Members of THE WHITE REVIEW editorial team, contributors, and friends of the magazine reveal the books they’ve been reading and revisiting in 2019.
Katherine Angel, author of Daddy Issues
Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (tr. Charlotte Barslund, Verso), about childhood abuse and language, was riveting. I was elated by Ben Lerner’s beautiful, high-wire The Topeka School (Granta), and Deborah Levy’s intricate The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) blew my mind. Andrea Long Chu’s Females (Verso) was bracing and smart; Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso) exciting and challenging. Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations (Picador), Anne Boyer’s The Undying (Allen Lane), and Jenn Ashworth’s Notes Made While Falling (Goldsmiths Press) were brilliant on illness, and much more besides. I read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Picador) for the first time and loved its playful treatment of painful themes. Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (Allen Lane) was a fascinating exploration of aspects of Europe getting little air-time in the current discourse. And I was rooted to the spot by Chanel Miller’s luminous Know My Name (Viking), on sexual assault, misogyny, and race.
Chloe Aridjis, author of Sea Monsters
I loved Self-Portrait by Celia Paul (Jonathan Cape) and Optic Nerve by María Gainza (tr. Thomas Bunstead, Harvill Secker). Each portrays, with dreamy intensity, a tight intertwining of art and the female psyche – Celia Paul as a painter herself, and María Gainza as a woman obsessed with paintings and the stories that haunt them. I was also very struck by Doorways: Women, Homelessness, Trauma and Resistance by Bekki Perriman (House Sparrow Press), a book that fills you with rage and sadness. Alongside interviews with homeless women Perriman includes photographs of some of the many doorways in which she herself, homeless for years, sought refuge.
Julia Armfield, author of SALT SLOW
I’ve had a strange year in fiction, returning to old favourites a lot for novel inspiration in between trying to keep up with as much new writing as possible. My favourites of the year are a total jumble – Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Picador) was a stand-out, one of the most purely funny, sexy, warm-hearted novels I’ve read in years. There was also Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (Viking), a sequel I truthfully hadn’t thought I wanted but which left me bereft the moment I finished. My true book of the year, however, was probably Mary McCarthy’s The Group (Virago) – a novel about the thirties, written in the sixties, with such an incredibly modern sensibility that you could be forgiven for thinking it was published this year. It’s the book I’ll be gifting to everyone I know this year.
Khairani Barokka, author of Indigenous Species
2019 uncovered gems and sent resonance my way. I was excited by the multilingualism in books such as Mary Jean Chan’s assured debut collection Flèche (Faber), Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Vol. 2, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s guiding light of a book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press). Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (Picador) was everything; how I wish it had been given more recognition in the UK. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Faber) and Jay Bernard’s Surge (Chatto & Windus) both brought political realities to bear on verse potently, while Elee Kraljii Gardner’s Trauma Head (Anvil Press) reflected aspects of neural reality in strikingly original fashion. Jane Yeh continued to deliver delight with Discipline (Carcanet). Chipping away at the TBR list, I loved the tragic, poetic The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zèran (tr. Sophie Hughes, And Other Stories), translated by Sophie Hughes, and Sara Ahmed’s trenchant Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press).
Ned Beauman, dog-owner and author of Boxer, Beetle
For the first few months of this year I read nothing but books about dog behaviour. It’s always rewarding when you explore a niche field and discover the books which are beloved classics within that field but completely unknown outside it, and so too here. The two best dog training books are The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McDonnell (Random House) and The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson (Dogwise Publishing). You might assume that nobody is reading dog training books for the prose, but in fact McDonnell and Donaldson are both terrific writers with styles that strike an enjoyable contrast: McDonnell writes in a folksy, warm-blanket sort of voice, while Donaldson is stern and economical. First read McDonnell, who will convince you to get a dog, then get a dog, then read Donaldson, who will explain to you how your new dog works.
