Best Books of 2013

This may not have been a fabulous year for me personally, but it was a great reading year. I had very few reading slumps and enjoyed a bumper number of good books. Above all it was the year for non-fiction, so much so that I’ve had to introduce a range of categories to cover all the books I feel obliged to mention. Let us look back fondly.

Best Literary Fiction

Louise Erdrich – The Round House

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

 

Best Innovative Fiction

J. R. Crook – Sleeping Patterns

 

Best Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall

 

Best Debut Novel

Beatrice Hitchman – Petite Mort

 

Best Quirky Cute Novel You Can Read In An Afternoon

Alexis M. Smith – Glaciers

 

Best General Fiction

Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Harriet Lane – Alys Always

Amanda Smyth – A Kind of Eden

 

Best Contemporary Crime

Stella Rimington – The Geneva Trap

T. V. LoCicero –Admission of Guilt

 

Best Golden Age Crime

Elizabeth Daly – Somewhere in the House

 

Best Crime That Managed To Be About More Than Crime

Attica Locke – The Cutting Season

 

Best Poetry Collection

Kaddy Benyon – Milk Fever

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Nature

Kathleen Jamie – Findings

Neil Ansell – Deer Island

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Memoir

Jennie Erdal – Ghosting

James Lasdun – Give Me Everything You Have; On Being Stalked

Kathryn Harrison – The Mother Knot

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Completely Uncategorizable

Maggie Nelson – Bluets  (my favourite post of the year)

Stephen Grosz – The Examined Life

 

Best Non-Fiction That Brought Self-Illumination

Kathryn Schultz – Being Wrong

Susan Cain – Quiet

 

Special Award for Services to Existentialism

(I will never tire of watching that)

New Poetry

Some of the most criminally unappealing sentences have been written in the service of talking about poetry. Poems are like wine in the way they can lead their enthusiasts astray in language, and before you know where you are, poetry is reclaiming personal experience, or putting us in touch with the cosmos or singing the universal or celebrating the elemental or goodness only knows what. Which is ironic, given that poetry is there to make us think harder about language and what it can do. The older I get and the more poetry I read, the less I know what to say about it – which is a shortcoming on my part. However, I’ll do what I can for two collections of poetry by a couple of intriguing poets, Kaddy Benyon and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, which is at least give you a generous offering of their poetry.

 

When the Title Took Its Life

 

My saddest lines

Wish to know how they left

This pen

 

And why I imprison them

In corridors

Along margins. Abbreviated

 

But exhausted from labor.

 

Tonight they wreak revenge

On my mortal hand –

 

Erase me.

 

Write “I don’t know

Why I am sad.

Night is long. Like an empty house

With annexes of silence.”

 

Or bar with a slash

Words like “bleeding”

“persecution,” “exile,” and “loneliness.”

 

Like a blind judge, these lines

Doubt my sincerity.

Here is not life.

 

The sickle moon looks down.

 

What does it know? The storm

I heard when I meant

To be writing.

 

This comes from Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s collection, My Funeral Gondola. These are cool, spacious poems, often with a lot of white space to do your thinking in. Elegant or evocative sentences feel like they’ve been plucked by tweezers and laid on a white cloth for inspection. But there’s also a stark drama to many of her lines, and a little capsule of enigma left rolling about in them, too.  One of my favourites is entitled ‘Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back’ and it was a delightful mixture of the wry, the ironic and the observational. Here’s an excerpt:

 

To conceal jealousy, he wore dark glasses, took

Pictures with a pen camera. To be posted

On a blog, in a third-person account.

 

Is Foucault in season?

 

The most interesting lectures, from those who

Chose to stay the peripheral sort.

 

For instance, an American who studied nature.

 

Or the Irish dramaturge in awe of Brecht

And Buddhist grottoes

 

A professor emerita

Trying to seduce with her foxy hairstyles.

 

A clique of amis

Who could handle theoretical smiles.

 

By contrast, Kaddy Benyon’s poems are much earthier, more sensual and much more tightly packed:

 

Strange Fruit

 

Sometimes I have an urge to slip

My hands inside the soiled, wilting

Necks of your gardening gloves;

To let my fingers fill each dusty

Burrow, then close my eyes and feel

A blush of nurture upon my skin.

