The good, the bad and the Atlas Shrugged: here's everything I read in a vain attempt to stave off the comic hopelessness and soul-chewing despair of this toxic binfire of a year. Yay. It's divided into fiction (for adults and children) and non-fiction. 79 in total.
My favourites first, and call me Corporate McNosurprises, but the best book I read all year was George Saunders' miraculous Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), which won the Booker last year. A hypnotic, hilarious, heart-opening story of grief and redemption, it uses the implacable, granite greatness of Honest Abe – a man we can see only in retrospect, in simple terms and a mile high – as a counterpoint to human fragility, and a way to explore the essence of our heroic figures, who are both less and much more than we often realise. It's like Vonnegut shot by John Ford, and the most intensely moving, exhilaratingly imaginative work that I've read in years.
Similarly revelatory, and American, was Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (2018), which has only one shortcoming, and that is its pseudo-arthouse title. These five short stories may begin with a broadly conventional examination of middle-age malaise, but they end with an errant, unbalanced genius raiding Elvis Presley's grave, and are quite unlike anything else I've read. His off-kilter sentences, like his delicately warped view of society, are arresting and unsettling, and the third story – an epistolary one in which a psychiatric patient slowly loses his mind to medication – manages to be horrifying and hysterical, practically daring you to care. After that, I sought out Johnson's only previous short story collection, Jesus' Son (1993), which has an army of acolytes, but struck me as rather monotonous with its gallery of interchangeable addicts and losers.
I finally sat down and read Brideshead Revisited (1945) properly, susceptible as I expected (yes, OK, from the TV series) to Waugh's gluttonous story of youth and beauty laid low by drink-fuelled demons.
Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends (2016) – available in a variety of irrelevant, hideous covers – is deceptively immense: a 21st century Pursuit of Love turning inwards in blurry self-loathing and late-capitalist malaise. I gather that some people 'didn't like the characters', which is apparently a legitimate response. Rooney then had the temerity to follow it with Normal People (2018), which is somehow even better: an emotionally exhausting, effortlessly profound second book, with layer upon layer of characterisation and telling, memorable, incisive detail. She is so perceptive and so observant as to the details of human interactions (and human cruelty), with such extraordinary understanding of her characters’ inner workings. It's masterfully drawn, chokingly effective and deserving of all the hype, and then some. Quite how we're supposed to wait two years for the next one, I can't imagine, though I may take that long to recover.
Normal People is superficially similar to David Nicholls' One Day (2009), a book that I gather is easy to pick holes in, but why bother? I came to the party both late and snootily prepared to shrug off a book that had sold two million copies, but fuck me it got to me. An adroit, piercing love story between a smart, sharp, over-educated young woman and a guy who for most of the book is basically Tim Lovejoy, it shrugs off any danger of gimmickry with a pronounced insouciance, and proceeds to involve you in these tangled lives, before shattering your heart a dozen ways. The trappings may be mundane and the jokes variable, but I'm still thinking about it two months later.
Rounding up the list of the broadly unassailable, we have two books about old, lonely women. Firstly, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000), a dense and meticulous mystery steeped in a limping dotage and a need to reveal the truths underpinning our lives, in which ailing Iris Chase reflects on her sister's long-ago suicide, aided by dog-eared photographs, contemporary news reports and a devotion to veracity underpinned by a very Canadian reticence. It's the first of hers I've read (as I am a noted charlatan and fraudster), so I've got years of fun and education ahead of me. Less chilly, and more mordant and acidic and zippy, was Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), in which the residents of a South Kensington rooming house while away the hours until death, through artifice, self-delusion and the odd visit from a charming, utterly ruthless young writer. I think it taught me more about writing good sentences than anything else I've ever read. In comparison, her much earlier A View from the Harbour (1947) felt limp and somehow mean-spirited, the poetry of physical and moral decay summoning nothing but a sort of weary depression.
