CategoryDi Grado Viola

My favourite books of 2013

I love end-of-year list time, because it’s a chance to reflect on the best moments. I read over 150 books this year, which I’m sure must be a record for me, and is certainly unusually high. There were plenty of highlights amongst all those books, but I have managed to sift them down to twelve, my usual number for these lists.

You can see my previous best-of-year lists here: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009. I’ve kept changing the format over the years (ranked or unranked; books from all years, or just the year in question); I’ve settled on including books from all years of publication (as long as I read them for the first time this year); but I think it’s more fun to rank them, so I’m also going to do that. And, taking a leaf from Scott Pack’s book, I’m going to list them in reverse order.

So, here (with links to my reviews) are my Top 12 Books of 2013:

70 acrylic

12. Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011)
Translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds (2012)

Of all the books I read in 2013, this may be the one that most thoroughly depicts the real world as a strange and treacherous landscape. This is a novel about the power of language to shape perception, as it depicts a young woman gradually discovering a new way to look at life (and, just possibly, finding love) when she meets a boy who teaches her Chinese.

11. Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)

This is the third Andrew Kaufman book that I’ve read, and he just gets better and better. Born Weird tells of five siblings who were given ‘blessings’ at birth by their grandmother, which she now plans to undo on her death-bed. Kaufman has a wonderfully light touch with the fantastic: there’s just enough whimsy to illuminate the family story, and there’s real bite when the novel gets serious.

10. Project Itoh, Harmony (2008)
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith (2010)

A searching exploration of self-determination and authoritarianism in a future where remaining healthy is seen as the ultimate public good. One of the most intellectually engaging books I read all year.

9. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)

Chalk this one up as the book I liked that I wasn’t expecting to. A short but powerful character study of a mother becoming distanced from her son as he is swept away by social change and the great tide of story. This would have been my second choice for the Man Booker Prize. (My first choice? That’s further down/up the list.)

twelve tribes8. Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

A wonderfully fluid composite portrait of an African-American family making their way in the North across the twentieth century. Just recalling the range and vividness of this novel makes me want to read the book again.

7. Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)

Ten story-chapters that make the same fictional city seem like ten different places. Communion Town depicts the city as an environment crammed with stories, each vying for the chance to be told. It’s invigorating stuff to read.

6. Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

With one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered all year, this is a nuanced account of a man’s pragmatic rise from childhood poverty to business success – with a keen sense that there are costs to be borne along the way. The second-person narration, which could so easily have been a gimmick, works beautifully.

all the birds

5. Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2013)

It has been really exciting over the last five years to see fine writers of my age-group emerge and establish names for themselves. Evie Wyld is one such writer; her debut was on my list of favourite books in 2009, and now here’s her second novel. Wyld remains a superb writer of place, in her depiction both of the English island where sheep farmer Jake Whyte now lives, and of the Australia that Jake fled. I also love how elegantly balanced this novel is, between the volatile past and the present stability that’s now under threat.

4. Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2011)

Here’s the most memorable character of the year for me: the gloriously ghastly Rosa, who will do anything for her family if it suits her, and will do anything to them if it suits her better. This book is a joy – blackly hilarious, with a bittersweet sting.

3. Shaun Usher (ed.), Letters of Note (2013)

My non-fiction pick of the year. This is a lavish collection of facsimile letters, which is both beautiful to look at, and a window on very personal aspects of history.

2. Jess Richards, Cooking with Bones (2013)

Jess Richards’ work was my discovery of the year: Cooking with Bones is a magical novel that defies easy summary; but it includes a girl who doesn’t know who she wants to be, when all she can do is reflect back the desires of others; supernatural recipes; and one of the most richly textured fictional worlds I’ve come across in a long time. More fool me for not reading Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes, last year; but at least I have the wonderful promise of that book to come.

luminaries1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

Once in a while, a book will come along that changes you as a reader, affects you so deeply that the experience becomes part of who you are. Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal was like that for me, which is why it topped my list of books read in 2009. With The Luminaries, it has all happened again. Several months after reading it, I am in awe at the novel’s range and richness; yet I feel that I’ve still glimpsed only a fraction of what Catton has achieved in the book. I was overjoyed at her Man Booker win, and can only hope that it will bring Catton’s work to the attention of as many people as possible. My wish for all readers is that they find books which mean as much to them as a work like The Luminaries means to me.