 

Sometimes I am so afraid my hurt

Will hack at your figs, strawberries,

Or full-bellied beans, I dig my fists

In my pockets and nip myself. Sometimes

I imagine the man who belongs to

The hat hanging on the bright-angled

 

Nail in your shed. I think about you

Toiling and sweating with him;

Coaxing growth from warm earth;

Pushing life into furrows. I am curious

About what cultivates and blooms

There in your enclosed, raised bed –

 

Yet I want no tithe of it for myself.

Sometimes I just want to show

You the places I’m mottled, rotten

And bruised; I want you to lean close

Enough to hold the strange fruit

Of me and tell me I may yet thrive.

 

This comes from the collection Milk Fever, and there is a clear preoccupation with close relationships, unusually intimate and mysterious ones like mother and child and lovers. This is an altogether more intimate voice, more insistent on the mind, recklessly pushing fragments of images onto the reader, bringing us up closer than is comfortable to the bodies, scents, experiences and perceptions in the poems. Where Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s poems are gently cloaked in spiritual ideas, Kaddy Benyon’s are grasping at disquieting feelings. I loved the start of ‘Undone’:

 

We had to run for the bus after confession,

Where waiting for Mother’s silence

I’d made imaginary idols of saints, illuminated

 

By twenty votives I paid for with flickers

Of prayer. We’d no time for my litany

Of lies and spite and rage so the priest winked

 

And told me Next time. I reached for Mother’s

Hand, already crammed with beads

Clacking together: a metronome for OCD.

 

I wish I could recall where I read an explanation of the literary as being ‘the place where the material is filled up with the ineffable’. For that seemed to me the perfect description of all poetry. I found so much to enjoy in both these collections and particularly those moments of reading poetry where you pounce on a line as if it were an especially gorgeous shell on the beach. ‘My skin takes thoughts/away from light’ stayed with me for a long time from My Funeral Gondola. And in Milk Fever, of a baby’s cradle cap: ‘I want to pick him clean: to preserve/him protected/from the ravenous urge to love.’ Gorgeous stuff.

A Family Affair

After the Impressionists, I should think that the Pre-Raphaelites are some of the best-known artists in the Western world. With their sumptuous use of colour and detail, and religious or medieval subjects featuring ivory-cheeked models with abundant tresses of crinkly hair, you really can’t mistake them for the work of any one else. In my college days I went through a Pre-Raphaelite phase and covered my walls with posters by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although we might keep this just to ourselves, and not mention it to the artist husband of a good friend of mine, who would cut me dead if he knew. Then as now, the paintings caused endless dissent over their artistic merit. The Pre-Raphaelites were also a literary movement, with both Dante Gabriel and his sister, Christina Rossetti producing poetry. Now this was as much as I knew about them, until I read Dinah Roe’s excellent biography of their family, The Rossettis in Wonderland.

The Rossetti patriarch, Gabriele, was an Italian poet and Dante scholar who was obliged to live in exile in London due to his political beliefs. A cheerful, sociable soul who became melancholy and paranoid in old age and illness, he married a young woman from another Italian family, Frances Polidore. Frances was one of a batch of fairly formidable sisters. Most were very successful governesses, apart from the youngest, Eliza, who stayed home to nurse elderly parents until they died and she became Florence Nightingale’s right-hand woman in the Crimean wars. Gabriele and Frances quickly had four children – Maria, Dante Gabriel (known as Gabriel) William and Christina. These children were ‘the calms and the storms’, Gabriel and Christina having inherited the passionate temperament of their father, Maria and William the more serene, sensible character of their mother. Frances had particular ideas about child-rearing, and unusual ones for the time. She brought them up in a fiercely intellectual and artistic environment, encouraging them towards achievement and borrowing the talents of her sisters to teach a wide range of subjects. In later years she was to lament this choice: ‘I now wish there was a little less intellect in the family, so as to allow for a little more common sense,’ she wrote. But their education was uneven in ways Frances would not have realised; as the eldest male child and the most obviously gifted, Gabriel was indulged by everyone. Christina, equally talented, was subject to the policed repression that was considered necessary for a young, Christian woman. Frances was very religious, in an era that naturally required self-effacement from what it insisted must be a gentler sex. In consequence, Gabriel grew up wild and unreliable, even if generous and sociable, whereas Christina was obliged to implode in a series of breakdowns. For both of them, art provided the answer and the solace to their difficult temperaments.

