Scotland’s leading writers and critics pick two books – one published in 2016 and one published in the past – that they most enjoyed reading in 2016. There’ll be new selections every day until Christmas Eve. 12th December features picks by Stewart Conn, Ian Fraser and Kapka Kassabova.
David Hockney and Martin Gayford’s generously illustrated A History of Pictures (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) offers a stimulating guide to representations of our three-dimensional world, from cave paintings to film and iPad. Irrepressibly and entertainingly, if sometimes arguably, Hockney ranges from the sources of shadowing in Giotto and Masaccio to van Eyck’s use of lenses and the impact of photography on Delacroix, Gauguin and others. Much of the pleasure stems from unexpected encounters with personal favourites, and the inducement to view them afresh.
I remember falling under the spell of the grandeur and resonance of WB Yeats’s poetry, from ‘The Tower’ and ‘All Souls Night’ onwards. But recently, in my dog-eared Macmillan edition of his Collected Poems, it was to the prophetic closing lines of ‘The Second Coming’ that I found myself drawn: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
In the summer I read Tom Devine’s Independence or Union (Allen Lane, £20). Anyone who is interested in the future of Scotland – or indeed the UK – should read it. Devine has distilled decades of research into a book which lucidly runs through how the ties – socioeconomic, cultural, political – that bind Scotland to England have waxed and waned over three centuries. He coolly debunks myths while providing fascinating nuggets of information on virtually every page. Interestingly, he suggests the post-war period of peak redistribution – which saw the nationalisation of many industries and a massive burst of council house building – may ultimately have been a “fool’s paradise”. The book, completely non-partisan, is all the most interesting when it morphs into current affairs towards the end.
A book I revisited was George Orwell’s As I Please, the third volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters published by Penguin in 1970. Orwell punctures the pomposity of ideologues and propagandists, while encapsulating the uncertainty and promise of the age.
“The Earth was becoming warmer and warmer. Tomorrow we would be burning houses and killing people with the same names as us,” reports the narrator of this year’s most unforgettable novel, Quiet Flows the Una (Istros, £9.99). Its author, Bosnian poet and novelist Faruk Sehic, was a veterinary student in ‘year zero’ (1992) when the break-up of Yugoslavia interrupted his world and forced him into civil war. In this richly imagined and harrowing hybrid of a book he weaves Yugo-bildungsroman on the banks of the beautiful River Una with some of the best interior writing on war and post-war damage since The Things They Carried, and with tripped-out scenes of a submerged riverine world where poetry is king.
Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi is set in another ‘year zero’ – the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. A heart-warming blend of reportage, travelogue, and history from one of Russia’s all-time greats, it finally been translated into English (Pushkin Press, £16.99).