Books of the Year: Part I
The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their
favourite books of 2009
The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee (Semiotext(e), £9.95), a pseudonymous text written by a group of French autonomists, is an incisive, infuriating, frequently naive and often inspiring tract that provided me with a kind of ethical starting point in this year of post-crash moral hazard. As the markets reconfigure themselves, social inequality grows and the brief promises of reform fade, we need to be reminded that it's OK to be angry - and to resist when we don't like what's happening. The trend is for more wealth to be concentrated in fewer hands. For the rest of us, the future is more discipline, more work (if we're lucky enough to get it) and less privacy. The question is what we're going to do about it.
Barack Obama's former campaign manager, David Plouffe, describes The Audacity to Win (Viking, £19.99) as "the inside story and lessons of Barack Obama's historic victory". There are plenty of inside stories, which build a revealing and intimate portrait of Obama, and plenty of lessons too. Obama's campaigning brilliance was not simply, as many believe, a matter of his use of the internet. It was his harnessing of the medium to drive a conventional campaign structure, founded on very strong principles of leadership and teamwork, that was important. This is a nicely written account of all the key moments in Obama's rise from doubtful contender to runaway winner.
I was asked to contribute a foreword to A Renewable World (Green Books, £14.95) by Herbert Girardet and Miguel Mendonça and was delighted to do so. This is an action plan for our turbulent times. Girardet and Mendonça assert that those alive today have a greater responsibility to future generations than ever before. Climate change is no longer just an environmental issue: it touches every part of our lives. Girardet and Mendonça focus on turning the current crises - climate, energy, finance and poverty - into opportunities for building a new, green, global energy economy. This is a bold book about how to turn vision into practical reality. From urban regeneration to soil replenishment and accelerating the renewable energy revolution, the authors' vision is one of co-operation. They envisage using the connected "nervous system" - the millions of conscious people who populate the planet - to share knowledge and build a movement to change the ways we do business, farm, eat and live.
Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Penguin, £10.99) by Doris Kearns Goodwin is utterly engrossing: a total page-turner about how governments can come together to overwhelm hatred, economic collapse, civil war and racism. It's highly relevant today and, of course, it's the book Barack Obama took with him into the White House.
David Plante's The Pure Lover: a Memoir of Grief (Beacon Press, UK price pending) is a short but moving elegy to Nikos Stangos, his partner of many years. I was published by Nikos, who was a much-admired director of Thames & Hudson, and I was apprehensive about reading this very personal story. But Plante brings him back to life - his Greek childhood, his love of poetry and cats and Italy and Stephen Spender, his unforgettably attractive physical presence. It's a difficult subject, handled with lyricism, pain, indiscretion and love. On a different scale, I've been given as a Christmas present the magnificent, six-volume edition of Van Gogh's letters (Thames & Hudson, £325). This is a rare treasure, years in the preparation and a joy to handle and to read.
Alain de Botton
I devoured (if that's the word) Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, due to be published in the UK in March (Hamish Hamilton, £20). Ostensibly it's an examination of the ethics of eating meat. But more interestingly, it's a look at the meat industry in America and, by extension, the mechanisms of dodgy American corporations. Foer is a polemicist who knows that, in order to convince his audience, he will have to sound extremely reasonable and nice - which he manages admirably. He is furious, but sounds patient. And his book will make sure you never eat another sausage again, and may even turn you into a very sceptical member of capitalist society. Foer takes seriously the admirable Marxist idea that the point of writing books isn't to report on the world, but to try to change it.
Lustrum (Hutchinson, £18.99) by Robert Harris is wonderful, stimulating reading, and hard to put down. You will not need to be a political animal to enjoy his vivid reconstruction of life at the top in ancient Rome.
I've admired several books published in 2009 but haven't fallen in love with any. The book I was craziest for this year, The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy (Flamingo, £16.99), was published in 1999. It's a novel about a herd of African elephants trying to escape poachers. Told from the elephants' points of view, it is strange and disorienting and utterly original: the kind of book you finish, then look around yourself and realise you're seeing the world differently. I wish more books did that.
So many great books this year, but if I have to choose just one it has to be, for sheer boundary-breaking audaciousness, David Vann's Legend of a Suicide (Viking, £7.99). Not quite a novel, far more than a collection of short stories and much too daringly inventive to qualify as a memoir - like the most exciting art, it defies categorisation. Vann's father committed suicide when he was a child. Legend explores and, in a way, blossoms from this single, tragic fact. But even that doesn't begin to describe the shock that awaits you at the heart of the book. I could go on about the deceptive simplicity of Vann's prose, or the touching honesty of his observations, but the only really useful thing
I can do is beg you to go and get this book and just read it.