Julia Bell, author of Really Techno
Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything – this is such an exciting piece of writing. It’s a book about time and the way that Deborah bends time in this book is really exciting. I loved it the best out of all her recent fiction, although Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton) comes a close second. She also writes from a male POV with such tenderness. And for non-fiction Annie Ernaux’s The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – this really moved me, and the experimental use of the collective pronouns – ‘we’ – is such a clever way to speak about her experience but also that of the collective culture. I had to keep pausing to re-read passages of it.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Starling Days
I struggle to rank my reading but some books stay in my mind and I find myself turning them over like paperclips tucked into a coat pocket. Flèche by Mary-Jean Chan (Faber), Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder, Harvill Secker), The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (Drawn & Quarterly), Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart (Avery Hill Publishing). And this feels a little cheating as I read it early but Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton), which will be out next year. These books are very different. Some are poems and some are novels and some are graphic works. I think what they have in common is they all ask in different ways how best to live a life in confusing times.
Thomas Bunstead, translator of Optic Nerve
I find it hard to look past Greta Thunberg’s NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE (Penguin), or just the fact of Greta in the world, as the event of 2019. It’s been a companion piece, along with titles such as THE SHOCK OF THE ANTHROPOCENE, by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, translated by David Fernbach (Verso) and George Monbiot’s FERAL (Penguin), for those of us who’ve taken part in the Extinction Rebellion protests and begun to find ways of being with the unfolding climate crisis.
Another eco companion piece, turning on an intriguingly conceived ‘connection with the land’, is COMETIERRA, a debut novel by Argentinean Dolores Reyes (forthcoming in Julia Sanches’s translation with Fourth Estate and Harper Via). Set in a semi-lawless modern-day favela, its main character is an adolescent girl with the power to see what has happened in a place by ingesting the soil there. Most are fearful and dismissive of this girl with mud around her mouth, this young witch, and she herself is ambivalent in the extreme about her gift, but people soon start coming to her in need of answers – for unsolved crimes, murders mainly, mainly of women. Reluctantly then, she accompanies them to the crime scenes, in what becomes a vision-infused detective novel of the highest order, a Latin American MRS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW for the current century. The voice is as persuasive and definitive-feeling as anything I’ve read this decade.
In English, I found both Will Eaves’s MURMUR (CB Editions, Bellevue) and Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS (Jonathan Cape) to be tender, radical reinventions of what the novel can do. Beacons in 2019.
Jen Calleja, author of I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For
This year I mainly sought out short story collections. My favourite stories were in Ruby Cowling’s This Paradise (Boiler House Press), Julia Armfield’s salt slow (Picador) and Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This (Picador). The most personally significant book I read this year was Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by the extraordinary Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions). You won’t find a novel more visceral – it’s practically dripping. It relentlessly inhabits a spectrum from acute raw emotion to stomach-flipping tragedy and violence. This novel, along with Patrick Staff’s exhibition On Venus at the Serpentine, finally made me fully vegetarian and probably fast-tracking to going vegan in the new year. I’m also still thinking about Kim Hyesoon’s poetry collection Autobiography of Death translated by Don Mee Choi with drawings by the poet’s daughter Fi Jae Lee (New Directions).
Helen Charman, poet, writer and academic
It’s been a brilliant year for poetry: in particular, I’ve loved Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body, Produced by Love (Ignota), Heather Phillipson’s Whip-hot and Grippy (Bloodaxe), Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland (Faber), and Tom Betteridge’s Dressings (Materials). Sam Solomon’s Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist Feminism: Social Reproduction and the Institutions of Poetry (Bloomsbury) and Cinzi Arruza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser’s Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (Verso) have been a call to action against the ongoing commodification of feminism, as well as a salve for its effects. My book of the year, however, is over a century old. I’m writing this a few days before the election and, from this vantage point, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has defined my 2019. I’ve been teaching an MA module called ‘Literature and social change’, and it was the first book I read with my students; one of them, at the end of term, told me they had been buying cheap copies of it and giving it out to everyone they know.
Lydia Davis, author of Can’t and Won’t
Along with the books that feel necessary these days, if one is to face the facts, such as, most recently, the surprisingly engaging The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (Allen Lane), and, before that, belatedly, Elizabeth Kolbert’s fascinating, solidly researched, and still relevant The Sixth Extinction (Bloomsbury), I have been studying some practical books for guidance in the way I want to live now, beginning with Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing), on permaculture gardening. For imaginative relief from facing facts and from ongoing efforts to reduce my carbon footprint, and for current work, I have revisited certain favourite children’s classics, such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Lastly, returning to our own times, I have been entranced by Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend (Virago).
