This time of the year is rife with ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists, and so never one to buck a trend, here are some of the books of the past year that provoked, delighted, or prickled in my memory long after they’d been put down.
Singing a Man to Death – Matthew Francis
It was a year of short stories, novellas, and of small independent publishers. Hats off to small Welsh concern Cinnamon Press for Matthew Francis’s accomplished collection. I subscribe to the press, which means a literary surprise comes through my letterbox each month – and I have been relishing the polished intelligence, and cool-eyed humour of these wry, sophisticated stories. Only half way through the book, this still makes my ‘few books of the year’ list – with sincere best wishes to Cinnamon’s future success and in anticipation of Matthew Francis’s forthcoming novel and poetry collection. Bravo! Diolch yn fawr!
Country Girl – Edna O’Brien
I adore Edna O’Brien. I have been meaning to write her a fan letter since I first encountered Cait and Baba in The Country Girls, when I was thirteen. All her novels, plays, and stories have since beguiled and perplexed in equal measures, me revelling in the lavishness of the language and the delicacy of her fine-tuned precision. It is also the look of the woman I love: That open, astonishingly beautiful freckled face – the young author photographed on a rainy boreen which adorned the cover of her first novel, written in innocence and banned in Ireland. Then followed the groomed, glamorous shots of the literary life, culminating in the recent profile in shadow on the back of Country Girl, her 2012 memoir. Thanks to my friend Sam, I received a signed first edition for my birthday in September. It is delicious, delirious stuff, from her mournful childhood in west Ireland, to drinking with Beckett in Paris and dropping acid with RD Laing in London, amongst other anecdotes surely to become legend. It is as effecting, otherworldly and heartbreaking as her wonderful voice, which must be heard and celebrated, hence the link to an interview, below.
Gods Without Men – Hari Kunzru.
I have long been a fan of what Douglas Copeland has identified as a new literary genre, Translit. As he explained in the New York Times: ‘Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.’ Set in the Mojave desert in south-eastern California, the interconnected narrative threads of Gods Without Men include a 2008 missing child, a 1960’s UFO sect, a missionary friar in 1775, an ethnographer in the 1940’s studying Native American creation stories, and Iraqi refugees employed to people a simulated Iraqi village to train soldiers in urban assault. The work is massively ambitious and not altogether successful, but audacious in scope and haunting in its depiction of “Three columns of rock … like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky”.
Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen.
A stunning collection of essays, crip poetry, cripple poetics, and work by Deaf and disabled poets. As the editors note, ‘we include not only poets who created and embrace the disability/ crip poetics movement but also those who might resist such a classification and have never been considered in that exact context.’ Powerful. Diverse. Utterly fabulous, celebrating all the possibilities of what it is to be human. http://www.beautyisaverbbook.com
Too Cold for Snow – Jon Gower.
I was sitting beside Jon Gower and his family when he rightly won Wales Book of the Year for his Welsh language novel, Y Storiwr (The Storyteller) . With the publication of Too Cold for Snow, 2012 continues to be phenomenally successful for this prolific writer, whose recent output gives the notoriously productive Joyce Carol Oates a run for her money. Audaciously inventive in at least two languages, the sprawling creativity of the man is evident in every paragraph of this collection of short stories. Funny, sensitive, surreal, and and at times devastatingly poignant, his stories are inherently of Wales, whilst provocatively re-imagining exactly what that might mean.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
This is a wonderful collection of essays about the landscape, nature, and the environment. Unfussy, almost pedestrian in her approach, I was seduced by her straightforwardness, how ‘Between the laundry and fetching the kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life…’ ‘a sorceress of the essay form,’ John Berger described her, and who am I to quibble with him? Stunning. Do go and buy it.
The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall.
The first paragraph of ‘The Butcher’s Perfume’ was enough to rush me to the book shop cashier and immediately back home – to hell with the shopping – to devour the rest of this disturbing, exquisitely written story. The setting of that story, ‘the burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory’ establishes the tone for this violent, memorable, beautiful collection of short stories. Disquietening, stirring what lies beneath the surface, aspects of these stories remain in the memory long after they’ve been read.