Eleven books make my year’s best list for 2012, and what most impresses me is how genuinely good all of them are. Usually my list contains four or five books that I regard as first-rate along with perhaps a half-dozen that earn honorable mentions but aren’t at the same level. This year, though, it was easy to pick the finalists, and to keep the list to manageable length, a handful of worthy books had to be eliminated.
As always, we start with fiction. It gives me no particular pleasure to report that all three of the books I’ve chosen are (a) by men and (b) by men who live in Britain. There’s no point in nattering on for the umpteenth time about the current state of American literary fiction, so let’s just leave it that such pleasures as new fiction gave me in 2012 were imports from the other side of the Atlantic. Richard Mason, the author of “History of a Pleasure Seeker,” was born in South Africa but has lived in Britain since he was 10 and is a product of the maddeningly productive Eton/Oxford assembly line. This, his fourth novel, is as I said in my review “an unabashed romance, a classic story of a young man who rises from unprepossessing circumstances to win the favor of the rich and prominent, and in so doing starts his progress toward what no doubt will be his own eminence.” It’s delicious, “Tom Jones” transplanted to the 21st century and great fun all the way.
Mason has enjoyed a bit of success in the American market, but to the best of my knowledge that has largely escaped D.J. Taylor, although he has written several good novels and well-received biographies of William Makepeace Thackeray and George Orwell. “Derby Day,” his eighth novel, is set in Victorian London and revolves around the Epsom Derby, the great horse race that has been run forever. The race draws the panoply of London society, from the very highest to the very lowest. Taylor has populated his novel with a cast of characters wholly true to both London and the Derby, and to Victorian England as well. It all revolves around a splendid horse named Tiberius, a considerably grander character than the Roman emperor after whom he is named, and a thoroughly raffish man named George Happerton. It’s about time American readers discovered D.J. Taylor.
Then of course there is Ian McEwan. No one now writing fiction in the English language does it better than he does, and it may well be that no one does it as well. The many readers who fell under the spell of “Atonement” will find themselves similarly entranced by “Sweet Tooth,”not least because it comes up with much the same sort of surprise in its closing pages. It is about a young woman, Serena Frome, who idles her way through Cambridge and then finds herself in the employ of MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency. This is not exactly a spy novel, though it contains some of the classic ingredients thereof; mainly it is an acute psychological study and a wise contemplation of the stories we tell and read and the question of who actually “owns” them. McEwan at his best.
As for nonfiction, five of the eight books I’ve chosen have distinctly dark qualities, so let’s start with the lighter ones first. Kathleen Riley’s“The Astaires: Fred & Adele” tells the story of the great brother-and-sister dancing team that in time vanished from the popular memory as Fred went on his own and became one of the 20th century’s most gifted and beloved movie stars. Fred and Adele were brought to New York as children early in the century and after a laborious joint apprenticeship became stars on Broadway and then in London. Riley, an Australian academic, has written a refreshingly non-academic account of their rise and an affectionate appreciation of their genius. The pair broke up in 1932 when Adele married, but they remained close for the rest of their lives. What a pity it is that we have little more than a tinny recording of them singing “Fascinating Rhythm” (with George Gershwin on the piano!) to remember them by.
Guy Gugliotta, in “Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War,” brings a very different forgotten story back to life: the transformation of the Capitol during the 1850s and ’60s from the relatively unprepossessing original to the grand structure we know today, a reconstruction that climaxed with the positioning of the statue “Freedom” at the top of the dome in 1863. Among the many fascinating tidbits Gugliotta restores to our attention is that remodeling the Capitol was in large measure the work of the junior senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, who in 1850 proposed the project and who by the time “Freedom” was hoisted into place was president of the rebellious Confederacy.
There was dark as well as light in the long life of Dwight David Eisenhower, but there was more of the latter than the former, as we are reminded by “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” by Jean Edward Smith, who as he proved in his previous books on Ulysses Grant and Franklin Roosevelt is an absolute master of the one-volume biography. Smith pays due heed to Ike’s rise through the peacetime Army and to his inspired leadership of the Allied forces in Europe in World War II, but he also pays more attention than have most Eisenhower biographers to the White House years, which were considerably more productive than is commonly understood.
Salman Rushdie’s“Joseph Anton” is the only memoir on my list. Though it covers the whole length of the author’s quite remarkable life, its focus quite properly is on the more than 10 years during which he was under sentence of death by Ayatollah Khomeini for the alleged blasphemy of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Obviously there are some deeply dark aspects to this story, and Rushdie writes vividly about them, but what most strikes me about the book are the fierce determination with which he fought to regain control of his life and the bracing wit that kept his feet firmly anchored on the ground.
A fine book that fits no precise category is “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” Henry Wiencek’s devastating picture of the slaveocracy maintained by the author of the Declaration of Independence at his plantations at Monticello and elsewhere. The complexities of race in America have preoccupied Wiencek for years and have now produced three exceptional books (the others are “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White” and “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America”), of which this may be the best. Wiencek goes far beyond the much-told story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings to leave no doubt that, given the choice between the economic well-being of his holdings and the rights of the enslaved people who kept them humming, the slaves did not come first. It is not a pretty story, but Wiencek tells it very well.
So at last we come to the horrors of war. Two books about Nazi Germany’s atrocities are necessary but painful reading: “A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust,” by Mary Fulbrook, and “Heinrich Himmler,” by Peter Longerich. The first brings the Holocaust right down to the local level, a small city in Poland only about 25 miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau, where almost the entire population of Jews either died or (more often) was murdered at or en route to the death camps. What troubles Fulbrook is that much of this deadly work was carried out by “decent” Germans who may or may not have been appalled by what they were ordered to do but who obeyed those orders, most of which were handed down directly or indirectly by Himmler. He is one of the surpassingly evil figures in human history, a monster cut from the same cloth as Hitler and Stalin and Mao. It may seem a cliche to say so, but it is true: He was utterly, irredeemably banal, an empty shell into which had been poured all the hatred and cruelty humanity can muster. Longerich probably brings us closer to an understanding of him than anyone ever will, but he will always remain a ghastly mystery.
Finally there is “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II,” by Keith Lowe. The received wisdom is that, once Hitler and Nazi Germany had been put to rout, Europe quickly returned to the pleasures and preoccupations of peacetime, in large measure thanks to American largesse as granted through the Marshall Plan. But the rather more unpleasant truth is that the ethnic, racial and religious animosities the Nazis had fomented lingered on in places where in the past people of different backgrounds had managed to coexist. It is a tale of festering hatreds and bloody reprisals, and among other things it helps us understand more clearly the rivalries and resentments that continue to flourish on the continent long after the war’s last shot was fired. A fine book, and an important one.
See you in 2013.