Jon Day, author of Homing: On Pigeons, Dwellings and Why We Return
I read some magical, destabilising novels this year: James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time (Canongate), Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (Faber) are all brilliant. It has been wonderful to discover the work of Natalia Ginzburg through Daunt Books. Happiness, as Such, which was published this year in Minna Zallman Proctor’s new translation, made me love her even more. I also loved, for different reasons, Spitzenprodukte’s scurrilous, satirical novel-cum-manifesto (and cum manifesto) Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell (Montez Press). Alex Niven’s moving and combative New Model Island (Repeater Books) and Katherine Angel’s smart and insightful Daddy Issues (Peninsula) both made me feel uncomfortably seen. Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision (Faber) induced great envy.
Maria Dimitrova, critic
It has been a good year for reissues, especially if you like spending time with female narrators facing chaos with mental acuity and cool agitation. Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (New Directions), In the Cut by Susanna Moore (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (reissued by Faber alongside her essay collection Seduction and Betrayal) share a common faith in stylistic and syntactic precision, often as a bulwark against the overdrive of the present. One of the quieter but equally thrilling reissues has been the Library of America’s volume of Jean Stafford’s novels, edited by Kathryn Davis (to be followed by Stafford’s collected short stories in 2021). Stafford’s language is both grandly archaic and timeless; like the protagonist of her third and final novel, The Catherine Wheel (FSG), her prose seems to ‘exist in two tenses simultaneously’. It is easily one of the most underrated novels of the decade, if not the century.
I admired Anne Boyer’s writing on pain, exhaustion and attrition, as well as the strength derived from their commonality, in The Undying (Allen Lane). This was the year I also encountered the work of Janine di Giovanni, whose latest book, The Morning They Came For Us (Bloomsbury), published in 2016 and based on her on-the-ground reporting from the early stages of the conflict in Syria, provides a chillingly intimate context of war and what it means to bear witness to atrocity, at a time when access to information is so widely available as to render mere knowledge impotent. It’s the wrong adjective but I am happy to have more of her books to read.
Lauren Elkin, author of Flaneuse
There’s a lot of mediocre art writing at the moment (there seems to be a real fashion for it). But there are also some wonderful writers out there with a serious sense of art history, who help me look, and think rigorously about what I’m looking at. Some stand-outs were Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light (Abrams Press) by Peter Schjeldahl, a collection spanning over thirty years from the New Yorker’s art critic. Marina Warner’s Forms of Enchantment (Thames & Hudson). Mary Ann Caws’s Creative Gatherings (Reaktion Books), an intricate web of stories, references, and anecdotes, brimming over with vivid illustrations. Deryn Rees-Jones’s gorgeous Paula Rego: The Art of Story (Thames & Hudson). Aruna D’Souza’s Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (Badlands Unlimited). And I’m always coming back to the collected Linda Nochlin, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s Photography at the Dock (University Of Minnesota Press). Other favourites this year: Nathalie Léger’s Exposition (tr. Amanda DeMarco, Les Fugitives), Fourth Person Singular (Pavilion Poetry) by Nuar Alsadir, and Mother (Viking) by Sarah Knott.
Charlotte Geater, winner of The White Review Poet’s Prize 2018
I started the year with Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto (Fitzcarraldo Editions), which made me scribble in the margins with such fervour. Probably my book of the decade, if such a thing is possible. I carried Lucie Brock-Broido’s selected poems, Soul Keeping Company (Carcanet), around all summer. Now, it’s her last collection, Stay, Illusion (Knopf). She has changed the constellations inside my fuzzy brain. Lila Matsumoto’s Urn & Drum (Shearsman), alongside some more recent work of hers in Erotoplasty 3, has made me think in new ways about images inside, alongside, and out of poetry. Other joys: Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook (Particular Books), Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower (Orbit), and Diana Wynne Jones’s Conrad’s Fate (Harper Collins) full of delightfully weird magic to do with houses, maths and awkward teenagers. Lastly: this winter has made me read endless amounts of Man from UNCLE fanfiction. No titles to mention. Sometimes you just need gay spies saving each other.
