Books for Christmas: the Independent's writer's look back on the highlights of 1993

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A Different Sea by Claudio Magris (Harvill), a beautifully dry parable of a man who reduces his life to nothing on strict philosophical principles; The Road to Wellville by T Coraghessan Boyle (Granta), a saga of love, money and enemas in health-mad America around 1907, rather like a Carry On filmed by Merchant Ivory only better; and Georges Perec: A Life in Words (Harvill) by David Bellos, a vast and heartening biography that gives unfashionable weight to the subject's playfulness as a writer, for all his deep difficulties as a man.


James E Young's unusual study of Holocaust memorials, The Texture of Memory (Yale), was original, informative and consistently stimulating. Like Francis Haskell's elegant and scholarly magnum opus History and its Images (Yale) - an examination of the way historians have used the visual arts to interpret the past - it was also impeccably produced. Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (Picador) was so far and away the best novel of the year that any Booker-generated fuss seemed quaintly irrelevant.


Those who doubt that R S Thomas is Britain's major 20th-century poet have a surprise in store when they read his Collected Poems (Dent). Here the great verities are presented with an unmatched wit and decisiveness. Bob Holman is a Christian Socialist who ranks alongside Tawney. In A New Deal for Social Welfare (Lion) the debate on redrawing the line between public and private provision is made on the basis of moral values. Norman Taylor's For Services Rendered (Lutterworth Press) anthologises the Book of Common Prayer as a high watermark in the English language. Here is evidence of how those beautiful cadences, as with a P D James character, seduced whole generations into belief.


Richard Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (Hodder) is the engrossing story of the Doctor in younger days and his ragged, rackety friend - his alter ego, Holmes calls him. The biographer, also, is followed by echoes of himself, and the book, he says, may 'strike a curious chord in the reader's mind', as it did in mine. Francis King's long-awaited memoirs, Yesterday Came Suddenly (Constable) tell his adventures as a writer among people and places largely in terms of comedy, but in the moving final chapters he faces his own tragedy without self-pity. In Piero di Cosimo (Reaktion Books) Dr Sharon Fermor offers new solutions for even the strangest of Piero's paintings.


David Newsome's double biography, The Convert Cardinals (John Murray) is a remarkably accomplished and readable book. Like Manning, it is much more appealing than you'd think; like Newman, much less holy. John McCarthy and Jill Morrell's double autobiography Some Other Rainbow (Bantam) is in a class of its own. Though everyone knows about the happy ending, it has the tension of a thriller and the tenderness of a love-story and is written with brave and lucid integrity. The same kind of cool courage informs Helen Lewis's intensely powerful book about her years in concentration camps, A Time to Speak (Blackstaff). The best classic biography was Peter Levi's Tennnyson (Macmillan) which is elegant, urbane, sympathetic and often hilarious.


Like many lawyers, I come across most of my favourite books years after everybody else has read and forgotten them. An extreme example is Rousseau's The Social Contract, which captivated me this year by showing how subversive and dangerous the idea of human rights can be. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Viking) is a brilliant study of psychopathy if you want it to be, but a compelling thriller if you are too tired for all that. The best biography I read was Tim Pat Coogan's study of De Valera. But the book that influenced me most was Chomsky's remarkable Chronicles of Dissent (A K Press), a series of loose interviews in which the greatest living American informally reveals his genius.


The year yielded a daunting crop of memoirs, from the hostages describing their horrendous ordeals in the Middle East, to politicians justifying their management (mismanagement?) of our affairs. I found Roger Cooper's witty and eloquent Death Plus Ten Years (HarperCollins) the best of the hostage books. Lord Goodman's Tell Them I'm On My Way (Chapmans) is the testimony of a lucid observer, and gives a good view of a political era. I enjoyed Donna Tartt's first novel The Secret History (Viking) for its successful blend of mystery and reflection, and Simon Jenkins's book about London, The Selling of Mary Davies (John Murray) is a marvellous companion for a promenade in time and space through the world's greatest metropolis. Finally, I reread all Turgenev's works that exist in English or French - bliss.


I haunted second-hand bookshops this year, and my best find was, aptly, Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (1919, reprinted Faber 1951). Part bibliophile's fantasy of the best of all possible second- hand bookshops, part knockabout romance of the early days of prohibition, its lasting value is its enthusiastic promotion of 'the books you want though you may not know you want them yet'. Any offers of its prequel, Parnassus on Wheels, in which the bookseller sets out in a caravan to take good books to country people, gratefully received. Most socially informative read of the year is William J Goode's World Changes in Divorce Patterns (Yale). Goode not only writes well; he sticks his neck out and speculates about his extremely interesting and surprising data. Finally, an excellent Christmas present for Conan Doyle fans, the shelf-handsome and most informatively edited nine volumes of the Complete Novels and Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes (Oxford).


