The NRB editors have invited me to nominate the best books I’ve read in 2012. As I explained in a Godfather column earlier this year (NRB 31 June), I keep a list of books I’ve read, with a brief assessment, and I assign each book a mark out of ten. This makes it easy to pick the top four – those selected scored either 8.5 or 9 (space always having to be kept for a genuine 10 to pop up). In the order I read them they are:
Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, by David Cannadine (OUP 2001). This is a history of British imperialism from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. Cannadine’s argument is that a major plank in the imperial program was to reproduce a version of the British social and governmental model in its colonial possessions.
Australian readers’ eyes will be captured by the photograph of Knight of the Thistle, portly Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, tricked out in the ludicrous uniform of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. They might remember his intention to designate the incoming decimal currency as Crowns and Royals. Mercifully common sense prevailed.
While Menzies’ career perfectly exemplifies Carradine’s argument, some of the generalisations may be too sweeping; but, like the famous statement that the British Empire was created ‘in a fit of absence of mind’, this book provides a refreshing change from economic interpretations.
Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream, by Thomas Dormandy (reviewed in NRB, 27 June). This history of the drug is a masterly analysis of everything to do with opium, from its harvesting to its therapeutic and criminal trajectory. It contains a harrowing description of the pains of withdrawal from heroin that makes Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ sound tame.
Dormandy is scathing about the ‘war on drugs’, and insightful about the creative benefits and dangers of mind-altering substances in thumbnail sketches of a number of addicted artists. Australian politicians, routinely supporting expensive and useless prohibitions and penalties, should read this, but probably won’t.
The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh (Little, Brown, 2012). Charles II was the most intelligent of the Stuart kings, not that there was a lot of competition with Charles I and James II in the field. He may have been a merry monarch with his mistresses, illegitimate kids and fondness for display, but he was anything but merry when it came to avenging his runty, dim, deluded father.
As Jordan and Walsh show, Charles and his agents pursued those involved in the trial of Charles I literally to the ends of the earth. Those who stayed at home were easily taken, those who fled to Europe were tracked and in some cases assassinated and two who got America were hunted there.
The penalty for treason was to be hanged, cut down while still alive, then castrated and disembowelled with the entrails being burnt in front of the victim, who might still have a spark of life. It was a cruel age and people flocked to see the spectacle.
John Milton, an outspoken republican, was lucky to escape punishment. Some ‘traitors’ were old and frail and had to be carried to the butcher’s block. Charles II may have witnessed some of the executions. Many of those who had brought about his father’s death spoke bravely for liberty on the scaffold, so that drummers were brought to drown out the words of later victims.
The book provides a fascinating account of the network of intelligence agents employed by the government, some of whom, as is the way with such people, were turncoats. What emerges is a clear demonstration that every subsequent move to limit royal power was a step in the right direction.
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (reviewed in NRB, 5 November). With compelling contemporary crime novels like Mystic River and Shutter Island to his credit, Lehane has shown his versatility with A Given Day (2009), set in Boston in the early years of the twentieth century, and again with this book set in the 1920s. The opening scene, in which a man waits for the cement to set around his feet in a tub aboard a boat out in the Gulf of Mexico, owes something to Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate but resonates powerfully through the book.
Lehane’s writing is strongly cinematic, without losing subtlety or the ability to make a reader sit back and admire a crisp piece of dialogue, a fine physical description or the perfect depiction of a character.
I’m betting Live by Night will be filmed and I know I’ll be watching for Lehane’s next book.