Books Of The Year
We asked our regular reviewers, as well as some of our best-known writers, to nominate their favourite books of 2005. Which were the best biographies? In a crowded year for fiction, what really stood out? And which were the essential poetry collections? Our experts give their view. And in week two of our Christmas special we recommend the funniest and most revealing celebrity biographies, the most stirring military histories, and the best in music, sport and crime
Sunday 18 December 2005
The two outstanding books I read this year, both biographies, were Hilary Spurling's Matisse the Master: The conquest of colour (Hamish Hamilton £25) and Lyndall Gordon's Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus (Little, Brown £25). I also much enjoyed Alexander Masters's Stuart: A Life Backwards (Fourth Estate, £12.99) for its blend of poignancy and humour.
One of the best first novels I read this year was A Touch of the Sun by David Evans (Crocus Books/Commonword £8.99), a gripping, funny and sexy tale of a young white man growing up in South Africa under apartheid and gradually discovering radical politics. Serif have just reissued The Cattle Truck by Jorge Semprun (£9.99), a modern classic, another novel unafraid to deal with big themes. A young Spaniard, captured fighting with the French Resistance, meditates on memory, childhood and war as his transport rolls towards Buchenwald. We are Iran (ed and trs Nasrin Alavi (Portobello £12.99) uses the nation's blogs to send a lively, satirical and multi-voiced bulletin to the West.
Mark Vernon's A Philosophy of Friendship (Palgrave £20) offers a history of the idea of friendship through the works of various thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche. It's genuinely useful, lucid, informative and wise. It also shows how same-sex love is at the heart of the history of friendship and how "gay marriage" could be a rather airless historical cul-de-sac.
Matt Houlbrook's Queer London (Chicago £20.50), an alternative sexual history of the metro- polis from the end of the First World War to Wolfenden, describes a world in which young working men, not to mention guardsmen and sailors, were potentially available for sex with gentlemen. What's more, what began as mutually exploitative relationships often turned into warm friendships. Sadly, it all ended after the Second World War. No wonder homos are now queuing up to get married.
The most memorable novel of the year for me was J M Coetzee's Slow Man (Secker £16.99), a morality tale about an emotional cripple who loses a leg and gains self-knowledge. Coetzee writes at degree-zero - he must be the translator's dream - yet, mysteriously, his work achieves a rhetorical grandeur. The splendidly named Stefan Müller-Doohm's Adorno: A Biography (Polity £60) is the size of two bricks between boards, but it propels to our flagging 21st-century attention one of the great intellectual figures of the past 100 years. The Silver Spoon (Phaidon £24.95), by divers hands, is the first English translation of La Cucchiaio d'argento, the encyclopaedia-cum-bible of Italian food, first published in 1950; an essential handbook for the active and armchair cook alike.
Swedenborg's Secret by Lars Bergquist (Swedenborg Society £16.99). I had only a murky knowledge of Swedenborg: I knew that he lived in the 18th century, and was an East End of London-based Swedish mystic, who had a part-time job as a diplomat, and oh yes, was a seminal influence on our own William Blake. This book put me right. I hadn't realised quite what a polymath the man was. Among other things, he invented a method for finding terrestrial longitude, as well as making (serious) designs for submarines and airplanes. The author (also a former Swedish diplomat) succeeds in reclaiming Swedenborg from the margins of contemporary thought and placing him where he belongs: as a founding father of modern spirituality and Western philosophy.
The Tibetan Book of The Dead, trs Gyurme Dorje, ed Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa (Penguin £30). The book describes itself as the first complete translation of this cycle of teachings. That is quite an understatement. The original text that we received in the west is greatly expanded upon. This version also contains an introductory commentary from the Dalai Lama. Essentially, the book contains teachings designed to transform our daily life, as well as preparing us to use death, and after death states, as a means of obtaining liberation from the cycle of existence, ie birth/ death/rebirth. Everything is presented as a manifestation of mind. I would love to know Swedenborg's take on that.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (Viking £12.99) is an exquisitely written tribute to the underrated quality of stoicism. Lyndall Gordon's Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus is the best kind of biography: compassionate, intelligent and illuminating.
Audrey Niffenegger's follow-up to The Time Traveler's Wife is The Three Incestuous Sisters, a picture-book which took her 14 years to complete. There are just 10 original hand-bound copies, with hand-made paper, aquatints and hand-set type. The mass-market version loses a lot in translation (Cape £16.99), but it's a work of art all the same.
