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)

The Leopard

The Leopard was Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel and he wrote it late in life.  So late, in fact, that he had no clue it would be published 18 months after his death. Family legend has it that he screwed up the courage to write only after seeing his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, start out late as a poet and win a prize for his work. Lampedusa wrote to a friend, ‘Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish than Lucio, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.’ With typical abject humility he also said: ‘It is, I fear, rubbish.’ Lampedusa was a quiet, inconspicuous sort of person; a nobleman living with vastly reduced status but enough money not to have to work. ‘I am a very solitary person,’ he wrote. ‘Out of the sixteen hours I spend awake each day, at least ten are spent in solitude.’ From this solitude flourished his only true career as a voracious reader. Books were his cherished treasures and his main expense, and he spent his mornings trawling the meagre bookshops of Palermo, visiting his favourite, Flaccovio, every day for ten years. He always carried with him a bag packed full of volumes including one of Shakespeare, so that ‘he could console himself with it if he should see something disagreeable’, according to his wife, Licy. It is extraordinary – but surely also a tribute to the pedagogic power of reading – that he should have sat down and produced something as beautiful and strange as The Leopard on his first (and last) attempt.

the_leopardThe Leopard is the story of the long-drawn out decline of a noble Sicilian family. It opens in 1861 just as Garibaldi is leaping about the country, uniting its various factions through his military campaign. But all this vulgar action is discreetly left to its own devices, beyond the scope of the narrative, just as the Prince and his family withdraw to one of their country estates to avoid any hint of real battle. Their aristocratic stature encases them in security and tedium, almost-but-not-quite protected from the realities of life, like the disembowelled corpse of a soldier that briefly spoils the beauty of their rose garden. The tale is an inward-looking one, of a family at the height of its ripeness, full of flavour and texture, rich and resplendent and on the verge of decay. As it rots away, the story is redolent of nostalgia for what once was, splendid melancholy for its loss, and a hint of repulsion at what it must become.

The narrative occurs in a series of vignettes of family life. The first introduces the reader to the Prince, who is the beating heart of the story. The Prince is a wonderful creation, a man of overarching uselessness who is a petty tyrant with his family and a passionate astronomer on the quiet. Melancholy, proud and a bit petulant, he has no trouble reconciling his conscience with visits to his mistress under cover of giving the priest a lift into town in his carriage. His heart is only moved by his dog and his nephew, Tancredi. The young man has been left penniless by his family but by no means without resources; maverick, mischevious and brave, the Prince loves him for his genuine vitality, even though he is the embodiment of the modern spirit that will hasten the dissolution of old families like the Salina clan.

And as soon as they get to the safety of their country estate, Tancredi falls for the glorious Angelica, daughter of the local mayor who has a Medusa touch. It’s a sensible choice for a man of aristocratic birth who lacks cold, hard cash and the Prince is willing to sanction the union, seeing it as the first, inevitable step towards the new Italy. At first, though, the Prince struggles to come to terms with the sheer difference of Mayor Don Calogero, his lack of delicacy, his upfront pursuit of money, his awful clothes. But negotiating the marriage settlement, he shows himself to be generous and kind and the Prince is moved by exquisite relief:

The nobleman rose to his feet, took a step towards the surprised Don Calogero, raised him from his armchair, clasped him to his breast; the Mayor’s short legs were suspended in the air. For a moment, that room in a remote Sicilian province looked like a Japanese print of a huge, violet iris with a hairy fly hanging from a petal.’

Did I mention that the great charm of this novel is that it is so unexpectedly funny? The writing is wonderful; crisp, perceptive, witty, vivid. It’s the sort of novel where characters give long, eloquent speeches about the state of the church in Italy, and the Sicilian national character and although you sigh on the approach into them, you find you are laughing on the way out. There are some delightful passages, like the visit of the political envoy, the extremely anxious Chevalley di Monterzuolo, whose ‘head had been stuffed with the tales of brigands by which Sicilian’s love to test the nervous resistance of new arrivals’ and who fails to make the Prince accept a seat in the new governing council. And one chapter is filled with an evening at a ball, the epitome of the grace, the splendour and the futility of the old regime.

But the underlying force of the sumptuous prose is entropy, nevertheless. The novel captures the spirit and the soul of a generation on the cusp of its dissolution. It’s a book in which not a lot happens – increasingly less happens, in fact, as it moves through its stages – but it still happens with immense grace and clear-sightedness, wry good-humour and ironic self-interest. It is sad and splendid, rather like the man who wrote it.


