Good reading we bring... Writers pick their top 3 Christmas books
From now until Christmas The Scotsman's books pages will be picking out the year's best reads. First, which three books would some of our finest writers like to give or receive?
I'M NOT WISHING FOR any books as I don't know if I'll like a book until I've read it, but if recommending anything I have already read it would be: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield (Doubleday, 11.99), a fictional account of Laura Bush's life; The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (Doubleday, 16.99) a big, fat American epic; and March by Geraldine Brooks (HarperPerennial, 7.99), the story of the father from Little Women and his Civil War experiences .
When I'm working very hard, as I occasionally do, I'm inclined to describe my labours as "Balzacian". I think I'm wrong. I suspect that Balzac worked harder than 100 novelists put together. Graham Robb's seminal biography, Balzac (Picador, 10), will set me straight, I know. As an exiled Scot I'm particularly intrigued by other exiled Scots' takes on the homeland. I look forward to Mick Imlah's award-winning collection of poems The Lost Leader (Faber and Faber, 9.99) for another shrewd, clear-sighted view back from beyond the pale.
The one true classic I read this year may be in many ways a children's book: it's about the love felt between a boy and the dogs bred on the remote family farm in the American midwest. But The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Fourth Estate, 12.99) is a magical piece of storytelling, in the tradition of The Water Babies and Black Beauty.
Other books I would be happy to wake up to on the 25th are DeKooning: an American Master (Knopf, $27.50), the highly regarded (but unpublished in Britain) biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. And Ooga-Booga, the latest collection from the engaging American dandy poet Frederick Seidel (Faber and Faber, 9.99, from May 2009).
Poet and novelist
I've always been modest in my requests to Santa, given his preference for nice over naughty, but now that I'm too old for the latter, I'll try asking for the big Schirmer/Mosel Verlag edition of the Cy Twombly Catalogue Raisonn: 1972-1995 Vol 4, (Schirmer/Mosel Verlag GmbH), a snip at 600).
My dream book would be a generous selection of the photographs of the great Raymond Moore, one of the neglected geniuses of British art in the 20th century. It doesn't exist – yet – but when it does I'll be the first in Santa's queue with documentary evidence of niceness.
Finally, as a modest stocking filler, I'd like Walking, by HD Thoreau (Arc Manor, 3.99), a book that has been somewhat overshadowed by its more illustrious siblings, but remains a masterpiece, nevertheless.
Kazuo Ishiguro's new book, Nocturnes, is top of my list. Whether I can get hold of one is a different matter as it is not published until May next year but I'm hoping I can get an advance reading copy from friends at Faber. He is one of the dons. As is Ferran Adrian, the principal genius behind the remarkable Catalonian restaurant El Bulli, and I would love to receive A Day at El Bulli (Phaidon, 29.95), a celebration of this wild and sublime temple to gastronomy. I'm lucky enough to have eaten there and feasting on these pages would be the next best thing to returning. And finally there is Michel Faber's new novel – again, this is something Santa might not be able to deliver as Michel is still writing it but I read a tantalising chapter of it a fortnight ago and I have a feeling this is going to be another extraordinary journey he takes me on. Here's hoping!
Novelist and columnist
Top of my Christmas list is Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father (Canongate, 8.99). The publisher was unbelievably smart to snap this up two years ago, and apparently it's excellent. Next in line is Homicide (Canongate, 12.99), by David Simon. Simon is the genius behind The Wire, and this is a reissue of a book he wrote when he spent a year as a journalist, shadowing Baltimore's murder squad. If it's a quarter as well written as the TV show it's going to be incredible.
Finally, Russell T Davies's book, Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale (BBC Books, 30). I've read extracts and it seems to be a brilliant expos of what writers actually do all day – fiddle, write e-mails and think about boys mostly – whether you're the genius behind the biggest TV show in the UK or a hack like me.
Historian and TV presenter
I've just completed my mammoth Story of Australia – a history of the continent from the break-up of Gondwana to the 21st century – so reading for pleasure has been on hold for most of 2008. As a result, what I call my "aspirational book pile" rivals Everest in both size and effort. Top of my list would be The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (HarperPress, 25) by Richard Holmes. I love anything that covers the 18th century, especially the intersection between art, science and imagination. I would also have to have two entries from the fabulous Mann Booker Prize shortlist: the winner, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Atlantic, 12.99), but in case it all gets too heavy, the comic novel A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton, 17.99) by Australia's Steve Toltz.
