A BOOK is an ideal stocking filler for your loved ones this Christmas
Broadcaster and author
As a fervid admirer of the dazzling imagination, verbal dexterity and social reforming passion of Charles Dickens, I could hardly wait for Claire Tomalin’s new biography. Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking, £30) is everything you expect from Tomalin: elegant, pacey, humane and a good deal less sentimental than Dickens himself. I also enjoyed Hilary Spurling’s Burying The Bones: Pearl Buck In China (Profile, £8.99), which does superb justice to this forgotten American novelist’s pioneering bid to explain China to the West.
In many ways the most stimulating book I read this year was The Social Animal: A Story Of How Success Happens by David Brooks (Short Books £14.99). Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Drawing on the latest brain research and findings from many other disciplines, he provides a fictional narrative of the life of Harold and Erica, charting the effect of the subconscious and the social and cultural context in which we live on our life chances. The implications for social policy are dramatic. Best novel for me was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, £8.99): US middle-class angst and rites of passage set in a brilliant, compassionate narrative.
Author and broadcaster
With a few notable exceptions I loathe autobiographies. There’s rarely much truth revealed since the vanity of the author, in having penned it, lends itself to either self-delusion or posturing. What a treat, then, to read Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn (Faber and Faber, £14.99), the wonderful writer and film director, famous for Yes Minister and My Cousin Vinnie, ingeniously presented as a series of anecdotes illustrating 150 rules of how to write comedy. The stories that accompany them tell us so much more about this extraordinary man’s life and work than the usual dreary format.
It’s just a caper, but by heavens it’s a good one: Neal Stephenson’s just-published Reamde (Atlantic Books, £18.99) is not his best (try Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle) but it still shows an extraordinarily energetic imagination. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Faber and Faber, £9.99) is a fascinating novel about what could have become of Soviet technology. My discovery of the year: William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It (Vintage Classics, £8.99). It seems simple, but at the end you realise you need to read it all over again.
Deputy leader, Scottish Conservatives
So why did ordinary Germans support Hitler’s regime to utter destruction? Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany 1944-45 (Allen Lane, £30) offers the most convincing insight yet from still the best biographer of Hitler. Supermac by D R Thorpe (Pimlico, £16.99) completes a trilogy of highly readable biographies of Conservative PMs with an affectionate study of Harold Macmillan and follows previous works on Eden and Douglas-Home. Best light relief? Ken Follett’s Fall Of Giants (Pan, £8.99) was wonderfully trashy summer reading.
CEO, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
I loved The Fry Chronicles, the second memoir from Stephen Fry (Michael Joseph, £20), a compelling, read-in-one-sitting book, and a funny, thoughtful, name-dropping romp through the 1980s with lots of great Edinburgh Festival Fringe references. Continuing the memoir theme, Candia McWilliam’s What To Look For In Winter (Vintage, £8.99), a searingly personal account from the book festival favourite, is a difficult, moving, mesmerising and ultimately beautiful book.
Filmmaker and author
I thought I knew a fair bit about painter Paul Cézanne and novelist George Eliot but Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist (Canongate, £16.99) is so brilliant that I went straight back to the National Gallery of Scotland to see the Cézanne there with new eyes. Also I have just got my hands on an advance copy of Richard Holloway’s memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir Of Faith And Doubts (Canongate, March next year) an enlightening walk through a life that encompasses West Africa, the Gorbals, rent strikes, the divided self and the question of grace.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury, £12.99) may be tagged as one of a “too readable” Booker shortlist but it is pitch perfect in its childish argot, breezily describing a world view encroached on by inner city violence, domestic abuse and underage sex. It is an affectingly comical tragedy. The Beginning And The End Of The World (Birlinn, £16.99) is rich with Robert Crawford’s wry and wonderfully wrought language which reveals that the birth of photography in Victorian St Andrews contributed to an apocalyptic questioning of the fate of humanity.
I’d been saving Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (Atlantic, £8.99) for my first trip to India this year and I couldn’t have found a better book to help me understand the chaotic mix of contradictions that is modern India. The story’s central character and narrator is Balram, who tells us how he overcame a life of poverty to become a successful entrepreneur, and a murderer. It’s no Slumdog Millionaire. It’s not sentimental. It’s an angry book but with some great moments of dark comedy too.
On a summer residency on Inch Kenneth, on which I found myself investigating beached whales, there was a moment when, looking into the vast abyss of a cave, I felt the island had somehow anthropomorphised around me and swallowed me up. Later, hunting out a battered copy of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies (Faber and Faber, £7.99), I remembered a passage where the island itself, as a giant Leviathan, breathed with the cycles of the tide. Straight away I reread both it and Pincher Martin (Faber and Faber, £7.99), its underrated sequel, which I found both terrifying and yet also compelling.
Broadcaster and DJ
James Yorkston is better known as a Domino Records recording artist and acclaimed member of Fife’s Fence Collective. His debut It’s Lovely To Be Here – The Touring Diaries Of A Scottish Gent (Faber and Faber/Domino Press, £9.99) is a self-deprecating and utterly anti-rock’n’roll collection of stories from a grumpy, vegan singer-songwriter. I also got around to reading Kill Your Friends by John Niven (Vintage, £7.99) and I was not disappointed. Imagine Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho set in the A&R world of Britpop-era London.
Retiring leader, Scottish Labour Party
I am a big fan of John Irving and Last Night In Twisted River (Black Swan, £7.99) did not disappoint. Irvine Welsh has described him as literature’s Bruce Springsteen. Spot on. This novel has an old-fashioned feel in the best sense – a sweeping saga over 50 years of blue-collar Americana – a father and son on the run from a fatal accident. Alistair Darling may be a friend, but Back From The Brink (Atlantic Books, £19.99) stands out among political memoirs.
Impresario and writer
Two titles much engrossed me on my pre-book-writing sojourn in the spring. Nemesis by Philip Roth (Vintage, £7.99) was a masterful evocation of New Jersey in the stifling summer of 1944 with his characteristic blurring of reality and fiction as he describes the effect that an epidemic of polio has on a closely knit urban neighbourhood. It’s another chapter in his great American novel. Nothing To Envy by LA Times journalist Barbara Demick (Granta, £8.99) is redolent and disturbing in a different way, an account of real lives drawn from interviews with defectors from the shadowy (actually dark) and sinister world of North Korea.
Director, CBI Scotland
My favourite book of 2011 is my signed copy of Strictly English (Random House, £12.99) by journalist Simon Heffer. The book certainly does not make light reading and is full of explanations of the proper use of reflective verbs, the definite article, the intransitive verb and so on. The central theme is that the proper expression of logic requires good written and spoken English, an important point that seems to be sadly lacking in our schools today.
Director, V&A at Dundee
Hard to classify – and absorbing because of that – is Scottish poet Robert Crawford’s The Beginning And The End Of The World (Birlinn, £16.99). Set in St Andrews in the mid-19th century, Crawford cleverly weaves together a documentary account of an eccentric range of interrelated characters fascinated with the new science (or art?) of photography and much more besides. Meanwhile, Postmodernism: Style & Subversion (V&A Publishing, £40), accompanying the current exhibition of the same name, courageously takes on the task of analysing the architecture, graphic, fashion and style industry from 1970 to 1990, best read to a soundtrack of Laurie Anderson, Devo and Grace Jones.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (Canongate Classics, £9.99) this year so it seemed a good time to dig out my extremely dog-eared paperback copy to re-read. It makes a lot more sense to me now as an allegory than when I was 21. The City of Unthank is a place where a vast underground bureaucracy feeds off the afflicted inhabitants, while pretending to cure them.
In some ways it’s even more relevant today. It’s such a elaborate work of both fantasy and political satire, a sort of Gulliver’s Travels for 20th century Scotland.
Artist and Illustrator
“I like Rugby, standing in pubs, Tintoretto, and large dogs. I dislike Poetic voice, pseudo-scientific jargon, surrealism and spaghetti,” said the Irish poet Louis MacNeice. His Letters (Faber and Faber, £35) are a treasure trove of brilliance from the most humane and plural “English” poet of the last century. Willa Cather’s My Antonia (Dover Publications, £3.50) is one of my discoveries of the year, though it dates back to 1918. An unforgettable paean to lost landscape and love – and the only book likely to make one visit Nebraska.
Head of global strategy, Standard Life Investments
I had the good fortune to meet Mark Tully earlier this year, and afterwards greatly enjoyed reading his book India’s Unending Journey (Rider, £8.99). It is partly biographical, partly an objective yet sensitive analysis of the culture, politics and economy in that very important country. As it was first published in 2007, more up to date is the second book, From Red To Green? by Paul Donovan and Julie Hudson (Routledge, £24.99). It warns in no uncertain terms about the forthcoming massive environmental crisis facing the world economy while it attempts to cope with the recent financial crisis.
German consul-general in Edinburgh
Fixation on the Nazi period prevents people from realising Germany’s achievements prior to Hitler or since 1945. This is not a German who said this, but the eminent British journalist Peter Watson. In The German Genius (Simon and Schuster, £9.99) he delivers a compelling overview of the contribution Germans have made to European thinking and science from the 17th to 20th century.
