, a result of the Iraq debacle MI6 has nearly lost its reputation as the world’s best spy service. Will it ever get it back?
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, (Hutchinson,1971)
In 1969 Frederick Forsyth, a freelance foreign correspondent and former RAF jet pilot, came back from covering the civil war in Biafra and wrote, in 35 days, what is now accepted to be one of the best-written, well-researched thrillers ever. The story of the anonymous English assassin who plots to kill General de Gaulle has it all: a fabulous adventure and detective story, meticulous research, sympathetic and true-to-life characters, and exclusive, inside factual detail about the world of mercenaries, France, Algeria, crime and police work. It has, above all, an extraordinary and beautiful sense of place, describing France in the 1960s perfectly. Numerous publishers turned down Forsyth’s manuscript before Hutchinson very wisely took a chance on it and published it in 1971. It’s since sold millions of copies.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (orig. pub. 1887-1927, this ed. Vintage Books, 2009)
I was given this edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes canon by my brother for my birthday in August this year, and it has been an almost constant companion ever since. From Holmes’ first appearance in The Study In Scarlet in 1887 through to the final Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s superb writing remains remarkably fresh today, and succeeds not only as straightforward crime fiction but also as effortlessly observed character work and thrillingly taut adventure. Like many people, I was admittedly fairly familiar with a handful of these tales already, but nonetheless it has been a real treat to discover some of the less well known of Holmes’ cases, such as The Adventure of the Dancing Men and ingenious Adventure of the Red-Headed League.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (Vintage,1984)
When I first read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City I was thirteen going on twenty-one. I can thank (or blame) the book’s influence for my decisions to move to New York City at eighteen, and to work in the nightclub industry. Having read the book again recently, I am pleased to say that it is still a personal classic. McInerney’s use of the 2nd person, ‘You’ in respect to the main character, puts the reader smack in the centre of the story. Even when ‘You’ are unlikeable, one can’t help but relate, examine, and empathize.
Storm Force from Navarone, by Sam Llewellyn, (HarperCollins, 1996)While working on our non-fiction book that follows the exploits of West Point officers into WWII and beyond, I delved into other WWII-related books. I found Llewellyn’s fictional book, which takes up where Alistair MacLean’s Force 10 from Navarone left off, especially intriguing. It’s an adrenaline-read that details a special forces’ mission to obliterate German U-boats that pose a threat to the D-Day invasion. The book’s characters and scenes come vividly alive. What interested me most, however, is the leeway the author had with “made-up dialogue,” as opposed to staying true to history in non-fiction. While Llewellyn’s characters are colourful, witty and never at a loss for words, at the end of the day, I concluded that true wartime events, and the people behind them, can often be stranger than fiction.
World in Trance by Leopold Schwarzschild (Hamish Hamilton,1943)
As an international historian I have read more than my fair share of tomes about the dire consequences of the Versailles ‘Peace to end all Peace’ and the road to the Second World War. I had no great expectations, therefore, when I picked up at my favourite local bookshop in Hungerford, a moderately-sized and priced book entitled World in Trance by Leopold Schwarzschild . Written in 1943, and reprinted three times during the war, this exiled Austrian journalist has given us the clearest and most convincing explanation of the origins of the Second World War which I have ever read. In a nutshell, or should it be a bullet-casing, it was caused by the continued refusal of the ‘Perfectionists’, namely Western liberal politicians and intellectuals, to accept the glaring evidence before their eyes of German revanchism and militarism from 1919 onwards. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, for one will not only see the era of the world wars in a new and clear perspective, but realise that the same capacity for self-deception among Western liberals about the world is still with us today.
Second Chance by Stephen Weiss (Military History Publishing, 2011)
A truly remarkable story of a 20 year old US soldier who fights through Italy in an infantry company which suffers nearly 100% casualties. He finds himself behind German lines after yet another savage battle in France and joins the resistance. When I finished reading it I actively missed the authors self-aware and blunt honesty. Weiss and his story, by no means all shooting and fighting, provided good company in a miserable place (I was in Libya at the time); the more so because Marlene Dietreich and Sophia Loren also feature! This is the best WW2 memoir I have read for many years, well up there with Paul Fussell or Eugene Sledge.