Alice Hattrick, author of Ill Feelings
Reading was a challenge this year. Found relief in Michelle Tea’s Against Memoir (And Other Stories), Caspar Heinemann’s poetry collection Novelty Theory (The 87 Press) and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries: A memoir (Bloomsbury Circus) – thank you Johanna Hedva for recommending the last one (can their book-length lecture THEY’RE REALLY CLOSE TO MY BODY on as part of The Season of Cartesian Weeping count? Hope so). Anne Boyer’s The Undying (Allen Lane) will be on everyone’s list, because it’s great. Unfinished but still loved: Lucy Inglis’s expansive Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (Macmillan), and Maria Tumarkin’s essays in Axiomatic (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
Johanna Hedva, author of On Hell
My favourite book of the year was Leila Taylor’s Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater Books). Darkly is part memoir, part cultural critique about how, in Blackness, the Gothic is born and alive, even as (or especially because) it haunts and clings to death. Taylor grew up as the only Black goth at the Bauhaus concert, and her voice is as fun and irreverent as it is incisive and erudite.
I adore everything Moor Mother does, from her records, which are fire, to her poetry, which takes the top of my head off. I especially love her work, with Rasheedah Phillips, as the collective Black Quantum Futurism. The two anthologies that BQF has put out are brilliant: they glow and detonate, they’ve change the shape of my bones. My favourite is their collection Space-Time Collapse I: From the Congo to the Carolinas (AfroFuturist Affair), which bends time and subverts space. I’m partial to Morgan Parker’s assertion that, as ‘facts are white’, so is time, so I loved the essays in Space-Time for showing how insurrectionary that is on every scale, from the quantum to the cosmic.
Megan Hunter, author of The End We Start From
I started 2019 on a Muriel Spark kick in Edinburgh, reading novel after novel, hungry for her acerbic voice. Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs Caliban (Quarto) was another early favourite, its strange joy radiating through the winter. As I edited a book over the spring Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (found at The Second Shelf) kept me company. I loved Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light (Penguin Classics), and kept remembering its sun drenched rooms and depiction of life with a small child. Other memories: Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland (Faber), which I carried around for months, an intense weekend absorbed in Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wanted (Viking), reading Sinéad Gleeson’s visceral Constellations (Picador) in the bath, re-reading Susanna Moore’s indelible In the Cut on trains to the city. And one very recent read, out in 2020: Indelicacy (Daunt Books) by Amina Cain is an exquisite, precise novel about a woman’s creativity, which will give light in gloomy times to come.
Joanna Kavenna, author of Zed
This year I’ve mainly been reading books that seek to fathom what the hell has gone so badly wrong and how the hell we could ever put it right again. The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman (Guardian Faber Publishing), This is Not Propaganda (Faber) by Peter Pomerantsev and Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books) by Shoshana Zuboff are all powerful, disturbing and brilliant. It was also the seventieth anniversary of the publication of 1984 this year, in one of those pieces of dark irony the universe occasionally metes out, and two excellent books on Orwell’s continuing significance are David Dwan’s Liberty, Equality and Humbug (OUP Oxford) and Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth (Picador).
Elsewhere I greatly admired John Freeman’s stunning poems about mortality, beauty and loss in Maps (Copper Canyon Press). Agustín Fernández Mallo’s wild dreamscape Nocilla Lab (tr. Thomas Bunstead, Fitzcarraldo); Alan Trotter’s fabulous Borgesian noir, Muscle (Faber); and Samantha Harvey’s beautiful memoir The Shapeless Unease, about grief, insomnia and the weirdness of being awake, asleep, alive at all…
Caleb Klaces, author of Fatherhood
Timothy Donnelly’s The Problem of the Many (Wave) is the poetry collection published this year that I’ve spent most time with. I was pleased to discover the work of Evelyn Reilly, in particular Styrofoam (Roof Books), which is a decade old and feels durable. The novel I enjoyed most was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo). I also liked Tentacle by Rita Indiana (tr. Achy Obejas, And Other Stories), and that sent me back to Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing The People in the Trees (Doubleday, 2013). Females by Andrea Long Chu (Verso) is the essay that I’m still thinking about. Plantsex, a special edition of Mal Journal published in collaboration with Serpentine Galleries, is the thing I’m happiest to stumble across.
