A look back at some of 2014’s literary highlights. Following on from our end of year retrospective of 2013, our editors pick the books that stood out for them this year.
‘Bad Feminist’, by Roxane Gay
Maryam Piracha, Editor-in-Chief
Fiction seems to have had a slow year in 2014 compared to years past. It was also a year when a number of civil movements and citizen uprisings mushroomed across the globe. There have been atrocities committed on all sides though the injustices against women and children still overshadow anything else. But the end of 2013 brought on Frozen and 2014 kicked off with Maleficent, both retelling Disney fairy tales empowering women and turning the conventions on their heads. 2014 has been a relatively better year for women in television and film. Here at The Missing Slate, we’re all feminists. How could we not be when 80% of staff are women? But that’s beside the point.
Roxane Gay was unknown to me before I started reading her collection of essays, which was brought to my attention through Amazon’s e-Book matching technology (the “People who bought XYZ also bought this” feature). Gay is an opinionated writer, which is really the best kind. She starts off with the endearing statement often missing in other feminist dialogues: the understanding that this is not a definitive text; that it takes into account her experiences as an Haitian American “black” woman who’s suffered through an ordeal in her childhood that, in the wake of the Rolling Stone saga, is never irrelevant, given the prevalence of the issue in both “First World” and “Third World” countries. She also states that she’s not the sort of feminist usually associated with the word which of course is a judgment in of itself, but an understandable one. She’s the sort of feminist who upholds people, both male and female, to the highest standards of accountability; who believes in the chivalry of men; who is endlessly tired of Hollywood’s obsession with slavery and suffrage; who is a magnanimous but competitive Scrabble player; who holds the rights of women in a still patriarchal world above all else. And yet she calls herself a “bad feminist”. Gay’s opinions aren’t non-debatable, but her prose eviscerates and pulls you in through sheer honesty which is refreshing to read. As I awaken to my more vocal role in Pakistan’s feminist realm, Gay’s words have taken root in my consciousness, lodged themselves deep, reminding me that there is still much to achieve.
‘Another English’, co-edited by Catherine Barnett and Tiphanie Yanique
Jacob Silkstone, Managing Editor
In the introduction to the Caribbean section of ‘Another English’, Ishion Hutchinson (part of The Missing Slate’s summer issue this year) quotes Joseph Brodsky’s “if literature is the deity, the Anthology is our Bible.”
Although nobody seems to be treating ‘Another English’ as a sacred text quite yet, co-editors Catherine Barnett and Tiphanie Yanique have performed miracles on the way to assembling representative selections of the best contemporary poems from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Ghana, India, and South Africa.
Admirably broad-minded and eclectic in its approach, ‘Another English’ sets out to be an “anthology of anthologies”, celebrating the plural Englishes beyond the old literary centres of New York and London, and deliberately setting out to ‘resist conventionality and respectability.’
From Apuleius (born in modern-day Algeria) to Oscar Wilde, writers on the margins of power have often produced work characterised by its energy and imagination — new ideas come from literary outsiders looking in. Sudeep Sen, curator of the Indian poems in ‘Another English’, picks up on the “confidence in the language, [the] unabashedness” shared by so many contemporary Indian writers, and that confidence seems to run through the anthology as a whole.
Highlights come both from the more established names (Kamau Brathwaite’s shockingly unconventional elegy for Mikey Smith, stoned to death in Kingston; Janet Frame’s ‘Yet Another Poem About a Dying Child’, with a final stanza that contains one of the most unsettling images of death I’ve ever read) and from poets who will be less familiar to most readers (Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s use of footnotes in ‘Everyday Things in My Life’, Ishmael Fiifi Annobil’s poem for the victims of genocide in Rwanda).
In the introduction to the Canadian section, Todd Swift observes that, “Of the major English-language poets who have become indispensable to world readers, few have come from places other than the United States or the British and Irish archipelago, and those who have done so have been published in New York and London and sanctioned by leading critics and poets from these ‘larger’ empires of taste…” ‘Another English’ works against the self-interested narrowness of those literary empires, offering welcome recognition that the poetry world is, after all, incorrigibly plural.
‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’, by Kei Miller
Jamie Osborn, Senior Poetry Editor
“More delicate than the historians’ are the mapmakers’ colours”, concludes Elizabeth Bishop in The Map, establishing a kind of metaphor for poetry itself (only one of many). What is more delicate is the way that Kei Miller challenges this in ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’.
“Delicate” might be an odd way of describing a collection that pits a mapmaker, comfortable in his belief that “My job is / to untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned” against the rastaman, whose voice, speaking for the centuries of violation that Jamaica suffered under colonial rule, is often angry, sometimes violent. But it is the skill with which Miller negotiates the two voices that gives this collection its eloquence and strange elegance. Against the smooth tones of the mapmaker are the rhythms of Jamaican patois. Against the mapmaker’s naivety is the rastaman’s intense feeling for his people. The dialogue between them frames the collection, in a sequence that forms a thread through other poems. But the sequence is itself framed by other voices, by explorations of history and religion, the natural world and society, of language itself.
The result is a complex interweaving of maps within maps, roads crisscrossing over the island where “landscape does not sit / willingly”, resisting “the viral spread of governments”. We might say that it is a collection particularly relevant in a time of shifting borders and shifting governments around the world: “here is Tel Aviv, here / is Gaza; also Edinburgh; Aberdeen; Egypt; Cairo”.
What makes it the book for 2014, for me, is that it doesn’t seek to pin down those shifting borders: instead, it recognises “de bloodclawt immapancy of dis world”. It doesn’t smooth over conflict, but in that recognition, it finds a voice of “heartbless” and vitality.
‘The Wake’, by Paul Kingsnorth
Camille Ralphs, Senior Poetry Editor
‘The Wake’, a novel set in the decade following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year.
Comments on the xenophobia and sexism of the protagonist have been fairly common since the book’s release. But while it is certainly true that Buccmaster’s treatment of “wifmen” is far from ideal and that his thoughts on “ingengas” and the “frenc” are bloody and intolerant, I think it necessary to see this as an evocation of a fixed point in the past, represented here (possibly) for the first time in literature — a point against which we should contrast the current state of things. Steven Pinker, in his book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, argues that humanity has become less violent over time; though our daily exposure to numerous news sources might lead us to believe otherwise, our lot is nothing compared to that of Buccmaster’s tiny “ham” and the travels of the “grene men” later in the novel, and critics might bear this in mind when attacking Kingsnorth for the views of his hero.
Though Buccmaster’s isolation and reliance on “the wilde” is likely incomprehensible to many people in today’s world of obsessive interconnectivity, readers’ complete immersion in Buccmaster’s experience is made possible by Kingsnorth’s spectacular employment of his ‘shadow tongue’ of updated Old English. The device also has the effect — like any instance of metaplasmus—of briefly disorienting the reader and, in this instance particularly, invoking on a deeper level the strangeness of the past. Though it slows down reading of the novel to begin with, the effort the reader makes to understand the language is well rewarded.
One question that arises, considering the book was published by way of a crowdfunding campaign rather than by the traditional route, is whether more extensive editing might have benefited the final work; yet at the same time, the character of Buccmaster’s voice is currently untamed and earthy, a tangled undergrowth of realistic personal experience, and this effect might be lessened by clipping.
Overall, Kingsnorth’s work is both stylistically and thematically impressive, and ‘The Wake’ is an exceptional novel that must be read before it may be judged.
‘All The Light We Cannot See’, by Anthony Doerr
Mahnoor Yawar, Senior Articles Editor
In a year filled with duds and disappointments, ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ was more a gale force wind of joy than a mere breath of fresh air.
It seemed like a simple enough concept: two lives intertwine during an era with its own overpowering narrative. Yet somehow, Anthony Doerr has created an exemplary tale, dense with everything from geography to mathematics, asking the timeless question: what do our lives mean when history vows to swallow them whole within its unforgiving, immortal context?
