The publication of Seoul Survivors made 2013 a busy year for my writing career. With the next two SF novels pawing at the door, however, at times I feared my reading was suffering. In line with my random book-grabbing habits, I made a haphazard effort to post reviews on Goodreads, but found it impossible to keep up regular appearances. So when Charles Boyle kindly asked me to contribute a title or two to his cbeditions Books of the Year blog post, the invitation provoked a bout of serious year-end reflection. Compiling the following more fulsome list helped me to pick out recurring themes in my reading and writing, and set some intentions for 2014; it may also bring to your attention titles that may otherwise have flown under your radar. For those who really like this sort of thing, The Rules were: 1) Contenders did not have to be published in 2013. Rather, they should have made a significant and timely impact on me this year. 2) No books by colleagues at Chichester or stable-mates at Jo Fletcher Books or Waterloo Press.* 3) To reflect my reading pile, the list contains poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles, and (not reflecting my reading pile) is presented here in alphabetical order, by author:
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (Gollancz, 1972). Hard SF, with its emphasis on scientific accuracy and adventure-driven plots, has been called a ‘boys’ club’; but leaving aside the actual diversity of the sub-genre, and speaking as a sensitive, occasionally depressive and anxiety-prone woman, I found the lack of characterisation in Rendezvous with Rama strangely calming. No messy emotions! Just the vastness of space, crisp interplanetary political debates, and – what really stayed with me – a visionary description of the interior of an enormous alien spacecraft. Reading felt like a mind-expanding meditation, and I closed the (soft) covers with renewed respect for SF’s capacity to exercise that vital muscle: the human imagination.
Practicalities by Marguerite Duras (Collins, 1990, translated by Barbara Bray). Sometimes billed as ‘articles’, this is a collection of later revised discussions Duras held with a journalist about feminism, writing and her infamous alcoholism. Duras admits her views on men ‘are rather sweeping and depressing’, but while some of her pronouncements may (hopefully) have dated, it is still invigorating to hear her champion domesticity and critique Roland Barthes for not reading women writers. Elsewhere, she lauds staged readings over acting; explains her adoption of a fashion ‘uniform’; and deeply empathizes with the disabled and suicidal. Imperious and melancholic, frank yet elliptical, her voice utterly seduced me, recalling my early pull toward French women writers – Leduc, Nin, Cixous – a matrix to re-enter in 2014.
Gaza: When the Sky Rained Fire by Musheir El-Farra (Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign, 2012). The author, a Gazan human rights activist now resident in the UK, returned home in 2011 to interview survivors of Operation Cast Lead – the 2008-09 massacre that first propelled me into action on Palestine. As is well-known, Israel killed hundreds of civilians during the three week assault, many of them children, targeted by drones or shot in cold blood, sometimes during the daily cease-fires. Inevitably, I cried while reading some of these accounts, but the book is on this list not just because it moved me, but for its dignified focus on justice and the historical long view. Short and lucid, it would be a good introduction to the conflict for interested and empathic readers.
The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans (Adams Media, 1992). I hesitated to put this book on the list, because I don’t normally blog on private matters. But reading it was hugely empowering, and may be so to others. By enabling me to recognise how I and my then-partner were engaging in highly destructive communication patterns, Evans helped me to finally conclude a volatile eight year on-off relationship. I had thought our endless, unresolved arguments were ‘normal’ – and indeed verbal abuse is everywhere: online, at work, in politics, families and literature. This book, however, enlightened me to the fact that my relationship was not simply ‘difficult’ or ‘tempestuous’; it also liberated me from the burdensome belief that I could somehow, single-handedly, heal the abuse. It’s true that you can only change yourself, but like a just peace, or the tango, intimacy takes two.
The Wolf Inside by Donald Gardner (Hearing Eye Press 2013). As a poet who performs her work, rather than a ‘performance poet’, I have long admired Donald Gardner. With an absurdist gravitas shaped by Butoh classes, his mischievous self-irony amplified by a stentorian delivery, Gardner is a Holy Fool declaiming in the Northern European wilderness. Here he prowls between Amsterdam and London, late Yeats and the dark urban forest of late capitalism, childhood and old age. The poems ruefully reviewing a life’s work appealed to me hugely, perhaps because, writing fiction now, I have an increasing sense of perspective on my own poetry, and a growing yearning to return to it. This book gave me a sense of patience. For poets, if not wolves, winter is often the most fruitful season.
