What strikes me most about the Christmas gift-book industry — for industry it surely is, as I can confirm, having toiled on that production line myself — is the incurable optimism of everyone concerned. After all, most of these books are terrible. Some are merely appalling. But the simple act of writing and publishing them is to hope beyond hope that this will be the year for you, the year that your not-very-good book will become a bestseller and buy you everything you want and need, and that no one will notice its manifest flaws until it’s far too late.
Or maybe not; because every year a few decent titles do somehow manage to peek through the clouds. These are the ones that genuinely deserve to be bought, read and loved. Who, for example, would not enjoy Philip Parker’s The A to Z History of London (Collins, £25)? It’s possible that I have very slightly too many histories of the capital on my shelves, but this will definitely be joining them, for it’s one told through illustrations from the much-loved A-Z streetmaps, which have been going since the 1930s.
Parker’s commentary is apposite and ferociously well-informed, but the book’s real pleasure is in poring over the maps, old and new, and seeing what has changed over the years. There are also daft facts aplenty. In the 1930s, for instance, 250,000 umbrellas were handed in every year to lost property offices in London, compared with just 10,000 today.
One of the best Christmas books of the past few years was the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie’s A Field Guide to the English Clergy, which was both hilarious and unusually elegant in conception and execution. The author, who is younger than some shirts I own, is a genuine talent, and he has followed it up with Priests de la Resistance!: The Loose Canons who Fought Fascism in the Twentieth Century (Oneworld, £12.99). There are 15 priests here of various hues who stood up to fascism, most of whom drank like fishes and smoked like beagles. This is a fascinating and entirely benign book, imbued with a surprisingly muscular Christianity and full of stories you may not know but which need to be heard.
Caitlin Doughty is an American funeral director and a 24-carat eccentric who has written and broadcast very entertainingly on her chosen trade. Having read and reviewed one of her books elsewhere, I now know much more about cremation than I would ever wish to. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? (Weidenfeld, £14.99) is a collection of answers to children’s questions about death, and it’s consistently good fun. Questions include ‘Can I keep my parents’ skulls after they die?’; ‘do conjoined twins die at the same time?’; and ‘can we give Grandma a Viking funeral?’ (Unfortunately you can’t, and one reason is that even Vikings didn’t have Viking funerals. That whole thing of a body in flames floating out to sea was invented by Hollywood. Of course it was. Why didn’t I know that?)
There are millions of new quiz and puzzle books out, more than even the most demented quizzer or puzzler would ever need. (Next year, I guarantee, there’ll be none at all.) The best puzzle book I have seen is Dr Gareth Moore’s Chiryoku (Pop Press, £9.99), another collection of Japanese puzzles from Sudoku down, which has its difficulty levels finely calibrated and is very nearly as enthralling as Alex Bellos’s similar book last year.
The best quiz book — but I will own up to being entirely biased on this — is Paul Bajoria’s Round Britain Quiz Book (BBC Books, £12.99). This contains 250 questions from the cult series on Radio 4, on which someone of my own name, height and date of birth regularly appears. Recording the show is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on, and this book is equally good, whether you’re wearing anything or not. What biblical link connects stories by Faulkner to a world-record hurdler and a naive American artist? Answer at the end of this review.
Eleanor Crow’s Shopfronts of London (Batsford, £14.99) is, very simply, a series of illustrations of traditional, small neighbourhood shops to be found in the capital. She walks the streets, finds one she likes, draws it and writes about it. Really, in these difficult times, it’s hard to imagine a more comforting book. It could be accused of being impossibly nostalgic, but so what? Here is a world before Waitrose, when Tesco was a mere twinkle in Jack Cohen’s eye. All the fish and chip shops have appalling punning titles, and my local cheese shop, whose continued existence seems to me conclusive proof that God exists, is there on page 83.
And the answer to the RBQ question? Moses. William Faulkner wrote a book of short stories called Go Down, Moses (which I wouldn’t have got). Ed Moses won the 400 metres hurdles at the Olympics of 1976 and 1984; while Grandma Moses won fame as a naive artist in the early 20th century. I’d have got those two and guessed something around the first. Five out of six points, as Tom Sutcliffe would say.
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