The season of goodwill and log-rolling (or should that be log-stacking? – see below) in the papers is almost upon us so here is the first of a few personal rambles through the highlights of a very fine year in books.
To begin with non-fiction, I loved the work of two writers capturing beautifully, yet in very different ways, the inspiration of the natural world on writers and artists. In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane gives us a generous key to the works of writers as diverse as Nan Shepherd, John Muir and Barry Lopez, punctuated by a magical lexicon of land-language. Meanwhile, Alexandra Harris has followed the wonderful Romantic Moderns with Weatherland, the beguiling story of a thousand years of interaction between the British weather and our creative culture. Mention of things cultural also lets me squeeze in here Will Gompertz’s little handbook Think Like An Artist – a pithy, smart look at the traits common to all successful artists and a guide to adapting them to help us all.
Two fine books conjured literary magic from a working life this year – Mark Vanhoenacker’s lyrical, thoughtful Skyfaring on the pilot’s world and James Rebanks’ remarkable Lake District portrait The Shepherd’s Life. Elsewhere, The Fly Trap by Frederik Sjöberg continues to charm everyone who reads it – a delightful tale of a man full of wisdom and curiosity who lives on a small Swedish island finding happiness in small things – tiny things in fact – oh alright then, hoverflies – really you’ll just have to trust me, buy it, and enjoy. In the same way, a book about stacking wood might have had the odds against it being a best-seller stacked even higher, but Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood has got everyone turned on to the pleasures of chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way (very, very, carefully indeed).
Italophiles were richly served in print this year; John Hooper gave us as fine a portrait of Italy in The Italians as he once did of Spain (and that is high praise indeed) while Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow with its fresh and zesty portrait of Italy through that country’s love-affair with citrus gained a new and deservedly huge audience in paperback. Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think provided an equally novel and affectionate look at the French through the great thinkers from Voltaire and Rousseau to Foucault and Levi-Strauss. Helena Attlee’s book would be my choice for travel book of the year though others would point to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, a fascinating exploration of the fading world of Middle-Eastern religious minorities. Jens Mühling’s A Journey into Russia deserves an honourable mention too for his ability to weave countless individual Russians’ stories into a fresh and fascinating tapestry revealing that great country’s true face.
Well written science books have the useful double function of entertaining and calming one as they make a complex world slightly less bewildering, and none more so than Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden’s Life on the Edge. Physicist and geneticist combine to explain how the physics of the quantum world explain so much about us larger animals and indeed the nature of life itself. Quantum biology may be the latest offshoot, but The Lagoon by Armand Marie Leroi is a compelling portrait of the birth of science when Aristotle began observing, recording and explaining the animals around him in an Aegean lagoon. Alexander von Humboldt, brought to glorious colourful life in Andrea Wulf’s new biography The Invention of Nature, would never have settled for one lagoon. His boy’s own adventures were nothing less than a lifelong quest to know and explain everything, and the fact that more things are named after him than anyone else is testament to just how far he succeeded. Finally Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari represents a simply dazzling intellectual feat – a brilliantly entertaining romp through the whole history of our species.
Before I close this instalment let me salute two fine reprints. I hugely enjoyed No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi. First published in 1948, Benuzzi’s is a P.O.W. escape story with a twist – it tells the tale of his and his three companions’ WWII escape from a British camp to climb Mount Kenya with homemade climbing gear. He even left a note apologising to the camp commander and promising his return. He was as good as his word, and his words here are very good indeed. One cannot have enough of Robert Macfarlane, surely, so I’ll end with his fine introduction to an even finer book: writing of John McPhee’s sublime portrait of Alaska, Coming Into the Country, reprinted here at Daunt Books in a beautiful new edition, Macfarlane says “It is both a memorial for, and testimony to, the awesome complexity of America’s ‘ultimate wilderness’”.