Somewhere between Werner’s love for science and Marie-Laure’s passion for literature, the essences of youth and identity shine through. Both characters grow up inquisitive and precocious, yet cruelly limited by duty and circumstance.
Refreshingly, the book circumvents most clichés, giving its protagonists room to breathe and grow without romance, as any good coming-of-age tale should. But this is more than that — Marie-Laure and Werner are two insignificant souls who grow up tainted by war and the myriad atrocities contained therein.
Doerr has said in many interviews that his phenomenal book took ten years to write, and it shows. Every detail, every image, every heartbreaking turn of phrase is immaculately constructed; the work of someone who has breathed nothing but his subject for as long as he can remember.
Of course, we’re made to root for the characters with brief windows into different periods of their lives. The chronological disconnect is jarring at times, but this is a story appreciated more for its stunning prose, and characterization that sings.
Its continued presence on the bestseller lists long after its release should suffice as motivation, but if you’re still hesitating to pick this book up, believe that Hollywood will beat you to it. Read it now, while you can still bask in its glow.
‘As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride’, by Cary Elwes
Aaron Grierson, Senior Articles Editor
This strikes me as the sort of book a lot of people would want to read but were never really expecting to see in hard copy. The film itself is typically viewed as a surprise cult classic with a laundry list of quotable lines. The author is a man of many obvious talents. He starred in this movie, and wrote this book, but he also featured in films like Saw. The passion he feels for this entire production is evident throughout the book.
Elwes covers everything and everyone. He walks the reader through the entire production, from casting each character, to researching their roles (which involved a lot of watching other films, especially films with sword fights). The text is frequently injected with quotations from other members of the cast and film crew, especially from Rob Reiner and Andy Sheinman, the director and producer respectively. As much as the quotations aren’t date stamped, a lot of them help flush out the general feeling of a particular moment, or day.
One of my favourite parts of the film was the “Greatest Swordfight in Modern History”, and more so upon discovering the two chapters detailing the work that went into it. Months of training with an Olympic class fencer, in addition to watching classic movies with fights in them. It’s also worth mentioning that they did nearly all their own stunts. Elwes even notes how he had broken his toe shortly before the filming of that scene while riding Andre’s ATV, and told no one for fear of being tired.
Did I mention the hours of Mel Brooks footage in his role as Mad Max, where he kept bantering without managing to repeat a single line? That happened. Or that Elwes manages to summarize the entire plot in three pages while apologizing profusely to author William Goldman? It’s included free of charge, on the off-chance you’ve never seen the movie.
It not only made me want to revisit my childhood, and the film, but it reminded me that I still have to actually read ‘The Princess Bride’, as sad a fan as I am to admit it. If you love the movie, you’ll love this behind-the-scenes companion!
‘The Book of Gold Leaves’, by Mirza Waheed
Isra Ansari, Assistant Fiction Editor
Mirza Waheed’s ‘The Book of Gold Leaves’ has an ethereal aura: it is a story of Kashmir, of Srinagar, of Faiz and Roohi — who fall in love during a tumultuous time in Kashmir’s history. The story weaves through layers of emotions, not only the emotions of the star-crossed lovers, but of other characters who are central to the story. In an already disputed land, the novel questions the uncertainty of life during the 1990s through the eyes of a Shia artist who falls in love with a Sunni girl, as well as a Hindu school teacher who cannot call anywhere but Srinagar home, and an Indian soldier who is forced to lay siege to the town and cannot help but question why. The journey the characters undertake echoes the melancholy that is Kashmir — a story of sweet sadness, anger and frustration. It highlights the ability of the human mind to make logical decisions, but instead act impulsively and solely on the basis of emotion. In a time of war when the brain and heart are in continuous conflict and self-preservation is a natural instinct, Waheed’s novel is a cathartic read. Written in a beautiful, almost melodic tone, the 352-page story is almost like a dream — it lulls you with a story of a blooming love but ends all too quickly because of the cruel reality of the lovers’ world.