Supernatural: Meeting with the ancient teachers of mankind by Graham Hancock (Century £18.99): Hancock's most important book. Like anthropologist Jeremy Narby, Hancock took the mind-altering drug ayahuasca in Peru, and is convinced that supernatural entities - the kind who communicate with shamans - actually spoke to him. Quite stunning.
Shakespeare: The biography by Peter Ackroyd (Chatto £25). Ackroyd creates a tapestry of Elizabethan London so rich that you feel you've been there.
The Fall: The evidence for a Golden Age 6,000 years ago by Steve Taylor (O Books, £12.99). As an attempt to diagnose when and where the human race became murderous, this book as something of the sweep of H G Wells's Outline of History. I have reservations about some of it - I would place the "golden age" rather earlier - but still read it straight through like a novel.
I read David Harsent's latest collection of poems, Legion (Faber £8.99), with the same interest and admiration I have felt about his work for many years. His technical skill and power increase with every book. The sequence "The Woman and the Hare", rich with sexual and natural imagery, is the text for a wonderful piece of Harrison Birtwistle's music and two voices, singer and speaker. But the title sequence, which might be despatches from an all-too-familiar though unspecified situation of war, reveals a new tone, a deepening and darkening of his viewpoint and voice which unfortunately seems totally justifiable at this historic moment.
I urge you to take a look at Dubravka Ugresic's The Ministry of Fear (Saqi £9.99). The narrator is a brilliantly caustic Croatian university lecturer who decamps to Amsterdam in the mid 1990s to teach the literature of the former Yugoslavia to a group of former Yugoslavians. First they recreate their lost country; then they tear it down. Pawel Huelle's Mercedes Benz (Serpent's Tail £8.99) is set in Gdansk just after the fall of the Iron Curtain; the author-hero, a veteran of Solidarity, is at last in a position to take driving lessons. Huelle has a light touch, weaving his stories about French and German cars in pre-war Poland with adventures in post-Soviet traffic so artfully that you do not see where he is taking you until it is too late to turn back.
Like her much-praised Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries (Cape £12.99) is a graphic novel set in Tehran after the Islamic revolution and featuring the author's rather patrician, westward-looking, left-leaning family. In this instalment, the men go off for their afternoon naps, leaving the women to drink tea and talk about sex in a way that will destroy forever any preconceptions you might have about women and Islam.
Powerful is an over-used adjective but it applies to A Woman in Berlin (Virago £16.999), the anonymous diary of a German woman brutally treated by Red Army soldiers in the aftermath of the war. It is a pertinent reminder that war claims victims after the guns stop firing and that the victors need policing as much as the defeated.
The winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, Katharine Davies's The Madness of Love (Vintage £6.99), was a magical delight amid a sea of dreary chick lit. The most shocking book of the year for me was David Craig's exposé of management consultants, Rip Off! (Original Book Company £11.99). He struggled to get it published because too many publishers are in cahoots with these shysters. It is a must-read for anyone in business or on the receiving end of consultants' advice.
Three very different novels made a huge impression on me this year. Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days (Fourth Estate £14.99) vies for top position with Sebastian Barry's A Long, Long Way (Faber £12.99). Cunningham makes a tripartite narrative look easy in his moving and evocative homage to Walt Whitman, while Barry's tale of Irish soldiers fighting the Great War contains some truly breathtaking prose. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (Virago £14.99), one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking novels I've read in ages, was almost worth the 14-year wait, and managed to dispel once and for all the myth that second novels are a let-down. A great year for that too-rare thing, a demanding but rewarding novel.
I haven't read many new books this year, preferring in general to read old books. However, I very much enjoyed Is it Just me or is Everything Shit? by Alan McArthur and Steve Lowe (Time Warner £9.99), partly for its juvenile humour, but mainly because the book has something serious to say, which is that capitalism, in pursuing quantity, has destroyed quality. The fact that the book is selling so well suggests it has touched a nerve. Richard Ingrams' The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett (HarperCollins, £20) is a good read and provides fascinating insights into the life and work of a great English radical.
Benjamin Kunkel's name wouldn't look very good in lights, but on the evidence of his debut novel, Indecision (Picador £12.99), it deserves to be big. This is a laugh-out-loud philosophical novel - and how many of those do you get? And, despite the forehead-smackingly literal cover shot (a couple representing freedom of expression by dressing up as a fountain-pen and a brush), Chinua Achebe's Collected Poems (Carcanet £8.95) was easily the most powerful book I read in 2005: his poem "A Mother in a Refugee Camp" had me making a fool of myself on a train between Charing Cross and Waterloo East.
