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A year in books

The literary highlights of 2012.

Hope: a Tragedy
Shalom Auslander, Picador, 352pp, £7.99

Solomon Kugel, the protagonist of Shalom Auslander’s scabrously funny debut novel is a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to the countryside upstate. Kugel discovers that the source of the unpleasant smell coming from his attic is Anne Frank, now a foul-mouthed octogenarian who complains bitterly about Elie Wiesel’s book sales. She is the embodiment of a history that cannot, or should not, be sentimentalised.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson,
Volume IV: the Passage of Power Robert A Caro
Bodley Head, 736pp, £35

The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s huge and riveting biography of Lyndon B Johnson takes more than 700 pages to deal with just six years of its subject’s career – 1958-64. The period covers his abortive attempt to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960; the vice-presidency (agony for a man who’d been aiming for the top job for almost 30 years); the assassination of John F Kennedy; and LBJ’s subsequent accession to the presidency.

Fire in the Belly: the Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Cynthia Carr
Bloomsbury, 624pp, £25

Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist David Wojnarowicz is many things at once: a group portrait of the leading lights of the downtown art scene in New York in the early 1980s; an evocation of an urban landscape that succumbed long ago to the homogenising effects of gentrification; and a memorial to the thousands of New Yorkers who died from Aids (and official indifference to their plight).

Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £12.99

Absolution is the young American writer Patrick Flanery’s first novel. It is an assured and intelligent exploration of the growing pains of post-apartheid South Africa. Flanery’s protagonist is Sam Leroux, a young academic who returns home to write a biography of a literary grande dame named Clare Wald, who is also a veteran of the struggles against the old regime.

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Fourth Estate, 528pp, £8.99

Chad Harbach’s good-natured and charming first novel suffered from hasty comparisons with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom(made largely, it seemed, on the basis of there being scenes in both books involving a lost wedding ring). But, unlike Franzen, Harbach doesn’t lunge for world-historical significance. The Art of Fielding, a campus novel with a sporting theme, is much less solemn than Freedomand all the better for it.

The Patagonian Hare: a Memoir
Claude Lanzmann
Atlantic Books, 544pp, £9.99

Claude Lanzmann – the French writer, intellectual and documentary-maker – has had an extraordinary life. He was a member of the resistance as a teenager. He became Simone de Beauvoir’s lover in his twenties. He collaborated with Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre on the journal Les Temps Modernes, and later directed Shoah, a nine-and-a-half hour film about the Holocaust that is his masterpiece. There are gaps and blind spots in Lanzmann’s story (notably where the politics of the Middle East are concerned), and an impregnable amour propre, but it’s a tremendous tale all the same.

The New Few . . . Or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now
Ferdinand Mount
Simon & Schuster, 320pp, £18.99

Ferdinand Mount belongs to that growing band of penitent devotees of Margaret Thatcher who are now counting the costs of policies whose consequences they were unable to foresee. This is not to say that Mount thinks Thatcher should take sole responsibility for the development of the “new oligarchy”. “The dismal truth is that pretty much every government in the past 30 years has, wittingly or unwittingly, helped the oligarch’s cause in one way or another.”

Zadie Smith Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £18.99

Zadie Smith’s fourth novel has a brokenbacked structure that doesn’t quite work. However, it also contains some of the most exhilirating prose this anxious and restless writer has written – particularly in a spectacular, 80-odd-page stream-of consciousness opening section.

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit