To the best of my recollection I have read no new English-language fiction at all this year; the novel may not be dead, but my taste for, and indeed tolerance of, it is now utterly beyond resurrection. The invention I once sought in literature I have come to find in science - mostly in vulgarisations, alas, but superb ones, like John Gribbin's vertiginous volume on quantum theory, In Search of Schrodinger's Cat (Corgi) and its sequel, Schrodinger's Kittens (Weidenfeld). I like to feel I'm doing my homework for the millennium.
First the worst of 1996: as a Serious Health Warning, Tania Glyde's Clever Girl (Picador) moved the judges of the Betty Trask prize to vomit and despair. Glyde defended herself with the usual claims to artistic integrity, bourgeois censorship, etc, etc. The judges were right. The best book of 1996 was W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants (Harvill), translated by Michael Hulse. It contains four stories of exile from Germany, all related directly or indirectly to the Third Reich, which no German can either forget or properly remember. It is written, and translated, with extraordinary beauty, reproducing the movement and power of memory itself.
The two novels which have given me most pleasure this year concern middle- aged women reviewing their 1950s childhoods. Ita Daly's Unholy Ghosts (Bloomsbury) domesticates the great historical events of the mid-20th century without in any way diminishing them, while creating an unforgettable portrait of tortured adolescence. Shena Mackay`s The Orchard on Fire (Heinemann) informs a bucolic setting with urbane wit; mixing gloriously eccentric characters, perfectly chosen detail and lost-Eden myth. My non-fiction choice is Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast (Cape), which combines a lover's loss with a poet's sensibility in the most moving memoir yet to emerge from the Aids crisis.
Not surprisingly, I read work by former members of the University of East Anglia MA course in Creative Writing with special, avaricious interest: a gratifying year. Long one of our best story-writers, Clive Sinclair presented himself on top form in The Lady With the Laptop (Picador). Two brilliant debuts: Martyn Bedford's Acts of Revision (Bantam), the story of a strange young man taking a cunning revenge on his former schoolteachers, and Toby Litt`s Adventures in Capitalism (Secker), a satirical and wrily postmodern story collection. Adventures in capitalism have been my preoccupation this year; I've been working on a stage-play about rogue trading. The book that most fascinated me is John Gapper and Nicholas Denton's All That Glitters: The Fall of Barings (Hamish Hamilton), densely researched, excellently told. With all the energy and fascination of Victorian fiction, it`s probably the best modern variant of The Way We Live Now - the Trollope novel that still seems to come closest to our curious times.
There`s something about the random nature of good writing turned up unexpectedly in newspapers and magazines that can be more satisfying than the known quantity of a book. All too often the commitment that buying a book represents ends there: it stays unread. John Burnside`s new collection A Normal Skin, for instance, will be published by Cape next spring, but I've been reading the poems - lyrical, tough, often oddly sinister - throughout the year as they've cropped up in the TLS, and have enjoyed them more that way, I suspect, than if I'd had the chance to go at them all at once. Stumbled across without warning, they can up-end your mood like a drug or a dream. Similarly, The Undertaking: life studies from the dismal trade (Cape) won't be published until April, but Thomas Lynch's grim, funny essays about his double life as a poet and small-town undertaker have been appearing sporadically in the London Review of Books and are among the most memorable things I've read this year. The fiction I enjoyed most was Andre Dubus's Dancing After Hours (Knopf, USA), particularly the title story. If anybody in 1996 has written about English and Englishness better than Jarvis Cocker in Pulp's Different Class, I haven't been lucky enough to read it.
