Posts from December 2015
December 20th, 2015
Time now to look at the three specific sub-genres of fiction that mean so much to me: murder mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy, and romance novels! The never-ending abundance of books in these sub-genres always makes me scratch my head a little when book-business friends of mine collectively lament periodic ‘dry spells’ in the publishing calendar. When one is trying to read a significant chunk of all the new general trade publications that appear in a given year (as indeed why wouldn’t one? Is one lazy or something?), one learns very quickly that there are no dry spells. In fact, when you factor in the ever-burgeoning self-publishing world, the very idea of ‘dry spells’ becomes virtually sacrilegious. So I plowed right into the whole mass of it all, and when it comes to murder mysteries, these were the year’s best:
10 The Bottom of Your Heart by Maurizio Giovanni (Europa Editions) – We begin with a bit of an equivocation, since in 2015 the wonderful, discerning folks at Europa Editions actually brought out two installments in Maurizio Giovanni’s fantastic series of novels starring Commissario Ricciardi, this book and Viper, and both were every bit as uniformly excellent as everything else this author has ever written – so either one could have taken a spot on this list. They all star a morose young man who’s cursed with the ability to see and hear the last moments of the dead, and they’re all superbly heartfelt, atmospheric little masterpieces.
9 Two Bronze Pennies by Chris Nickson (Severn House) – The casual visitor to the city of Leeds in, say, the 1960s might have been forgiven for thinking the place was just about the most wretched hive of scum and villainy west of Valletta, but that Leeds can’t even faintly compete with the stew of the 1890s Leeds that forms the backdrop for Chris Nickson’s sharply good second adventure of DI Tom Harper in Two Bronze Pennies. And Nickson layers the filth of the place with the viciousness of the crimes he has Harper confront. As with so many titles on this list, this is part of a series well worth following.
8 See Also Murder by Larry Sweazy (Seventh Street) – We go from the crowded back-alleys of 19th century Leeds to the wide open spaces of mid-twentieth century North Dakota, where the redoubtable Marjorie Trumaine is doing some freelance indexing work to make ends meet when the local sheriff – in the time-honored tradition of amateur-sleuthing everywhere – brings her an oddity that leads to a mystery that opens onto danger. Sweazy writes it all with an easy, low-key intelligence, and the plot’s climax has a small twist I actually didn’t see coming.
7 The Ville Rat by Martin Limon (Soho Crime) – Once again, a wild location-change, this time to South Korea in the 1970s, where Sergeants Sueno and Bascom work their crimes on a hostile border, surrounded by potential enemies, and scorned even by their fellow servicemen. You can read my full review here.
6 Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake) by CJ Sansom (Mulholland Books) – This latest Tudor era adventure of hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake navigating the treacheries in the court of King Henry VIII may just be my favorite of book in a very, very strong series – probably because it features the dying king’s last wife, the amazing Katherine Parr. You can read my review here.
5 Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry (Ballantine) – Very, very few long-running series actually seem to get better as they go along, and this is one of them. Perry grows more and more comfortable giving us the adventures of Thames River Police officer William Monk and his intrepid wife Hester, and this latest one features a double example of the creature Sherlock Holmes himself ranked as the first of criminals: doctors gone bad. And even though the Monk series is over twenty novels long, there isn’t a bit of lag or dumb momentum in these pages – instead, they crackle with talent and dry wit. And like so many of the authors on this list, Perry has mastered the art of making each book read like the first in the series – downright inviting for the newcomer.
4 Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw) by William McIlvanney (Europa Editions) This third installment in McIllvanny’s Jack Laidlaw adventures finds the Glasgow detective so grief-stricken over the car accident death of his brother that at first he seems to be imagining a crime where none existed, trying to read more into his brother’s death than the simple bad luck it was – and thanks to McIlvanny’s fierce cleverness, there turn out to be depths after all. You can read my full review here
3 Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta (Back Bay Books) – The plot of this adrenaline-fueled novel has a calculated simplicity: the teenaged witness to a violent crime is hidden, for his own protection, in a remote youth wilderness program until such time as the police can catch the two sociopathic killers who committed the crime. But the killers elude the police and murder their way closer and closer to the young witness, forcing the rag-tag group of adults around him to see whether or not they can protect him. And the flawless execution of this plot is likewise deceptively simple – but Koryta tells a very lean story, and his action sequences are nearly perfect.
2 A Chorus of Innocents by P F Chisholm (Poisoned Pen Press) – It’s back to the Tudor era for this latest book by P F Chisholm starring Sir Robert Carey, this time to late 1592 when poor Sir Robert is suffering from a toothache (even in 2015, one can sympathize), and the already-married object of his passion, Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, has a hysterical pregnant woman on her doorstep, and like every Robert Carey adventure, this one is full of Chisholm’s prattish sense of humor and vast amounts of smoothly-integrated period research.
5 Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell (Scribner) – A necessarily melancholy ending to our list is this, the best mystery of 2015 – and the last mystery novel written by the great Ruth Rendell. It’s a typically twisty and psychologically brutal tale of feckless people doing creepily awful things to other feckless people – in this case a sleazily opportunistic new landlord and his increasingly nefarious patient, each trying to out-guess each other, and the whole murky drama brought vividly to life by the author’s singular voice. That voice will be sorely missed.
December 19th, 2015
The timidity of the English-language book-buying public has been a byword for the last fifty years, and I’m always gratified by how much it’s belied by the breadth and variety of books-in-translation every year. Still only a fraction of the whole, I grant you, but even so: all of these, the best ten translated works of 2015, were in the marketplace to compete, and as with all translations, they opened windows to alien worlds – some more alien than others. Here are the top ten such windows:
10. Notes from a Dead House by Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf) – What had always struck me as one of Dostoevsky’s weakest and rotest efforts was here transformed by a translating duo whose own efforts usually tend to irritate me. So the year’s best translations starts off with a classic win-win. You can read my full review here.
9. The Iliad of Homer translated by Peter Green (University of California Press) – It seems like a match made on Olympus: our greatest living classicist, translating our greatest surviving work of classical literature. And I went into it with commensurate joy only to stumble a few times. My foremost thought when finishing my first reading was “It’s not a triumph” – which felt damning enough. But subsequent re-readings have deepened my understanding of some of the things Green is doing in his translation, and I look forward to learning more with a decade more of re-readings. You can read my full review here.
8. The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons by Liu Hsieh, translated by Vincent Yu-Chung Shih (NYRB) – This first and amazing work of Chinese literary criticism reads like some kind of incredibly engaging cross between Plutarch and Montaigne. It introduces the Western reader to a barrage of new authors, new works, new worlds, and it does so in such a lively way that even the alien detials work in its favor. You can read my full review here.
7. Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated by Humphrey Davies (New York University Press) – This one was the biggest surprise of the year for me in the world of translated literature: it’s a long and immensely detailed autobiographical novel by a towering, foundational figure in Arabic literature, and in Davies’ rendition it rollicks, shaggy-dog style, from Lebanon to Egypt to Malta to Tunis to England to France as the main character seeks, like a brainy version of Candide, his place in the world. I confess I’d never heard of the book before these two volumes came in the mail, and I spent a very happy week submerged in their stories-within-stories. NYU Press is to be congratulated for making this work available to the English-speaking world.
6. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Dennis Washburn (Norton) – I have a very active history of engaging with this enormously wonderful novel; I had notebooks full of reactions to Arthur Waley’s translation, notebooks full of reactions to Edward Seidensticker’s translation, notebooks full of reactions to Royall Tyler’s translation (and some public reactions, in the now-legendary “Summer of Genji”) – and I contine to evolve my reactions to this intensely smart new translation by Dennis Washburn. You can read my full review here.
5. Barbarian Spring by Jonas Luscher, translated by Peter Lewis (Haus) – A Swiss businessman attends a Tunisian wedding held in a Berber desert oasis, and, as if that setup didn’t make things clear enough, all Hell breaks loose. The wondefully dry narrative tone here (perfectly conveyed by Peter Lewis) virtually required a quick re-reading. You can read my full review here
4. The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright (Bloomsbury) – The person who originally recommended this book to me characterized it as “the 21st century version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,” and although I can see why – Alsanousi writes very passionately and very well about the plight of immigrant workers in the Gulf States – I quickly discovered while reading it that there’s a good deal more than that going on in these pages. This is the story of the young son of a Filipino mother and a Kuwaiti father, at home in neither world and yearning to belong somewhere, and in its subtly-portrayed open emotion, it’s a very brave book in its way, one that deserves to become a classic.
3. The Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Andrew Davis (New York Review) – This one is cheating just a bit, since I don’t think it’s actually scheduled to come out in the US until just after the start of the new year and so technically belongs to 2016, but an entire long year will have passed until the next Stevereads hoe-down, and I wanted to sing the thing’s praises now, while it’s still a new book! Davis has here done a fantastic job of conveying the steely intelligence of his poet, writing from exile, half-broken by the repeated tortures he suffered at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen, and Davis’s notes are first-rate as well. I wasn’t a big fan of this poet before I read this wrenching volume – and now I may very well make up for lost time.
2. Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press) – I missed this slim, explosive little novel (about the return of Adolf Hitler, to a world he never made) when it first appeared and only encountered it once it had been translated into English – after which I promptly fell in love and began proselytizing the book to every reader (and every critic) I knew. I shudder to think the US paperback edition may junk what is the single best book-cover design of the year, so by all means, buy a hardcover and read it.
1. The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Deborah Levy-Bertherat, translated by Adriana Hunter (Other Press) – Strange indeed that the best work-in-translation I read in 2015 was a YA novel, but there you have it – I calls ’em like I sees ’em. This story of a young woman uncovering mysteries in the life of her bestselling-author great uncle is smartly written and refreshingly folded and re-folded upon itself. Reading it, I fully understood why it was the talk of Paris for its season, with hand-held copies blossoming on the Metro like dandelions. It didn’t catch on to anything like that extent in the States, but c’est la guerre.
December 18th, 2015
Once again we turn to the Guilty Pleasures of the book world, the books that either shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t take up as much of your time as they end up doing, or even books you kind of hate yourself for liking – or all three at the same time. I gave a fair amount of reading time to guilty pleasures in 2015, not only out of wholesome enjoyment but also, occasionally, for professional reasons (the reading public, it turns out, sometimes likes to see its guilty pleasures reviewed for money), and I’ve ranked the best of them for your own guilty pleasure:
10. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee (HarperCollins) – How could this deplorable book not feature somewhere on a list like this? It was never meant to be published; it was printed to make its author’s estate a pile of quick cash; it turned a hero of American literature into a quotidian bigot; it sparked three solid weeks of bloviating from the literati – guilty pleasures hardly come guiltier than this.
9. 17 Carnations by Andrew Morton (Grand Central) – It’s so wonderfully easy to hate the grasping, sordid, psychologically twisted couple known to history as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the abdicated King of England and his frequently-divorced American harridan of a wife. And although Andrew Morton does his salacious best, it’s probably never going to be possible to do much more than hate them – the Windsor family did a quick but very efficient job scrubbing the records in London, France, and the Bahamas of any paper-trail of the actual treason of which Duke was almost certainly guilty. Hence the pleasure.
8. The Autobiography of James T. Kirk, with David Goodman (Titan Books) – As I’ve had occasion to note in the past, the folks at Titan Books have a downright knack for Guilty Pleasure books, and with this one, they’ve very nearly taken the concept to another level: the autobiography of a fictional character who was originally invented as a bland stereotype. But five decades of TV and movies and comics and books have added plenty of story to the character (and the various stages of William Shatner’s portrayal of the character that whole time haven’t hurt the process either), and this book attempts to distill all of that into a narrative with a coherent timeline, nodding here to a classic TV episode, there to a classic movie moment, and filling in some blank spots along the way. A Star Trek fan would have to be made of sterner stuff than I am to pass this up.
7. The Executioner: Perilous Cargo by Don Pendleton (Gold Eagle) – Really, any of the endless string of “Executioner” novels churned out by Palo Alto computer algorithms under the pen-name “Don Pendleton” would qualify abundantly as a guilty pleasure, but this one had the added guilt of giving our stalwart he-manly hero a pert little tushie on the cover. The plot of this one is strictly from Column A: the Russians, the Chinese, a black-market nuke gone missing (as opposed to Column B: the Medellin cartel, the Mob, a CIA thumb-drive gone rogue), but it hardly matters: the good guy never sleeps, never misses, and never thinks about anything but The Job – it’s the perfect mental getaway.
6. At Night She Cries, While He Rides His Steed by Ross Patterson (Regan Arts) – Some guilty pleasures are actually intended to be what they are, and no example of that in 2015 was more dramatic than this send-up of Romance and Western novels, in which a perfectly manly hero is put through his paces with the author’s tongue firmly in cheek. I was a bit disappointed this book didn’t get more attention from the critics, but then again, even the ones who saw it probably had no idea what the Hell it was. Readers in the mood to giggle shouldn’t miss it, however.
5. The League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris (Quirk Books) – Certainly the rare combination of superheroes and Schadenfreude is good grounds for a guilty pleasure or two, and this delightful book is full of both. These are the superheroes who never made it to prime time – the fat superheroes, the hobo superheroes, the robot superheroes, even the dead-but-still-kicking superheroes (although I persist in saying that one example of the latter, Kid Eternity, gets a bad rap in his entry – he was a childhood favorite of mine and has great untapped potential!), all served with with fake sympathy and withering scorn, perfect wasting an hour or two.
4. White Plague by James Abel (Berkley) – As we’ve already covered, he-man adventure novels are de facto guilty pleasures – no matter how good (or bad) they are, you can always be reading something more worthwhile. The “Executioner” novels are notoriously just about the worst of the sub-genre (now that my beloved “Last Ranger” and his post-apocalyptic pit bull are long vanished in a cloud of radioactive dust), and these thrillers by James Abel just may be the best of that same sub-genre: these books are what you give your non-reader dad if you’re fiendish plan is eventually to move him to LeCarre. This one’s about a stranded plague-ship and the one US hero who might be able to save the day, and Abel is so talented you won’t be even slightly tempted to hide the book’s cover on the subway.
3. Yurei by Zack Davisson (Chin Music Press) – What could better characterize a guilty pleasure than reading a serious (well, semi-) study of a thing that doesn’t exist? The human identity – heart, soul, mind, memories, the whole ball of string – is 100 percent entirely the product of the brain’s engrams firing with oxygen-rich blood. Once that blood and oxygen stop, the identity shuts off like a light-switch – and that’s it. No Heaven. No Hell. No personal continuation of any kind. In other words: there’s no such thing as ghosts. And yet, Davisson not only writes a highly-detailed study of the Japanese ghosts known as yurei, he writes a mighty entertaining study too. You can read my full review here.
2. How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke (Aurum Press) – Again: the particular guilty pleasure of reading about things that manifestly don’t exist: in this case flying saucers with little alien visitors inside. David Clarke writes a hum-dinger of a social history of this phenomenon – its genesis, its predictable patterns, its cultural dominance, and the, shall we say suggestible people who keep it going. It’s all so entertaining, you’ll occasionally forget what a colossal waste of time it is.
1. The Santangelos by Jackie Collins (St. Martin’s) – There was never any real doubt: any year that a Santangelo novel appears from Jackie Collins, that year’s race for the #1 best Guilty Pleasure is a fait accompli. And this novel is an utterly glorious case-in-point: Lust! Betrayal! Violence! Saucy 1970s dialogue! Nonsensical cotton-candy “plot”! It’s all so smoothly done that you read it while lounging by the poolside even if you’re actually reading it in your basement laundry room in wintry Omaha. The only real shock? That our beloved author is now gone and will delight us with no more guilty pleasures of the kind she consistently did better than anybody.
December 17th, 2015
We begin our 2015 Stevereads year-end festivities with a glance back at a healthy barometer of the book-world around us. That book-world is only as strong as its memory, so a very good gauge of the health of the Republic of Letters at any given time is the state of its reprints, the extent to which it remembers the infinite glories on which it’s built. And the reprints in 2015 were in fine shape, showing a nice breadth and some genuinely quirky choices. Here were the best of the bunch:
10 Avengers Omnibus by Kurt Busiek & George Perez (Marvel) – As much as I loved this run on Marvel’s Avengers when it first started in the late 1990s, I had no idea that a) it would last for so many great issues or b) that it would be the last grand, traditional iteration of Marvel’s mightiest team ever to appear. That admittedly adds a strong element of nostalgia to reading this enormous omnibus edition of the run, but it would make for great re-reading in any case.
9 Wonder Woman Omnibus by George Perez (DC Comics) – Ditto this 1987-88 run on DC’s flagship superheroine by fan favorite artist George Perez: I loved it the first time through, loved the texture of it, the visual care to give us a Wonder Woman thoroughly returned to her roots in classical mythology, loved the almost stodgy pacing Perez’s various writers used, the better to showcase the beautiful, meticulous artwork. This was a thoughtful and thoroughly impressive re-interpretation of the character – she’d have one more first-rate update after this, and then she’d become a brainless, sword-wielding Amazonian version of Conan the Barbarian, apparently forever.
8 The Histories by Herodotus, Tom Holland trans. (Penguin Classics) – Reprinted now in a lovely Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition is Tom Holland’s translation of the Histories of Herodotus, a translation that’s grown on me since I first read it and grown on me since I second read it.
7 The Centurions by Jean Laxteguy (Penguin Classics) I was very pleased to see this searing 1960 novel about the ordeals of a military company in French Indochina get reprinted and added to the Penguin Classics line; the book deserves its shot at becoming the modern-day war-fiction classic it should be. You can read my full review here.
6 Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions) – I’ve had occasion to praise the Barnes & Noble leatherbound editions in the past, and this is another superlative example, a big hefty gorgeous edition of Thomas Mallory’s 1485 compendium of tales about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This volume has rock-solid binding, gorgeous pages, and the full complement of Arthur Rackham illustrations – a home run in this series.
