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Books of the year: the essential NS reading list

Our friends and contributors choose their favourite reading of 2015.

William Boyd

A memoir, a poetry collection and a novel: all three genres delivered this year, in spades. David Hare’s The Blue Touch Paper (Faber & Faber) is a fascinating, remarkably honest and unsparing account of his early life and development as one of the most significant playwrights of our times. Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets (Faber & Faber) breathes audacious vivacity into an ancient format, showing that poetic strictures are no impediment to emotional intensity. Emerald Fennell’s novel Monsters (Hot Key Books) is a tremendous, destabilising work of fiction, infusing the mundane with eerie and unsettling darkness. It is written, moreover, in a remarkable tone of voice: Roald Dahl meets Muriel Spark. Astonishing.

Margaret Atwood

The Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Scribe) is by Bryan Doerries. As more and more information is coming out about how western governments that should know better have been neglecting the veterans of recent wars, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in a high rate of suicide, this book is very timely. It turns out that the war veteran Sophocles knew something about that. Doerries’s direct, high-volume technique appears to connect sufferers with their emotions in a way the Greeks would have called “cathartic”.

Miriam Toews’s brave novel All My Puny Sorrows (Faber & Faber) is a high-wire act. What do you do when your beloved and brilliant sister wants you to help her leave this world because she finds her existence too painful? How do you make that into a believable, excruciating but sometimes wildly funny work of fiction? This book would be helpful to those left behind by a loved one’s deliberate departure, too.

Clive James

Alexandra Harris, who showed in Romantic Moderns that she can write cultural criticism of a thrillingly wide scope, continues to spread her wings with Weatherland (Thames & Hudson), a dauntingly comprehensive linking of the British arts to the weather under which they were composed. Apart from a paragraph of boilerplate predicting climate doom – she had better be wrong about that – her book is so beautifully written that it transcends even its wealth of information. She is a poet scholar.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer (Atlantic Books) is the most compelling, persuasive and passionately negative thing I’ve yet read on this topic. It offers a scary picture of how the ultra-libertarian superstars of Silicon Valley are leading us inexorably into a future with the sort of social inequalities not seen in the West since the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen (Vintage) is a moving novel narrated by an open-hearted teenage girl growing up in the borderlands of Mexico controlled entirely by the drug cartels. Lyrical, disturbing and not without optimism, this work deserved far more acclaim when published last year.

Hilary Mantel

Spend Christmas with Jean Lucey Pratt, the siren of Slough: you will not regret or forget it. A Notable Woman (Canongate) is a digest of the diaries, ably edited by Simon Garfield, of one of the stars of the wartime Mass-Observation project. But it’s not about the Second World War – it’s a life, seen from the inside, of a romantic, clever, mostly unsuccessful woman living hand to mouth with her fecund cats and her dodgy lovers in a scruffy cottage in semi-rural Buckinghamshire. For reasons that defy analysis, it is wholly absorbing and deeply entertaining.

Alan Johnson

Kate Atkinson achieved bestseller status on both sides of the Atlantic with Life After Life. That book’s central character, Ursula Todd, pops up again in this year’s A God in Ruins (Doubleday) but the hero is her younger brother, Teddy. I liked Teddy so much, although in Atkinson’s hands humanity and its frailties are explored with a profundity that tests the simplest of emotions.

Robert Edric has a devoted readership but I’ve never seen his name in a “best books” selection. I read his 2006 book Gathering the Water (Doubleday) this year but there is a shelf-ful of his novels to choose from. Anomaly rectified.

Rowan Williams

Of this year’s novels, my favourite has been Death and Mr Pickwick (Jonathan Cape) by Stephen Jarvis, a wonderful re-creation of the imaginative world in which Dickens and his collaborators discovered Pickwick and his companions – witty, rambling and vastly well informed.

John Bowker’s Why Religions Matter (Cambridge University Press) is a comprehensive and level-headed survey of a number of related issues around religion, with a rare range of philosophical and scientific competencies in evidence. Bowker is a very much underrated scholar and a writer of elegance and depth.

A S Byatt

I read Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice (Harvill Secker) with great excitement and then, later, reread it. It is an intricate and splendidly written study of the relations between Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, Victorian storytelling, Victorian prudery, the dark underside of Victorian society and the history of the myth of Alice that we subsequently created.