Donald Cameron Watt
Let me begin with two books I hope to find in my Christmas Stocking: Peter Hopkirk's Quest for Kim: in search of Kipling's great game (John Murray) and that same publisher's Commonplace Book. Add to them one biography and one memoir, Brian Brivati's excellent Hugh Gaitskell (Richard Cohen Books) and Sylvia Rogers's moving reminiscence of her Polish Jewish Communist mother, her childhood in Nazi Berlin and their emigration to a sometimes indifferent if not hostile sanctuary in Britain, Red Saint, Pink Daughter (Deutsch). Academics often get books to review only a year or more after their publication. So let me praise John Lancaster Turner`s prize-winning American Visions of Europe: Franklin D Roosevelt, Geroge F Kennan, and Dean C Acheson (Cambridge), a truly excellent study of what "Europe" including Britain, meant in the minds and mouths of three leading architects of America's emergence as a superpower. The Most Dishonourable Order of the Louse of the Decade goes to all connected with Christopher Creighton's Op JB: the last great secret of the Second World War. May the god of books forgive them; few others will.
Dame Barbara Cartland
My favourite book of the year is Nelson: a personal history by Christopher Hibbert (Penguin), our greatest historian. Hibbert makes every book he writes seem to come alive, thus making history far more interesting for young people than it has ever been before.
Youthful American novelist Scott Heim got some amazing plaudits in his own country but was not entirely noticed here for his dazzling Mysterious Skin (Black Swan) which artfully combines the twin American obsessions with UFO abduction and child molestation into weird but compelling configurations. Joe Lansdale is destined to be a really big crime-writing star: Mucho Mojo (Indigo) is southern gothic gumbo spiced to perfection. Provincetown poet, Mark Doty, confirms his status as the new Robert Lowell with his poems in Atlantis (Cape) and his confessional memoir, Heaven's Coast (Cape), about his lover`s death from Aids: a work of stark eidetic beauty. The fact that he's annoying archly modernist British poets with his love of cadence only endears him to me. Lawrence Norfolk's impacted The Pope's Rhinoceros (Sinclair-Stevenson) has been hugely underrated and Nan Goldin's ripely-coloured photograhic tableaux in I'll be Your Mirror (Scalo) reveals an eye of unswerving brilliance.
The Letters of Claudio Monteverdi (Oxford), re-edited by Denis Stevens, contain great stuff on alchemy, Platonism and honorifics in 16th-century Venice - and how Monteverdi was denounced outside St Mark's Basilica as a ``thieving fucking he-goat'' and didn't like it at all. Norman Lebrecht's When the Music Stops (Simon & Schuster) is about ``the corporate murder of cla$$ical music" and is as essentially trashy and gossipy as the dollar signs in its subtitle suggest. Richard Taruskin's Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (Oxford) is two volumes of vast scholarship with 50-odd more years to go. And The East in the West (Cambridge) by anthropologist Jack Goody is something else altogether: a salutary, self-flagellating attack on European cockiness to remind us how we may have developed differently from them Asians, but how we ain't necessarily more advanced.
I got around to Iain Banks's science fiction this year, and thought Feersum Endjinn and The Player of Games (both Orbit) the best of them; the latter unveils the grim underside of a brutish society with Swiftian vigour and invention. With the colder eye of a documentary photographer, Nick Danziger does the same for this country in Danziger's Britain (HarperCollins). It's not festive fare, but should be required reading. Anyone who can survey this catalogue of grimy tragedies and still reckon that five more Tory years would be a good idea, please see a doctor. For light relief, Harry Pearson's North Country Fair (Little,Brown) was the funniest thing I've read since The Far Corner (Warner), and Pearson wrote that too. He is an alchemist, making gold out of the most unexpected material.
Right from the first page Colm Tibn`s The Story of the Night (Picador) was absolutely mesmerising. Far and away the best novel I read this year, it was all the more impressive for not behaving, structurally, as novels are expected to. Touching on similar themes, Mark Doty's Atlantis (Cape) was every bit as moving, wise and technically accomplished as his previous collection, My Alexandria, led one to hope. After his last two bits of flaccid porn, The Size of Thoughts (Chatto) reminded everyone that Nicholson Baker can still write with both hands. Most of the essays are great fun, but the longest, ``Lumber'', is also an important exploration of the epistemological ramifications - RAMifications? - of advances in information storage and retrieval.