I've written before about my love of John Steinbeck, especially his trilogy about labourers in Depression-era california (In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men). East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck's sprawling, biblical Californian phantasmagoria – which drags Cain and Abel into the Salinas Valley – is dizzyingly ambitious and often impossibly rich, but also a little disjointed, its characters' fates too often anti-climactic and its central 400 pages dwarfing what's either side. In a similar vein, Ken Kesey's mammoth, magnificently-titled Sometimes a Great Notion (1962) frequently takes the breath away, humanising but scrutinising every one of its fucked up characters across 600+ pages of labour wrangling, Freudian familial strife and unexpected action sequences, as college-educated Leland Stamper returns to his old, erm, stamper-ing ground to lock horns with his half-brother, the none-more-alpha Hank. Told from a multitude of viewpoints, we watch the characters begin to destroy themselves and one another, forever misreading acts of gentleness or solidarity. It begins to plod a little, bogged down in repetition by page 500, but the ending is irresistible.
Alongside Steinbeck, another of my favourite writers is Jane Austen. This year I delved deep into the admittedly limited canon. You can get Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon in a single volume. Lady Susan (1793) is an epistolary novel, recently adapted as the film Love & Friendship by the great independent filmmaker, Whit Stillman. It is Austen, but not as we know her, reveling in the amorality (and admittedly the resulting downfall) of the thoroughly unscrupulous title character, who is interested purely in acquiring capital and getting her end away. By the time she embarked on her cycle of six great, major novels, Austen had shrugged off such vicarious pleasures, though scholars still bicker over whether she had reached an artistic and emotional maturity or was merely bowing to the demands of Christian society. It is hard to read something as still and gentle and moving as Persuasion and imagine that she wasn't sincere.
The Watsons is by far my favourite of the three short works and one of the great 'what ifs' of modern literature, started in 1803 but discontinued after her father's death, at which point she returned to redrafting earlier works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility. It's an overwhelmingly charming fragment about young Emma Watson (yes, very good), who returns to the bosom of her family after years away, and begins to negotiate the social and romantic traps of their world. I say 'begins to negotiate' because we only get 17,000 words. The highlight is a wonderful set-piece at a country dance. By 1817, the 40-year-old Austen was ailing, being treated for the illness that would kill her. Out of this decline came the wry, almost absurdist Sanditon, a comedy about hypochondriacs, set in a spa-town, which is minor in itself (and again unfinished), but a testament to Austen's absolute and enduring awesomeness. I also picked up The Beautiful Cassandra (1786-93), in the Penguin Little Black Classics series, which incorporates the minor, silly eponymous story and other pieces of juvenilia: some impenetrable (being pastiches of things no longer remembered), some disposable, and others disarmingly funny.
I was surprised how readable and contemporary Jane Eyre (1847) felt, in its language and storytelling if not its sexual politics: an immersing, appealing, fast-moving and agreeably unconventional book that rather runs out of steam after its most notable revelation. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is an unsettling, unforgettable riposte: feminist, anti-colonial, written in an abstract, authentic but unrooted vernacular and almost staccato prose, dragging you where you fear to go and casting Brontë's book in the eeriest and most searing of lights.
One of the most-lauded books of last year was Sean Edward Greer's Less, which won the Pulitzer. The sad, globe-trotting adventures of a lovelorn, failed author, I liked it a lot. I didn't find it as relentlessly hilarious as a lot of reviewers (I gather that it's Greer's first comedy, so perhaps they were surprised), but I loved its warm beating heart and he undoubtedly writes lovely sentences, especially about suits.
I've always loved Lynne Ramsay's film of Morvern Callar, but had never read the Alan Warner novel (1995) that inspired it. Written in an aggressively mannered first-person Scottish dialect, it's a quietly beguiling book with a quite brilliant protagonist – the chain-smoking, powerful, inscrutable Morvern, who deals with her boyfriend's suicide by passing off his unpublished novel as her own, and going clubbing with the money – and some observations on the beautiful, crumbling wasteland of working-class culture, all of which compensate for dull pastoral passages and a rather obvious ending. (I should add that I bought this book for my friend Jess and she thought Warner's idea of how women think was completely embarrassing.)
