CategoryUsher Shaun

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.

Reading round-up: books for Christmas presents

This isn’t meant to be a guide to Christmas gift ideas as such (for that, let me direct you to Kim’s excellent series of posts over on Reading Matters). It’s more that I’ve read a few books lately which, it struck me, would make good Christmas presents; so I thought I’d put them together into a blog post, and add in some other titles that I reviewed earlier in the year.

Non-Fiction

Letters of Note, ed. Shaun Usher

This huge, lavishly illustrated collection of letters (based on the website of the same name) is an ideal gift for anyone interested in the personal side of history, or who likes letters and books as objects. Read more about it in my original review.

Wordsmiths & Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal

This is an illustrated travelogue of significant places in the history of the English language in Britain. I haven’t seen the finished book, as I read a proof version when I reviewed it; but I’ve no doubt that it will look beautiful.

Fred's WarFred’s War by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson’s grandfather Fred was a medical officer of the 1st battalion Cameronians during World War One. Although photography was banned on the front line, Fred and several other officers had cameras with them, and took photographs of their lives at war. Davidson uses these images to tell the story of the 1st Cameronians during the year that Fred was a serving officer. It’s a vivid and intimate account; there’s a real sense of the war gradually coalescing around the men as they march through France. Though Davidson refers to the photographs, he doesn’t caption them, which adds to the sense of this being an unfolding story for the men involved. Fred’s War gives a personal portrait of the conflict which is not quite like anything I’ve come across before.

Girl from Station X

The Girl from Station X by Elisa Segrave

Here’s another book based around personal wartime accounts, this time the diaries of Elisa Segrave’s mother Anne, who was stationed at Bletchley Park during World War Two. Again, it’s a fascinating glimpse into history, seeing Anne move from her privileged girlhood world into her wartime career; but this is Elisa’s story as much as Anne’s. Segrave describes how Anne’s diaries revealed to her a side of her mother that she had never known, and enabled her perhaps to understand Anne as she had not previously been able to. This double story is what particularly intrigues about The Girl from Station X.

Fiction

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Yes, I know: any excuse to enthuse about The Luminaries. But it is just the sort of big hardback novel that would make a great Christmas gift, especially for readers who may have been undecided about trying it out for themselves (it may take them well into the new year to read it, too).

If not The Luminaries, then Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity may also fit the bill (I have heard great things about both, but haven’t read them, so I can’t give a personal recommendation).

Crystal MirrorThe Crystal Mirror by Tim Malnick and Katie Green

From three long books to a much shorter one. This is a crowd-funded collection of “timeless tales for children and grown-ups alike”, written by Tim Malnick and illustrated by Katie Green. The five stories are all about characters changing their outlook on life to find a way forward, from the painter imprisoned in a bare tower room, to a bat fascinated by daylight. Malnick’s prose has the rhythms of a classic fairytale, and Green’s illustrations are gorgeous. I may not be quite the intended audience for The Crystal Mirror, but I found the book absolutely charming.

Non-Fiction about Fiction

Novel Cure

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Subtitled “An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, this book has suggestions for reading to help alleviate a variety of ailments. Some are quite tongue-in-cheek (David Vann’s Caribou Island as a cure for enthusiasm with DIY; Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson to treat fear of doing your tax return); others more serious (Wuthering Heights to cure a desire to seek vengeance; Mrs Dalloway to tackle that Monday morning feeling). But the entries are always written with wit (I especially love the entries which spoof the style of the book being recommended; my favourite is the one for House of Leaves) and enthusiasm. After reading The Novel Cure, or even just dipping into it, you’ll almost certainly have some new books that you want to try. Now, what’s the cure for an exponentially increasing to-read pile..?

“There is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (2013)
Shaun Usher, Letters of Note (2013)
Kressmann Taylor, Address Unknown (1938)

A few weeks ago I read Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall, which argues quite convincingly that there are analogues of social media (that is, ways of sharing information through personal networks) going back 2,000 years in history. From that point of view, there’s more continuity between how we communicate now, and how we used to, than one might suppose. But I’ve had cause to think about these issues again after reading a couple of new books from Canongate which are all about the history of letters. I’ve been wondering whether there is something unique about letters that might potentially be lost.

totheletterSimon Garfield has written a number of acclaimed non-fiction books (including 2010’s Just My Type, a history of typography, which I have been meaning to read for ages). His new book, To the Letter, is subtitled ‘A journey through a vanishing world’; so we know that this isn’t going to be just a factual account but – well, a love letter to letters. ‘Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,’ says Garfield (p. 19), telling of how he became intrigued by the story of a magician named Val Walker, after discovering a set of Walker’s correspondence for sale at an auction. There are similar glimpses of different lives and stories throughout To the Letter, as Garfield weaves together the history of postal delivery, the contents of letter-writing manuals, and notable correspondents from throughout the centuries, all into a fascinating tapestry.