One of the best books of 2005 was Ivan's War: The Red Army 1939-1945 (Faber £20) by Catherine Merridale. With her gift for imaginative empathy, Merridale brilliantly recreated the lives of ordinary Soviet soldiers during the Second World War. Henry Hitchings's Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The extraordinary story of the book that defined the world (John Murray £14.99) chronicled with charm and humour the birth of the lexical juggernaut which continues to influence the self-help guides, illustrated dictionaries and thesauruses to be found in our bookshops.
At the risk of ending up in Pseuds' Corner, my choice genuinely has to be The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504 edited by Chris Given-Wilson et al (The Boydell Press) in 16 volumes. Remarkably, this is the first publication of these parliamentary records since the 18th century. More importantly, it is the first ever complete and scholarly edition and, joy of joys, it includes translations as well as the texts themselves. I also enjoyed The Great Warbow by Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy (Sutton £25), a ground-breaking study of the use of the longbow in medieval battles which is both readable and erudite.
The most impressive novel I read this year was William Wall's This is the Country (Sceptre £16.99), about a young man's struggle to free himself from his criminal milieu in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland. Gripping and surprisingly moving, too.
In Yoga School Dropout (Ebury £10.99) Lucy Edge, a former London advertising executive, goes in search of spiritual riches (and the perfect headstand) in India. Neither boringly cynical nor stupidly gullible, she's open-minded, warm and funny; even - though she'd be the last person to claim this - rather wise.
Philippe Claudel's Grey Souls (Weidenfeld £12.99) finds a suitably Gallic Inspector picking through the ashes of a long-dead case: the murder of a young French girl during the Great War. It's up there with the best of Sebastian Japrisot and Georges Simenon. For a bit of bitchy real-life bad behaviour, nothing beats Shepperton Babylon, Matthew Sweet's trawl through the naughtiness behind the glitzy veneer of British cinema's heyday (Faber £12.99). I ended it longing to be a moustache-twirling celluloid cad complete with starlet on my arm and an eye on the flashing bulbs of the dailies.
The intelligence of Fat Girl by Judith Moore (Profile £12.99) impressed me enormously. The pathos of the author's early life is presented in stark, unselfpitying prose. Similarly honest and provocative, Diana Melly's Take a Girl like Me (Chatto £14.99) said things about motherhood and men that not many women would admit to. Iqbal Ahmed's Sorrows of the Moon: A journey through London (Coldstream £9.95) shares the compulsion. But Ahmed performs a sleight of hand, allowing his richly suggestive text to conjure his personality in the shadow of immigrant London.
I hope Bret Easton Ellis's detractors pipe down for a while after Lunar Park (Picador £16.99). This fictional autobiography sees the author substantially fatter, married to an imaginary actress and living in suburbia while New York becomes overrun by suicide bombers. Amongst the usual pharmaceuticals and dirty sex, there's some unnerving Gothic horror - Ellis is stalked by one of his own creations, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Just as clever, every bit as entertaining, but in places baffling, was Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (Harvill £7.99). A labyrinth, an Oedipal dilemma and the heartbreaking sense of loss that runs through every Murakami novel combine to create their own logic; the strangest coming-of-age tale you're likely to read. Jake Wallis Simons' novel The Exiled Times of a Tibetan Jew (Polygon £8.99) was incredibly funny and clever.
I was thoroughly shaken up by Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress (Canongate 12.99), a brillliant analysis of eveything humanity has done to ruin itself down the ages. It was Trafalgar year, so I immersed myself in Roger Knight's tremendous life of Nelson: The Pursuit of Victory (Allen Lane £30), and in the five-volume, boxed hardback edition of all Patrick O'Brian's sea novels, sent to me as a noble anniversary present by his, and my, American publishers, Norton.
Andrew Cowan's What I Know (Sceptre £14.99) is a sly, deft and darkly funny look at contemporary suburban marriage, asking whether it is better served by secrecy or openness. It reads like Nick Hornby with a philosophy degree. Rattawut Lapcharoensap's collection of stories, Sightseeing (Atlantic £10), paints a memorable portrait of a brutally modern Thailand that the tourists never see, nor would want to. I also hugely enjoyed Kathleen Jamie's Findings (Sort Of Books £6.99), an unclassifiable book that exists somewhere in the no man's land between essay collection and memoir. It is a love letter to the Scottish landscape, to birds, to travel, in fact to life itself.
