share


Books of the Year

Members of THE WHITE REVIEW editorial team, contributors and friends of the magazine reveal the books they’ve been reading and revisiting in 2021.

 

This year, we’re taking our annual fundraiser online. The White Review depends upon the support of its readers, and with your support we’ll continue to create space for new art and writing in 2022 and beyond.

 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

 

Kim Ghattas and I may be in parallel ideological lanes and yet the cluster-fuck constellation she accumulates around 1979, in her book BLACK WAVE (Wildfire), is a revelation (not least because we may finally have the answer here to who killed Moussa Sadr). Much closer to my filter bubble is Eyal Weizman and Matthew Fuller’s INVESTIGATIVE AESTHETICS (Verso). An undeviating announcement of the subversive potential of contemporary aesthetic practices. The essential contribution here is that to aestheticise politics is, under the right circumstance, not to decorate or to inappropriately beautify it, but rather an essential mechanism to make it sensible. I also got a lot from Harry Sword’s book/long form playlist MONOLITHIC UNDERTOW (White Rabbit), which surveys the leaking of what seems like a singular drone through genres, epochs and ideologies. And from another time completely (1915) I read for the first time this year Jack London’s STAR ROVER. A remarkable encounter with a book whose narrative is built from a singular question: where can the mind go when the body reaches its maximum threshold of experience?

 

 

Amy Acre

 

I was blown away by Natasha Brown’s ASSEMBLY (Hamish Hamilton): a searing account of everyday othering from both the maligned and the well-intentioned, with passages of staggering beauty and an ending that slayed me. Similarly devastating: NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury) reveals a world painfully recognisable, utterly surprising and finally, deeply moving. Late to the party, I read and loved Maggie Nelson’s THE ARGONAUTS (Melville House): radical intertextual discourse and romantic ass-fucking on the first page – what’s not to love? JEWS DON’T COUNT by David Baddiel (TLS) was a deeply personal read, moving me to confront my own feelings of Jewish shame. Too many poetry books, but NOTES ON THE SONNETS by Luke Kennard (Penned in the Margins) made me feel seen as the odd human animal we all are, EAT OR WE BOTH STARVE by Victoria Kennefick (Carcanet) is visceral bliss, AUNTY UNCLE POEMS by Gboyega Odubanjo (Smith|Doorstop) is the actual best, and POOR by Caleb Femi (Penguin) changed everything.

 

 

Lauren Aimee Curtis

 

Sometime during this past year’s bleak European winter, I read FLAUBERT & TURGENEV, A FRIENDSHIP IN LETTERS. The complete correspondence (edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont) maps the intimacy between the two authors after meeting in Paris in 1863. In these letters I found gossip, frustration with war and politics, acts of tenderness (‘I embrace you’ – is how they signed off), bouts of depression, and certain words that made me flinch. They also show emotional states that shape a writing life: excitement at new ideas, despair at lack of progress, anxiety about the reception of the work, wonderful bursts of ego. (On suggestions made concerning his play, Flaubert writes: ‘I have refused categorically, because I think all that is facile, cheap and it offends my aesthetic sense.’) Approaching this winter with some trepidation, I recently read and admired Jessica Au’s COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW (Fitzcarraldo)– a beautifully written, elegantly paced and quietly poignant novel.

 

 

Rachel Andrews

 

I loved Kate Zambreno’s TO WRITE AS IF ALREADY DEAD (Columbia University Press), which is in conversation with Hervé Guibert’s TO THE FRIEND WHO DID NOT SAVE MY LIFE. Guibert’s book documents his AIDS diagnosis; Zambreno adopts a similar bodily immediacy, recording the pregnant body; the ill body; the body under capitalism; the pandemic body (much of the work is written in real time during 2020). In REAL ESTATE (Hamish Hamilton), the last in Deborah Levy’s trilogy of ‘living autobiographies’, the writer considers what it takes for a woman to claim her space, in private and in public. I devoured both Gail McConnell’s THE SUN IS OPEN (Penned in the Margins), about her father who was murdered by the IRA in 1984, and photographer/filmmaker/writer Moyra Davey’s LES GODDESSES/HEMLOCK FOREST (Dancing Foxes Press, 2017), based on two of Davey’s related projects. Finally, Noémi Lefebvre ’s wonderfully-absurdist POETICS OF WORK (Les Fugitives), a book with a wandering, unemployed, poet-narrator in a tussle with the values of late capitalism, felt precise and apt for our times.

