Books of the year

Joan Bakewell, Terry Eagleton, Roy Foster, Jonathan Coe, Melvyn Bragg and more

Joan Bakewell

Michael Holroyd calls his Basil Street Blues (Little, Brown) a family story. In fact, it's an oblique autobiography. It focuses on his family, especially his wayward parents, and in so doing reveals what made him. If divorce is bad because it breeds disturbed children, Holroyd, child of many divorces, should be a neurotic failure. Instead, he is one of our most thoughtful and distinguished biographers, and here he casts his fond but searching eye on his own upbringing. When Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin (Harvill) was published, its reviewers were largely drawn from those who had known him. I had never clapped eyes on the man, so I was free to enjoy the biography unfurling like a rich 19th-century novel - dense with characters, events and the significance of Chatwin's own writing.

Paul Barker

For vitriol: Nick Cohen's high-octane vituperation against flab and waffle, Cruel Britannia (Verso). There are other things to be said about Blairism, but these things need to be said also. Like Saint-Simon at the Sun King's court, Cohen seems to think the natural order has been upturned. The right way, for him, is embedded somewhere in Clause Four or in the studently recollections of Marx. Most of the time, fortunately, he is unremittingly, entertainingly negative as he mocks Blairism's "bickering and faintly risible elite". To read Cruel Britannia is like swallowing a useful pill to purge optimism.

Martyn Bedford

I read a lot of American novelists, but this year, the English (and an Irish woman living in the US) made the greater impression. As an admirer of Rupert Thomson, I enjoyed his return to form with The Book of Revelation (Bloomsbury), and Robert Edric's The Sword Cabinet (Anchor) has prompted me to track down his backlist. I liked A Certain Age (Penguin) by Rebecca Ray, and Emer Martin's More Bread or I'll Appear (Houghton Mifflin). But best of all was All Quiet on the Orient Express (Flamingo) by Magnus Mills - unpretentious, original and intelligent.

Melvyn Bragg

Malignant Sadness by Lewis Wolpert (Faber) is the best attempt I have read to uncover the history and the truth about the terrible blight of depression. In Darwin's Worms Adam Phillips brilliantly takes on Darwin and Freud and the big themes of death and memory. Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf (Faber) brings an ancient world into our own.

Jonathan Coe

Despite an eminently respectable Booker shortlist, this was a year when my interest in mainstream fiction continued to wane. To find the most exciting new voices, you have to leave the metropolitan mainstream; regionalism is where it's at these days. For an exiled Brummie living in London, Hard Shoulder, edited by Jackie Gay and Julia Bell and published by the estimable Tindal Street Press, was a wonderful surprise: 16 excellent new writers with little in common but a fierce commitment to their home town and the task of faithfully celebrating the lives that unfold in it. The tang of this great city, so under-explored in modern literature, has never been so vividly or diversely conveyed.

Jason Cowley

With great diligence to primary sources, Brigitte Hamann in Hitler's Vienna (OUP) destroyed many of the false assumptions about Hitler's early life. The young Hitler emerges from her pages as he must have done in life: fervent, raging, electrified and determined on self-reinvention. Many of Hamann's discoveries were incorporated by Ian Kershaw into his own widely read biography of the Fuhrer. James Wood occupies a lonely position as an old-fashioned public critic writing for an audience that has all but disappeared. Brought up among evangelical Christians, he lost his faith in his early twenties, transferring much of his religious fervour on to literature. His sentences can become, at times, entangled in metaphorical knots, but mostly in The Broken Estate (Cape) he writes well and with impressive imagination about literature.