Bageye at the Wheel by Colin Grant (Jonathan Cape, 2012). Vivid with insights into Jamaican immigrant culture in 1970s Luton, this novelistic memoir paints a wincing yet ultimately poignant portrait of the author’s father – the charismatic, unpredictable Bageye, so named for his sleepless visage. Despite neglecting the family for weekend gambling sessions, and actively undermining his wife’s back-breaking efforts to bring up their pickneys, Bageye decides to help fund his children’s private educations – giving Grant a key to social advancement and a contradictory emotional history to unlock. But neither his father’s failings nor British racism could defeat the child’s loving, curious nature. Grant’s approach to the past is affectionate and often dryly hilarious, a generosity of spirit that inspired me as much as the skilful writing.
The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing (Cape, 1985). It’s clear by now that I’m interested in violence: how it works and whether or not we can transform it. So it’s not surprising that I was gripped by Lessing’s authoritative disquisition on the co-dependence of violence of all kinds: childhood trauma, the martyrdom of motherhood, abusive relationships, both straight and gay, racism, state brutality and terrorist atrocity. ‘Battered babies grow up,’ one character insists. Sometimes into not very likable people, and this novel is a master class in how to portray difficult characters. Through adroit manipulation of tone, but without ever lapsing into satire, Lessing thoroughly critiques her anti-heroine Alice; but she also opens brief windows into Alice’s vulnerabilities, creating cracks of empathy in a world of moral blindness.
An Antique Land: A Cryptic Caprice, collected and edited by John Shire (Invocations Press, 2012). This metafictional bagatelle begins with a neatly twisted tale of a Victorian-era desert white slave market, but it’s not on this list for its post-colonial skewering of H. Rider Haggard, but its phenomenal culmination: a Borgesian fantasia set in a [SPOILER REDACTION] . . . Sorry, I can’t give away the ending but the back cover quote from Mircea Eliade provides a sly clue: ‘Why have I been punished for – and through – those things I have loved all my life: books and writing?’ If that rings a temple bell in your brain, seek out An Antique Land immediately. Typeset in a panoply of antiquarian fonts, it’s another artful offering from Invocations Press, whose Bookends: A Partial History of The Brighton Book Trade I also savoured this year (both being slim volumes, I think a 2-in-1 is allowed).
The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (abridged version, Harvill Press, 1985) Violence on an epic scale now, with the classic exposé of the Soviet murder camps. Furious, absurdist, deeply compassionate, Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ is no mere historical tome, but essential reading for all those opposing Putin’s neo-Stalinist agenda. Not one perpetrator of these staggering crimes was ever brought to justice: the camps, as Pussy Riot have made us all aware, still form the backbone of the Russian state. But Solzhenitsyn’s ten years in servitude gave him profound insight into the boundless problem of human cruelty: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Woman’s Head as Jug by Jackie Wills (Arc Publications, 2013). Home again to Brighton, where another poet reminds me of the value of digging where you live. There’s anger in this volume, against the ways women are still belittled and boxed in (literally in one of the book’s striking visual poems); but ample nourishment too, and a palpable sense of language as an elemental force. Tackling work, love, art, psychogeography and the process of aging irascibly, Wills fixes a sorceress’s eye on home, hot flashes, and local history, and with a steady hand crafts poem-spells from garden dirt, iron, rat fur and bone. The book is also a botanical wunderkammer: flaring with flowers, trees and plants, it complemented all my Green research this year, and made me want to get my walking boots on for a good (gender-neutral!) tramp across the Downs.
Back To Creative Writing School by Bridget Whelan (Kindle, 2013). Finally, a book that surprised and refreshed me in wonderful ways. I bought it hoping to learn a new trick or two for my teaching. And I did use the ‘nicknames’ exercise in class, one my students chattered eagerly about afterwards. But what I also found was that Whelan’s sense of discovery revitalised my own writing. Working on fiction, I had begun to see writing as a job; turning to this book after a particularly gruelling period of editing helped me to embark anew on the personal voyage writing always is for me at heart. One exercise triggered a sudden rush of character development for my third novel: a pivotal moment akin to falling in love. Far from boot camp, or the basics, Whelan’s CW School is a bubble bath of inspiration.
Which seems a good place to end! Happy New Year everyone, and may 2014 bring you all love, adventure, peace of mind, and stackfuls of life-changing books!