Month: December 2010

5. Books of the Year – Francis Spufford

Frances SpuffordOur guest selector of his Books of the Year today is Francis Spufford. Earlier this year Francis published the genre-defying Red Plenty. As the book’s website says: “Is it a novel? Is it non-fiction? It all depends on your definitions. It tells a true story, but it tells it as a story. Whatever you call it, it’s about the moment in the mid-20th Red Plenty covercentury when people believed that the state-owned Soviet economy might genuinely outdo the market, and produce a world of rich communists and envious capitalists. Specifically, it’s about the last and cleverest version of the idea – central planning via cybernetics – and about how and why, in the 1960s, it failed.”

You can  listen to my interview with Frances by clicking here.

Here are his Books of the Year:

I have been thinking a lot this year about the interesting edges and boundary zones of fiction, and one of the books that has intrigued me most has been Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream (Harper Voyager, £8.99).

Depending how you think about it, this could be either a historical novel with science fiction threaded through it, or a science fiction novel that happens to be largely set in Galileo's Dream coverRenaissance Italy. But in fact it’s a fusion of the two into something new and hard to categorise.

It takes a meticulous, sympathetic recreation of Galileo’s times, and then pulls back from it into a much larger chronological landscape, to produce a profound and hopeful meditation on science and human history. It contains, in twenty or so pages, a hypnotic fly-through of the course of all physics from Galileo to the present which would qualify as the single best piece of non-fiction science writing I’ve ever read – and then glides on imperturbably, just as beautifully, into a description of the imaginary physics of the future.

Altogether, in fact, it’s a kind of grand contradiction of the idea that genre writing, whichever genre you decide this is, must necessarily offer predictable or second-hand sensations.

Chabon Manhood for AmateursI also really enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs (Fourth Estate). I’m a confirmed Chabon fan, and when he turns from fiction to journalism, as here, he retains his magically vivid way with a sentence, and his warmth of tone.

This is a collection about being a father; or more accurately, about the attempt to turn one’s shambolic, not-wholly-reliable, self-indulgent male self into a load-bearing support for someone else’s happiness, preferably without falling into the patriarchal stiffness and distance of previous ways of doing it.

There’s a great piece on how annoying it is to be overpraised for managing any childcare at all, when the only standard it makes any sense to measure yourself against is the expected, unpraised competence of women – but it’s almost all good, and I laughed the laughter of recognition over and over.

4. Books of the Year – Andrew McConnell Stott

Andrew McConnell StottAndrew McConnell Stott is an award-winning writer and academic. For several years he was a stand-up comedian, described by London’s Evening Standard as “an absurdist comic with a satirical eye for popular culture.” The world, however, was unprepared for such hilarity and so he decided to give it up.

He is the author of Comedy (Routledge, 2005) and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate, 2009). The latter was praised by Simon Callow in the Guardian as a “great big Christmas pudding of a book, almost over-stuffed with rich and colourful life”.  Jenny Uglow in the Observer called it a “fast-paced, rumbustious biography” and said:  “A round of applause is due to this exuberant, impassioned portrait, for bringing the great Grimaldi, ‘Joey the Clown’, into the limelight again.” You can hear my interview with Andrew by clicking here.

Andrew is currently a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Here is his selection of books he has enjoyed this year:

I don’t tend to read that many books-of-the-moment, because I’m usually researching something that demands full monogamy on pain of wreaking horrible revenge in the form of shocking biographical errors. At the moment, I’m working on failed Romantic poets, so I’ve been catching up on all the bad literature written between the French Revolution and the accession of Queen Victoria. There’s quite a lot.Geoff Dyer Out of Sheer RageWhen I do get a day off, I’m inevitably catching up. This year, for example, was the first time I’ve managed to read anything by Jonathan Lethem, John Le Carre, or Nicole Krauss. I even read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time. Two particular favourites from the catch-up pile were Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Struggling With DH Lawrence, probably the greatest work ever about not getting work done; and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, a graphic novel about the Whitechapel murders that was one of the most bizarre and chilling volumes of any genre I’ve read for quite some time.

From Hell coverOf recent publications, I was particularly taken with two works of non-fiction: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer’s Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon, which is the kind of book I aspire to write – a swashbuckling adventure, told with a novelist’s attention to character and plot – and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, drawing on more than a decade of research and standing as a monument to what good non-fiction can achieve.

Gaitskill Don'ty Cry coverFinally, I loved the stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry. I don’t think there is another writer in America capable of writing the emotions with such razor-sharp precision as Gaitskill. The way external phenomena transmute into internal emotional states in her work feels exactly like feeling – at least to me.

3. Books of the Year – Louise Foxcroft

Louise FoxcroftOur third guest reviewer of this year’s publishing highlights is Cambridge-based historian of medicine, Louise Foxcroft.

Louise won the Longman/History Today Prize in 2009 for her book Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause. You can hear a podcast in which she discusses the book here.

And here are Louise’s favourite books of the year:

Brian Dillon Tormented Hope

Michael Frayn Father's Fortune
Antonio Damasio Self Comes to MindBrian Dillon’s Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2009) is a terrific account of a debilitating but abstract condition.

It is told through the experiences of articulate sufferers: Proust, who expired, his fears vindicated, in his cork-lined sick room; Warhol who had a dread of doctors and hospitals but couldn’t avoid them; the glamorous Glenn Gould loved his prescription drugs and medical paraphernalia but died of self-neglect; and Boswell, the London Magazine‘s resident “Hypochondriack”, used exercise, regular dining and lots of sex to help him deal with his bodily fears.