Quinn Latimer, author of LIKE A WOMAN: ESSAYS, READINGS, POEMS
I’m usually a little late, so: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (Harvill Secker) made me think and feel this year (as it did many last year) and so did Heike Geissler’s lucid Seasonal Associate (Semiotexte). Actually, the book I carried around all year wasn’t a book at all but Geissler’s first film, of a kind. Her short story ‘Memento Mori – My First Film’, published in frieze midsummer, brought me to my knees, if I can be dramatic for a second. Geissler’s insistence that her set of images were moving images – ‘This is a film. I’d better say this at the outset so you don’t assume it is a text’ – accomplished that Barthes line: ‘theory of one kind of art being accomplished in another.’ As might one kind of life (lived via film and its entanglement with the word) be accomplished in another. Chantal Akerman’s last book, My Mother Laughs (tr. Daniella Shreir, Silver Press), is a kind of response to her first film, News from Home (1977), in which the filmmaker read her mother’s anxious missives to her over Babette Mangolte’s tracking shots of a bleached, barren Manhattan. Mothers who write, mothers who film, mothers who labour in Amazon fulfilment centres, mother who do not become mothers at all but remain daughters – these seemed to be my concerns this year.
Rebecca Liu, critic
I’ve been trapped in a long-term spiral of despair about the state of England, so Ali Smith’s Spring (Hamish Hamilton) served like a well-needed tonic, suggesting that something can be saved here. Other fiction I enjoyed this year: Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury); John Berger’s G (Bloomsbury, new edition); Toni Morrison’s Sula (Vintage), and Xuan Juliana Wang’s Home Remedies (Atlantic Books).
In non-fiction, James Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage), Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press); Katrina Forrester’s In The Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press), have shaped my thought. Chanel Miller’s Know My Name (Penguin), Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, translated by Daniella Shreir and Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (Daunt Books) are memoirs of sorts that have taught me a lot about how to live, and how to write.
Claire Lowdon, author of Left of the Bang
Your Lover Just Called by John Updike (Penguin). Dated? Check. Flawed? Check. Uncool? Check. But the Maples Stories are still well worth your time, and at 140 pages they won’t take up much of it. Written piecemeal and published in various magazines between 1956 and 1979, each story takes a snapshot of a couple, Richard and Joan Maple, as they progress from post-honeymoon through parenthood to divorce. Taken together, they make up a quirky, unintentional novella and a tender portrait of a marriage. Stand-outs include ‘Wife-wooing’, ‘Plumbing’, and ‘Separating’ – which might be the shortest work of fiction ever to have made me cry.
Željka Marošević, publisher of Daunt Books
It was a good year for backlist reading. I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Vintage Classics) for the first time, as well as Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior (Penguin Modern Classics) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (Penguin Classics). The pleasure of reading each of these authors came in part from knowing I had so many more of their books to discover (and indeed led to a Gaitskill binge). I also loved Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone (Granta), Nina Leger’s The Collection (impeccably translated by Laura Francis; Granta), Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (Vintage), and Saidiya Hartman’s extraordinary and deeply-researched Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Serpent’s Tail), which should have won all the prizes.
Not a book, but Patricia Lockwood’s review of John Updike’s early novels in the London Review of Books was the most fun thing I read all year. Lockwood’s writing is smart, generous and full of her idiosyncratic and wacky wit, proving that book reviews don’t have to be sombre, snide or highfalutin. I hope that energy rubs off.
Rosanna Mclaughlin, author of Double-Tracking
Set in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel (tr. Katharine Silver, Grove) is a story of love and revolution in a hostile climate. At the heart of the book is The Queen of the Corner, a former sex worker and embroiderer of beautiful textiles, and the handsome young freedom fighter for whom she risks her heart and her life. The Queen is a beguiling protagonist. Vulnerable, yet capable of weaponising her queerness – particularly when tricking police with flirtatious oration – she has constructed a fantasy world of romance and grandeur. It is a world that serves as a cocoon, protecting her from the poverty, homophobia and brutality into which she and her friends have been plunged. Lemebel’s prose is as indulgent and embellished as The Queen’s textiles. Both the narrative and the style position imagination as a form of resistance against political regimes bent on stripping away freedoms.
Daniel Medin, contributing editor at The White Review
The most monumental work of contemporary fiction I read in 2019 was Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai (tr. Ottilie Mulzet, Tuskar Rock). Immersing in it was a bit like looking at that photograph of a black hole: the encounter expands the mind, as the immensity of our cosmos becomes momentarily perceptible. I loved Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (tr. Aniruddan Vasudevan, Pushkin), which tells an elemental story. Other memorable reading experiences include revised translations and reprints such as Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (tr. Philip Boehm, Penguin Modern Classics) and Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends (tr. Janet Louth, NYRB); fiction in the original English e.g. Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s The Organs of Sense (FSG); forthcoming titles, especially Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (tr. Sophie Hughes, Fitzcarraldo), and Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day (tr. Deborah Smith, Jonathan Cape). Finally, thirteenth-century Njal’s Saga (tr. Robert Cook, Penguin Classics) surprised on nearly every page; it’s the book I’m most excited to gift this season.