 

 

Katherine Angel

 

There were so many great books that galvanised me this year, but some real highlights were Adam Phillips’s BECOMING FREUD: THE MAKING OF A PSYCHOTHERAPIST (Yale University Press), a beautiful and refreshing sort-of-biography that thinks through the profound challenge psychoanalysis poses to writing someone’s life; Kate Zambreno’s beautiful TO WRITE AS IF ALREADY DEAD (Columbia University Press), which muses and riffs on Hervé Guibert’s THE FRIEND WHO DID NOT SAVE MY LIFE (a book I am a little obsessed with). In the summer I sank blissfully into Daphne du Maurier’s MY COUSIN RACHEL, and then LP Hartley’s THE GO-BETWEEN. But the most extraordinary book experience I had this year was lying in bed, ill, in the autumn listening to Donna Tartt read the audiobook of THE SECRET HISTORY. It was sublime.

 

 

Jeremy Atherton Lin

 

RAINBOW MILK by Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books), is an incantation of hot sex, tender afterglow and splintered music (Joy Division, Aaliyah). A moment that stays with me: at dinner in Suffolk, Jesse – Black, a former sex worker – discreetly alerts a Lady (with crocodile clutch) to the parsley between her teeth. She takes it as ice breaker not insult, thereby accepting Jesse’s charisma passport, which allows him to cross, if not eradicate, borders. (Jesse, btw, once spanked her Brexiteer husband.) The novel doesn’t occupy margins so much as traverse territories. The narrator of Natasha Brown’s ASSEMBLY (Hamish Hamilton), a Black British woman successful in finance, contemplates the boundaries around her as if they were sharp blades. Each sentence, an exposed nerve. Both writers are clear-eyed on the ways we’ve come to behave on this island: transactional, performative, compartmentalised, vigilant. These are not grand narratives of rupture, but close observations of hairline cracks.

 

 

Andre Bagoo

 

Short stories this year: I turned to Anthony Veasna So’s collection AFTERPARTIES (Grove Press) for its intermingling of sex and faded dreams; Celeste Mohammed’s PLEASANTVIEW (Jacaranda) for its potent distillation of setting; James Joyce’s DUBLINERS for its emphasis on epiphany; V.S. Naipaul’s MIGUEL STREET for its comedy and its uncharted byways – all of which I hope to traverse in my next book.

 

Stories can feel like novels, but I turned to novels too. I found Hermann Hesse’s SIDDHARTHA so queer I had to write about it. I fed my appetite with the meatiness of THE WORKS OF GUILLAUME DUSTAN (translated by Daniel Maroun; Semiotext(e)), then turned to E.M. Forster’s HOWARDS END for its poetry; C.L.R. James’s MINTY ALLEY for its politics (and Maisie!); Michael Ondaatje’s WARLIGHT (Vintage) for that opening sentence; and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH (translated by Ralph Parker) for writing that effortlessly snares you into its world.

 

 

Khairani Barokka

 

It’s been a year of edifying reading. A selection of memorable literature follows, some of these books I’ve shouted out elsewhere, some I have yet to signal-boost: the deeply rewarding and pleasurable HOW TO BE A REVOLUTIONARY, C.A. Davids (Verso); the distinctive and emotionally honest BREASTS AND EGGS, Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador); the ecologically astute ALPHABET, Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Neid (Bloodaxe); the conscience-illuminating BE HOLDING, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press); and last but certainly not least, the essential and gorgeous NOOPIMING: THE CURE FOR WHITE LADIES, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (University of Minnesota Press).

