This year I spent two months in bed, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to catch up on their reading. All you need is a dysfunctional kidney, a sympathetic boss and an erratic surgeon. Here's everything I've read this year:
First, the good stuff. My favourite novel of 2019 was Howard Spring's Fame Is the Spur (1940), a slow-burning saga about the rise to prominence of opportunistic, working-class J. Hamer Shawcross, whose soaring oratory and ability to weaponise his past catapult him to fame, as the fledgling Labour Party begins to crystallise. Beginning with a dying man’s memories of Peterloo, it follows Shawcross from an Ancoats slum to the House of Lords, and the labour movement from its birthing pains to the betrayal of 1930, incorporating – often realistically, though sometimes rather conveniently – the Welsh coalfields, Popular Front communism and the Suffragettes. It has shortcomings – its supporting characters, especially the female ones, aren’t nearly as interesting as its protagonist, and both its focus and its pacing can be confounding – but it’s also one of the most immersing and affecting books I’ve read in a long time, with spectacular set-pieces, a rich strain of irony and an insistent emotional pull that simply overwhelms you in its final hundred pages. There’s hurt and anger in Spring’s story of a man selling out his past, but there’s also realism, wisdom and a rich humanity, with none of the one-dimensional didacticism that can ruin political fiction, whichever side it falls.
It's a book that endures because of its characters, but also because of its insights. Though the prose can border on the Victorian (its modernist flashes forward aside), its observations still feel incredibly contemporary. Perhaps that’s because whatever tags are applied – from Blairism through Brexit – the fights going on at the centre of British politics are always the same: self-interest versus society, and – particularly on the left – idealism versus pragmatism. For Shawcross, that’s a question not of principle but of expediency, and ironically he is a better private man at the end of the book – when he has fundamentally betrayed his former allies – than he is at the start, as he has discovered an honesty and empathy sorely lacking in his sabre-rattling days. But like the sabre snatched from the ground at Peterloo, he was once a symbol, and people need symbols.
Also right up there was The Beginning of Spring (1988) by Penelope Fitzgerald, a masterpiece of a miniature, the author creating a whole, vividly atmospheric world with extraordinary economy. That world is the Russia of 1913, where printer and father-of-three Frank Reid – English, ordinary, but surprising, at times almost irrational – is attempting to carry on as normal after the disappearance of his wife. Around him cavort a poetic accountant, a precocious daughter and a drunken bear, but none of these characters are simple, or quite what they appear (or would be in other hands), and all are drawn with empathy and imagination.
Fitzgerald’s prose is so unadorned and clear, and through it you glimpse many layers of meaning: hints and illusions, shards of wisdom, observations that skewer your preconceptions. She is a writer who understands the balance of human interactions, and their often unknowable nature. Her solution isn’t to hypothesise but to observe. A couple of times she breaks off into almost self-contained passages – the acutely painful farce of the bear’s torture; branches by a dacha sagging under rain – and the effects are hypnotic: enrapturing in themselves, richly textured but hinting at themes that nudge through the story like the first grass of spring. This book is many things: a character study (or several), a key to a culture, a door to another realm. And while not a comic novel, it is funnier than most comic novels: droll and dry, giving its characters a litany of obstacles but tongues just loose enough to speak plainly. That was my second Fitzgerald of the year, and even better than Human Voices (1980), a delicately detached, effortlessly evocative story of the BBC during the Blitz, written with a precision that almost saunters, and rendering wartime London in crisp, uncompromising detail. Thanks to Andy Miller for his proselytising on Fitzgerald's behalf, which turned me onto her work. If you love books, listen to his podcast.
Nothing made me laugh more than The Adulterants (2018) by Joe Dunthorne, a slim, unspeakably wonderful addition to one of my favourite genres: books in which a middle-class white man fucks everything up. I don't laugh out loud very often when reading; I must have laughed out loud 30 times reading this. It’s also deeply touching, in a disarmingly direct way, and realises that our guilt and our cruelty are as sad as the things that sting us from outside, though no sadder. You could argue that the riot and the drink-sodden flirtation with homosexuality tip the story too far towards farce, but if you changed those bits you might lose something, and I wouldn’t want to risk it. Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger (1953) comprises nine deceptively immense achievements, if (again) you don’t mind your characters mostly white and comfortably-off. It’s Salinger, so it’s quasi-real and desperately sad and sometimes hilarious, angling on precocious kids, self-delusion and the beginnings of mysticism. I’d have a different favourite every day, but ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, ‘The Laughing Man’ and ‘Esme’ say something about Salinger’s protracted innocence, ‘De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period’ is quite insanely funny – and the closest thing here to A Catcher in the Rye – while the final paragraph of ‘Teddy’ hits you like a swimming pool. Stories one, two and five are part of Salinger’s ongoing, fragmented portrait of the Glass family.