Douglas-Fairhurst slides cunningly from one of these aspects to another within one sentence and keeps his readers alert for unexpected connections and touching details – such as Carroll in Christ Church College, Oxford, with his cupboards full of toys and puzzles.

I am also becoming obsessed by one of the very best books of poems I have read for a long time – Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus). It is complicated and moving and very accomplished.

Ali Smith

Sometimes the literary world can be a little desultory about the great living novelists. I don’t think Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (Chatto & Windus), which seems to me to be a piece of mastery, quite got the reception it deserved. Sensitive to legacies of abuse, to pressures of racism, image, taboo and economics, and to the harmful fictions and common social madnesses of the modern Western world, it found an impossible-seeming, myth-like form to reveal the interconnections between these, never losing its streetwise footing in the process.

Then there was A God in Ruins (Doubleday) by Kate Atkinson, which on the surface seems so much less structurally daring than her last novel, Life After Life, but whose formal audacity at its conclusion is breathtaking. I also loved The Hollow of the Hand (Bloomsbury Circus), a distilled fusing of poems by P J Harvey with photography from Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, DC
by Seamus Murphy to make a powerful alchemy, one that broadens the vision.

Michael Gove

Both of the novels I enjoyed most this year were about French presidential elections – how often can you say that? Submission (William Heinemann) confirms Michel Houellebecq’s reputation for bleak, satirical brilliance. No summary can do justice to the many targets he skewers in recounting how France acquires its first Muslim president. Even better, however, is Ken Kalfus’s Coup de Foudre (Bloomsbury USA), a fictionalised account of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s fall that is psychologically brilliant.

Jason Cowley

David Brooks is the New York Times’s in-house conservative. But he is no strident free marketeer or Tea Party crazy; rather he is interested in moral, religious and philosophical questions, and this gives depth and complexity to his columns. His latest book, The Road to Character (Allen Lane) – a series of mini-biographies of outstanding individuals from St Augustine to Samuel Johnson – explores how to cultivate the inner life and what it means to be good in an age when the “consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus”.

I learned much from Emily Wilson’s fine, unshowy biography Seneca (Allen Lane), and was delighted by James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (Faber & Faber), especially his account of the Gunpowder Plot and its long, disturbing aftermath.

Craig Raine

Picasso Sculpture by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is a wonderful catalogue in which many exhibits are photographed in colour from three different angles. The authors also reproduce reproductions in the contemporary art revues – Picasso’s exuberant invention, restricted to black and white, undiminished by rationing. An exhibition worth rowing the Atlantic for.

David Hare’s memoir The Blue Touch Paper (Faber & Faber) includes a droll account of his time as a vacuum cleaner salesman in New York. A customer points out to him that “Hoover”, the term he favours in his spiel, is the name of a rival brand. He is representing Electrolux. Death of a salesman.

Neel Mukherjee

Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl (Bloomsbury) is a witty, wildly inventive, playful dance with the greatest English novelist, George Eliot. It is an anti-historical novel that takes on the leaden knowingness of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman to compose a sparklingly knowing gavotte. Its intertextuality is allusive, immensely intelligent and, above all, great fun.

Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey (Chatto & Windus) is an extraordinarily original piece of biography that is actually a ventriloquised autobiography, as Scurr has fashioned a first-person voice from Aubrey’s writings to let him tell his “own” life story. It is gripping, moving and beautifully rendered.

Mark Cocker

Nick Davies’s Cuckoo (Bloomsbury) begins as an exploration of nature’s most celebrated cheat, widens into a overview of the exquisite creativity inherent in evolution and concludes with a glance at the casual holocaust now visited on all birdlife by our species. Richard Mabey’s The Cabaret of Plants (Profile Books) is a gloriously eclectic collection of stories about the ways in which vegetation has nourished us, mind, body and soul. Amid its robustly intellectual foliage, there is the occasional melancholy bloom. The book has the air of an author looking back on a long, distinguished career.

Alexander McCall Smith

James Crawford’s Fallen Glory (Old Street) is the most interesting book I have come across this year. This is a magnificent study of buildings and other structures that have disappeared. Crawford writes beautifully and tells a fascinating tale that embraces the Library of Alexandria, the Berlin Wall and, in the virtual world, the now defunct Geo­Cities. A lovely, wise book.