All the children were extremely competitive with one another, which must have made life awkward at times for the less

Dante Gabriel's illustration for his sister's Goblin Market

obviously talented Maria and William. Inevitably, they became the mainstays of the family and the source of its financial salvation. As Gabriele sunk into a deluded old age, writing fervent but crazy tracts about Dante, the family fell into poverty. Maria was sent out as a governess and William became a civil servant, and their salaries kept them all afloat, just about. This was a loving and tight-knit family, despite the sibling rivalry, and when Gabriel found fellow feeling with some of his artist friends from the Royal Academy and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded (down the pub, more or less), he involved his brothers and sisters as much as he – and they – were able. William adored being part of an artistic movement and would provide loyal support throughout his life. But he was not particularly gifted as an artist. In the end, he began to be known as a reviewer, and eventually as a literary critic. The group was a godsend for Christina, who would probably never have been allowed an outlet for her talent otherwise. Her poetry was the first serious success the movement had, and her reputation was to grow steadily throughout her life.

Gabriel’s paintings were struggling with the usual reaction against the disturbingly new. He had been inspired by Keats, and his doctrine of intensity and thrilling to beauty. Furthermore, Keats had fought to become a poet despite the insignificance of his birth, a noble battle that Gabriel Rossetti, poor first generation Italian immigrant would be thankful for. Rossetti wanted to see a return to realism in art, particularly in nature, but there was no great agenda for the PRB, even if the paintings bear a close family resemblance. One of his early works, The Annunciation that graces the cover, was considered to be blasphemous and ugly, as the thin, red-haired Virgin Mary conformed to the stereotypes of the Victorian working class, and was by no means a suitable image for the mother of God. An intriguing response, when you think that the charge levelled against the Pre-Raphaelites these days is that they are pretty paintings but substance-less. However, what Gabriel could do, every bit as well as paint, was network and self-publicise. He managed to find himself rich patrons and promoted the group at every opportunity, making friends over time with critics like John Ruskin, whose spirited defence of the PRB marked a turning point for the group’s reputation.

Bower Meadow by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What I found so intriguing about the biography, and part of the reason it works so well, is the strength of family feeling that kept the Rossettis together. The siblings spent their lives mostly in each other’s pockets, and relationships were hard to have because no outsider really met their lovingly jealous standards. Gabriel was the one to break away most (although he lived in London all his life) and the family never properly took to Lizzie Siddal, his model turned companion. Gabriel tried to fix up a husband for Christina, who was good at having furtive relationships of the mind with shy, retiring men, but always backed out of marriage. William married, but very late in life, and Maria became a nun. In the closing chapters of the book, as the siblings begin to die off, you can feel the grief and desperation that grips the remaining family members. Maria died first, suddenly and painfully from cancer, Gabriel followed with a good Victorian death from chloral abuse, then Christina, another cancer victim who succumbed to a hideous, drawn-out, screaming death. William, however, had inherited his longevity from his mother’s side, and lived on for another 25 years. Left the sole remaining member of the family, he poured his energy into promoting the paintings and poetry of his siblings. As a cautious, reserved man with an accountant’s temperament and a natural desire to canonise his family and sanitise their history, his avalanche of publications did as much harm as good to the memory of the Rossettis. Their star had risen high during their lifetimes, but afterwards, William’s hagiographic writings led others to wonder whether Gabriel’s paintings, in particular, were as great as all that. But William wrote to keep his family alive, not to deliver an objective account of their art.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable biography that manages to keep vast quantities of material under gentle control. It is elegantly written with a faintly scholarly air but genuine warmth towards its subjects. It gives a vivid account of a family whose bonds prevented its members from really turning outwards into the world, but which equally gave the siblings the love, support and artistic opportunity they might never have found without one another. A definite must for anyone interested in the art of this era.

Attunement

Yesterday in the bookstore, I witnessed an exchange that stuck with me.  I was just about to leave the shop, having finished my hours for the day, and the next volunteer had already arrived.

Two girls walked into the shop together, full of the joys of the new summer, just excited about nothing much at all. One went over to the poetry shelves and called out ‘Oh I love poetry! I should read more of it!’ She browsed for a few moments and then came over with an old hardback volume, no dust cover, rather shabby and brown and asked the price from the other volunteer. It must have been a rare copy because it turned out to be quite expensive and her face fell.