Emeric Pressburger wrote many of the finest films of the '40s and, it turns out, one of the best novels of the '60s: The Glass Pearls (1966). It’s somewhat reminiscent of Peeping Tom, his regular collaborator Michael Powell’s 1960 movie, dealing with a quiet, haunted German psychopath engaging in tentative, sexless romance in London, while trying to stay ahead of the law. His protagonist, though, isn’t a serial killer wielding a murderous tripod, but a Nazi war criminal, suspectible to flights of hypnotic anxiety and ornamented deceit, all cleverly tied by Pressburger to the character’s chilling wartime experiments. At one point he is hired by the Royal Albert Hall to tune their organ, which puts some of my mistakes at the Iconic London Venue into perspective. The book is dark and unsettling – the nature of narrative forcing us to be complicit in Braun’s neuroses, excuses and evasion of justice – but, like so much of the writer’s work, also deft, witty, intelligent and entertaining. The final scene is truly jawdropping and heartbreaking, Pressburger bringing the weight of history to bear, after holding it at bay for so long. How critics could regard the author’s feelings towards Braun as ambivalent following that is truly mystifying.
I loved Lissa Evans' Old Baggage (2018), one of the highlights of my two months in bed: a wonderful, transportative book about former Suffragettes on divergent paths in the late ‘20s. It’s full of remarkably rich characterisation, with a story that’s immersive, moving and unflinching. It's a sequel to Crooked Heart (2014), which is only marginally less wonderful: a great story from a great storyteller, whose speciality is unexpected human connections – and the ones that seem so obvious and yet miss. Both books pulse with sly humour and a quiet, offbeat humanity that really got through to me.
If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) by James Baldwin is a painful, beautiful book narrated by pregnant 19-year-old Tish, whose boyfriend Fonny is in jail, charged with rape. In Baldwin’s economical later style – still suffused with the anger that never left him – she both recalls the development of their relationship and recounts the family’s faltering efforts to get justice in a deeply racist America. The book takes a while to build, and there’s the odd pretentious line, but its characters, its world and its ideas are vividly sketched, and its relationships are suffused with a deep love that endures beyond the reading. Train Dreams (2002), meanwhile continued my love affair with Denis Johnson. It's a brutal book: unsettling, haunting and horrifying, but also lyrical, its life of labour and sadness told Johnson-style, with that unorthodox, roaming mind, and that gift for imagery, jarring juxtaposition and the right word.
After that, we're into 'flawed but fantastic' territory, led by John Le Carré's A Perfect Spy (1986), which Philip Roth once called "the best English novel since the war", having sadly died before he could read my novel, or apparently Lucky Jim. It's a book that promises a manhunt but delivers something else entirely: a deep, densely literate, richly autobiographical exploration of its cipherous anti-hero, fugitive spy Magnus Pym, a man caught between two masters, in the long, erratic shadow of his conman father. Now and then it drags its feet, so far into Pym’s mind – and childhood – that it loses sight of what will move its audience, but more often than that it’s formidable: a swaggeringly assured study of a man with so many selves he has ceased to exist, told with the stylistic affectations that mirror his shapeshifting, amidst a gallery of brilliantly-etched supporting characters – each sympathetic when telling the story on their terms. Le Carré’s ability to switch from introspection to action is startling, and he has a turn of phrase that can take the breath away.
As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner is hard work in places – with almost impenetrable passages born of its experimental elements and rooted Southern vernacular – but also gripping, original and wonderfully strange; full of sound, fury, and the most outrageous feats of language. But my mother is a fish. Also oscillating between the sublime and the not-quite is W. Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale (1930). It starts and ends superbly – the final 20 pages are emotionally overwhelming – and the portrait of free-spirited, nonconformist adulteress Rosie Driffield is vibrant and fascinating, though the middle of the book isn’t as specific or focused as it might be, with too many asides, half-drawn faces and exuberant character assassinations that seem to have more to do with its author than its story, and frankly go on a bit. The best line in the book (“She seemed to offer herself to the assault of love”) is followed, with a crushing inevitability, by some very 1930 racism, though Maugham’s mordant wit is still a joy in 2019, particularly in the opening pages, where he slices through his alter ego’s contemporaries, before getting started on Americans.
Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! (1995) also offers us a woman to idealise, but on a fleapit screen, or freezeframed from a VHS in a festering bedsit, as his hero regresses to adolescent arousal in the face of life's utter horror. This satirical novel manages to feel both freewheeling and inexorable, Coe's simple convictions delivered through a meticulously-constructed story lit by flights of bizarre comic fancy. Its protagonist is novelist Michael Owen, a man transparently and unapologetically obsessed with What a Carve Up!, the Carry On-ish ‘60s horror-comedy that provided his entry to the world of mysterious adult sexuality (and voyeurism, and thwarted desire). Meanwhile, his journalistic investigations into the history of the aristocratic Winshaw clan finds a family carving up both Britain’s nationalised industries in the heyday of Thatcherism – and a succession of arms deals with the Iraqis. It is, frequently, an astonishingly assured book, full of meta-textual hi-jinks, comic set-pieces and broiling anger, though its ambitious meshing of cartoonish villainy and confrontational sincerity doesn’t always come off. While it takes an admirable sense of ambition to segue from the heartbreaking sequences in an NHS hospital to a warped recreation of an Old Dark House comedy, that doesn’t mean the juxtaposition quite works. Similarly, comic sequences about an incomprehensible interviewee on a current affairs programme, or the contrast between a HELLO! profile and the more bitter reality, feel broader than a book like this should be. At its best, though, it’s remarkable, with a specificity in both its mode of comedy and the subjects it has in its sights. Perhaps there are coincidences here and there, with characters reappearing in one another’s lives more than is likely, but – as with the one-dimensional nature of the villains – it seems unlikely that’s accidental: more that the Winshaws, and people like them, control everything, and we are but their playthings.
In comparison Syaka Murata's satirical Convenience Store Woman (2016) was trim and fast-moving, the perfect antidote to the book I read before it (Origins of Totalitarianism, more of which later). It's a fresh, deadpan novel about a sociopathic 36-year-old woman who can’t relate to anyone else, and lives only for her job in a convenience store. In its subversive portrait of society’s fear of nonconformity, and its adroit observations about the search for meaning, it has more to say than a dozen heavier books, though the last 30 pages are quite muddled, and can’t live up to what precedes them.
I'm rationing my Vonnegut these days, after the splurge of 2014, as there's not much left. Welcome to the Monkey House (1968) collects 25 stories written between 1950 and 1968, many dealing with his favoured themes of consumerism, conformity, community, machines, space exploration and loneliness. The title tale is very hard to take − I either simply don't understand it, or it's extremely misogynistic − and a handful of others miss the mark ('Adam', 'The Foster Portfolio', 'New Dictionary') or interrogate issues that seem irrelevant now, but at their best, these small works are as good as anything he ever wrote. And read in one lengthy slurp, Welcome to the Monkey House accentuates the worldview that underpinned his surface obsessions. "Sometimes − there's God − so quickly," Tennessee Williams once wrote, and so there is in the writing of this arch humanist, who finds tenderness at the most unexpected times, and from the most unexpected places. He finds incredible deadpan jokes there too, and wellsprings of undeserved courtesy. There's little I've read this year that I've enjoyed as much as the one-two of 'D. P.' − in which an illegitimate, mixed-race German boy mistakes an American soldier for his father − and 'Report on the Barnhouse Effect', written from the perspective of a college student whose mentor has taken to blowing up armouries with his mind. There's no other writer I enjoy, or relate to, or draw upon nearly as much. A bit more here.
I also read Bluebeard (1987), which is about as pure Vonnegut as you can get, melancholy flowing beneath its unfailingly cheery, relentlessly civil surface, as he ruminates on love, war, art, loneliness, misogyny, immigration, survivor's syndrome and mental illness. His vehicle is the autobiography of an almost talentless abstract expressionist, Rabo Karabekian, who loses an eye, the love of his children and almost all of his life's work (rendered in the unintentionally self-destroying Sateen Dura-Luxe, which after a few years simply falls off the canvas), but not his sense of wonder at this thing, whatever it is. Vonnegut's approach here may no longer be novel, and Bluebeard might lack the shimmering originality of his greatest work, but no-one else on Earth could have written it, and at this point he's like an old, dear and brilliant friend.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019) takes a very certain type of macho, self-pitying American novel – in which the women are psychos or ciphers or sex objects – and, with a slow-rising fury, begins to interrogate it. The twist, if indeed it is a twist, feels slightly signposted and mechanical, but the subsequent sequence is so beautifully written and compassionate and mordantly funny that it acquires a momentum which makes it real. It’s a book about the break-up of a marriage, almost two, theoretically three, and as such it’s bleak and difficult and – in Akner’s hands – intense; frighteningly unflinching. She probes and digs and mostly (though not always) transcends a superficial, self-involved NY world that can otherwise be a turn-off. And she’s funny, very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny in a way that writers of serious, introspective books about big, moody characters struggle to be: one-liners, barbs, moments of absurdism and almost unreadable cringe comedy. I didn’t exactly enjoy it – it’s hard to enjoy something so sad and weary – and now and then Anker’s postulations are vague or tip over into the merely pretentious, but it’s such a valuable book: an omniscient feminist counter-argument which runs on a motor of anger to places that those hulking novels of self-righteous machismo simply don’t, or perhaps can’t.
