At the tail end of 2015 I reviewed the 23 books that had entertained and enlightened me over the course of the year. My friend Henry Gee, formerly of this parish, managed nearly twice that number. In a guest post full of his characteristic wit, he lists his top ten.
On going through the list of 41 books read this year, I was amazed to come across titles I’d completely forgotten I’d read (which single fact shows the benefit of keeping a notebook.) Some of these books were terrific, by super authors – but they seem to have gone down without touching the sides. Others were old favourites, though most were new (to me, anyway.) Two, including Nick Lane’s ‘The Vital Question’ were sent to me to review by The Literary Review. This is such a fine magazine that I bought my father (a big reader) a subscription. It must be good, After all, they ask me to write things for them.
So here, without further ado, is my shortlist of those titles that in my opinion stand out from the crowd, in that they managed to be enjoyable at the time and are likely to remain long in the memory. All of these were new to me. I have counted them down from ten, though of course such a ranking is pretty rough, especially as the books cover a wealth of subjects and styles.
10. Neil McGregor – A History Of The World In 100 Objects
The chief panjandrum of the British Museum uses objects from that venerable Institution’s vast collections to tell the history of human culture from the earliest times to the present day. It’s the kind of book you feel you should dip into, but when you start you just can’t stop, and end up reading it like a novel, wondering what kind of object awaits you beyond the next page. The fascinating histories of the individual objects and the wider context allow one to forgive a tendency to preachy political correctness here and there.
9. Nick Lane – The Vital Question
The insides of living cells, whether from bacteria or human beings, look remarkably similar, right down to the level of molecules. It’s something we tend to take for granted, but the reason why is perhaps the single most important unanswered question in biology. Scientist Nick Lane goes into the reasons, and in so doing pulls out enthralling conjectures and perhaps unstoppable hypotheses. That he does so with a brio that threatens to boil over is part of the book’s charm, although it repays very careful reading even for those who have a scientific background. An important book.
8. Steve Silberman – Neurotribes
The fact that I have a daughter diagnosed with Asperger’s (notwithstanding inasmuch as which I score well over 30 on Simon Baron Cohen’s Asperg-o-meter) naturally drew me to this comprehensive history of Asperger’s and Autism, from Hans Asperger’s ‘Little Professors’ in pre-war Vienna right up to modern day SF fandom. I knew quite a lot of this already, but before this book nothing I’d read pulled it all together. It’s not Silberman’s fault that I find his particular way with words somewhat grating (he is a journalist for the US magazine Wired and writes hipster bloggy-style) but I soon overcame this. What struck me most about the subject was how much we know about mental illness comes from Jewish doctors who fled the Nazis and flourished in the US – and also how such history, as much as medical knowledge, has shaped our appreciation of what constitutes personality traits and mental health.
7. David Adam – The Man Who Couldn’t Stop
A brave and frank account of a crippling affliction by – as it happens – a colleague of mine at Nature. Adam suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and in this short book he tells his own story interspersed with what we know about its genesis and the various ways that mental illness is classified. Adam is now doing well after a long battle, but the wider story is not so happy, for it is apparent (and I know this from my own experiences with depression) that the treatment of mental illness has barely advanced beyond the leeches-and-bloodletting stage.
6. Ben Elton – The First Casualty
I first came across Ben Elton back in the 1980s when he was a comedian, and some of his novels (especially ‘Gridlock’) are side-splittingly funny. ‘The First Casualty’ is very much darker. It concerns a somewhat priggish and sanctimonious policeman, who, in the First World War, finds that a strict regard for logic and truth leaves him the wrong side of the law. Jailed as a conscientious objector he ends up released to investigate a case of murder on the Western Front in the hell of Passchendaele in 1917. The novel brings the horror of trench warfare to life like no other book I have ever read, the aim being to raise questions of what constitutes murder, when people are being blown to bits in the cause of war. The novel stays just the right side of preachy, and is an engrossing and terrifying read.
