The books on my Christmas wish-list this year… a wide-ranging and very personal selection at the end of what has been a good year – at least for book-lovers.
Once upon a very long time ago when I was about 10 or 11 years old, one of my Primary School teachers chalked a saying on the blackboard (I told you it was a very long time ago) that I have never forgotten: Once you learn to read you will always be free. I think it stuck with me because I happened to be at that wonderful stage as a young reader when I was just beginning to understand how it was possible to lose yourself entirely in the pages of a good book. Fifty years later, even in the busiest periods of the school term, I still make time for a few minutes late at night or early in the morning to free myself from thoughts of work by escaping into someone else’s story. During the holidays, particularly when I am at home back in the UK for Christmas and the days are so short, the weather so dismal and the log fire so inviting, the opportunity to spend a little longer in another world is irresistible.
It is hardly surprising then that over the years books have become the go-to option for friends and family looking to tick me off on their Christmas shopping list. Here are some of the delights I’m hoping to find under the tree this year. I haven’t read any of them yet so the comments are taken from a range of reviews – perhaps I’ll be able to say more about some of my favourites in 2017.
My favourite books of the summer were Ian McEwan’s surprisingly credible ‘Nutshell’ and ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry. In the past few months I’ve been reading quite a lot of Young Adult fiction so that I can chat to students about the books on this year’s Sakura Medal list and I’ve also spent a fair bit of time travelling so I’m pretty much up to date with the latest crime fiction – ideal for long plane journeys! Over the Christmas break it will be good to settle down with something a bit more satisfying again, and I’m looking forward to unwrapping one of these on Christmas morning.
The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martell
Yann Martell has received some mixed reviews in the 15 years since his astonishing Life of Pi – which was turned into an equally astonishing film. This is his fourth novel and it looks set to win him more awards. Opening in Lisbon in 1904, The High Mountains of Portugal tells the story of Tomas, a young man who stumbles across an old journal hinting at a deep secret. Spanning four centuries and two continents, the novel weaves three different stories into a remarkable tapestry exploring the age-old themes of love and loss.
My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
Long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout has already earned much critical acclaim. It recounts the story of an abusive and dysfunctional childhood and of the heart-warming reawakening of a relationship between mother and daughter. Set almost entirely in a hospital room and told over a five-day period during which memories and emotions both painful and beautiful gradually resurface, this looks destined to be one of the books of the year.
Autumn, Ali Smith
That was quick! The very first post-Brexit novel, this is apparently the opening instalment of a cyclical series of four inter-connected books all expected to be named after the seasons. Described as bold and brilliant, dealing with the body blow of Brexit to offer us hope, it seems that Ali Smith who won the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, has captured something of the essence of the sullen popular mood of the past twelve months and written a galloping symphony of the sold and discarded.
I’ve always enjoyed a good story and was fortunate enough to have teachers at school and at university who instilled in me a deep-seated love of literature but it took me a little longer to appreciate works of non-fiction, at least in terms of reading for pleasure. These days, though, I find myself increasingly drawn to works that offer new insights and opportunities to learn. This could have been quite an extensive list, but in the end I’ve chosen two very different books to delve into this Christmas.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari
It’s more than two years since Harari’s Sapiens raced us through 150,000 years of human history in just 400 pages. It certainly made an impression, eliciting favourable reviews from such high-placed fans as Bill Gates and President Obama. Gates called it provocative, stimulating and engaging and gave it to his wife to read on holiday because he was so keen to talk to her about it, while Obama was no less fulsome in his appreciation:
It’s a sweeping history of the human race, from 40,000 feet. It talks about some core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization, that we take for granted.
The last section of Sapiens turns to the future of mankind and the vision it offers is not a happy one; perhaps the age of Homo sapiens as we recognise it is coming to an end. Homo Deus looks more closely at what tomorrow might bring but it offers little in the way of certainty: In 1800 it was possible to think meaningfully about what the world of 1900 would be like and how we might fit in. That’s history: a sequence of events in which human beings play the leading part. But the world of 2100 is at present almost unimaginable. We have no idea where we’ll fit in, if at all. We may have built a world that has no place for us. I can’t wait to read it – and I will be gift-wrapping a copy or two for friends so that we can enjoy some good-natured festive arguments about what it has to say!
A Group Photograph, Andrew Tatham
The culmination of twenty one years of painstaking research and astonishing creativity based on a First World War group photograph, this beautiful book takes the opposite approach to the broad-brush grand sweep of Homo Deus. The lives of all 46 men in the photograph are told through artefacts, letters, poems, stories, an animated film, family tree drawings, photographs, photomontages, memorials, old stained glass windows, new stained glass windows, and a new group photograph. In telling their specific stories and making artwork based on them, Andrew Tatham hopes to share with us all something about the mysteries of life and death, about how we choose to deal with whatever life chooses for us, and about how we might be remembered. Something a bit different to explore and enjoy.
