MY FAVOURITES Critics recall the highlights of 1999
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The Independent Culture

Wendy Doniger, in Splitting the Difference (University of Chicago pounds 38.50) looks at men, women, gods and goddesses, doppelgangers and desire, in Sanskrit and classical myths. Losing the Dead (Chatto pounds 15.99) by Lisa Appignanesi, about her family's survival in occupied Poland, explores the stratagems, fables, lies, and silences between her mother and herself - a powerful, honest, and painful act of love and memory. John Gage's Colour and Meaning (Thames and Hudson pounds 29.95) continues his brilliant exploration of art, paint, the spectrum and vision - colours will never appear self-evident again. Posy Simmonds' graphic novel Gemma Bovery (Cape pounds 14.99) is very funny and sharp about French and other follies and faiblesses.


Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers (Faber pounds 16.99) was the novel I most enjoyed this year. No need to journey to South Africa or the Indian sub-continent for profundity, when it's straight up the M6. Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship by Brigitte Hamann (Oxford pounds 25) was the history book I enjoyed most this year. The River: A Journey back to the Source of HIV and AIDS, by Edward Hooper (Allen Lane pounds 25) was the investigative and revelatory text of the year as far as I was concerned. Hooper's theories on the iatrogenic character of the HIV outbreak, and the dangers of inter- specific medical procedures, are a chilling reminder of our need to control all the Frankensteins in their neat, white coats.


If it seemed incredible that a novel as slickly feeble as Ian McEwan's Amsterdam could have won last year's Booker, then the prize's credibility was salvaged by J M Coetzee's masterly Disgrace (Secker pounds 14.99). This consummately literate novel was rivalled in my affections only by a consummately illiterate one, Daren King's Boxy an Star (Abacus pounds 9.99), a lyrical and lovely hymn to the brain-ravages of too much teenage pill-popping. At first I was bemused and disappointed by Michael Hofmann's new collection, Approximately Nowhere (Faber pounds 7.99); after this initial resistance Hofmann's patrician demotic and shrugged-off pathos worked as eloquently and subtly as anything he has written.


In Your Face by Scarlett Thomas (Flame pounds 5.99): a dirty, dangerous book disguised as a straight-forward detective story; approach with caution. Affinity by Sarah Waters (Virago pounds 9.99): The anguish at the centre of this novel reverberates with greater resonance than anything else I've read all year. New Writing 8 eds Tibor Fischer and Lawrence Norfolk (Vintage pounds 7.99): a must-read collection of the best of British prose and poetry. The classic I discovered this year was Updike's Rabbit books. This was the first time I read them in order, and was amazed as the sustained decadence in Updike's portrayal of suburban America.


The book that made the greatest impact on me this year was Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age by Ruth Harris (Allen Lane pounds 25), a brilliant exploration of the visions of Bernadette Soubirous in a Pyrenean grotto, and the development of the rituals of the Lourdes pilgrimage, and their consequences for the Catholic Church and 19th-century France. Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Bloomsbury pounds 25) was an engrossing account of France's first modern woman, while in The Hours (Fourth Estate pounds 6.99), Michael Cunningham used fiction to convey the power of reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. The book I finally got around to reading was Lampedusa's elegy for the feudal nobility of Sicily, The Leopard (1958). Its dignified wistfulness and beauty make it one of the century's masterpieces.

emma tennant The Sorcerer's Apprentice by John Richardson (Cape pounds 20). Traditional horrors of Christmas will vanish with this funny, informative and frequently scandalous account of "Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper", who built up one of the world's most important private collections of Cubist paintings. A classic I read this year is Prosper Merimee's Colomba. More violent and moving than his Carmen, this story of the first Mafia heroine needs to be reprinted on its own.

joan smith The biography I've appreciated most this year is Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh. Thurman gets the tone exactly right, recognising Colette's faults and her greatness. Harm Done (Hutchinson pounds 16.99) is the latest in a stunning run of novels from Ruth Rendell. Few contemporary authors are as quick to grasp changing social mores, or to write about them with such incisiveness and compassion. The art critic Marina Vaizey has edited an absolute treat, Art: The Critics' Choice: 150 Masterpieces of Western Art (Aurum pounds 25), in which each period from Graeco-Roman to the late 20th century is explained by an expert in the field. Ranging across the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, German Expressionism and Paula Rego, this volume is lavish, exciting and refreshingly free of sexism. The novel I finally got round to reading this year is Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (Penguin pounds 7.99). I have seldom been so reluctant to leave a group of characters.

iain sinclair J H Prynne's Poems (Bloodaxe pounds 12) is a collection, 30 years in the making, in which the language is both astonishing and inevitable. such a level of intelligence, control and risk is shocking. The words seem always to have been there, while retaining the ability to make new in their shifting patterns. In fiction, I enjoyed the baroque inventiveness of The Lightning Cage by Alan Wall (Secker pounds 14.99), while appreciating the accurate portrayal of the rudest bookdealer south of the Thames. Ciaran Carson's Fishing for Amber (Granta pounds 12.99) is smoky, mercurial, tale-telling and magnificent. I returned to J G Ballard's Love and Napalm: Export USA and found that it not only endstopped the 1960s, but pivoted Ballard's work in such a way that everything afterwards grew from, or reimagined, these lethal projections.

hugo williams I went seamlessly from Richard Holmes's Coleridge: Darker Reflections (Flamingo pounds 9.99) to the saga of another tortured romantic generation, described by James Campbell in his This is the Beat Generation (Secker pounds 16.99) with the kind of balance and humour, not to mention research, usually left out of books on this subject. For poetry I've been getting to grips with the extraordinary imagination of the early Eugenio Montale in Jonathan Galassi's subtle annotated translations (Carcanet pounds 29).

LESLEY GLAISTER Early in the year I was gripped by Martyn Bedford's The Houdini Girl (Viking pounds 15.99). I love the way magic is used in the structure and found Rosa a wonderfully unexpected and plausible character. I admire Jane Rogers' Island (Little, Brown pounds 15.99) for its economy and for its brilliantly sustained voice. I'm happily working my way through Secrets of the Flesh, Judith Thurman's fantastic biography of Colette, meaty, fascinating, titillating and entirely scholarly too. I finally got round to Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, which has been waiting in my bookcase for years. I was amazed and delighted by her dry, subtle, subversive wit.