5. Robert Harris – An Officer And A Spy
A retelling of the Dreyfus Affair as the imagined memoir of one of the (real) people who was there at the time. Almost all the characters really existed, and the events happened more or less as stated. Harris is one of those thriller writers who really does their research and yet wears it lightly, turning the story into a terrific and memorable read. His best since ‘Pompeii’.
4. Virgil (trans. W. F. Jackson Knight) – The Aeneid
I’ve been revisiting the classics this year – Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey – so one of these really had to make the cut. I loved Homer, but Virgil (in this English prose translation) was a real surprise. What stands out is the fusion of lush, lyrical phrasing with what – when it comes down to it – is unremitting and graphic carnage. Virgil took Homeric ingredients and polished them to an even more lustrous sheen. Those who criticize as inauthentic a movie such as ‘300’ – a highly stylized rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae – fail to understand that it pays much greater homage to the source material than people might imagine.
3. Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White
I read this after reading a modern novel cast as a memoir by Wilkie Collins (Dan Simmons’ ‘Drood’ – see below.) When I did, I could only ask myself where this Victorian ‘sensation’ novelist and friend of Charles Dickens had been all my life. True, a long time ago I had started ‘The Moonstone’ but hadn’t got far. Perhaps now I am old and wizened enough to appreciate this mixture of terrific writing, trashy melodrama, highly contrived whodunit and gothic styling. The story is a rather ropey mystery but what stand out are the characters (the creepy Count Fosco is the best.) After reading this you realize that Collins was something of a pioneer. ‘The Woman In White’ was a hit when it was first published in 1860. Writers of mystery with a yen for the gothic, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to Daphne Du Maurier – are in Collins’ debt.
2. Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
When people say that they don’t much like Dickens my usual response is that I never get invited to that kind of party. Like most these days I only ever read Dickens because his novels feature on school examination syllabi. I read parts of ‘Great Expectations’ as a schoolboy; ‘Hard Times’ for my own A-levels; and picked up ‘Oliver Twist’ as it was a set book for my sister’s O-levels. Only later did I realize how much I had enjoyed these, so after having read Dan Simmons’ ‘Drood’ and Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman In White’ (see elsewhere in this essay) I felt I needed a Dickensian education. ‘The Pickwick Papers’ was Dickens’ first novel, a rollicking portrait of England in the 1820s, before Victoria and most of all before the railways completely changed the face of England, when people got around by stagecoach and stayed at coaching inns. The social background was, for me, quite an education (helped immeasurably by editorial notes from Mark Wormald: mine was the Penguin Classics edition.) The story – it’s more a soap opera – is basically one damn thing after another as Mr Pickwick and his friends get themselves in and out of various comedic scrapes. It starts a bit chaotically and only gets into its stride when we meet Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s valet, confidant, source of homespun wisdom and everyday superhero, a cross between Falstaff and Sam Gamgee. The various meetings between Sam and his father are pure comedy gold, like Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett – or Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Keith Richards in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. Amazing to think that Dickens wrote it when he was twenty-four. With little of the tub-thumping social crusading of his later works, Pickwick is pure enjoyment.
1. Dan Simmons – Drood
Another tale – qua ‘The Dreyfus Affair’ – done as an imagined memoir of real characters and events. This time the narrator is the novelist, hypochondriac and opium addict Wilkie Collins, and the tale is of the last years of his friend Charles Dickens. Brilliantly researched, it manages to be playful and fantastical within the confines of history. Simmons uses Collins’ opium addiction to give the fabric of reality a thorough work-out: reminiscent of Peter Shaffer’s treatment of Mozart and Salieri in his play ‘Amadeus’. Only more gothic. Lots more gothic. (I do LOVE gothic.) This novel got me back into the classics – I read ‘The Woman In White’ immediately afterwards, and ‘The Pickwick’ Papers’ soon after (though I have yet to tackle Dickens’ last, unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.) I award ‘Drood’ the enviable accolade of my Read of the Year.