Christmas List 2010
This anthology is the eagerly awaited fruit of Spread the Word’s initiative to support talented poets with black and Asian backgrounds. It can be read, initially, almost at one sitting, and the effect is potent, the poets so individualistic and exciting, their cultural roots and linguistic/poetic influences so diverse. The raw material is often unsettling, raw indeed, its transformation into poetry remarkable. The riches in store include Karen McCarthy Woolf’s flaring, knife-edged poems on the death of ‘Otto McCarthy Woolf, born and died 7 August 2007’, Mir Mahfuz Ali’s revival of the Bengali tradition in his fresh, sensuous poetry of witness, Malika Booker’s astonishing, traumatic ‘Pepper Sauce’, and Seni Seneviratne’s dramatic, perfectly pitched ‘Sitting for the Mistress’ in the voice of the black child servant in a painting by Pierre Mignard. Introductions to the poets by their distinguished mentors are an added attraction of this exceptional book.
This year I was a judge on the Orange Award for New Writers (2010) and was delighted that we chose Irene Sabatini’s first novel The Boy Next Door as the winner. It is set in post-independence Zimbabwe and the complex layers of life there, from state-sanctioned violence to notions of race and racism, are refracted through the relationship between Lindiwe, who is ‘coloured’, and Ian who is a white ‘Rhodie’. Their relationship is fascinating, unorthodox, unpredictable, and Ian is an unforgettable fictional character who fizzes with energy and leaps off the page. This is a powerful, triumphant and life-enhancing read.
White Egrets, by Derek Walcott
Faber, London, 2010, hbk, 96pp, £12.99, 9780571254736, www.faber.co.uk
I would recommend Derek Walcott’s White Egrets which I feel is his best book of poems for some time. The expanded sonnet quality gives an urgency and a directness to the mellifluous poems about rootlessness, about the agony of sexual desire, about ageing and about the post-empire symbols of hope. This is a remarkably wide-ranging mature masterpiece that shows Walcott’s commitment to the moment.
An absorbing story simply told. Chowringee has that essential quality of a good novel: the capacity to escape, and help the reader escape, time. You want to turn the pages, but you do not want the pages to end. Translated with care so that the words are fresh and the world of the novel is completely alive, despite being written over forty years ago.
First published in 1962 in Bengali, the novel became a bestseller and was made into a film and a play, but remained below the radar for the anthologies of Indian literature in recent years. At last now published in English and available to readers like me.
Christian Campbell’s début poetry collection, Running the Dusk, is remarkable for many things – its command of form, its wit, its attention to the precise anatomy of words and its inventiveness – but, for me, it stands out because of Campbell’s unselfconscious ease with a range of linguistic registers that originate as much from ragga, dub, soul and calypso as from the so-called English classics. His terrain and aesthetic is unerringly Caribbean, but in the most expansive application imaginable; Campbell’s Caribbean embraces Latin America, it cradles Neruda and Lorca as well as the Walcott who ‘sucks his teeth and grumbles: / History’ in the poem ‘A Dream of Fire’.
Shape- and time-shifting (the work of dusk) are the themes of this effervescent collection, and my favourite poem of a brilliant bunch, ‘Masquerade’, with its sly slant rhymes and equally sly sonnet-baiting of a Bajan actress gone white Brit, beautifully illustrates these themes. ‘Masquerade’ ends with the following lines: ‘Do you see my colours, my dazzling terror? // Watch my style, my chalkface charade, rude / work harvesting hymns. Break way. Look good.’
That is precisely what Running the Dusk does – it dazzles, it’s stylish, it’s ‘rudical,’ it breaks away from convention and, damn, it looks good doing it.
Lit-chat in 2010 was dominated by novels and current affairs books. Some of them were good, but their dominance is symptomatic of a time when ideas have to be easily digestible. Serious incursions into thought are relegated to obscure university publishers. Even books for a lay audience that engage seriously with issues are difficult to find. It is in this context that Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism is my choice for the best book of the year. Written for a lay readership, it nevertheless engages seriously with sexism, refutes some common myths of biological determinism and illustrates how sexism mutates and survives – not just in places like Saudi Arabia, where blindness is required to deny its existence, but also in places like Denmark, where deafness suffices.