Two of my favourite novelists are Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami – both have new books out that I haven't got on to yet, so either would make a very nice stocking filler. Murakami's non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Harvill Secker, 9.99 ) would suit me since I'm a jogger, while Auster's latest novel, Man in the Dark (Faber and Faber, 14.99), sounds up my street, as it toys with parallel worlds in a story about a recuperating car accident victim. Failing that, I'll settle for the Doctor Who Annual (BBC Books, 6.99).
My choice would have to be the massive and richly detailed edition of William Roy's remarkable work, published by Birlinn in 2007, The Great Map: the Military Survey of Scotland 1747 to 1755 (Birlinn, 200).
The Survey was commissioned after Culloden to enable the Hano-verian forces to gain an accurate physical understanding of areas of Jacobite disaffection in the Highlands which they were intent on subjecting to a harsh regime of control. But it quickly outgrew this sinister purpose and over the following seven years the whole of mainland Scotland was mapped in a comprehensive fashion. It was a prodigious achievement, engaging the labour of several survey teams.
The Birlinn edition is a work of art. The pages abound in colour with hills, rivers and glens brought into vivid focus by the browns, greens, blues and greys liberally employed by the mapmakers, extraordinary testimony to the quest for knowledge in Enlightenment Scotland. But the prime importance of The Great Map is that it is a wonderful record of the old Scottish landscape before it was transformed forever by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.
Novelist and children's writer
At Christmas everyone loves to read about families even more testing than their own, so my first choice would be Miranda Seymour's In My Father's House (Pocket Books, 7.99). She tells – astonishingly frankly – the story of her father's life-long obsession with Thrumpton Hall, the house in which he was raised. The discussions with her mother (who clearly wishes she'd chosen some other topic) are deliciously written.
Let's hope Santa also brings me A Life Drawing (Bodley Head, 19.99), the autobiography of Shirley Hughes. For everyone who's loved her children's book illustrations, this is an aptly named treasure. I'd also hope to get Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (Persephone, 9). Separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees – all here, brilliantly depicted.
Writer and poet
Top of the list has to be John Seymour's The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (Dorling Kindersley, 20). Every year I feel the need to split away from the "normal" way to live and hunker down with llamas, goats, a donkey and hens, and focus on my fence-making and preserves. If I don't do it soon, the frenetic knitting, cottage-pie making and squad of chickens and cats may cease to appease and I will explode.
Second up is Mark Rowland's The Philosopher and the Wolf (Granta, 15.99), a meditation on what it means to be lupine and how it reflects the human. Last but not least is Nicky Epstein's Knitting on Top of the World: The Global Guide to Traditions, Techniques and Design ( Sixth&Spring, 19.99). We all need to knit.
The cold weather and dark nights make me want to curl up by the fire with a book of fairy tales and I very much like the look of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (Penguin, 8.99) translated (freely, I bet) by Angela Carter, which promises to be intriguing, pragmatic and amusing. I'd like Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia (Picador, 8.99), an exploration of the peculiar susceptibility of the human mind to musical structure. And, having recently settled full time in Scotland, I want to catch up on some Scottish literature, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon's The Scotch Quair (Polygon, 9.99) is top of the list.
Teen fiction writer
With hints of both Peake and Pullman, the first volume in the life of an experimentally educated slave during the American Civil War was one of the most unique and compelling novels for teenagers published in recent years. It was one of those books I bought for adult friends without letting on it's a "kids' book". And they loved it. So The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (Candlewick 12.99) by MT Anderson is set to be my most-given gift this year.
Like so many others I was left wandering, aimless and bereft at the conclusion of the greatest TV drama ever, HBO's The Wire. Luckily one of the show's main writers, George Pelecanos, has a new novel out. The Turnaround (Orion 12.99) should keep pitiable Wire-heads like me satisfied for now.
Top of my wishlist has to be Vincent O'Sullivan's fifth volume of Katherine Mansfield's Letters (Oxford University Press, 60); plangent, wishful and determined even at the end – with O'Sullivan's learned and sensitive introduction. I'd also like the Polygon republications of James Kelman's books (6.99-9.99) – the whole set, please – with their groovy brown paper cardboard covers, and the new Richard Peever translation of War and Peace (Vintage Classics, 20).