 

 

RZ Baschir

 

I know it’s not true, but I feel like all my reading this year took place in the dark and rain. The shock of Fernanda Melchor’s HURRICANE SEASON (Fitzcarraldo) has stayed with me; a brutal and violent murder mystery set in the squalour of a small Mexican village. Marie NDiaye’s SELF PORTRAIT IN GREEN (Influx) was also memorable; a strange and unsettling novella about the narrator’s encounters with several mysterious women dressed in green. I’ve long been a fan of Leonora Carrington, and this year I finally read THE HEARING TRUMPET, her hilarious short novel about the misadventures of an old woman in a care home that satirises elements of turn-of-the-century mystic Gurdjieff’s Institute at Fontainebleau. Susanna Clarke’s prize winning PIRANESI (Bloomsbury) was an absolute treat, brilliant and funny and inventive, and I re-read a teenage fantasy favourite, Catherine Fisher’s CORBENIC (Red Fox), a modern retelling of the Grail legend, set in the woodlands and castle ruins of Wales. I’m currently reading Jon Fosse’s hypnotic I IS ANOTHER (Fitzcarraldo), part two of his brilliant SEPTOLOGY.

 

 

Rahul Bery

 

Like many others, I spent much of the year ‘discovering’ Natalia Ginzburg, whose breezy style seems an ideal way of processing the unimaginable things she must have lived through. VOICES IN THE EVENING (trans D.M. Low; Daunt Books) was a particular highlight. I read a lot of Spanish and Portuguese language books for work, and two that stuck out this year were Michel Nieva’s ¿SUEÑAN LOS GAUCHOIDES CON ÑANDÚES ELÉCTRICOS?, a thrilling and irreverent example of what Michel calls ‘gaucho-punk’ and the Brazilian author Natércia Pontes’s OS TAIS CAQUINHOS, a black comedy about growing up in 90’s Recife. Closer to home I enjoyed Oli Hazzard’s novel LOREM IPSUM and Caleb Klaces’ collection AWAY FROM ME, both published by the fantastic Prototype. Finally, I was blown away by Gillian Clarke’s stunning new translation of Y GODODDIN, a classic of early Welsh literature that probably originated in modern-day Scotland!

 

 

Kevin Brazil

 

Alex Dimitrov’s LOVE AND OTHER POEMS (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) and Xialou Gou’s A LOVER’S DISCOURSE (Vintage, 2020), with their reassuringly sceptical view of their subjects, got me through the dark start to the year. In spring, things opened up with Maria Stepanova’s IN MEMORY OF MEMORY (Fitzcarraldo, 2021) and a kinky trip to BOX HILL (Fitzcarraldo, 2020) with Adam Mars-Jones. The comic genius of Torey Peter’s DETRANSITION BABY (Serpent’s Tail, 2021), and the discovery of the Soviet surrealism of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CORPSE (New York Review Books, 2013) captured the spirit of a strange summer. In autumn, I finally read Dionne Brand’s A MAP TO THE DOOR OF NO RETURN (Vintage, 2001), whose blurring of genres still feels ahead of its time. As winter has rolled around again, I’ve been working through the icy novels of Anita Brooker, and her cold vision, in LOOK AT ME (1983), of writing as ‘penance for not being lucky’.

 

 

Luke Brown

 

Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, which I’d looked forward to for years, became a complicated pleasure because of the biographer’s tone of uncritical glee at Roth the seducer of young women and because of the allegations that Bailey sexually harassed his former students. The bulk of the material on the novelist who has meant most to me over the years was fascinating nevertheless. The sections on his teaching show the man and the era at best and worst: the gross accounts of colleagues trying to curry favour by ‘pimping’ for Roth, but also the superb exam questions Roth would set students on what is most interesting about Chekhov or ‘the wide range of human experience associated with sexual activity’. My favourite novels were CROSSROADS by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate), MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley (Granta), SEESAW by Timothy Ogene (Swift Press), THE PAPER LANTERN by Will Burns (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett (Jonathan Cape) and KITCHENLY 434 by Alan Warner (White Rabbit). And I have a sporadic but intense relationship with an Albanian plumber, and am writing a novel with Albanian characters in London, and so was drawn to Lea Ypi’s funny and fascinating memoir FREE (Allen Lane), about growing up in Albania when the communist regime crumbled.

