My non-fiction book of the year is Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami (Pantheon, 2013), a poetic and haunting account of post-tsunami Japan, which blends rhapsodic travel writing with science, poetry and cultural observation, illuminated by dozens of interviews with people affected by the disaster.
Out in paperback this year was Ali Smith's Artful (Hamish Hamilton, 2012), a hard-to-classify blend of fiction, essay and literary criticism, and a real box of verbal, intellectual and visual delights – look out for Roland Penrose’s astonishing photograph of four surrealist women feigning sleep.
Normally I find Bill Bryson’s folksy style a bit twee and annoying, but his latest book, One Summer: America 1927 (Doubleday, 2013) is impressively well-crafted: it tells the story of a five-month phase of American history, in which Al Capone, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and the author Zane Grey all make an appearance, as skyscrapers rise, Mount Rushmore starts being carved, and modern America begins to dominate the world economy. It’s a fine example of writing the big picture while keeping an eye on the telling details – Zane Grey, for example, earned a third of a million dollars from his Westerns in 1927 alone.
I bought Morrissey’s Autobiography (Penguin, 2013) – in Smiths, where else? – and loved the first 100 pages, a prose poem of soaring lyricism and power, but by p. 150 the book had begun to fixate on self-absorbed score-settling, and I confess I’ve yet to finish it. It’s a beautiful object, and looks great on the shelf, but the text remains sorely in need of firm, ruthless editing.
Of course every year that passes only increases the proportion of books that I intend to read over books that I have actually read, and top of the list of this year’s many new books that I‘ve yet to get on to is Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s biography The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War (Fourth Estate, 2013), the biography of the fascist Italian poet, which won this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. I’m also looking forward to Robert Harris’s latest literary thriller, An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, 2013), based on the Dreyfus affair of 1890s France (the subject of Zola’s famous letter, ‘J’accuse’). Apt, too, as this year Birkbeck College was bequested the entire Dreyfus archive.