I read The Princess Bride (1973) as William Goldman intended: recovering from illness. His über-meta story of high adventure and true love is a leeeettle long-winded now and then, but mostly a joy – especially when vengeance-bent Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya is involved. My favourite joke is probably in the intro when Goldman is thinking about how clever he’s been, picks up a ringing phone and just says “clever” down it. The best scene is that wonderful duel atop the Cliffs of Insanity. When We Were Orphans (2000) by Kazuo Ishiguro is bewitching and deeply poignant, though its purposefully strange diversion – meant, I presume, to satirise imperial myopia and the limits of detective fiction in comprehending the true horrors of the world – somewhat overbalances the book. If When We Were Orphans ended with those absurd, surreal and undeniably memorable sequences, and that was therefore its point, that might make sense, but we then get a very real, human coda. I’m struck by the incomparable way Ishiguro can craft a character through both small details and what he doesn’t say in his first-person narration, and this story about memory and loss is hugely affecting, I just wonder if its most obviously arresting (and ultimately most enduring) sequences are also its least effective.
Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller (1979) is dizzying postmodernism about you, the reader, starting If on a winter’s night a traveller only to find it unfinished, along with each subsequent story you begin. Between the diverse selection of openings, each interrupted at the exact point you’ve become hooked, is the continuing, surreal second-person tale of you, Ludmilla – the enigmatic ‘Other Reader’ – a hoaxer, a police state and at least one cult. It’s very clever, and also very convinced of its own cleverness, which along with its dense philosophising can become a little taxing, but it’s one of a kind, with an ingenious shifting of genres and moods, an abundance of striking passages and some fascinating ideas. Tag yourself: I’m the troubled writer paralysed by ambition.
Now we're dealing with the mediocre or the maddening, led by Don LeLillo's mammoth Underworld (1997), which is the latter. Baseball, nuclear waste, painted planes and Lenny Bruce – DeLillo’s sprawling novel starts with the ‘Shot heard round the world’, leaps forward to the ‘90s, then travels back inexorably, inevitably to 1951. At times it feels almost like a pastiche of a Big Important Novel: unstintingly serious, laughably verbose, the word ‘cunt’ sprayed earthily, liberally around in the otherwise magniloquent prose. It was on page 806 that the book really, profoundly moved me, and I realised that it hadn’t done so before, and that this – along with anything resembling brevity – had been what was missing. It begins like mid-period Ellroy, tantalises and wows, sags badly in the mid-section then comes roaring back once Lenny Bruce starts riffing on Armageddon. You can’t deny the scale of DeLillo’s ambition: the scope and the niche, the level of the intellect and the beauty of the phrasing, the size of the ideas he’s wrestling with, and frequently subduing. You just wish he’d drop the genius act and get on with it. If he can close a chapter with a sentence more telling than other authors’ entire oeuvres, you wonder if another 16-page set-piece oscillating between the sloppy heat of adultery and the specifics of waste management might possibly be overkill. This taught me a lot about how to write, and a little about how not to, with some of the most dazzling passages I’ve ever read, and several of the most tedious.
Also weighing in at uncomfortably-heavy-for-my-arthritic-left-hand was London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins (1945), a brilliantly-titled close-up epic which follows the occupants of a single house in SE11 from Christmas 1938 to Christmas 1940, and is hugely readable at first, but goes on too long and doesn’t amount to enough. It’s ultimately a soap opera with a bit of edge and irony, and a faint philosophical bent. The London flavour is there, but it should be stronger: Penelope Fitzgerald evoked the city at war far more powerfully in the brief, brilliant Human Voices (above).
George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman (1969) is a mixed bag: a rake's progress in colonial Britain, as a minor character from Tom Brown's Schooldays takes centre stage: shagging, lying and riding to ill-gotten glory against the fabulously convincing backdrop of the First Afghan War. The character needs to be more of a scoundrel and less of a sex criminal. Speaking of anti-heroes who are simply dislikeable, The Damned Utd (2006) gives us David Peace's take on Brian Clough. The book is initially interesting but ultimately deadening. Peace has just one main mode of writing – supposed force through relentless repetition – and one type of character: furious, obsessive people in Yorkshire who can’t stop swearing. For all that, its story is one well worth telling, and now and then, when he drops the rage and finds something else to say, it can be rather brilliant.
Capote’s debut – like James Baldwin’s – is vivid, moving and idiosyncratic, but also very overwritten. At 23, he’s a stylist in so much as he writes like no-one else, and twists every sentence to his will. But his style isn’t developed. By Music for Chameleons he was concise and his writing perfectly balanced. In Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), there are passages of piercing wisdom and fine characterisation – Randolph’s monologue; the scenes of the young, Capote-ish Joel and the brilliantly-drawn tomboy Idabel – but they don’t often gel with the lengthy descriptions of plantlife, animals and furniture. Nor do those descriptions generally inform character, or even conjure a world. As a result, the book moves between the affecting, the profound and the densely dull.
