SPHERE Curates: Best Books for Christmas Gifts 2022
1st December 2022
One of the best gifts you can give at Christmas is an original choice of book, carefully selected for your recipient. Lisa Barnard and Maeve Stiller pick the best books from 2022 for Christmas gifts for every type and taste of SPHERE reader – from dog lovers to dandies, from foodies to feminists
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” was how began the Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield, as written by Charles Dickens. Now the story begins again, told by Demon Copperhead, in an enthralling re-imagination by Barbara Kingsolver. Here are all the characters and events transported to Virginia and Tennessee, and transformed into hillbilly vernacular, set in a society whose structures have been sacked by economic decline and Oxycontin. Readers familiar with the original Dickens can enjoy how the changes are rung. Everyone will be carried by the pace and fizz of this dazzling contemporary fiction with a twist of the classic. Give it to lovers of fiction, Kingsolver, Dickens or those who can let their imagination run away with them.
Best Book 2022 for History Buffs
Abyss - The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 by Max Hastings, Harper Collins
Super-power ambition and brinkmanship feature again in the news. But in 1962 at a pivotal point in the Cold War, the USA and Russia teetered even closer to nuclear war, or the edge of the Abyss, as Max Hastings titles this readable and deeply informed account of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the duel it involved between John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushkev. Opening chapters lay out the background, and then in detail, the events play out. We know of course that things turned out for the better, but there was no inevitability that they would, and the alarming possibilities are kept open as the story unfolds. “The longer I write historical narratives,” says Hastings, “the more chilled I become by the fog of ignorance in which governments make big decisions.” Decisions come no bigger than those discussed here, but the events, uncertain as they were to the participants, find a clear guide in Hastings.
Best Book 2022 for Biographiles
I Used to Live Here Once, The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys, by Miranda Seymour, Harper Collins
If you are partial to a biography that is not just dominated by its subject, but is filled with a cast of colourful characters, ranging from eccentrics, voodoo practitioners, bullies, nutters, crooks, adulterers, predators, bohemians and literati, then I Used to Live Here Once – The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys by Miranda Seymour will not disappoint. It’s not the fact that these characters existed, but that so many were packed into Jean Rhys’ eventful life. The title takes its name from one of Rhys’ ghost stories. “Haunted” is an understatement, as trouble followed Jean Rhys everywhere – as sure as eggs were bad eggs.
Jean Rhys’ childhood in Dominica, the Caribbean island where she was born, acts as a springboard for much of the action. The detail Seymour uncovers about her island life is what sets this biography apart, the influence of Rhys’ upbringing on her later life. Seymour says in her Foreword that she always thinks of Seymour as “a hurt and angry child trapped in body of a sensual woman”. What she achieves is to explain the how and why, while taking you on an exhilarating rollercoaster of a ride through Rhys’ life. This includes whipping by her Creole mother, voodoo, ostracization at an English boarding school, an affair with her mentor Ford Maddox-Ford, abortion, exile in Paris, descent into alcoholism and drunken tirades, child bereavement, failed marriages, prison, reclusivess and of course her ascent into literary fame.
This is a literary biography that will inspire you to discover or rediscover the subject’s works – in fact there is less about Rhys’ books than expected. I read Jean Rhys avidly in my early 20s but knew little about her life, beyond her Domenican roots and a reputedly wild adulthood. Thanks to this biography, Wide Saragossa Sea and Good Morning, Midnight are summoning me to revisit them. As Seymour puts it: “Her readers intuitively relate to a voice that whispers terrible truths into the ears of each and everyone of us”. If that doesn’t haunt you, what will?
Best Book 2022 for Dog Lovers
Top Dogs - A British Love Affair, by Georgina Montagu, photography Dylan Thomas, Triglyph Books
"Blessings on thee, dog of mine/Pretty collars make thee fine,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her beloved spaniel, Flush. “Downy pillow take thy head/ Silken coverlid bedstead/ Sunshine help thy sleeping.” In Top Dogs author Georgina Montagu has described and Dylan Thomas photographed a contemporary generation of much loved, silky, hairy, fluffy dogs, in colourful and enviable settings, many gazing with devotion at their loyal human companions. Every dog is the top dog to their keeper, but any enthusiast will enjoy this beautifully presented collection of top dogs and their interesting owners in their fabulous homes.