Nick Cohen

In normal circumstances, I would have no hesitation in recommending the biography of Karl Marx (Fourth Estate) by my dear friend, Francis Wheen. This superbly fluent writer defends the real Marx from the praise of Stalinists and the abuse of capitalist critics - his destruction of Isaiah Berlin, surely the most over-rated philosopher of the century, is an absolute joy. Alas, the circumstances are anything but normal. Each Christmas, Private Eye trawls the Books of the Year columns and denounces those authors who have scratched the backs of their mates in the confident expectation that their egos will be massaged in return. I therefore regret that I am obliged to say that Wheen is a meretricious charlatan. No such constraints inhibit me from praising Edward Chancellor's study of stock market crashes, Devil Take the Hindmost (Macmillan). This account of every bubble since the tulip mania of 17th-century Holland manages to break the dreary tradition of economic writing by being a witty, readable and wise reflection on human folly.

Terry Eagleton

The finest work of philosophy published this year, indeed for many a year, is Slavoj Zizek's The Ticklish Subject (Verso). Zizek - Slovenian politico, psychoanalytic theorist, obsessional Hitchcock fan and intellectual jester - mixes together a heady brew of Kant, Hegel, Freud, Heidegger, cinema and everyday anecdotes. The book contains some incomparable sketches of the psychopathology of late-capitalist life, and bristles with idiosyncratic insights into just about everything from sexuality to St Paul. Though some of the ideas are ferociously difficult, the style is never less than lucid and companionable. That few English philosophers will have heard of this extraordinary Lacanian is simply one more good reason for reading him.

Roy Foster

In an age of unreliable fake-Irish memoirs, John Walsh's The Falling Angels (HarperCollins) convincingly and hilariously anatomised the uncertain identities of the emigre Irish middle class: a rich seam, consummately well worked. Alvin Jackson's Ireland 1798-1998 (Blackwell) is a general history for the millennium: elegantly written, striving for a fierce impartiality, full of unexpected parallels and appositions. And I much admired Jan Dalley's Diana Mosley: a life (Faber), an unofficial biography that preserved the often compromised integrity of the genre when dealing with a subject who really did sup with the devil.

Maggie Gee

Charlotte Salamon's 836-page Life? Or Theatre? (Royal Academy) has a Blakeian originality. It is the fictionalised autobiography of a young Berlin painter, full of sly humour, beauty and insight (she died in Auschwitz at 26). Salamon painted a series of 1,300 gouaches, some like exquisitely coloured, stylised strip cartoons with words and music. Salamon's first love becomes a faintly comic character, "Amadeus Daberlohn", yet two things he said - "Never forget that I believe in you" and "Know thyself first, in order to love thy neighbour" - helped her to defy death and leave behind her unforgettable life story.

Lavinia Greenlaw

This has been a better year for versions and selections than original collections, but one that stands out is Kathleen Jamie's Jizzen (Picador). These are clear, forceful poems with a refined balance of hand and heart, form and subject. Niall Duthie's astounding first two novels have stayed with me for years, and Lobster Moth (Fourth Estate) is his best yet: acuity, erudition, emotion, wit and a cracking good story to boot. James Wood's The Broken Estate should be required reading. His literary insights open not only doors but windows, and sometimes lift off the roof.

Eric Hobsbawm

Igor Diakonov's The Paths of History (CUP) is a remarkable survey of world history by a Russian orientalist, using the Marxist interpretation as a point of departure. Fred Halliday's Revolution and World Politics (Macmillan) is a must for anyone who wants to understand what "internationalism" meant in this century, and how revolutions affected the world situation. Finally, the death of the crime-writer George V Higgins made me re-read my old paperback of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It is a masterpiece. What professional author would not wish to have written it?

Tom Holland

Jean-Paul Kauffmann's The Dark Room at Longwood (Harvill) is a remarkable book which defies characterisation. Ostensibly an account of the author's visit to the house on St Helena where Napoleon lived out the last six years of his life, it is also a meditation on history, biography and what it means to be a prisoner. Kauffman, who was kept chained in a Beirut cellar for three years, only refers to his own experience of imprisonment once, and even then obliquely, yet this book remains most fascinating as an account of a profoundly intelligent man coming to terms with his past.