5 Complete Arrow Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey (DAW) – Such a joy to see Mercedes Lackey’s debut sequence of 1980s set in the fantasy realm of Valdemar now being offered to a new body of readers in this bright-colored anthology! Fantasy series have taken a decidedly grim and gritty turn since these books first came out, so their comparatively gentle story-cycle, centering on the character of Talia and her supernatural companion Rolan, is even more refreshing now than it was thirty years ago.
4 The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (Penguin Classics) – It might have been a sound decision financially, but it required a bit of nerve creatively for Penguin to create a Deluxe Classic version of this 1916 perennial from crusty old Robert Frost – after all, some of these poems have become well-worn cultural icons, and the volume hasn’t exactly lacked for editions. But the decision is here winningly justified: this beautiful little volume encouraged me to encounter these poems afresh, and the experience has been very rewarding. You can read my full review here
3 The Best of Nancy Kress (Subterranean) – As with Mercedes Lackey, even more so with the great Nancy Kress: how cheering to see an attractive reprint volume dedicated to one of the great masters of science fiction! As far as I’m concerned, Nancy Kress never wrote a bad or even second-rate story, so it was a pure delight to revisit all the gems reprinted here, from “My Mother, Dancing,” “Beggars in Spain,” to “Unto the Daughters” and more. Bravo to the folks at Subterranean Press for creating this volume!
2 And Yet … by Christopher Hitchens (Simon & Schuster) – Not exactly cheering, this volume reprinting some of the previously-uncollected or under-collected piecemeal work of the late Christopher Hitchens, because it still feels tragic and odd and a bit raw that he’s not still here, producing new piecemeal work or following up his mega-selling god is Not Great with some other substantial book (my guess is that it would have dealt with the Islamic fundamentalism that’s currently threatening the lives of every single human on Earth, but this author could very well have surprised me with something else). But even so, it was great to read (and in some instances re-read) these writings and, just for an afternoon, hear that unmistakable voice again.
1 Little Black Classics – The best and most mouth-watering of all the year’s reprints was this set Penguin Classics did in commemoration of their 80th birthday. The set consists of eighty slim volumes, eighty little slices of great literature, from a single play to a small collection of poems to a scene here and there from epics. It’s like a Penguin-guided crash course in great literature, all in a pretty set suitable for gifting to every bookworm on your list!
December 17th, 2015
And so, the Donoghue Interregnum comes to an end! In the following year, I created Stevereads and lost no time in pontificating on books new and old, with scarcely a backward glance at the unseemly gap I’d left in the published history of such pontifications. That gap is now filled, and today, with barely a moment to catch your breaths, the annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year commences for its ninth consecutive year. But before the back-patting and bloodletting begins, I wanted to take a moment to thank all the readers who wrote in praise of what I was doing with the Interregnum. Everybody who wrote seemed to find it at least intriguing, and several correspondents mentioned making sizable additions to their ‘books to read’ lists. About two dozen people requested some kind of extension of the Interregnum – perhaps back to the beginning of my reading years (on the perhaps-tenable assumption that not everybody has back issues of The Daily Iowan at their fingertips), perhaps even back to the beginning of the century! Which would make for a Hell of a lot of book-lists!
Whatever may come of such suggestions, they were great fun to read, and it was very gratifying to know this little trip down Memory Lane was appreciated. Now have some tea, discard all those clipped ‘Year’s Best Books’ lists from other venues (well-intentioned but anemic little lists, fit only to serve as preparations for the real thing), and prepare to have the year’s books sorted in fine order!
December 16th, 2015
We come at last to the final year of the Donoghue Interregnum, the final year in which the reading public was fumbling blindly for guidance, taking book-recommendations from random strangers or desperate, malodorous librarians. The year is 2005, when Saddam Hussein went on trial, Islamic terrorism continued to rise all over the world, “Deep Throat” went public, and Frank Conroy died. The Republic of Letters continued to prosper, and its best fruits were these:
10 Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam – This beautifully-written novel concerns a pair of Pakistani immigrants to a small English town who suddenly go missing. The police investigation that follows is painfully tone-deaf, and the shock-waves that ripple through the community’s other Pakistani members are very sensitively portrayed. And the undertones throughout the book – the simmering resentments in immigrant Muslim communities – are eerily prescient for the world a decade ahead.
9 Europe Central by William Vollmann – There’s something just a bit depressing about the fact that the most conventional William Vollmann novel is also his best-selling novel, but that doesn’t detract from the worth of the book itself, a sprawling historical novel centering on a wide cast of characters immediately before, during, and after the Second World War. All the usual Vollmann tics are here, but they’re far more controlled than in any of his other novels (his most recent, the 3500-page The Dying Grass, most certainly included), and the result is that rarest of rare things: A William Vollmann novel you can give to your grandfather.
8 The March by E. L. Doctorow – Another historical novel, this one set in the American Civil War and centering on Union General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” – a campaign Doctorow researched extensively and writes about here as a kind of protracted violent dream. Doctorow specializes in creating galleries of vivid characters, and he does it brilliantly in this book, giving us dramatic viewpoints from the entire spectrum of the March.
7 Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos – This weird, haunting debut novel takes place in a working-class suburb of Detroit, a seemingly normal place in which the husbands and fathers have suddenly begun disappearing, often leaving notes mentioning that they’re going to the moon. But regardless of their destination, their old neighborhood is thrown into chaos, with the women-folk forced to rely solely on themselves to raise their kids. One of those kids is the book’s main character, a smart young man who grows up in that manless world and seems sometimes to teeter on the brink of disappearing himself. The book is an amazingly deft novel, one that’s stuck in my mind ever since I read it.
6 The Sea by John Banville – This author is usually far too buttoned-up for my tastes, but that very quality works supremely to strengthen this novel about a middle-aged man named Max, who’s returned to the seaside town where he spent many summers as a boy. He’s retreated to this place out of wild grief at losing his wife, and in this isolated spot he relives his memories and, almost against his will, starts to make contact with other people, make connections about his own past, and gradually think about healing. It’s a very soft-spoken, very sad novel, the best thing Banville’s ever written.
5 Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman – Referencing William Empson in the title of your own book is one of life’s sure-fire indicators that you’re a pretentious twat, but only a tiny, permissible trace of that pretension actually seeps into this remarkably complex and ambitious novel (by the author who would go on to write a magnificent novel called The Street Sweeper) that centers on a young boy who may or may not have been briefly abducted by the ex-boyfriend of his mother. Perlman takes this kernel of, yes, ambiguity, and adds layer upon layer of complexity and character development, turning what is in essence a second-tier John Grisham novel into a work of genuinely memorable depth.
4 Arthur & George by Julian Barnes – Barnes here takes the premise of a straightforward historical novel – the friendship that develops between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a rural vicar – and slowly, inventively complicates it with plots spun from Doyle’s famous struggles with his most famous fictional creation and the trials faced by the mixed-race vicar, George Edalji, in the small village he calls home. I don’t know quite why I found this novel so much more palatable than all of the other fiction Barnes has written, but I very much did; I recommend and re-read it, when I’m not at all tempted to do either of those things with, for instance, Flaubert’s Parrot.
3 The Brothers Bishop by Bart Yates – I could barely plow my way through this author’s debut novel Leave Myself Behind, so I went into this book with my guard up – a situation not exactly helped by the book’s plot-premise: two small-town brothers, one light and carefree and sexually promiscuous, the other dark and brooding and sexually inhibited, come together in adulthood to confront their personal issues. It all seemed too formulaic, but Yates managed in short order to convince me to allow him his conveniences in exchange for a wonderfully sharp and emotionally fraught novel.
2 A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka – This extremely assured debut has a comedic premise: a retired widower from Ukraine becomes sexually infatuated with a buxom younger woman, swears he’s in love, begins lavishing her with presents, and thereby unites his two daughters, who attempt to put aside their mutual dislike in order to save their father from himself. But although Lewycka displays some genuine comic ability in these pages, she steadily shades the story darker and darker as it develops. A very satisfying first novel.
1 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – The best novel of the year was, much to my surprise, a YA novel, the nakedly emotional story of a little girl, the Holocaust, and Death personified. Although maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, since this author had been impressing me for years before this, his final novel, appeared. All his gifts – especially for hurrying his narrative along without seeming to – are on full display here.
10 The Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World – 1852-1912 by Donald Keene – The dean of Japanese studies here delivers an invaluable and extremely readable biography of the great-yet-elusive Japanese emperor who shaped much of the Japan that entered the 20th century and who was the first to begin adapting his country to the West. Keene had long before this mastered the art of large-scale narrative history, and this book is in many ways the best thing he ever wrote.
9 Postwar by Tony Judt – This monumental one-volume history of Europe in the wake of the Second World War is likewise the best thing its author ever wrote, full of searching personal stories and a huge amount of research about an entire continent traumatized by war and brutality and famine. His book’s chapters recount their horrors and flashes of heroism at an almost leisurely pace, taking the reader all the way to the more-or-less present and making me wish like Hell Judt were still around to keep chronicling the times. A big history volume to read and re-read.