My favourite author is Kurt Vonnegut, but I'm rationing his work now, because I've read most of it in a mad, four-year blitz. This year I treated myself to two: Jailbird (1979), a counter-intuitive, hilarious, subversive and righteous riposte to the all-consuming national crisis that was Watergate, and his 1971 play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which has Vonnegut sort of playing at Orton: a bawdy farce with legitimate pretensions at indicting modern America. It doesn't all work, and it isn't the best medium for Vonnegut's singular gifts, but it's kind of fascinating.
I've long been fascinated by the waspish, tippling doyen of the Jazz Age, without really doing anything about it, so this year I read The Collected Dorothy Parker (1977). My abiding impression was that while her verse can be good and her stories can be great (Big Blonde, ffs), it’s Parker’s journalism that’s truly remarkable. She turned reviewing into an art form, increasingly using some recent book as a jumping off point for a ruthless, coruscating comic sketch radiating her caustic, devastating wit. One dreary Sunday afternoon I decided to dip into that part of the book, only to emerge six hours later, having devoured the lot. I don’t mean for it to sound like she’s hard to live with as an author: putdowns were only a twentieth of Parker’s repertoire, and her most brutal assessments were always of herself (or A. A. Milne). But while she had the pithiness and sarcasm to make for a Jazz Age Jane Austen, she didn’t tend to trust her warmth, and there’s a lack of scope to her sharp stories and pungent, pulchritudinous poetry that for every moment of amazement and exhilaration can – when essaying the collected works over a week or two – leave you ultimately a little unsatisfied, wishing she had cast her piercing gaze a little farther.
Perhaps the most fun I've had reading this year was with Chester Himes' The Real Cool Killers (1958), a dark hymn to Harlem, in which two black policemen (Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson) run around with nickel-plated handguns, shooting and pistol-whipping everyone in sight as they try to solve a murder. Written by ex-con Himes, who was living in Paris at the time, it's a fantastically entertaining slice of urban noir, the OTT violence and lashings of black comedy only slightly undercut by a bizarrely mawkish ending. I then discovered it was the second in a series, so I went back to the start with A Rage in Harlem (1957), which has the central cops as mere supporting characters in a somewhat self-satisfied tall tale about a dumb patsy unable to countenance his girlfriend's duplicity as the bodies pile up. It's good, and tries more transparently to evoke its setting, but it's not as good: certainly far less fun. I've asked for books three and four for Christmas.
Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1961) is one of the most brilliant and maddening books I've read in a while: beautiful phrases and life-changing ideas wrapped in a story so cloistered and myopic that it makes Wes Anderson look like Vittorio de Sica. Its historic contextualising and throwaway brilliance seems to anticipate Roth at his zenith, but I also wanted to headbutt the author quite a bit.
The Sound of Trumpets was, unexpectedly, one of 2017's greatest pleasures – for all its self-evident flaws, a nifty, near-mythic deconstruction of Blairite hypocrisy before the ink was barely dry on the '97 election results. This year I went back to the beginning of the Rapstone Chronicles, to find that a little John Mortimer goes a long way, and that his preoccupations (a love of conservation, women who smoke and slightly laboured one-liners) can tend to make his work distinctly samey. Paradise Postponed (1986), written with TV in mind, is a multi-generational, would-be-sprawling story hooked on a mystery: why has a socialist vicar left all of his money to the Tebbit-ian figure of Thatcherite cabinet minister, Lord Titmuss? You'll desperately want to know, and enjoy the ride too, but when you find out, you'll discover it's not that interesting. The second book in the series, Titmuss Regained is so slickly plotted, and hung on such a repetitious, nebulous sense of what it means to be human (Titmuss is motivated by revenge after being pushed in a river; his new girlfriend Jackie is fixated purely on honesty) that it feels about as deep as a puddle, and it's very 1990 (which seems to date it more than if it was 1945), though its refusal to demonise or sanctify any of its characters is at least refreshing.
William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa (1981) is like Lucky Jim (my favourite book of 2016) transplanted to the colonial world of Graham Greene, but nowhere near as good. It's one of those books that you like consistently less, the more you think about it, though there is a terrific joke near the end about the narrator's seduction technique, and my friend who grew up in post-colonial Africa finds the book extraordinarily perceptive. In a similar vein, but with its sexual misadventures haunted by genocide rather than the remnants of racism, is Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story (1966), a book that cleverer men than I have lauded to the heavens. I thought it was... fine, but found the presumably purposeful trivialities of its central story frankly mystifying in this context.
