This is the shortest best-of-the-year list I’ve published in my 32 (!) years at The Washington Post, and probably the oddest. For one thing, for the first time none of the 10 books chosen is fiction, unless one counts the two memoirs, a genre highly susceptible to fabrication. The other oddity is that six of the books are English and/or Irish (Edna O’Brien being mostly the latter but in no small part the former), even though I have never been susceptible to Anglophilia — indeed have resisted it stoutly throughout my life despite my certifiable Anglo blood lines. But I do love the way the Brits write, and there is some splendid writing on a list that, in fact, I like quite a lot.
Which is why O’Brien’s “Country Girl” takes pride of place. Now in her 80s, O’Brien writes as beautifully as she did when she published her first novel, “The Country Girls,” more than half a century ago. That examination of the amatory lives of Irish women caused a considerable scandal back in 1960, and O’Brien to this day retains an agreeable capacity to raise eyebrows. There’s little of shock value in her new memoir, though, but a great deal of evocative writing about her girlhood in a small town in western Ireland, her literary awakening as a young woman in Dublin and her admission into the most fashionable cultural circles of London in the Swinging Sixties and thereafter. She’s been mostly in London for years now, but this lovely memoir leaves no doubt that her heart and soul are forever Irish.
The other new memoir that I liked this year is “Miracles of Life,” by J.G. Ballard. The author is well-known and greatly respected in science-fiction circles, and in the larger world of readers as the author of “Empire of the Sun” (1984), the heavily autobiographical novel about Ballard’s boyhood in Shanghai that was made into a successful movie by Steven Spielberg. The same ground is covered in the memoir as in the novel, but Ballard’s parents now assume their proper role in the story; he had left them out of the novel in order to place full emphasis on the life of the boy. His youth in Shanghai bordered on the idyllic, which cannot be said of his years in a Japanese internment camp, but even there his self-sufficiency and curiosity enabled him to make the best of a bad situation. Ballard, who died four years ago, must have been a remarkable and rather wonderful man; after his wife’s sudden death in 1964, he decided to rear their three children on his own — men didn’t do that sort of thing in those days — and he seems to have reared them exceedingly well.
Private lives are treated somewhat differently but equally well in two other very good books. “The Profligate Son,” by Nicola Phillips, tells the story of William Collins Burke Jackson, who came of age in Regency England (1811-1820) and succeeded in turning what looked for all the world like a brilliant future into a personal and familial disaster. Born into a wealthy middle-class family, he allowed peer pressure at the various schools to which he was sent to transform him into a greedy spendthrift who frittered away much of his father’s fortune, largely because of the ease with which the sons of moneyed families could obtain credit. Phillips, who writes smooth and beguiling prose, declines to twist her story into a cautionary tale for our times, but the caution is there to be given its due consideration.
Then there is “P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters,” edited by Sophie Ratcliffe. This fat collection of the great man’s letters belongs on the same shelf as Robert McCrum’s “Wodehouse: A Life,” C. Northcote Parkinson’s “Jeeves: A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman,” and Barry Day and Tony Ring’s “P.G. Wodehouse in His Own Words” — that is to say, in the company of the other fine books that help us understand the life and work of the 20th century’s greatest comic writer. Of course, as any Wodehouse devotee well knows, his work is a lot easier to understand than his life, as he was sphinx-like in many ways and let no one — perhaps not even his wife or beloved adopted daughter — all the way into the mystery at his core. But he was a wonderfully amiable correspondent, chatty and gossipy and direct. His letters are not as finely polished as his fiction nor as funny, but if you love Wodehouse — and if you don’t, I worry about you — you must read them.
Many more laughs from across the pond are to be found in Richard Davenport-Hines’s “An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo,” a lively and irreverent account of the scandal that lit up Britain half a century ago and helped drive Harold Macmillan’s Tory government out of office. The scandal chiefly involved the war minister, John Profumo, and a sexy young number named Christine Keeler, and it was whipped to a frenzy by the British yellow press. Davenport-Hines is such a deliciously readable writer that I purchased his “Titanic Lives,” which turned out to be far and away the best book I’ve read on that endlessly interesting subject. (But be sure to buy the British edition; as an alert Amazon reader has pointed out, the American edition is severely cut.)
Now things get serious. The remaining five books are solid and serious and demand your close attention. The longest of them is Maury Klein’s “A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II,” an 800-page investigation into one of the most important yet least examined aspects of 20th-century American history, the home-front build-up that, combined with the incredible battlefield sacrifices of the Soviet army, enabled the Allies to win the war. Klein has assembled a breathtaking amount of material and organized it with such clarity that the narrative never flags, despite its length and complexity. Today, when the American public blithely acknowledges the men and women in combat overseas with little more than bumper stickers and halftime shows, it is sobering to be reminded of a time when the entire country, not just its armed services, went to war.
Which leads us to “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country,” Andrew J. Bacevich’s withering look at how we go to war — and who goes to war — in the years since the end of the draft and the rise of the professional, all-volunteer army. Bacevich, who earned his right to speak out on this subject with service in Vietnam and left the Army with the rank of colonel, depicts a nation that has shrugged off universal military service and divorced itself from serious popular engagement in the wars we so readily rush to fight in places most of us probably cannot locate on a map. Bacevich’s tone is measured and cool, but make no mistake about it, this is an angry book, as well it should be.
For a couple of centuries, until shortly after World War II, the British had a global empire that probably exceeded the de facto empire the United States now presides over, but as John Darwin emphasizes in “Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain,” it was not the tightly organized, efficient organization that many who loved or hated it imagined it to be. Instead it was formed higgledy-piggledy, evolving more by chance than by plan, and operated on an ad hoc basis that usually required resourceful ad-libbing. Darwin declines to indulge himself in the reflexive empire-bashing widespread in the academic circles he inhabits; instead he describes the positive as well as the negative sides of the empire’s long life. Yet another sobering book, one that should be read by those here in Washington who fancy it our duty to police, and thus rule, the world.
Finally two books about cities. The first is “A History of Future Cities,” in which Daniel Brook describes how St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai and Dubai have emerged as important cities of the modern world, yet rather than reflect the unique characteristics of the countries and societies in which they are located, they attempt to imitate the great old cities of the West. Though Brook doesn’t come right out and say so, in effect they are colonizing themselves, denying their own cultures and somehow diminishing themselves, notwithstanding all their political and economic might. He reminds us, though, that the great cities of the West did their full share of copying along the way, as witness the Greco-Roman architecture with which we are surrounded right here in the District of Columbia.
The second is “Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City,” by Stephane Kirkland, a Franco-American who lives in Paris and New York and writes — very well — about architecture and urban planning. His essential argument in this fascinating book is that though Haussmann has always gotten most of the credit for the rebuilding of Paris in the late 19th century — a rebuilding that made it, by near-universal consent, the most beautiful city in the world — it was Napoleon III whose vision and determination were the real forces behind this extraordinary urban reconstruction. Kirkland does not scant the negative aspects of the rejuvenation, in particular the obliteration of most of medieval Paris, but he vividly describes the process of rebirth and makes one want to hop on the next plane to Charles de Gaulle.
See you in 2014. Unless I fly to Paris and refuse to come home. Happy holidays.