The Best Reads of the Year

Article excerpt

WITH Christmas getting ever closer and another year in books drawing to a close, we've asked some of the most distinguished critics, authors and celebrities to look back and tell us about the works that have given them the most pleasure in the year 2000. For the best in prose and poetry, read on . .

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Francis King

THE book that has spoken most directly to me is John Mortimer's account of a year of his old age, The Summer Of A Dormouse (Viking, [pounds sterling]16.99). My exact contemporary, Mortimer is now in far worse physical shape than I am.

But throughout my reading, I was envious both of his mental sprightliness and of the astonishing range of his activities - scripting Tea With Mussolini, raising Lottery money for the Royal Court Theatre, and chairing the committee dealing with the empty Trafalgar Square plinth.

His book is full of sly wit, hilarious anecdotes and trenchant attacks on the insidious erosion of our civil liberties. Three cheers for that rare thing, an admirable writer who is also an admirable man.

A.N. Wilson

BERTRAND RUSSELL:The Ghost Of Madness by Ray Monk (Cape, [pounds sterling]25) is my choice.

Biography is a dubious form - how can you ever tell the whole truth about another person? Sometimes, however, as in the case of philosopher, agitator and self-publicist Bertrand Russell, it would be odd not to have a biography.

Ray Monk's Volume One told the story of Russell the mathematical philosopher of genius. Volume Two, The Ghost Of Madness, tells the horrible story of what happened when he gave up serious work and took to journalism, serial marriage and CND.

Monk has written a biography as deep and as serious as one of the great Russian novels. Russell's grandmother wanted him not to marry because there was madness in the family. Monk traces the ghastly legacy to the suicide of Russell's granddaughter. This is a huge, compassionate book of enormous learning, wisdom and power.

Justin Cartwright

ECLIPSE by John Banville (Picador, [pounds sterling]15.99) was my favourite book this year.

It is about an Irish actor, quite famous, who returns to his family I would guess - after a breakdown on stage. The old house is inhabited by more than memories, he discovers.

It is a beautiful, allusive book, full of startling images and wonderful writing. I also enjoyed Philip Roth's The Human Stain (Cape, [pounds sterling]16.99), and A.

C. Grayling's The Quarrel Of The Age, a life of Hazlitt, (Weidenfeld, [pounds sterling]20)

Val Hennessy

I CHOSE The Florilegium Of Alexander Marshall, edited by Prudence Leith-Ross, (Thames & Hudson, [pounds sterling]100).The original of this stunning, most beautiful and most covetable of books is in the Royal Library at Windsor. Marshall's Florilegium is the only surviving example of an English flower book painted during the 17th century.

This reproduction contains 159 plates of exquisite watercolours, depicting 600 different plants interspersed with the occasional beetle, snail or moth.

All are executed with the greatest skill and delicacy by a brilliant botanical artist.

An introduction describes Marshall's life and work, and the times when the landed gentry were beginning to stock their gardens with exotic plants imported by intrepid travellers.

Marshall's Black Turkish Iris and his Two-Colour Tulips (to name but two specimens) look real enough to pick. I shall drool over this glorious treasure of a book for years to come.

Michael Arditti

THE best fiction I read this year was, in fact, the first.

January saw the publication of Rachel Ingalls' magnificent collection, Days Like Today (Faber, [pounds sterling]12.99), which rescued the war story from Hollywood heroics and restored its Homeric role as a melting pot of morality.

Survivors and victims of brutal conflicts pose fundamental questions about human nature and divine responsibility. …