Books of the Year 2008

Selected by Ian Irvine, NS books editor


As English has increasingly become the world's default language, more and more non-traditional and non-anglophone areas of experience have begun to find expression in the English novel. This year brought a bumper crop. Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber & Faber, £7.99) was an outstanding example, dealing with the experience of a family from the Dominican Republic in contemporary New York, written in exuberant and inventive Spanglish. Amitav Ghosh also created a rich vernacular hybrid of English and Hindi in his Sea of Poppies (John Murray, £18.99), a historical (and comical) romp set in 1837 India, and the first of an intended trilogy. The winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga's White Tiger (Atlantic , £12.99), provided acute social criticism of 21st-century India, rich (in parts), rising, but riven with contradictions. Mohammed Hanif turned Pakistan's violent history into knockabout black comedy in A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), while Nadeem Aslam took Afghanistan's equally murderous past in The Wasted Vigil (Faber & Faber, £17.99) and created a beautifully delicate tapestry of loss, memory and pain.

In The Believers (Fig Tree, £16.99), Zoë Heller drew an absorbing New York family saga in a taut 300 pages, while in Born Yesterday: the News As a Novel (Faber & Faber, £7.99) Gordon Burn compressed the events with which the media bombarded us during summer 2007 - the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown, the floods and foot-and-mouth disease - into an allusive and unsettling collage.


It's given to few books to be as perfectly timed as The Gods That Failed: How Blind Faith In Markets Has Cost Us Our Future (Bodley Head, £12.99) by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, which appeared in June. In sardonic, anecdotal prose, they crisply outline the delusions that have led us to the current situation and offer modest proposals for a better and more equitable future. Robert Peston's Who Runs Britain?: How Britain's New Elite Are Changing Our Lives (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) offers more of the same, with a focus on new Labour and Gordon Brown's culpability. The situation in journalism was bad enough in March when Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) first appeared. Today, as another wave of redundancies sweeps through the newspaper industry, its powerful critique of corporate and government pressures which cause falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the media is even more pertinent. The attacks in Mumbai showed that Muslim terrorism is spreading in Asia. Descent Into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (Allen Lane, £25) by Ahmed Rashid provides a lucid and detailed account of why.


Alex Ross at the New Yorker is one of the most perceptive music critics at work today. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century (Fourth Estate, £20) is his brilliant and very readable history of classical music during the 20th century, from Strauss's Salome to Nixon in China, by way of serialism, Hollywood, Boulez and Stockhausen. Richard Holmes reunites art and science and shows how they enriched each other in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (HarperPress, £25), a vivid history of ideas and outstanding individuals - the botanist Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel, chemist Humphry Davy and poets such as Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. With the essays in Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (OUP, £25) Stefan Collini, with his usual wit and acute judgement, gives an insightful account of the literary and intellectual culture of Britain (not least at the New Statesman) over the past hundred years. The many fine portraits include Rebecca West, V S Pritchett, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Cyril Connolly. At the end of the 1690s some Whig grandees and their literary protégés (who included Congreve, Vanbrugh, Addison and Steele) began meeting for dinners of frivolous dissipation and serious politics. By ensuring the Protestant succession, reducing French influence on national life and strengthening parliament, they succeeded in their aim of rebranding Britain. In The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation (HarperPress, £25), Ophelia Field tells their story with both brio and scholarly heft.


Few biographies in recent years have been so universally acclaimed as Patrick French's authorised account, V S Naipaul: The World Is What It Is (Picador, £20). It is brilliant, candid, unsparing in the details of its subject's shortcomings and often very funny. Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend by Mark Bostridge (Viking, £25) drew a vivid and compelling portrait of the most famous woman in Victorian Britain after the queen: indefatigable reformer, feminist and Establishment escapee. In the 1920s, O G S Crawford invented aerial archaeology, one of many services this eccentric Marxist misanthrope performed for the study of antiquity. In Bloody Old Britain: O G S Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, £16.99) Kitty Hauser provided an elegant dissection of an awkward life in awkward times. Michael Holroyd offered pitch-perfect comedy set in the late-Victorian/Edwardian theatre world in his group biography of the Terry clan, A Strange Eventful History: the Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (Chatto & Windus, £25).

Finally, the year produced several outstanding autobiographies: Simon Gray, who died in August, published the last two volumes of his diaries, The Last Cigarette and Coda (both Granta, £14.99) - as shrewd, funny and poignant as their predecessors; in Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes (Bloomsbury, £20) Ferdinand Mount gave an elegant and entertaining account of his raffish haute bohème upbringing; and in My Judy Garland Life (Virago, £15.99) Susie Boyt documented her lifelong obsession with the actress, creating a funny, vulnerable, moving work of perfectly fluid prose.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special