Then there is Scotland: a History From Earliest Times (Birlinn) by Alistair Moffat, one of the most readable of historians. Scottish history is full of tears and triumphs, moments of glory and deep despair. If you want to understand Scotland, start with Moffat.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

My favourite new novel of this year is Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (Jonathan Cape), a book as crowded and rude and brilliantly inventive as the great pre-Dickensian caricatures it celebrates. My favourite old one (or three): Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (Arcadia Books), written in the 1930s, with its wise, voluptuous, disenchanted vision of an aristocracy in decay, an eastern European counterpart of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

John Bew

In all the fog surrounding the Chilcot inquiry, Emma Sky’s The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Atlantic Books) is the most clear-eyed British “insider account” of the failings of postwar planning. Sky, who opposed the war, was working for the British Council when she answered a Foreign Office advertisement for civilian volunteers. Before long, she was governing a whole province (Kirkuk) and then, from 2007, was a key political adviser to the US general Ray Odierno, and so closely involved in planning for “the surge”.

For big, bold and compelling, it is impossible to ignore Kissinger – 1923-1968: the Idealist (Allen Lane), the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger, which asks us to reconsider America’s best-known “realist” as more Kantian than Machiavellian, more Castlereagh than Metternich, at least up to 1968, when President Nixon first granted the Harvard academic high office.

Douglas Alexander

Of the pile of books by my bedside throughout 2015, there are two that I would immediately put in a class of their own. The first is Being Mortal (Profile Books) by the Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande. This reflection on how medicine treats the elderly reframed my understanding of old age and what we get right – and spectacularly wrong – in trying to care, as families and societies, for older people.

My other recommendation is also a book about families. Anne-Marie Slaughter is a friend who told me years ago that she was writing Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family (Oneworld). It’s a book that proved worth the wait. She examines her experience of leaving a high-profile job in the US state department to be more present as a parent and sheds fiercely honest light on the choices that women face in today’s homes and workplaces.

Margaret Drabble

While waiting for more of Adam Mars-Jones’s gripping Pilcrow sequence, I was beguiled by Kid Gloves (Particular Books), his memoir of his high court judge father, which is witty, sardonic and humane. There are some entertaining legal set pieces, one revolving round James Bond and Ian Fleming, and a great account of young Adam’s coming out as gay over the New Year of 1977. His father was homophobic but came round, though he never seemed able to remember Adam’s partner’s name. One of the funniest passages describes Dad’s irritation at not being able to cram all his honorifics on to his American Express Gold Card: he had to abbreviate them to “Sir Wm”. A paradoxical character, affectionately recalled.

Owen Jones

Neoliberalism and austerity seem to reign supreme – the idea of a society not run for profit seems impossible. Or does it? The fascinating Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Verso) argues for a radical transformation of society.

John Gray

How would we live if we weren’t attracted by the pleasures we have prohibited ourselves from wanting? This is the question at the heart of Adam Phillips’s Unforbidden Pleasures (Hamish Hamilton). The most interestingly subversive meditation on modern life I have read this year and for many years, the book shows how the lure of the forbidden lurks in some surprising places –
it haunts the liberal dream of personal autonomy, for example. Phillips ranges over a wide field, including reflections on Hamlet and the tyrannical power of conscience. Elegant, forceful and rich in insight, this is a book that can be read again and again.

Kevin Barry

People talk about the ripe tradition of Irish literature but in reality there are about a dozen traditions and I’m especially interested in the anarchic, crazed, maniacal one that streams back through Patrick McCabe to Flann O’Brien to Laurence Sterne. It seems to me that Gavin Corbett is writing absolutely in this radical spirit and Green Glowing Skull (Fourth Estate) is his most ambitious experiment to date. It’s indescribable, it’s nuts and it works.

Permit me an oldie. The Gentle Barbarian (Bloomsbury Reader) by V S Pritchett, once of this parish, is a study of Turgenev and one of the rare occasions when subject and biographer are, in terms of talent, on level pegging. I’ve read nothing more clear-eyed or fresh or insightful all year.

Vince Cable

This has been the year of the refugee. For a remarkable, moving description of the refugee experience, read The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay (Atlantic Books). It starts with a horrifying, stomach-turning account of a Mediterranean sea crossing in an overcrowded, sinking boat.

The author is an Afghan boy who, at the age of 12, travelled alone to the UK along a chain of people smugglers. He came from a pro-Taliban, conservative, rural Pashtun family that sent him to Europe to escape the violent aftermath of the Allied invasion. His 12-month journey involved prison, hunger and cruelty but also friendship and kindness. His story has a happy ending: he becomes a Manchester University graduate. Many others never made it.

Modern English literature has been enormously enhanced by the stream of novels from the pens of Indian authors. In The Lives of Others (Vintage), Neel Mukherjee writes beautifully about a middle-class Bengali family gradually unravelling under the pressure of a collapsing business and an idealistic son who joins the Naxalite revolt in the countryside. As in many Indian novels, the extended family – its loyalties, jealousies, frustrations and loves – provides the foreground. The hopeless Maoist uprising, made irrelevant by a successful communist elected state government, provides the political background. A great book.

Lionel Shriver

T C Boyle’s The Harder They Come (Blooms­bury) does a brilliant job of vivifying the mentality of the paranoid fringe in the United States, without resorting to the condescension that liberals often bring to bear on the right wing. His characters are portrayed with sympathy and internal complexity, even if they’re still crazy.

Wilful Disregard (Picador) by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (!), also left a lasting impression. Obsessive love is a favourite subject for fiction writers for good reason. A fine writer, Andersson understands what miserably minor encouragement can still keep hope alive for those whose love is unrequited.

Philip Hoare

Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes (William Collins) elegantly retells the myth and, occasionally, violence of the “Ted and Sylvia” story and gives it new flesh – not least in its evocative portrait of Hughes as part Heathcliff, part Teddy boy. Bate’s book, along with Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton), made it a tough call for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize judges.

I loved Charlie Phillips’s On a Rising Tide (Ness), a joyful photographic record of the resident bottlenose dolphins of Spey Bay, near Inverness – although, as Phillips will admit, his subjects, like Ted Hughes, have their darker side, frequently duffing up their cousins: the harbour porpoises. Not so much red in tooth and claw as Flipper, the testosterone-fuelled assassin.

Geoff Dyer

It’s hard to believe that in a year when Emma Sky’s The Unravelling (Atlantic Books) was in contention for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living (Picador US) is yet to find a UK publisher. Comprehensive, nuanced, subtle and devastating, it is among the best books published about the US invasion of Afghanistan and its catastrophic aftermath.

David Gates’s collection of stories A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me (Serpent’s Tail) was a source of constant pleasure and enrichment. So, in a different way, was Maggie Nelson’s provocative and passionately brilliant memoir The Argonauts (Graywolf, forthcoming in the UK from Melville House).

Andrew Marr

I thought The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan was a cracking novel, dealing adroitly with contemporary material that isn’t much discussed in the form – what it is actually like to be a British soldier in Afghanistan, the language they use, plus loneliness and dementia, which are by now almost universal subjects. O’Hagan is as unsentimental a writer as I can think of and there isn’t a maudlin sentence in the book.

In non-fiction, my two favourite reads were Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow (Jonathan Cape), a monumental book that makes us see this greatest of American novelists in a fresh and generally attractive light; and the memoirs of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to the Court of St James in the 1930s and early 1940s (The Maisky Diaries, Yale University Press). It is a book that makes us understand the period of appeasement afresh, tells the human story of an un-Bolshevik character teetering on the edge of Stalinist disaster, and reminds us just how important great diplomats have been in dangerous times.

Chris Patten

My favourite thriller of the year is The Cartel (William Heinemann) by Don Winslow. It is not for the squeamish. Winslow continues his bloody account of the Mexican drug wars that began with The Power of the Dog.

The best novel is a book that, to my shame, I have only just read. Visiting Vienna earlier in the year, I realised how little I knew about the Austro-Hungarian empire. So I read Joseph Roth’s 1932 book The Radetzky March (Penguin Classics) and, as soon as I finished it, I read it all over again.

John Burnside

An excellent year for writing about place, from Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North (Birlinn) to Dominick Tyler’s Uncommon Ground (Guardian Faber), but my first choice has to be Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton), an inspiring study of the language we use to talk about the land and waters about us.

In fiction, I was hugely impressed by Bill Clegg’s debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape). After a brave memoir (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man) and, now, this wonderful narrative of chance, grief and the ways we feed on and nourish each other, I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Peter Wilby

The book that gripped me most this year, and also gripped friends with whom I shared it, was Brian Cathcart’s The News from Waterloo (Faber & Faber). It tells how, with the communications revolution created by the electric telegraph, the railway and the steamship still in the future, Britons learned of Wellington’s victory in 1815. My recommendation comes with the health warning that Cathcart is a former colleague. But I have never met Hugh Purcell or indeed the late John Freeman, the subject of A Very Private Celebrity (Robson Press), in which Purcell tells the fascinating life story of the New Statesman’s most mysterious editor.