I must put in a quick mention for Truman Capote's hitherto lost first novel, Summer Crossing, foreshadowing Breakfast at Tiffany's and quite as beautifully written.
In the field of classical studies, Tom Holland's Persian Fire (Little, Brown £20) stood out, a magisterial account of the Greek-Persian Wars, Thermopylae, Marathon, Salamis, told with great authority and a novelistic colour and verve.
I was inspired by Myles Hildyard's Second World War letters and diaries, It is Bliss Here (Bloomsbury £17.99). Hildyard was a smart young officer who fought in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Normandy. His letters were stoical, laconic and yet captivatingly vivid - and Hildyard's gentlemanly homosexuality adds a touching piquancy.
Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray (Hamish Hamilton £16.99): this 1,000-page masterpiece went almost unnoticed this year, but will survive far longer than most of 2005's more acclaimed novels.
The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer (Little, Brown £20): This book on photography is really (sneakily) about ambition, mortality, and American life and, in my opinion, is Dyer's most satisfying book to date.
64 Clark by Andrew Holmes (Sceptre £10.99), the year's best thriller, an unholy hybrid of Amis, Elmore Leonard and early Ian McEwan.
I can never resist a really big book, and they don't come too much bigger - in scope, ideas, possibilities - than Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds (Allen Lane £20). If Kaku defamiliarises much of what we believe about the universe around us, then Peter Singer's In Defence of Animals (Blackwell £9.99) does the same thing in relation to the interface between what we call "human" and what we call "animal". It'll spoil your Christmas dinner, and a good thing too. There seems to have been no end this year to the kind of limp, sentimental, bourgeois fiction that challenges nothing (flip-book pages of people jumping "back into" the World Trade Centre, anyone?). So it's a good job that the universe can balance all this up with Bret Easton Ellis. Lunar Park may be a little flawed, but at least it's authentic - and laugh-out-loud funny in places too.
Gunilla Anderman's Europe on Stage: Translation and Theatre (Oberon £19.99) deals with the problem of rendering the creations of complex minds into a language not their own - in this case as found in drama in English. The chapters on Ibsen and Garcia Lorca I found invaluably enlightening. Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler (HarperCollins £30) attempts, with great lucidity and learning and an infectious enthusiasm, to show why over the centuries some languages (like our own) have become dominant, and whether their success can be attributed to intrinsic factors as well as to historical circumstances.
Walter Mosley has become the seer of our time with his peerless explorations of racism masquerading as detective novels. This year, Easy Rawlins encounters the Watts Riots in Little Scarlet and Cinnamon Kiss, set in the Summer of Love (both Weidenfeld £12.99). His jazzy style is counterpointed by a moral seriousness and topicality that makes Ian McEwan's Saturday look like the work of callow youth. The best biography I've read is Mozart's Women, by the conductor Jane Glover (Macmillan £20), which explores Mozart's life and work through his female relations and the female characters in his operas. It is a shining example of musical scholarship at its most accessible.
I was also astonished by the power and intelligence of The Home Maker by Dorothea Canfield Fisher (Persephone £10), which tackles the issue of working mothers and the depression caused by thwarted female energies with brilliant perceptiveness. It's the obverse of Lionel Shriver's deserved Orange Prize winner We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail £9.99), and should be read in tandem.
John Julius Norwich
The Siege of Venice by Jonathan Keates (Chatto £20). Of all the revolutions of 1848, that of Venice against her Habsburg masters was the most heroic - and at the same time quixotic. Jonathan Keates has produced a brilliant history that is also a riveting read.
The Darkness of Wallis Simpson by Rose Tremain (Chatto £14.99) the best of our living short story writers, has produced a dozen more, each of which strikes me as a masterpiece.
The Milk of Paradise (John Murray £25) is the last volume of James Lees-Milne's Diaries, one of the three or four best of the 20th century. It is well up to the standard of its predecessors.
Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes (Cape £20). I would not have thought it possible to write a life of Helen; but Bettany Hughes has done just that, with a brilliance and erudition that leave me gasping.