All these anxieties were made worse by the fallibility of doctors who had few medicines but plenty of platitudes, and whose knowledge was said to progress one funeral at a time. Anyone with the merest twinge of health anxiety, and that’s probably all of us, will be fascinated.

Michael Frayn is one of my favourite writers, his novels are always funny, tragic, clever, and very perceptive. My Father’s Fortune: A Life is another one, like Spies, that I will re-read endlessly.

Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is an excellent piece of popular science by Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience Brain and head of the Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Damasio’s writing is lyrical and concise, so that difficult concepts are made clear and are a pleasure to read.

He illustrates how the conscious mind results from the smoothly articulated operation of many brain sites with the analogy of an orchestra and its conductor, but in this case it is the orchestra and its performance that produces the conductor. The great paradox, he says, is that our self is our entry into knowledge, and yet here we are questioning it. He makes thinking about your self seem quite acceptable

2. Books of the Year – Elizabeth Knowles

Elizabeth KnowlesOur second guest to select her Books of the Year is Elizabeth Knowles.

Elizabeth spent much of her career as a historical lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. She is also the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and, most recently, the author of How to Read a Word, a book that aims to make lexicographical sleuths of us all. You can hear my recent interview with Elizabeth by clicking here.

And here are her Books of the Year:

Since I was thirteen and first encountered M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, I have had an affection for his particular subsection of the genre. The protagonist (generally learned) is drawn through his speciality into an exploration which is as tempting as it is unwise. The background (a country library or monastic church) is solidly evoked, but a crack through which terror can enter opens and widens as too many questions are asked, and warning voices are ignored. Throughout his canon of short stories, James again and again successfully achieves what he himself said were the two most valuable ingredients: “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo”.

Susan Hill Small Hand jacketIt was exciting to find this year two books which in many ways take and remake the elements which allowed James to chill the blood of his Edwardian readership. In Susan Hill’s The Small Hand, the narrator, a dealer in antiquarian books, follows a frightening path which leads him from a derelict garden in Sussex to the library of a Trappist monastery in France – and finally, back to the garden again, and the tragic secret at its heart.

The places he visits and the people he meets are delineated with all Susan Hill’s precision, and the unobtrusively scholarly background (with its explanation of how an unknown First Folio might be discovered) underpins evocative descriptions of the French countryside. Like many of James’s protagonists he is making a journey of personal discovery which will change for ever how he sees the world around him.

M. R. James thought that “a short haze of distance” was desirable for a ghost story, and recommended “not long before the war” as what he called “a very proper opening”. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter opens in 1947, but looks back ten years to a disastrous scientific expedition to the High Arctic. Once more, a terrifying aspect of the supernatural emerges through convincingly evoked realities: the Arctic landscape itself (often lyrically described; Michelle Paver knows and loves the region), and the disparate group who make up the expedition.

Michelle Paver Dark Matter coverThe world of the 1930s is convincingly evoked, not least through the voice of Jack (the main narrator) who sees the expedition as the only chance he will ever have to achieve the career in science that lack of money has put beyond him. By contrast Michelle Paver has used, to great effect, the background history of a real (though less disastrous) Oxford University Arctic Expedition: I loved the details of their taking fine china and champagne for Christmas, as well as more essential supplies.

Paver’s ghost, like Hill’s, is properly in the James tradition: deeply wronged and insatiably vengeful. Both protagonists (like the unlucky Mr Wraxall in James’s Count Magnus) go on when it might have been wiser to turn back. And yet there may not have been a real choice: as the Abbot in Hill’s story says, for him “Everything is the better when faced.” There is always a point at which turning back is not a real option.

We are a century on from the Edwardian world of M. R. James’s first stories, and both Hill and Paver show us more of the emotional lives of their characters than James would ever have done. But for me both these twenty-first century stories of the supernatural embody the key qualities of a fine ghost story which I first met in the writings of M. R. James. I shall keep them on my shelves, and re-read them pleasurably.

1. Books of the Year – Elizabeth Speller

Elizaberh SpellerToday we begin a new series of guest posts in which writers and publishers choose their favourite books of 2010.

Our first guest is Elizabeth Speller, whose first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, was published to great acclaim earlier this year. You can hear my interview with her about the book here.

Her second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, will appear in May 2011. Here are her choices (you’ll find an interview with one of her selected authors, Madeleine Bunting, here):

Harris Romantic ModernsMy greatest pleasure this year came from reading Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Read selectively, randomly or straight through (I did all three, in order) it is a wonderfully intelligent and lively journey through the landscape of the imagination between the wars.

Harris informs but also has huge fun with the creativity, fantasy and sometimes spectacular self-indulgence of the period. I’m delighted to see publishers producing such visually beautiful but serious books to compete with e-publishing. It was announced yesterday that Harris has just won the Guardian prize for a first book.

Six Weeks coverMy second choice is more sombre: Six Weeks: the Short but Gallant Life of a British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel. This intimate history is taken from the letters and diaries of very ordinary young men. These are, in the main, not poets, not heroes, just soldiers buying expensive uniforms, being brave, bored and scared, doing their duty and trying (and often failing) to survive. They are also very young: there is one poignant account of a dying subaltern asking his puzzled corporal to tell Uppingham (his school) that he did “all right”. Lewis-Stempel proves there is still more to know about that most terrible and most studied of conflicts.

Bunting The Plot coverFinally, Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot: A Biography of My Father’s English Acre maps a personal and national biography on to one tiny piece of land in Yorkshire. About spirit of place and passionate attachment to land- it is memoir, history, and exploration of identity in one.