Vanessa Onwuemezi, winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2019
The best writers can show you the world as if for the first time. This year I’ve been hugging Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets (Vintage) close to my chest. You could describe the collection as having found and followed that hard to grasp thread: mundane alienation, desperate loneliness, the dull, the ordinary. Yes. But ultimately I’ve loved this book because it is written true. A world I can recognise, but still pictured to me as alien, glorious, disturbing, drawing me in, making my skin crawl. The title piece opens with the line: ‘Jamaica Delila, how I want you; your smell a clean yeast, a high white yoghurt of the soul.’ Lines to linger on, lines to read more than once.
Tom Overton, editor of Portraits: John Berger on Artists
Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1938), with its stories of the random injustices of a society without a safety net, the unknowable reverberations into the future made by good teachers, and the perennially dysfunctional relationship between London and the country around it, is the book which stuck with me most this year. I listened to it in Carole Boyd’s excellently voiced audiobook. I read Alex Niven’s movingly polemical New Model Island (Repeater) afterwards: a bridge from Holtby’s world into the present, and a place to start thinking about where we might go or be taken next. So is Tessa McWatt’s Shame on Me (Scribe), with its Léger-like cover and its structure as an experiment about race and the self. And I loved the inventive, funny combinations of Caleb Klaces’ Fatherhood (Prototype): an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, a sequence of poems, and a life-writerly novel about parenting in the face of climate crisis.
Sandeep Parmar, author of Eidolon
Recently published poets whose work I’m learning from: Camonghne Felix’s Build Yourself a Boat (Haymarket); Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus (Graywolf); Prageeta Sharma’s Grief Sequence (Wave); Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale (Copper Canyon); also I’m catching up on Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruetly Special to Our Species (Ecco). Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press) and Mai Der Vang’s Afterland (Graywolf) open up infinite formal and emotional possibilities, as does Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Be Recorder (Graywolf). J. Michael Martinez’s Museum of the Americas (Penguin) innovatively interrogates Spanish imperial history. I loved Meena Kandasamy’s novella Exquisite Cadavers (Atlantic), an Oulipian rejoinder to assumptions about subjectivity and women’s fiction. Two much-needed anthologies: Un Nuevo Sol (British Latinx writers, ed by Nathalie Teitler and Nii Parkes) and I am a Rohingya: Poetry From the Camps and Beyond (ed by Shehzar Doja and James Byrne). Read the Poetry Translation Centre’s pamphlet of Adelaide Ivanova (translated by Rachel Long and bridge-translator Francisco Vilhena) for its bravery and inventiveness (her book The Hammer is also published by Commune Editions). Speaking of Commune, the late radical poet Sean Bonney’s Our Death is just out and no doubt his sharp critique of England is now more needed than ever.
Chris Power, author of Mothers
The books that have had the biggest impact on me this year are Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li (Hamish Hamilton), Aug 9—Fog by Kathryn Scanlan (FSG), Kingdomland by Rachael Allen (Faber), A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Serpent’s Tail), Gathering Evidence and Extinction by Thomas Bernhard (tr. Jack Dawson, Faber), A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jul Costa, Penguin), The Topeka School by Ben Lerner (Granta), Machines In the Head by Anna Kavan (Peter Owen), Inventory by Darran Anderson (Chatto & Windus), Threshold by Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury), Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (Stinging Fly), The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (tr. Michele Hutchison, Faber), and Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Faber).
Sam Riviere, author of Kim Kardashian’s Marriage
Love Is Real by Susan V. Sappe (A6 Books): five pieces of uncomfortably hot John Maus erotic fan fiction in a delectable handbound edition, by the mysterious Susan V. Sappe. lana del rey playing at a stripclub by Maria Sledmere (mermaid motel): fluoro cool girl poems from the ex-future. Highly sharable. ‘You can read about thousand dollar glow ups / All over the atmosphere / Clouds were reacting to eyelash extensions / And science / It felt very eloquent / Like a darkling imprint’. See also nature sounds without nature sounds, by the same author (Sad Press). Retreat by Jaakko Pallasvuo (2dcloud): comic by the Finnish artist and writer, aka @avocado_ibuprofen. Three suicidal artists hole up in the frozen countryside to reminisce about how many instagram followers they had before the apocalypse, enter angel of death.