Justine Picardie has created another spell-binding book with My Mother's Wedding Dress (Picador £12.99). It is a series of fascinating, inspired essays about the role clothes play in life, literature and imagination, the kind of book you want to gobble up in one sitting, all the while exclaiming, "Yes!" in recognition. Ali Smith's The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton £14.99) may have lost out on the Booker but I'm placing my bets for it winning the Whitbread. An account of a disintegrating family infiltrated by a mysterious stranger, it's as brave, funny and beautiful as her previous books.
Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black (Harper Perennial £7.99) is indeed that: black, bleak and unsparing. It is also slyly funny, and so beautifully written that even the horror becomes compulsive. If you want to know how modern Europe has come into being, Tony Judt's Postwar (Heinemann £25) wraps it up in a mere 1,000 pages that are every bit as magisterial as the Mantel, if rather less funny.
Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan (Oxford £25) is a fine work of research and also a sympathetic understanding of Marlowe's perennially mysterious life.
Julian Barnes's Arthur and George (Cape £17.99) is a novel which works precisely because it is tuned to the author's strengths as a writer. Barnes was unlucky not to have won the Man Booker Prize.
William Boyd's Bamboo (Hamish Hamilton £20), a collection of his essays and journalism from the last few decades, demonstrates this writer's very human and very eloquent interest in the world.
Without excusing the violence of the French Revolution, historian David Andress put it into perspective in The Terror (Little, Brown £20), a fascinating account of events and a response to those who have blamed French intemperance for a variety of political excesses over the past 200 years. Meanwhile, a fine biography by Maria Fairweather, Madame de Stael (Constable £25), portrayed an extraordinary woman, an outspoken critic of revolutionary violence and of the Napoleonic autocracy - and an early example of an intellectual who refused to stay out of politics. A still earlier example was Voltaire, whose biographer Roger Pearson (in Voltaire Almighty, Bloomsbury £18.99) recounted a long transformation from bumptious young playwright to valiant defender of the oppressed. No politics, though, in Jean-Jacques Lefrère's substantial account of the brief life of Jules Laforgue (Fayard, Paris), a poet less honoured in his own country than in the Anglo-Saxon world, where he played a role in the development of T S Eliot.
I loved My Lives by Edmund White (Bloomsbury £17.99): with fluent, self-mocking brilliance, the author gives his psyche and libido a thorough airing in a frank and hilarious memoir. The lyrical beauty of his prose is breathtaking.
Dave Eggers' short stories, How We Are Hungry (Hamish Hamilton £12.99), confirm the talent behind the hype.
Sheer Abandon by Penny Vincenzi (Review £6.99) is unputdownable. I was a slavish addict from the first paragraph.
Jeremy Gavron's fact-fiction blend, An Acre of Barren Ground (Scribner, £14.99), the story of Brick Lane, is a poetic, genre-breaking oddity that's both illuminating and moving.
William Empson (1906-1984) was one of the two or three greatest literary critics of the 20th century, a fine and uncommonly influential poet, and a remarkably original philosopher, linguist and polymath, whose spryly-carried range of learning encompassed mathematics, anthropology, physics and Buddhist art. He was also a magnificent English eccentric. All these aspects of the great man received generous, judicious and eloquent attention in John Haffenden's superb biography William Empson volume I: Among the mandarins (Oxford £30). Carolyn Burke's Lee Miller (Bloomsbury £20) added a wealth of fresh detail to our received image of this fascinating photographer, model, muse, war correspondent and all-round heroine: Miller now seems braver and more abundantly gifted than ever. Iain Sinclair's Edge of the Orison (Hamish Hamilton £16.99) was a rich and delightfully unclassifiable work of non-fiction by our most indefatigably idiosyncratic prose stylist. Sinclair's thoughtful journey in the footsteps of the mad poet John Clare embraces all manner of subjects and tones, and is in part an unexpectedly moving, not-so-veiled letter of love and apology to the author's wife. Sheer pleasure.
I've been hungry for new books by two favourite writers and, at last, they came. Rose Tremain's fiction is my gold standard: I measure myself and everyone else by her and none of us comes close. The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is classic, breathtaking Tremain. Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days was a radical departure, but I suspect that's what he'll do every time. His style and characterisation grow better and better too. Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot (Viking £12.99) is just as funny and sharp as her first, but darker and deeper; if you haven't read her, don't let her success put you off.
Ian McEwan's Saturday (Cape £17.99) belongs to that small and distinguished class of books (Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway) which describe what goes on in one human brain in one single day. Few novelists bring out the wonderful complexity and the scary fragility of our mental lives as well as McEwan does here.