Now, what about you? What are your favourite books of the year? Also, if you’ve read any on my list, let me know what you thought.

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

***

As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Finding a way out: Andrew Kaufman and Viola Di Grado

Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)
Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011/2)

I enjoy fantastic literature in all its forms, but to my mind there’s a unique elegance to works that bring the lightest touch of fantasy to the mundane, and do it well. It takes a fine hand to make that slight supernatural element feel essential but not inadequate. Andrew Kaufman has that sort of hand, and his new novel Born Weird might be his most fully achieved work yet.

When the Weird siblings were born, their grandmother Annie gave each a blessing: Richard would keep safe; Abba would have hope; Lucy wouldn’t get lost; Kent would win a fight; and Angie would always forgive. As is so often the way, though, these ‘blessings’ turned out to troublesome. Now, Annie Weird knows that she is about to die, and instructs Angie to bring her brothers and sisters together in the hospital at Annie’s moment of death, when she will undo her work.

Born Weird then becomes a novel about being trapped in your family’s shadow, which manifests in a very tangible way for the Weirds. Angie is angry with her grandmother in the hospital at first, but forgives her as soon as she’s down the corridor – not because she wants to, but because she can’t help it. Likewise, the other Weird siblings have been constrained in some way as to what they could do or who they could be – by both mundane and supernatural phenomena. The dexterity with which Kaufman moves back and forth across that line is a delight to behold.

The author also deploys humour and eccentricity with great effect. When Angie unites with her sister Lucy, she is struck by the latter’s bizarre haircut. We soon find out where it comes from: Nicola, the Weirds’ mother, has dementia, and believes herself to run a hair salon in her care home; her children may be customers, but she no longer knows them. This is the flipside of the supernatural: an all-too-real fantasy world from which there will be no return.

The Weirds’ lives may have a thread of magic, but their familial frictions (and joys) are very much grounded in reality. Born Weird is alive to the strengths and limitations of both approaches, and balances the two wonderfully.

***

Viola Di Grado’s first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated superbly by Michael Reynolds), also has a protagonist who feels trapped by her family situation, and, though there’s nothing overtly supernatural about it, the book has a hallucinatory quality all its own. Our protagonist is Camelia Mega, a young Italian woman who has lived in Leeds ever since her journalist father brought the family over to England a decade earlier – the same father who subsequently left to live with his mistress and then died in a car accident.

Camelia feels stranded in Leeds, and has the sense that winter just drags on and on:

Leeds winters are terribly self-absorbed; each one wants to be colder than its predecessor and purports to be the last winter ever. It unleashes a lethal wind full of the short sharp vowels of northern Englishmen but even harsher, and anyway, neither one of them speaks to me. (p. 9)

Whether it really is always winter in this version of Leeds is beside the point, because Camelia’s perception is what counts here. That paragraph I’ve quoted shows how fluidly her narration slides between the outside world, her inner world, and ruminations on language itself. Camelia has woven herself a kind of net out of language, and she can’t get out – she keeps comparing things to her father’s accident, as though she can’t bring herself to move on from it.

There is a glimpse of light on the horizon, though, in the shape of Wen, a boy from a local clothes shop who takes it upon himself to teach Camelia Chinese. This is a different kind of language for Camelia, where a word can change its meaning entirely depending on the tone in which it’s spoken. This gives her a sense that she can look at (and be in) the world differently, though Camelia doesn’t necessarily find it easy to let herself do so.

The Chinese system of writing with ideograms is also an ironic companion to the way Camelia communicates with her mother Livia: after her husband’s death, Livia became mute; she and Camelia now communicate via looks – though it’s not clear how much of it is really two-way, and there is the sense throughout that Livia mother is living her own life beyond her daughter’s knowledge, which contributes to Camelia’s sense of lacking control. Di Grado paints an incisive portrait of a character caught between holding on and letting go, unsure which is worse.

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