Kyoto: A cultural and literary history by John Dougill, ( Signal Press, 2006)
A move to Kyoto has coloured my reading this year, and John Dougill’s book – one of Signal’s admirable ‘Cities of the Imagination’ series – stands out from the rest. The sober title is slightly misleading; Dougill’s real aim is to capture the spirit of the place, which he does through a vivid mixture of history, myth, literature and local knowledge. His own love affair with Kyoto leaves its mark on every page. The result is a book that has added more to my enjoyment of this endlessly beautiful city than any other I’ve come across.
On Combat by David Grossman (PPCT Research Publications, 2004)
On Combat dissects the psychological, physical and emotional dimensions of human combat. The book is not a literary masterpiece and struggles at times with political correctness. Yet it confronts with honesty one of the oldest human activities and its frequent outcome: death. Reading this book will help people who haven’t been in combat to better understand those who have experienced it, who have been certain that they will die in the next few seconds. Then be stunned that they didn’t. For those of us who have stood in that field and walked away unscathed, it provides comforting reassurance that the bitter taste of fear and the beguiling intoxication of adrenalin is universal. And that we are not abnormal if we are prepared – or even want – to go there again, for nothing can ever be quite the same afterwards.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Faber and Faber, 1954)
Dog-eared and creased, bearing the guilty stamp ‘Property of Uffculme School’, my copy of Lord of the Flies has been with me for the past thirty years. I’d ‘borrowed’ it because it had such a deep impact on the 11-year old me that I vowed then I would one day share the experience with my own children. This is the year that I finally revisited William Golding’s classic story of the breaking down of society, reading it aloud to my two sons and it didn’t disappoint. Although it sparked inevitable and often hilarious debates about what they would both do if they too were stranded on a desert island, it also prompted some deep questioning about the nature of violence and the need to survive at all costs. It has been a thoroughly enriching experience to revisit this book. I wonder if Uffculme School would mind if I hung on to it for another 30-years so I might share it with my grandchildren?
City of Fortune by Roger Crowley (Faber,2011)
The best thing I read this year was Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire. I was amazed that Crowley was able to craft another nearly flawless book after the success of 1453 and Empires of the Sea. We seem to be living through a renaissance of the historical narrative, and Crowley is a master at the top of his form. Reading him, as a fellow historian, is inspiring and not a little intimidating. One wants to know what is the secret of the sauce.
Blood Brotherhoods by John Dickie (Sceptre, 2011)
My favourite book of the year has to be John Dickie’s Blood Brotherhoods now out in paperback, about the early history of the mafia, camorra and other organised crime gangs in southern Italy. As Professor of Italian at UCL, Dickie has that rare talent of combining great academic research with immense readability—and a touch of the exotic—such as 19th century tattoo-covered camorristi pimps dressed in flamboyant flares! Something I am always aiming for in my true crime books.
Nadia Revisited: A Longitudinal Study of an Autistic Savant by Lorna Selfe (Psychology Press, 2011)
A problem for prodigiously talented children is growing up – making the transition from being a source of (often somewhat uncritical) adult fascination and wonder to being just another artist, musician or mathematician, who must compete with others whose routes to mature accomplishment were somewhat more mundane. The problem is all the greater for ‘savants’ – people who have an island of exceptional ability among a sea of impairment. Hence it was with a sense of curiosity and anticipation that I set out to read Lorna Selfe’s new book Nadia Revisited: A Longitudinal Study of an Autistic Savant – the self-proclaimed sequel to Nadia, by the same author, that had appeared some 30 years earlier. The drawings of Nadia, a three-year-old girl with no communicative speech and severe learning difficulties, were simply extraordinary, and had captured the media’s attention some years before the now famous Stephen Wiltshire attracted the limelight. Nadia’s circumstances, 30 years later, were not at all what I expected – but are a gripping read, nonetheless – a sad story, but one of resilience and dedicated care. A lesson to society as a whole.
The Spy who Loved :The secrets and lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley (Macmillan, 2012)
Of all the books I have read this year nothing comes close to this wonderful story of Christine Granville, who served as a secret agent throughout the Second World War. Born Krystyna Skarbek into an aristocratic Polish family, at a time when women were typically not expected to aspire to anything except becoming wives and mothers, she began her intelligence work for the Allies long before they had set up organizations for this purpose and travelled across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in pursuit of her work, returning with invaluable information. Beautifully written, this fast paced book is full of danger, intrigue and tragedy but also gives a excellent insight into the character of a supremely courageous yet vulnerable woman. This really is a book not to be missed.
