Choices that speak volumes

27th December 1996 at 00:00
The ignominious collapse of the net book agreement has not been the end of the world - and many an avid reader has dared to enjoy the discounted books offered by the larger chains. As the number published hits a new high, politicians, educationists and leading figures in the entertainment world tell us about their favourite reads of 1996. Compiled by Moira Simpson

Beryl Bainbridge, Novelist

She Must Have Known by Brian Masters (Doubleday) is an un-sensationalised, scholarly acc-ount of the trial of Rosemary West, in which the author damn near convinces one that, although culpable of wickedness, Mrs West was not guilty of murder. Penguin Portrait: Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-70, edited by Steve Hare (Penguin) is a must for those interested in publishing houses and this one in particular. Filled with wonderful letters from the likes of George Orwell, Henry Miller, George Bernard Shaw and so on, the commitment shown both to text and the author is breathtaking. Which only goes to show the difference between then and now. Let Me Count The Ways by Deborah Bosley (Century) is a first novel about love and death written with extreme precision and devoid of the usual mawkishness. A young writer to watch.

Carol Vorderman, Television presenter

I'm one of those very lucky people who has lived and worked in many different parts of our Small Island. Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island (Black Swan) is a hysterically funny and yet accurate description of the vastly differing spirits and souls which inhabit this quirky land. This book is unique, not written with any air of snobbery or class-ridden malice. As we say in Yorkshire: "It were bloody good".

Peter Mortimore, Director of the Institute of Education, University of London

For anyone who has to read numerous official documents and a weighty weekly newspaper (no matter how good), novels provide an opportunity to enter a different world. During 1996 I have been among the fishermen of San Piedro - off the Seattle coast (me who has only been fishing once in my life) and have relived the austerity of my 1950s childhood. The simplicity of the parallel lives of American and Japanese communities, in David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (Bloomsbury), conceals the pain of enduring, cross-cultural passion. Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Black Swan) is a family history. Like most families, hers is a trifle odd and the book is both sad and very funny. If only it was a novel that Teresa Smith and Michael Noble - Education Divides (CPAG) - had written. This account of poverty and schooling in the 1990s should be compulsory reading for everyone involved with our education system.

Trevor McDonald, Presenter of ITN's News at Ten and Chairman of the Better English Campaign

I found Thekla Clark's Wystan and Chester (Faber) an unusual and immensely readable memoir. Her relationship with W H Auden and Chester Kallman began almost by chance and developed into a wonderful friendship. It allows her to give the reader a privileged insight into the daily life and thoughts of Auden the man, not just the poet. I have also much enjoyed browsing through Richard Allsop's fascinating Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Ox-ford University Press), which shows how the wonderful richness of the English language has allowed regional variations to develop, each with a vibrant life of their own. And finally, the resonances, between the tone and characters of Primary Colors (Vintage) and the first Clinton presidential campaign, made it hard to put down. Although described as fiction, the book gave an extraordinary and entertaining insight into the reality of a campaign, with the added later twist of the revelation of the anonymous author's true identity.

John Peel, Broadcaster

Sadly, the sheer weight of drum 'n' bass remixes and cute indie pop that arrives in this house every working day keeps me from serious reading. As a result, I study criticism, make lists and buy books which I pile up against some imagined day when I will have time enough to read them. The books that are actually read are those which have made it onto our bedside table. Stanley Rubin's Medieval English Medicine (David Charles) is a perhaps surprising constant. I have found some of the suggested remedies for elfshot and worm most efficacious. There has been an Iain Banks on the table ever since I got a mention in The Wasp Factory. At the moment, it is Complicity (Abacus). I was also reading Letters from London 1990-5 - a collection of Julian Barnes's essays for the New Yorker - but I left it in a hotel in Duisburg. The essays are beautifully written, annoyingly funny, and thanks to Julian, I am, at the age of 57, finally beginning to understand when to use colons and semi-colons.

Nicholas Tate, Chief Executive, School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

Reading anything other than DfEE circulars continues to take place largely on a Normandy beach in summer and in snatches on trains. This is why I turn increasingly to poetry. This year I have kept on dipping into Osip Mandelstam and Paul Celan. There is an intensity about some of the poems in Mandelstam: Select-ed Poems (Penguin), that takes the breath away. I particularly like the way he draws on the Greek, Byzantine and Christian roots of Russian culture. By contrast, Celan: Selected Poems (Penguin) is hard going - a result both of the inaccessibility of the language and the grim associations with the Holocaust. The effort, however, is well worth it, and a couple of the poems - "Psalm" and "Death Fugue" - I know virtually by heart. But the book that really distracted me from beach games at Vierville sur Mer was David Selbourne's passionate The Principle of Duty (Sinclair-Stevenson). It is one of the few books that manages to be both withering about the world we live in and optimistic about how we should make it a better one. It has changed the way I look at a lot of things. It also made me realise yet again the debt we owe to the great western political philosophers and how little we heed them.

