CategoryItoh Project

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.

January in Japan: Project Itoh

Project Itoh, Harmony (2008/10)
Translated by Alexander O. Smith

I couldn’t take part in a theme month like January in Japan and not investigate some speculative fiction. The book I’m looking at today comes from Haikasoru, an imprint specialising in English translations of Japanese science fiction and fantasy.

First, in case the author is unfamiliar, some background: Project Itoh (real name Satoshi Ito) was a web designer and writer who died from cancer in 2009 at the age of 34, after many years of battling the diseade. He was working on Harmony whilst being treated in hospital, and questions about health and medical treatment are central to the novel.

After a cataclysmic event that devastated the world’s population, human life has come to be seen as the ultimate resource – so much so that traditonal governmental structures have largely been replaced by ‘admedistrations’, and most adults are injected with WatchMe, a nanotechnology which monitors the body and repairs all damage and illness. To abuse one’s health is, in effect, to vandalise public property.

But children don’t yet have WatchMe, and Tuan Kirie, its inventor’s daughter, has a friend who’s keen to take advantage of that. Miach Mihie wants to rebel, to retain soverignty over her own body – and the ultimate expression of that wish for Miach is to take her own life. She persuades Tuan and another friend to enter into a suicide pact – but only Miach succeeds.

As an adult, Tuan works for the Helix Inspection Agency (“the elite soldiers of lifeism,” p. 41), policing the good health of the world. But she’s partial to the odd cigar or other indulgence, and has a fake WatchMe that lets her get away with it. She can’t remain in glorious isolation forever, though, and invstigating a mass suicide leads Tuan to confront realities that cut uncomfortably close to home.

The great strength of Harmony is its capacity to dramatise questions of personal responsibility versus the common good (and who gets to decide what those terms mean), authoritarian intervention versus individual choice – and ultimately, perhaps, the question of what a life’s purpose should be. Every ‘side’ in the novel has a point, but each view also has its limitations – and the charachters’ actions may subtly turn them into the opposite of what they profess to want.

In some ways, the plot of Harmony may come across as overly simplistic, serving mainly as a vehicle for characters to meet and discuss the novel’s key issues. But it could also be seen as a sign of how deeply Itoh’s characters are enmeshed in a wider system, that what they do runs along these broadly generic lines that they can’t perceive. There’s also an equivalent of HTML for emotions peppered throughout the text (a chunk of narration might be bookended with and , for example. This is a further indication that, however much they may talk of determining their own destinies, Harmony‘s characters are trapped in even deeper ways than they can imagine.

More than any other book I’ve read since… New Model Army, actually, Harmony gave me the grand thrill of contemplating challenging ideas. It has stayed with me since I finished it, and I’m sure I will return to it in future. I’m also sure that I’ll want to read more by Project Itoh.

See also:
Adam Roberts’s review of Harmony for Strange Horizons, which also reflects on the place of medicine in modern science fiction.
The index of my January in Japan posts.

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