To The Ends of the Earth : Scotland’s global diaspora, 1750-2010 by T.M.Devine, (Allen Lane 2011)
Given its capacity to transform cultures over generations, emigration is a profound subject and in this highly readable book professor Devine takes it a lot further. Tapping a vast statistical database, he shows that Scots are practically the world champions of emigration and have been so since medieval times. And far from being poverty-stricken peasants booted out in the Highland Clearances, most of this far-flung diaspora were relatively well-qualified and educated. Engineers, administrators, soldiers of fortune, Latin-quoting sons of nobility, farmers: they went looking for adventure, preferment, wealth and, very possibly, warmth in foreign climes even when times were good at home. And, as the stats show, they still are.
The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton,2012)
My favourite book this year is The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane, a journey he undertook around Britain, on foot, to explore the ancient tracks, drove roads, sea paths and holloways that connect parts of this varied landscape together. What Macfarlane does so well (in previous books as well as this one) is to join up natural history, archaeology cartography and literature together. He walks alongside friendly ghosts – the writer Roger Deakin in The Wild Places – and here, most evocatively, the poet Edward Thomas. But for me, as I write my second book (on England’s nomads) there was one disappointment – that the (literary and historical) debt we owe to to England’s oldest walkers, Gypsies and Travellers alike – is only mentioned fleetingly here. Still, this book is a wonderful evocation of what it means to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, (Collins,1956)
‘“Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass’ – how can a book which opens thus not enchant? It was given to me as a sixteenth birthday present, and on every birthday since, I have re-read it as my present to myself. Love, sex, fishing, femininity, tips on camel riding, adultery, bereavement and drugs; discourses on class, the Holy Trinity and the wearing of hats in Turkey; St Paul’s missions and a priest called Chantry-Pigg. Only twelve more days to go.
Don’t tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford(Hamish Hamilton,1960)
This year I read for the third time Nancy Mitford’s “Don’t tell Alfred”, the story of an Oxford don unexpectedly appointed ambassador to Paris. His long-suffering wife copes somewhat bewilderdedly with the intrigues and intricacies of diplomatic life while at the same time attempting to reconcile her absent minded husband, their unconventional children and eccentric relations to this new, unaccustomed and as far as she is concered, unwanted existence. The third time round this maliciously humorous book enchanted me as much as it had done when I first read it. A pure delight!
Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (Knopf, 1969)
Though it was published in 1969, Mr. Bridge hasn’t aged a day. Written in clean, realist prose as unadorned as its Kansas setting, this tale of a conservative lawyer’s struggle to come to terms with a changing America is at once satirical and compassionate. Most family stories are told from the perspectives of mothers and children; this one is special because it sees domestic life through the patriarch’s eyes. You’re supposed to prefer the 1959 companion volume, Mrs. Bridge. For personal reasons, I prefer Mr. Bridge. The novel was published in the same year my parents were married, and was given to me this year by my well-meaning husband, who, in a moment which could have sprung from O’Connell’s novel itself, misheard my request for Mrs. Bridge.
Left Hand, Right Hand by Osbert Sitwell (Macmillan,1945)
Few people read the Sitwells, except perhaps for some of Edith’s verse. Yet Evelyn Waugh considered her brother Osbert’s autobiography Left Hand, Right Hand a masterpiece. A hauntingly introspective monument to the patrician England of his youth, this evocation of a vanished society anticipates Lampedusa, often built around the wonderfully comic figure of his father, Sir George. Its background, lovingly conjured, up, is Osbert’s magic house, the beautiful, slightly sinister, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, which in its own way was to the Sitwells what Charleston was to the Bloomsburies in Sussex.