The best new book of 1996 was written more than 450 years ago. The Swedish priest Olaus Magnus was in exile in Venice in 1540 when he recalled his lost homeland and his journeys on its frozen frontiers. The first volume of his Description of the Northern Peoples is more than the lovelorn yearnings of a refugee. This book was a sacred obligation to its author, disclosing wonders of Nature previously unknown to literature: the beauties and monstrosities of the northern world, with its 15 kinds of snow, its maelstroms and mountains, its burning seas, freezing mists and midnight suns, its vivid effects of reflected and refracted light. It is one of the world`s great books: stunning, moving, full of unconscious poetry. P. G. Foote's edition for the Hakluyt Society is beautifully translated, sensibly annotated and includes facsimilies of the original engravings of giants, volcanoes, goat-mounted pygmies and Finnish wild men ski-ing to mass.
What rubbish ill-informed people talk every year, bewailing the entire hopelessness of contemporary fiction. What on earth are they reading? Not first novels, or they'd know better. I like to read authors before their names and faces and lives get in the way of what they write, and there has rarely been a more promising year. I enjoyed The Frequency of Souls by Mary Kay Zuravleff (Chatto); Acts of Revision by Martyn Bedford (Bantam); The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham (Quartet); Theory of Mind by Sanjida O'Connell (Black Swan); Trick of the Light by Jill Dawson (Sceptre); The Arizona Game by Georgina Hammick (Chatto); Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (Cape); Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghmann (Chatto); Hunting Down Home by Jean McNeil (Phoenix House) - but whoa, no more room, though I could add another dozen. Masterpieces? No, but any of these authors could go on to produce one. Meanwhile, they demonstrate triumphantly the sheer vigour and diversity of present-day fiction.
The Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Weidenfeld), written between the 1920s and the 1950s (when he gave up the form) so that you can follow the whole early career of the master-sorcerer. Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf (Chatto): Woolf made a note to herself to ``get down into the depths and make the shapes square up'', which is exactly what Lee does in this fine biography. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (Norton), a welcome reprint of an elusive book, first published in 1896, hard to discuss because it either succeeds with you at once (as it did with Kipling and Henry James) or not at all. M. R. Peacocke's Selves (Peterloo), a very unusual collection which includes ``Goose Hymn'', sourish observations by the geese in a brilliantly invented language of their own.
Thames and Hudson published Chic Simple Cooking, a collaborative effort by several authors, and in my opinion set a new standard in cookery writing. From now on I shall want digressions on Napoleon and Frankenstein in all my cookbooks. There were lots of very good biographies and general histories, but one masterpiece: John Ehrman's third and final volume of The Younger Pitt (Constable). It is breathtakingly detailed and demands much from the reader, but offers an unparalleled study of late 18th-century politics. My favourite political novel was Andrew Roberts's futuristic The Aachen Memorandum (Weidenfeld). When the EU flag is flapping over Buckingham Palace Museum and there are food riots in Delors Circus, it won't be because Roberts didn't warn us. The best literary novel I read was Richard Ford's Independence Day (Harvill). Ford's writing has a vivid, cinematic quality which was completely absorbing.
It's a close run thing between the 12-volume masterpiece that has occupied much of my year, Constitutional Relations Between Britain and India: the transfer of power 1942-7, edited by the late Nicholas Mansergh (HMSO), Ayesha Jalal's brilliantly argued book The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the demand for Pakistan (Sang-e-Meel Publications), and a pair of short stories from Children of Albion Rovers edited by Kevin Williamson (Rebel Inc), ``The Dilating Pupil'' by Laura J. Hind and ``After the Vision'' by Alan Warner.
