Monday, November 30, 2009
From prizewinning poetry to bestselling thrillers, D-day to the credit crunch, Wolf Hall to to a picturebook about a dying duck, the Guardian's writers and guests pick the best of 2009
The Guardian, Saturday 28 November 2009
Christmas books. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
This was the year for me of the two Colm/Colums, Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann, each in their differing ways realising the full height of their respective ambitions. Writers through many books sometimes tend towards a larger destination, and it is marvellous when you see them reaching it, because not only does it constitute a signal achievement, but suggests fresh journeys are being contemplated. Brooklyn (Viking) is the station for Colm Tóibín, and New York for Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin (Bloomsbury). These are the books of profoundly gifted world writers, and in that strange way of great books are incontrovertibly "there", radiant and right.
Selina Hastings's superb biography of Somerset Maugham, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray) ticks all the boxes an exemplary biography should. As well as being admirably thorough and scholarly it is also revelatory – not least about the wild sexual goings-on in the Villa Mauresque, Maugham's palatial house on the Côte d'Azur. Hastings has the rare gift among biographers of being able to set a scene and establish a character with great vividness in a few deft lines.
Tormented Hope: Nine hypochondriac Lives by Brian Dillon (Penguin Ireland) is a short but fascinating study of literary and other celebrated hypochondriacs. These engrossing glimpses of the "fit unwell" include Charlotte Brontë, James Boswell, Andy Warhol and Marcel Proust (who must surely be the undisputed king of this particular neurotic hill). Written with great elegance and shrewd understanding, it illuminates a condition that probably all of us will suffer from at some time in our lives.
The two best illustrated books for me this year have both come from abroad, and both are stunningly original. Tales from Outer Suburbia (Templar) by Shaun Tan, from Australia, is a collection of 15 short illustrated stories all stemming from sketchbook doodles. It's an unusual approach – most illustrations in books are reactions to the text, but here the pictures inspire the stories. They are all strange and beautiful. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (Gecko Press) is a superb picture book from Germany, that tells a gentle story of the relationship between Death and a duck. Death is portrayed as a sympathetic figure in a dressing gown who is with us all the time, but who only comes into Duck's consciousness towards the end of his life. It is warm, poignant and witty.
Opportunity and Singularity by Charlotte Grimshaw (both Cape). I read Grimshaw for the first time this year. She is a master with mystery, very contemporary and astute. These two books take the form of linked stories. They are elliptical, atmospheric and compelling in the way a good crime novel should be. There are complex love affairs, undercover detectives, doctors, adoptions, bad stepmothers and lost children. Her language is relaxed, spare and perfect.
There are loads more selections from a large range of authors at The Guardian online.