 

 

Jen Calleja

 

One of my oldest friends recommended L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel THE GO-BETWEEN (Penguin Modern Classics) and I was quickly addicted to it, it really lures you into a false sense of security. As does LUSTER – which I fell for hard – by Raven Leilani (Picador), in that its ending similarly undoes everything you thought you knew about the book and makes you reconsider it in a whole new light and with even greater awe. A GHOST IN THE THROAT by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press) is gorgeous and visceral and – don’t tell anyone – actually about poetry translation. I’ve just read BLIND SPOT: EXPLORING AND EDUCATING ON BLINDNESS by Maud Rowell (404 Press) and it’s a strong blend of research and personal essay that sets out to correct the erasure of notable blind people in history and reveal the bias awarded the sense of sight in society and culture, including in the appreciation of art. I look forward to reading more of her writing. I’m currently reading Timothy Ogene’s SEESAW (Swift Press) and it’s a brilliantly meta satire about literary culture, race, class, not writing – the spoofing of academic language and the unreliable narrator’s escapades are creasing me up and making me cringe in equal measure.

 

 

Kimberly Campanello

 

I was ecstatic to receive Primary Information’s re-issue of N.H. Pritchard’s THE MATRIX POEMS – I no longer have to page through my worn print-out of a downloaded PDF. Other stand-out poetry books I read this year include Richard Skelton’s STRANGER IN THE MASK OF A DEER (Penned in the Margins), Ella Frears’ SHINE, DARLING (Offord Road Books), Dimitra Xidous’ Μηδέν | Oὐδέν (Doire Press), Fran Lock’s HYENA! JACKAL! DOG! (Pamenar Press) and Caleb Klaces’ AWAY FROM ME (Prototype). Having fallen in love with Annie Ernaux’s writing when I was a college student of French, I have been thrilled to see her work at last gain the attention of anglophone readers through translations by Tanya Leslie and Alison L. Strayer released by Fitzcarraldo. The buzz has led me to revisit several of her books including UN PASSION SIMPLE, SE PERDRE, LA PLACE, and L’ÉVÉNEMENT. Along autofictional lines, I was moved by Édouard Louis’ COMBATS ET MÉTAMORPHOSES D’UNE FEMME. A wonderful novel discovery from 1979: UMBERTINA by Helen Barolini, a multigenerational Italian American story focusing on women’s lives instead of mobsters.

 

 

Samir Chadha

 

I started this year late to reading In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail), and loved its rich and inventive approach to nonfiction. Wanting more of that led me to Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo), an incredibly expansive and moving constellation of letters, memories and family history, and later to Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon (Les Fugitives), a book I happily followed into all the corners it took me to. Out of a number of internet novels this year, I was most charmed by The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Vintage), and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

 

 

Helen Charman

 

This year I was bowled over by Holly Pester’s COMIC TIMING (Granta), which led me back to Charlotte Brontë’s VILLETTE, which I found I had almost completely forgotten and so encountered its neurotic luminescence with surprise and joy. Other books that I really loved included Saidiya Hartman’s LOSE YOUR MOTHER (Serpent’s Tail), Shola von Reinhold’s LOTE (Jacaranda), Danzy Senna’s NEW PEOPLE (Riverhead), Daisy Lafarge’s LIFE WITHOUT AIR (Granta), Tom Betteridge’s MUDCHUTE (Veer2), Maria Stepanova’s IN MEMORY OF MEMORY (Fitzcarraldo), and Laura Riding’s EXPERTS ARE PUZZLED. I spent a long time with Lauren Berlant’s work, in memory of their passing, including CRUEL OPTIMISM (Duke University Press), which reminded me of many truths (‘all attachments are optimistic’). My ‘book of the year’, however, is Sinéad O’Connor’s REMEMBERINGS (Sandycove).

