CLAIRE Tomalin, who has won a Whitbread for a previous biography of Samuel Pepys, turns her gaze onto British literature’s most famous novelist in Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking, €34). It’s a compelling read and does well to cover his life in 400 pages. Dickens was indefatigable: a radical journalist, agitator for social reform, actor, bon vivant and, of course, author. The most interesting stretches involve his personal life. He had 10 children with his wife, whom he grew to despise because of her lack of conviviality and for the “imbecility” of the genes she passed on to many of their children. He eventually left her for an 18-year-old actress, but, as Victorian England’s great champion of domestic happiness, it was a relationship he kept secret.
Structured as an autobiography and full of comedy set pieces, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press, €13.99) is a feminist manifesto: out with high heels, Brazilian waxes and ludicrously expensive handbags. Instead, she advises her sisters, cogently and with her unrivalled humour, to engage in a new form or feminism which supports the bra and men.
Des Bishop’s family memoir, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond: A Son’s Funny, Frank and Moving Story of the Lessons His Father Taught Him (Penguin, €16.99), centres on his dad who gave up the glamour of showbiz for family life in the suburbs and died of cancer last February, an illness which drew the Bishop family closer together. Some of the book’s most moving passages, however, deal with the comedian’s dislocation as a child — farmed out to boarding school as an unruly teenager — and the harrowing saga of his grandmother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and nearly stabbed her son to death. Schizophrenia also runs through Molly McCloskey’s Circles around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother (Penguin, €16.99), a brutally honest investigation into a sibling relationship complicated by mental illness.
Rob Brydon’s life was a long litany of near misses, until stardom hit him a decade ago in his mid thirties. In Small Man in a Book (Penguin, €22.00), he’s written the antithesis of the usual chest-beating comedian’s memoir — a self-deprecating tale of the beta male done good.
In Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour (Allen Lane, €22.00) Michael Lewis hikes around Europe’s deadbeat countries as “a financial disaster tourist” to unravel what went wrong in Iceland, Ireland, Greece and — because of its reckless lending — Germany. He writes with the wit and observational eye of a travel writer. Pondering fairy forts, he notices Irish people tend to deny belief in them, but yet will refuse to build on them, a tactical belief which exists “because the upside to disbelief is too small, like the former Irish belief that Irish land prices could rise forever”.
For further reading, Simon Carswell’s Anglo Republic: Inside the Bank that Broke Ireland (Penguin, €16.99) provides a thorough account of the great renegade of Irish finance.
It’s been a good year for Irish fiction. Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape, €19.99) is the anatomy of an affair by a 34-year-old married woman, set in the vulgar years of Ireland post-2000: “a couple of women in the room had the confused look that Botox gives you, like you might be having an emotion, but you couldn’t remember which one ... the Enniskerry husbands stood and talked property”.
The novel’s protagonist, Lily Bere, in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (Transworld, €19.99), flits over seven decades of war, love and family strife in Ireland and the United States during the last century while Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, €12.99) ratchets up the drama and dementia in Bohane, a West of Ireland city in 2050.
As Christmas presents go, Straight from the Heart: Irish Love Letters (Gill & Macmillan, €19.99) fits the bill perfectly. Reasonably priced, nicely illustrated, easy to leaf through and full of the unguarded moments of some of Ireland’s most recognisable figures from history, such as Jonathan Swift, Charles Stewart Parnell and up to Hugh Leonard. That which beguiles most is the characteristics that emerge: Michael Collins is austere and tactical; James Joyce hysterical.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, €26.00), a Pulitzer Prize winner, enters “the mind of this immortal illness”. He maintains — amidst history’s flurry of eureka moments quickly followed by despondency — an air of hope. Himself an oncologist, he marvels at the people he has seen face down death: “the most sublime moment of my clinical life is to have watched that voyage in reverse, to encounter men and women returning from that strange country — to see them so very close, clambering back.”
David E. Hoffman bagged a Pulitzer for The Dead Hand: Reagan, Gorbachev And The Untold Story Of The Cold War Arms Race (Icon Books, €11.99). The book reads with the pace of a political thriller and includes wonderful insight into the relationship between the Cold War’s two central characters who managed to pull their empires back from the brink at a time when they shared an arms arsenal with the explosive power of 1 million Hiroshimas.
There was no bombshell that did for Bertie Ahern, just a slow erosion of his credibility, as details of byzantine payments he received while finance minster in 1993 leaked out from the Mahon Tribunal. Colm Kenna’s profile, Bertie: Power & Money (Gill & MacMillan, €16.99), depicts an odd man. Slow to buy a bag of chips for his teenage canvassers (and eager to recoup the change); our former taoiseach is “borderline eccentric”, in Royston Brady’s assessment, when it comes to money.
We misunderstand our best friend, argues John Bradshaw in his study, In Defence of Dogs (Allen Lane, €21.99), which is culled from 20 years of canine scientific findings. That dogs try to dominate the family home, like an alpha male in a pack of wolves, a notion peddled by many dog trainers, is a myth, he contends. They act primarily according to three emotions — love, fear and joy, which he seeks to explain.
Socrates was wary of books. They encouraged “forgetfulness“, he felt. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton & Co., €22.99), Nicholas Carr updates a Socratic fear for the 21st century, wondering, with verve but perhaps dubiously, if technology is frittering away our attention span.
Paul Kimmage is the ghost writer of Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson (Simon & Schuster, €18.99). It tells the inspiring story of a prop forward who became paralysed from the neck down after a collapsed scrum during training with the England under-21 team in 2005. It takes him three hours to get out of bed — between strapping, wincing, showering, wiping, and suctioning of accumulated mucous — but his humour and indomitable optimism get him through the day.
Robert Enke was briefly Germany’s soccer goalkeeper before he took his own life two years ago. Ronald Reng’s biography, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke (Yellow Jersey, €18.99), has struck a chord, not only for his moving portrayal of depression and suicide, but also in showing the pressure elite athletes operate under.
McCoy: The Autobiography (Orion, €15.99) tells the story of Ireland’s greatest sportsperson and a racing legend.