CategoryMathis Ayana

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.

Bookmunch reviews: HHhH and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Here’s my latest couple of reviews for Bookmunch.

Laurent Binet, HHhH (2009/12)

In 1942, Czech Jan Kubiš and Slovak Jozef Gabčík were sent from London and parachuted secretly into Prague. Their mission: to kill Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Gestapo, widely considered in the SS to be the brains behind his superior (‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,’ they’d say – Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or HHhH). Laurent Binet heard this story as a child, and became more and more fascinated by it after going to Slovakia as a teacher, and finding the church crypt where Gabčík and Kubiš hid after their attempt on Heydrich’s life. In this novel, Binet tells the men’s story – but he also chronicles the process of research and writing, and the difficulties of making fiction out of real events.

This is a fascinating approach. Binet may present a scene that reads like historical fiction, then unpick it in the next chapter, asking how much he can really be sure about, what he may have left out or glossed for the shape of his story. It has the effect of creating tension even when you know broadly where the history is heading, because suddenly nothing is certain. Alongside this, as Binet tells of his time researching and writing HHhH, it too takes on something of the quality of fiction – and the lines between what’s real and what’s not are shown to be ever more blurred.

The prose in HHhH is often matter-of-fact rather than colourful. It’s not that Binet doesn’t do colour: there are some gripping passages of narrative as Gabčík’s and Kubiš’s mission reaches its climax (I must add here that Sam Taylor’s translation from the French is superb). Rather, I suspect that the more neutral tone represents Binet’s desire to remain true to the history (perhaps the change of tone towards the end is a recognition that he can’t do so completely). And I don’t find that tone dry, nor Binet’s interjections intrusive; HHhH works well as a whole, both as a tale of history and the pitfalls of telling it.

Any Cop?: If you’re in the mood for a novel which is as interested in examining what it’s doing as in portraying its historical subject, definitely give this a try.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

In the 1920s, young Hattie is one of the many American blacks who will travel from the Southern states to begin new lives in the North. A couple of years after settling in Philadelphia, Hattie has married August and given birth to twins, whom she names Philadelphia and Jubilee in optimism for the years to come – but the children die as babies. She will go on to have many more children who survive, but this is the first sign of the difficulties Hattie and her descendants will face making their way in life throughout the twentieth century.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is structured as a series of episodes, each focusing on one or more of Hattie’s children at points in history ranging from 1925 to 1980, which together create a composite portrait of the family. The emotional scope of the novel is vast, as Ayana Mathis’s characters face desire, betrayal, racism, insanity, and more besides. Perhaps most central to the book are issues of living up to (or failing to meet) the expectations of others, and what binds (or may separate) the members of a family.

Mathis moves between many different viewpoints (third- and first-person) with fluency and ease. Her characters are always vivid, such as Six, whose violent outburst as a child becomes channelled into an unstoppable religious fervour (“The Word collected in his mouth like a pile of pebbles and pushed itself out through his lips”); and Bell, who couldn’t have foreseen herself living in squalor and wasting away from tuberculosis (“She’d taken such pleasure in saying no to [two marriage] proposals…Women who married men like that did nothing but shop for groceries and nearly die of boredom. But here I am dying anyway”).

And through it all is Hattie herself, from age 17 to age 71, who wants the best life for her family, but doesn’t always get it. It would be wrong to say that her determination never flags, or that she sacrifices herself entirely – Mathis’s portrait is too complex to sum up in that kind of way. But Hattie’s personality, and those of her children, fill the book to its very end.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. This is a superb novel of character and situation – and it’s only Ayana Mathis’s debut.

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