Friday, 1 January 2016

The 20 books I most enjoyed in 2015

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Larry Siedentop
Western liberal democracies and their freedoms exist because of the Church - not despite it. Undoubtedly the most revelatory and intellectually exciting book I've read this year. A masterpiece. (I reviewed it here.)

Mystery in White, J. Jefferson Farjeon.
A reissued 1937 crime novel which proved to be a surprise "sleeper" hit last Christmas. A Manchester-bound train gets stuck in the snow, and some passengers try to walk through a blizzard to a nearby village, but find themselves at a seemingly deserted, isolated house, where the lights are on, the fire is blazing, and the table is set for tea... Creepily atmospheric. (Available here.) Deserves a TV adaptation - perfect Christmas fare.

Mysticism in English Literature, Caroline F. E. Spurgeon.
Written in 1913, and available as a Kindle freebie (here). A short, lucid and very readable work.  I hadn't previously realised how many of my favourite poets (apart from Blake and Wordsworth, of course) were essentially mystical in outlook. (I'm also a great admirer of Evelyn Underhill's authoritative 1911 book, Mysticism, available on Kindle for a derisory 99p!)

Blue Murder, Harriet Rutland (here).
This, published in 1942, is the last of three crime novels written by the daughter of a Birmingham builder, who married a biologist and moved to Ireland for a while before divorcing him. Murders take place in the home of a horrid headmaster and his invalid wife. It's extremely well-written (without the padding to be found in many Golden Age detective novels), psychologically acute, and very adult in its themes. The headmaster is desperately trying to bed a junior member of staff, there are no wholly pure characters, and casual racism isn't taken for granted - it's all quite remarkably "gamey" and grown-up. If anything, Harriet Rutland's first novel, Knock, Murder, Knock (1938) - available here - is even better. A snip at 99p each!

LONDON: The Information Capital: 100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city,  James Cheshire, Oliver Uberti.
A geographer and a designer present information about the city and its inhabitants in a series of beautiful, mind-boggling infographic maps - where the supporters of various football clubs live, how blacks go north-south while Asians go east-west, taxi routes compared to the ones the rest of us take, which borough's the happiest, what people leave behind at Heathrow etc. A wonderful book. (Available here.)

We Go to the Gallery, Miriam Elia.
A spoof Ladybird Book view of the modern art world. Very short, but every page is laugh-out-loud funny. I wrote about it here. Certainly the best satirical work of the year.

Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters -- Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler, Allan H. Ryskind.
Comprehensive history of the attempt by communists to take over Hollywood in the '30s and '40s. They weren't democracy-loving freedom-fighters - they were traitors to their country. I wrote about it here.

The Lion and the Unicorn, Richard Aldous (available here).
Absolutely rivetting account of the rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli. I wonder why so many prominent Liberals over the years have indulged in scandalous sexual behaviour. Odd.

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey.
 Possibly the best of Elizabeth Mackintosh's excellent pseudonymous detective novels - in which her main man, Inspector Alan Grant, only appears as a minor character. A financially embarrassed mother and daughter are accused of kidnapping and beating a young girl to force her to act as their servant. Published in 1949, it was made into a film, which I really must get round to watching. (Available here.)

The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-making in the Studio Era, Thomas Schatz.
How did the Hollywood studio system manage to produce so many great films? In this terrific 1989 book, Schatz provides some convincing answers - a refreshingly unsentimental, unsnobby work, which I wrote about here.

The British: The National Character Observed, Pont (Graham Laidler).
A paperback edition of this brilliant young cartoonist's work for Punch in the '20s and '30s, with an introduction by Richard Ingrams, has been a great favourite of mine for two decades, even though the reproduction of the subtle drawings was appalling. My wife was kind enough to buy me this splendid new 2011 hardcover collection of the boy-wonder's best work (he died of TB at the age of 32) for Christmas. Pont's subject was really the English character rather than the British: he captures the most admirable and most maddening aspects of the race (well, the middle, upper-middle and upper class version of it) to perfection with gentle affection and a unique drawing style - it's a unique social document, but also very, very funny. (I reproduced two of the best examples of Pont's work here - and the book can be found on Amazon, here).

Primetime Propaganda, Ben Shapiro.
A razor-sharp Harvard Law School graduate, talk-show host, editor, author and commentator lays bare the chronic left-wing bias in America's TV and film industries. (I wrote about it here.)

Games Without Rules, Michael Gilbert.
Published in 1967, this is the first of two collections of short stories describing the exploits of two ageing civil servants, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, who are actually a pair of decidedly homicidal British spies. My favourite character is Calder's equally violent deerhound, Rasselas. Pure escapism for those of us who can no longer imagine ourselves as James Bond. (Available here.)

How to Be a Conservative, Roger Scruton.
Not that I need much guidance on the subject by now, but our greatest living philosopher is always a pleasure to read, and this recently published book is no exception. (Available here.)

The Open Society & Its Enemies, Karl Popper.
I reread this classic anti-fascist masterpiece earlier this year and wrote about it here.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants, Charles Moore.
I'd almost forgotten just how utterly bloody splendid she was. One of the people who worked for her described her as "everybody's mother in a bad mood," which made me laugh. (Available here.)

Minute for Murder, Nicholas Blake.
Published in 1947, this finds Blake's amateur detective Nigel Strangeways in his eighth outing, working for the Ministry of Morale in a bleak, battered London - everyone's posh, but dowdy, and it's a far cry from the monocled toffs of pre-war Golden Age detective fiction. Good writer, Blake. (Available here.)

Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown, John Campbell.
What it says on the tin - a real page-turner. (Available here.)

The Trinity Six, Charles Cumming.
The Mail calls him "the master of the modern spy novel", and that seems a pretty fair assessment. This one's particularly good. (Available here.)

Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and Their Audience, Colin Watson.
A celebrated 1971 study by a successful crime writer of Golden Age detective and thriller novels. He's monotonously critical of the snobbery, racism, and xenophobia of much of the writing - and when it comes to the likes of the oafish Bulldog Drummond, and Lord Peter Wimsey droppin' his "g"s all the time, he's justified - but it's a fascinating book nevertheless. (This whole subject deserves a three-part documentary series on BBC4, preferably not presented by that incwedibly iwwitating female histowian who can't pwonounce her "r"s - enough alweady.)

Happy reading in 2016! (If anybody's got any recommendations, please let me know).

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