I bought Limmy's Daft Wee Stories (2015) as I’d heard him on RHLSTP (RHLSTP), followed him on Twitter from that, and found that his feed is like a piece of inspired performance art – and the fact he’d ridicule me for saying that is partly why. Written in straightforward colloquial language (a lot of ‘wee’, a lot of ‘shite’), the stories are distinctly variable: some funny, some very funny, some fun but formulaic with increasingly obvious counterintuitive endings, some agreeably weird and a couple just crap.
Last year I had an awful lot of fun with Chester Himes' cult 'Harlem cycle'. The third in the series, The Crazy Kill (1959), has an interesting set-up, and features his usual calling cards of loud clothes, adultery and ultra-violence – all laced with black humour – but it’s conspicuously more plodding and one-note than the explosive second outing, The Real Cool Killers. It doesn’t help that Himes introduces so many characters at once near the beginning, and gives others similar names (Poor Boy/Pony Boy, Doll Baby/Baby Sis), so it’s difficult to remember exactly who is diddling whose girlfriend. And everyone keeps calling everyone else a "mother raper". It’s still grisly escapism of a sort.
If there’s one thing that undermines prospective satire, it’s characters whose names describe them, but in The Warden (1855), Anthony Trollope isn’t even trying: his low-grade novelist is called Mr Popular Sentiment. But while it may not work on those terms, as a rumination on the nature of personal conscience it’s quite effective. Still less successful was Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (1949). I absolutely loved The Pursuit of Love: so fresh and funny, before it whacks you in the solar plexus. Great title aside, this sequel is less likeable, loveable and readable. Following another set of narrator Fanny Wincham’s relatives, it manages to have lots of plot without really having a story – at least one it’s possible to care about – as it focuses on a gallery of near-blanks and minor grotesques, spending unforgivably little time on the Radletts (for which, read: Mitfords). When Jassy and Victoria Radlett turn up, the book flares into life, and you realise just what you’ve been missing. Compared to that, the relationship between superficial Lady Montdore and her family’s prospective heir, Cedric, is a joyless slog. This one also seems to groan under the weight of its references to redundant styles of clothing and furniture – I’m not sure if the earlier book was lighter on such quickly ageing trivialities, or if I was just having so much fun (and heartbreak) that I didn’t notice. Sorry to be such a terrible counter-Hon.
And finally on adult fiction... Rob Palk's first book, Animal Lovers, was obnoxiously great: a novel in which every sentence was good. I've been trying to make him like me on Twitter, and I think it's going OK as he let me read the draft of his new one, The Crowd Pleaser (2021?). No spoilers, but if you're a publisher who doesn't want to be laughed at by other, richer publishers, you might want to drop him a line.
Only a handful this time around. I read Stuart Gibbs' middle-grade comedy-thriller Spy School last year, and had a lovely time, so this year I appear to have read the six sequels. They're too American, the jokes aren't funny and the adult characters are poorly-drawn, but the plots are involving, and the emotional and romantic subplots are unusually effective. Though the titles suggest a certain gimmickry, each book is a cracking and (within its knowingly ludicrous parameters) credible continuation of Gibbs' main story. Just so we're clear, the correct ranking is:
- #4. Spy Ski School (2016)
- #3. Evil Spy School (2015)
- #1. Spy School (2012)
- #6. Spy School Goes South (2018)
- #7. Spy School British Invasion (2019)
- #5. Spy School Secret Service (2017)
- #2. Spy Camp (2013)
I also enjoyed a couple of Philip Pullman books. The Tiger in the Well (1990) is something of a drop-off from his first two Sally Lockhart novels, with one conspicuously ridiculous plot development that sets up several sequences of inert, unimaginative unpleasantness and spotlights a villain who's simply an uninteresting grotesque. But before that, and even afterwards, it's exciting and highly atmospheric, as Sally discovers socialism (yay!) and atheism (yawn), the surefooted sense of storytelling, intriguing premise and original characters offsetting a certain conventiality in its mystery-thriller tropes. More here. Lyra's Oxford (2003) is slight in terms of length and story, as 15-year-old Lyra and Pantalaimon receive a visit from a witch daemon, but loaded with intelligence, atmosphere and especially emotion. The line about Will connected like a shovel to the face. I could spend my whole life in this world.
History and politics
Head and shoulders above all other non-fiction this year was Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982), the first in a five-volume (!) biography of the Vietnam War enthusiast and famed shagger. Sitting atop a mountain of research, Caro wages a war of his own: this one against received wisdom and inferior biographers who won't rent a house in their subject's home town for three years. For many, Johnson’s reputation is as a good man and unrepentant New Dealer whose liberal inclinations, and aspirations for a ‘Great Society’, were thwarted after he was boxed into a corner by the draining, unwinnable, all-consuming anti-commie crusade in Southeast Asia. Not so, says Caro. In this impossibly rich book, he fashions an indelible, uncompromising and excoriating portrait of a cunning, selfish but dynamic self-made politico, powered by want, hunger and insecurity, who used everyone he ever met, believed in little, and rode to the first power he ever held on a tidal wave of construction money. In order to understand Johnson, though, Caro argues, we have to understand the Hill Country, the dirt poor area of Texas beyond the 98th Meridian in which toil, hardship and, well, dirt was about all there ever was. And so, after an exhilarating flash-forward prologue that finds Johnson in the horns of a dilemma, that’s where we begin, with Johnson’s ancestors suckered into a trap which closed around them, lured there by lush, untrammelled vegetation that once utilised never returned. His grandfather and his father both gambled on fortunes and lost; Johnson gambled – repeatedly – and won. Until one day he didn't.
