I’ll begin with some great reads from ancient historians young and old. Mary Beard effortlessly glides through the multi-stranded story of ancient Rome’s first millennium in SPQR whilst Tom Holland’s Dynasty is a rip-roaring romp through the history of the first Roman Imperial family, with a cast of characters whose scheming and blood-letting makes Game of Thrones look a little mild at times. The Odyssey beats any box-set of course and Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead mixes travelogue, history and lightly-worn literary learning to explain the continuing relevance of Homer’s poetry. Meanwhile one of our greatest classical historians, Robin Lane Fox brings us a definitive portrait of Augustine of Hippo and how he came to write his Confessions, perhaps the greatest of all autobiographies.
Good history sheds new light on past and present, and Peter Frankopan’s epic reassessment of world history from an Eastern perspective leaves the reader not only entertained, but better able to understand that huge region’s return to centre-stage in world affairs. His The Silk Roads, a contender for my book of the year, ought to be by the bedside of any modern middle-eastern meddler. Nearby should be two others – Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of Islamic State – his knowledge and past journalism on the subject endow it with genuine authority, and Jason Burke’s The New Threat From Islamic Militancy, which draws on two decades of reporting to roll back fear with wide-ranging understanding and realistic suggestion.
Lines on maps have caused many modern problems, but Tim Marshall’s excellent Prisoners of Geography uses ten maps as a key to understanding the impact of geography on current world politics, from Putin and the Ukraine to the expanding influence of China. Geography is the key to Sicily’s rich history of course, and John Julius Norwich’s Sicily shows a great storyteller happily at work again amongst his favourite material.
Are we at the start of a new cold war? Ben Macintyre, as ever, gives the story of the greatest traitor of the old one, Kim Philby the drive of an unputdownable thriller in A Spy Among Friends. Moving to the present-day, and businessman Bill Browder’s Red Notice – How I became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy is equally riveting and chilling – as he says, “If I am killed you will know who did it.” and we aren’t left in any doubt.
For many GI’s, their coldest (and bloodiest war) was fought in the Ardennes, and one of many surprises of Antony Beevor’s masterful Ardennes 1944 is that this was true even for some German veterans of the Eastern Front. Whilst Beevor is an unrivalled master on individual battles, Max Hastings is equally unrivalled at broad-brush military history, distilling in The Secret War an extraordinary range of material, ranging from Turing and Bletchley Park to S.O.E. and Philby into non-pareil narrative. Back to Russia, and to Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943. The Maisky Diaries (edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky,) chart the course not only of British politics in those years, from appeasement to wartime tensions, but also offer real insight into the court of the red Tsar.
On to things literary, and the publication of Jonathan Bate’s fine biography, Ted Hughes The Unauthorised Life, was a late-year personal highlight, the biographer capturing Hughes’s “otherness, “ to use the poet’s own word. No less complex a literary life was Iris Murdoch’s and Living On Paper, Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe adds much to one’s appreciation of her work, her sparkling wit and her brilliant, original mind. Which brings one to Emmanuel Carrère, amongst France’s finest novelists himself, who has written either an extraordinary novel or an extraordinary biography (or perhaps both) about Limonov – brilliant novelist turned dissident, laughable and admirable at the same time, a man who is also busy fictionalising his own life even as Carrère is doing the same. The book is hard to categorise, and so too is Schubert’s Winter Journey, Ian Bostridge’s outstanding singer’s interpretation of Schubert’s enigmatic masterpiece which brings to life the composer’s world piece by piece as he considers each of the 24 songs.
Two more paperbacks bring this instalment to a close – First, Midnight at the Pera Palace by Charles King brings inter-war Istanbul thrillingly and colourfully out of the shadow of Berlin in that era, and – no apologies for finishing again on another Daunt Books publication – New York writer Vivian Gornick’s finely crafted portrait of her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments. Enjoy.