Which leaves us with just three more novels: The Natural by Bernard Malamud (1952) – fitfully engaging shreds of baseball folklore fashioned into an uneven narrative – Anita Loos' influential but hopelessly weathered Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) and, of course, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957): a riotous, relentless, ridiculous book, with Rand enthusiastically punching a straw man in the face for 1,168 caustic, sentimental, weird pages. It’s full of BIG ideas (well, one big idea), BIG heroes, predictable ‘twists’, identikit imagery and a cast-iron commitment to never properly engaging with the other side, who don’t merely subscribe to a different ideology, but are all physically-repulsive con-men and gangsters, with flabby faces, drooling mouths and glassy, filmy, dead, panicked eyes. I can’t help but think that seeing all her family’s belongings getting pinched by the Bolsheviks as a kid might have influenced Rand’s worldview somewhat. I wrote about it a little more here, if that's of interest.
A quick mention finally for two books by friends, which I can't possibly review, as that would be insane. These are: Rob Palk's Animal Lovers and Sophia Money-Coutts' The Plus One (both 2018). And all I will say is that I resent both authors.
I read a lot of kids' books: partly because I love them, partly because I write them and want to understand the marketplace, and partly so I can weasel up to agents who persist in ignoring my questionable talents. Here's a quick round-up of 2018:
The Many Worlds of Albie Bright (2016) by Christopher Edge is extraordinarily beautiful: a miracle of a book about a boy searching for his late mother through alternate worlds. It's ingenious and amusing and the only thing that's made me cry this year (as established last year, I am very tough and northern and only cry once a year). It's not dissimilar, in fact, to my other favourite of this year: Ross Welford's multi-award-winning Time Travelling with a Hamster (2015), another utterly winning sci-fi story in which an imperfect hero searches for a deceased parent. Only the feelgood ending misses the target. I got so engrossed in it that I accidentally took a two-hour lunch break. That is my story and I am sticking to it.
Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart books are a treat I'd recommend to anyone (except my friend Jess, who also hated these – what does she like? Titanic, that's what), pitching you into Victorian London with only a steely heroine and a good-looking portrait photographer for company. The Ruby in the Smoke (1985) is, appropriately, the jewel in the crown, though the second book – The Shadow in the North (1986) – compensates for some annoyingly faithless characterisation by being in all other ways terrific.
Genre fiction for kids doesn't get much more purely entertaining than Stuart Gibbs' Spy School (2012), which shakes off some apparently reactionary tendencies early on and throws in dozens of neat twists. The only disappointment is that the identity of its villain negates one of its funniest ideas. Also relentlessly entertaining are Andy Stanton's enormously successful Mr Gum books – beginning with You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum! (2006) and Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire (2007) – which are simply and effortlessly and consistently hilarious. The biscuit billionaire is a gingerbread man called Alan Warner who has a tin full of cash and electric muscles.
Lovely Liverpudlian socialist Frank Cottrell Boyce's book, Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth (2016), is offbeat and thrillingly unsentimental, dealing with an alien who comes to Earth to reluctantly destroy it, unless he can find 10 things worth saving. These are not the things you might expect, whether you're a tourist board, right-winger or mawkish humanitarian. It's full of clever conceits and comic flourishes. Other enjoyable comic books, with perhaps just a touch less heart, are the bizarrely overlooked Pirate McSnottbeard in the Zombie Terror Rampage (2017) – a deliriously post-modern romp with genuinely good jokes – and the overly plotty but nevertheless entertaining Jim Reaper: Son of Grim (2016).
For older kids, Gaby Halberstam's The Red Dress (2009) is troubling – even difficult – and starts conspicuously slowly, but is extremely rewarding: a heartfelt coming-of-age story, with a realistic heroine, set in a brutal, misogynistic, dirt-poor South Africa.