Sarah Churchwell

For me, this was the year of the long novel, too often marked by diminishing returns: a great many outsized novels that would have been immensely improved by being cut, among which I include this year’s Man Booker Prize-winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld). It was certainly the best book on the shortlist but would have been even better if it had been a briefer history.

The best book that didn’t make the shortlist – and my book of the year so far – was The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape), the tale of an Irish family, offering a bravura example of shifting voices and perspectives, all of which benefit from Enright’s splendid prose and careful restraint.

Mark Damazer

Our Souls at Night (Picador), Kent Haruf’s posthumously published novel, explores mature love in small-town America. Like all his work, the prose is precise and calm but the emotional strength is overwhelming. Haruf’s protagonists amaze themselves and, in a very different way, their community. The forces of orthodoxy and prudery crowd in on the couple, who can only fall back on their sense of decency and dignity.

Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation (Allen Lane), published at the end of last year, once again uses objects to provide a gripping, scholarly and accessible mix of pictorial history and political, social and cultural analysis. MacGregor is everything a great public intellectual should be and as he now leaves the British Museum, we have to hope that he keeps broadcasting and writing. Here he is palpably sympathetic to Germany and, indeed, the Holy Roman empire – but he deals originally and sensitively with the iniquity of fascism.

David Vann

Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins was remarkable for its humanity, a generosity reminiscent of Chekhov. The characters were flawed and broken but retained dignity. That dignity and generosity are the great strengths of her new novel, Saint Mazie (Serpent’s Tail), too. Though the story and setting and even style are different this time, what Attenberg is after is the fullness of who a person might be and Mazie P Gordon, profiled in the New Yorker in 1940 as rough-tongued and soft-hearted, is a great find. The book is as rough and fun and big-hearted as Mazie and just as unforgettable.

Tom Gatti

Kevin Barry has said that he “threw the kitchen sink” at his second novel, Beatlebone (Canongate), which won this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction – so it’s a marvel that this unholy mash-up of modernist prose poetry, radio drama, essay and portrait of the artist John Lennon as a struggling 37-year-old man not only coheres but makes for a genuinely thrilling piece of work. Further proof that Ireland is once again calling the literary shots.

Frances Wilson

Having become a dog-owner this year, I’ve been sniffing out novels that explore the bond between man and beast. The best of them all is Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis (Serpent’s Tail). In an elegant cross-breed of magical realism, moral fable, owner’s handbook and philosophical treatise, Alexis asks the age-old question: what if dogs were endowed with human intelligence? The result is murder and mayhem but also, in the case of one poetic hound called Majnoun, a touching intimacy in which he and his owner share books. Majnoun particularly likes Mansfield Park because, in its “rage for order”, the novel seems like a “manual for masters”. How right he is.

Mark Lawson

Worries must be raised about the book business by the way that one of the best memoirs not only of this year but of many apparently struggled to find a publisher. Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father by Adam Mars-Jones (Particular Books) takes a family situation that would have prompted many writers to gory score-settling – a liberal gay son providing end-of-life care to his father, a homophobic Tory judge – and produces an account that manages to be tender, sharp and funny while being kinder to the subject than you might expect and tougher on the writer who is sitting in judgement.

James Shapiro premiered his approach of focusing on what was going on in the world while the plays of Shakespeare were going on in the remarkable 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Achieving an equal sequel, he applies his X-ray brain to the creation of the greatest play in English theatre in 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (Faber & Faber). It’s typical of Shapiro that he can write almost 30 insightful pages analysing the significance of the single Shakespearean word “equivocation”.

Erica Wagner

One book published early this year continues to haunt me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber). A sidelong and compelling engagement with Arthur­ian legend, it hooks itself to myth and yet is completely original, its clean language full of depth, full of hope and sorrow.

It makes a good pairing with the first UK publication of Robert Bringhurst’s translation of Haida stories collected at the beginning of the 20th century, A Story as Sharp as a Knife. The Folio Society’s edition is spectacular and Margaret Atwood has written the wonderful introduction, which you may have read in this magazine. It costs £80 and you may never have heard of Bringhurst or, indeed, the Haida. But buy this book for Christmas and change your life. Seriously.