The cover art is an added bonus — designed by Mirza Waheed’s great grandfather, the beautiful gold background with delicately painted flowers is a masterpiece. This book gets top shelf priority on my bookshelf, and is definitely among 2014’s must-reads!
‘The Movie-Teller’, by Hernán Rivera Letelier
Original title: La contadora de películas (translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)
Rosario Freire, Assistant Poetry Editor
‘The Movie-Teller’ is a book that can easily be read in just a couple of hours, not only because it has no more than 60 pages, but also because once you start it’s hard to stop…
Hernán Rivera Letelier, as he does in most of his novels, takes us through the landscapes and stories of the lost mining towns in the desert in the North of Chile — the towns in which he himself grew up, and which he knows so well. Rivera Letelier’s narrative voice is so real that is hard to know whether we are reading a novel or his memoirs: in ‘The Movie-Teller’, the author blends seamlessly into his own cast of characters.
The book tells the captivating story of a young girl, Maria Margarita, who has a special talent — an almost uncanny ability to retell movies. Her talent and passion soon spread beyond her own impoverished family — five brothers and a disabled father, unable to afford a single visit to the movie theatre — to reach the whole community, and people get together to be delighted by her stories, and forget the harsh routines of their day-t0-day lives.
Rivera Letelier’s style is as simple and tough as the desert and lives of the people forced to eke out an existence there. The narrative brings to life places and people that no one seems to care about: the invisible ones of history, people of flesh and blood living in poverty, which, according to the author, is the condition in which one can really appreciate the true human virtues.
The story is accompanied by important cultural events in the history of the town, like the arrival and success of the cinema, followed by its decline, as the TV came to replace it. On a wider level, ‘The Movie-Teller’ documents the decay of the saltpeter mining towns in the North of Chile. The book reveals the untold memories buried deep in our historical roots; it shows us the dreams and hopes of people that must be ultimately be subject to the tyranny of fate.
‘The Bone Clocks’, by David Mitchell
Sauleha Kamal, Contributing Editor (Fiction)
“The impossible is negotiable. What is possible is malleable.”
One of the narrators of ‘The Bone Clocks’ realizes this near the end of his section. Indeed, the revelation exemplifies the novel’s genre-bending approach to fantasy. David Mitchell’s latest novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year, is not-quite fantasy, not-quite realistic. It resists classifications through a creative structure that allows for full immersion into its many narrators’ relatively normal lives as a supernatural war between two tribes, Anchorites and Horologists, takes place in the background.
This kaleidoscopic novel is split into six parts, each narrated by one of five different characters and connected, in some way, to the life of Holly Sykes — narrator of the first and last sections.
We first meet Holly Sykes as a runaway teenager in 1984, immediately after she has left home following an argument with her mother. Holly is not an ordinary teenager: she has heard the supernatural voices of people she calls “the Radio People” since childhood.
The next section introduces us to Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge undergraduate with sociopathic tendencies who insists on a flexibility of morality as Mitchell insists on a flexibility of genres. Hugo is self-serving, calculating and opportunistic, but Mitchell creates a compelling ambiguity in his character through moments where he betrays flashes of humanity: the moments spent with his family, the moment when he helps a homeless man, his romantic relationship with a barmaid at a ski resort.
The next section contemplates markedly different issues: its war photographer narrator appears to have chosen his profession not because he wants to make a difference, but because of the thrill of it. The fourth section, meanwhile, deals with a novelist and makes many tongue-in-cheek references to Mitchell himself. The fifth marks a full immersion into the supernatural war, while the sixth returns to Holly Sykes, 60 years into the future.
Remarkably ambitious, ‘The Bone Clocks’ aims to blur the lines between realistic novel and fantasy, time and narrative voice, all the while retaining its literary merit. The novel’s most prominent quality is its ability to entertain with its ever-changing plot and narrative voices, but Mitchell’s talent and love of language ensures that each sentence is crafted with a care that makes this novel enjoyable on many different levels.