Women’s Writing: Some Issues, Old and New

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women's writing

Christine de Pizan, one of the first chroniclers of women’s writing

Throughout history, women have written. But it has only been at the far end of the twentieth century, the tiniest sliver of a second on the great clock of time, that their writing has been seen to be in any way equivalent to that of men. Oh for sure, there was the occasional ‘miraculeuse’ as the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu termed women like George Sand and Simone de Beauvoir, women who made it through the ranks in a way that looked as if it might be possible for anyone to do so. When of course it wasn’t, and they were startling anomalies. And in the present day, the category of women’s writing, with its subdivisions of chick-lit and mommy-lit and light romance and historical romance, is often considered more frivolous and lightweight than the thriller or science fiction novel. All of which is to say that the literary world has never really been a place that welcomed women in, and it does so with reservations even now.

And yet stories have had a great deal more power over women’s lives than over men’s. As soon as we begin to look into the past, it’s obvious how constrained women have been by the story of the ‘good’ woman, who she is, how she behaves, what she may expect. The stories available to women as guidelines for living have traditionally been few and uncompromising: women were supposed to be quiet, well-behaved, charming, gentle, tender. They were destined to be faithful wives and devoted mothers. The romance was their only socially permitted adventure, and so they had to make the most of it (one of George Sand’s heroines delays her engagement for 8 years, about 250 pages of incident-filled narrative, before succumbing to marriage and motherhood in the final chapter, which Sand recognised would be the end of her freedom and interest to the reader). Those who deviated from these rules were severely punished by ostracism from the community, confinement in mental hospitals, excommunication from the church, public disgrace, scandal and death. All this because of stories handed down from generation to generation! So much constraint, so much restriction, because of this dreadful paucity of narrative possibility.

But still, women wrote. They wrote because writing was compatible with confinement in domesticity. What they wrote, however, was inevitably marked by the differences imposed upon them. They wrote out of a completely different relationship to power than men enjoyed. They wrote out of exclusion from the places in society where decisions were taken. They wrote out of a narrower view of the world and the things people could do in it. And where exceptions arose and amazing women found ways to travel and organise and become pioneers in a field, they deserve our awe and admiration while taking nothing away from the others who did not find those precious loopholes. They were not easy to come by. Today, in many countries across the world, the situation for women is still one of restriction, too often accompanied by suffering and fear. The obstacles may vary, but consistently, across time and space, women have found their conditions of life, the options open to them, to be different to those enjoyed by men. It’s an ongoing reality, and one brought home to us most vividly and powerfully by the stories women get to tell. We need every story, and each one asks us to listen, not to judge.

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

The consciousness raising campaign of the 60s and 70s

These past few weeks, reading for a whole month of blogging about women’s writing has been quite fascinating. I’ve been almost shocked by the differences between the feminist writing that came out of the 70s and 80s and the genre fiction of today. Whilst the feminists fought for the right to be free of domestic chores, to be less confined by marriage, to have the choice of meaningful work, to bring up children in less constricted environments, the genre fiction of today paints a world in which women have rushed back to the realm of the Stepford wife. A successful marriage, a pretty house, lots of nice material things, these are the hard-won goals. And motherhood remains the country that feminism forgot; it demands the absolute sacrifice of women’s personal needs, desires and activities. I’m not saying this is necessarily wrong or lacking in value – but what does the radical swing in social aspirations mean?

What has remained consistent throughout the recent period of literary history when women have been much more free to write whatever they chose, and to have lives lived according to their own principles, is the difficulty women have with accepting that other women may behave differently. In almost all the fiction and non-fiction I’ve been reading, the conflicts arise because women find it hard to live and let live. The choices and behaviours of others, if they run counter to their own, are too often understood to be offensive, wrong, threatening. This difficulty is very obvious in the reception of women’s writing, too. How often are female characters damned for not being ‘sympathetic’? For not behaving, in other words, the way that the woman reader wants them to? Still there remains the tendency to prescribe female behaviour – and it’s most noticeably done by other women. If the great historical battle of feminism was the right to be something other than a gentle nursemaid and competent housekeeper, why on earth should we spend so much time and energy squabbling over a new definition of how women should be? And worst of all, why should the mirage of ‘strength’ be the quality that dominates these prescriptions? ‘Strength’ if we mean constant energetic, fearless engagement in life, is an unlivable idea. Real strength, achievable and sustainable strength, is about flexibility, gentle discipline, understanding, compassion, and the acceptance of weakness.

