With 2013 drawing to a close, senior editorial staff of The Missing Slate reviewed the year’s best publications, films and TV shows. Here, we list and review our favourite books and why they defined the year for us.
Julian Barnes, ‘Levels of Life’
Maryam Piracha, Editor-in-Chief
“You put together two people who have not been put together before […] and the world is changed.”
It takes the simplest of sentences to start a chain reaction so profound, it resonates deep within anyone who has loved completely and lost completely. Julian Barnes’ ‘Levels of Life’ is a masterpiece, pure and simple that is as much about flying over the world in a hot air balloon, as it is about love and loss, and an ode to the woman Barnes was married to for over 30 years. Loss isn’t a new subject in literature, of course, and it’s hard to explain why his words resonate as much as they do, but perhaps it’s enough to say loss has never been done quite like this before. It hasn’t been this raw before, or so intricately and beautifully realized, or so unbendingly honest. Barnes writes simply of complex emotions, he doesn’t sugarcoat grief – he wears his heart on his sleeve so heartbreakingly and a writer who does it with so much honesty deserves to be celebrated. I don’t want to give too much away, but will say this: his words stayed with me long after I finished reading, fed into my thoughts, dup up old emotions of grief and loss that are never quite buried, and enabled me to write my editorial for the tenth issue. ‘Levels of Life’ is not only my Book of 2013, but might just be the best book I’ve read in a very long time.
Second Place: I know a lot’s been said about A.M. Homes’ ‘May We Be Forgiven’ but I struggled with the book, enough to force me to stop 100 pages in. It’s been compared to Jonathan Franzen’s work, but I read ‘Freedom’ from start to finish (with no breaks) and can still, at a moment’s notice, remember a character – so well-realized was the novel. But I digress. Second place goes to Ruth Ozeki’s complicated, and yet strangely simple, ‘A Tale For The Time Being’. To explain the novel would be impossible, so forgive my bumbling attempts to do exactly that. The novelist writes herself into the novel, along with the island she lived on for the duration of it, as the keeper of a diary that’s washed up on the shores of a Canadian island. The diary belongs to a young Japanese girl – Nao. It’s a coming of age story as much for Nao as it is for Ruth (the character), interspersed with Zen mythology. I did find myself practicing zazen while reading it, though I haven’t since. Still, a good novel though perhaps not close to Barnes.
J.M. Coetzee, ‘The Childhood of Jesus’
Jacob Silkstone, Literature Editor
Gumption, courage, cojones — whichever term you choose, J. M. Coetzee has it (or them) in abundance. It takes a certain type of novelist to write a book called ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ and then abstain from mentioning Jesus even once. Instead, Coetzee’s latest (perhaps his best since ‘Disgrace’) is, at its non-allegorical level, the story of Simón, who is entrusted with the care of a young boy, David, after a mysterious incident in which “his [David’s] parents are lost, or, more accurately, he is lost.”
Together, Simón and David arrive as refugees in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, where Simón takes on a job as a stevedore and David is soon marked out by his precocity and lack of respect for authority (his insistence on seeing numbers as ‘islands in a great black sea of nothingness’, unconnected and out of sequence, is symptomatic of his challenge to established orders).
Perhaps more than any of Coetzee’s previous novels, ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ resists attempts to pin down its meaning. Discussing ‘Don Quixote’, Simón suggests that “For real reading you have to submit what is written on the page. You have to give up your own fantasies.”
For readers prepared to submit, to refrain from imposing their own vision of what the novel should be about, ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ begins to seem like a late-career masterpiece. A number of recent Coetzee novels have been too ready to abandon narrative for the sake of metaphysical exploration, with the author a powerful hand twitching at the stage curtain, poised to make a plot-redirecting entrance, like God in a Graham Greene novel (see, for example, Elizabeth Costello’s intrusion into ‘Slow Man’, or the essays of “Señor C.” in ‘Diary of a Bad Year’). (For me at least) ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ successfully balances philosophising and storytelling, and is perhaps this year’s must-read book: quieter and more subtle than the award-chasing ‘baggy monsters’ (‘The Luminaries’, ‘The Goldfinch’), but every bit as powerful.