H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq (McSweeney's Books). The latest French pop-nihilism literary export assesses the work of a hyper-neurotic master of modern horror.
Aliens: Why They Are Here by Bryan Appleyard (Scribners £15.99). More about why we want them to arrive than about where they may come from, but at least it tries to get past the X-Files barrier.
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones (Heinemann £10.99). Gripping and moving tales about the heroes - mostly Jewish - behind the superheroes. How Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane and others brought Superman, Batman and Captain America into the world.
Strange Attractor Journal, Vol 2 ed Mark Pilkington. Another unique and necessary collection of eccentric scholarship, weird journalism and obsessive research. Nothing else like it.
For ingenuity, brio and high-octane literary gossip, my favourite book this year was February House (Scribner £14.99), the story of the Brooklyn house in which, over a period of a year, Benjamin Britten, Salvador Dali, Carson MacCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee shared a home, with Wystan Auden as their unlikely housekeeper. Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking (Fourth Estate £14.99), written with Didion's customary elegant incisiveness, is an exceptional study of the nature of grief. Not a cheerful subject for Christmas, perhaps, but a must for anybody who admires Didion's work. Andrew Delbanco's Herman Melville: His life and work (Picador £25) is a superb biography of America's greatest novelist, the best that has yet been written.
D J Taylor
Two books of poetry I can't recommend highly enough are Alan Jenkins' A Shorter Life (Chatto £9), a series of characteristically rueful meditations on lost love, dead friends and past time, and Alan Ross's Poems (Harvill £18.99), a selection from a career extending back into the early 1940s, carefully chosen to reflect the various compartments of the poet's life. Ross died in 2001. This memorial volume was made all the more poignant by the death of its editor, David Hughes, in the gap between completion and publication.
A novel that somehow escaped from the Booker and Whitbread shortlists was Tim Binding's Man Overboard (Picador £12.99), an ingenious solution to the mystery of Commander Crabb, whose body was supposedly dredged up from beneath the Soviet warship conveying Krushchev to Southampton harbour in 1955. Wonderful, too, after over a decade's worth of delays and oversights, including the loss of the manuscript, to see Anthony Powell's Some Poets, Artists and 'A Reference for Mellors' (Timewell Press £25) in print on the centenary of his birth.
My book of the year was The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (Viking £16.99), a poetic search for the lost land of Thule. You'd hate Thule if ever you found it - but we all want it to be there. It's that enchanting little island perched beyond the outer fringes of northern Europe - mythical, ice-bound, somewhere dark and necessary that lies at the far end of our imagination. This year I've also thoroughly enjoyed Tom Fremantle's journey in the weary footsteps of Mungo Park, The Road to Timbuktu (Constable £7.99), a delightful, well-informed travelogue of the solid, old-fashioned variety. And Learning to Breathe by Andy Cave (Hutchinson £18.99), a stirring mountaineer's tale of the sort with photos of climbers placed like insignificant flies on infinitely mighty walls of rock.
John McGahern's much-anticipated Memoir (Faber £16.99) is as wise and compelling a book as any of his elegiac and graceful novels. Michel Faber's The Fahrenheit Twins (Canongate £12.99) is my favourite short story collection of the year, and adds to the body of evidence that the form is undergoing a revival in these islands. Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (Canongate £12) is a shortish but singular glory, even for this most evergreen and original of writers. My favourite unexpected plot twist of the year comes three-quarters of the way through Magnus Mills' idiosyncratic Explorers of the New Century (Bloomsbury £10.99). In translation, the ludicrously difficult-to-obtain Tower of Ants (Hollym) by the Korean writer Choi In-ho (trs Yoo-Jung Kong) is a brief but sensuous fable on the individual and society.
Dean Karnazes is an American ultramarathon runner who recently completed a 350-miler. He's certainly got a tale or two to tell, including melting trainers, renal failure and running naked in the snow. His autobiography, Ultramarathon Man (Jeremy P Tarcher, £12), was my most inspirational and fascinating read of 2005. Surely it will appeal to more than just us running geeks! In fiction, Sayonara Bar (Doubleday, £15 (originally called Tsunami Bar and renamed for obvious reasons) is a beautifully written and far-reaching exploration of Japanese culture from first-time novelist Susan Barker.