The Gifts Of Imperfection by Brene Brown (Hazelden,2010)
Having just been through a pretty rough patch in my life I was looking for something to help me delve into my inner self to see if I could establish what was causing me to feel eternally inadequate in spite of the knowledge that I always give of my best ? Brene’s book was very easy to read and took my mind and emotions in many different directions. She discusses in depth how shame is an emotion that we all experience in a myriad of different ways but is so damaging to our feelings of self worth. She explores the reasons we all expect so much of ourselves and then encourages the reader to find ways of becoming more ‘authentic’ and develop the courage to do so. A very helpful and down to earth book written in an easy format. Don’t be put off by the ‘new age’ feel of the title, this book should be read by everyone !!
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay Books, Reissued 2001)
Salinger’s novel about a rebellious teen, Holden Caulfield, has always been my favorite. It’s an entertaining book that you can read again and again without getting bored. Holden is a confused and contradictory character who is also quite charming. You can’t wait to find out what he’ll say next. Salinger showed other authors how to write a powerful novel with a strong lead character. I can’t think of a better novel written in first person than The Catcher in the Rye, and I recommend it to everyone.
Slavery Inc. by Lydia Cacho (Portobello Books, 2012)
An important and brave book on the thriving international human trafficking industry. Mexican journalist Cacho, famous for her work investigating violence against women, draws up a page-turning narrative account of the sinister, globalised sex trade. Having spent five risky years interviewing victims, pimps, traffickers, Mafiosi, police and politicians, Cacho includes personal stories and some shocking statistics. For example, each year 1.39 million people – mainly women and children – are sold and re-sold like merchandise. The market for sex slaves now rivals the number of African slaves sold from the 1500’s to 1800’s. I bought this book as research for a fact-based first novel I want to re-write and it’s made me realise that the subject is as pertinent as ever.
King of Oil by Daniel Ammann (St Martin’s Press,2009)
Having worked as a commodities reporter in the pit of the London Metals Exchange for the past couple of years, the name “Glencore” and all the connotations associated with it became ubiquitous in my day to day life. Then in 2010, Glencore became the second biggest IPO of all time. And when I read the book about the guy who founded it (Marc Rich), I found it absolutely fascinating. It was an extremely well-written, well-researched account of one man’s extraordinary life, and it stings of what’s wrong with Western bureaucracy, particularly within the United States. Although Ammann never answers the question, “Who is Marc Rich?” We nevertheless get a very good idea of the image this man wanted to portray to the world. But even if we are always scratching the surface of a fugitive billionaire, this crafted persona is still thrilling and exotic in every way. The book is also a tiny tribute to Switzerland and its people. The Swiss protected Marc Rich from prosecution from the FBI at a time when many other countries wanted to see him as toast. As an American newly moved to Switzerland and working for a commodity hedge fund, I can not only identify with the challenges within his industry, but also with the cultural issues he encountered with leaving the US – of course, not the police chase :) But in late 2012, I can feel the urge to relinquish my citizenship just like he did.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, (Hespersus Press, 2012).
I love the concept of this book: a man stuck in an old folks’ home can’t be bothered going to his 100th birthday party… so he climbs out of the window and goes on a bizarre road trip around Sweden instead, leaving a trail of chaos in his wake. Centenarian Allan Karlsson is a wonderful character; he may be old and creaky, but his mind is razor sharp and I love the fact he’s so rebellious and mischievous. There are no airs and graces about this novel. Author Jonas Jonasson’s writing style is succinct and effortlessly funny. He’s taken a simple idea and turned it into a genius work of fiction that makes you want to live to 100-years-old…and disappear out of the window.
Drina Ballet Books, by Jean Estoril (pen name for Mabel Esther Allan). First ten books published between 1957 and 1964 by Hodder & Stoughton and republished in early 1990s by Simon & Schuster. Eleventh book Drina Ballerina, published in 1991, by Hodder Wayland.
Drina Adams is the orphan of a famous ballerina. She lives with her wealthy grandparents in London, and is determined to become a dancer too, but her grandmother vehemently disapproves. The series charts her progress from eager 10-year old ballet student to professional ballerina. The books have left a lasting impression on me because the characters are so vividly drawn that they literally walk off the page. Unlike many young adult books, the author also allows Drina to grow up. In the final book, she marries Grant Rossiter, the man she first fell in love with in New York, at the age of 14.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (translated into French by Elisabeth Guertik, Le Livre de Poche, 2011)
In 1869, Russia’s most famous writer published his most famous work. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus, is a perennial favourite for the title of “world’s greatest novel”. It is a reputation to daunt even the hardiest of readers; a tome so heavy as to make a librarian’s knees sag. And yet, its size is inclusive: roomy enough for all manner of odd thoughts and fascinating digressions. Where else could you find a book fuelled equally by metaphors and maths? Mathematics, Tolstoy understood, is like literature: a way in which the world expresses itself. Words and numbers: both allow us to entertain pure possibilities, immune from prior experience or expectation. Perhaps that is why some of Count Leo’s closest friends were mathematicians.