 

 

Mikaella Clements

 

I spent the first third of this year in lockdown reading some of the heavy classics that had been on my shelves untouched for too long and discovering that Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE is, shockingly, very good, crammed with elderly princesses and huge intricate scenes that feel like a Bruegel painting; also in the ‘amazing, who knew?’ category was Henry James’s THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (brutal!), Toni Morrison’s SULA (also brutal, and sexy to boot), and every one of Eileen Chang’s intelligent and moving novellas and novels, though HALF A LIFELONG ROMANCE remains my favourite. I loved the writing of Nina Mingya Powles, her agitated poetry and delicate essays, and Helen Oyeyemi’s PEACES (Faber), like a Wes Anderson film without the twee. Rebecca K Reilly’s GRETA & VALDIN (Victoria University Press), a very funny and extremely romantic story about two Māori-Russian siblings in Auckland, was an instant new classic for me – and everyone should look out for Davey Davis’s X, forthcoming next year from Catapult, for a sexy and dangerous ride.

 

 

Theodora Danek

 

For much of the year, I’ve been thinking and reading about ice: climate fiction about glaciology, non-fiction about the Arctic, novellas about falling into ravines. One of my favourites was Christoph Ransmayr’s 1983 classic Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (there is an English translation by John E. Woods, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), a melange of history and fiction about the absurdity of “discovery” in the Arctic. Weirdly gripping for a book with no shortage of lists; strange to think of a world of ice as ski slopes on our remaining (melting) glaciers remain open during yet another lockdown here in Austria.

 

Elsewhere I was grateful for Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Happy Stories Mostly, translated by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis), a collection of stories about loneliness, connection, queer life and religion in Indonesia; and What You Left Behind by Bushra Al-Maqtari, a histoire vue d’en bas built from a series of witness reports about the war in Yemen. I read the German translation by Sandra Hetzl; Sawad Hussein’s sure-to-be-excellent English translation is forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

 

Joe Dunthorne

 

I bought Victoria Chang’s THE BOSS (McSweeny’s) primarily because of its cover but the poems are equally fantastic. It’s a sequence of poems concerned with bosses – what it means to boss and be bossed, in our jobs and our relationships – all handled with style, humour and meticulous patterning. I also read and loved a graphic novel called IN. by Will McPhail (Sceptre) which successfully overcomes one of the great challenges of modern literature: how to make readers care about a Brooklyn hipster. Finally, I read Jon McGregor’s excellent new novel, LEAN FALL STAND (4th Estate), which is partly set at a research station in Antarctica and partly at a rehab group for sufferers of aphasia, two worlds which he brings together in beautiful and profound ways.

 

 

Lauren Elkin

 

There are two books which really stood out to me this year (well there are more but they’ve been adequately covered elsewhere): STILL LIFE: NOTES ON BARBARA LODEN’S “WANDA” by Anna Backman Rogers (Punctum) is a fresh, beautifully-written response to this milestone of a film; Rogers brings scholarly rigor to her account of the film’s creation and why it is such a crucial feminist document. The perfect pendant to Nathalie Léger’s SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN (Les Fugitives). Then there’s PISTI, 80 RUE DE BELLEVILLE by Estelle Hoy (After 8 Books). This book is zany and provocative and really makes you feel like you’re in the mix with a bunch of queer Parisian anarcho-hipsters, downing lemon hummus and radishes, oysters and anchovies, and plotting to overthrow capitalism. It’s about love and polyamory and art and politics and the way we can’t get out of each other’s ways. An intertext to Chris Kraus’s TORPOR (Tuskar Rock), in the tradition of Michèle Bernstein.