8 Bess of Hardwick by Amy Lovell – This terrific book is another in a string of great biographies to end the Interregnum, this time a spirited study of a woman who was an expert in Tudor marriage politics, a behind-the-scenes power-broker, and jailer to Mary Queen of Scots – and Lovell not only tells the story with real narrative zest but also digs deeper into her subject’s various financial wheelings and dealings than Bess of Hardwick would have liked.
7 Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson – Not long after I read and loved this suitably eloquent and complex biography, I started noticing it on the bookshelves of friends and acquaintances – their real bookshelves, where the books they’ve read and loved reside. I know so many people – including notoriously post-literate young people – who were captivated by great biography, and justifiably so: Richardson has written a handful of first-rate books (his volume on William James in particular), but this is his masterpiece.
6 The Nature of Sacrifice (Charles Russell Lowell, Jr.) by Carol Bundy – When I first saw advance notices of this book, I was both pleased and doubtful – pleased because I’m always happy to see the three-named denizens of 19th century Boston get even a fraction of the credit they deserve for being the most important generation in the nation’s history, but doubtful because the beautiful boy on the book’s cover, Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., seemed like an impossible subject for a biography, since he died in the American Civil War before his 30th birthday. But Carol Bundy does the near-miraculous, fleshing out this young man’s amazingly full life and giving it a very touching resonance for all its brevity.
5 The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk – There’s probably no more prescient work anywhere in the Interregnum than this enormous book detailing – with vivid, novelistic efficiency – the long-brewing and incredibly complex cultural conflict between Islam and civilization. Fisk has traveled widely and interviewed virtually every key figure in his sprawling story (including, memorably, Osama bin Laden), and his decades of reporting in the Middle East show in the steep objectivity of so much of his accounts. My big hardcover copy was extensively annotated – and then torn to shreds and eaten by a young basset hound who was obviously an al-Qaeda sympathizer.
4 High Noon in the Cold War by Max Frankel – This story – the tense confrontation between President Kennedy and Soviet premiere Khrushchev that climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis – is perennial fodder for historians, and in that sense Frankel brings nothing new to the subject. But he’s a storyteller of boundless energy, and through expert pacing and pitch-perfect choice of quotes, he creates a minute-by-minute drama that’s one of the best historical renditions of the crisis I’ve ever read (and, needless to add, I’ve read them all)
3 The Beatles by Bob Spitz – Ordinarily, rock music biographies leave me limp with distracted boredom, and in the past that’s even applied to the Beatles, the very ur-group of the genre. But even so, Spitz’s long and lusciously detailed account hooked me early on and effortlessly held my interest through the band’s anonymous early days, through their skyrocketing to world-wide fame, and through their protracted and seedy dissolution. Spitz tells the story like a modern-day epic, and that’s just what it ends up feeling like.
2 Mark Twain by Ron Powers – This book faced inevitable comparisons with one hell of a tough act to follow: Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, and I went into it expecting to be disappointed. But Powers is a passionate, shrewd, and powerfully moral narrator of Twain’s famous life story, and his readings of the huge variety of Twain’s work are unfailingly thought-provoking. And his book is at its best and most evocative right at the place where most Twain biographies lose their way: the author’s last years, when you can almost feel him sensing the whole tenor of the times changing and leaving him behind. Not a replacement, then, but like a few other biographies we’ve seen in the Interregnum, a necessary addition.
1 Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This, the best nonfiction work of the year, is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s long and lavishly detailed account of the election of Abraham Lincoln, the formation of his cabinet (composed almost exclusively, as Kearns and others have pointed out, of men who thought they were better-qualified for Lincoln’s job than he was), and the unthinkable Civil War that cabinet waged, trying to govern a country that was tearing itself apart. Kearns has a handful of fiercely domineering personalities to deal with, and her narrative strategy cannily reflects the personal strategy of Lincoln himself: she plays each member to his strengths and lets their very animosities work toward cohesion. In a body of Lincoln-literature that could fill a large library, this one ranks with the greats.
December 15th, 2015
Our penultimate year is AD 2004, when a tsunami killed a quarter of a million people in Asia, terrorism struck in Spain, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, and half a dozen other places, same-sex marriage became legal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and neither the institution of marriage nor the world subsequently ended), and the great Renata Tebaldi, the great Julia Child, and the great and terrible Ronald Reagan all died. But the book-season was as strong as ever, and these were its highlights:
10 Snow by Orhan Pamuk – By the time I started this novel, as we’ve seen here in the years of the Interregnum, I’d become a fan of this novelist, a circumstance that comes with its own perils in the form of overlooking shortcomings (more on that a little later in this list). But this elegant story – about a poet returning to Turkey from exile and finding himself tangled in a plot involving a group of local suicides – needed no special pleading; it’s as intelligent and introspective as everything I’ve come to expect from Pamuk, this time with an added element of mutedness that’s devilishly hard to accomplish and here done perfectly.
9 Pompeii by Robert Harris – Before this utterly gripping book, I would have said the story of the destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 was the quintessential exhausted topic, but hoo boy, does Harris prove me wrong – in fact, this novel is a triumphant demonstration of the fact that any story, even the most well-known, can be completely renewed by its teller. Harris pins his plot around a hard-working hydrologist, the one man in the teeming, corrupt world of politics on the Gulf of Naples who comes to suspect the awe-inspiring truth that lies behind the sudden blockage of aqueduct water and the strange sights up on the mountain. Much like the sinking of the Titanic, the conclusion of this story is well-known ahead of time – and yet, Harris makes every page of his novel tense and exciting. Incredible.
8 The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – The framework of this slim, smart novel is intensely familiar: a group of seemingly mismatched people come together in a book club and grow into a family. SO intensely familiar, in fact, that much like Pompeii, I started it certain I’d encounter nothing new. And much like Pompeii, I in fact didn’t encounter anything new – but it didn’t matter, thanks to the grace and sheer energy with which Karen Joy Fowler told the story (which, unlike Pompeii, was later adapted into a very good movie). And of course the book sent me rabidly back to Jane Austen’s novels, not that I ever need much prodding to do that.
7 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Like everyone else, I was enchanted by Housekeeping, and getting this novel from its author, after a quarter-century silence, felt like a great gift. It’s the story of a small-town Iowa preacher named John Ames, told in the voice of Ames as he writes a long, confessional letter to his son, and the whole thing is executed in an enormously changed voice from Housekeeping – more sonorous, more grounded, more angular. Those changes would bode poorly for me in relation to this author in future books, but here they work like a sad, very serious magic.
6 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – I deeply disliked (and protractedly fulminated against) the assumption I saw as underlying this weird novel with its multiple settings and stories threaded through with similar characters or character-types; I disliked the implication that the straightforward foursquare narrative was somehow now to be considered a quaint Victorian holdover (we didn’t cover Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves in the Interregnum, for very good reason, but even so, it sticks in the mind on this point). I’d go on to have even deeper internal arguments with Mitchell on that point in future books of his, but this one overcame my objections in the way I like best: through Mitchell’s sheer narrative ability and rich invention. It kept me delightedly reading, in other words, when many dozens of more conventional novels this year did not.
5 The Tyrant’s Novel by Thomas Kenneally – I think this may be Thomas Kenneally’s strongest novel, the dark and sometimes bitingly funny story of a successful writer in a bleak autocracy who’s commanded to write a novel stirringly dramatizing how the country’s ruler (the tyrant of the title), “the Great Uncle,” swooped in and saved his people from the degradations of their enemies and created the perfect state. The writer has a strict deadline for this monstrous pack of lies, and they’ve got to be convincing, or else – as a bit of social commentary, the book is remarkably strong, and as a sardonic look at the wavery line between storytelling and lying, it’s flat-out fantastic.
4 I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe – As mentioned, once you’re a fan of any author, you really have to be more cautious with each succeeding book, not less; your affection for past stories will naturally tempt you to forgive things you ought not to in more recent work. This novel – the college-years coming-of-age of a young girl from the sticks – is a good case in point: despite Wolfe’s usual care and linguistic virtuosity, there are spots where the whole thing creaks just a bit. Not many spots, however, and not nearly bad enough to detract from Wolfe’s acidic portrait of the brain-dead experience of the undergraduate years, a wasteland perfectly suited to his gifts.
3 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – This enormous and subtly playful novel gives its readers a conflict of wills between two wizards, but instead of setting it in Middle Earth or the Land or Melnibone, it weaves the whole fantasy story into the Napoleonic era and tells the story with a commendably straight face. The book was given a very warm reception in the penny press (albeit a largely stupid and lazy one – I myself read no fewer than one hundred and fifteen reviews that all quoted the exact same exchange of dialogue from this 1000-page novel, which among other things indicates a higher-than-normal amount of copying) and thoroughly deserved it.