I read two excellent biographies this year: Rosemary Ashton's elegant, erudite and entertaining George Eliot (Hamish Hamilton) and Flora Fraser's wry and sympathetic account of the rackety adventures of Queen Caroline (Macmillan), the Georgian Fergie. There were two marvellous autobiographies: Elisabeth Luard's story of her Family Life (Bantam), which includes exotic recipes and ends with a moving memoir of her daugher, and Angela's Ashes (HarperCollins), Frank McCourt's superb narrative of his childhood in Limerick. There was also a gardening book so inspiring as to make this lazy reader consider grabbing a spade and haring outside: Sarah Raven's The Cutting Garden (Frances Lincoln). And Louise Guinness's utterly delightful Fathers (Chatto) would be the very best thing to put in the stocking of any beloved Papa.
From the year's rich fiction crop I would pick Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself (Duckworth). Based on the Titanic's fatal voyage, it is an example of a creative imagination transmuting a familiar story into an original work of art - a myth. The same alchemy is at work in Jorge Semprun's L' Ecriture ou la Vie - a huge bestseller in France but so far unavailable in English. A Spanish Civil War refugee, the adolescent author joined the Resistance, was captured by the Nazis, and spent the last 18 months of the war at Buchenwald. More than a testimony his book is a Dostoyevskyan ``exploration of the human soul in the horror of Absolute Evil''. This is Primo Levi territory visited by a new and remarkable explorer. Isaiah Berlin's The Sense of Reality (Chatto), the third volume of his unpublished collected essays, is a superb example of philosophy for the interested layman as well as the professional philosopher.
The chronometer was a breakthrough for sailors every bit as life-saving as Sir Humphrey Davy's safety lamp was for miners. Dava Sobel's Longitude (Fourth Estate) is a brief, brilliantly written adventure story which gives long overdue immortality to John Harrison, the obscure 18th-Yorkshire clockmaker who took 40 years to perfect a clock that could go to sea. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (Scholastic/Point) has now won both the Carnegie and the Whitbread awards, but is quite definitely not just for children. Behind it lie the moral quandaries of good and evil raised in Milton's Paradise Lost. Get it and read it before the next instalment of a fantastical trilogy for our times as stirring, action-packed and haunting as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Stars of this year's paperbacks have been a stunning succession of biographies - Leverich`s Tennessee Williams, Gabler's Walter Winchell, Fisher's Cyril Connolly, Hoare's Noel Coward. Perhaps the most luminous and addictive was Peter Ackroyd's William Blake (Minerva), in which biographer and subject are wonderfully well suited. I was delighted by New York Detail by Yumiko Kobayaski and Ryo Watanabe (Chronicle), a photograhic treasury of unexpected architectural touches in a monolithic metropolis. My personal find of the year was S J Perelman's Crazy Like a Fox, a 1951 Penguin edition picked up for pounds 2 in Hay-on-Wye, which shows the century's greatest humorist at the peak of his powers.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Faber) is (I use the words with care) a towering masterpiece by a writer of genius. One reviewer called it ``Tolstoyan'' and rightly so. Yet A Fine Balance, despite being short-listed for the Booker, has not reached the audience it deserves. It suffers from two disadvantages. First, it is more than 700 pages long. Now it`s true that A Suitable Boy was twice the length but few people today have time for such long novels. Second, it is set in India, among the beggars of Bombay. Many readers will assume that this cannot make for entertaining literature. In fact, A Fine Balance is compulsively readable; also funny, intensely moving and, like Bombay, pullulating with humanity. It is a long time since I cared so desperately about the plight of fictional characters.
Amusing, affectionate and occasionally acerbic, James Lees-Milne's Fourteen Friends (John Murray) proves yet again that he is far and away our funniest writer, lacking Waugh's bile but sharing his delight in the sad absurdities of life. His subjects - who include Robert Byron, Osbert Lancaster, William Plomer and a decrepit Henry Green - occupy the grander end of the social spectrum: very much the world evoked in The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (Hodder). Readers who enjoy highly embellished gossip and misanthropic blasts from the West Country will find much of relish here: Cyril Connolly and his ``seizures'' are a particular source of mutual merriment. Nothing could be further from the frenzied social scene than the empty wastes of Antarctica, the subject of Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita (Cape), a vivid and touching account of the months she spent on the ice.
