Put your feet up with ten of the best books this Christmas

Still got a pressie to buy or are you expecting some vouchers on Christmas Day? Richard Fitzpatrick picks the best book of the year in 10 different genres

Put your feet up with ten of the best books this Christmas

SPORT

The Second Half, Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

All credit to the ghostwriter Roddy Doyle for getting the Royspeak right in the year’s sports book blockbuster. It seems the motive for Keane’s second autobiography is to put the hurt on his old boss, Alex Ferguson. There are scores settled aplenty.

In a world of boring sports autobiographies, the book is welcome relief although it’s incomplete for not delving into his upbringing, which might help to answer a few questions about his issues in adulthood. It is, however, immensely readable for its bite-your-legs wit.

POLITICS

Full On: A Memoir, Ivan Yates (Hachette Books Ireland)

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Ivan Yates always did things at a rush. He was a TD at 21, married at 22, a minister for agriculture in his 30s and head of a bookmaking firm that turned over €180m at its peak in his 40s.

It wasn’t until he was declared bankrupt in his 50s that he had to slow down. In order to avail of a speedier UK bankruptcy process, he sat out 14 months in exile in Swansea. His account of those long, dreary months is strangely compelling; it reads like the letters of a man serving a prison sentence, which of course it was for a man used to being busy.

HISTORY

Easter Widows: Seven Irish Women Who Lived in the Shadow of the 1916 Rising, Sinéad McCoole (Doubleday Ireland)

History books are often dismissed as dry reads. It’s not a charge that could be levelled at Sinéad McCoole’s account of the love lives of the seven widows of the Easter 1916 leaders, which is arguably the most enjoyable book of the year. It’s the product of 20 years of research, including hours and hours of interviews with the protagonists’ surviving families.

It busts several myths, including the fact that Joseph Mary Plunkett’s heralded marriage to Grace Gifford was actually a rebound affair. The women had wildly different experiences — Gifford was a beguiling bohemian who posed for an American newspaper in a white dress, fashionably wearing a wristwatch, six weeks after the executions; Lillie Connolly endured untold hardships keeping her family fed; and who knew Maud Gonne MacBride — or ‘Maud Gone Mad’, as Dubliners used to call her — was such a loon?

FICTION

Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín, (Viking)

Colm Tóibín returns to Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, for his latest novel, which is a meditation on widowhood and grief in the late 1960s. The Troubles simmer in the background, including Charlie Haughey’s abortive gunrunning intervention and the drift towards Bloody Sunday, although the main focus is the hinterland — full of priests and prying neighbours, of course — around Nora Webster and her struggle to pick up the pieces after the death of her husband, Maurice, and the duty to raise their two sons.

Tóibín’s humour lifts the heavy air around her for the reader. Although she’s desperate to escape, life goes on for Nora, including her old job in the accounts department with Gibneys, the town’s overlords. Of Peggy Gibney, Nora remarks, she’s a bit too grand: “Almost too grand to move.”

CRIME FICTION

The Black-Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black (Mantle)

Hard to think of a better man to call than John Banville, aka Benjamin Black, to write a new Philip Marlowe story. He’s fond of wearing hats and he fits easily into the hardboiled world of Raymond Chandler’s post-war Los Angeles. You can see the fun he takes. Women can be objectified — “the sculptor had given her a nice bosom and nicer rear-end”. It is his subtlety that delights, though, a gift not given to many crime fiction writers. The way, for example, that he reads characters: “I could see Hanson preparing to claim again, in that studied, jaded way of his, that he’d forgotten what we were talking about.”

His sleuth is on the trail of his client’s missing lover who apparently has done “the greatest disappearing act of all”, but the unravelling of the case hardly matters among such literary high jinks.

MEMOIRS

Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

Edmund White, one of the great humourists, has written a charming memoir about the 15 years he lived in Paris and the foibles of the French, who, he writes, have a childish obsession with table manners. A parade of notable people wander the book’s pages, including Elizabeth Taylor, Spike Lee and Yves Saint Laurent “who seemed to be heavily doped” when they met for a magazine interview. White moved to the city in 1983, just as AIDS, which he contracted, was on the rampage. His friend Michel Foucault and White’s translator, Gilles Barbedette, mocked him when he told them about this mysterious new illness. “Oh no,” they said, “you’re so gullible. A disease that only kills gays and blacks and drug addicts? Why not child molesters, too? That’s too perfect!”

ART AND ARCHITECTURE

Art and Architecture of Ireland: Complete Five-Volume Set, Royal Irish Academy and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (Yale University Press, €475)

The prize for publishing feat of the year in Ireland definitely goes to the five-volume history, Art and Architecture of Ireland.

What Taoiseach Enda Kenny described at the book launch as “the gospels of Ireland” tells the story of Ireland’s artistic and architectural heritage over the last 1,600 years. The result is impressive, drawing on contributions from over 250 experts, with 3,000 illustrations and the penning of over two million words.

The price of the full set might be daunting, but copies are to be distributed to all 32 county libraries in the country, and, if you make the plunge to buy a single volume at €95, it equates, as the editor of the medieval volume Dr Rachel Moss put it, to the cost of “a good dinner out, a very good dinner out for two”.

SHORT STORIES

That Glimpse of Truth: The 100 Finest Short Stories Ever Written, ed David Miller (Head of Zeus)

Literary agent David Miller takes his cue from Joseph Conrad on the art of telling short stories: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel … and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”.

Miller’s 100 stories, arranged chronologically by the authors’ date of birth, are inevitably contentious. He says he spent “months quarrelling with myself (and others)” on the list. With a selection of translations from Danish, Yiddish and Vietnamese and from so many masters — including Dickens, Chekhov, Hemingway, the US grand stylist Flannery O’Connor, and Colm Tóibín — there is something for everyone in a book that weighs about the same as a small turkey.

SCIENCE

Human Universe, Brian Cox (William Collins)

Professor Brian Cox asks a lot in Human Universe, the year’s biggest-selling science book, which is accompanied by a BBC TV series. Why are we here? Who made the universe? There are 350 billion galaxies. Could we communicate with one of them? And most boggling of all: has the universe been here forever?

These are the big questions, although the guts of Human Universe address a smaller domain: how special humankind and its experience on earth is.

Cox has been criticised for this exceptionalist belief that we are a unique species, but he argues convincingly that our ability to do things like talking and writing — unlike other animals — distinguishes us.

ECONOMICS

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (Harvard University Press)

A French economist, Thomas Piketty, who is as comfortable quoting The Simpsons as he is unfurling dazzling economics formulae, has come up with some numbers about the state of the global economy. His book, which shows that inequality is on the rise, is a sensation.

The best talent is prized, unskilled labour is less desired. Just take a look at the salaries of England’s Premier League stars compared to a generation ago when players’ pay was only marginally higher than fans on the terraces.

From 1992 to 2011, average wages in the league increased from €95,000 to €1.76m. Yet since 1974, average real hourly earnings in manufacturing have only doubled.

Piketty, who makes some interesting predictions, thinks it’s time to put the boot in to our capitalist system.

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