I enjoyed Alain Peyrefitte's The Collision of Two Civilizations (Harvill), a French ambassador's account of Lord Macartney's embassy to China in 1792-94. It all came down to the kow-tow. The very idea of an embassy was incomprehensible to the Chinese - how could there be another sovereign state? - while Lord Macartney bowed the knee, he said, only to his own king and his God. I admired Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon and Schuster) which argues, convincingly, that in the speech Lincoln reinterpreted the American constitution. And I loved Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues were Born (Methuen), an elegiac reminiscence of the Mississippi Delta by the man who first recorded the blues.


Creating Minds by Howard Gardner - subtitled 'An anatomy of creativity seen through the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, (Martha) Graham, and Gandhi.' Gardner, who holds a joint appointment as Professor of Education at Harvard and of Neurology at Boston University's School of Medicine, further explores his theory of intelligence as a multiple, rather than unitary, phenomenon. Dazzling and provocative. Translations from the Natural World by Les Murray (Carcanet). Extraordinary poems that have the power to 'translate' the reader directly into a state of awe. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate). A novel which renders an unobtrusive life epiphanic and haunting. Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (Chatto). Writing of poetic intensity that explores the fear of Otherness and the edgy relationship between settlers and 'new' land.


Ammiel Alkalay's After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota Press) is a major revisionist work which aims to wrest our understanding of Levantine culture from both Zionists and Arab nationalists and succeeds brilliantly in reconstructing a vibrant civilisation that lasted for close on a thousand years and stretched from Spain to Persia. Gamini Salgado, who was my colleague and friend for over 20 years, died tragically in 1985 in his fifties. Carcanet has now published a selection of his stories about his childhood in Ceylon. The True Paradise is a remarkable collection which, because it fits into no clear category, has not had the recognition it deserves.


Three auspicious beginners whom I enjoyed reading as a prize judge were Nicola Barker, whose Love Your Enemies (Faber) reveals a weird, monstrous versatility in the short story medium; Nadeem Aslam, cleverly counterpointing tradition and skulduggery in his Pakistani genre picture, Season of the Rainbirds (Andre Deutsch) and Guy Burt, insidiously brilliant in After the Hole (Black Swan), a grisly manipulation of the 'school story' mode. As a gentile who has spent most of his professional life teaching Jews, I found Albert H Friedlander's meditation on post-Holocaust Judaism, Riders Towards the Dawn (Constable) a humane, large- hearted, hopeful testament, even at its most muddled and flawed.


When my friend Tom Owen Edmunds came back from a year in Mexico, he was able to balance a burning cone of paper on his nose until it burnt out, which he certainly couldn't do before he went there. This was because he spent a year in Mexico with his wife Katie Hickman. The idea was to do a view-from-outside book about a travelling circus, but they got drawn in: Tom became a clown and Katie rode on elephants. Her book - A Trip to the Light Fantastic (HarperCollins) - started slowly but became marvellous. In another attempt to make up for inflicting Thatcher on us, HarperCollins brought out Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues back into print after many a year. But the book I was gladdest to buy was The Diary of H L Mencken which I have been seeking for years - in vain, because it was never published here. Finally Virgo Books of South Wraxall tracked down an uncorrected proof copy for me. Not exactly new, but I buy most of my books second-hand anyway.


I fell upon Lawrence Stone's two wonderful books about marriage and divorce (Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753 and Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857, both OUP). What an insight they provide into the truth behind those formal marriage portraits; what gusto they add to dry accounts of property disputes and divorce settlements] The modern novel I most enjoyed was Carol Shields' marvellous The Stone Diaries (Fourth Estate), and the classic novel I most admired has been Henry James's The Wings of the Dove: an acute meditation upon manners and money.


God Dies on the Nile, by Nawal el Sadawi (Lime Tree), is a powerful angry wonderful novel about infinitely poor people in rural Egypt, ground down by mullahs, the rich, and their own ignorance. It was Chinua Achebe's choice for the radio programme A Good Read. The outstanding foreign novels I've read for the Independent this year will have to be represented by one, The Czar's Madman, by Jan Kross (Harvill), from Estonia. A bizarre historical event is used to describe present wrongs. Richard Holmes' Johnson and Mr Savage (Hodder) throws new light on Johnson, on the art of biography, and on the 18th century. I really did read it at a sitting. A dry, witty, elegant little book, Rebecca's Vest, by Karl Miller (Hamish Hamilton), stays in my mind while other books fade.


Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Years (HarperCollins) is certainly the most significant political book of 1993 but for sheer wicked enjoyment I have to choose Alan Clark's Diaries (Weidenfeld) ahead of that. It ranks nearly with Chips Channon, lesser only because Clark's pen describes less dramatic days. But it will last. Outside politics, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (Phoenix) was my novel of the year: not Tolstoy or George Eliot, but rich, pungent, funny and moving. Most disturbing read of the year was Nigel Williams's They Came from SW19 (Faber), which features, derides, then brutally kills, a wimpy UFO-spotter called Andrew Marr. Bastard] I hope little green men come down and turn his brains to polenta.


I've been having a naval year, and the work that gave me most pleasure was undoubtedly the on-going Conway's History of the Ship (Conway Maritime Press), by an international variety of authors - six volumes so far; six to come, and intoxicating to the likes of me. The novel I most enjoyed was T Coraghessan Boyle's gloriously escapist The Road to Wellville (Granta). Like everyone else I romped through Alan Clark's awful diaries (Weidenfeld), and after a false start (too many toffs and eccentric aunts, I thought) I greatly admired Alistair Horne's A Bundle from Britain (Macmillan), a wonderfully entertaining memoir and a genuinely valuable historical document.


Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert Hughes (OUP): vituperative essays against the cult of victimhood, theory-mad academia and all who turn egalitarianism into a vice. Hughes' powers of observation lacerate not just the monstrous regiments of thin-lipped, euphemism-spouting PC puritans, but also the gung-ho brigade. This kick-in-the-pants leaves neither the left nor right of the American centre unscathed. Next, Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac (Penguin Classics). Rigged book reviews; spiteful hacks; the gutter press faking intellectual orgasms; once in that world you have to be as twistingly vigilant as a sentinel-monkey to avoid contamination and Lucien Chardon is weak. Reading Lost Illusions again helped me to regain mine: 'Vive Balzac.' Fima by Amos Oz (Chatto), who is one of Israel's finest writers, with unexpected lightness of touch. A man bumbles about in his apartment like Gulliver under his bands: it is humane, humorous and trapped in the paradoxes of Israel.


Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (BBC Books) is perceptive and provoking. 'Nationalism is a form of speech which shouts, not merely so that it will be heard, but so that it will believe itself.' Includes sections on Croatia and Serbia and also Northern Ireland and Quebec. Next, The Client by John Grisham (Century). All four of his books are page turners but this one has convincingly etched portrait of a young boy as the client. Alan Clark's Diaries (Weidenfeld). Delicious gossip, but more than that, a lover's view of Mrs Thatcher without which no history of the Eighties will be complete.


I thought William Boyd's The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson) a terrific piece of work. The story of a young woman's search for her history in the Philippines, it effortlessly mixes period detail with a sensual quality which reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Another highly atmospheric novel was Tim Pears' In The Place of Fallen Leaves (Hamish Hamilton), set in a secluded Devon valley during the sweltering summer of 1984. It had an intoxicating, magical quality which completely beguiled me. A friend sent me a copy of The Wisden Book of Cricket Records, expecting me, I think, to find it completely useless. Instead, I have found it obsessive. If you've ever wanted to know the furthest distance travelled by a bail after the batsman was bowled, this is the one for you. (The answer is 67 yards, 6 inches, the bowler was Burroughs of Worcestershire. The year was 1911.)


The Letters of Charles Dickens Volume VII (Oxford) is a book of brilliant things, covering three years in a life that was comically crowded and insanely busy. Dickens's voluminous correspondence impresses because it retains what is great about the novels and largely omits the sentimental gloop. The editors have done a superb job, as ever. I offer this recommendation, however, in a spirit of apology: it costs 85 quid, so don't expect it in the Christmas stocking. I thought Cormac McCarthy's novel All the Pretty Horses (Picador) was amazing. Set in Texas in 1949, it begins as a coltish picaresque before its boy-hero winds up on the wrong side of the law in Mexico. McCarthy's prose has a kind of gnarled biblical grandeur which suits exactly this elegy for the vanishing west. On the domestic front, William Boyd's thriller in Manila, The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson), and Patrick McGrath's Blitz-era gothic, Dr Haggard's Disease (Viking), both forged a link between surgery and romantic obsession: the former was a compact epic of love and loss, the latter a magnificently morbid study in derangement.


I was suitably enlightened by Paul Gilroy's collection of essays, Small Acts (Serpent's Tail). Gilroy forced me to confront many issues of my identity that I have hitherto swept under the carpet. Much of what Gilroy has to say about race and culture is equally relevant to the enterprise of science, as Sandra Harding's magnificent anthology The Racial Economy of Science (Indiana University Press) illustrates so well. It is the book many culturally aware philosophers and sociologists of science have longed for. Altaf Fatima's The One Who Did Not Ask (Heinemann) shows how difficult it is to confront one's own prejudices and fear of otherness. Despite a translation determined to turn an oasis into a desert, Fatima's narrative, set in pre-partition India and Pakistan, shakes the soul and leaves a lasting impression on the mind.