Patricia Duncker's Hallucinating Foucault (Serpent's Tail), was a delight, an elegant novel of ideas with real passion and emotional power. Two books of poems had too little attention: one was Les Murray's Subhuman Redneck Poems (Carcanet), which was as vigorous, varied and moving as the best of this Australian poet's previous work. Joseph Brodsky's So Forth (Hamish Hamilton), the Russian-American poet's last volume in English, repaid careful and frequent re-reading, its apparent mutedness slowly unfolding into great beauty. Christopher Isherwood's Diaries Volume One: 1939-1960, edited by Katherine Bucknell (Methuen) restored a memorable voice. Despite the triviality of much of their content, the sense that Isherwood was frequently on the edge of a breakdown and that only writing his diary kept him sane created a curiously heroic story. As a young man, he admired how E M Forster ``tea-tabled'' emotion; here, he capitalised on that lesson.
The two books I most enjoyed in 1996 were Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy (Cape) which balances big ideas with vivid personal histories and must be the most moving account of the Russian Revolution since Doctor Zhivago; and John Sutherland's Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (Oxford World's Classics), which was so deliciously clever that it made me want to spend evening after evening discussing 19th-century novels with its witty, entertaining author - a rare feat for a book of literary criticism.
In the course of the year Gore Vidal published a very long and eerily spiteful review of John Updike's novel In the Beauty of the Lilies (Hamish Hamilton), hitting it with the Vietnam War, among other things. Updike might well have said more than he does here about the war, but that hasn't prevented him from offering a wonderfully fluent and evocative account of a certain sort of modern American life, based in New Jersey and finishing up with a version of the Waco massacre. Neil Rennie's Far-Fetched Facts (Oxford) has beeen spared the attentions of Gore Vidal. But it's an academic book, and they are receding from view in the literary coverage bestowed by British newspapers. This is an essay, well-written, well-argued and rich in irony, on the literature of travel and the idea of the South Seas, on the true and the false. There are ancient encounters in exotic forests with what may have been gorillas. Or were they girls? There were always plenty of girls in the South Seas to fire up the readership at home.
The new book I most admired in 1996 was Norman Davies's History of Europe (Oxford) a monumentally showy piece of scholarship, idiosyncratic, highly original, colossally pleased with itself, written with a virtuoso's enthusiasm and, for my tastes, quite irresistible. The old book I most enjoyed was Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March (1932), in a translation from the German by Joachim Neugroschel. If you've never read it, throw away all those little Booker prize-winners, and run down to the bookshop.
Amid the beefcake parade of ``major'' biographies it is refreshing to read something that doesn't need 800 pages to make its point. Tinisima (Faber), by the excellent Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, is a sparky study of the photographer, radical and muse Tina Modotti. This is a ``novelised'' biography, but its stylish evocation of 1920s Mexico City compensates for any blurring of the factual record. In a different ambit, Eric Sams' The Real Shakespeare (Yale) maps out with admirable concision the great black hole of English literary history: the whereabouts and circumstances of Shakespeare prior to the first documentation of him in London in the early 1590s. If Sams is right, a number of airily dismissed ``bad quartos'' and ``memorial reconstructions'' will have to be reconsidered as Shakespearean prentice-work.
The Double Flame by Octavio Paz (Harvill) was a reassuring statement of true revolutionary values by a great poet and a surviving surrealist. Pop Science is a perilous area but Lyall Watson is always astounding in his range of reference and busy detail. I found Dark Nature (Sceptre), his attempt to explain psychopathy in DNA terms, fascinating and strangely heartening. Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory (Fontana) is a similarly intoxicating ramble through deep waters. Maggie O'Sullivan's Out of Everywhere (Reality Street) and Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos (Picador) were two anthologies that made the most adventurous modern poetry available to the general public while Lloyd Robson's City and Poems (Blackhat) was a pacey and percussive small-press find.
My strongest feeling is that it`s been a great year for the Irish: Heaney's Nobel Prize was followed by The Spirit Level (Faber), which contains ``A Call'': the best short poem for years. Seamus Deane's haunting memoir- novel Reading in the Dark (Cape) made the standard long-novel form look lumpish and styleless. And Tom Paulin's Writing to the Moment (Faber) reminded us that in the English tradition the essay has as much style and sparkle as any literary form. Equally invigorating was Terry Eagleton's attempt to reinvigorate the British academic left in The Illusions of Postmodernism (Blackwell). Outside Ireland, John Fuller's Forward-winning Stones and Fires produces the most elegaic lines of the year: ``You and I, when our days are done, must say/Without exactly saying it, good-bye.'' And, though it wasn't new this year, the Carcanet reissue of Louise Gluck's animist poems The Wild Iris was new to me and impressed me as much as anything.
Don't be put off by the dopey (but, as it turns out, apt) title of Jim Grimsley's second novel, Dream Boy (Black Swan), a stark, unsentimental account of first love in the rural South. Another short, sharp and extremely well-written novel was Beryl Bainbridge's wonderfully oblique take on the Titanic disaster, Every Man for Himself (Duckworth), which continued her preoccupation with the century's loss of innocence. In a year of heavyweight, scholarly (and sometimes very good) biographies, it was a nice change to come across Michael Barber's The Captain (Duckworth), a disgracefully enjoyable romp through the largely unedifying life and times of Simon Raven, last of the literary rogues. Richard Mabey's huge and handsome Flora Britannica (Sinclair- Stevenson) is one of the few millennium projects of real distinction, providing a wealth of fascinating botanical, cultural and linguistic information about our native plants at the century's end.
Simon Garfield's The Wrestling (Faber) is a book I enjoyed so much that, at the very mention of it, my friends tend to turn white and run for the door yelling, ``No! I can't guess what Johnny Kwango's brother did for a living!'' Which is a pity as The Wrestling is a wonderful thing: vivid, hilarious and evocative. The re-issue of the Hugh McIlvanney anthology, McIlvanney on Boxing (Mainstream) shows just how enduring good sport journalism can be. The section on the life and death of Welsh boxer Johnny Owen is as fresh and moving as when it first appeared 16 years ago. Another great boxing writer, the American Phil Berger, worked with Joe Frazier on his autobiography Smokin' Joe (Robson). Were it not for the fact that he boxed at the same time as Mohammad Ali, Frazier would have been remembered as the greatest boxer of his era. Smokin' Joe is an enthralling, at times bitter, account of the life of a proud man doomed to live in the shadow of genius. Johnny Kwango's brother, Cyril, was the drummer in Sid Millwall's Nitwits, by the way.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline (Cape) is an astonishing first collection of stories by George Saunders. Their setting is America, 40 years on in a bad new world where genetic errors have produced a captive underworld of freaks. Saunders's extraordinary imagination, a wild sense of humour and some of the weirdest heroes you're ever likely to meet make this a book to treasure. Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind (Thames & Hudson) is a brilliant archaeologists's engrossing journey into the origins of the mind. Mithen writes with wonderful verve and clarity; like Richard Dawkins, he uses a single striking metaphor - the mind as a cathedral - to put difficult ideas across. Alastair Horne's How Far from Austerlitz? (Macmillan) is a must, a master historian's shimmeringly elegant account of Napoleon's rise and fall. Packed with shrew insights, this is a book to savour and learn from.
