Over the festive period, Reaction authors are writing in with their favourite books from 2016 that they feel would make perfect gifts for Christmas or ideal New Year reading.
Sometime around my 60th birthday I lost the ability to read. After a lifetime of buying and devouring novels, biographies and accounts of World War II, I found that I could no longer get beyond page 20 of just about any book I opened, fiction or non-fiction.
This may have had something to do with the fact that my own attempts at writing books had not turned out exactly as I had hoped. There was also the fact that, from 2001, when my wife and I moved to America, I spent hours each day online, scouring the web for information and entertainment, so that come nightfall all I could do was curl up on the sofa and watch television.
All very embarrassing. But then I realised that I was not alone. One of my sisters-in-law, an academic and a keen reader since the age of five, had also “dried,” as had several of my friends. It was as if the condition that dare not speak its name had been revealed as a form of late-onset dyslexia.
The good news is that time eventually did its work. I still spend too much time online and I still watch too much television. But, gradually, I found time again for reading. So what have I enjoyed most in recent months? Let me see.
The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s recently-published memoir, is an easy read, though less of a memoir than a collection of anecdotes, mainly to do with the author’s on-again, off-again connection to the world of British intelligence and his recollection of encounters with famous people – Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Francis Ford Coppola, among others – which kept him entertained when he wasn’t writing or skiing.
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Here is a typical intro to one of his traveller’s tales:
“In 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, I was visiting Moscow. At a reception given by the Union of Soviet Writers, a part-time journalist with KGB connections named Genrikh Borovik invited me to his house to meet and old friend and admirer of my work. His name, when I enquired, was Kim Philby.”
Oddly, you might think, Le Carré chose not to take up the invitation. I would have been there like a shot. But you can do that when you are a celebrated man of letters. He probably had dinner with Gorbachev instead.
Now for just the tiniest injection of controversy. In a piece for Reaction published last week, Iain Martin spoke reverentially of Christopher Hitchens, who once, back in the 1970s, tried to pick me up at a party. Hitchens, he wrote, in adverting to And Yet …, a posthumous book of the writer’s essays, was “one of the greatest public intellectuals produced by Britain in the last half century or so”. He’s right, of course. Hitchens was a great man. And yet … the latest aggregation of his pieces, mainly from Vanity Fair, Slate and The Atlantic, is a bit of a let-down, more like out-takes from his masterful collection Arguably, published shortly before his wretched death from cancer of everything, in 2011. If you enjoyed Arguably, you will probably enjoy this, only not as much.
Finally (though I could make a case for Conclave, by Robert Harris, an enthralling account of a papal election marred only by the improbability of its plot), I have to mention Play All – A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, by Clive James. I think I have read every one of James’s books, even his daft mock-epic poems about royalty. He has made me laugh for 40 years (not, I should add, continuously). Play All is what used to be termed a slim volume, being an account of his newly-acquired fetish for boxed-set television drama, from Band of Brothers via The West Wing, to Game of Thrones. The claim he makes for the genre is a bold one. All human life is there, on Blue Ray DVD, with dialogue that, at its best, even Shakespeare might envy.
Like Hitchens, James is being eaten alive by cancer, but the Koogarah Kid is not going quietly. Instead, he has decided to turn his advancing death into an epic, marked by so many sharp observations and good jokes that I would be here all day just trying to list them. And all of it done to fulfill a contract and to keep busy in the worst of times. If Hitchens’s final testament, Mortality, written in his own venous blood, was a fighting man’s funeral march, Play All would bring a smile to the face of the Grim Reaper. The author, unable any longer to read with the voracity and omniverous determination that made his magisterial collection Cultural Amnesia such a damning indictment of the rest of us, has pulled off one last, or next-to-last, trick, granting us the same level of humanistic insight in consideration of Mad Men, say, or The Good Wife that he previously applied to obscure central European philosophers or the French and Russian masters of nineteenth century fiction.
I can’t think of a better last-minute gift.