It’s a book about the making of a man, but a man who appears to have crystallised by the time he was at college: in his ruthless manoeuvring behind the scenes of meaningless campus elections, Caro sees the LBJ who performed the same moves, to dizzying ends, as a congressman, senator and president. By the midway point, we’re dealing with many of the titans of the 1930s, including Sam Rayburn, one of the unheralded heroes of the New Deal, an honourable, combustible man whose hard-won authority proves no match for Johnson’s flattery, obsequiousness and laser-sighted perception. The author can make literally anything interesting – a congress committee, the funding of a dam – and the way he brings to life the worlds of Texas and Washington, and the gallery of supporting players is utterly exhilarating. You’re so close to Johnson himself that you can almost feel his hand on your shoulder, the other on your lapel.
The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt was dazzling and difficult and insightful, if not in quite the way I was expecting. For the most part the book underlined how hyperbolic much of our discourse is. Hitler didn't start with the Holocaust, as liberal columnists keep reminding us, but he did start by writing down pretty much everything he was going to do, and I don't see the seeds of totalitarianism in Trump, as much as he's a horrible, racist cunt who appeals to the worst in people. Most topical in the book, along with Arendt's insights into the moral judgements placed on refugees − rather than their frequent persecutors − is perhaps the notion of 'political romanticism', which anticipates the tiresome 'free speech' zealots for whom no topic is apparently off-limits, nor consistency a pressing issue. I found the book enormously upsetting, if I'm honest: it shook my faith in the basic goodness of people. I wrote a bit more about it here.
The Tories who came together to oust Chamberlain and install Churchill are the subject of Lynne Olson's erratic but periodically electrifying Troublesome Young Men (2007), which comes to life when it takes us into Parliament, and ends with a heartbreakingly ironic postscript dealing with the debacle of Suez. More here.
On a similar theme, my peculiar fascination with the far-right (though I was reading them specifically for a novel I've been working on – it's ready, hit me up) led me to two books about deserved neo-Nazi bogeymen. Nigel Farndale's Haw-Haw (2005) is interesting, but decreasingly so, and too sympathetic to its subject. Stephen Dorril's Blackshirt (1999), dealing with Oswald Mosley and the wider world of British fascism, turned out to be a tremendous, cheerless chore, which it took me more than six weeks to get through.
Speaking of people on the extreme right (I'm kidding), Jess Phillips' Everywoman (2017) proved a suitably confusing read. She has done more good than I will ever do in my life. Her campaigns to stop violence against women are extraordinary and inspiring. She receives intolerable abuse because she is a woman who strongly and unapologetically speaks out about appalling, systemic misogyny. And she seems to expend an unusual amount of energy launching unhelpful, self-aggrandising attacks on her own party, then complaining when people tell her to fuck off. The book is basically that, but a book.
It's becoming increasingly apparent that Ben Macintyre is just a useful idiot for the security services who regards his association with the Times as a cross between a knighthood and a canonisation. The Spy and the Traitor (2018) is a rip-roaring read, written with panache and verve, but seeing Macintyre wrangling with the complexities of the 1980s, regarding them as essentially the same old battle between good and evil, and then swallowing everything doled out to him by a literal spy, is rather embarrassing. A Foreign Field (2001), one of his earliest books, is by contrast merely aloof and clunky, artlessly exposing the mechanics behind its construction.
I'm happy to report, however, that I am still obsessed with spies, so also devoured The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake (2013) by Roger Hermiston, a serviceable biog of the double-agent, flipped by the Russians in a Korean prisoner-of-war camp. It's a little light overall, especially compared to Andrew Lownie’s recent book on Guy Burgess, though it improves as it progresses and the author’s sources become more varied and detailed: the passages on Blake’s escape from Wormwood Scrubs are excellent. In the intro, Hermiston – a former Today programme producer – attempts to incinerate our goodwill by praising Rod Liddle.
Like Ben Macintyre, Niall Ferguson is a capitalist running dog. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) became wildly successful, and I can see why − we'd all love to believe the Empire was great and noble. The first hundred pages are curiously dry, then he begins to offset his economic graphs and fixation on Scots with stories of derring do, imperial overreach and totally mad shit. This shouldn't be the only thing you read on empire, as there's a definite agenda underpinning its supposedly disinterested overview, and I don't personally agree with Ferguson's viewpoint (or indeed his insane conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia), but it's an interesting book.