Douglas Coupland, ‘Worst. Person. Ever’
Aaron Grierson, Senior Articles Editor
Once again I found myself tossed into a world that is entirely modern and identifiable, yet inexplicably foreign and bordering on the absurd. In short, the novel is about an anti-hero, Raymond Gunt, a cameraman who finds himself moving quickly from L.A. to London to a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, Kiribati. He winds up in the last of these locations to film a season of Survivor, a show I have no doubt we’re all familiar with. Along with this new job, Raymond has to try to maintain a career, his sanity in dealing with his ex-wife (who works for the company who hires him to help film Survivor), and compete for a new love interest that is dating his current boss. All amidst the threat of a nuclear bomb.
Now, the nuclear worry is far from war, or even a zombie-inducing apocalypse. Rather, the powers that be simply consider it the best way to deal with the gigantic pile of trash floating about the Pacific. Because it’s common knowledge that a marine ecosystem is radiation proof. Combine all this with a narrator that wants to convince you he’s James Bond, but everything else in the world sucks, and you’ve got a rather interesting outlook.
Admittedly, this might sound a little strange, but saying that Coupland is a little strange may be a bit of an understatement. He’s a satirist with views that I appreciate but can’t always follow. An effect I suppose comes from his being one of Canada’s most versatile contemporary artists (being a fiction, and non-fiction author, visual artist and photographer).
All that said, if you’re intrigued at all by modern satire, critical observations of culture that feel real, narrators that are full of themselves or are at all familiar with Coupland’s other writings, then I’d recommend finding a copy of this book.
Donna Tart, ‘The Goldfinch’
Camille Ralphs, Senior Poetry Editor
“The Old Masters, they were never wrong” says Theodore Decker, protagonist of ‘The Goldfinch’, towards the end of the book (p. 721). The statement is a deliberately lax quotation from Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, which begins “About suffering they were never wrong,/ the old Masters”; in altering the syntax of these lines, Tartt shifts the semantic emphasis from the power of suffering to the power of art, perhaps summarising the connection between the two main themes of the book.
Between chapters, Tartt quotes from Camus, Rimbaud and Nietzsche. But ‘The Goldfinch’ is not, despite this, a meditational text dense with philosophy (though the last chapter is more reflective than those before): the story moves at a fantastic pace, powering through its 771 pages. It begins with an explosion in a New York art museum, from which the painting referenced in the book’s title is accidentally acquired. This explosion proves fatal to several of the novel’s most important characters, but leads to the introduction of a crowd of other fascinating persons: believers in fate and astrology, Polish shady optimists throwing themselves “head first and laughing into the holy rage” (761), flautists and antiquarians, New York socialites, debutantes and dilettantes, swindlers and scammers, Las Vegas gamblers, opiate addicts and alcoholics and dealers in artworks and drugs. Tartt’s character description has been described as Dickensian in its attention to detail; at times, it becomes something close to “the miracle, or the joke… the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone. It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious becomes a joke.” (766-7)
Considering Tartt’s reputation and the success of her previous novels, it was only to be expected that ‘The Goldfinch’ should also receive favourable reviews. Despite the coverage it has received, however, it still has the quality of “a secret whisper from an alleyway” (758), offering a different and exceptional experience to every reader.
Vivek Tiwary, Andrew Robinson & Kyle Baker, ‘The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story’
Mahnoor Yawar, Deputy Articles Editor
This is exactly what the medium of sequential art was meant to do – tell the stories less told, submerged within a context so widely acknowledged. How many TV shows, documentaries, movies, and videos have we seen telling the Beatles story? How many have been able to capture the very essence of the phenomenon and the people at its center? This is the untold story of Brian Epstein, the manager that took a small band from a small town cellar and transformed them into global sensations for generations to come.
The book is, however, more than just a story of unprecedented fame and fortune. It is more than the story of the phenomenon that no live action medium could capture. It is the story of struggle and sorrow and insurmountable odds. Brian Epstein was a man who was made to suppress the very core of who he was long before it was considered acceptable to be who he was. A gay Jew from Liverpool during an era of bigotry, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Here is a man who was eventually consumed by his self-loathing, his loneliness, his addiction, and even his very ambition.
Artists Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker do a fantastic job of capturing Brian’s melancholy with a palette of blue amidst the wild bursts of colors and excitement that the Beatles stood for. Together with writer Vivek Tiwary, they do an impeccable (though not necessarily comprehensive) job of illustrating a rise and fall we rarely hear about. The Dark Horse team offers up a masterclass in both art and storytelling – a truly heartbreaking triumph and a must-read for fans of the medium.