Anthony Howard

The political book I admired most this year was Graham Stewart's Burying Caesar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a dazzling account of the dynastic rivalry between the Chamberlain and Churchill families. Politics apart, I much enjoyed Valerie Grove's Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger (Viking), a model example of literary detective work. Even further up the slopes of Parnassus, Claire Tomalin's Several Strangers (Viking) demonstrates what a formidable literary critic she is. It is a collection of her reviews written over three decades - many in the 1970s and taken from the pages of the New Statesman, of which she was then literary editor.

Ian Jack

J M Coetzee's Disgrace (Secker & Warburg) was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize: a fine and commendably short novel about sex, race and power without any of those subjects taking a capital letter. I read none better this year, although Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers (Faber) and Claire Messud's The Last Life (Picador) also showed that fiction is still alive as a sincere, serious and artful way of describing the modern world.

Jane Jakeman

Moris Farhi's novel Children of the Rainbow (Saqi Books) is at once a poetic and moving account of European gypsy life from Auschwitz to the present day, and all too credible in its picture of persecution. Robert Irwin's Night Horses and the Desert (Allen Lane) is a rich anthology of Arabic literature in translation, with commentaries and context.

Mark Mazower

This year I enjoyed, for the first time, Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios (recently reissued in paperback), a gripping Balkan thriller by a master analyst of interwar Europe. I appreciated the honesty of Trevor Grundy's Memoir of a Fascist Childhood, a child's view of the British Union of Fascists from the inside, told with thought and subtlety. My treat for the year's end is The Tale of the 1002nd Night by Joseph Roth in a new translation by Michael Hoffmann.

Frank McLynn

John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope: the Secret History Of Pius XII (Viking) was the most fascinating book of the year. Cornwell set out to defend Pius, aka Eugenio Pacelli, against charges that he was anti-Semitic and had turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. To this end, he was given access to Vatican files that were compiled when preparing the case for the Pope's beatification - the first step towards ultimate canonisation. What Cornwell discovered was that the case against Pacelli was even more damning than his critics had realised.

Toby Mundy

I've just finished Francis Wheen's Karl Marx, which is a triumph of intelligence, wit and storytelling. Jonathan Miller's beautiful book, Nowhere in Particular (Mitchell Beazley), delights and stimulates on every page. Sudden Times by Dermot Healy (Harvill) is touched by greatness, a thrillingly clever novel that anyone interested in contemporary fiction must read. Finally, I thought that Boggs: a comedy of values by Lawrence Weschler (University of Chicago) was a delight. It tells the amazing true story of an artist who draws his own money and then tries, with varying degrees of success, to spend those drawings.

David Owen

The only United Nations secretary general to compare with Dag Hammerskjold was Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In Unvanquished (I B Tauris) he reveals his bloody battles with the US to uphold the UN Charter. After the last supper with Madeleine Albright, he quotes a Hindu scholar: "There is no difference between diplomacy and deception." Salisbury by Andrew Roberts (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is excellent, with a lucid description of the Congress of Berlin. On the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Penguin reissued Timothy Garton Ash's The Polish Revolution: the uses of adversity and We the People with perceptive afterwords.

Ben Pimlott

The best biography of the year is Francis Wheen's witty Karl Marx, which brilliantly domesticates the old dreamer and makes him comprehensible and even appealing. At the other end of the spectrum, in more ways than one, Jan Dalley's Diana Mosley: a life (Faber) paints a sensitive and fascinating portrait of a woman who utterly lacks appeal, yet whose perverse life story illuminates an era. Among this year's history books, Roger Louis' four-volume Oxford History of the British Empire (OUP) surveys an idea that becomes more fascinating as it grows more distant and quaint. Tony Gould's thought-provoking Imperial Warriors: Britain and the Ghurkas (Granta) demythologises one curious aspect of our Empire's story, on which the sun has still not set.