If, like me, you have ever enjoyed writing or receiving letters (or both!), there will be plenty to delight you in Garfield’s book. But also, there will almost certainly be something to cause a feeling of regret and disappointment; for me it was learning that the Postman Pat theme has been changed  so he brings ‘parcels to your door,’ rather than letters. (Now I look into this further, it seems that the change came about because the new series is about Pat running a parcel delivery service, which alters my view a little, though I suppose it’s still illustrative of a general trend.) The thing is, though, that I’m really just being nostalgic for the trappings of the physical letter here; if I want to get to the heart of what letters really represent, I think I need to go deeper than that.

Tom Standage’s first example of historical social media in Writing on the Wall is Cicero staying in contact with Rome by copying and sharing letters, some of which were intended to be public documents. Garfield also has a chapter on the Romans, but he make a distinction between the public (in a sense performative) correspondence of a Cicero, and the letters of someone like Pliny the Younger, which were generally more private.  The sense of letters as a private and personal space comes through time and again in To the Letter, perhaps never more so than in the wartime correspondence which intersperses the book. Chris Barker (an RAF communications officer stationed in the south Mediterranean) began writing home to his friend Bessie Moore (who translated Morse code messages for the Foreign Office) in 1943; as time went on, their friendship turned to love – and the expression of that love as we see it in their letters is deeply affecting. I was as captivated by the tale unfolding in their correspondence as I could have been by any fictional story.

Perhaps this is what the personal letter fundamentally represents: a space for an extended, reflective engagement between two individuals. This is something that can also be accomplished by email, of course; but I do think that the act of physically writing a letter encourages it more. Either way, Simon Garfield’s book leaves me appreciating letters anew, and thinking that perhaps I should write more of my own.

***

lettersofnote

The quotation heading this post is from Pliny (as mentioned by Garfield); I think it’s correct, but I was also struck on reading To the Letter (especially the Barker-Moore correspondence) at how letters can turn history inside-out, can give a view that one might not see otherwise. That feeling was brought to mind again when I read Letters of Note, a book based on Shaun Usher’s website of the same name. This book was published in association with the crowdfunding site Unbound; so that’s an online service used to facilitate a printed book derived from a website that celebrates paper correspondence – phew! Letters of Note reproduces the text of 125 letters, often alongside images of the actual documents. It’s a big, beautiful object.

It is also wonderful to read. There are the amusing entries, such as the young Queen Elizabeth II sending President Eisenhower her recipe for drop scones; or an eight-year-old boy’s letter to Richard Nixon (who was recovering from pneumonia at the time) urging him to ‘be a good boy and eat your vegetables like I had too!!’. There are letters which, as I said earlier, open up history in a way that only personal documents can: Francis Crick’s letter to his young son describing the newly-discovered DNA molecule; or a Japanese lady’s farewell to her samurai husband, whom she was sure would fall in battle. There’s the poignant and the inspiring, the romantic and the furious. I could go on, but Letters of Note is something you really have to experience for yourself. It’s difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the power and value of written correspondence.

***

addressunknownNow seems a good time to talk about what I’d imagine to be one of the most powerful epistolatory stories in the English language. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown was first published in Story magazine in 1938; I read it this year in a stand-alone volume published by Souvenir Press. It takes the form of a correspondence between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American gallery owner; and his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse, who has recently returned to Germany as the tale begins, in 1932. At first, Schulse is hopeful for the future of his country under Hitler, but also expresses his reservations to Eisenstein. Schulse’s attitude soon hardens, though, and he orders Eisenstein to stop writing. The American attempts to appeal to his old friend’s better nature, but Schulse will have none of it – until events take a tragic turn, and the letters become weapons.

I think it’s the epistolatory form that really makes this story; Taylor brings together the personal and performative  aspects of letter-writing, using both to cutting effect. We see the changing nature of the two men’s relationship, and sense the deep personal connection that Eisenstein wishes were still there (and that letters can forge and capture so well). But I’m also struck by how much the letters in Address Unknown don’t show – how they filter out certain aspects of their thoughts. I’m thinking especially of the ending, where the letters advance implacably (you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean), and we have to infer what must be in their writer’s mind. Letters may be able to forge a connection between two people, but Taylor’s story shows how they might also sever one irrevocably.

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