This is a book which could be subtitled: "The Paws behind Closed Doors" or, if the dogs were limited to the fairer sex, "Rich Bitches". Among the precious four-legged and two-legged featured are Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Mojito, Philip Mould's Cedric, John Pawson's Lochie, Bill Amberg's Moon and Buzz, Jasper Conran's Minnow and the author's own Rollo, to name drop a few.
What's more you can feel philanthropic about your gift, as sales will support Medical Detection Dogs whose skills help the early diagnosis of unseen illnesses of doggies.
Best Book 2022 for Epic Adventurers
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, Doubleday
If a SPHERE reader has someone on their gift list who would relish a novel, which is epic in span, complex in plot, historic in detail, exquisitely written and completely absorbing, then Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead should be top of your list. I have raved about this book to friends and family of varying ages, men and women. Those that have read it have loved it, or so they told me. It’s one of the most enthralling books I have ever read.
You will be whisked away on a thrilling adventure by its heroine Marian Graves, an intrepid aviator, raised by her uncle in the wild west of Montana and obsessed with flying since her early childhood in the 1920s. A fictional character, yes, but Marian is so authentic that you feel summoned into the uncanny presence of an Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson. Our heroine combines courage with vulnerability. I wonder how many readers have googled ‘Who was the real Marian Graves?’.
It's no spoiler, as obliquely revealed at the beginning, that Marian will end her days mysteriously, vanishing somewhere over the Ross ice shelf in escapades in the Antarctic. Was it with or without her navigator Eddie Bloom? This fate is not a fait accompli – it hangs tantalisingly over the 600 pages and the tale is gripping as it unfolds. It’s not the what and when, but the how and why. What makes the construct of this gripping novel so clever is the parallel story running alongside, through the eyes and voice of a secondary heroine Hadley Baxter, a LA-based starlet making a film about Marian, grounded in the 21st century. The elaborate, crafted threads intertwining the lives of the two heroines create a Bayeux-esque narrative tapestry you can feast your eyes on in printed words alone.
Despite its length, readers will fly through the pages and dart between the eras, as eagerly as Marian Hayes soared into the horizon and zigzagged through the skies. Someone as brilliant as Maggie Shipstead needs to make a movie of the movie of the story. But please, please read the novel first.
Best Book 2022 for Royal Gossip
Courtiers - The Hidden Power Behind the Crown, by Valentine Low, Headline
There are plenty of books to choose from for monarchists, especially the plethora of biographies of the late Queen (the best of which is Robert Hardman’s Queen of our Times). But if you are after something with a touch of royal intrigue, then plump you must for COURTIERS. It’s about the gatekeepers in the Royal Household, who range from Private Secretaries to Heads of Communications to Equerries – “the men in grey suits” as they are known (some are women, but it doesn’t have the same ring) or as the cliché goes “the power behind the throne”.
Courtiers is written by Valentine Low, Royal Correspondent for The Times, whose scent for a story led him to his scoop on the bullying allegations against The Duchess of Sussex. It’s brave of a journalist on the royal rota to “bite the hand that feeds them”. But in this book Valentine doesn’t bite as such – he nibbles and quibbles in a way which is enlightening, but doesn’t completely lift the lid. For those of you wish to get the inside story on the inside story, you can get an entertaining insight into the author in SPHERE’s 5 Minutes with Valentine Low interview.
What I would like to have seen covered more is the historic role of the Courtiers over centuries, as the title suggests. But what it covers well are the inner workings of “The Firm” today. I also like the intriguing chapter headings in Courtiers such as “A Zero-Sum Game” “Household Tails” “The Golden Triangle” “Sticking the Knife in” “They are all being nasty to me” “This is Rather Fun”. Valentine should invent a parlour game to guess the royal plot by the chapter heading. That would be an excellent stocking filler. But in the meantime, Courtiers is an excellent royal romp based on fact.
Best Book 2022 for Nostalgics
All our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzberg, Translated by Angus Davidson, Daunts
This re-issue by Daunts of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1952 novel All Our Yesterdays was immersive summer reading on a holiday in Italy this year. It is a must-read for SPHERE readers who would like to discover an underrated and brilliant female Italian author, whose books have been out of print for decades, or interested in Fascist war-time Italy. As Sally Rooney says in her introduction to this edition, it’s a book through which new readers to Natalia Ginzburg will hopefully fall in love with her.
