Best Books 2012

Richard Fitzpatrick rounds up his top tomes of the year

Best Books 2012


One might wonder why bother write another book on Alfred Dreyfus. Some 600 have already been published. The novelist Piers Paul Read, however, brings a sweeping historical perspective and literary verve to The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History (Bloomsbury, €27.00). Dreyfus was a bad witness, an unattractive character — gauche, haughty and standoffish, which led in part to his downfall; the other element was his misfortune to get caught up in the grubby left-right politics of the country that emerged from the incendiary 1789 French Revolution.


Colm Tóibín’s irresistibly titled New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (Viking, €21.99) is a trove of intriguing portraits of writers (and the shadow cast by their parents and siblings) from Jane Austen and Henry James to Tennessee Williams and a fascinating investigation of Jorge Luis Borge’s life. Several Irish writers also feature, including W.B. Yeats; the cruel, preposterous upbringing of Hugo Hamilton; and an absorbing chapter on Samuel Beckett’s dissolute twenties and thirties. Happy Days they weren’t — when he groped about for direction, unsure that he would make it as a writer, and was a torment to his genteel mother.


Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Harvill Secker, €18.99) is another re-telling of the assassination attempt of Reinhard Heydrich on the streets of Prague in May 1942. The book’s title comes from the clumsy German wheeze: Himmlers Him heist Heydrich — Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich, a reference to Heydrich’s position as Himmler’s feared right-hand man, the head of the Gestapo and one of the authors of The Final Solution. Binet playfully ponders the nature of historical fiction throughout, of how impossible it is to faithfully reproduce characters and inner monologues, but it is the countdown to the Czech resistance heroes’ act, and the intervention of a traitor, that beguiles.


As Diarmaid Ferriter notes in his magisterial 700-page tomb, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s (Profile Books, €33.00), the Troubles in the North defined the island of Ireland in the decade. It is his rich portrayal of the social fabric of the country, however, that really captivates, from the Dickensian life of the poor (a quarter of the population lived under the poverty line), to the radical upheaval of Catholic mores that set in, not least in the realm of women’s rights, to raucous socialising like the kind at the “one-day” Sherkin Island Festival in 1978, which stretched out for seven days and seven nights, or the Claremorris Ham Festival in 1972, which, according to Planxty’s lead singer, Christy Moore, consisted of a smoked leg of ham in Andy Creighton’s lounge window and eight late-night bar extensions.


As he recounts in his charming autobiography, I Never Had a Proper Job: A Life in the Theatre (Liberties Press, €16.99), Barry Cassin upset his mother by setting off for a life on the stage with a group of touring players in the mid-1940s. “Actors,” as he says, “were classed among rogues and vagabonds.” Amidst the tales of fit-up theatre companies, of cohorts like Siobhán McKenna and Cyril Cusack, and starring roles that extend to Neil Jordan’s film Byzantium, which premiered in Toronto this September, Cassin vividly brings to life a bygone Ireland, of maimed First World War veterans careering around in pram-wheeled boxes, his own brushes with alcoholism and his father’s battles with depression.


It’s all here in Sylvie Simmons’s lucidly written 500-page biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Jonathan Cape, €22.00) — the lifelong struggle with depression; the well-heeled Jewish childhood in Montreal; the early years as a poet; the surprisingly voracious appetite for drug-taking in the early 1960s; the lovers, including his greatest muse, the Norwegian blonde Marianne Ihlen, Nico (unrequited), Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and actress Rebecca de Mornay, whose promised marriage evaporated when he absconded to a Zen monastery in the early 1990s; the larceny of his life savings by his management; and, of course, insight into his almost unrivalled craft for song-writing.


You’ll be slow to ever take a pill again after reading Ben Goldacre’s sensational Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Fourth Estate, €14.99). Goldacre has achieved a rare feat, in turning indecipherable scientific detail into page-turning prose and exposing the repulsive behaviour at the heart of $600bn pharmaceutical industry. He writes with indignant rage of how it suppresses unfavourable data, at the risk of killing patients, of how it buys the opinion of doctors for marketing purposes, and undermines the scientific process in the pursuit of profit.

Short Stories

Joseph O’Connor’s first collection of short stories in more than 20 years, which includes a novella that lends the book its title, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker, €13.99), are set largely in contemporary Dublin and London, while occasionally reaching back to the 1980s and ‘90s, with one set in Victorian New York. The vacuity and pomposity of Celtic Tiger Ireland comes in for a savaging, but it is O’Conner’s tenderness in examining troubled, fragile lives which leaves the lasting impression from a master at work.


Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race (Bantom Press, €20.99) is the must-read sports book of the year. Hamilton was Lance Armstrong’s right-hand man on the US Postal cycling team and a man of inordinate physical courage (he ground down 11 teeth while riding the majority of the 2002 Giro d’Italia with a fractured shoulder) but lacked the moral fibre to withstand the widespread doping in the peloton, something which you find hard to fault him for after reading his account, so insidious and sophisticated was its practice. And his portrait of Armstrong is riveting.

Top three bestsellers

1. Cecelia Ahern’s One Hundred Names (HarperCollins, €16.99) takes its title from a list the novel’s protagonist Kitty is bequeathed by Constance, her mentor, on her deathbed. Kitty, a disgraced journalist, tracks down the people to cobble together Constance’s story and the novel she never got to write, uncovering secrets and an understanding about her own life.

2. The Shelbourne Ultimatum (Penguin Ireland, €15.99) is Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s twelfth outing and is as funny as ever. Our anti-hero emerges from a coma suffering from amnesia, unable to remember who shot him while shacked up with a girlfriend (while also sleeping with her mother, as that’s the way the ROCK rolls). Plotlines cascade, including the burgeoning career as a child star of his insufferable six-year-old daughter, while his mother goes about the media circuit cravenly hawking her recession misery memoir, Mom, They Said They’d Never Heard of Sundried Tomatoes.

3. JK Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction, The Casual Vacancy (Little Brown, €21.99), which is about a village whose idyll is shattered by a parish council election, has been poorly received by critics, but is popular with the reading public, most if not all presumably graduates of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

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