Of my three favourite novels, only one got the acclaim it deserved. Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin (Serpent's Tail £9.99) was pitch-perfect, devastating and utterly convincing. Nick Arvin's short and strange Articles of War (Hutchinson £9.99) was, among other things, a re-imagining of The Red Badge of Courage in the context of the Second World War. But the very best novel of the year was John Haskell's magnificent American Purgatorio (Canongate £12.99). Confident enough to jump on the shoulders of Bellow's Augie in the first line - "I'm from Chicago originally" - it is hilarious, moving and wise. I also admired - and learned a lot from - David Thomson's romp through and waltz around the history of Hollywood in The Whole Equation (Little, Brown £22.50).
A good year for fiction - Diana Evans's 26a (Chatto, £12.99) and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin - but also plenty of excellent non-fiction to get your teeth into, not least Tom Holland's action-packed history of Persians versus Greeks and the battle for the West, Persian Fire. Readable history at its best with great battles scenes! One of 2005's essential reads, though, is A Woman in Berlin, the anonymous diary of a German woman caught in Berlin in April 1945 with the Red Army storming the city.
As worthy of attention as any Booker-nominee, is Gregory Norminton's Ghost Portrait (Sceptre £14.99), which tells the almost-forgotten story of the Diggers and their post-Civil War experiment in communal living. It's a spare, gentle meditation on art, love and the failure of ideas. James Holland's Together We Stand (HarperCollins £20) is a magisterial history of the origins of the Anglo-American military alliance, the consequences of which continue to unfold, and it looks set to become the definitive work on the subject. My third nomination is Dr Kay Redfield Jamison's Exuberance (Vintage USA): a wonderfully erudite and wide-ranging investigation into enthusiasm, its excitements, advantages and sometimes painful cost.
Kevin Le Gendre
Soul Tourists by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton £12.99). A rollercoaster road movie in print where the language twists and turns more than a path through the Pyrenees. Evaristo crosses the border between prose, poetry and film script and exposes the hidden face of black European history in the process.
Mediated by Thomas De Zengotita (Bloomsbury £12.99). A brilliant insight into the way the rabid beasts of information-gathering bite right into the very core of our lives. The prologue on the "fake news" of JFK's death has the makings of a great one-act play.
Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips (Secker £12.99). This moving portrait of Bert Williams, the turn-of-the century African-American entertainer who had to "black up" for mainstream audiences, has the emotional and pyschological depth we've come to expect from a writer of Phillips' stature.
The books that moved me most this year were all volumes of poetry: Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture (Picador £12.99) is her most powerful collection to date; Sally Read wrote the poem of the year ("Instruction", from The Point of Splitting, Bloodaxe £7.95); and Michael Donaghy's Safest (Picador £12.99) was a fitting tribute to a much-missed writer. Read them and weep.
After reading Half Gone: Oil, gas, hot air and the global energy crisis by Jeremy Leggett (Portobello Books, £12.99), I turned down my central heating and went around turning off lights. Now I'm thinking of investing in a windmill.
Clive James has collected his recent essays in The Meaning of Recognition (Picador £14.99). His subjects include Philip Larkin, Isaiah Berlin, Bing Crosby, Primo Levi, screwball comedy, The Sopranos and The West Wing. The television criticism (a genre which he could be said to have invented) is as acute and funny as ever. There is also some brilliant reportage of the last General Election.
Intuitively wise and sympathetic, Richard Bradford's biography of Philip Larkin, First Boredom, Then Fear (Peter Owen £19.95) is the best life of the poet I've so far read. I now know as much about Larkin as if I'd met him - which to my regret I never did. Aharon Megged novels never fail to stimulate and intrigue. Mandrakes from the Holy Land (Toby Press £14.99) lives up to the novelist's power as a storyteller. In 1906, a stiffnecked young Englishwoman goes on a plant-collecting expedition to Palestine. It would not be fair to say what happens to her, so I won't.
I saved Adam Nicolson's Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero (HarperCollins £16.99) for Trafalgar Day itself, and was not disappointed. In a year that has seen a whole flotilla of books about Nelson sailing into the bookshops, Nicolson's stands out as easily the most orginal. I also hugely enjoyed Dominic Sandbrook's witty, panoramic portrait of Britain in the early 1960s, Never Had it so Good (Little, Brown £20). Like Nicolson, Sandbrook seamlessly blends grand narrative with inspired cultural analysis, giving us James Bond, Butlins and the Beatles alongside Butskellism and the balance of payments. I keenly look forward to the sequel, when the 1960s will really start to swing.
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
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