Samuel Rutter, translator of Magnetised
It seems like the groundbreaking work of Ann Quin is ‘rediscovered’ every decade or so, but good grief, her first novel Berg (And Other Stories) made quite an impression on me. Lurching grimly onward sentence by sentence, goaded by Oedipal bloodlust, Greb’s weekend at the seaside was like nothing else I read this year: visceral, funny, violent, goaty. And there was plenty of taxidermy, too.
Lucy Scholes, critic
Two non-fiction titles, both of which tackle the subject of ‘archival silence’ and those stories that are missing from our collective histories: Saidiya Hartman’s WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS (Serpent’s Tail), which illuminates the lives of ordinary black women in America between the 1880s and the 1930s; and Carmen Maria Machado’s experimental memoir, about an abusive relationship she was in with another woman, IN THE DREAM HOUSE (Serpent’s Tail). I’ve also been joyfully making my way through the brilliant backlists of both Sigrid Nunez and Susan Choi, American novelists who are only now finding popularity here in the UK following their recent National Book Award wins – Nunez’s THE FRIEND (Virago) won last year, and Choi took home this year’s prize for TRUST EXERCISE (Serpent’s Tail) – both of which are really excellent. DOXOLOGY (Fourth Estate), Nell Zink’s latest novel, also well deserves a mention, as does the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s magnificent but gruelling autobiographical trilogy: CHILDHOOD, YOUTH and DEPENDENCY (tr. Tiina Nunnalley, Penguin Classics).
Sam Solnick, contributing editor at The White Review
As various climates threaten to get freaky, I’ve been thinking about how we need re-weirded as well as re-wilded landscapes. Standouts on this front published in 2019 include the joyous hexes of Rebecca Tamas’s Witch (Penned in the Margins), the lichen sequence of Drew Milne’s Collected Poems In Darkest Capital (Carcanet), Max Porter’s Lanny (Faber) and the deliciously weird (and ever-popular with my students) Kingdomland (Faber) by Rachael Allen. I also finally got round to reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (insert gag about a root-and-branch re-evaluation of my perception of trees here).
Alice Spawls, critic
I usually agree with Lucy Ellmann that books of the year lists aren’t the best way to organise one’s reading and that little can be generalised from the taste of others. Recommendations are unashamedly personal and often embarrassingly sheep-like. But I will join the other praisers to say that Denise Riley’s Selected Poems (Picador)and the Fitzcarraldo translations of Annie Ernaux are books I have been sending, unrequited, to people this year. Three of the most important (at least to my mind) newly-published books are ‘not-‘ or ‘not-exactly’ books. Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky is not-exactly poetry: it performs a strange, disquieting drama. I’m still trying to understand the source of its unexpected sweetness. The work of Saidiya Hartman – most recently in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments – is history not-history. She has opened up new ways of thinking for me, not only about archives and the ways we narrate the past, but about other forms of reconstituted knowledge and the ethics of the imaginary. Lydia Davis’s Essays couldn’t be more different from anyone else’s essays and are a thousand times better for that. She does the most agreeable things with language. Self-Portrait, Celia Paul’s memoir, is a memoir but it’s really wonderful for what she’s says about painting and paintings (Constable, Delacroix, Ribera). Of older books, I can’t think of anyone for whom it wouldn’t be a good idea to read Paul Keegan’s introduction to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (Penguin Modern Classics) or who wouldn’t be cheered by Eve Babitz (her journalism has just been published by NYRB Classics). And for the future: I’m sure Danez Smith’s Homie (Graywolf) will be on best of 2020 lists.