Julia Neuberger, Author and broadcaster

This year I particularly enjoyed Michael Brenner's The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (Yale). It tells the tale of how the wider interest in cultural identity and new forms of learning were transmogrified by Jewish intellectuals into a blossoming of interest in Jewish matters, and Jewish learning flourished. The volume looked so dull I thought it would be dreadful, but I could not put it down. I also much enjoyed Sheelagh and Tessa Coleman's novel about Irish, and Jewish, life in the first half of this century, Full Circle (Town House, Dublin). It made me laugh, but it also tells an important story about how intersecting identities matter. Lastly, Ann Karpf's The War After: Living with the Holocaust (Heinemann) took me back to the awareness of how all us children of refugees of different types - we were at school together - were affected by the Holocaust for life.

Jean Aitchison, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication University of Oxford

"Tickle the Public, make 'em grin,The more you tickle, the more you'll win . . ." starts a rhyme that went around Fleet Street in the 19th century. It provides the title for Matthew Engel's book: Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press (Gollancz). The author, a journalist, shows how one popular paper after the other caught the attention of the public over the last century. An intriguing look at "the tangled and often barbed wires of the journalistic process". Noam Chomsky is a major linguist, and also a strong social critic. Both sides of his work are covered in Chomsky for Beginners by John Maher and Judy Groves (Icon). This is a brief but serious attempt to explain his ideas, enlivened by pictures and cartoons on every page. Longitude by Dava Sobel (Fourth Estate) is a pocket-sized hardback that contains a scientific detective story - how an 18th century obsessive solved the problem of longitude, essential for establishing a ship's location: "He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch. "

Philip Pullman, children's writer

Neal Ascherson's Black Sea (Vintage) is an extraordinary blend of history, contemporary political analysis, anecdote and meditation that is as rich and strange as the sea it describes. In three paragraphs about the winter quarters of the Rostov State Circus, for example, he sums up an entire historical turn and throws in a landscape and a love story for good measure. Anne Fine is a writer who never fails to tell a good story. In The Tulip Touch (Hamish Hamilton), the teenage novel that impressed me most this year, she touches lightly but unerringly on evil, its power, its attraction, its pitifulness. John Goldthwaite's The Natural History of Make-Believe (Oxford University Press) is the most original and persuasive view of children's literature for years. Goldthwaite insists that books teach, whether or not they set out to, and offers a profound and surprising reading of several classics we used to think we knew well.

Don Foster, MP, Liberal Democrat Education and Employment spokesman

The book that gave me greatest pleasure this year has a cover that deserves prosecution under the Trades Description Act. Bold as brass the Glasgow Herald is quoted, "the funniest book I read all year - I mean carpet rolling, hyper-ventilating, rib-aching bouts of laughter". Bill Bryson's Made in America (Minerva) hasn't yet had me on the carpet, but it has had me transfixed. I've dipped into it time after time. In just 479 pages the whole history of American language and culture is thoroughly researched and charted. Every page is filled with nuggets of information demanding to be read out to any passing audience. "Hey, did you know that when the Pilgrim Fathers landed in America they were greeted by a passing native Indian who spoke perfect English? Yes, honestly, his name was . . ." or "Bet you can't guess when the first hamburger was made or how many are eaten by the Average American each year?" "Oh! And did you know there were two McDonalds, the brothers Maurice and Richard? And what's more . . ." Books are often described as unputdownable. This one isn't. Like chocolate which you can't eat and eat, you need a break. But you'll soon be back for more.

Willis Pickard, The TES Scotland Editor

The highs and lows of education are hilariously and pointedly chronicled by Duncan Graham in The Education Racket (Neil Wilson Publishing). As an administrator he started by tacking up the sea lochs of Argyll in pursuit of incompetent primary heads. When he headed the National Curriculum Council, the York offices were flooded out and he had to don waders. Graham has more time for ministers, including Kenneth Baker, than for self-regarding, obstructive civil servants, to avoid whom he once had to meet a helicopter-borne Baker in a field at Betws-y-Coed. With professional values ignored and the interests of children forgotten, Graham's story will make you cry as well as laugh. The history of late medieval Scotland is being much enhanced by a scholarly king-by-king series. Stephen Boardman drew the short straw. In The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III 1371-1406 (Tuckwell) he has had to throw light on two shadowy figures together such is the paucity of evidence. An achievement against the odds.

