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. 9th December features picks by Magnus Linklater, Alan Bissett and David Torrance.
I would like to nominate Beloved Poison by ES Thomson (Constable, £8.99). As a journalist I warm to novels based on real research and the deep understanding of a particular period, together with the novelist’s ability to bring that period to life. Elaine Thomson has immersed herself in Victoriana – its dirt and disease, death and drama. There is a shiver of recognition too as she brings her hero/heroine to life, and you have to shrink back from the descriptions of surgical operations in a pre-anaesthetic age; I was there at the operating table, trying not to throw up. Nominated for the McIlvanney Prize, it has been characterised as a crime novel. Nonsense, it is a novel, pure and not so simple.
I went back this year to a book of essays that will be virtually unknown to a modern generation – Frans G. Bengtsson’s Walk to an Anthill (American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1951). A Swedish friend of my father Eric Linklater, he had a grasp of European history and culture which few British writers today could match. One of his essays is about Robert Monro, a Scottish mercenary of the 1630s, who fought for Gustavus Adolphus, and came back to Scotland to join the campaigns of the Marquis of Montrose. Walter Scott made a hero of him in A Legend of Montrose. But I would not have heard of him had it not been for Bengtsson, whose book The Long Ships is the classic account of the Viking age.
2016’s most exciting book for me was Scotland the Bold (Freight, £9.99), in which Gerry Hassan proves himself one of our foremost social commentators. Pointing towards this period of vast, global turbulence, Hassan urges Scots to use the political energy and education of the referendum to effect serious, radical change in our communities. It’s hugely inspiring, fair to both sides in the Yes v No argument, and takes the independence debate to its essential next stage.
Given this world crisis, I’ve forced myself to go back to the source and learn how hierarchies and exploitation first emerged in human culture. In The Other Side of Eden (Faber, 2000) the anthropologist Hugh Brody lives among our remaining hunter-gatherers, to explore the seismic shift away from those societies towards agriculture and industry. The co-operation and classlessness of the pre-agricultural age was supplanted by the resource surplus caused by farming, and thus the emergence of a ruling ‘elite’ which controlled the surplus. While we can’t go back to the pre-modern world, Brody nonetheless compels us to recover some of the communal values of the hunter-gatherer. In a way, from their separate ends of history, Hassan’s books and Brody’s are arguing the same case.
This year, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, brought dozens of new tomes on modern Irish history, but my favourite was Ronan Fanning’s concise but elegant new biography of Éamon de Valera, A Will to Power (Faber, £9.99), a judicious reassessment of a complex individual who elevated the pursuit of his nation’s sovereignty above domestic politics – there’s a lesson in there for Scotland’s own nation-builders.
Another biography that’s been on my read list for years is Robert Caro’s 1974 book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I have the US edition but it was finally published in the UK last year (Bodley Head, £35). Like Fanning on de Valera, Caro not only writes about Moses, an unelected official who shaped modern New York, but also places him in social and political context. It’s long – more than 1,300 pages – but a hugely satisfying read.