Edinburgh International Book Festival Director
I expect my stocking to be bulging with such newly sought-after titles as "How to Feed A Family For A Fortnight On Half A Tin Of Soup" and "A Darned Sock and Global Economic Meltdown: The Joke Book". (These have, of course, started already, as in "What's the capital of Iceland?" "3.50") For the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns, I'm itching to get my hands on Robert Crawford's forthcoming biography, The Bard (Jonathan Cape, 20) – one poet's sensibility meeting another – and I'll be infiltrating into as many other people's stockings as I can Andrew O Hagan's beautiful, passionate take on some of the loveliest poems, A Night Out With Robert Burns (Canongate, 12.99). And although I'm one of many contributors, I'm looking forward to Touched by Robert Burns (Birlinn, 20), with Andy Hall's infallibly stunning landscape photographs – and all in aid of UNICEF. Perfect.
ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH
My choices are as follows: Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument, by Hugh Cheape (NMSE, 15.99). Few people know more about the history of this instrument than Hugh Cheape. A fascinating book. The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland by Tess Darwin (Birlinn, 12.99): I would love to know more about the uses and history of the common plants we see about us. This book should do the trick. And finally, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by David Everett (Profile, 15.99) I can't wait to read this account of an anthropologist's life with the Piraha people. Everett's description of their language raises fundamental issues for linguistics.
Comedy scriptwriter and novelist
I'd like: Time to Stand and Stare: A life of WH Davies by Barbara Hooper and WH Davies (Peter Owen, 15.95). Davies was from Newport in Wales and went to America, where, famously, he travelled as a hobo. He recorded his adventures in a volume called Autobiography of a Super Tramp. On his return to England he lived in a flophouse in Kennington, where he wrote poetry which he tried to sell around the doors, with no success. When George Bernard Shaw took up the cause of Supertramp, Davies's star rose.
I'd also like Coda (Granta, 14.99). This was to prove Simon Gray's final volume of autobiographical musings before his death from cancer this year. Irreverent, witty and caustically honest, Gray was entertaining to the last.
Lastly, I'd like The New Paradigm for Financial Markets by George Soros (PublicAffairs, 12.99). Lots of commentators claim to have anticipated the credit crunch; Soros actually did, years ago. And he says we're still "walking towards the storm rather than away from it". On that happy note, Merry Christmas.
I usually get the Private Eye annual in my Christmas stocking, along with Oor Wullie or The Broons. I usually also request a few specific books, though it can then take me all the next year to get through them. This year there's a biography of Brian Eno I quite fancy (On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno by David Sheppard, Orion, 20), and Dennis Lehane's new historical novel (see Kate Atkinson, above) looks intriguing – I saw it when I was on tour in the US, but resisted the urge to buy it as it would have been an anvil in my backpack. Margaret Atwood's essays on debt (Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Bloomsbury, 9.99) would seem a perfect rejoinder to our fiscally turbulent times.
And the new Mark Thomas book about Coca-Cola (Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola, Ebury, 11.99) – if the lawyers have allowed publication in time! (They have – Ed.)
Poet and editor
Entranced by the catastrophe of his life, I would like the elusive first volume of Strindberg's Letters: 1862-1892 (University of Chicago Press, published in 1992) to read alongside Michael Meyer's glorious, hilarious biography. Equally, I'd be very glad to reread Karl Miller's masterful study of our national biformity, Doubles (published in 1987, with a new edition due in January, Faber and Faber, 20) . Failing that, I'll happily settle for Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (Faber and Faber, 40), which promises to be enthralling.
If anybody buys me anything by anyone called Ramsay, Oliver, Blumenthal or Marco bleeding Pierre-White I'll immerse it in a marinade of light soy, gnats piss and aged balsamic, give it a light misting of finely milled oatcake and seal it over an intensely hot griddle before serving it to next door's pit-bulls. Then I'll settle back with a glass of Bladnoch while plucking from my stocking my copy of Keith Waterhouse's memoir City Lights (out of print, but available second-hand via the web, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995). And if some thoughtful soul has remembered that I'm an honorary Scot, therewill be – pleasure of pleasures, joy of joys – the Oor Wullie Annual (DC Thomson, 6.50).
After a lifetime of reading his antics I only recently had the astonishment of learning that I share not only a Christian, but a surname, with the wee boy!
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South