Peter O'Toole's second volume of memoirs, Loitering with Intent: the apprentice years (Macmillan), sticks out flamboyantly in my memory. Over 400 pages and he still hasn't got into his second year at RADA. Wonderful vignettes of Ernest Milton, Robert Atkins and taking a bed on the underground. A gentle counterpoint is Alec Guinness's view from the other end of a career, My Name Escapes Me (Hamish Hamilton). Three dip-in books: Fathers (Chatto), Louise Guinness's anthology dedicated to her own father, Paddy Malone - whom all of us, his contemporaries at Oxford, adored. Tony Jay's wonderfully wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations only disappoints in that neither Jay nor his editor, Elizabeth Knowles, have yet been able to trace my favourite American political quote: "Heckler, to Senator Wyche Fowler of Georgia, `Did you at any time in the permissive 60s smoke a marijuana cigarette?' Wyche Fowler: `Only when committing adultery.'" And R W Burchfield's third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford), which is above all useful. Finally, I got great joy from Roy Hattersley's parliamentary memoir, Who Goes Home? (Little,Brown) both from reading it and hearing him read it on the wireless.
D J Taylor
I enjoyed Anthony Powell's Journals 1987-1989 (Heinemann) while remaining slightly bewildered by the inability of some of its critics to distinguish between punctiliousness (of which there was a great deal) and snobbery (of which there was none). Two excellent novels denied reviewing space by the usual editorial bias towards the fashionable were David Park's Stone Kingdoms (Phoenix House), which managed to unite sectarian Ulster and war-torn Africa and Reiver Blues (Flambard), John Murray's latest despatch from the ``debatable lands'' of the Cumbrian border. Hats off, too, to Michael Slater for his masterly edition of volume two of the Dent uniform edition of Dickens's journalism The Amusements of the People: reports, essays and reviews 1834-51 (Dent).
My favourite novel was Rupert Thomson's luminous, page-turning The Insult (Bloomsbury). Three first novels gave delight: John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure (Picador), Patricia Duncker's Hallucinating Foucault (Serpent's Tail) and Mary Kay Zuravleff's Frequency of Souls (Chatto), in which fridge-designers commune with dead engineers through valve radios. I loved the Scottish poet Matthew Fitt's collection, Pure Radge (Akros Publications). His "Eftir the Pairty" has God (``pished again'') holding judgement ``in oor frunt room''. My non-fiction Big-Book, which inspired awe, humility, understanding, was Charles van Onselen's The Seed is Mine (Farrar, Straus, Giroux). This biography of a nonagenarian black South African farmer and his family, whose extraordinary survival strategies persist in a context bent upon disadvantaging and, finally, annihilating them, lays bare 100 years of history. Worst book? Freya North's Sally. Terminal prose; terminal gropings in W11.
The book that most impressed me this year was The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts (Faber), a magnificent polemic about the gradual encroachment of screen culture upon the territory of books. It contains the most delicately precise descriptions of the act of reading, and the magical "smelting" process that binds reader to writer. Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level (Faber) reaffirmed his genius, presenting both his sophistications and simplicities with perfect equilibrium, as he chased the image of weights and measures, of give and take, and all the "loaded balances" of our lives. James Knowlson's biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame (Bloomsbury), hauled the most private but most rewarding of 20th-century writers from his hermitic lair and revealed the matriocentric passions that sent him burrowing into the nooks and membranes of the fugitive self.
The stories in Tobias Wolff's The Night in Question (Bloomsbury) have a distinctive flavour that never strains for effect. Men and women fall in and fall out with each other and themselves, glimpsing and then losing the plot of their own lives. Wolff describes their attempts to pursue happiness like a benign watchmaker, unfussily attentive to the things that make them tick. In The Cast Iron Shore (Picador), Linda Grant sends her adventurous heroine dancing, and sometimes tripping, through the ideals and illusions of the 20th century, in prose that is both precise and lush. And in The Scent of Dried Roses (Viking) Tim Lott looks over the edge of a suicidal depression, staggers back, and describes both the experience and the feeling - the willingness to die - with an infectious calm that feels watchful and hard-earned.Reuse content