Tom Fletcher's The Christmasaurus (2016) is written in a slightly tiresome, patronising vernacular, but the story is lovely, even magical, with a great antagonist in the shape of charismatic bully, Brenda Payne. Maz Evans' popular Who Let the Gods Out? (2017) brings the Olympian gods (as well as a little formula plotting) to modern Britain in a book that's well-conceived, and learned and funny, though the point at which an author brings in a karate-chopping version of the Queen as a comic character is the moment in which I fucking despair. The Queen is also invoked in Onjali Q. Rauf's The Boy at the Back of the Class (2018), a simplistic but sincere story about a group of schoolchildren trying to help a refugee to integrate. The fact this involves Buckingham Palace would appear to be evidence of the cringing deference we seem committed to passing on to our children. Is what I would say if I had voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Which I did.
How Winston Delivered Christmas (2018) is a lovely new offering: an advent calendar of a book, divided into 24-and-a-half chapters, each with typically sumptuous Alex T. Smith illustrations, as a bedraggled mouse tries to get a kid's letter to Father Christmas in time for the big day.
Emma Barnes' Wild Thing (2014) skirts by on the strength of its heart, The Nowhere Emporium (2015) adds up to a whole lot of vague nothing, and Paddington Races Ahead (2012) finds our hero rather adrift in a world that Michael Bond doesn't seem to understand (which after the pointedly political Paddington Here and Now is rather a disappointment).
And already at a charity shop near you are Jonathan Meres' inherently dislikeable May Contain Nuts (2011), the inexplicably successful Beetle Boy (2016) – in which the villain is a half-woman, half-beetle – and The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray (2018) by E. Latimer, a ludicrous semi-sequel to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which characters escape from paintings and kill people. It was written by a Canadian whose idea of how people in Victorian London speak memorably incorporates the phrase, "Did you just try to sass me?"
Nothing could touch Fun Home (2006), the graphic novel in which Alison Bechdel explores her relationship with her closeted father, whose life was a succession of secrets that drove them apart and pulled them together. It's peppered with wonderful imagery and details that break and mend your heart, and is also really fucking sexy. Like the best art, it leaves you changed. I also got a huge amount from Sara Pascoe's Animal (2016), which may take evolutionary psychology as fact not theory, but also made me look at the world in a different way. It's fantastically honest, Pascoe transforming her fear into fearlessness, and full of good jokes.
History and politics
Most of the non-fic I read is about history and politics. The pick of the bunch this year was probably Andrew Lownie's biography, Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. It's a fabulously entertaining, spectacularly well-researched book which makes a convincing case that Burgess was the most brilliant and important of the Cambridge Spies – rather than the indiscreet, drunken liability of popular myth. Its flaws, such as they are, comprise an unfortunate tendency to introduce supporting characters by name without explaining who they are, and an inability to quite reach the heart of the garrulous, gossipy but complex Burgess – an analytical closing chapter coming rather closer than the 400 pages that precede it. Thanks to Lownie, we know far more of what Burgess did than we ever have before; we know when and how and definitely who, even if we’re not always sure why. The (crap) title seems to have more to do with marketing algorithms than the book it’s describing.
Another rip-roaring read was Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line (2016) by Heather Hendershot. The author, an unrepentant but open-minded liberal, delves deep into the archives to examine the story of Firing Line, the American debate show hosted by waspish, brilliant, perma-grinning William F. Buckley, which presaged the triumph of American conservatism. Broken down by themes (though in a roughly chronological order, such was Buckley’s cresting and declining interest in certain subjects), the book looks at how Firing Line covered conservatism, communism, feminism, black power, Nixon and Reagan, giving thinkers as inflammatory and revolutionary as Huey Newton and Germaine Greer a platform to air their views at length, and so find supporters, unless the audience was suitably convinced by Buckley’s rebuttals. The writing has the odd cliché or lapse into clunkiness, and Hendershot’s need to restate conclusions at the end of each chapter (and then write another chapter of woolly media studies material positing a potential ‘Firing Line 2.0’) is an academic affectation I could do without, but this is a gripping, thoughtful and revelatory book, a treat for anyone interested in political discourse, public intellectualism or just modern American history.
