Magazine article The Spectator

Books of the Year

Magazine article The Spectator

Books of the Year

Article excerpt

A further selection of the best books of 2012, chosen by some of our regular contributors

Byron Rogers When TV presenters write history books it is the mistakes you treasure most, as when David Dimbleby blithely pronounced that Augustine had introduced Christianity to Britain (Christianity being over 200 years old in Britain, with Welsh bishops, before Augustine came). But Andrew Marr's A History of the World (Macmillan, £25) is different. It is a distinguished work of history in its own right. The TV series wasn't up to much, but the book is wonderful, and better than H.G. Wells's The Outline of History. It made me wonder what else is deliberately hidden away to advance the careers of those prattling public faces that appear on our screens.

All we need now is Simon Cowell's concordance to the Gododdin.

Allan Massie Simon Mawer's novel of the French Resistance, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Little, Brown, £16.99) is enviably good. The picture of wartime Paris is chilling - a city where no one can be trusted and everyone has something to fear. There is also a charming love story and a bleak ending.

In a year when another long novel has won the Booker, here are three short ones that pleased me. Pleasure may not actually be the right word to apply to Jerome Ferrari's novella, Where I Left My Soul (MacLehose, £12), but this examination of the corrosive effect of torture as practised by officers of the French army during the Algerian war is brilliantly and movingly done. The book, a prize-winner in France, has received less attention here than it deserves.

Ron Rash is the best American novelist I have come upon in a long time. The Cove (Canongate, £14.99) is set in redneck country in the Appalachians during the 1914-18 war.

It is grim, intense and dramatic. Comparison with Faulkner is inescapable, and Rash is good enough not to make that far-fetched.

D.J. Taylor's Secondhand Daylight (Corsair, £14.99) is the second of his James Ross novels, set in 1930s London. Agreeably seedy, with echoes of Patrick Hamilton and early Graham Greene, it is a delight for anyone fascinated by Auden's 'low, dishonest decade'. That Taylor catches the rhythms of other writers so well will surprise nobody acquainted with his Private Eye parody reviews, some of which are now published as What You Didn't Miss (Constable, £10). Some are gentle - his Anita Brookner is a gem - others more savage - A.S. Byatt, for one, being cut to a small size.

Lloyd Evans Last year I read lots of books by stand-up comedians. They were good fun but entirely unmemorable. This year I read lots of books by philosophers. They were no fun whatsoever and also entirely unmemorable.

The topic of metaphysics has fallen into the hands of people without a sense of humour.

The cupboard isn't quite bare, though.

Socrates was asked if a man should marry.

'Yes, ' he said. 'If he gets a good wife he'll be happy. If he gets a bad wife he'll become a philosopher.' David Hume, the great Scots rationalist, was invited to deny the existence of God. He said he was unable to do so because he hadn't enough faith. Bertrand Russell climbed into a London cab and was asked by the driver, 'So, what's it all about then, Lord Russell?' 'And do you know what, ' the driver reported later, 'he couldn't tell me.' So I regretfully report that my book of the year, a popular guide to philosophy with an entertaining title like Solipsism for the Masses, remains unpublished.

Jeremy Clarke Several years ago an ancient leather-bound book was being passed around the locality. It was said to be invested with diabolic powers, and many of those who read it testified afterwards that they were physically transported to the evil kingdom it described. An unemployed father of six apparently never came back. What rubbish, I thought.

Then I read Wolf Hall and had a similar experience. Figuring, therefore, that Hilary Mantel has the huge advantage of being a witch or something, I went £100 at 5-2 with Ladbrokes on her Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20) to win this year's Booker prize. …

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