I enjoyed The Devil in the White City last year, and thought Gary Krist's Empire of Sin (2014) might deliver more of the same. His book lacks the same laser focus, hopping along quite happily from 1890 to 1920, though the assorted stories of sex, jazz, murder and reform (but mostly murder, let's be honest) are zippily written, and there’s enough context about race, power and psychogeography for it to be of some value – if rarely enough for it to feel like heavyweight history. My usual unease with true crime reared its head near the end: I’m not sure I quite have the temperament or the stomach for it.
Finally, I nearly expired from boredom while reading Mary Banham's The Festival of Britain: A Land and Its People (2012), which is both desperately dry and dreadfully repetitive, doing little to evoke the experience of being there, instead delving into the ideological imperatives of various architectural journals, and endlessly restating its uncontroversial contention: that a festival subtitled ‘a land and its people’ was, by all accounts, preoccupied with the land and its people.
Music and film
I'd been meaning to read Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions Per Minute (2012) for a while, and a celebratory themed concert at London's JW3 gave me the requisite kick up the arse. It's a masterful, moving and at times very funny history of message music, with a flair for both the anecdotal and the analytical, looking (as the terrific title suggests) at 33 emblematic protest songs, and the events and artistic movements that spawned them. Lynskey’s chapters on Dylan, the Pistols and the Manics are so precise and perceptive, with such sharply drawn character studies, that when he was dealing with artists of whom I knew nothing – like Crass, Fela Kuti and the Dead Kennedys – I was sure I was in safe hands. The chapter on Chilean folk hero Jara is particularly affecting, and it’s lovely too to see the committed, mercurially gifted ‘60s lefty Phil Ochs given his due. (Conversely, I always find middle-class white people pontificating about hip hop slightly embarrassing, but this may be a problem with me; Lynskey does it with humour – and his eyes wide open.) That was the pick of the bunch this year, and I'm hoping to get around to his biography of Orwell's 1984 next year. More here.
Elia Kazan's 1988 autobiography, A Life, is one of the world's more problematic doorstops. It's a comprehensive portrait of an important creative artist and a shabby man, congratulating himself on half-recognising his failings. Because I didn't read enough in my 20s but still like showing off, I mentioned that book in my Record Collector piece on Brett Anderson, which included a review of Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn (2019), an excellent follow-up to Suede frontman Anderson's first volume of autobiography, Coal Black Mornings. I read two other musical memoirs: Johnny Marr's Set the Boy Free (2016) and Just for One Day by Louise Wener (2010), which were both alright.
Two other books about music underwhelmed, exhibiting contrasting failings. Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster (2019) – dealing with the music of 2016 – was too prosaic and functional; though Greil Marcus's The Old, Weird America (1997/2011) exhibited more insight into its subject (Dylan's extraordinary Basement Tapes), it was also unbearably pretentious.
Thanks to Malcolm Prince for recommending Ronald Haver's A Star Is Born (1988), which deals with the 1954 film. It's a superb book, not just a making-of (and an unmaking-of, and a remaking-of), but also a Hollywood history lesson, detective story and love story, as Haver chronicles the production of a mammoth, crucial piece of cinematic art, its partial destruction, and the campaign to find and restore its missing reels – which brings him front and centre. Beginning with a second-person tour that walks you around the Tinseltown in 1954 – and evokes the city better than anything else I have ever read – it captures a moment in history, as Fox’s CinemaScope captures the national imagination, and Jack Warner and his stumbling studio scramble to react. Their solution: to bank everything on the re-emergent popularity of difficult, Dexedrine-addicted former child star, Judy Garland. It's a great story, irresistibly told, though I imagine you have to be pretty interested in A Star Is Born to get as much out of this as I did.
Since it seems unlikely that we’ll get another biography of the cult wartime filmmaker, Humphrey Jennings, Kevin Jackson's engrossing, impassioned if imperfect book (2003) is required reading for fans. The same is true of Christina Rice's Ann Dvorak biog (2013) – subtitled 'Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel' – which does a stellar job of explaining why the most promising of starts – Dvorak was a star at 20, stealing the show in Howard Hawks' Scarface – failed to translate to an enduring career. Rice is naturally funny, and an artful writer, finding what she can (Dvorak left no personal papers and has no surviving family), then marshalling her research with considerable finesse. More here.
People with no discernible talent can be good subjects for non-fiction too. The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (2013) is an entertaining memoir about the making of The Room – and Sestero’s warped relationship with its bizarre, mysterious, tragi-comic creator, Tommy Wiseau. It starts brilliantly, though runs out of steam a little towards the end, bending to formula in its self-justification and strained attempts to render the story inspirational. The funniest bits, and there are many funny bits, are Sestero’s deadpan descriptions of the film itself.