 

 

Lara Feigel

 

As we have moved out of lockdown and asked ourselves what kind of world we are left in, I have been grateful for two exploratory, subtly powerful novels by Sarah Hall (BURNTCOAT, Faber) and Sarah Moss (THE FELL, Picador) that attempt to make sense of the past year, looking with sharp insight at illness, isolation, creativity and death, and demonstrating the ability of the novel to process experience faster as well as more profoundly than anything else. I have been glad, too, to escape the present into worlds that have perhaps just as much to say about the trials and triumphs of today: Alison MacLeod’s TENDERNESS (Bloomsbury), a magisterial novelistic response to the trial of Lady Chatterley’s lover, and my partner Patrick Mackie’s MOZART IN MOTION (Granta), a brilliant whirlwind of a book that makes us listen to Mozart’s music in new ways and brings new ideas about the enlightenment, modernity, the rococo, Goethe, Kant, Prince. Perhaps the most profoundly unsettling experience of art I have had this year is Leos Carax’s musical ANNETTE, an astonishing tale of male violence and will-to-power pushed to terrifying extremes in a film that manages to remain magical and exhilarating.

 

 

Charlotte Geater

 

My reading has been fractured this year by cancer surgery and recovery and various other pandemic-era issues. But the books that have made the biggest impact on me are: ILL FEELINGS by Alice Hattrick (Fitzcarraldo), which is a mixture of medical history and memoir about ME/CFS and other related chronic illnesses. It made me feel understood, and it made me feel regularly furious with the medical establishment. FILTHY ANIMALS by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books), which is full of gorgeous intimacy and lonesomeness, beautiful textured, generous and fraught. LOTE by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda), the queer literary mystery and investigation into aesthetics of my dreams. POEMS OF ARAB ANDALUSIA, translated by Cola Franzen (City Lights). Crystalline, imagistic, undying. THE FAGGOTS & THEIR FRIENDS BETWEEN REVOLUTIONS by Larry Mitchell (Nightboat Books). A revolutionary queer world. THE HOUSE ON THE STRAND by Daphne du Maurier. Weird timeslip druggy novel about medieval Cornwall and repressed queerness. The perfect summer book!

 

 

Simryn Gill

 

This year I read Patrick White’s TREE OF MAN (Vintage). Being marooned in the vicinity of the book’s setting these last three years made it an oddly riveting read: an epic about life lived in a clearing, about clearing a space to make a life. A companion-book was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s IN THE REALM OF THE DIAMOND QUEEN (Princeton University Press), her ethnography from the early 90s of a hill-people in Kalimantan, where vast forests are presently being cleared for a new national capital. Still thinking about how to live in ourselves and our place(s), I sent off, in a literal bent, for Georges Perec’s AN ATTEMPT AT EXHAUSTING A PLACE IN PARIS (Wakefield Press), reading which made me long for the comfort of my battered copy of RK Narayan’s ENGLISH TEACHER and his imagined small town in South India. Hunting for Narayan on my bookshelf turned up an unread copy of AK Ramanujan’s poetry collection, RELATIONS, with its undertow of a life lived in two continents, and two different times, which returned me to his selection and translations from the ninth century Tamil saint Nammalvar’s poems for Visnu, titled HYMNS FOR THE DROWNING (Princeton University Press), a title that speaks directly to our time. In my local present, Judy Annear’s self-published book of poems, NOW THEN, and Aveek Sen’s tiny POCKET BOOK (Stolon Press) of four small essays, were both, in their own ways, unexpected gifts.