Anthony Sampson

I read J M Coetzee's Disgrace in South Africa. It has been rightly acclaimed as a brilliant novel which is both gripping and subtle. Frances Stonor Saunders's Who Paid the Piper? (Granta) is an exciting, well-researched account of the CIA's secret backing of anti-communist conferences and journals, including Encounter, during the cold war: fascinating for anyone who lived through those years. Mark Frankland's Child of My Time (Chatto) is a rare case of a journalist's memoir which is tautly written and understated, with vivid and funny accounts of his time in the secret service and in Moscow.

Ziauddin Sardar

Is it possible to be modern and also a devout Muslim? Being Modern in Iran by Fariba Abdelkhah (Hurst) shows how the "Islamic Republic" attempts to answer this question. What is refreshing about Abdelkhah's study is her insistence that little things - fruit and vegetable markets, flower arrangements, self-help manuals - can lead to big economic and bureaucratic changes. Leila Abolela's first novel, The Translator (Polygon), brings the struggle to Britain. Her Sudanese heroine, Sammar, finds love and happiness in wet and windy Scotland without compromising her identity. Both books suggest that one can be simultaneously modern and traditional.

Albert Scardino

Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family (Viking) is a courageous, sensitive and insightful investigation of the author's family's crimes, which, in the unveiling, helped me better understand my two homes, England and the American South. The two share the same taste in architecture and literature; the same attitude towards dogs, horses, children, religion and sex. Yet I never appreciated before how much the South owes to England for slavery. This autobiography of one of America's largest slave-owning clans, the Balls of South Carolina, traces the family from Devon and Essex through the plantations named Kensington, Hyde Park and Windsor. Uniquely, it also traces the dark side of the family tree, the children of master and slave, the cousins whom the white Balls would never acknowledge.

Roger Scruton

Academic philosophers who can write about the world as it really appears are so rare that it is always an occasion for celebration to discover one. I have known Raymond Gaita as a quiet colleague, making small-scale, sensible utterances in the field of ethics. Now, in his portrait of his late father, Romulus, My Father (Headline), he has surprised me with a wonderful evocation of an obscure Balkan immigrant to Australia, a hero of ordinary humanity, who vindicates through his trials and sufferings the path of common decency. Magical in another way is Alan Bennett's little story, The Clothes They Stood Up In, now published in book form by the London Review of Books, where it first appeared. Bennett's comic manner is not sarcastic, but ironic and forgiving, and he touches on some painful truths in this record of the conflict between generations in postmodern Britain.

Edward Skidelsky

The book I enjoyed most this year was Identity (Faber, paperback) by Milan Kundera. I admire Kundera because he is a modernist, not a postmodernist. He is not interested in the accumulation of detail for its own sake, or in creating the illusion of reality. While other novelists describe a situation in all its superficial variety, Kundera isolates its chemical formula. His characters are like crystals developed in a laboratory; there is no pretence of independent existence. He is really an essayist more than a novelist, but an essayist who thinks in images and stories.

D J Taylor

This year saw two books by the American novelist Andrea Barrett cross the Atlantic - The Voyage of the Narwhal (Flamingo), a brilliant evocation of the hunt for Sir John Franklin's lost Antarctic expedition, and an equally good short story collection, Ship Fever (Flamingo). I was very impressed by Christopher Hart's first novel, The Harvest (Faber), an exploration of a lost rural England that seldom makes it into contemporary fiction. Two first-rate biographies were Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin, even if you felt that Shakespeare eventually became exasperated with his subject, and Mervyn Jones's Amazing Victorian: the life of George Meredith (Constable), a valiant attempt to rescue the all but unrescuable.