Helen Lewis

I read some terrific dross this year, an occupational hazard of being a book reviewer – I’ll never get back the hours I spent reading about Richard Desmond’s business deals and Polly Vernon’s nostril-waxing. There were a couple of gems, too: Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador), a chilling look at how social media encourages witch hunts; and The Shepherd’s Crown (Doubleday), published a few months after Terry Pratchett’s death. Both have stayed with me months after I finished them. I should also mention Hilary Mantel’s 1992 novel, A Place of Greater Safety (Fourth Estate), which I finished after six months of intermittent reading. I loved the formal experimentation and the multiple viewpoints – although, talking of Pratchett, I’d love it if Mantel did what he did with The Carpet People: rewrite it with the benefit of decades of professional authorship. How would it change? (I suspect it would be shorter.)

Tim Farron

Peter May’s Runaway (Quercus) is a great yarn that switches between a group of young friends who run away to London to pursue their dreams of pop stardom and the parallel story of those friends as they reach their retirement years on a quest to deal with unfinished business. The characters are compelling; the story is an adrenalin rush at times and thought-provoking at others. The book has moments of great humour and heartbreak. Probably May’s best work to date.

Michael Prodger

Even though I can barely tell a stem from a stamen, I read Richard Mabey’s The Cabaret of Plants (Profile Books) – a paean to the inventiveness of plants and the way they have entwined themselves with the human imagination – with fascination and delight. Mabey balances science with anecdotes and his lovely prose is itself the product of natural selection. A similar mastery of topic is evident from the first lines of Tim Blanning’s Frederick the Great: King of Prussia (Allen Lane), a virtuoso study of an exceptionally complex man who, through force of personality, helped to shape an equally complex moment in European history.

Steven Poole

By far the most entertaining work of experimental literary criticism I read this year was Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of “Make Me”
(Bantam Press). The ridiculously addictive Jack Reacher thrillers are here celebrated and deconstructed as Martin watches Child write his new one and the two men swap quips and ideas about smoking and commas.

Geoffrey Household is no longer a household name but his savagely good 1939 adventure Rogue Male (Orion), about a resourceful Englishman who goes on the run after an attempt to assassinate Hitler, was a holiday revelation. Reacher, James Bond and countless imitators have their archetypal origin in this tight yarn of a hunter hunted.

Eimear McBride

The book that has haunted me all year is Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello Books). In response to a life of abuse and negation by those around her, a woman chooses to live as a plant. This description does almost nothing to illuminate the intense strangeness and beauty of the book, and Deborah Smith provides the kind of translation that writers dream of. My second choice is Kevin Barry’s magnificent Beatlebone (Canongate). Rich and lyrical, unnerving and insightful, it was a worthy winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize (which I helped judge) and stays with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

Paul Kingsnorth

The portrait in Submission (William Heinemann) of a near-future France that elects a Muslim president and begins the process of becoming an Islamic nation is not convincing as political prophecy and it is not very convincing as a novel either: Michel Houellebecq can’t be bothered to create much of a plot, for example. But it touches on deep European anxieties with honesty and humour in a way that no other contemporary novelist seems to have the guts to do. An extended riff on the suicide of the West, as seen through the eyes of a dissipated, sex-obsessed, middle-aged academic, Submission offers us a Europe collapsing under the weight of its complacency and – the real surprise – suggests that it could be redeemed, rather than destroyed, by an Islam that could restore its lost spiritual core.

Rachel Cooke

The 20th-century spinster, the so-called “surplus” woman, has occasionally appeared in novels: by F M Mayor, say, or Barbara Pym. But her authentic voice has mostly remained obscure – for which reason we must truly celebrate the arrival of A Notable Woman: the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt (Canongate), edited by Simon Garfield. It was the most moving and important book I read this year by a mile: funny and tender and gripping. I want to give it to every woman I know.

I also loved Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske (Jonathan Cape), Julia Blackburn’s beautifully stitched account of the life of a mysterious Norfolk fisherman who loved to sew. My favourite novel was Number 11 (Viking) by Jonathan Coe: savage about Britain and where it is heading, but with warm-hearted interludes that somehow make it all bearable.