Bilal Tanweer, ‘The Scatter Here Is Too Great’
Sana Hussain, Features Editor
Karachi provokes different reactions in people. There are those who love the city with reckless abandon, but there are also those who hate it with equal passion. Bilal Tanweer’s hauntingly beautiful collection of stories, ‘The Scatter Here Is Too Great’ weaves a complex narrative of the city that validates both sentiments. Centered around one bomb blast at Cantt Station, the book juxtaposes love, memories and nostalgia with the grimmer aspects of the volatile metropolitan.
One of the many characters in the book, who seems to be hopelessly in love with the city – or the idea of the city, says “a city is all about how you look at it […] We must learn to see it in many ways, so that when one of the ways of looking hurts us, we can take refuge in another way. You must always love the city.” The book follows the advice and does exactly that; seamlessly shifting from one perspective to the other, but sadly without refuge. Every view hurts. Interestingly, while at the heart of each story is the blast that rips through the city; the actual devastation is seen in the scatter of the personal lives of the characters. The strained relationship of father and son that transfers down to two generations; the destructive nature of love; and the failure to grapple with loss and move on, are what form the core of the wreckage. The writer, aware of how “the bomb was going to become the story of the city” gathers the scatter borne from the personal tragedies of each character and compels the reader to listen, for as he writes, “you must always love this city”.
Eleanor Catton, ‘The Luminaries’
Varda Nisar, Assistant Fiction Editor
The story starts off with an assemblage of men in a hotel – 12 men of varied backgrounds which on the surface seems natural enough, but of course, it is more than a random act of fate and timing that has placed these men together. As the story progresses, and through the minute details observed by the brilliant Eleanor Catton, the novel gives readers a real sense of things, as and when they happen. It is this intricacy wherein lies the true beauty of the book and its characters. Nothing is random, not the congregation of the 12 men, not the sudden entrance of a thirteenth (Walter Moody), not the unexpected way in which these people are connected to a dead man (Corsby Wells), Emery Staines, and a prostitute, who attempts to commit suicide.
The story develops through the planetary motions of the planets, divided into 12 parts, each part affected by the movement of stars and planets and thus unveiling a plot where everyone is somehow linked. And then there is the way in which the story is narrated; from present to past, and then again to the future only to go back to the past where the mystery is resolved finally. This genius plot setup means that there is always something to keep you bound to the book… something still left to be revealed, and it is this unorthodox and refreshing narrative approach that makes this book the book of the year for me.
Nivedita Memon, ‘Seeing Like A Feminist’
Ghausia Rashid Salam, Articles Editor
‘Seeing Like A Feminist’ is a book by Nivedita Menon, published by Zubaan Books. That alone should be incentive enough to pick up a copy. But even if you’re not inclined to buy a book by India’s largest feminist publishing house, the book itself is fascinating. In India and Pakistan, “feminism” is still The F Word, despite the prominence of women’s rights groups in both countries. Without confusing the reader with academic jargon and complicated language, the book offers the reader a view from a feminist’s perspective. How does a feminist see the family structure of India or the dowry system? How does a feminist see the beating and stripping of a young girl in West Bengal for dressing and acting like a boy, something that the average person would write off as an incident occurring because of “poverty and lack of education?” How does a feminist see sexual violence and what is the link between queer politics and feminism? Why are so many feminists often anti-capitalism? Nivedita Menon addresses the basics of feminism and more without positing herself as the sole authority, instead stating clearly that these are her opinions, and do not encompass all feminist perspectives.
It may be a cliché for the most vocal feminist on the editorial team to pick this particular book. But this truly is the most brilliant book I’ve read all year. And what I love the most about it is that it was written by a South Asian writer. My feminist mentor and friend, Nabiha Meher Shaikh pointed out to me that feminists are often prone to lose themselves to Western feminist theory, and completely forget the feminist heritage of the sub-continent. We have a legacy of feminism, but instead of drawing upon it, we run to read Simone Beauvoir and Bitch magazine and worship at the altar of Hilary Clinton. Well that we should; strong women all over the world must be acknowledged and appreciated by feminists, but not at the expense of forgetting our own identity as brown, third-world feminists, and certainly not at the expense of rejecting and neglecting our own legacy. ‘Seeing Like A Feminist’ only adds to that heritage, especially since people my own age often do not even read Kishwar Naheed, or know that she’s an acclaimed feminist poet in the first place! But feminism is for everyone, and so is this book. If you want to understand how feminism penetrates the fabric of society and creates the awareness of the need for a more egalitarian society, this book is definitely for you.