This has been quite a striking year for biographical and autobiographical writing. We’ve had Charles Foster’s weirdly original ‘Being a Beast’ and the thought-provoking account of the migration of Ian Buruma’s future grandparents as they seek ‘Their Promised Land’ in violently troubled times. There was also Olivia Laing’s well-received memoir, ‘The Lonely City’ which I have to confess I have yet to read. For my Christmas reading, however, I have chosen two very different books – John Le Carré’s ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ and, by way of contrast, Bruce Springsteen’s inevitably titled, ‘Born to Run.’
The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré
In an enigmatic introduction le Carré writes: These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life? Le Carré – or David Cornwell, as he is really called – is now 84, and the message of his first work of autobiographical non-fiction is: You’ve waited this long to hear from me; what makes you think I can be trusted? He began writing novels when he was a spy and continued to explore that dark territory, though his official career in the secret service lasted no more than five years. (He resigned in 1964, after the publication of his first bestseller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.) Ever since, people have assumed his work must have continued in some shadier capacity, but only, perhaps, because his novels were so convincing. As le Carré himself explains here, when he denies any continued employment as a spy, the inevitable response is: Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? It should be an intriguing read!
Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to the pages the same honesty, humour, and originality found in his songs. He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as The Big Bang: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candour, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work and shows us why the song Born to Run reveals more than we previously realized.
This is a genre that I find increasingly fascinating, partly perhaps because so much of the natural world now finds itself under threat. Over the summer I thoroughly enjoyed reading John Lewis-Stempel’s ‘The Running Hare.’ It gets my vote as the natural history, or even the non-fiction, book of the year but it already sits on my bookshelves so here are two more that I’m looking forward to exploring in due course.
Tide, Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Perhaps it’s because I’m an islander at heart that this has a particular appeal. Half of the world’s population lives in coastal regions lapped by tidal waters, yet most of us know so little about the tide – a key force on our planet that has altered the course of history and will transform our future. This story is punctuated here by notable tidal episodes in history, from Caesar’s thwarted invasion of Britain to the catastrophic flooding of Venice, and interwoven with a rich folklore that continues to inspire art and literature today. With Aldersey-Williams as our guide to the most feared and celebrated tidal features on the planet, from the original maelstrom in Scandinavia to the world’s highest tides in Nova Scotia to the crumbling coast of East Anglia, the importance of the tide, and the way it has shaped – and will continue to shape – our civilization, becomes startlingly clear.
The Making of the British Landscape, Nicholas Crane
Nicholas Crane is excellent at describing climate, geology and shifting shorelines, but is at his best when weaving together earth-shaping events with humankind and civilisation. At the very end of the 16th century, a young Scottish cartographer marked on his map that the most north-westerly part of mainland Britain was simply an area of Extreem Wilderness: it was the last wilderness left on an increasingly populated island. Crane writes: ‘…to care about a place, you must know its story.’ He has given us this story.
For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton
The triumph of Duncan Hamilton’s moving, inspiring book is not just that it covers brilliantly an exhilarating, unlikely sporting career. His finer achievement is to give a sense of a good man. There are moments when Hamilton seems to protest gently that he struggles to find anything remotely negative to say about Liddell. The best of biographies normally need this grit to produce the perfect oyster. Hamilton is left with a subject who is universally praised as an athlete, lauded as a preacher and revered as an inmate in a Chinese camp under Japanese control in the Second World War. There is much of the saint in Liddell and it seems perverse for even the most cynical to deny it. This is a man who led friends, trainers and fellow prison inmates to name their sons after him. It is the most sincere of tributes.
Forever Young, Oliver Kay
This is a book by one of the country’s top football correspondents about an Ulster-born player, Adrian Doherty, who is known to virtually no one. Even so, the most knowledgeable managers and players in Britain have been keen to laud the skills of the Strabane youngster, who was once tipped to become one of the all-time greats at Manchester United, but who ended up dying an early and lonely death a long way from Co Tyrone, in Holland, where he fell into a canal. Oliver Kay’s magnificently researched and superbly crafted book, Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius, is part affectionate and uplifting profile, part heart-breaking tragedy wrought from a career that promised so much, but delivered so little. It is also a searing exploration and ultimately an indictment of how Adrian was let down by arguably the planet’s biggest football club.