How many picked Jonathan Franzen? And who's the only one to recommend Tony Blair's autobiography? Writers and public figures tell the Observer about their favourite books of 2010
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Fourth Estate) was head and shoulders above any other book this year: moving, funny, and unexpectedly beautiful. I missed it when it was over. Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat (Virgin) was like its author: fascinating, precise, opinionated, brilliant. I loved Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Faber). Never has anyone made me feel so close to the terrifying and occasionally exhilarating insanity that is stand-up comedy.
I enjoyed – if that can be the word – The Big Short by Michael Lewis (Allen Lane), an account of how a group of people contrived to bring the banking system to its knees, to take much of your money and many of your jobs, to condemn your children to a life of debt – and got away unpunished, with millions in their own back pockets. It's in the interest of bankers to pretend that their work is too technical for lay people to follow, but in an account such as Michael Lewis's, it's really not that difficult. It's quite clear what they did. Harder to understand is how they got away with it.
Editor, the Lady
Hitch-22 (Atlantic) by Christopher Hitchens is like a tin of Pedigree Chum: solid, meaty nourishment. Hitchens is incapable of writing a boring sentence. When he asks himself what he'd like to be different if he had to be the Hitch all over again, he answers: "more money, an even sturdier penis, slightly different parents, a briefer latency period". I cried several times during Deborah Devonshire's memoir Wait for Me! (John Murray), mainly at deaths: sister Nancy, brother Tom, and her three stillborn children. The calibre of events, cast and author could hardly be higher and Debo has gracefully potted an extraordinary life (though ordinary to her) with kindness and humour.
Historian and politician
Putting his little local difficulty behind him, Orlando Figes showed in Crimea: The Last Crusade (Allen Lane) why he is such a stellar historian. As ever, it mixes strong narrative pace, a grand canvas and compelling ideas about current geopolitical tensions. In The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent (Frances Lincoln), Matthew Rice, partner to top potter Emma Bridgewater, provides a clarion call to the "Five Towns" to stop knocking down the bottle kilns and pot banks and start preserving one of the civic gems of England. New Labour never had much time for history, but since the end of office, you can't stop them writing the stuff. Peter Mandelson's The Third Man (HarperPress) has the most authentic feel in a genuine account of his role in, out, in, out and in government.
When I fought the last election I never imagined I would be in cabinet with Nick Clegg – and certainly never thought I would be recommending Tony Blair's A Journey (Hutchinson). But he has done politicians a favour by reinventing the art of the memoir in a way not achieved since Alan Clark's Diaries. Funny and self-deprecating, they are also deeply manipulative beneath the surface. His best advice to ministers? Don't make enemies deliberately as you'll make plenty accidentally.
I once tried to write a prose memoir but couldn't find the right tone of voice. Three authors who did published books this year. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic), Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (Picador), and My Father's Fortune: A Life by Michael Frayn (Faber) are all beautifully written. On my summer holiday I was surprised to find myself enjoying a fat book about the Soviet economy. Francis Spufford's Red Plenty (Faber) mixes fact and fiction, with the benefit of scrupulous notes to tell the reader which is which. Without the notes I would have found it frustrating. With them it's terrific.
Civil rights campaigner
Gareth Peirce is such a private person that despite a momentous career (representing the Birmingham Six, Lockerbie families and Guantánamo detainees among others), Dispatches from the Dark Side (Verso) is her first book. It is a timely reminder of the darker side of lawlessness in freedom's name. The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley (Penguin) is an impartial journalistic examination of New Labour by one of Britain's finest political commentators.
Poet and critic
Hampton on Hampton (Faber) is a series of interviews with the playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton that amounts to an artistic autobiography. Intellectually intimate, unpretentious, informative, entertaining, anecdotal, fearless, funny, serious. Simon Armitage, the best poet of his generation, has produced a book of prose-poems, Seeing Stars (Faber), full of compelling, quirky, inventive, surreal tales. In January, I read his incomparable translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This autumn, I was charmed by the comedy of these spellbinding dispatches.
I enjoyed Chef by Jaspreet Singh (Bloomsbury). Its themes of food and war and love and poetry form a series of intricate tightropes that the author treads skilfully, bringing us, in a short book, a lot of pleasures. I read Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport (Profile) with smiles of recognition, nods of approval and sighs of admiration. Most people can't wait to get away from airports. I'm very glad he stayed.
Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Chatto & Windus) pretty much delivers on the promise of the title, and certainly delivers everything you'd ask from a literary biography. Bakewell recognises that the life of a major writer extends way beyond his death: Montaigne is nearly 500 years old now and, given that he invented the personal essay, as influential as he's ever been. There must have been some doubt in the minds of the Booker judges as to whether Francis Spufford's Red Plenty (Faber) is a novel. I can think of no other explanation of why it wasn't even longlisted. It's a breathtakingly researched and brilliantly imagined picture of life in Khrushchev's USSR. Fictional farmers and economists rub shoulders with real politicians; Spufford cuts between them like Robert Altman might have done, if he'd ever been drawn to five year plans.
I was hesitant to read Lisa Moore's February (Chatto & Windus) because it didn't sound fun to read about decades of grief, the aftermath of a husband lost in the sinking of an oil rig off Newfoundland. But the world is so carefully observed it becomes something other than what it is. Rose Tremain's Trespass (Chatto & Windus) offers a similarly gorgeous evocation of the external world and interior life but coupled to grand themes: the fall of the old house, the broken inheritance, rivalry and betrayal. In non-fiction, Melanie Thernstrom's The Pain Chronicles (North Point Press) explores the history and meaning of pain.
Producer and director
In Finishing the Hat (Virgin) Stephen Sondheim collects the lyrics from the first half of his career, with a fierce running commentary on them that is as eloquent an insight into the creative process as I've ever read. He writes utterly fair and sometimes unsparing appreciations of the work of his peers and predecessors; and his reports from the Broadway front are irresistible. The theatre book of the decade.
Broadcaster and novelist
In 2005, after 50 years of married life, poet Dannie Abse's wife, Joan, was killed in a car crash. His grief was torrential. He turned to what he knew – words, and how to shape them into poetry. His 2008 book, The Presence, was a prose account of his loss. This year's Two for Joy: Scenes from Married Life (Hutchinson) charts in some 50 poems the progress and evolution of their love and their married life together. I love their delicacy, their exquisite taste, and the sense of their sustained happiness together. This year I discovered Geoff Dyer with his essay collection Working the Room (Canongate). Once I caught his style, casually borne erudition, gentle self-disparagement, and ideas about most things on earth, I was hooked. Keynes on the Wireless (Palgrave Macmillan) shows that the economist's views on finance, state planning, the bank rate, debt, tariffs are by no means out of date. But what gives me most pleasure is his prose – lucid, exact and well-mannered.
Observer political commentator
New Labour's personalities have been accused of producing memoirs that are self-serving. That's slightly unfair if only because, whether they meant to or not, they come out of them so badly. This year's crop have been execrably written (Tony Blair being the worst offender) and utterly unreliable as history (the preening and dissimulating Peter Mandelson being the worst culprit). For a memoir that is unflinchingly candid about both the personal and the political, intensely moving about his tribulations and triumphs, awesomely lacking in vanity and suffused with insight, I recommend Nelson Mandela's Conversations with Myself (Macmillan). This is not so much a book as a scrapbook: a collection of extracts from diaries, letters to family and friends, notes and transcripts. That adds authenticity to a book that breaks the heart and then makes it sing.
The books I value most are those I return to again and again. Such has been the case with The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury). It has intrigued, inspired, amused and occasionally infuriated me all year, and will for years to come.
Two novels filled me with writer's envy, and neither got the accolades it deserved. Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed (Viking) explores a mysterious, undiagnosable illness with the pace and daring of a thriller. But ultimately it's a compassionate meditation on the frailty of human minds and bodies. Subtly similar in theme is David Flusfeder's A Film by Spencer Ludwig (Fourth Estate). A clapped-out film-maker and his garrulous, elderly father leave a hospital appointment in New York City and decide on a whim to keep on driving. It's a road movie, it's a tender dialogue between parents and children, it's wonderfully embarrassing about how artists think about their art, but it also has the mark of great fiction: it feels like it has existed forever.
This year has seen three remarkable debuts by Indian non-fiction writers. Curfewed Night (HarperPress) is Basharat Peer's memoir of growing up in Kashmir under the shadow of the uprising. His revelations, especially about the indiscriminate use of electric shock torture on the genitals of a whole generation of Kashmiri youths, needs to be read by anyone who wishes to understand why the valley remains so restless. Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing (Penguin India) is a sassy, sensitive and moving account of one bar girl's journey spiralling down through the circles of hell that are Bombay's sex industry. Mimlu Sen's The Honey Gatherers (Rider), about her travels with the Bauls, the wandering troubadours of Bengal, is a mixture of love story, travelogue, book of devotion and work of ethnography and theology.