A great many books read like they have been written by committee, so I always want to cheer when something truly singular comes along. Such a book is The Eitingons by Mary-Kay Wilmers (Faber & Faber, £20). It tells the story of three distant members of the author's family - a KGB killer, a member of Sigmund Freud's circle and a fur dealer in New York. At the centre of it all, however, is the author herself: her wonderfully stylish writing and her sense of who she might be (and might not be). The book turns out to be a really gripping one about the 20th century and, at the same time, about writing itself; it is about what can be said and what can only be said between the lines. The Eitingons is a small masterpiece of indirection and I loved it.
I was particularly excited by Andrew Gamble's The Spectre at the Feast (Palgrave Macmillan, £14.99) - both a superb dissection of the economic crisis that broke last year and a profound analysis of the implications for the future. Gamble rates this as a major crisis of capitalism, comparable with those of the 1930s, the late 1970s and early 1980s. As such, it is political as well as economic, and has created an opening for new ideas, new programmes and a new politics. But the choice between these will depend on the outcome of political struggles and on the intellectual daring and tactical skill of the leaders engaged in them. The left has a better chance to escape from the iron cage of market fundamentalism than at any time in the past 30 years - provided it has the courage to seize the opportunity. Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, please note. This book is a must for both men's Christmas stockings.
Perhaps because we feel so embattled by the recession, all the novels I most enjoyed this year were about crumbling old houses, from Sarah Waters's splendidly realised ghost novel The Little Stranger (Virago, £16.99) to Fay Weldon's madly enjoyable futuristic satire Chalcot Crescent (Corvus, £16.99). Two good novels that got little attention were James Runcie's East Fortune (Bloomsbury, £14.99), about a Scottish family and its home unsettled by feuds, resentment, love, death and money problems and Anthony Quinn's The Rescue Man (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), about architecture, Liverpool and love in wartime. For children, I recommend Sally Gardner's sparkling sequel to The Red Necklace - The Silver Blade (Orion Children's Books, £9.99), set in the darkest days of the French Revolution. Few readers of nine or more will want to put it down.
I like to spend my evenings in a drift of biscuit crumbs under a soft covering of duvet reading about the frozen parts of the earth, so Sara Wheeler's latest book, The Magnetic North (Jonathan Cape, £20), proved irresistibly attractive. I loved her earlier book about the Antarctic, Terra Incognita, and this was an equally coddling hoosh of personal travelogue, historical anecdotage and speculative thinking - all the better because Wheeler began her series of Arctic travels, if not a climate change sceptic, then unconvinced about its anthropic cause, and ended up unable to deny the meltwater on the ground. I'm also a sucker for narrative history, and Miranda Carter's Three Emperors (Fig Tree, £25) sated that hunger with its portraits of the three monarchs who presided over the British, Russian and German empires as they caromed towards the charnel house of the First World War. Carter deftly interpolates history with psychobiography to provide a damning indictment of monarchy in all its forms.
It is easy to become paranoid in No 10, so it is nice to find out that Harold Wilson was not paranoid after all - they really were after him. Christopher Andrew's The Defence of the Realm: the Authorised History of MI5 (Allen Lane, £30) illustrates, through the story of the security service, the way the values of our society and our politics have changed over a hundred years. There is nothing like an English eccentric, and Oxford eccentrics are the best of the lot. Maurice Bowra: a Life (Oxford University Press, £25) is a wonderfully enjoyable account of one of the greatest by his pupil and friend Leslie Mitchell. Robert Service's Trotsky (Macmillan, £25) is a fascinating biography of the revolutionary who was driven out and finally murdered by Stalin. Trotsky argued that the Soviet Union would have been democratised and less reliant on arbitrary control if he had won the power struggle. If he had done so, and been right, we wouldn't have had to wait 50 years for Mikhail Gorbachev.
Heart-rending yet enthralling, Guernica (Picador, £7.99) by Dave Boling is the story of the ordinary residents of Guernica whose lives and community were destroyed in 1937 by Nazi bombing, with the full support of Franco's Fascists. Where Picasso's painting so vividly captured the hellfire of the town's destruction, this book fills in the humanity. The characters, the culture and the landscape are all lovingly described, in direct contrast to the cold and clinical destruction of 1,500 inhabitants of a town that was central to the Basque identity.
For pleasure, I recommend Robert Harris's novel set in ancient Rome, Lustrum (Hutchinson, £18.99). Harris has replaced John le Carré as the great middle-class read, providing stupendous plots, good characters and lightly applied erudition. Lustrum is better than its predecessor Imperium, because it is tinged with melancholy and failure. We see the great Cicero confounded and outwitted. The arc of a political career is beautifully drawn. Cicero's slave Tiro, who narrates the book, is loyal to the end but sees his master's faults. There is also a great female character in this book, in the form of Clodia, the femme fatale. Harris has claimed Rome just as Hilary Mantel now has a monopoly on the Tudors. It is thrilling that he has such reserves of historical material and that we know another book is on the way, maybe in time for next Christmas.
