Pick 'n' mix

26th December 1997 at 00:00

POET. A book on comics, Snow Falling on Cedars (again) and Bridget Jones's Diary (twice). Politicians, poets and presenters choose their favourite reading of '97. Compiled by Moira Simpson Steven Jacobi's A Short Series of Discrete Problems (Secker Warburg) is a great read as the apparently misspelt Wislon Needy is transformed from geeky loser to loathsome culprit to beautiful victim. There's something below the surface that you really can't make out until you're submerged with it. Then you find range or funny or revolting becomes very, very sad. The story begins and ends with the line "Everything was water", and in such translucence Jacobi is in his element. Tomaz Salumun is Slovenian, and all I can say about his book The Four Questions of Melancholy (White Pine Press, New York) is this: give them to your friends and they will laugh and cry and thank you; give them to your enemies, and they will pull out their hair trying to crack the code. It makes a wonderful present.


ILLUSTRATOR AND AUTHOR. John Brown, Rose, and the Midnight Cat, a 20-year-old tale of a dog's jealousy by Jenny Wagner and John Brooks (Puffin), is a perfect example of text and illustration flawlessly combined. The simple text and gentle illustrations portraying John Brown's inscrutable dog expressions invite everyone to participate in his conflicting emotions. Naomi Lewis's Emperor, in her enchanting interpretation of The Emperor's New Clothes (Walker), is a more elegant but equally rounded visual character study. The Emperor's obsession with fashion is reinforced by layers of dressmaking artifacts which thread their way through Naomi Lewis's accomplished translation. Anyone wishing to know more about visual narrative should read Scott McCloud's masterful Understanding Comics (harperCollins). His broad definition of sequential art applies to the Bayeux tapestry, Hogarth, and pictures books, and it brilliantly underscores its own thesis by presenting its sophisticated ideas in words and pictures, making them instantly accessible.


CONSERVATIVE EDUCATION SPOKESMAN. Nicholas Timmins's Five Giants of the Welfare State (HarperCollins) is the most authoritative and readable history of the evolution of the welfare state. In health and education in particular, his history demonstrates how slowly arguments develop. Many of the themes of current political discourse are substantively unchanged over several decades.Another book that is more readable than you might expect is Nigel Lawson's history of his years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, The View from No.11 (Corgi). It is a fascinating insight into the workings of an important phase in the Thatcher Government. When Gladstone (Macmillan), Roy Jenkins's biography of the man came out, I sometimes wondered whether Gladstone himself would have enjoyed it - perhaps the mellowness of Lord Jenkins made Gladstone seem more likeable than he was.


LIBERAL DEMOCRAT EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT SPOKESMAN. I couldn't stand her mother, had no time for her father and knew little about her. After reading Carol Thatcher's biography of Denis Thatcher, Below the Parapet (HarperCollins) my views on her mother haven't changed, but I've learned a lot. I now have a sneaking respect for her father. And I've discovered that she can write a highly readable, crisp, entertaining and, above all, unpretentious account of a man we all thought we knew from the "Dear Bill" letters - and got it wrong. Many books are described as unputdownable. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (Bloomsbury) is much more since it's difficult to put down even when you reach the end. In this compelling novel set in the Fifties, Guterson cleverly interweaves drama and suspense with an expansive, almost poetic, evocation of jealousies and racial tension between different communities living claustrophobically on a small island. It's a whodunit in which you don't just want to know the outcome, you care about it.


DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRE FOR THE CHILDREN'S BOOK. Waiting for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials 2: The Subtle Knife (Scholastic) was like being on the knife edge that literally and metaphorically propels this sequel to Northern Lights. I loved its labyrinthine, ever-darkening storytelling and the imaginative brio that layers crackling adventure with theology, physics and an exotic cast rooted in folktale and the Biblical fall about to be replayed. As bitingly singular as Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Orion Dolphin). Anyone who can create a family of such ornery eccentricity as the Afro-American "Weird Watsons" - narcissistic Byron with his lip-freezing kiss and his "Baby Bruh" Kenny - gets my vote; particularly when he unexpectedly shifts from a comic episodic family story peppered with playground prejudice to the tragic arena of the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama Sunday School bombing and Kenny's reaction to it.


FORMER DEPUTY LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY. It has been a good year for biographies - and, if it is not a sexist point to make, women biographers. Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life (Viking) and Patricia Hollis's Jenny Lee: A Life (Oxford) might, in a normal year, win the prize as best biography. But in 1997 they had to compete with Jenny Uglow's Hogarth: A Life and World (Faber Faber). And that is very stiff competition indeed. I can pay the book no greater compliment than to say that, in some ways, it reminded me of Peter Ackroyd's portraits of men and the age in which they lived - particularly William Blake and London during the last years of the 18th century and the wars with France which followed. It reveals much about the painter that is obscured under his popular reputation as a social and political satirist. But it tells us much more about Old England - its chauvinism, brutality and unthinking hedonism.


AUTHOR. To think of Athene as active in the here-and-now takes some getting used to but it's worth the effort. By presenting her as a timeless complex of ideas and energies in Athene: Image and Energy (Viking Arkana), Ann Shearer makes her come alive as a working goddess for the modern world. Selected Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (Carol Publishing Group) contains such treasures as "Kwaidan", "Caribbean Sketches", and the novella "Chita". The Japanese stories are unforgettable; the Caribbean writings are unique in their atmosphere and sensory brilliance; nobody I've read, including Joseph Conrad, equals Hearn in the vivid evocation of sea, sky, and weather.

The film of James Dickey's Deliverance (Delta), with its story of four men in two canoes travelling into unknown dangers, is one of my all-time favourites. But in the novel the river becomes even more the wild and doomful thing that is itself doomed to be drowned by a dam.

