Jason Goodwin: Naughty mandarins, the GIs who changed Chinese cooking and an app which almost beats reading

Our columnist picks not just his books of the year, but also his favourite app and YouTube video.

It’s that time of year when the papers round up their suggestions for Christmas presents and writers recommend each other’s books in a process that might best be called Yule log-rolling. Author A praises B and C, B praises A and C, as C praises A and introduces D, who selected A’s slim novel as Book of the Year.

I haven’t written a book this year, unfortunately, but I’m going to join in anyway, kicking off with a book by someone I really don’t know, about a man I’d never heard of. Kitty Hauser’s Bloody Old Britain: O. G. S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Crawford was a curmudgeonly aerial archaeologist for the Ordnance Survey and a brilliant, unsparing photographer, who believed in Socialism, materialism, perfectibility through science and the possibility of understanding the past and forging a rational future. He lived to see his beliefs undermined wholesale by events. The photos survive, and he does, too, through this sympathetic and well-written biography.

“He notices a lurking mandarin with his hand up a concubine’s skirt: ‘The three strands of his beard shine with mischief in the twilight.’”

Soviet man comes under the spotlight in Owen Matthews’s thriller Black Sun, set in a Siberian nuclear-research facility in 1961. The author is a former Moscow correspondent and this, his first novel, is gripping and authentic. Abir Mukherjee’s Death in the East is the fourth in an enjoyable detective series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and his sidekick Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, set in Calcutta under the Raj.

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Eland specialises in travel books, always beautifully turned out, and one of its latest is a collection of essays called So It Goes by the late Nicolas Bouvier, a nomadic Swiss — ‘Every sixth Swiss has chosen to live his life abroad’ — who writes beautiful, discursive and amusing accounts of trips to Aran, Scotland or Japan. At Traquair House, squinting at the decoration on some old Cantonese dinner plates, he notices a lurking mandarin with his hand up a concubine’s skirt: ‘The three strands of his beard shine with mischief in the twilight.’

No such reprobates enter Fuchsia Dunlop’s portrait of China in The Food of Sichuan. It’s much more than a splendid cookbook, dwelling on a fascinating region of south-west China and its spicy and fashionable cuisine. She explains with great clarity the Sichuanese approach to cooking, flavour and texture, in a province that has been a culinary and cultural melting pot, where South American chillies meet native peppercorns and chilli-bean paste is invented by an immigrant from Fujian in the 17th century.

Apparently, GIs introduced deep-frying to Chongqing in the 1930s. The writer shows that, although China changes and absorbs influences from elsewhere, it can maintain a tradition across the generational chasm of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Stepping away from books, incidentally, my video of the year makes a similar point. ‘Repairing Pottery With Metal Staples — still being done in remote places’ lasts only five minutes on YouTube. It shows a Chinese tinker in some wintry village backstreet in northern China mending a large crock with iron staples and no glue and then enjoying a cigarette. All broken crockery used to be repaired this way, before epoxy. I find it very touching.

An app that puts the entire Ordnance Survey on your phone for £24 a year would surely have been in Crawford’s Christmas stocking. I am only just getting to grips with its capabilities. With different scales of map, down to Landranger for walkers, the app shows you how far you’ve blundered off the footpath and where you’re headed.

It can suggest and record routes and even fly you virtually through one in 3D, as well as identifying every landmark in your view. You can download what you need before you lose signal. On the train, too, you can find out what exactly you are looking at. It almost beats reading.