BOOKS OF THE YEAR; from Treats for Two-Year-Olds to a History of Tombs, from the Court of Henry VIII to the Letters of Samuel Beckett, 2011 Has Produced Plenty of Absorbing Reading
Christopher Hitchens has dominated this year intellectually, even as he becomes more physically frail. Arguably (Atlantic, [pounds sterling]30) is a collection of his best essays of the decade. We thought he was an entertaining journalist but he turns out to have been one of the great thinkers of our times. I keep returning to his phrases and ideas in this book. Kwasi Kwarteng's Ghosts of Empire (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]25) is a fresh and wonderfully written examination of the men behind the British Empire. Rather than looking at it as a group of countries united by a flag, Kwarteng suggests that it was formed patchily by individual characters. A generation of similarly educated men were sent out and they ran countries in the manner of idiosyncratic headmasters. The humanity of history is engrossing.
The stocking-filler for the real poetrylover: Who is Ozymandias? and other Puzzles in Poetry, by John Fuller (Chatto, [pounds sterling]12.99). Add Pebble & I, the latest collection of poems by the same author (also Chatto, [pounds sterling]10) and Christopher Reid's Selected Poems (Faber, [pounds sterling]14.99) and you have a gift that can't go wrong. Joan Didion's Blue Nights (4th Estate, [pounds sterling]14.99) -- the sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking -- is terrific.
The Hare With Amber Eyes (Vintage, [pounds sterling]8.99) by Edmund de Waal: tracing the whereabouts of small Japanese sculptures as they were passed from one branch of a family to the next through wealth, conflict, destitution in Europe and back to post-war Japan is a brilliantly original window onto some big historical events. My twoyear-old absolutely loves the Highway Rat (Alison Green, [pounds sterling]10.99) by Julia Donaldson. I don't think he understands the rhymes but like thousands of toddlers who've gurgled with pleasure at the Gruffalo, the look and sound just seems to do the trick.
Aravind Adiga's Last Man in Tower (Atlantic, [pounds sterling]17.99). His first novel, The White Tiger won the Man Booker, but this deserved to win it too. A richly Balzacian story of modern Mumbai, hilarious, alarming, real -- this writer has real fire in his belly. Nicola Shulman's Graven With Diamonds (Short Books, [pounds sterling]20) is an analysis of Thomas Wyatt through his poems, and a masterly vignette of the court of Henry VIII and the literally cloak and dagger world of early 16thcentury diplomacy and espionage. Crisply written and full of good jokes, this gets my prize as the best work of history this year.
DOMINIC SANDBROOK Jonathan Wilson's Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You (Orion, [pounds sterling]20) is not just the definitive word on one of British sport's great characters, it's a brilliantly meticulous and incisive biography, bringing alive the vanished world of the post-war years. Books on Clough are ten a penny; this is better, though, than almost all the others put together. And in a fine year for history books, I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Sarris's Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam (OUP, [pounds sterling]35), an epic, sweeping and ferociously clever history of the age of Justinian and Mohammed.
Janine di Giovanni's memoir Ghosts by Daylight (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]16.99) is a tautly written and haunting account of her life in war zones, but especially in Bosnia, and how her war correspondent job impacted on her marriage and motherhood. Art (Glitterati Incorporated, [pounds sterling]49) by Edwina Sandys is a beautiful compilation of all the works of art she has produced in her highly productive life so far, and is by turns witty, thoughtful and provocative.
IT may not be everyone's idea of a good read, but The Empire of Death, Paul Koudounaris's Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (Thames and Hudson, [pounds sterling]29. …