I loved Letters to Monica, a collection of letters from Philip Larkin to his girlfriend, Monica Jones (Faber). Not only are they funny, sad and true; they are also charmingly replete with 1950s detail, evoking a world of curry-powder concoctions, rasping gas fires, and long but civilised train journeys. Nothing to Envy (Granta Books), Barbara Demick's book about real lives in famine-stricken North Korea, shows what good journalism can still do when it tries. Two novels were unfairly overlooked: Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett (Tuskar Rock), a gripping and beautifully written tale of what happens when greedy corporate America collides with a stubborn old woman; and The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison (Chatto & Windus), which is about curdled male friendship. It's a page-turner: creepy, and uncomfortably close to home.
The iPad has revolutionised my habits. I must have read 30 novels on it this year; usually I read two or three. I've loved Lee Child's Jack Reacher series for thrills, including his most recent, Worth Dying For (Bantam), but my book of the year is A Book Of Jean's Own! by Jean Teasdale (Griffin). Jean is the Onion's resident humour columnist: a childless, overweight, but psychotically optimistic fortysomething who lives with her boozy husband and spends what little money she has on collectable dolls and costumes for her cats, who both hate her. It's a comic masterpiece.
Chancellor of Oxford University
The Rule of Law by the late Tom Bingham (Allen Lane) is the book of the year that I am likely to read again and again. In his beautifully written book the former senior law lord gives a succinct definition, demolishing, for example, the alleged legal case for the Iraq war in a few devastating pages. Every MP who can read should be given it for Christmas. The most gob-smacking book was Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster). Why on earth does administration after administration allow Woodward to tell the inside story of the often gruesome process of decision-making in the White House?
Observer film critic
My favourite movie book of the year is Susan Compo's exuberant Warren Oates (University Press of Kentucky), a biography of that fine character who appeared in some of the greatest films of our time. Appropriately subtitled "A Wild Life", its setting is the less glamorous side of Hollywood where Oates, a man of modesty, ambition and probity, lived recklessly. Paul Bowles's Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-93 (Sort of Books) is a handsomely produced, endlessly delightful original paperback by one of the most singular authors of the 20th century. A scholarly work as riveting as a detective story, James Shapiro's Contested Will (Faber) judiciously looks at the evidence, motives and psychology that lead many otherwise sane people to believe Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays of Shakespeare.
Author and journalist
This is a good moment for Europeans to remind themselves of their "roots". Hywel Williams's Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Quercus), is a magisterial survey of the great European emperor, of the Latin culture of his court and the political extent of his domains. Andrew Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (Allen Lane) is an acute piece of art history. Painting after painting which you thought you "knew" will be enlivened for you by this fascinating evocation.
To call Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary (Yale University Press) an account of brain hemispheres is to woefully misrepresent its range. McGilchrist, a former Oxford English don and now a consultant psychiatrist, persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative "master", the right. I like everything that Richard Mabey writes and Weeds (Profile) is no exception. The unpretentious prose is a tonic, the subject matter arcane and fascinating. And unlike many gardeners Mabey is not a zealot. He is indulgent to his weeds whose expansionist habits, he suggests, most closely resemble ours.
Having blessed us with Liar's Poker, the classic portrait of 1980s Wall Street, Michael Lewis returned this year with The Big Short (Allen Lane). This is a depressingly revealing tale of a small herd of mavericks who cleaned up big-time after the Gordon Gekkos de nos jours Cuisinarted America's subprime mortgage loan-a-thon into a toxic timebomb. Read it and weep.
I loved Bill Clegg's Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Jonathan Cape) because of its unflinching honesty. The author and main character is a middle-class literary agent by day and crackhead at night. Then his two worlds collide to devastating consequences. There is a passage in it that is among the most tender and desperate I have ever read. It is also extremely funny.
Roddy Lumsden's Identity Parade (Bloodaxe) is a valuable record of the best new British and Irish poets of the past 15 years. Of Mutability (Faber) by Jo Shapcott is powerfully moving for the way she transmutes illness into urgent poetry about recovery and joy. In White Egrets (Faber), Derek Walcott is a wandering soul around the old world. This is his most immediate collection for decades and my favourite poetry book for ages.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre) by David Mitchell is as enjoyable as a Patrick O'Brian novel and much better written. It's a brilliantly imagined journey through 17th-century Japan and Holland which is moving, thoughtful and unexpectedly funny. Ill Fares the Land (Allen Lane) by Tony Judt is his political testament and ought to be essential reading for any politician and every voter trying to imagine how society could be improved. Judt's recent death robbed the world of a great political moralist as well as a brilliant contemporary historian.