Angina Days: Selected Poems, by Gunter Eich, translated by Michael Hofmann
Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010, hbk, 216pp, $24.95, 9781400834341, http://press.princeton.edu
The last few years have been good for German poetry. After the Faber Book of Twentieth Century German Poems, and Durs Grünbein’s Ashes for Breakfast, comes this fantastic Selected Poems by Günter Eich, one of the greatest lyricists of the past century. At just under two hundred pages, Angina Days includes several uncollected poems and excerpts from Eich’s radio plays. The direct simplicity of Eich’s poems reminds me of Ezra Pound’s final Cantos: ‘I have been here / and here, / I could have / gone there too, / or stayed at home. / You can understand the world / without leaving home.’ This Selected Poems should delight both experts and initiates.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Bloomsbury, London, 2009, hbk, 256pp, £14.99, 9780747597131, www.bloomsbury.com
When the news of the Pakistani floods broke earlier this year, I turned to Mueenuddin’s report in the New York Times because this writer-cum-mango-farmer understands rural Pakistan better than most. His collection of linked short stories describes the overlapping worlds of an extended Pakistani landowning family. Peasants on the estates, drug-taking dilettantes and lusty ageing patriarchs are rendered acutely; the lies and ties connecting them all in a violently class-bound society are detailed forensically and the storytelling is masterful. Of the exciting explosion of Pakistani literature in English, this is the book that will still be taught and read in fifty years time because Mueenuddin sets his scope on the nation in its entirety.
The Everyday Wife, by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Modjaji Books, Cape Town, 2010, pbk, 95pp, 9781920397050, modjaji.book.co.za
The word ‘wife’ often evokes images of the quotidian: clotheslines, dishwashers, unmade beds, and homework. But in The Everyday Wife, South African Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’ second poetry collection, you will not find Mrs Everyday Wife as you thought you knew her.
The World has become her world, so that voicing her opinions about global affairs (‘From Vietnam to Afghanistan and all the wars between, lies / that were told are retold’) comes to her as readily as obliging her muse’s request for a cup of tea.
Yaa de Villiers’ silence-smashing poems (in this manner reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife) are sensitive, unafraid to be erotic, sometimes tragic, and always irreverent; narrated by a voice(s) at once young (‘Inside my mother’s womb I lie about / the velvet lounge suit, flipping through / possible futures like magazines’) and old (‘Now, I am old: / I am no longer the quick, eager river that / rushed towards / the edge, / hungering for the giddy pleasure of falling.’).
Bijou Roy, by Ronica Dhar
St Martin’s Press, New York, 2010, hbk, 256pp, $23.99, 9780312551018, http://us.macmillan.com/smp.aspx
To the list of best books of 2010, I would add Bijou Roy, a debut novel by Ronica Dhar that embodies what for me are the prime virtues of ‘bestness’ in fiction: surprise and texture. By texture I mean the way that the page-by-page confrontation with the unexpected may take many forms: a snag, a knot, a loose thread, a tightly woven sequence of events, a sly, satiny turn in otherwise seamlessly knitted prose. Bijou Roy follows the title character, an Indian-American woman, who travels to Calcutta to scatter the ashes of her father, who died after a struggle with multiple sclerosis so severe that he was not just bed-ridden but nearly comatose for a decade. On this trip Bijou begins re-assembling that father from an ash-like scatter of memories (her own and those of others). She is also, ultimately, re-assembling herself. Bijou Roy fully inhabits the immigrant experience of two generations of a family, but it also explores the empty spaces of genuine tragedy. You will, in the best sense, read it and weep.
Aminatta Forna’s new novel is an epic examination of the Sierra Leonean civil war and its aftermath. The African war novel has become almost a cliché – from child soldiers to fleeing refugees to burnt villages. It is often hard for a writer to avoid these clichés, but Aminatta Forna does that by focusing not necessarily on the war, but on the individuals who endured the war, on their love lives, their family lives, their professional lives, and how the war changes all that, turning their world upside down. At the heart of the book is a bitter-sweet love story, which is used as a metaphor for loss, and also for the persistence of hope. This is a brilliant book, and it deserves to be read by all true lovers of good fiction.
This novel is as poignant for the story it tells as it is for the story surrounding its telling. David Grossman’s Ora is so frightened that her son, Ofer, might be killed in an upcoming Israeli offensive in the Occupied Territories, that she walks to the end of the land to avoid hearing from ‘the notifiers’ – officials who come with unwelcome news from the front. A brilliant form of magical thinking: if she isn’t there to receive bad news, it can’t be delivered. But it’s also the story of Israel: a plea from Grossman that Israel cannot survive if it continues to pursue its current path.