Maura Dooley, The TES guest poet

The anthology Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (Faber), threw up salty, thought-provoking, memorable surprises. Yet Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level (Faber) has to be my choice. "A Sofa in the Forties" is a marvellous poem about history, memory and childhood. "Tollund" is a heart-rending statement of hope against all odds. "Postscript" and "The Flight Path" interweave home and the larger world with fluent intelligence, wit, tact and craft hard to match elsewhere. Except perhaps in Seamus Deane's lyrical, haunting novelmemoir Reading in the Dark (Cape). This dark and powerful book draws together folk tale, myth and family life with a vital, terrible history of growing up in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s. Startling and funny as well as an affecting account of the damage done by deceit. Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf (Chatto) brims with acute observation, intelligence and understanding. She never ducks an issue: Woolf's snobbery and rudeness are considered head-on. Impeccably researched, beautifully written, this will be enjoyed even by those who think they do not like biography. It will inspire those who want to write and be cherished by those who admire Virginia Woolf.

Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government, Oxford University

The book I most enjoyed was Anita Brookner's Altered States (Cape), another in her long run of masterpieces. Her skill in fashioning something permanent out of the transient and the everyday makes most other contemporary novelists look like singers with only one song. By far the finest novel of the year and a profound study in human vulnerability. The book I most admired was Norman Davies's Europe: A History (Oxford University Press). This is a stunning achievement, an irritant, admittedly, to the shop stewards of the academic profession, but a boon for those who admire historical work of classic strength and sweep. The book which most influenced me was Melanie Phillips's All Shall Have Prizes (Little, Brown), a devastating account of the destruction of our educational system. The pundits greeted it with a combination of embarrassed denunciation and vitriolic abuse. First prize for most over-rated book of the year goes to Roy Strong's The Story of Britain (Hutchinson), history composed for children of all ages.

Patricia Rowan, The TES Editor

For sheer escapism and creative thinking, cookery or gardening books are almost as therapeutic as doing it. No flower-filled encyclopedias came my way this year, but The River Cafe Cook Book from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (Ebury) was indulgence enough, with a show-stopping summer soup to feed all the senses. Back to serious reading, for me the best-written, most moving book of the year was David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (Bloomsbury). Inching as slowly and subtly as the North American snowfall to its revelations, it plots and probes through the lives, passions and tragedies of Japanese incomers and their neighbours in the Pacific Northwest, as war and conflicting cultures turn fishermen and strawberry farmers into enemies. Equally evocative of people and place, but a world away, is Lisa St Aubin de Ter n's A Valley in Italy (Penguin). She found the ruined villa she dreamed of restoring to palazzo splendour in wildest Umbria. I read it through long thunderstorms in fashionable Tuscany, transported by her eloquent narrative to a more ideal scene of peasants, pasta and eccentricity, just over the hills.

Seamus Hegarty, Director of National Foundation for Educational Research

Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Minerva) is a superb story of life and love on a war-ravaged Greek island. It captures the ebb and flow of the Second World War, from a perspective that is novel to most people in western Europe, without ever losing sight of the array of characters at the centre of the book. A magnificent achievement. You are a convent school teacher in Dublin and your - female - partner dies. How do you cope with the secret widowhood that ensues? Emma Donoghue's Hood (Penguin) is a grief acutely observed but in its warm humanity is a stubborn affirmation of life. It is remarkable too for its portrayal of a pure love that is intensely erotic and utterly selfless. Sarah Dunant scores again with her feisty novel Under My Skin (Hamish Hamilton) set in the world of luxury health farms. It is a fine thriller, beautifully crafted and precisely located in contemporary mores.

Heather Du Quesnay, Director of Lambeth Education

In some years I might be hard-pressed to identify three books I had read for fun, but being Society of Education Officers president means a lot of travel so I have been able to indulge myself. I enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Bloomsbury) as a terrific "whodunit", shot through with a bewitching sense of place and profound insights into island community life in the Pacific North-west following the Second World War. Local government officers tend to be fascinated by the world of politics through which they move but of which they are not part: I love the intrigue and the human honesty of Alan Clark's Diaries (Phoenix) though I failed to see why his fantasies provoked such a scandalised reaction. More serious, I re-read Will Hutton's The State We're In (Cape) before writing my presidential speech in the New Year and was again alternately irritated and stimulated by his compelling but, for me, somewhat disjointed analysis of the impact of British class values on our political economy. Would that his educational insights had more to offer those of us who are committed to improving the public education service from the inside.

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