J M Coetzee's fictionalised memoir Summertime (Harvill Secker, £17.99) is a work of extraordinary narcissism, but also unusual fascination, with a prose style as austere as the author's beloved Karoo. Adam Gopnik is a great essayist, with a precise, fastidious, if occasionally mannered style. Angels and Ages (Quercus, £16.99) is less a book than a collection of essays about the life and work of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, who were born on the same day in 1809. There are repetitions, and Gopnik's compressed, worked, digressive style, so apposite for the form of the long essay, can become tiresome after more than 100 pages. But his insights are good and the book is informed by the author's profound liberalism.
Max Hastings's Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord (HarperPress, £25) is the most compelling account of Churchill as war leader I've read. It's a powerful reminder of the truth of Stalin's observation that here a single individual changed the entire course of world history, because if Churchill hadn't become prime minister when he did, Britain would almost certainly have concluded a shameful peace with Nazi Germany. Finest Years shows how Churchill - with all his faults and errors - saved Europe and the world from succumbing to a uniquely horrible type of barbarism.
Christopher Andrew's Defence of the Realm: the Authorised History of MI5 (Allen Lane, £30) purports to cover the workings of the domestic security service from 1909 to the war on terror in one volume. It's a bold claim, but Andrew is a master of compression, covering the diverting range of honourable figures, obsessives and the odd lunatic who have shaped MI5. The "Very British Coup" school of thought takes a battering here, with all the signs being that ministers have often been a greater threat to the rights of demonstrators and subversives than the spooks. Critics will find the tenor of the account rather kind at times, but there's a feast of knowledge and insight into Britain's secret service world to absorb here. I didn't expect to like Pygmy (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), Chuck Palahniuk's gonzo take on the terror threat, but it is irresistible: the agent of a nameless dictatorship plots an attack with weapons of mass destruction against the "venomous Christian vipers". It's brilliantly conceived, linguistically inventive and extremely rude.
Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Penguin, £10.99) is not just the book of the year. It is one of the books of the decade - and would be, even if Barack Obama had not used it as his guide to good government. It combines a biography of Lincoln, a history of the American civil war, vignettes of half a dozen 19th-century American politicians and a textbook to guide politicians who seek to unite divided nations. Lincoln's attempt to find a post-civil-war concensus failed. Obama's plans to build a progressive alliance may be equally doomed. But Team of Rivals is a fascinating study in the politics of moderation, reason and hope. And it illustrates the problems associated with all those virtues.
Francis Wheen's Strange Days Indeed (Fourth Estate, £18.99) brilliantly re-creates the political horrors of the 1970s. The descent into madness of the cabinet secretary William Armstrong is especially gripping, with the laconic coda: "After a decent interval he became chairman of Midland Bank." In Climbing the Bookshelves (Virago, £20), Shirley Williams, one of the few Social Democrats to come out of the wreckage with a following, offers the best memoir of the year. Every transport buff will love Christian Wolmar's Blood, Iron and Gold (Atlantic Books, £25), the story of how the railways transformed the world from the 1830s. I am busy working on the unwritten chapters about the 21st century.
For the most part, I am not a reader of historical fiction and I feel sorely deprived whenever I miss the Oktoberfest of dismay that the Booker Prize usually inspires; but then, to describe Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99) as a historical novel is like calling Moby-Dick a book on fishing and, this year, the Booker judges did get it absolutely right. Mantel is an astonishing writer: a prose stylist who combines absolute precision with a compelling sense of flow, and a marvellously subtle observer of character. Wolf Hall casts a spell that makes us think long and hard about order, law and the workings of power.
Brought up in France with the works of Stefan Zweig, I was shocked on my arrival in Britain to discover that the Austrian writer's work was almost forgotten here. It took the release in France of an unknown novella by Zweig for Pushkin Press to follow suit and commission a very fine translation from Anthea Bell. The result is the poignant and tender Journey into the Past (£7.99), a story of repressed desire and all-consuming love between a poor, young engineer and a married woman.
Scotland's main literary event in 2009 should have been The Complete Novellas of Agnes Owens (Polygon, £14.99), but though the reviews were all favourable, there were very few of them. Owens's fiction has always been admired by fellow writers, but she was middle- aged when her first book appeared, lives in a poor Scottish town and is nearly 85. Neither a glamorous nor eccentric celebrity, therefore. A Working Mother and For the Love of Willie are masterpieces of understated tragical comedy. Prospective readers should not be repelled by the semi-pornographic cover design.
America appears to be spearheading a reawakening to literary quality with the publication of two books listing overlooked masterpieces. City Secrets: Books (Universe Publishing, £12.95) takes the formula previously applied to the lesser-known corners of great cities to the world of literature. Its editor, Mark Strand, manages to organise his 150-plus contributors into an enthralling and unpredictable survey of the past thousand years. Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson Books, £10.99), edited by Richard Canning, reaches into the ancient world, too.
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