Alvin Felzenger's biography of Buckley, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley (2017), is a fine companion-piece, finding its niche (in bookshelves not ill-served by Buckley biographies) in focusing on his relationships with presidents from FDR to George W. Bush, via various other people he didn’t like much, and Reagan. While it’s a little too short, shallow and limited in scope to match a political biography like Jean Edward Smith’s FDR or T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long, it’s also enlightening and highly entertaining: Felzenberg’s research feels very comprehensive and, but for a little repetition and some shortcomings imposed by the restrictive structure, it’s nicely written too. Some of Buckley’s putdowns made me laugh out loud. It's a shame he was such a snake.
Continuing my obsession with FDR's cabinet, I also read The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins (2009), one of my political idols. Kirstin Downey's book is a little dry in places, but superbly researched. Perkins created the American welfare state, while providing for her mentally ill husband and daughter, then spent her last years living in a house with 30 left-wing college students, and there is honestly nothing cooler than that. And after enjoying the Slow Burn series on Watergate, I decided to investigate whether Tricky Dicky really was as terrible as he always appeared. Answer: mostly. Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell (2017) makes a case for Nixon being somewhat misunderstood, and certainly no one-dimensional HUAC bully in his early days, but from his first state senate campaign he's slippery, dangerous and undemocratic, and by 1972 he was absolutely off on one. There's no quibbling with Farrell as a scholar – his book is stuffed with primary sources – but I was rather bored by the end, and found Nixon's contradictions simply too legion to reconcile, at least by myself.
Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City tells the tale of a serial killer stalking Chicago as the city welcomes the World's Fair of 1893. At first the true crime narrative is rather more dynamic than the story of the fair, but by the end I felt that had switched around. It's grisly and unquestionably sensationalist (I have almost no stomach for true crime), but I certainly wasn't bored.
You don't get many books about the Nazis, so it was nice to happen across Julia Boyd's Travellers in the Third Reich (2017), an impressively diverse anthology that nevertheless feels more like a collection of interesting sources (many of them previously unpublished) than a book in its own right. The perspectives from artists, diplomats, politicians, writers, tourists, scholars, the hard left and the far-right, the duped and the clear-sighted, the oblivious and the righteous are full of fascinating details, from the sights, smells, sounds and neediness of Nazi Germany to moments of insight, absurdity, incongruity, comedy and tragedy. But they’re marshalled with a distinct lack of finesse, Boyd’s writing full of clunking segues that aren’t really necessary, and a leaden-handed, simple self-righteousness that – while on the side of right – doesn’t make the book the searing moral audit that she imagines. I've harped on about it all a bit more here.
This is where, for completism's sake, I also throw in Philippe Sands' East West Street (2016), which I read too late for last year's list, and which traces the genesis of the terms 'genocide' and 'crimes against humanity', coined by two very different lawyers from Lwow, the home of Sands' grandfather and subject of a litany of Nazi atroicities.
And then there are the books that weren't much good. I'm a big fan of Jon Ronson's work, but his Kindle-only book, The Elephant in the Room (2016) is so slight that it's barely there: a shallow rehash of old Alex Jones with a minimum of on-the-spot reporting and a couple of funny one-liners. Michael Wolff's notorious Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018), which briefly captured the zeitgeist, was gossipy and mildly illuminating on the various factions competing for power, but hardly trustworthy, which supporting characters clearly whitewashed if they gave decent access to the author. Lonely Courage: The True Story of the SOE Heroines Who Fought to Free Nazi-Occupied France (2017) is a completely fascinating story given severely botched treatment. There are a few gripping passages and at times the book evokes the brutal lottery of wartime espionage, but the facts – and stories – are marshalled in erratic, haphazard manner, so it’s difficult to stay immersed in the material, or indeed to remember (or follow) who everyone is. Stroud’s writing style is also clunky and repetitive: light on quotes and with a truly singular use of commas. It all seems rather half-finished.
Probably worst of all is Michelle Obama's autobiography, Becoming (2018). The most interesting bit is when her daughter gets chased by a cheetah, and that turns out to be a dream. Aside from moving reminiscences detailing her father’s decline, those early scenes with Barack, and some brief passages in the final stretch about gun violence and misogny, it all feels so crushingly banal: an astonishing story turned into 420 pages of work-family balance, in safe, quasi-inspirational corporate language. I couldn't tell if she wasn't who I thought she was or if this book has just had all the life and fire focus-grouped out of it.