But surely this goes a long way to explaining how come women survived – were complicit with – those endless centuries of history in which only a few stories were available for women’s lives. If there were one great overriding narrative, one way to be, women could measure themselves against it and feel secure, even superior to other women who did not match up so well. But that is to understand the meanness of women to one another as pure aggression, and I don’t believe that’s so. I think it’s actually about the unplumbed depths of women’s insecurity. When women fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, it’s because the other’s difference awakens their insecurity. And by some twist of psychology, personal insecurity can easily become something that has to be avenged. If we could somehow alter this kink of mentality, if we could give women, not a vitamin pill, but a confidence pill, the unalloyed permission to be who they were without the constant fear of critical undermining by others, wouldn’t that make the world a better place? Forget the pill, we could do it if we somehow managed to make women better readers of one another. If they stopped looking for similarity and found in difference some interest, curiosity, learning. When women’s writing erupted into a glorious profusion of different, new, unheard voices back in the 70s, the sisterhood welcomed them all. We lost something vital when we believed we’d reached equality and started bickering over what it should look like.

people call me a feminist

Isn’t now the perfect moment to understand that each woman is her own story? And that the story is there to be listened to attentively for the pleasure of solidarity and curiosity, not judged for the pleasure of finding it wanting, or the fear that it might reflect badly on our own?

The Slap, European Style

sila's fortuneI haven’t read Christos Tsiolkas’s controversial novel, The Slap, although I can see I will have to now. But I think the catalyst for the narrative is a slap dealt to a difficult child at a social event by a man who is not his father, yes? In Fabrice Humbert’s new novel, Sila’s Fortune, the occasion is a normal night at a prestigious and expensive restaurant in Paris in 1995. When a black waiter tries to guide a misbehaving child back to his table, he has his nose broken for his pains by the child’s aggressive and boorish father. The scene is witnessed by five people who will feel guilty subsequently for not stepping in or reprimanding the father in some way – the child’s mother, the pretty but ineffective Shoshana, a Russian couple newly rich with corrupt roubles, Lev and Elena Kravchenko, and two Parisians: Simon a shy mathematician, and his friend the extrovert nightclub host, Matthieu. Although random witnesses of this scene, fate will conspire to bring them together again at the end of the narrative, by which point their lives will have changed dramatically.

The first part of the story details what happens in the run-up to the fateful night at the restaurant. We follow the waiter – Sila’s – journey from poverty in Africa to what represents affluence for him (though not for anyone else) as an illegal immigrant in Paris. Sila is an intriguing character, a man with the sort of self-contained charisma that permits him to get on wherever he ends up, but who will be unable to save himself from the victimhood into which he is cast by his entanglement with the male diner. The assailant – Mark Ruffle – is an American, a former football star who makes use of a well-timed injury to account for the failure of his sporting career. Determined to find his way back into the limelight, he begins a subprime mortgage service. The Russian couple have made it big on the back of Yeltsin’s rise to power, or at least Lev has. A former university professor, he became a political advisor and then was fortunate, and smart, enough to be awarded a hefty interest in the oil fields. His wife, Elena, has remained a teacher and his voice of conscience, a voice that sounds increasingly naïve as the power of the oligarchs is challenged by the various mafias that spring up in the wake of democratisation. Lev may be monstrously rich, but his life is fraught with dangers and dilemmas. As for the French friends, Simon has recently left his researchers job for an investment bank in London where his work as a quantative analyst is raking him in a big salary. Matthieu, whose get-rich-quick dreams were the prompt for his move, is suffering exquisite jealousy as his shy, introverted friend finds love and fortune whilst he can’t even get a job. All of our characters, in other words, are swept up in the unethical and mostly immoral wave of economic development that created a super-rich elite at the end of the 90s. We follow them to the crest of that wave, and then see what happens when the crash comes.

This story reminded me stylistically so much of Balzac; the fascination with money and power, the slightly allegorical characters whose fortunes rise and fall, and the backdrop of history, pulsating with triumph and disaster. It’s a very ambitious novel that in many ways doesn’t quite work (the way the plot threads are drawn together at the end is a little messy and hurried, the characters don’t undergo the kind of truly profound revelations that provide genuine poignancy, the moral questions raised aren’t fully answered), but I would much rather have a novel flawed by overreaching itself than a perfect bland one. The part of the story that I found most fascinating was the storyline that concerned the Russians. I confess I knew in a very vague way what was happening in Russia (not least because one of my linguist friends moved there with her Russian husband and was forced to move back a few years later because the situation was so dreadful) and found it fascinating and horrifying to learn in more detail about what was going on. All in all, the late 90s were a parcel of history that I had more or less forgotten, and it was gripping to watch them play out again. Humbert is a skilled writer who is interested in writing properly ideas-and-philosophy-based novels, and I am pretty sure that sooner or later he will hit the jackpot and produce something special.

In the meantime, Sila’s Fortune is an entertaining and compelling novel that doesn’t pull its punches on the financial orgy of the 90s and the various catastrophes it caused. And I really must read The Slap for comparison.