Rebecca Tamás, author of Witch
In poetry, I was dazzled and challenged by Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities (Penned in the Margins); Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love (Ignota Books); Rachael Allen’s Kingdomgland; Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS (Picador); Lieke Marsman’s The Following Scan will Last Four Minutes, translated by Sophie Collins (Pavilion Poetry); Jane Yeh’s Discipline (Carcanet); Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Milk Black Carbon (Pitt Poetry Series); Desires Become Demons: Four Tamil Poets; edited by Meena Kandasamy, and translated by Lakshmi Holmström and Meena Kandasamy (Tilted Axis), and Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon). I devoured Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Parker (Daunt Books), which made me keep repeating ‘this is what good writing is’, in a banal fashion throughout. I also enjoyed working my daddy issues through Katherine Angel’s brilliant book of the same name, and Helen Charman’s sly and witty Daddy Poem (SPAM Press). Max Porter’s Lanny made me cry (in the best possible way), as did Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s The Grassling (Allen Lane). Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, made me angry, and perhaps stronger than I was before. Susanna Moore’s impossibly painful and vital In the Cut, did the same, and then some.
Adam Thirlwell, author of Lurid and Cute
Susanna Moore’s fourth novel In the Cut came out in 1995 and was made into
an excellent chiaroscuro movie by Jane Campion. But the novel is even better
and has just been reissued by Weidenfeld. It’s bare and swift and does
something very delicate in its balancing act of desire and violence, and the
contamination of each of those terms by the other. As for other forms of
violence, I read with fascination Richard White’s meticulous and classic
history The Middle Ground (Cambridge University Press), about the precarious negotiation between Native American and British/French settlers and traders in the pays d’en haut of the Great Lakes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and then followed it with Pekka Hämäläinen’s brilliant new book Lakota America (Yale University Press), a history of a nomadic empire and also an implied bravura argument against the erasures and gaps in every history of violence, by which of course I really just mean every history.
Francesca Wade, editor of The White Review
This year I discovered the work of Anna Kavan, whose chilling (in every sense) novel Ice (Penguin Modern Classics) speaks so powerfully to the horrors of climate apocalypse and the age of Me Too that I could hardly believe it was published in 1967. Kavan — who adopted her name from the fictional heroine of her early novels, and who died in 1968 — also wrote incredibly rich, haunting short stories, collected this year as Machines in the Head (Peter Owen); sometimes surreal, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes lyrical and realist, they explore psychological trauma, war, espionage, asylum incarceration and heroin addiction (she was apparently introduced to the drug by her tennis coach). I loved Anne Serre’s The Governesses (tr. Mark Hutchinson, Les Fugitives), Elvia Wilk’s Oval (Soft Skull) and Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait (Jonathan Cape). And my pick for 2020 is Fernanda Melchor’s extraordinary Hurricane Season (Fitzcarraldo Editions), propulsively translated by Sophie Hughes.
Ralf Webb, managing editor at The White Review
Early this year I read a lot of Tennessee Williams plays. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is probably my favourite (mendacity) but Sweet Bird of Youth – about a gigolo-drifter and a faded movie star – and the lyrical, ultra-gothic one-act play Suddenly Last Summer (which includes truth serum, threats of lobotomy, and demi-cannibalism) are close seconds. I read a lot of Patricia Highsmith this year. I loved Strangers on a Train and what I have read of the Ripley Series – particularly the character of Jonathan Trevanny in Ripley’s Game, a poor picture-framer suffering from leukaemia, who is slowly convinced to commit murder (I think I like him because of Bruno Ganz’ affable-hangdog performance, in the film adaptation of the book, The American Friend). I also read Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, having long admired the film, and this is now a ‘lifetime book’ for me. I found the friendship between the stableboy Albert and the aristocratic Mike very touching, and enjoyed the sense of obscured fate, and the patterns, visions, and eeriness that permeate the story.
Jay G Ying, contributing editor at The White Review
I was mesmerised by WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS from Saidiya Hartman, recent MacArthur Fellow. Hartman’s hybrid book is a profound sociological mapping of black intimacy, kinship and sexuality in the Jim Crow era; inventive and poetic, this book resurrects those forgotten narratives of young black women from the archives.
This year, I was particularly drawn towards experimental, playful fiction whether in the postmodern tricks of INSURRECTO by Gina Apostol, or the obscure puzzles of LOVE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM (Yale University Press) by Can Xue. Many debut poetry collections found innovative ways of approaching language, history and resistance. Highlights include: Jay Bernard’s SURGE (Chatto and Windus); Nisha Ramayya’s STATES OF THE BODY PRODUCED BY LOVE (Ignota); as well as the UK-publication of Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS.