Monthly Archives: January 2014

2013: The Year in Books

2013 has been a year of discovery. A chance remark by an Oxford professor during a lecture on Virgil led me to discover Ismail Kadare, who rapidly became by far and away my favourite writer. In Kadare’s novels, the themes of memory, narrative, myth-making, history, nationalism and love are entwined together through some truly lyrical prose, and enlivened by striking imagery. Kadare is a writer I recommend unreservedly.

Assigned reading in an informally organized reading group on post-colonialism in my Balliol College MCR was Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. This searing novella about war and exile, memory and the homeland set me upon a quest to discover Palestinian writing, leading me to Elias Khoury, Jean Genet, Emile Habiby, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Mourid Barghouti, Tawfiq Zayyad and – of course – Mahmoud Dawish. In March, I stood by Mahmoud Darwish’s grave in Ramallah, and read those words that still give me the frisson – the butterfly’s tread leaves no footprints/ yet the butterfly’s tread shall never be erased” – words that, perhaps, sum up best what I love about this literature.

And lastly, I attended a series of lectures on W.H. Auden, whose poetry of love, loss and politics, by times serious and by times ironic, savage, humorous, mocking and profound – very quickly established itself in the space closest to my heart. LullabyIf I Could Tell You and Spain are just a few of my favourite poems, and I now carry a copy of Auden on all my travels.

Here, then, is a list of what I’ve read in 2013, with a very reductive one-para summary, and an even more reductive attempt at rating (5 stars – absolute must-read; 4 stars – excellent book; 3 stars – very good; 2 stars – decent; 1 star – give it a miss). Most of these books have been reviewed on this blog; some, I missed; and those that I read in this last month are still to be reviewed.

Middle East/Palestine

1. Ghassan Kanafani, Returning to Haifa (*****): Brilliant, searing, disturbing novella about home and exile, and Palestine. Reviewed here.

A man is a cause.”

2. Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun (****): A series of short stories about Palestine; the eponymous tale is particularly harrowing, and a must-read; converted into a movie called “The Deceived“. Reviewed here.

““He knew his father through and through, and he knew that the past was for him, a solid wooden box locked with a thousand keys that had been cast into the depths of the ocean.”

3. Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children (***): Another short-story series, this time from the perspective of children, making it all the more poignant. Like the rest of Kanafani, filled with controlled anger, searing and savage. Reviewed here.

‘…there are a lot of things I didn’t tell you, and a lot of things that you don’t tell me. We make our world smaller with our hands in order to force outside its limits everything that has nothing to do with us. We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness.’

4. Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun (*****): The Palestinian revolution, as remembered by a dying Palestinian freedom-fighter, in a series of flashbacks spanning twenty years, Galilee, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beirut, Shatila, Shabra and the lands between. My favourite book of the year. Cannot recommend it highly enough. Reviewed here.

‘I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, ‘Master, this isn’t how stories end. No.’

I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…’

5. Elias Khoury, Little Mountain (****): Khoury’s modernist novella about the Lebanese Civil War, filled with staccato prose and vivid descriptions. The Foreword by Edward Said is an added bonus. (TBR).

6. Ibrahim Nasrallah, A Time of White Horses (****): The story of one Palestinian village as it moves from Ottoman rule to Mandate to the inevitable horror of ’48 and the nakba. The humanity in this story is what makes the novel special. Reviewed here.

She was like a beautiful edifice that had been abandoned, with nothing in it but the spiders that kept multiplying to fill the corners.”

7. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (****): Cairo comes vividly, starkly alive in the first book of the Nobel Prize Winner’s Cairo Trilogy, a Cairo in terrifying and beautiful flux and chaos. The detail, richness and colour is astounding. Reviewed here.

He was like a branch that turns into firewood when cut from the tree.”

8. Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love (*****): The rebel and the exile meets a people in exile and rebellion. The story of Genet’s life with the Palestinian fedayeen, and his love of Palestine. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Reviewed here.

“To have been dangerous for a thousandth of a second, to have been handsome for a thousandth of a thousandth of a second, to have been that, or happy or something, and then to rest – what more can one want?”

9. Emile Habiby, Saeed the Pessoptimist (****): Rebalais and Voltaire in Palestine. Habiby’s magical-fantastic-realist novel is a whole new way of writing Palestine, and it is powerful. Reviewed here.

The moon is closer to us now than the fig trees of our departed village.”

10. Amin Maalouf, Leo the African (*****): Maalouf’s story of Leo Africanus, nomad, wanderer and exile, from Grenada, Fez, Tunis, Constantinople, Rome – but belonging to no place – is beautifully crafted and subtly wrought. The prose is mesmerizing. Must-red. (TBR)

“All men have always frequented taverns; all men have always loved wine. Otherwise, why should God have needed to forbid it?”

11. Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (*****): His memoir about exile and return to a lost homeland. Poetic prose. Heartbreaking in parts, moving throughout. A must-read.

The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”

Ismail Kadare

1. Kadare, The File on H (*****): Two Homeric scholars travel to Albania to record the last surviving oral epic poets – and find that oral poetry, writing, national identity and history come together with devastating consequences. Reviewed here.

2. Kadare, The Siege (****): The story of an Ottoman siege on an Albanian castle, a mirror to Enver Hoxha’s Albanian regime in the second half of the 20th century. Some of Kadare’s finest writing on the construction national identity. Reviewed here.

“We will leave the people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it from being written down.”

3. Kadare, Broken April (*****): My favourite Kadare. Haunting and lyrical, the story of the blood feud in mountainous Albania, beyond the writ of lowlands law. Reviewed here.

“The world shone like glass, and with a kind of crystal madness, it seemed that it might begin to slip at any moment and shatter into thousands of tiny fragments.”

4. Kadare, Palace of Dreams (****): Kafka meets Marquez meets Orwell in this strange, exhilarating novel about an Empire that collects all its citizens’ dreams. Reviewed here.

As for Albania… it grew more and more distant and dim, like some far cold constellation, and he wondered if he really knew anything about what went on there… he sat there uncertainly, his pen growing heavy in his hand, until finally it rested on the paper and instead of writing Albania wrote: There. He gazed at the expression that had substituted itself for the name of his homeland, and suddenly felt oppressed by what he immediately thought of as Quprilian sadness. It was a term unknown to any other language in the world, though it ought to be incorporated in them all.

 It must have been snowing… there…”

5. Kadare, The Pyramid (***): His unique take on the building of the Egyptian pyramids as a prolonged, eternal moment of the construction of nationhood. (TBR)

6. Kadare, The Three-Arched Bridge (*****): Murder, legends, poetry and a war between two nations centered upon the construction of a three-arched bridge upon a river. (TBR).

India

1. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (**): Finally got around to reading this classic. Which can never be the same after reading Edward Said’s stinging critique of it in Culture and Imperialism.

2. Mahasweta Devi, After Kurukshetra (*****): Mahasweta Devi brushes epic against the grain. The story after the story of the Mahabharata, from the point of view of women, of all castes and colors (literally!). Reviewed here.

3. Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (***): A jolly good tale, although I think it could have been 100 pages shorter, and perhaps not entirely deserving of the dizzying accolades that have come its way. Great ending though, and I’m certainly going to read the rest of the series. (TBR)

Other Literature

1. Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (****): A beatnik on the road. The descriptions of France through the eyes of Cezanne and Van Gogh are particularly beautiful. Reviewed here.

Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything.

2. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (****): His classic travel memoir. Spontaneous prose and the aesthetic of disharmony. Reviewed here.

 Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong. You can’t make geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It’s all this! He wrapped his finger in his fist; the car hugged the line straight and true.”

3. Milan Kundera, The Joke (***): Kundera’s acerbic denunciation of youth, lyricism, poetry and revolution is starkly visible in this early work. Reviewed here.

“Youth is terrible; it is a stage trod by children in buskins and a variety of costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand.  And history is terrible because it so often ends up a playground for the immature… a playground for easily roused mobs of children whose stimulated passions and simplistic poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.”

4. Federico Garcia Lorca, The Spanish Trilogy (****): Garcia Lorca’s three plays bring rural Spain pre-revolution to life, in savage and uncompromising terms. Strong female protagonists, having agency and initiating their own actions, are his forte. Reviewed here.

“What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue?”

5. Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country (****): The great Nigerian novelist’s personal account of the tragedies of the Biafran war of independence, through poetry, reflection and memoir. (TBR)

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Slipstream

1. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel (*****):  A novel about love and eternity. Borges called it “perfect”. That should be enough of a recommendation. Reviewed here.

2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (****): Her brilliant dystopic novel about a near-future governed by a theocracy in which women’s bodies are completely subordinated. Reviewed here.

We are hers to define; we must suffer her adjectives.”

3. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (*****): My compulsory annual re-read of my favourite fantasy novel; this time in the place where it is set, high up in the mountains of Provence!

Poetry

1. Lermontov (***): What is it about great Russian poets and premature deaths in foolish duels? In any event, Lermontov’s dark and brooding poetry is perfect for certain moods. My own favorites are The Sail, The Clouds, The Dream (this one, most of all!) and The Dagger.

2. Elizabeth Bishop (****): Her One Art quickly became one of my favourite poems.

3. Naziq al-Malaika: Iraqi poetess, very important modernist figure. Her Love Song for Words (available online) is beautiful.

4. Tawfiq Zayyad: Palestinian poet of resistance. His poetry is deeply political; pity that so little of it is available online.

5. Mourid Barghouti: As political as Zayyad, although in a softer, subtler way. My own favourite is The Pillow. Much of his poetry is available on his website.

6. Mahmoud Darwish: Palestinian national poet. Individual love and love for the homeland merge in indistinguishable ways – perhaps his hallmark. His poetry cannot be described – it must be read.  But I cannot now imagine a time when I did not know his work. My personal favourite is We Were Missing a Present.

7. Wallace Stevens: I love his non-symbolist work. “Far beyond the rhetorician’s touch” is one of my favourite lines in all of poetry. Favourites include The Idea of Order at Quay West (“ah quest for order, pale Ramon!), Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight, On Modern Poetry. 

8. Christopher Okigbo: Nigerian poet of Negritude, Achebe’s comrade-in-arms during the Biafran revolution, and killed during the war. From Lament for the Lavender Mist:

The moon has ascended between us—/Between two pines/That bow to each other;/Love with the moon has ascended,/Has fed on our solitary stem;/And we are now shadows/That cling to each other/But kiss the air only.”

9. W.H. Auden: Little to be said. Just read Lullaby, If I Could Tell You and Spain. And then read the rest of Auden. 🙂

History

1. William Dalrymple, Return of a King (****): Reviewed here. The story of the First British war in Afghanistan, in the early 1840s, ending with the heartbreaking sack of Kabul. Dalrymple mixes the art of the storyteller with the historian’s eye for detail, telling a jolly good yarn in the process.

2. Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels (****): Actually the real-life historical story of the same character around whom Maalouf builds his Leo the African. (TBR)

Apart from that, a few books of history that fall outside the ambit of this blog, but which nonetheless I found – even as a layman – interesting, even gripping: Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory (about an incident in the Indian freedom movement); Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution (about the Omani republican revolution in the 1960s); James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed; CLR James, Black Jacobins (about the Haitian slave revolt in the 1790s); and Guha, Dominance without Hegemony.

Epic

1. Virgil, Aeneid (*****): How different an epic feels when you re-read it after listening to experts speak about it. I came to realize how richly layered, complex and deep this foundation myth really is. If there was one thing I’d recommend everyone to read before approaching Virgil, it would be Parry’s “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“, a brief thirteen-page essay available online.

May 2014 be a year of many more books; and may it bring to all of you the many epiphanies that come with poetry, literature, laughter and love.

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