The author’s own experience is at the heart of the narrative. Born in Sicily into an intellectual Jewish family in 1916, just six years before Mussolini declared himself Prime Minister, Ginzburg grew up in Turin amongst a milieu of friends and family who were active in the underground anti-fascist movement. Her husband Leone Ginzburg was banished into exile in the deep South and brutally tortured and murdered by the Gestapo in 1944. Even by 1952 the political climate in Italy was still raw and Ginzburg’s books continued to be published under a pseudonym (Alessandra Tornimparte). Thirty years on, we can appreciate what an extraordinary, brave, incisive and talented writer Ginzburg was, and surprisingly humorous given the dark subject matter.
As soon as you open All Our Yesterdays you are plunged into small-town pre-war Italy and then into the murky machinations of the Fascist regime. It spans the country, starting in the North and ending in the South. It opens with the petty rivalry between two neighbouring families, whose children fraternised due to their proximity. Not just fraternised — Anna the central character becomes pregnant by her aloof teenage neighbour. She escapes societal shame by entering a marriage of convenience with an elderly family friend and they move to his remote estate in the South. The detail and vividness of the domestic daily life is at the forefront of the narrative, but the enormous canvas of the gathering war and the sinister fascist regime lurks behind it throughout, revealed through snippets of dialogue and small events. But it’s not a harrowing read, avoided by Ginzburg’s wry humour and sense of irony.
Thank you Daunts for your re-issues of Natalia Ginzburg’s novels. This one is a gem, and packaged in glossy paperback, it will make an original stocking filler.
Best Book 2022 for Sartorialists
British Dandies by Dominic Janes, Bodleian Library Publishing
Who doesn’t notice how women and girls dress with colour and style when out on the town? Men on the other hand at best come in a uniformity of suits, and at worst in drooping jeans and sweatshirts, as if just finishing some bodged DIY project. It wasn’t always thus. In British Dandies Dominic Janes pursues the history of extravagant male dress, with absorbing detail, tracing dandyism to its cavalier origins and then the tastes acquired on the Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, and following the cavalcade into the nineteenth century and its fin de siècle.
How does all this, handsomely illustrated here, speak to our generation, when masculinity and gender are all thrown into question? Men, up your game! is the obvious response.
Best Book 2022 for One-Pot Cooking
India Express by Rukmini Iyer, Square Peg Publishing
The Roasting Tin and The Green Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer are among the best-thumbed books in my rather extensive cookery book collection. I know so many fans of the Roasting Tin series and it’s unusual to find recipe books that have so many advocates amongst both ambitious and unambitious cooks, but all with good taste. I always recommend The Green Roasting Tin as a fail-safe gift for vegetarians and vegans.
So I could not wait to get my hands on Iyer’s new book INDIAN EXPRESS. This is her most personal to date. Her parents used to reminisce about their 24-hour train journeys and the food they had eaten on their journeys, so their daughter travelled with them to recreate a journey from her parents respective hometowns – her mother’s Kolkata and her father’s Chennai. The result is a feast for the eyes and the senses, whether whipping up a lazy brunch, a weeknight curry or a weekend feast.
True to the Rukmini Iyer’s signature style, there are plenty of one-pan curries, for those lazy washer-uppers. I include myself in this large community, as I suspect SPHERE readers do. One tin, a few store-cupboard spices and a few veg will suffice. In season now is the Bengali Five-Spice Roasted Roasted Squash with Carrots and Pumpkin or try the all-in-one aubergine, tomato and nigella seed curry.
Best Book 2022 for Environmentalists
Rewilding the Sea by Charles Clover, Penguin
Human activity leading to environmental degradation and animal extinction dominates the news, but here is a spark of hope. With his book, Charles Clover, former environment editor of the Daily Telegraph and now leading an NGO, Blue Marine Foundation, shows what has and can be done to protect and revive life in the oceans. Rewilding on the land can be controversial – if wolves return, might humans take a step down the food chain? But, without being starry-eyed, Clover argues that letting the seas look after themselves makes good sense, and provides examples of demonstrable successes – the return of bluefin tuna to the west of the British Isles, for instance. Here is a good news story about how we can protect the world from ourselves, and benefit from the results.