Brett Anderson's Coal Black Mornings (2018) is a terrific memoir, tracing the author's life from his austere, eccentric satellite-town childhood – dominated by a domineering father who was obsessed with Franz Liszt and often wandered their council house dressed as T. E. Lawrence – to the cusp of stardom with singular indie heroes, Suede (who are, of course, the greatest band of all time). There’s the odd moment of repetition, cliché or pre-emptive defensiveness (perhaps unsurprising given the unwarranted kicking he received from a bitchy music media in the ‘90s), but it’s most often a total joy. Anderson is extraordinarily insightful when dealing with his music and the creative evolution of his band, searingly honest when required – his pathological aversion to gossip being wedded to an unblinking emotional sincerity – and possessed of a notable capacity for both a telling detail (which is hardly unexpected) and a droll one-liner (which may well be). The passage in which he shrugs off supposed influences to explain that he has always been more inspired by a lover, a friend or a flat than by someone else’s album made my jaw drop. Because of course, but who has ever said that? If your pulse doesn’t quicken over those last four pages, you are dead. Or even worse: a Blur fan.
We finally got to see Orson Welles' final movie this year, thanks – unexpectedly – to Netflix. Before that, your best bet was to read Josh Karp's invigorating, deadpan book: Orson Welles's Last Movie: The Making of 'The Other Side of the Wind' (2015), which traced both its haphazard production and the farce that followed. It's so much fun, at least now that there's a happy ending.
I also enjoyed, with some reservations, Otto Friedrich's City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, which inspired a recent series of You Must Remember This. A personal history of ‘40s Hollywood, which for this author means Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, labour unions and anti-semitism, as much as Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth and Louis B. Mayer (and much more than Cary Grant, whose conflicted, confused and confusing existence is bizarrely consigned to the ‘boring’ pile). Friedrich shapes secondary sources into a narrative that at its best is panoramic and at worst somewhat bitty, but always elegantly written and highly readable. Some of the stories he tells have since been debunked and others are over-familiar (at least to massive Old Hollywood nerds), but there’s plenty that was new to me, and his contextualising is first-rate, as he explains how Hollywood got its water, America got racist and Bugsy Siegel got shot. Depending on your tastes, though, Friedrich’s endless sneering may begin to pall – aside from Double Indemnity, he is dismissive of just about everything and everybody, deriding most books and films and recordings as bad or brainless or embarrassing, and thinking the worst of almost everyone he encounters. In Brechtian fashion, he seems to take a particular delight in debunking heroism: toppling or dismantling those ‘40s figures that (left-leaning) history has since judged as stoic and virtuous – among them, John Garfield – an agenda which arguably undermines his objectivity, and is also really fucking depressing. I enjoyed it when he did it to Ronald Reagan, though, which just shows the double-standard I operate under.
Sadly I didn't enjoy A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True − Volume One (1907-40), which is clearly a labour of love, but also a mess, and something of a trial. It’s good in spots, particularly in its vivid sketches of the young Frank Fay, but it’s frequently long-winded – offering laborious descriptions of interior furnishings, interminable lists of names who attended events or belonged to certain Hollywood clubs, and every finger injury Stanwyck ever sustained – while often irrelevant when striving to be wide-ranging. Most disappointing of all is its vague and uninteresting portrait of Stanwyck, Wilson apparently so close to her subject (and so indebted to her subject’s family and friends) that she skirts shyly around topics like adultery and domestic abuse (though eventually engaging with the latter), neglects to confront the myriad contradictions of Stanwyck’s early life, and fails to articulate how the actor’s wellsprings of emotion were fed by her life’s surfeit of tragedy. I love a door-stop biography, particularly one about ‘20s and ‘30s America, and Stanwyck is one of my favourite actors, but Steel True massively outstays its welcome. As better critics than I have already pointed out: Wilson is a book editor in need of a book editor. This book is 860 pages long and ends when Stanwyck is 33.
is not something for which my brain is necessarily equipped, but I did try, reading Ha-Joon Chang's Economics: A User's Guide (2014), because I have been pretending to know about economics for years, simply regurgitating a few facts I remember from A-level politics. Chang's admirable attempts to create an accessible work unfortunately lead to him explaining who Martin Freeman is, but not what supply side economics is, but I have remembered at least two more facts for when I'm shouting at people I don't know on Twitter.