Maurice Walsh

David McKittrick has brought knowledge, intelligence, savvy and compassion to his incomparable coverage of Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years. With Lost Lives (Mainstream), a record of every death during the troubles, he and his collaborators - Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton - have produced a breathtaking feat of investigative scholarship. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the legacies of torture by Marguerite Feitlowitz (OUP) is the best account in English so far of the mentality that sustained the dirty war of the Argentinian military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Bedside book of the year: Voltaire's Coconuts or Anglomania in Europe by Ian Buruma (Weidenfeld), an original and delightful book by a writer who is as amusing as he is learned, and has the rare gift of being personal without being solipsistic. Beachside book: Headlong by Michael Frayn (Faber), an ingenious cocktail of thriller, farce and Kunstgeschichte. Bogside books: Cruel Britannia by Nick Cohen and No One Left to Lie To by Christopher Hitchens (Verso), two clever, funny writers on the left who have seen through Blair and Clinton respectively. Box-pewside book: England's Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins (Penguin), a traveller's companion for years to come.

Charlie Whelan

There are very few decent books written about football. In fact, I can only think of two - The Glory Game (Mainstream) by Hunter Davies, a fly-on-the-wall account of a year in the life of my beloved Tottenham Hotspur, and Eamon Dunphy's It's Only a Game (Penguin), a tale of life playing for Millwall. I'm told that Fever Pitch (Indigo) is not bad, but I refuse to read it because it's about Arsenal. Still, all football nuts will love The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss (Little, Brown). It tells the story of the Italian football team from the tiny town (population 5,000) that won promotion to SerieB, the equivalent of the English first division.

Phil Whitaker

Jim Crace's Being Dead (Viking) stirred a powerful amalgam of emotions - the novel lays bare the human hunger for significance and its touching frailty when set against the arbitrary, remorseless universe in which we live. Marcus Chown's The Magic Furnace (Cape) is an eminently readable piece of science history dealing with the quest to discover the nature of matter, recounted with a novelist's eye for character and suspense.

Robert Winder

V S Naipaul's Letters Between a Father and Son (Little, Brown) is a graceful example of a fading genre - the collected e-mails will soon replace the long tradition of English letters. Written in youth, while Naipaul was at Oxford, they are charmingly fussy and self-regarding; but the book is also a harrowing family memoir: the young man's hopes and powers begin to soar just as the father's own spirit sags. Jan Morris's Lincoln (Penguin) is exactly as one would expect: much better than one could expect. Morris has always been the most personal and beguiling of historians, loving the tang and pageantry of her subjects. Abraham Lincoln proves a robust punchball, absorbing her dislike of officious puritans and winking before he slides back into epic. Finally, Jose Saramago's All the Names (Harvill) reminded us why he won last year's Nobel. It traces the effects of a clerical error on the life of the world, and is both light and grave, elaborate and simple. A lovely adventure, a search for an unknown woman, floats on sentences that topple over one another like waves.

Peregrine Worsthorne

I was greatly impressed by Frances Stonor Saunders' Who Paid the Piper? - a comprehensive and brilliantly written account of the CIA's involvement in the cultural cold war against the Soviet Union. Having myself been on the fringes of this most subtle, civilised and successful propaganda operation in London, it is fascinating to now learn about what the centre in Washington and Paris was getting up to - or down to - all over the world. Part thriller and part morality tale, this is a scholarly historical work which makes you think as well as shudder, cheer with approval as well as sigh with disbelief. And given that the author was not alive at the time, I was pleasantly surprised by her valiant efforts to understand as well as censure.

Elizabeth Young

In a dreadful year some exceptions were: The World's Smallest Unicorn and Other Stories by Shena Mackay (Cape) and Nicholas Shakespeare's monumental biography of Bruce Chatwin. Two extraordinary fiction classics were reprinted by Persephone books: Susan Glaspell's Fidelity and Cicely Hamilton's William: an Englishman. Matthew Stokoe's hypnotically repellent Cows (Creation Books) achieved cult status and James St James's Disco Bloodbath (Sceptre) gave a wicked and witty account of New York clubland.