2 Iron Council by China Mieville – One of the questions that just naturally arises when you’re reading a fantasy series about a certain location is: what happens outside that location? What’s going on in the southern deserts of Harad (“where the stars are strange,” Aragorn tells us, though he tells us nothing else) while all that business with the One Ring is happening up north in The Lord of the Rings? What about the rest of the world outside the dreaming city of Viriconium, in M. John Harrison’s great tales of the Afternoon Cultures? And likewise for the grubby city of New Crubuzon, built inside the enormous ribcage of a long-dead monster? In Iron Council, China Mieville sends a handful of fascinating characters on a journey outside New Crubuzon, and the resulting novel is an outstanding feat of imagination even for this hyper-imaginative writer.
1. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – The best novel of the year – and probably the novel from this year that I’ve re-read most often in the decade since – was this wonderfully-written and carefully-observed novel about the journeys – sexual, political, personal – through the heady world of the well-to-do and powerful in Thatcher’s London. Hollinghurt’s main character, Nick Guest, is equal parts Fielding’s Tom Jones and Powell’s Nicholas Jenkins, only with drugs and gay sex added in, and through him Hollinghurst does an amazing job capturing the feel of an entire era.
10 Ghost Wars by Steve Coll – The sheer amount of legwork that had to go into making this long, eye-opening book about the clandestine maneuvers in the Middle East (and all over the world, it sometimes seems) that gave rise to, among other things, the rise of Osama bin Laden and the 9-11 attacks. Coll follows the tangle of CIA dealings and counter-dealings in Afghanistan and elsewhere with a bloodhound’s tenacity, and the results are genuinely, if unsettlingly, revelatory.
9 The Five Books of Moses translated by Robert Alter – Talk about eye-opening! Robert Alter’s heavily annotated translation of the Pentateuch blows apart the accrued traditions of nearly a thousand years of English-language renditions of these most famous texts and replaces them with something that will be thrillingly alien to most Western readers who’ve grown up with the Old Testament as part of their DNA. Alter is an irresistibly enthusiastic scholar, and this enormous enterprise is wonderfully captivating from beginning to end – I played in its pages, as I do when I regularly revisit it.
8 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – This big, greatly readable biography represents, as I’ve come to both think and maybe a little lament, represents Ron Chernow’s work at its finest, chronicling the complex and not entirely forthcoming life of one of the United States’ most problematic and intriguing Founding Fathers. Chernow shows a mastery of his sources, and he writes with clear-eyed energy throughout, creating what’s still my favorite single-volume life of Hamilton.
7 My Life by Bill Clinton – US presidential memoirs are notoriously places where English-language prose goes to die, but this enormous volume is a very happy exception. During his eight years in power, Bill Clinton employed some of the most talented writers ever to work in the Capital, and he not only learned a thing or two from them but also employed quite a few of them in the hasty preparation of this big, fascinating book, a book full of lively, in-the-moment conversations and scenes tense enough to be at home in a political thriller. I’m a big follower of the large body of literature that’s arisen out of the US presidency, and this one immediately shot to the front as one of my favorites, no matter how appalling I find its subject.
6 Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt – I had high hopes for this book about the highly formative 1580s in the life of William Shakespeare, since Greenblatt is one of the world’s foremost Shakespeare scholars – and even those high hopes were happily exceeded by this fantastic book, in which Greenblatt exercises all his rhetorical gifts to bring Shakespeare’s age to life in all its squalor and energy. It requires rhetorical gifts, of course: no book like this can exist except with a good deal of invention and extrapolation, but Greenblatt is very adept at both, and he creates a necessary book to read about Shakespeare.
5 Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino – This fiercely intelligent book is almost sui generis in its multi-faceted efforts to grasp the physics and dynamics of massive, intensely-focused destruction. Pellegrino studies the after-effects of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and he studies the after-effects of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and in both cases he’s trying to convey the complexities of traumatic energy-release, the seeming unpredictability of some of the results. It’s an amazing book, enormously intriguing.
4 John James Audubon by Richard Rhodes – Since I was familiar with Richard Rhodes’s work on atomic warfare, his choice of subject for this book, the famous 19th-century bird-watcher and bird-painter, came as a surprise to me. But Audubon and his craft and his age seem like a genuine subject of passion for Rhodes, and that passion is evident on every page of this terrific book. Audubon lead a fascinating life, and Rhodes conveys it in hugely energetic chapters that read like he’s downright grateful not to be writing about the end of the world.
3 Rising ’44 by Norman Davies – Davies takes as his subject in this passionate and definitive book is one of the most tragic incidents of the Second World War – a conflict not exactly lacking in tragedy: the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, when the Polish underground, urged on by the Allies, rose up and fought their Nazi occupiers to regain control of their city in advance of the Red Army’s inevitable arrival. When both the Russians and the Allies refused to intervene directly, the German forces were free to turn and crush the uprising, and Davies traces the tension and betrayal through dozens of first-hand accounts that make the whole excruciating two months of the uprising come to life again.
2 Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann – I was naturally angered the first time I read this book, about the small cabal of Washington insiders who eagerly took control of the US government once the Republican-indebted Supreme Court broke the law and installed the clueless and incurious George W. Bush as President in 2000. To one degree or another, the members of this cabal – creatures like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz – were all creatures of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and as Mann details in thoroughly controlled prose, they wasted no time in inflicting a Nixonian foreign policy on the rest of the world, a foreign policy mixing equal parts venality, treachery, and belligerence. The book is required reading, especially for the 10 billion people now living in the world created by these “Vulcans.”
1 The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins – The best nonfiction book of the year by a wide margin was this incredible, joyous, densely-packed book about the wonders of the natural world and the unending amazements of evolution by means of natural selection. This is Richard Dawkins in his best role, not as a professional hater of religions but as a Carl Sagan-like purveyor of the thrill of science, and the book has two or three mind-expanding revelations on virtually every page. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve recommended this book.
December 14th, 2015
The year is now 2003, when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in a fit of pique, Broadway went dark, the Old Man of the Mountain finally crumbled, President George W. Bush declared the Iraq War a victory, and the great Katharine Hepburn died. And the book-world carried on regardless, hitting these high notes:
10 Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn – I knew very little about this author when I first encountered this novel about his great, self-indulgent character Patrick Melrose, abused and foul-minded child of British privilege and uneven doppelganger to St. Aubyn himself. But the book’s surreal confidence and almost anachronistically graceful writing drew me in, and I was greatly rewarded – especially with the single best recreation on paper of what it’s like to be high as a proverbial kite on strong drugs (with all due apologies to Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight). Needless to add, this book kept me coming back to Patrick Melrose novels – including long after I should have stopped.
9 Great Neck by Jay Cantor – I was deeply impressed by this panoramic novel that stretches from the living memory of the Holocaust to the social upheavals of the 1960s, and to this day I’m a little mystified as to why it’s been forgotten. Cantor here tells the story of a tight-knit group of friends striving to make sense of the burgeoning 20th century, and he threads through their very mundane experiences the carefully-evoked world of comic book superheroes, and it’s all expertly done, right up to an unforgettable climactic scene.
8 I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall – This won’t be the only occasion on this year’s list for me to point it out, but still: despite my repeated urging, I’m still not in charge of creating the titles of every new work of fiction, or I assure you all, this great historical novel about the Lewis and Clark Expedition wouldn’t have an entire stanza by Sir Philip Sidney as its title. But if you can somehow get past it, a taut and wonderful story awaits you within.
7 Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson – For cheekiness’s sake, I’m willing to overlook what is in fact yet another rotten book-title; hell, for this book, I’d be willing to overlook an outright cliché as a title. Carson’s maniac idea here – to take the characters from the TV show “Gilligan’s Wake” and imagine gigantically complicated life-stories for each – is so magnetic and his execution of that idea so fantastically effective (my favorite creation here is his Mr. Thurston Howell III) that it all works perfectly when none of it should work at all.
6 The Point of Return by Siddharta Deb – I believe I mentioned outright cliches as book titles? But even so, we’ll once again strain ourselves to look past it – to this wonderfully moving debut novel set in 1970s India. Deb tells the story of a young man named Babu and his unaccountable, distant father Dr. Dam, who share a house in a village in northern India but neither know nor understand each other. Deb tells his complicated story in fractured pieces floating all along the timeline of his two characters, and instead of being unbearably precious and show-offy, the innovation actually serves to make a very moving finale even more so.
5 Any Human Heart by William Boyd – Much like both Great Neck and The Point of Return, this wonderfully textured novel by Boyd tells the story of an era while it’s telling the story of its characters. In this case, the character is the unforgettable Logan Mountstuart, a slightly corkscrewy Everyman whose life takes on a wittily-handled profusion of shapes during the 20th century, including spy, entrepreneur, writer, rich man, and poor man. Boyd – a writer I don’t often find readable, much less compelling – creates a finely-detailed character in Mountstuart, but he spends just as much time creating a finely-detailed fictional look at the various crises of the British 20th century, from the costly victory of WWII to the colonial frittering it hastened, and more. The combination of personal and panoramic in these pages is superbly handled.