Leo Robson

Anyone who cares about literature will be grateful for two feats of editing – the final instalments of The Complete Works of W H Auden: Prose by Edward Mendelson (Princeton University Press) and The Poems of T S Eliot by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Faber & Faber). Of new novels, I was excited by Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (William Heinemann), Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Jonathan Cape).

Joanna Walsh

My two books of the year are genre-busting meditations by women whose subject is the construction of a life outside orthodoxies. Bringing up her daughter while working low-paying jobs “at the edge of economies”, the poet Anne Boyer sewed her own clothes and wrote Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press), a lyrical essay about survival as an artist and mother in modern America. And is Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (Fitzcarraldo Editions) a memoir, a story collection, a novella? It is better to think of the book as a bravura exploration of internal voice and a category-defying meditation on practising a solitary life in a cottage in rural Ireland.

Jane Shilling

Lucia Berlin wrote with piercing beauty about ugly subjects. Her exquisite posthumous collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Picador), explores alcoholism, dysfunctional families and menial jobs with the tragicomic virtuosity of a writer on intimate terms with her themes.

Blood Brothers (Harvill Secker), Ernst Haffner’s novel about teenage down-and-outs in pre-war Berlin, was published in 1932 and banned by the Nazis a year later. Haffner, about whom almost nothing is known, soon vanished. Michael Hofmann’s translation eloquently conveys the pungent fragility of life on the Berlin streets.

Robert Macfarlane

Two contrasting books about crisis stood out for me. The first is Mark Greif’s hugely impressive The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-73 (Princeton University Press), about the fierce battle against the “barbarisation” of human nature fought by American intellectuals over the central decades of the 20th century. It is dense, original and authoritative and casts light forward on to what Greif calls “the fractures of our own era”.

The other is China Miéville’s short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan), which offers us glitteringly strange scenes from the Anthropocene – a burning stag running through a city, relic oil rigs striding ashore in Suffolk – all conjoined by Miéville’s curious compassion.

John Bercow

As a devoted fan of Sarah Waters, I rushed to buy The Paying Guests (Virago). Combining a love story and crime fiction, it is superbly written. The reader knows who dunnit but not whether they’ll be done for it. It’s an upmarket, literary version of Columbo with passionate, although sadly secret, lesbians. I also read the 2012 collection Both Flesh and Not (Penguin) – a diverse and engaging series of essays by David Foster Wallace. His piece on my sporting hero Roger Federer captures the sublime quality and aesthetic appeal of the greatest player of all time. Blessed with a wonderful vocabulary, Foster Wallace’s prose is special. 

 

William Dalrymple

The Second World War is one of the most written-about episodes in all world history: every month seems to see a dozen new titles published. Yet astonishingly, Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War (Bodley Head) breaks new ground with almost every page. Based on years of intensive archive research in India and Britain, and written in beautifully polished and often moving prose, Khan has produced the first detailed study both of the extent to which India - and two million Indian troops - changed the course of the war, and also how the Second World War irrevocably changed India’s future. It succeeds brilliantly in illuminating both processes.

Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War (William Collins) by one of India’s most brilliant and talented young writers, Raghu Karnad, tells a similar story to Khan’s book, but through the lens of one single family who lost three sons in different theatres of the war. “People have two deaths,” writes Karnad, “the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives, when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.” These two superbly written acts of remembrance recreate a world previously largely passed over by literature, and together they remind us how much we owe the forgotten Indians who died for our freedom during World War II, even as we were only grudgingly moving towards granting them their own.  

The most beautiful book this year for me was the catalogue of the ambitious exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York: Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700- Opulence and Fantasy (Yale). The show is closed now, but the amazingly gorgeous catalogue brings back those magical rooms full of Deccani miniature paintings with their luminous palette of rich, jewel-like colours, their sense of make-believe and illusion, their enigmatic shifts of scale and their brilliantly innovative use of marbling or abri, “clouds in the wind”. Seeing these objects collected together en masse for the first time, it was possible to grasp just how richly eclectic and heart-breakingly beautiful much of Deccani art once was.

But it was Peter Frankopan’s massive 650 page Silk Roads (Bloomsbury) that is my book of the year: history on a grand scale, with a sweep and ambition that is rare, especially in professional academia. This is a remarkable book on many of levels, and one that anyone would have been proud to write. It is a proper historical epic of dazzling range, ambition and achievement.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.