Reel History (2015), meanwhile, collects most of Alex von Tunzelmann's Guardian columns of the same name, which scrutinised movies for their historical accuracy. I used to read the feature regularly, and I’d dipped into the book since I picked it up, but sitting down and reading it cover to cover – immersing yourself in the film history, the real history and the authorial voice – reminded me of the fun I had devouring Dorothy Parker’s non-fic last year. Arranging the entries by when the films were set (an inspired decision), the author wears her learning lightly as she travels from 10 Million Years BC to the Wikileaks scandal, via Pocahontas, Tolstoy and the Titanic, the essays sharp, concise and witty – even laugh-out-loud funny. Special mention for Laurence Olivier in Khartoum looking “like he has escaped from a racist panto”, and a comprehensive overview of the lot of Native Americans from 1492 to the present day that concludes, “... [they] suffer significantly higher rates of poverty, alcoholism and suicide than the American average. On the bright side, they can paint with all the colours of the wind.” If you like history, cinema and laughing, you couldn't do much better than to pick up a copy.
My favourite sports book of the year is about someone who didn't quite make the grade. As United-mad kids in 1994, we knew that Ben Thornley was going to be the next big thing. Everyone said it. He was the best since Best. He’d scored in every round of the FA Youth Cup in 1992: shining in a side that included Beckham, Butt, Giggs, Gary Neville and Robbie Savage. Then, on the cusp of first-team success, auditioning for a FA Cup semi-final spot, he was wiped out by a journeyman defender in a reserve game, and he never quite got it back again. Tackled: The Class of '92 Star Who Never Got to Graduate (2019), co-authored with ghost writer Dan Poole, is Thornley's story. Elegantly mixing its subject's reminiscences with those of schoolfriends, teachers, coaches and fellow players, it's amusing, honest and deeply affecting, its emotional heft accentuated intentionally by the non-linear structure (the book begins with the horror tackle and ends just before, alternating between pre- and post-injury) and perhaps unwittingly by the prominence granted the FA Youth Cup Final, which has attained a near-mythic status in modern football folklore, but remains a mere footnote for those teammates who ‘made it’. For Thornley, that was as good as it got. A bit more here.
Vic Marks' Original Spin (2019) is one of the gentlest, most genial books I’ve read, though it rather limps to the finish. I've just now realised that the title is a play on 'original sin'. I read the book four months ago. It's a lot better than Leo McKinstry's Geoff Boycott: A Cricketing Hero (2005/2010). Ruy Castro's biography of Garrincha – The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil's Forgotten Footballing Hero (1995/2004) – is also rather a dreary devoir. You get the facts, neatly established and marshalled into chronological order, but there’s no poetry. And since the sheer joy of Garrincha is absent – the transcendence he found on the field, the exultance he inspired – when the authors strip away the attendant myths, all that’s left is a selfish man (with a 10-inch penis), drinking himself to death.
I enjoyed Gotta Get Theroux This (2019) by Louis Theroux. This autobiography starts off lightheartedly, then becomes increasingly introspective – as Theroux dwells on his romantic relationships – and more challenging, as he deals with Savile. What comes across most strongly is how nuanced his view of humanity is. He can also find a good joke, a brilliant turn of phrase or a literare allusion in the tightest corner. And there simply aren’t many writers around today with such an understanding of how funny the word ‘willy’ is. One slight shortcoming is that his memory doesn’t seem to be particularly good, so the earlier sections can sometimes consist of him simply describing familiar scenes from Weird Weekends, while the behind-the-curtain material about TV production probably isn’t of wide interest. But he’s extremely honest and the book gets better and better as it progresses, exploring his own character and mirroring the growing complexity of both his work and his worldview. I read Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out (2014) as Theroux had recommended it on a podcast. In it, novelist Kirn befriends an eccentric scion of the Rockefeller clan – only he’s not a Rockefeller, he’s a murderer. It's a compulsive page-turner told with a dash of class, some eminently plausible armchair analysis and insane levels of unwitting, unwanted access.
Sara Pascoe's second book, Sex Power Money (2019) is less focused than Animal, and seems less assured: at times you’re just watching someone argue with themselves. In one way that’s not a bad thing – the issues she’s discussing are complex and many-sided, and earlier it could seem like she was presenting contestable theory as established fact – but it can also feel disordered and incomplete, a draft away from being ready. I enjoyed it a lot more than Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971) which was mostly just irritating. I wish I hadn't bought the sequel at the same time.
Thanks for reading. Thanks also to everyone who gave me books, lent me books, or recommended books to me in 2019, and to Jamie for organising the Brett Anderson piece.
And if for some unaccountable reason you still want MORE, then sneaking in under the wire at the end of 2018 (after I compiled this thing) were this Sunday Times collection of short stories – which I read for the Rooney – Seumas Milne's partway-convincing Miners' Strike conspiracy-athon, and the memoirs of musician David Ford.