Best Book 2022 for Wisdom
Best Book 2022 for Stroppy Teens
You Don't Understand Me, by Dr. Tara Porter, Lagom
Dr Tara Porter, a Clinical Psychologist specialising in CBT in north London, has cleverly aimed her book You Don’t Understand Me at the teenager, mostly girls, not the parent. Owing to years of practise (she is based at The Royal Free NHS and in private practice) this book “gets” the heads, minds, anxieties, whims, behaviours, responses, habits, sulks, triggers and motivations of teenagers. As far as I know, it is the first self-help book by a professional practitioner written for the teenager. It’s timely, given the latest stat that one in five children are unhappy with their mental health.
I ordered the book for my 18-year old daughter the week it came out in April 2022 and skim read it first. I hesitated about giving it to her as I recognised, vicariously, a few annoying parent traits in myself and thought “she might throw the book at me”. But I did give it to her and hope she benefits – the last thing she would want is a debrief with me.
What I can say is that the book is wise, comforting, constructive, enlightening and filled with practical advice (from dealing with exam stress to friendship groups to sexual relationships to eating disorders to challenging family situations). The tone seems spot on – never preachy and refreshingly open-minded. There is an overall theme of not getting too worked up about things, a life approach we should all embrace, no matter what our age.
Be brave and buy it for your teenage daughters, goddaughters, nieces, grand-daughters. I gather it was sold out in the first couple of weeks of release, so I hope the publishers have reprinted it. This would be the most unexpected and coolest gift from Father Christmas.
Best Book 2022 for Conservationists
Heritage: A History of How We Conserve our Past, by James Stourton, RIBA
It is easy to take our heritage for granted, especially the old buildings and landscape that shape our environment and give so much pleasure. But why what we have survives and what has been lost is a story of actions and mishaps. James Stourton, former Chairman of Sotheby’s and art historian, shows us the heroes who battled to save threatened buildings and open spaces: the Victorian campaigners – Octavia Hill, John Ruskin and William Morris; their twentieth century successors, and not only the famous names but the enthusiasts and volunteers who have revived and rescued canals and railways. Heritage shapes so much of the space we occupy today – sometimes controversially where acquisition of wealth or objects is tainted by slavery or violence – but Stourton’s deft exploration opens our eyes to how we have the heritage we do, and leaves us better understanding what we owe to those who have saved so much from loss and destruction.
Best Book 2022 for Serious Gardeners
English Garden Eccentrics by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Paul Mellon Centre
English Garden Eccentrics is an exercise in biography. Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, gardener and historian, focuses on the lives of some “strikingly unusual individuals” and how they “used landscape to map out their own personal biographies.” As he says in his introduction, “my eccentrics are defined by what they built.” The result is a fascinating and learned study of a series of extraordinary garden-makers, their garden-making often on a grand scale, some of it more civil engineering, than planting and growing.
We start with Thomas Bushell, whose waterworks centring on the great Rock at his estate of Enstone in Oxfordshire, involved displays of wonders including a silver ball that rose and fell on a jet of water. The tunnelling works of the fifth Duke of Portland, including at his great house on Cavendish Square in London, led to his inspiring the character of Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows. There is far too much detail to summarise here, but special delights include Thomas Bland and his Italianate Garden in half an acre of Westmorland, now Cumbria, where he was visited by “all classes from the Earl of Lonsdale down to tramps”, and the mystery house and gloomy garden created in Chelsea by Dr Samuel John Phené. These studies are grounded in rich scholarship and decorated by prints and photographs culled from wide sources. This is a marvellous guided tour of some of the stranger corners of gardening and its psychology.
Best Book for Bibliophiles
The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club, by Christopher de Hamel, Allen Lane
In Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts Christopher de Hamel told the stories of twelve famous and fascinating manuscripts, their origins and journeys to the present. Now he changes the perspective to focus on those gripped by the fascination: twelve remarkable people - collectors and scholars, an illuminator and a forger of manuscripts, eleven men and one woman, ranging from St Anselm in the eleventh century to Bella de Costa Greene in the twentieth. His organising principle is to engage with them as if joined in membership of a club, and to share and explain their excitement, obsession, and desire to hold and handle the surviving handiwork of long-gone illuminators and scribes. Here is the ideal present for any bibliophile, though a buyer with the collecting bug will want to keep their own copy.