But for those who cannot get enough of the Nazi period,Roger Moorhouse’s Berlin At War (Vintage, £9.99) describes the Second World War from the perspective of ordinary Berliners. Based on interviews with contemporaries, their letters and diaries. It gives a fascinating insight into how people coped, including courageous acts of resistance.
Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats
The Girl In The Bunker, by my good friend Tracey Rosenburg (Cargo Publishing, £8.99) is a chilling novel about 12-year-old Helga Goebbels, niece of Adolf Hitler, in the last days of the Second World War. Written from the perspective of Helga, it is challenging but in being so brings the whole episode to life. In contrast I have just completed Life And Laughing by Michael McIntyre (Penguin, £7.99), which plots his career and life from showbiz roots to failing at the festival through to his astounding success to thousands at Wembley and beyond. A gentle counterbalance to the Holyrood hothouse.
Michael Burleigh’s Blood And Rage (Harper Perennial, £9.99) examines the history of modern terrorism, its causes, and some of the lessons that can be learned in dealing with it. Celine Roberts’s No One Wants You (Ebury, £6.99) is a very sad but moving story of a child born out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland who was told that her father was a well-known Dublin lawyer who could not be shamed by the scandal, about her experience of convent school life and her discovery of and relationship with her real family. Finally, Ros Taylor’s Confidence At Work (Kogan Page, £10.99) is packed full of handy hints.
Today there are an estimated 50 million people around the world with Scottish ancestry and the impact of the Scottish diaspora has been huge. Tom Devine’s To The Ends Of The Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 (Allen Lane, £25) examines how successive waves of emigration have affected this country too, sometimes in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. Tom brings a greater understanding to this fascinating subject and offers an intriguing perspective on a key component of Scotland’s history and national identity.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the good guys winning. YAY! HARRY POTTER BEAT VOLDEMORT. Yawn. YAY! LUKE SHYWALKER DEFEATED THE EMPIRE! Dull. YAY! EDWARD AND BELLA something something something. I don’t read Twilight: I have testicles. But finally, in Nemesis by Mark Millar (Titan Books. £14.99), the bad guy kicks ass. He’s just pure evil, with no cause except mayhem. And that’s what makes him so scary. And so awesome. None of this “Save the world!” crap. Just pure, unadulterated hate. Oh, and if you think “Graphic novels are for kids,” let your five-year-old read this, film it and send me the video. I need a good laugh.
Easy reading, like easy listening, is often very hard writing. I’ve found that the prose of philosophers has all too often been easily written, yet in the case of Glasgow’s own Dudley Knowles great pains have been taken, both with the subject and the medium of its discussion. Political Obligation (Routledge, £19.99) is grand in its scope, but also generously supplied with illustrative footholds. The book seems to have no side, but only a detachment – hence its clarity. I’ll also mention Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (Faber and Faber). Verging on pornology, you never read such a farce. Very difficult writing.
I spent the first half of 2011 on sabbatical as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University and decided to read lots of recent novels by American writers, three of which reduced me to a blubbering mess on trains up and down the north-east coast of the United States; Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving (Black Swan, £7.99), Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, £8.99) and The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, £8.99). The last one left me so emotional that people seated around me kept asking if I was OK. I wasn’t.
I’ve always been an avid reader and I love adventure and spy books. I’m currently reading the latest in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series - The Bourne Dominion (Orion, £18.99). I also like the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child and I’ve recently read the last couple of those. The best books I’ve read this year though are the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson. They were difficult to put down. I now read all my books on the iPad which is a wonderful experience, and a lot lighter.
Rangers and Scotland footballer
My favourite book of the year would have to be the Robert Enke biography, A Life Too Short, by Robert Reng (Yellow Jersey, £16.99). Although the subject matter was very uncomfortable and very sad, it gave an insight into the suffering of a person who in many people’s eyes had everything. Whilst the book had a very sad story, it demonstrated the illness and football’s darker side very well. My other favourite book of the year would be, Mick Rathbone’s The Smell Of Fear (Vision Sports Publishing, £12.99), which was hilarious and sad in equal measures and even though I had heard most of the stories first hand.
Mark Schatzker’s 2010 book Steak (Viking, £16.22) was one of my favourite reads this year. It is about a man’s obsession to find the world’s tastiest piece of beef. It was a fascinating and enjoyable travel memoir that took in travels across the world to Texas, France, Scotland, Italy, Japan and Argentina. I also enjoyed Alan Spence’s 2006 novel The Pure Land (Canongate, £8.99), while among books published this year I enjoyed Wilbur Smith’s Those In Peril (Macmillan, £18.99) – nothing complicated but a real page-turner all the same.
Compiled by Rebecca Monks