‘Do you have any books of poetry that are cheaper than this?’ she asked. ‘Can you help me decide what to read?’

So the volunteer went back to the shelves with her and started pulling books out and offering them. I was picking up my stuff and not paying so much attention, until I began to feel a sort of cloud of creeping unease travelling over towards me. Something wasn’t going so well.

‘How about Auden?’ the volunteer was saying. ‘Do you know him? What about this by Shelley?’

‘Who’s Shelley?’ the girl asked, in a tone that suggested this sort of thing had been going on fruitlessly for some time.

‘Only one of the most important poets who ever wrote!’ the volunteer replied.

‘Well, I’d better read that one then, hadn’t I?’ the girl asked cheerily, clearly trying to retain a bit of dignity.

But by now the volunteer was leafing through the book. ‘Oh you don’t want this,’ she said. ‘It’s some sort of commentary on the poems, not the actual poems.’

The girl had had enough by now, and I didn’t blame her one bit. ‘I can’t see my friend,’ she said. ‘I think she must have left the shop. I really ought to go after her and come back when I know a bit more what I want.’

‘Yes, you do that,’ said the volunteer, completely unperturbed. I knew the friend was still in the store, only hidden out of sight around the little corner at the back. The volunteer stalked straight over to where I was standing. ‘Did you see that girl?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t know what she wanted. She said she loved poetry and wanted to buy a book but she hadn’t heard of any of the poets! Then I had to stop her from buying some book of literary analysis!’

Just to finish off the embarrassment of the encounter, the friend had realised that she had been abandoned and was heading out of the store towards our ex-customer who stood hovering on the threshold, beckoning her, and in perfect earshot of the volunteer’s unjust remarks. The two girls rushed away.

‘I think she just didn’t know very much about poetry and wanted to learn,’ I said.

‘She knew nothing about poetry!’ said the volunteer still outraged. ‘Why did she say she did?’

This exchange made me wince. It filled me with dismay, and not least because I hadn’t been able to find a way to intervene helpfully. I hadn’t realised the exchange was going so badly until too late, and to tell the volunteer now that she had been insensitive would have caused nothing but more wounded feelings. She is a much older woman than me, and someone who has worked in a lot of arts administration. I’d been warned before I met her that she could be disconcertingly brusque, although I hadn’t had any difficulty with her myself. But oh how I felt for that poor young girl, who had been made to feel so stupid. She had been a very pretty girl, elaborately made up, with her eyeliner making little hooked apostrophes around the outer corners of her eyes; she was dressed up in summer finery and in full flight of enthusiastic youth, in love with her own possibilities and all the other ones in the world that had yet to be revealed to her. If only she had been able to say, look, I’ve hardly read any poetry and I want to know where to start. But that would have been hard for her, to alter the stance she had taken and which, after all, must have felt so deliciously grown-up and serious and romantic. Who among us, at any age, could give up such a position in exchange for genuine, dull ignorance?

Over the past couple of years I’ve become very interested in dialogue, in what people can hear when they talk to one another, and the kind of miraculous exchanges that can really take people somewhere or effect meaningful change. I suppose this has grown out of my interest in teaching, and from the experience of trying to explain chronic fatigue to people who can’t or won’t understand what it is. It seems to me that the basis of any successful conversation is attunement. The ability of one or other party to get themselves in line, mentally and emotionally, with their interlocutor. When conversation breaks down in conflict or disagreement, you can really see that absence of attunement, the unwillingness to understand where the other person is coming from. The volunteer in the shop couldn’t attune to the customer; she believed that the young girl’s mind was a copy of her own, that a professed love of poetry equated to her own love of poetry. It was such a missed opportunity. But this is difficult, too, conversation happens so fast, it can be very confusing, it is inevitable that our own position dominates our focus. So often we just don’t want to get in line with someone else’s insecurities, their fears, their inchoate desires. And so most conversations snarl and snag up, or end in their participants repeating their own lines over and over, without ever feeling heard.

Well, I can’t fix conversation, but I know that for my own peace of mind, I’ve got to find a way to get in there quicker, should there be a next time. It makes me feel all funny inside to think that someone didn’t get the reading they wanted.