Grossman was working on the final draft of this novel in 2006, when the notifiers came to call at his house: his younger son, Uri, had been killed in the offensive against Lebanon. It is impossible to read the novel without the knowledge of that unspeakable pain, but that is a mistake. It is a tour de force because at its heart is a love of storytelling itself. As Ora records her story, her friend, Avram, whispers to her: ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for my story is with me.’ The very act of storytelling is a deep corrective in the face of chaos, war and loss.
Building Stories, by Chris Ware
Jonathan Cape, London, 2012, hbk, 246pp, £30, 9780224078122
Chris Ware must get fairly bored with being called a genius. But I can’t help it – I get more emotion from a single panel of Ware’s than I do out of many entire novels. His Building Stories is not a book, it’s a beautiful book-shaped box containing a whole vast claustrophobic world – a world taking the form of comics; some are single fold-out comic strips, others are incredibly detailed graphic novels. Put simply, this is Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual but better – funnier, more ambitious, sadder. (Chris Ware must also get fairly bored of being told his work is so, so sad.) Building Stories is an odyssey into the ordinary. That your heart will be broken is a given. Chris Ware is a genius.
The Curfew, by Jesse Ball
Vintage Contemporaries, London, 2011, pbk, 208pp, $15, 9780307739858
Jesse Ball’s novel is a lucid dream. Strike that. It is a lucid nightmare. It is the story of epitapherist William, who has the unlikely job of writing the tiny stories of the dead and disappeared of the occidental police-state in which the book is set. William and his mute eight-year-old daughter Molly keep their heads down in a world where all artistic performance is banned, where being noticed means the end of you. After news reaches his ears from old friends about the possible whereabouts of his lost wife, William leaves his daughter with his puppeteer neighbour, who sets about creating a show with Molly about her father’s journey as it unfolds. The Curfew is as mesmerising and as potent as Kafka. It will dazzle you and make you ask questions of our current world and administrations that you really shouldn’t.
The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, by Christopher Merrill
Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2011, hbk, 224pp, $22, 978157131058
Christopher Merrill’s The Tree of the Doves delves into the guts of humanity’s search for meaning by examining three aspects of life – ceremony, expedition, war – that reside at the root of all civilization. He recounts trips to Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Levant, splicing his observations with a rich array of anecdotes and lessons gleaned from a vast knowledge of literature, religion, philosophy and history. From the core of the book emanates the warmth of his own heart, as he humbles himself in order to become a true student of life throughout his travels. He emerges as the wise and witty traveler, able to both observe from the outside and lose himself to the moment; a master of Zen and Marco Polo rolled into one.
The Girl Who Fell To Earth: A Memoir, by Sophia Al-Maria
Harper Perennial, New York, 2012, pbk, 288pp, $14.99, 9780061999758
Feelings, fundamentalism, the clash of cultures: these kinds of worthy, vaguely vanilla optics through which to view the modern-day Middle East are mercifully MIA in this super-sharp memoir by Qatari filmmaker-artist Sophia Al-Maria whose projects on Gulf Futurism and as laser-lensed Sci-Fi Wahabi have already established her as one of the most singular and brilliantly WTF imagineers to emerge in many years. Nominally the story of the satellite navigations and hemispheric transportations of the daughter of a Bedouin father and American mother, it’s a book of sly wit, left-field acuity and perceptual torques that will make you want to track down every dementedly oblique thing she’s ever written.
Both Flesh And Not, by David Foster Wallace
Hamish Hamilton, London, 2012, hbk, 336pp, £20, 9780241144824
If you aren’t sick of David Foster Wallace yet, his erratic collection of essays Both Flesh And Not is equally rewarding for the addict and the novice. In the Barthesian tradition, DFW approaches all culture with the same vigor: tennis, STDs, postmodern fiction, action movies, math theory, whatever. The specter of the author’s suicide looms, but he channels an immortal joy, that of wielding language to combat the meaninglessness and unknowability of the world. It’s a losing battle, but just to fight it is to be redeemed.
Running With Mother, by Christopher Mlalazi
Weaver Press, Harare, 2012, pbk, 148pp, £12.95, 9781779221872, www.weaverpresszimbabwe.com
This is one of those new African novels emerging that fuse genre with traditional storytelling. Mlalazi’s second novel is an electric, adrenalin-filled thriller through postwar Zimbabwe’s difficult Gukurahundi massacres. Rudo, the teenage narrator of this story, is described unsentimentally and has an engaging, vibrant voice that takes us through an otherwise brutal narrative full of interesting characters and an enjoyable plot.
