2002 Our Critics Choose Their: Books of the Year
The book I am most immersed in this Christmas season is John Birt's autobiography, The Harder Path (Time Warner). Forget whether you think he dumbed down, or indeed helped to destroy, the Reithian idea of the BBC, and simply follow the life story of a clever Catholic lad brought up on the outskirts of Liverpool. Disregard at least 300 pages, unless you work for the BBC, and concentrate on his childhood and the love he had for his parents. I think he's telling the truth, as he sees it.
J G Ballard
As Americans work themselves up towards the second Bush war, the rest of us might usefully take a hard look at who we really are. John Gray's Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (Granta Books) is a clear-eyed assessment of human nature and our almost unlimited gift for self-delusion. A deeply provocative and unsettling book. Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (Penguin) is another overdue wake-up call, puncturing the modern myth that we are largely creatures of our upbringings. Sadly, as Pinker shows, the savage within us is rarely noble. Right Hand, Left Hand by Chris McManus (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is a scientific detective story, a brilliant cross between Edgar Allan Poe and Gray's Anatomy. Why are our hearts on the left side? Why do clocks go clockwise? Why are men's testicles unbalanced? An exhilarating read.
Straw Dogs by John Gray is an absorbing book, full of challenging ideas you want to argue with. But there is hardly time before Gray rushes you on to his next set of defiant claims: "We may well look back on the 20th century as a time of peace." Worrying but, strangely, not depressing. In 2002, the Arts Council made an award for translation. Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, translated by George Bird (The Harvill Press), reached the shortlist of six. (The winner was W G Sebald's Austerlitz.) It's a dark fable of life in post-Soviet Russia, with that frantic despair and resigned humour you find in Gogol. But if it weren't so Russian, this penguin would be a friend of Wallace and Gromit. Panorama: 50 years of pride and paranoia by Richard Lindley (Politico's) is a classic text about a legendary programme, with a terrific mix of the early struggles, the highs and lows of a supposed golden age, and heartfelt polemic against the marginalising of the current affairs flagship, which now goes out late on Sunday night. Media folk will enjoy the gossip and the name-calling. But the broader public will be given an honest insight into one corner of television's history.
Two biographies of minor 20th-century writers gave me great pleasure, though for very different reasons. Selina Hastings's Rosamond Lehmann (Chatto & Windus) is a near-perfect example of the traditional literary biography, told with wit, intelligence, clarity and just the right degree of acerbity. Roger Lewis's Anthony Burgess (Faber and Faber), on the other hand, is a mess, a Tristram Shandy of a narrative, with more digressions than drive. But there are passages of such brilliance -- especially when he rails against his subject, whom he has come to hate over the 20-year course researching this book -- that I found it exhilarating as well as infuriating. Lewis is a mad obsessive, more of a stalker than a biographer, but he certainly brings new life to what can otherwise seem a rather tame genre.
Truer Than True Romance by Jeanne Martinet (Ebury Press) was an anthology of those terrible old American romance comics for girls, but with all the captions and speech-bubbles rewritten by a wised-up modern woman to produce absurdly funny parables of self-delusion, lost airline luggage and bad hair. Spies by Michael Frayn (Faber) was a compelling variation on The Go-Between, showing wartime suburban intrigues from the viewpoint of a small boy in firm possession of the wrong end of the stick. …