The New France: A Society in Transition by John Ardagh (Penguin, 1977)
This year, I re-read with great pleasure The New France by the late John Ardagh. It was the third edition of a book that came out under several titles over 30 years, finally as France in the New Centrury in 2000. I can still remember the impact it had on me as a student: the contrast between his rich, lively and hopeful portrait of France in the mid-1970s and the dreary reality of Britain in the Wilson-Callaghan years was powerful. The book is a brilliant example of what used to be called the ‘higher journalism’, written in the style of John Gunther’s engaging portraits of countries and peoples before and after the Second World War. It explores the experience of a rapidly-changing country that is battling, largely successfully at the time, between the forces of tradition and modernity. As one revisits the text now, so many years later, it is Ardagh’s love of France and his belief in the country’s future that stand out so strongly. Anyone interested in France, and indeed Europe, will still find the book, especially in its early editions, very rewarding.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, ( Harper Torch,1986)
I have always believed that every individual extracts something different from the same book. This book that I want to talk about might be a nice read for many but for me it changed my life forever. It took me back in time and reminded me of things that I had long forgotten. Hence, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is my favourite book this year. I love this book because it talks about dreams, possibilities and the fact that even the entire universe will conspire to help us achieve our goals if we have undying faith. It is a book that can change lives by encouraging us to dream again and also by educating us about the importance of dream in one’s life. It tells us how a simple person with a dream can achieve the impossible. Above all the book taught me to listen to my heart and that I can truly achieve my destiny if I follow the guiding light that shines through my heart.
MARGUERITE VAN DER GELDERMALSEN
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2009)
The Lacuna starts with the line ‘In the beginning were the howlers.’ which took me straight into the night-time rainforest of a recent visit to Mexico. And I was well entertained for the entire reading. Kingsolver incorporates many different ‘voices’ to cover a part of twentiethth century history I knew little about, but was interested to discover. I also enjoyed the way she talks about the construction of the novel through her main character as he becomes a novelist, and how she follows ‘his’ advice in the construction of her own, finishing so nicely where she started, and happily. It was a fun read on several levels. (It has since occurred to me that my book starts that way too; ‘1978: In the Beginning’)
Treasure Islands, by Nicholas Shaxson Palgrave, (2011)Enlightening and depressing in equal measure, Treasure Islands delves into the murky world of tax havens. Jumping from Jersey to the Cayman Islands, the City of London to Delaware, it investigates how the offshore, or "shadow", financial system facilitates corruption, exacerbates poverty, enables wealthy individuals to escape tax, and played a leading role in the financial crisis. Shaxson argues that the system has to change – a timely call to arms, especially given recent exposés about UK tax avoidance by the likes of Starbucks, Apple or Google.
Like the fFowing River by Paulo Coelho (Harper, 2007).
Once absorbed in a book, I would find that I would usually race to finish it. However, I discovered that Like the flowing River was one that I could enjoy taking my time reading in order to thoroughly absorb all the profound messages contained within it. Based on the author’s personal experience and that of others, the book is structured into a series of short stories, similar to ‘Aesop’s Fables’ focusing on life, death and love. Utterly thought provoking, making the reader examine the paths they take and the consequences of all actions; a complete teaching guide to lessons in life.
Sis Weeks The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel, ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010)
I was just intrigued by the sub-title at first, and needed to get a feel for recent work on WW1. But I found Six Weeks utterly absorbing. The book traces the story of the war’s junior officers through their whole experience, from school to the end, be it death or survival. It’s a wonderful piece of narrative writing, skilfully arranged, full of detail but never overwhelmed by it. John Lewis-Stempel shows an acute understanding of his subject and his book’s great strength is its sense of period. Six Weeks is about the war as it was, not as later generations have made it. I wish I’d written it!