4 Still Holding by Bruce Wagner – I mentioned crappy book-titles already, and I’ve long since registered my watery contempt for the titles Wagner chose for his Hollywood novels (the so-called Cellular Trilogy, hence the particular cliches involved and why they might have seemed like good ideas at the time), but if we once again hold our noses and step through the threshold, what we find is Wagner writing at the top of his game about the insanity, vanity, pomp, and hypocrisy of post-9-11 Hollywood. Title or no title, the sparkling and deviously smart Wagner prose is still here in abundance.
3 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – This slim, deceptively simple novel about cultural assimilation and the intense inner politics of identity stars a young man named Gogol Ganguli, first-generation son of immigrants from India, and the book tells his wandering, self-consciously literate odyssey to find peace in a homeland that never quite feels like home. Lahiri is an almost spookily observant writer who’s pleased me more with each book she’s written, and the pattern of my loving her novels began right here.
2 All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones – It’s not often a cop-thriller novel will find its way into the Interregnum, mainly because cop-thriller novels tend to trade any hope of literary excellence for great hopes of popular enjoyment – they’re bad, in other words, no matter how enjoyable they may be. But Jones’s book is that rare exception: on one level, the story of a Texas Deputy Sheriff chasing a mysterious killer known as the Tin Man. But thanks to the intelligence and gripping visual intensity of Jones’s prose, this book has another level, as a richly-rewarding psychological study. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough to crime fiction fans, but I often recommend it – without subsequent objection – to people who hate crime fiction.
1 The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth – As we’ve already had occasion to note, I have a bit of a soft spot for fiction set in the Homeric world, a soft enough spot to have written quite a bit of it myself. So naturally I was overjoyed to learn that Barry Unsworth had likewise caught the bug and would be writing a Troy War novel. And I wasn’t disappointed: The Songs of the Kings is fantastic. It’s violent and epic, and Unsworth sharpens both those qualities by filling the book with contemporary-sounding dialogue, with no hint of the formal locutions so familiar from the many English-language translations Homer’s had over the centuries. The result is an Iliad-story that feels both very personal and genuinely moving – much like the original, come to think of it.
10 For Bea by Kristin Von Kreisler – Redundant perhaps for me of all people to say it, but still: there’s something special about beagles. Almost every beagle owner can attest to the moment they knew it: it’s the moment – never immediate and by no means certain ever to happen – when a new beagle decides you’ve passed whatever internal test they were conducting and are now worthy of both affection and loyalty. That moment can’t be hurried, and it can’t be bribed, and it can’t be predicted, and the when Kristen von Kreisler has that moment in a beautiful scene in this book, every beagle owner will tear up a little at how well it’s described. Von Kreisler found Bea, the beagle in question, terrified and malnourished on the roadside and took her in, and for the next fifteen years they were close friends who learned about each other and from each other. I’ve featured a few of these ‘dog enriches human life’ books in this Interregnum, but this one holds a special place in my hear, for obvious reasons.
9 Hawthorne by Brenda Wineapple – Nathaniel Hawthorne presents both an attractive and a daunting prospect for would-be biographers, attractive because his life is so well-documented, and daunting because in so many ways, his life seems to shed virtually no light on the very reason we study his life in the first place: the great literary works that flowed from his pen seem every bit as unaccountable no matter how much you know about the man himself. Wineapple, much to her credit, understands this even as she’s attempting to subvert it by amassing typically comprehensive picture of Hawthorne’s life and times. There’ve been many, many such life and times books on this author, but for my money, this one has an almost cold kind of depth its subject would appreciated very much.
8 Robert E. Lee by Roy Blount – Once again, we return to the old Penguin Lives series, and this time for a pairing unlikely to please me: not only a humorist writing a serious biography, but anybody at all writing yet another serious biography of the arch-traitor Robert E. Lee. Such biographies universally bug me because they don’t end with their subject hanging by the neck from the tallest tree at Appomattox Court House, so it’s all the more amazing, the job Blount does here telling his story with such gusto and insight. I was never even vaguely tempted to change my mind about Lee, but I sure as Hell changed my mind about Blount.
7 The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan – The fifth-century BC war between Athens and Sparta is one of those conflicts that’s always ripe for retelling, but it’s big and daunting and there’s always new research to take into account (and for all his faults, Thucydides is a bit of a tough act to follow). In other words, there’s a grave potential when reading a new history of the Peloponnesian War to hit icebergs of boredom calved off glaciers of caution, but that doesn’t happen in Kagan’s fantastic account: he keeps the story’s several parallel theaters active and interesting, and he manages to write about the whole conflict with tremendous freshness.
6 The Double Life of Doctor Lopez by Dominic Green – The long, complicated story leading up to the execution in 1584 of Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician, the Portuguese Jew Roderigo Lopez is the heart of Green’s vivid and immensely enjoyable book, the best work of Elizabethan history the young century had seen so far. Green traces the man’s involvement in secret dealings with the Spanish and deals very shrewdly with the strong currents of anti-Semitism running through England at the time, and his account of Lopez’s arrest and execution is gripping. There is and never was any evidence that Lopez committed any crime, let alone any capital offense, and Green’s book is still the best thing ever written about him.
5 All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer – The countless evils of the CIA make for countless books, and this is one of the best. It deals with the 1953 coup the CIA instigated and aided in Iran in order to overthrow the then-prime minister and install the Shah, and it’s Kinzer’s drama-thesis that the brutal oppressions of the Shah’s reign led directly to the rise of radical Islamic theocracy in the form of the 1979 revolution. In reality, this is almost complete hogwash; the ousted prime minister in question was a monster, and the Shah, for all his autocratic tendencies, most certainly was not (as for whether life in Tehran was better in 1975 or 1985, well, ask an Iranian woman) – and the 1979 revolution was religious, not social. But within the framework of the story he sets out to tell, Kinzer is a mighty entertaining writer, and All the Shah’s Men is a mighty entertaining book.
4 Jarhead by Anthony Swofford – This terrific book is a grunt’s-eye-view of the 1990 Gulf War, full of grit and violence and hugely energetic writing from a man who was there. I read it dismissively at first, but over time it’s stuck with me and grown in my estimation (a process not even dented by the laughably awful movie adapted from the book), to the point where I now rank it among the best such accounts of the modern war-experience I’ve ever read.
3 The Big House by George Howe Colt – That particular alternate reality known to only a very lucky few – the Cape Cod summer house – is given a marvelous, unforgettable celebration in this book, in which Colt and his family return for one list visit to the summer house where Colt’s own rambling old summer house before it’s sold to strangers. And the book sold so well – and was so well-written – that thousands of people who’ve never had a Cape summer house suddenly knew something of what it was like. Colt captures every aspect of such places perfectly, from the sometimes-sullen moodiness of the house to the bright kaleidoscope of the Cape in summer. A pure treat.
2 They Marched into Sunlight by David Maraniss – This author is one hell of a gifted storyteller, and that fact is never more dramatically demonstrated than in this extremely readable and deeply impressive look at three sides of the Vietnam War in 1967: the men in the field, the students protesting back home, and the politicians in Washington. Maraniss writes a very rich, very strong line of prose, and despite the moral murkiness of his subject matter, his book is filled with believably-drawn good guys and bad guys (the worst of the latter being a younger but still timelessly evil Dick Cheney, skulking around back in the States and so obviously plotting future war crimes that his every appearance is practically accompanied by the Star Wars “Imperial March” theme). In many ways this is a painful book to read, but it’s a necessary one.
1 W B Yeats the Arch Poet by R F Foster – Concluding his magisterial two-volume biography of the great Irish poet, Foster here gives readers the best, most detailed, most passionately readable account imaginable of “Yeats – The Certified Loon Years,” when the poet let his hair grow shaggy white and took to making sonorous gnomic pronouncements in the hedgerows. Oxford University Press did an excellent job of making these two volumes look lovely and monumental, fit to match Foster’s prose throughout.
December 13th, 2015
The year is now 2002, when Queen Elizabeth II marked her 50th year on the throne, Washington, DC spent a month being terrorized by a sniper, tornadoes rampaged across America, and Stephen Jay Gould, Elizabeth Longford, Kenneth Koch, and Caroline Knapp all died. Yet somehow, I still felt like reading, and books kept appearing. These were the best of them:
10 This Thing Called Courage by J. G. Hayes – This debut collection of short stories is built around a theme of utter incompatibility: young men being homosexuals in South Boston, at the time of these stories a clannishly working-class Irish section of the city, bound by fierce codes of troglodytic manhood rituals that made Staten Island look like Fire Island. Hayes’s book should therefore be long on hasty character-emigrations or else short on believability, and yet, in story after indelible story, he somehow manages to tell stories of young men living the unlivable, groping out sentimental, damaged, and often miserable lives along the alphabetical streets of the benighted place they can’t help but call home. So far from the 1980s, gay fiction is virtually never this nervy and evocative – it’s an amazing feat of writing from start to finish.
9 The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason – Continuing what will be a pattern for the year’s best fiction, this marvelously atmospheric novel is also a debut, and its plot is a hum-dinger: a Victorian-era piano tuner is sent to the remote reaches of Burma by the British War Office to tune and repair a piano that’s valuable as far more than a musical instrument. Its owner, a mutedly messianic British doctor, is using the instrument to maintain a tenuous piece between rival warlords (and also, we sense immediately, to maintain his slight hold on his own sanity), and Mason’s overwhelmed piano-tuner is thrown headlong into this luscious but dangerous world – and the reader never doubts any of it for a moment.
8 Be My Knife by David Grossman – I’m a big fan of David Grossman’s work, and I was gripped immediately by this novel about a shy bookman’s gradually-deepening epistolary love affair with an enigmatic woman he meets at a class reunion. Grossman has such a distinctive way of telling a story (it’s there even in his devastating nonfiction masterpiece The Yellow Wind), at once so formal and conversational, and that style is so starkly off-kilter with the plot of this novel that it sets off rhetorical shivers on almost every page.
7 The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter – Much as in the case of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire here in 2015, Carter’s debut novel very nearly got pushed off stage by the sheer womping enormity of the paycheck Carter got for it: $4.2 million, back when that was a lot of money (Knopf has a nasty habit of inking these midlist-impoverishing four-martini-lunch contracts for untried authors, and they really ought to knock it off). And just as in the case of Hallberg’s book, the hubbub ran the risk of sidelining a genuinely fantastic novel, in Carter’s case (more so than in Hallberg’s) a richly successful hybrid of high-brow “literary” fiction and low-brow whodunit.
6 Collected Stories by Clare Boylan – I found this volume late in the year, right about at the point when I’d begun to despair that I’d be reading no truly outstanding Irish fiction in 2002 – then along came this book of dysfunctional families, oleaginous parish priests, brooding, tyrannical matriarchs, and egregiously overcooked foodstuffs, to save the day! I’d previously known Boylan only for her novels, and the thing that always bothered me about those novels – their episodic feel – is here transmuted (like the Host!) into a singular strength.
5 The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson – Robinson’s slam-bang book isn’t a post-apocalyptic novel so much as it is a para-apocalyptic novel: it takes as its elegantly simple premise a disaster that very nearly happened: what if, in the fourteenth century, the Black Death had killed not a third of Europe’s population but 99% of it, virtually everybody? From this humble beginning, Robinson crafts a sprawling tale of stark deprivations, weird, spectral phenomena, and unforgettable personalities. This is an author who’s written a shelf of first-rate novels, but I’m always tempted to call this one his best.
4 Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer – As a general rule, stylistic experimentation should never be attempted by short writers, but after just a few pages of this uncannily assured novel, I was willing to, as it were, stretch a point in Foer’s case, even though he’s obnoxious enough to make himself his own protagonist in this story about a young American who travels to Old Europe in search of answers about what the Holocaust did to his family decades earlier. I loved the arrogant trippiness of the prose throughout, and although the bloom has considerably gone off the rose with this particular author, I still re-read this debut.
3 Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan – When I first started this novel, I was certain its post-modern/magical realism affectations would alienate me almost immediately, since those things are almost always crutches for weak writers. But all such games take a distant back seat in these pages to a strange tale told strangely, the story of a convict sent to a 19th-century Tasmanian prison colony who uses his anatomical drawings of fish to fashion an entire language, mute but powerful, of freedom. I regularly admonished readers for gravitating toward novels-as-video-games, and I admonished some customers for misusing this book in that way. But I kept recommending it too.
2 The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru – The main character of this incredibly strong debut is a half-English, half-Indian boy in the tenuous glories of the 1920s Raj, and throughout the complex series of plot reversals Kunzru creates, the boy masters the art of personal shape-shifting, becoming different people and different kinds of people as circumstances dictate. It’s a remarkably sustained work of storytelling.
1 Unless by Carol Shields – This was the last novel from Carol Shields, and it positively shines with her dense, elegantly quotable prose. It’s the story of a happy, successful woman who learns that one of her daughters has dropped out of university and taken up begging on the streets of Toronto, and Shields takes this premise and folds and re-folds it upon itself, creating an unforgettable novel that’s only marginally about marginalization and far more concerned with how we represent ourselves to ourselves.
10 Master of the Senate by Robert Caro – This big book details the epic political career of Lyndon Johnson in the twelve years before he joined the Kennedy presidential ticket. Those years were full of accomplishments, which Caro chronicles with more energy and detail than he’s ever combined before (the years were also full of grotesque personal scandals, in which the faithful chronicler shows markedly less interest); Johnson ruled the US Senate for over a decade, and Caro does an extremely good job of dramatizing the devious twists and curves of deal-making when somebody as smart and morally vacuous as this is involved.
9 In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton – The much-studied Salem Witch Trials are the subject of this terrific book by Mary Beth Norton, who draws intriguing connections between the trauma New Englanders suffered at the hands of attacking Indian bands and the weird manifestations seen in the young girls in 1692. Norton is a very good storyteller, and her account, however familiar its material, is endlessly readable.
8 The Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen – One of the 20th century’s best novelists was also one of its best popular science writers of natural history, and it’s never better demonstrated than in this elegant, incredibly readable book about the ways cranes have been and continue to be studied, memorialized, and even venerated in human cultures around the world. Matthiessen’s natural history writings are always beautifully written but often with intensely frustrating absences at their centers – but not so this one, where cranes in all their ungainly loveliness are front and center the whole time.
7 Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam – This story of the institutional history of McClean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, is an odd one for making such a grippingly good history, since McLean’s was a mental hospital, albeit an incongruously posh one, complete with riding stable, tennis courts, and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted. Beam takes this incongruous subject matter and makes an utterly fascinating study out of it, a study brimming with humanity.
6 A Reader’s Manifesto by B. R. Myers – I smiled and chuckled my way through the original magazine-article version of this scintillating diatribe against the junky boilerplate that’s taken the place of so much genuine worth in modern “literary” fiction, and I smiled and chuckled even more while reading it as a little black book of bile. Myers tears into a pasture full of literary sacred cows, hanging up long samples of their works like stained linen on the line, and the whole thing is such a joyous screed that I kept wishing the book were longer. And re-reading it has only grown sweeter with time, as America and the UK have been utterly engulfed in floodwaters of social-justice-warrior political correctness to such an extent that college professors can not only be fired for calling a book bad or an idea stupid, they can also be incarcerated for it. I still hope for an expanded version of this book, even though I know Myers would have to go to a country with less censorship to publish it – maybe Russia? North Korea?
5 The Letters of Kingsley Amis, edited by Zachary Leader – This big, brawling, drink-sodden, immeasurably literate collection reads like the longest conceivable first act of a typical Kingsley Amis novel, in which readers are given an elaborately, almost torturously detailed tour of their clay-footed hero’s interior landscape – right before he puts his foot squarely in some grubby disaster. But in Leader’s sympathetically judicious curation, the disaster is perpetually postponed, and instead we readers get, for better or worse, Amis in all his glory.
4 The Norsemen in the Viking Age by Eric Christiansen – Our of sheer fascination, I make it a point to try to read every Viking-related book that comes down the pike (just this year polishing off all the extant installments in, for example, Vikings in Space), and there are naturally highlights. This densely-packed and joyously-readable volume is one of those highlights, a smart and witty look behind all the easy stereotypes.
3 Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris – Talk about easy stereotypes! Perhaps no American President this side of George Washington has spawned more such stereotypes than Theodore Roosevelt, and the most memorable thing about Morris’s book (the only biography of Roosevelt since the man’s death that he himself would have liked, mostly for its literary panache) isn’t how thoroughly he overturns those stereotypes as how weirdly he subverts and inverts and perverts them to his own narrative ends. As with so many biographies on these lists, this isn’t the book I’d hand to somebody if they wanted a straight-up book on the man (that would probably be TR: The Last Romantic by H. W. Brands), but it’s the first book I’d hand to somebody who’d already read a standard biography.
2 “A Problem from Hell” by Samantha Power – The problem in the title of Power’s fantastic, moving, searingly angry book is genocide, specifically as it relates to American identity and foreign policy – including America’s dismal track record of preventing or halting genocides in the 20th century, the Century of Genocide. Power is a tough but extremely intelligent guide to one of the most complex political tangles of the modern era, and it’s no surprise her book has ended up on the reading lists of two US presidents (would’ve been three, but one of them wasn’t a big reader…).
1 Christ by Jack Miles – This best nonfiction work of the year is a more concentrated and even more effective continuation of the author’s God: A Biography – this exuberantly readable chunk of Scriptural analysis again verges into meta-analysis, taking the four Gospels as material for a biography. In these pages, Jesus emerges not so much as a man but rather as a symbol of a supernatural being coming of age; it’s at once a very strange and oddly reassuring performance.