The minutely-detailed descriptions of fast and slow, deep and shallow water are magical.


CBBC PRESENTER. I tend to read on the tube or late at night. I love reading autobiographies; one from someone working within my industry is particularly fascinating, which is why I relished Robin Day's autobiography, Grand Inquisitor (Pan Books). Reading how he got into TV and his struggles with the BBC over the years certainly opened my eyes.

During the summer I was introduced to the work of Colin Bateman by an Irish friend. Having read Divorcing Jack, I immediately brought Of Wee Sweetie Mice Men (HarperCollins), which I enjoyed more. The main character, Dan Starkey, is a middle-aged alcoholic journalist whose marriage is breaking up, although he still loves his wife. He takes a job covering a boxing match in America between an overweight Irishman and Mike Tyson. I loved the characters' cynicism and I enjoy reading books that make you laugh. That's why I particularly enjoyed Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding (Picador). Bridget's boyfriendless life as recorded in her diary wittily hits a nerve of women over 25 who choose to stay single in a married-off world. Definitely my book of the year!


TUTOR IN MODERN HISTORY,LADY MARGARET HALL, OXFORD. For any student of politics, the most exciting work of 1997 was Sammy Finer's posthumously published three-volume masterpiece The History of Government (Oxford University Press). The range and sweep of these volumes are extraordinary, as is the verve and clarity of the writing. Finer's intellectual authority is maintained through the long but never wearisome journey from Sumerian city states to modern times, and the careful construction of the relatively small number of governmental forms thrown up by so many different civilisations.

A journey or rather a series of journeys of a different kind are explored in Cees Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago (Harvill) which is a delightfully erudite and evocative meditation on the labyrinthine complexity of Spanish history and its intersection with other cultures. Closer to home, Kenneth Morgan's Callaghan: A Life (Oxford University Press) expertly recaptures the political world pre-Thatcher and pre-Blair and is a scrupulously fair, yet sympathetic, portrait which may evoke more than a little nostalgia.


TELEVISION JOURNALIST. Two books above all others. Gillian Slovo's Every Secret Thing (Little Brown) is a wonderfully honest, wounding account of living with a fundamentally political family right at the heart of the battle to overthrow apartheid. Gillian Slovo's stark and brutal account of returning to the scene of her mother's assassination in Maputo brings home the scale of the human cost of so open a struggle with South Africa's erstwhile white rulers.

No book does more than Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (Flamingo) to depict the awful reality of the Empire's after-burn upon the ordinary men, women and children of Ireland. How privileged we who have not known poverty have been. This is death, disease, starvation and alcoholism described and survived by a child who grew through it. Impossible to put down - and, despite the agony of what he suffered, Frank McCourt leaves us optimistic that the future can never be as bad.


ACTRESS AND COMEDY WRITER Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (HarperCollins) is maybe one of the few recent Booker winners that is actually being read by loads of people - which may explain some of the envious spitting that went on after the announcement. I loved this book the minute I began reading about Estha and Rahel, the fate-laden twins, and their beautiful doomed mother, whose lives are changed irrevocably by the arrival of their English cousin in their small South Indian town. Roy's prose veers between the fantastic and the fey, but her use of language is often astonishingly beautiful, and her intertwining of the personal tragedies that befall the family and the huge unseen forces of tradition and history which, in the end, they cannot escape, is masterful.

Bridget Jones's Diary - an hilarious journey through the crises of a 30-something London woman - is so close to the painful-funny truth, that it's selling faster than the scratchcards to which Bridget becomes addicted. Laugh-out-loud fun and uncomfortably recognisable, whether you're female or just know some.

Alkarim Jivani's It's Not Unusual (Michael O'Mara Books) is a witty, poignant and hugely readable history of the lesbian and gay presence in Britain this century. Jivani uses many first-person accounts and an impressive library of stills to chart the journey from the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name to the Gay Pride Marches of the Eighties and the AIDS campaigns of the Nineties. Essential and, ultimately, uplifting.


CAPITAL RADIO PRESENTER. Icon (Bantam) is the best Frederick Forsythe yet - as always the research is immaculate and the story gripping right to the last page. Freddie is currently saying that he is not going to be writing any more novels. I hope to God he doesn't mean it or it won't be worth me ever having a seaside holiday again. I've read everything that Ben Elton has produced in the past few years but Popcorn (Simon Schuster), his crazy tale of murder in Movieland, is his most dramatic but also blackly funniest so far.

Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry (Hutchinson) is a completely potty autobiography. No one can ever have kept as precise a record of their child days as Fry. It is meticulously detailed and unless he has a quite exceptional memory, or was an obsessive diarist, I'm sure there is a certain amount of embellishment. No matter - the details are hardly relevant. It is hugely entertaining: Fry at his most candid, most outrageous and most compelling.


FORMER EDITOR OF THE TES. A reading year of two parts for me: the first months election-heavy; then the deep peace of fiction, in place of policy. Primary Colors (Vintage), written by an anonymous insider on Clinton's disaster-prone election trail, is New-Yorker sharp and sour, with protagonists who love and bleed as well as spin. We still wait for the right hack here to dump the deference and reveal our own spin-doctors and their masters with such verve. Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle (Fourth Estate) strips down its share of repellent players too, but her satire on London sub-literary life is seriously well-written, a Vanity Fair for our times.

My discovery of the year, though, was Helen Dunmore, prizewinning poet as well as novelist. That explains the subtle, seductive language of Talking to the Dead (Penguin), though she peels off layers of character and plot like a thriller-writer, and writes even more sensuously about food than about sex.

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