God's Funeral (1999) by A. N. Wilson purports to chart the decline of theism and faith within 19th century intellectualism, but doesn't quite do that, instead offering witty, wide-ranging pen-portraits of many major thinkers. I found it a lot livelier than Rupert Shortt's well-meaning but stodgy God Is No Thing, which has rare moments of profundity – like when examining scripture to debunk the idea that Heaven is a Christians-only club – but is hard to grasp. Or indeed read.
is always more comfortable ground for me. Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (2004/2013) is still mentioned in hushed tones and rightly so, challenging much of what I thought I knew about football, and giving me an arsenal of good stories in the process.
Pete Davies' All Played Out (1995), the 'inside story' of my favourite World Cup (1990), is often cited as the great football book, so I picked up a copy to read between televised matches this time around. Boy can Davies write – and write emotively – when he wants to, ruminating on the suffocating horror of a visit to Auschwitz or the bitter glory of England’s semi-final defeat, and his access to Bobby Robson and his squad is truly remarkable, but too much of the book is about his personal itinerary, which evokes the breathless, sleepless insanity of what he terms ‘Planet Football’ but isn’t terribly compelling in itself, and makes the book an odd jumble of elements, alongside some laboured running jokes, and a little too much score-settling (though Davies is nothing if not even-handed in his portraits of the press, the fans and the England camp). His book is more incisive and insightful than James Erskine’s thin, glossy film adaptation, capturing some essential truths about what football gives us, and operating as a vivid snapshot of a turning point in the sport’s culture – hooliganism juddering in its death throes as rampant commercialism raps on the door – but it’s more uneven and self-indulgent than I expected: in World Cup terms, a Denilson rather than a Ronaldo. Andrew Downie's Doctor Socrates (2017) was more a Dunga, lacking the grace and spontaneity of its cult subject, and making claims about his political credos that it simply couldn't cash.
James Acaster's Classic Scrapes (2017) is rather wonderful. I laughed out loud on the first page, and carried on in a similar vein from there. This succession of stories about Acaster messing stuff up, often in spectacular fashion, is inevitably uneven but frequently painfully funny. The story about the singer in his nu-metal band is genuinely one of the funniest things I have ever read (it made me cry with laughter on a train) and ‘Fell Foot Sound’ and ‘Cabadging’ are both classics, though there’s at least one great joke in even the most minor scrapes, and the cumulative effect – with most of them littered with callbacks – is joyous. Though the efforts to segue from one tale to the next are a little laboured, and Acaster’s written voice isn’t always as striking as the one he employs in stand-up (I think because it shouldn’t just be the same, even if sharing that sublime deadpan incredulity), now and then he’ll throw in something moving or profound. Mostly though it’s just very, very funny, which is really what you want from a comedy book. I haven’t laughed this hard at a book in a couple of years.
And finally: Elis and John present The Holy Vible: The Book The Bible Could Have Been by Elis James and John Robins (2018) My favourite podcast in the whole wide world becomes – if not my favourite book in the whole wide world – then definitely a book. And a proper book: not a lazy cash-in, but a labour of love (Elis’s labour not quite as heavy as John’s) from the two greatest men in the world (except my dad and Tom Waits). Individual chapters – typically written by one or the other – can be deeply beautiful, especially John’s on Queen and Oxford, and Elis’s on Gorky’s and the Welsh language, but my favourite bits are the interactions between the two, which is obviously the great joy of a double-act, and especially this one. Those are spotlighted in two chapters that consist purely of comic riffs – an editorial decision necessitated by Elis’s lack of administrative prowess and concurrent submission of a chapter that was “absolute dogshit” – and in the numerous, hilarious footnotes, which are mocking, appealing, affectionate and full of lovely and familiar in-jokes. A bit more here if you want it.
Thanks for reading. Live stuff next, then filums.