Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

During the American War of Independence, the British promised freedom and land to any slaves who left their masters and served with the British. Many thousands did so, and after the war they were taken first to Nova Scotia and then settled in a colony in Sierra Leone. This book tells that story.

Among the slaves who decided that their best hope of freedom was with the British were some who had belonged to George Washington. At times I got the feeling that Schama, as a British historian working in the US, got a degree of mischievous pleasure from writing about the War of Independence from an angle that shows the British as the defenders of liberty and equality in the face of American tyranny.

It’s not that simple of course. The original decision to offer freedom was pragmatic rather than a principled, and in practice the implementation of it was consistently undermined by the greed, paternalism and piety of British administrators. The book does include some genuinely heroic British figures, but there are no shortage of complete shits as well.

It’s an interesting story and a moving book.

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

I’ve only read two books by Schama; Citizens, his book about the French Revolution, and this biography of Rembrandt. Both have been excellent. They’re also quite hard work simply because he’s so thorough. Thoroughness is no doubt a virtue in a historian, but it does make for large books. Rembrandt’s Eyes is frankly too large to read in bed, as it weighs a whopping five and a half pounds. The reason it’s so large is that it’s printed on thick glossy paper and full of beautiful reproductions of the paintings. Amazon’s price of £13 is almost worth it just for the pictures.


Self Portrait at an Early Age, from the Rijksmuseum. Click on the image to see a larger version.

I was slightly taken aback when the first chapter of a Rembrandt biography was about Rubens’ father. Schama’s obviously feels that Rembrandt can only be understood in the context of his predecessor (who was born 30 years before him), since he devotes 200 pages, nearly a third of the book, to Rubens. I actually forgot that the book was supposed to be about Rembrandt at one point. This kind of attention to context — not just artistic, but the political and religious background of the region – is perhaps unsurprising given that Schama is primarily a historian, rather than an art critic. He’s brilliant at evoking the everyday reality of life in C17th Holland, as well. There’s one tour-de-force where he introduces Amsterdam by showing the city via the five senses, one at a time. So for example, the section on smell begins:

First, the Zuider Zee itself, sucked through the inlet of the IJ, washing against the slimy double row of palings separating the inner from the outer harbor, carrying with it a load of tangled wrack and weed, worthlessly small fish, and minute crustaceans generating a briny aroma of salt, rotting wood, bilgewater, and the tide-rinsed remains of countless gristly little creatures housed within the shells of barnacles and periwinkles. In the yards behind the first row of houses facing the docks there were better things to smell. Lengths of green timber were stood on end to season, some already bent to form a rib in a ship’s hull. A man might walk down the alleys parallel to the harbor, inhale the sharp tan of fir (for masts) and oak and beech (for hulls), and for a moment think himself in a fresh-cut wood in Norway.

And on through the smells of taverns, the night-soil boats, the tanners, the plague-pits, the nosegay sellers, the bakers; and then each of the other senses in turn.

Having said that Schama is primarily a historian, I still think he does a great job writing about the paintings. That’s just as well, since it becomes apparent during the book that there is very little surviving material written by Rembrandt. There are no journals or essays, and Schama only quotes from letters once or twice. Really, the only times we get direct written contact with Rembrandt’s life is when he’s dealing with the law – buying a house, writing a will, being declared bankrupt, or indeed having his ex-mistress declared as of unsound mind.

Those things are interesting, but by themselves they give a skewed and incomplete view of someone. So Schama has to fill out the gaps though the paintings, and does it admirably. There can hardly be a more appropriate painter to do that with, since Rembrandt was an almost compulsive self-portaitist. Not only did he produce nearly 100 self portraits in different costumes and different personae, but he painted his own face into most of his history paintings as well. There was a part of me that wanted to hear Rembrandt’s voice more directly, to be able to read his words; but perhaps it’s fitting to tell an artist’s story though his art.


Self Portrait at the Age of 63, from the National Gallery.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and learnt a lot about Rembrandt, Rubens and the Low Countries in the C17th . Most of all, I was introduced to a lot of beautiful paintings I didn’t know before.

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