Journalist and author
"What strange creatures dons are," Hugh Trevor-Roper once wrote to me in a letter about some storm in a college teacup. He might have been talking about himself as well as the weirder colleagues, especially at Peterhouse, Cambridge, described in Adam Sisman's highly readable Hugh Trevor-Roper (Weidenfeld). Although loath to call any of them a "book of the year", there is no doubting the importance of A Journey (Hutchinson) by Tony Blair, The Third Man (CollinsPress) by Peter Mandelson and The New Machiavelli (Bodley Head) by Jonathan Powell. Whatever one thinks of the coalition, no honest person who reads these books, as well as Andrew Rawnsley's hair-raising The End of the Party (Penguin), can doubt that the 13 years before last May saw the nastiest, dirtiest and altogether worst British government of our lifetime.
I really enjoyed two novels – Paul Auster's Sunset Park (Faber) and Bella Pollen's The Summer of the Bear (Mantle) – and I'm currently immersed in Life Times (Bloomsbury), the definitive collection of Nadine Gordimer's short stories, most of them written during the apartheid period yet still relevant for their acute observations on what it is to be human. Half the Sky (Virago), by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, makes a convincing case for why the education and emancipation of women is as urgent a cause today as the fight against slavery was in the 19th century.
I fell in love with two American first novels. Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel (Harper) is the gorgeously written story of a marriage over several decades, and it takes place in Miami, Florida, a place so vividly depicted you feel like you've travelled there while reading. If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (HarperPerennial) is about a college graduate who goes to teach English in Japan, thinking she'll end up in Tokyo and instead landing in a rural nuclear power plant town. It's funny in a sharp, dark, painfully true way.
It's been too long since Candia McWilliam's last book, and What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (Jonathan Cape) explains why. She has lost none of her grace of expression and freshness of thought. A remarkable and brave book. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton) was a real revelation of the remaining possibilities of fiction. They were often very funny, and not just in the usual experimental-fiction way. At the other end of the scale of expansiveness, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Fourth Estate) effortlessly outshone every other novel on the autumn lists. The best English novel of the year was Martin Amis's warm, rueful, resonant The Pregnant Widow (Jonathan Cape).
Novelist and essayist
The Good Soldiers (Atlantic), David Finkel's account of a battalion of US soldiers in Iraq, in the midst of "the surge", begins as reportage and ends up embodying Ezra Pound's definition of literature: news that stays news. The German poet Durs Grünbein's book of essays, The Bars of Atlantis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is a wide-ranging and deep exploration of his passions, intellectual formation and sense of creative vocation – all conveyed with a kind slouched grandeur that I found simultaneously irritating and quite irresistible. 2010 will also be remembered as the year when, thanks to a single book, the literary merit of that somewhat neglected beast, the comic novel, could no longer be denied: Sam Lipsyte's relentlessly and hilariously brilliant The Ask (Old Street Books).
Britain tends to get the architecture it deserves. As the regeneration boom bites the dust, Owen Hatherley's sardonically titled A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso) is a useful and entertaining guide to the state of our built environment. Hatherley is an unrepentant modernist, which makes his polemic all the more challenging. Bret Easton Ellis is often dismissed as a fashionable provocateur, but Imperial Bedrooms (Picador) is a dissection of the moral wasteland of LA that deserves comparison with Nathanael West. Herta Müller was unknown to me before she was awarded the Nobel prize. The Appointment (Portobello) is a strange, lyrical and disturbing allegory of life in Ceausescu's Romania.
Author and critic
Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns (Thames & Hudson) is a spectacular debut by a gifted and versatile cultural historian – a study of Englishness that roves from literature to art, music and film as it travels around a rural England of gargoyled churches, eccentric houses and pebbly beaches. A beautiful book; also, with its bucolic end-papers and its cornucopian illustrations, a beautiful piece of book-making.
The most interesting biography was that of the witty, cosmopolitan and controversial Ernest Gellner (1925-1995), philosopher, anthropologist and all-purpose social thinker – Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography by John A Hall (Verso). Few books have more successfully combined the study of personal life and intellectual development in the turbulent setting of the 20th century. Alessandro Barbero's The Anonymous Novel: Sensing the Future Torments, from a new publisher, Vagabond Voices, situated on the Isle of Lewis, is a vivid novel about Russians coping with the transition from communism to capitalism and combines echoes of Bulgakov with elements of a thriller. Strangely, it was written by a successful medieval historian.