December 12th, 2015
We’ve reached 2001, the year of the 9-11 attacks. Books – and everything else – in America were necessarily overshadowed, but there were of course nonetheless works of great worth:
10 The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction Colm Toibin ed (1999) – It’s this enormous, unendingly rewarding volume that gave me my first real suspicion that Toibin might have missed his real calling – as an editor (presuming he had much to do with the assembling of this Table of Contents – for all I know, he might have merely shown up at the end, lent his name and collected his paycheck, otherwise known as “pulling an Updike”). Be that as it may, this is an outstandingly stuffed and balanced anthology, one worth keeping and consulting for years.
9 The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy – Again we encounter the coldly-controlled madness that is Ellroy’s fiction, again with the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas as the center or gravity around which all events revolve, again featuring a trio of hard men, each dangerous in his own way, each coming to Dallas in order to chase down leads and nail down loose ends, and each playing with a violence that could consume him at any minute. To say this is tense reading would be an understatement – this is a series of mild heart attacks, in written form.
8 At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie McNeill – This big novel about the friendship of two Irish boys on the eve of the Easter Uprising of 1916 takes many gambles (not least inviting comparisons, through its title, with Flann O’Brien’s greatest novel), and they all pay off wonderfully. The language here is a flagrant quasi-homage to the overheated undergrowth of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and like all such homages, it works better than the original. And the story itself is heart-wrenching and a remarkable invention.
7 According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge – It’s always amazing to me how this author managed to cram 1000-page historical novels into the slim little things she regularly produced, and she never did it more effectively than in this book about Samuel Johnson and his extended circle of fellow literary luminaries, friends, and domestic hangers-on. The marvel’s of rhetorical compression here are feather-light in their execution, and yet you come away from the book feeling you know a man and an era.
6 My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk – The clockwork plots of this book (the author’s current best) is an intricate wonder, doubling and even tripling back on themselves without ever appearing to do so, and without ever disrupting the book’s surface preoccupation with one week in the life of a 16th century Ottoman Sultan. The ending isn’t really an ending, the beginning isn’t really a beginning, the characters aren’t really what they seem, and yet the experience of reading it all is ironically substantial. I don’t know how Pamuk did it.
5 Goats by Mark Judge Poirier – Talk about a novel I should hate: this debut, one prolonged hymn of praise to getting stoned, distills in 200 pages practically everything I used to hate about potheads from when I was an undergraduate, especially the arrogance that’s available only to lazy people. The young main character of this book not only gets high every day of his life (initiated into his addiction by a wise old pot-mentor) but, it’s clearly implied, is a superior human being because of it. And yet, far from being maddened by the novel, I was entranced by it – Poirier’s literary gifts more than make up for the addled world-view of his characters.
4 Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey – This strange, beautifully subdued coming-of-age story about a Scottish woman named Eva who’s been visited her entire life by two non-corporeal ‘companions’ only she can see (although we quickly learn they’re not figments of her imagination – they can very much affect the material world, not always to Eva’s liking). They guide and guard her through an early-20th century life that’s otherwise fairly ordinary, and with amazing literary skill, Livesey combines the mundane and the supernatural and brings their story to a conclusion that’s at once comforting and unsettling. This is one of those creeping novels that sneaks past your guard and then sticks with you.
3 Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks – The year in question in this amazing historical novel by Brooks is in the 17th century, in rural England, and the wonders are dark ones: the village is struck by plague. In response, the village’s vicar compels the townspeople to seal off the village from the outside world and let God’s will takes its course, and the slim, powerful novel that follows is harrowing to read and yet also, somehow, lovely.
2 The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh – This story of an Indian boy named Rajkumar whose life is upended in 1885, the year the British invade Burma and depose its royal family. Rajkumar catches a glimpse of royal servant named Dolly, and the thought of her haunts him throughout the ensuing years of his life as he rises to power and wealth in the teak industry. Ghosh takes this already-sprawling story and doubles and redoubles it in complexity and human breadth, until the novel feels like a vivid dream.
1 Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold – The best novel of the year was also a debut: an incredibly assured historical novel set in 1920s America and starring the young stage magician Charles Carter, known to his public as Carter the Great. Gold fills his book with the sights, sounds, and above all personalities of the Roaring Twenties, and through it all he threads a plot of fiendish complexity to a climax that’s downright exhilarating. A bravura performance.
10 The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose – Despite the broad implications of this great book’s title, it’s really about the books people read, and how they got them, and what they thought about them, and it’s an absolute feast for any other book-reader. Rose sifts through worker diaries, library records, and even the occasional printed book review in order to assess 200 years of British life from the inside out, and quite apart from their historical importance, the results end up being very, very affirming: books, as we always knew, can literally change lives.
9 Grant by Jean Edward Smith – Until I read this fantastic biography, I’d largely swallowed the standard line about the Grant presidency: an inept trudger in the center seat, surrounded by great crowds of corrupt swindlers buying and selling the government down the river. I already knew what I thought about Grant the so-called genius general, and although Smith didn’t do anything to move those military opinions, he entirely changed my perception of Grant’s political life, making me realize how much of that standard line was the result of party politics. I love it when a biography makes me see its subject in a new way, and I got that with this book.
8 Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll – This big book – Carroll’s most powerful and angry work – makes for some prolongedly difficult reading. It’s the long story of Christianity’s anti-Semitism, and Carroll spares his readers no gruesome detail or twisted psychology. I think the most riveting aspect of the book (much like William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, to name one example) is the palpable feeling of long-boiling outrage on Carroll’s part as he tells story after story of savage cruelty and cold contempt in age after age. He ends his book by calling for reformation, but even that feels like an act of outrage rather than optimism.
7 The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery – The ‘deep’ natural history of North America is Flannery’s subject here, and although his treatment of that subject is entirely historical, he does an eye-opening job of portraying that natural history as a flexible, living thing. He’s a superb science-popularizer, and his vivid descriptions of all the various eras of the place are unfailingly thought-provoking. And his call to re-introduce elephants to the American plains? I’d be all for it, if we first killed off all the humans living there.
6 Savage Beauty by Nancy Mitford – Anybody who’d read this author’s deeply empathetic biography of Zelda Fitzgerald would know what to expect from this look at the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Mitford wonderfully delivers: here is the poet, the celebrity, and the human being, all brought to immediate life on the page. I’d hoped, when the book first appeared, that it would spark a critical revival of Millay, but no – it’s possible the art she once dominated has stupidly outgrown her.
5 Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century by James Farrell – The character of former Speaker of the House and quintessential drunken Irish political backstage operator Thomas “Tip” O’Neill just naturally lends itself to Irish-stereotype caricatures, a great many of which O’Neill himself happily perpetuated in his own book, and it’s to Farrell’s great credit that he side-steps such blarney in order to deliver instead a shrewd study of how Congressional power operated in the long era before one of the US’s two political parties lost its collective mind and became an object of ridicule for anybody who’s ever read a book or had a thought. Farrell’s O’Neill is a deeply flawed individual, but even so, my guess is he would have liked this book more than the fawning encomiums he saw in his time.
4 Washington by Meg Greenfield – One of the clearest, sanest voices cutting through the babble of O’Neill’s Washington was that of Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield, and this posthumous memoir manages to preserve something of that voice, although not enough of it – the book of her long-time friend and ally in the Capital, Katharine Graham, is more than three times as long (and the book of their incredible partnership has yet to be written). The portrait she paints in these pages of the sordid drama of Washington has all the sharp angles she loved so much, and it also has the virtue of being true.
3 The Third Reich by Michael Burleigh – Gott knows, the world doesn’t lack for long histories of the Third Reich, and even I, whose love of reading about the WWII era is second to none, looked at this book in the publisher’s catalog with something approaching weariness. But although Burleigh’s subject matter is intensely familiar, and although his lines of historical inquiry have been trod into broad elephant-trails, he manages through sheer dint of literary ability to make this an indispensable volume for any WWII library.
2 Dead Certainties by Simon Schama – This little book consists of two halves – one telling the story of the death of General Wolfe in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham and the other telling the story of the murder of Boston grandee George Parkman in 1849. Despite some lit-rary fancy-dancing on Schama’s part, nothing connects these two deaths – this book is just two long American Scholar articles forced to live in the same small room like Hoosier undergrads. But I wasn’t ten pages in before I stopped caring about that, because all of Schama’s great literary gifts (which sometimes take protracted coffee breaks during his longer works, especially his universally-praised snoozer Citizens) are on fire in these pages. Despite the longer and far more ambitious books this author has written, this is the thing of his I always recommend to newcomers – the Parkman piece especially is just damn fine writing.
1 The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens – As with a few books on our list for this year, so too even more for this tiny hand-grenade from the late Christopher Hitchens: revelation is the goal and hugely successful effect. In this case, Hitchens takes the near-universal dislike every thinking person has felt for Henry Kissinger for five decades and relentlessly concentrates it all into a knife-point war crimes indictment of unanswerable brilliance. I had my issues with Hitchens, certainly (foremost among them being his alcohol-spawned grasping laziness – this thing, for instance, is a pamphlet when it should have been a book, and it joins a long list of other such rushed-up squibs), but here he’s in utterly inimitable top form.