I liked Tim Parks's novel Shear (Heinemann), a tense psycho-drama of the kind in which Parks specialises, spoilt only a little by the obtrusive geological metaphors. Radio Activity (Sunk Island), the third novel by the Cumbrian writer John Murray, was a hilarious and wounding satire on the nuclear industry in the North-west. Moving beyond the gloomy palisade of fiction, I also enjoyed Deborah A Thomas' Thackeray and Slavery (University of Ohio Press) and David Newsome's excellent study of Manning and Newman, The Convert Cardinals (John Murray). With this project out of the way Dr Newsome should now settle down to his true end in life and edit some more selections from A C Benson's diaries.


I enjoyed Gordon Bowker's monumental biography of the doomed novelist Malcolm Lowry. Pursued by Furies (HarperCollins) claims Lowry as the least-known British literary genius of the 20th century. Yet Lowry is no extinct volcano (the late Anthony Burgess admitted a debt to him), and his ferocious self-destruction could hardly fail to fascinate. Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader (Carcanet) collects everything Greene ever wrote on the cinema. Who but Greene could talk about the 'gangster's technique' of Jean Harlowe ('she toted her breast like a man totes a gun')? I was amazed and delighted by Italo Calvino's The Road to San Giovanni (Jonathan Cape). A slender volume of five 'memory exercises', these monkish little essays range from a lapidary tribute to Calvino's father to an analysis of American films of the Thirties. There is no stink of sociological jargon here; Calvino wrote like an angel, urbane and always elegant.


Two novels this year were worth not just reading, but re-reading. Frank Moorhouse's Grand Days (Picador) was a properly rich, tapestried novel about a young woman at work and in love in Geneva in the Twenties: ambitious in its scope, but pinned down to the tiny quirks that make historical fiction live. And Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold (Hodder) was an oddly enchanting novel. It could have been disastrously self-indulgent, as a young girl strives to find herself in contemporary New York, but Hustvedt's prose is as freezingly pared and cold as a latter-day Jean Rhys. The biography of the year for me was the immensely sensitive life of Marguerite Yourcenar, by Josyane Savigneau (University of Chicago).


First, the superb biography of Franco by Paul Preston (HarperCollins), a masterly account of how a most evil dictator tried to save Spain from European democracy, but finally failed. Second, Callum Macdonald's The Lost Battle; Crete 1941 (Macmillan), a most readable account of Germany's Pyrrhic victory in what could have been Britain's first defeat of the Wehrmacht in the field. Third, John Keegan's A History of Warfare (Hutchinson), a thought-provoking attempt to divine and affect the future of international armed conflict by examining the past. Lastly, for light relief and intellectual stimulation too, Terry Pratchett's entertaining fable Johnny and the Dead (Doubleday). Not for those members of the chattering classes marooned in yesterday's world.


Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (Gollancz) presented a new anthropological discovery: the Arsenal supporter as human being. A spanking 7-0 away win of a football book - inventive, honest, funny, heroic, charming. The opposite of a Saturday afternoon at Highbury, in fact. John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration (Hamish Hamilton) centred on a philandering academic researching the life of President James Buchanan who discovers that his own Seventies era of drift and moral decay could not contrast more with the stiff probity of his subject. Not that he does much about it - Updike's coruscating prose enjoys the filth too much. My Story by Ron Kray (Sidgwick & Jackson) was the undiscovered comic masterpiece of the year. Ron Kray repositioned as a jovial community policeman who loved his mum, gave bundles to charity and kept the streets of the East End clear of villains. Fred Dineage, the television presenter, was there to record and faithfully reproduce Kray gems like this: 'I didn't do George Cornell because he called me a fat poof, that's a load of nonsense. I'd 've done him anyway.'


Maybe it's just that Northern Ireland has been so newsworthy in recent weeks, but my favourites concerned the troubles, or the struggle, or whatever we're supposed to call it. A Wreath Upon the Dead was a lovely (first) novel by Briege Duffaud (Poolbeg), which spanned two centuries but still couldn't fathom the gap between two communities. And Tony Parker's patient microphone found some heart- shaking monologues for May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast (Cape). Hard to know how to applaud Mating by Norman Rush (Vintage) without sounding soft in the head. A woman and a man search for an ideal world in the Kalahari, and stalk each other through prose of supreme weight and wit. Gorgeous.

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