Journalist and broadcaster
David Mitchell is an astonishing and inventive writer who just keeps getting better. I found The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre) absorbing and compelling. The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury), Howard Jacobson's deserved Booker winner, is a novel of enormous scope, humour and intelligence. I also loved Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working with Your Hands (Viking), which explains why humanity's need to use its hands goes beyond just gardening or knitting, but is wired into our DNA.
Novelist and former political adviser
My favourite novel of the year was On Black Sisters' Street (Vintage) by Chika Unigwe. I was drawn to it first by the beautiful picture on the cover, of the back of a stunning black woman's body. Inside is the haunting story of four African women trafficked to Belgium and working there as prostitutes. Sometimes a novel can tell you more than any amount of documentary journalism. On the non-fiction front, I am enjoying, Revolutionaries (William Heinemann) by Jack Rakove. He takes a fresh look at some of the key figures in the American revolution.
Russell T Davies
The last 100 pages of Stephen King's Under the Dome (Hodder & Stoughton) are the most vivid and ferocious thing he's ever written. I've also just finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate), which I thought was beautiful.
Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Fourth Estate) is something of a slow burn where The Corrections was like a punch to the stomach, but each is a cat's cradle of family life, and if the measure of a good book is its afterburn, Freedom is a great book. You can't keep Nigel Slater down. Tender, Volume II: A Cook's Guide to the Fruit Garden (Fourth Estate) is a companion piece to Tender: Volume I, and is equally inviting. Only he could have a recipe entitled A deeply appley apple crumble. The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Jonathan Cape) is Zachary Mason's first book, and it is a beautifully imagined, and written, retelling of passages from Homer.
Journalist and author
Faced with the prospect of death, two writers produced great testaments of faith in humanity. Seamus Heaney's Human Chain (Faber), written after a stroke, wonderfully evokes the power of memory and of social connection. He has a beautiful line about "love that's proved by steady gazing/ Not at each other but in the same direction". Tony Judt's dying words in Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet (both Heinemann) make the same connection between memory and society. Judt calls us to gaze in the same directions – back to a notion of austerity as a form of public seriousness and forward to a renewal of equality and mutual care. Emma Donoghue's moving novel Room (Picador) also deals with a notion of austerity and shows how, with love and imagination, a nutshell can become an infinite space.
The most stressful read this year has been Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party (Viking), in particular where former tabloid journalists bully secret service professionals to make the case for war in a dossier to other tabloid journalists. Totally grubby. Rob Young's Electric Eden (Faber) was an eye-opening account of modern British music's conversation with the rural. It has been too easy to knock this kind of music out of embarrassment more than anything else, but this epic book will hopefully redress this tendency.
A good year for true originals: Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability (Faber) is that surprising thing, an uplifting book about mortality. In not being afraid to look death in the eye, Shapcott's poems are life-affirming. Alasdair Gray has broken the mould again. His memoir, A Life in Pictures (Canongate), travels right to the heart of his dark, turbulent and chaotic imagination, and lights up a path through his life; it also makes the reader imagine her own life in pictures. Pascale Petit's What the Water Gave Me (Seren) gives us 50-odd poems in the voice of the Mexican original Frida Kahlo. Pascale's poems are as fresh as paint, and make you look all over again at Frida and her brilliant and tragic life.
The novel that made me laugh most this year – a year in which laughs have been on the infrequent side – was Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe (Faber). As with all high comedy the book has an underlying sadness, but it is the good humour that stays with the reader. In non-fiction I liked Simon Winder's Germania (Picador), a book that does a lot to fill the gap in our consciousness about one of the world's most interesting countries. I also liked Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Pantheon), a thoughtful and unscandal-seeking book about this fascinating new art form.
Around September, everyone started saying that Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate) was the book of the year, which was a relief as I'd been fairly slack in keeping up; now I could just cut to the chase and read that. Much as it would be nice to counteract the hype, it had me absolutely hooked. I know some people have criticised it for being about neurotic middle-class people, but as a neurotic middle-class person, I can honestly say that this isn't a problem at all.
Writer and journalist
At a time when some re-convincing of the freshness and vigour of the American genius is needed, The Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press) helps renew our faith. Most of it is dictated, the rich language a reminder of the origins of that inimitable mix of the intellectual and colloquial in the best American writing. Religiosity gets a slow roasting, as does the Rousseauesque religion of the sentiments. For me it brought back the idea of laughter as "sudden glory", maybe because of that American trick of making you identify somehow with their culture.