This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
Faber, London, 2012, pbk, 224pp, £12.99, 9780571294190
Novelist-Lecturer Yunior goes about getting laid and getting dumped through the nine interlinked short stories in This is How You Lose Her. His categorization of women is undeniably crude – puta, suchia, go-getter, visa-hunter – but thanks to the incredible storytelling by Junot Diaz, Yunior manages to earn our sympathy every time, even when he is at fault. In between these lusty sexual interludes that let readers vicariously cultivate a love of Latinas, other stories explode like cluster-bombs: his brother Rafa’s fatal encounter with cancer, the secret son of his friend Elvis, his older lover Miss Lora’s troubled past. This book might be about losing girls, but where fiction is concerned, Junot Diaz is a keeper who knows that ‘the half-life of love is forever’.
Sea of Ink, by Richard Weihe, translated by Jamie Bulloch
Peirene Press, London, 2012, pbk, 112pp, £10.00, 9780956284082
This delicate novella is about the life of Bada Shanren, a famous Chinese artist of the 17th century. On this straightforward line we could put more subtle patches: ‘His father made him step barefoot into a bowl full of ink and then walk along the length of a roll of paper. To begin with, his footprints were wet and black; with each step they became lighter until they were barely visible any more.’ This metaphor is developed by the author like the painting style of his hero: a Ming prince should feign madness to escape the adversities of the new Dynasty. A curve of his family life is broken by the line of becoming a monk. He changes his names, whereabouts, but one thing is always with him – the sea of his black ink, his destiny through which he paddles with his brushes.
A M Bakalar
Smena’s Memory, by Wioletta Grzegorzewska, translated by Marek Kazmierski
OFF_Press, London, 2011, pbk, 177pp, £12.99, 9780956394682
Smena’s Memory by Polish author Wioletta Grzegorzewska is a remarkable and beautifully crafted book of poems, a dream-like exploration of the human spirit caught up between two countries. The poetess moved to the UK in 2006 and settled on the Isle of Wight: ‘Take me away from this paradise, where I feel as tepid / as tea with milk. Take me, before I evaporate.’ She seduces the reader with her childhood memories and the glimpses of post-Communist Poland. But it’s the everyday woman’s experience portrayed with great maturity and tenderness that makes this book so exceptional.
Bageye at the Wheel, by Colin Grant
Jonathan Cape, London, 2012, hbk, 280pp, £16.99, 9780224091053
‘Like every great gambler Bageye was addicted to losing … betting his shirt and forfeiting absolutely everything.’ Grant’s memoir of life in a Jamaican household in 1970s Luton centres on a mesmerising study of his father. Like many of us who grew up with immigrant fathers out of their depth and over their heads in debt while helping us into a new country, he has a tiger by the tail. Bageye leaps off the page. That his son handles this with a light-touch deftness, in prose that is compulsive, carefully detailed, out-of-control hilarious and unnerving, is the story. What a book.
The Undertaker’s Daughter, by Toi Derricotte
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2011, pbk, 80pp, £13.95, 9780822962007 www.upress.pitt.edu
The Undertaker’s Daughter by Toi Derricotte boldly explores and investigates the complexities within family relationships with unflinching candour, perception, and graceful elegance. Her first poem begins ‘I am not afraid to be memoir…’ then proceeds to blur and challenge our perceptions of poetry; we are confronted with a book that combines narrative poetry, prose, free verse and the lyric with masterful dexterity. Each poem is like a prayer, propelled by an urgency that could not be denied. The deceptively simple language ‘is metered, and measured … has on its finest dress … is reaching … is alive.’ This is Derricotte’s best work to date and a must read.
The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín
Viking, London, 2012, hbk, 112pp, £12.99, 9780670922093
Colm Tóibín takes what’s the most well-known episode in Christian history, Jesus’ last days, and paints a searing, psychologically astute and finally tragic portrait of Mary. Exasperated, angry even, at the rather straight narrative two of her son’s disciples want to construct, she recounts a mother’s sense of grief and guilt instead. Early on, she says ‘Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones’, signalling a refusal to go with what’s expected of her. She would rather give us an account of Jesus’ miracle-making, the crucifixion, and her days after it, as she saw them, full of doubt and uncertainty, veering from a mother’s love for the boy who needs protection to awe at the man who proudly calls himself ‘Son of God’. Toibin’s stunning achievement lies in narrating a story so wholly predictable with such power, depth and tenderness that it leaves one breathless. One of the best books I have read this year.