 

 

Camilla Grudova

 

My books of the year are by dead Russian men and very hard to get a hold of. Andrei Bely’s PETERSBURG, a symbolist masterpiece (on a sidenote Russian symbolist poet drama is very fun to read up on), Eduard Limonov’s IT’S ME EDDIE – everyone knows Limonov from Emmanuel Carrère’s novel and the most recent Adam Curtis doc, but Limonov himself needs to be read – and back in print in English. He is a magnificent and hilarious writer. In 2021 I discovered that Viktor Shklovsky was not just a theorist, but one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. I was lent a copy of ZOO, OR LETTERS NOT ABOUT LOVE by a buddy who found a copy in a bookshop in Miami several years ago and lugged it back to Glasgow. My buddy preciously stole it back from my greedy hands, but I managed to steal a copy from another dude recently. I got a copy of THE THIRD FACTORY, Shklovsky’s other great novel, by more honest means. It’s impossible to describe how amazing these two novels by Shklovsky are, but also you can’t read them because they are out of print. Sorry.

 

 

David Hayden

 

Exceptional fiction for me this year has included Gwendoline Riley’s MY PHANTOMS (Granta), Claire-Louise Bennett’s CHECKOUT 19 (Jonathan Cape), Claire Keegan’s SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE (Faber), Édouard Glissant’s MAHAGONY, translated by Betsy Wing (University of Nebraska Press), John Patrick McHugh’s PURE GOLD (4th Estate), Chris Power’s A LONELY MAN (Faber), Vanessa Onwuemezi’s DARK NEIGHBOURHOOD (Fitzcarraldo), Sam Byers’s COME JOIN OUR DISEASE (Faber), Mieko Kawakami’s HEAVEN, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador), Keith Ridgway’s A SHOCK (Picador) and Jon Fosse’s SEPTOLOGY (Fitzcarraldo). I have been re-reading Marguerite Duras, and watching and re-watching her superb films, and re-inhabiting the novels and wreckages of Malcolm Lowry. I read poetry every day and keep returning to the work of Lorine Niedecker, W.S. Graham, Bernadette Mayer, Molly Brodak and Cody-Rose Clevidence. I’ve read some of John Keene’s PUNKS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (The Song Cave), which is tender and stunning. Donald Antrim’s ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL: A STORY OF SUICIDE AND SURVIVAL (W.W. Norton) is moving and difficult and necessary. I’ve been slowly reading Giacomo Leopardi’s vast, endlessly enriching, essayistic diary, ZIBALDONE (FSG), and am very grateful to the team of translators that have brought it to English readers.

 

 

Maria Hummer

 

I read a lot of wonderful, engrossing books this year (PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury), HANGSAMAN by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics), CIRCE by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury), KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)) but the one I really want to talk about is THE DOOR by Magda Szabó (translated by Lex Rix; Vintage). I believe it’s the first Hungarian novel that I’ve ever read, and I’ve encountered absolutely nothing like it. The characters are unforgettable, at once familiar and yet unsettlingly surprising, while the story itself is an honest and relatable exploration of guilt, shame, responsibility and non-familial love. I also want to shout about A HERO BORN by Jin Yong (translated by Anna Holmwood; MacLehose Press), which is probably the first kung fu novel I’ve ever read and I found it an absolutely thrilling delight.

 

 

Amber Husain

 

It seems I thought I’d celebrate my own transition into academia this year by reading novels on an unfinished academic thesis (Stephanie LaCava’s THE SUPERRATIONALS, Semiotext(e)) and an aborted academic career (Christine Smallwood’s THE LIFE OF THE MIND, Europa Editions). Both were equal parts delicious, disgusting, abject, exquisite, horrific, depressing, deadening and thrilling. Brilliant works I could not help but read and recommend. Following this compulsive tendency, I also binge read the complete works of Helen DeWitt, save for YOUR NAME HERE, which after years of being available only as a PDF directly from the author is no longer, on account (I understand) of being contracted for official publication. Rejoice (?) Another punishing, addictive pleasure was Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy CHILDHOOD, YOUTH and, appropriately, DEPENDENCY (Penguin Classics). Then, unlike any of these, or anything I’ve ever read, there was the artist Toby Christian’s COMMUTERS (Walther Konig) – a weird, electroconvulsive book, emphatically another highlight, to be read with every one of your sensory organs.

 

 

Juliet Jacques

 

This year I’ve read a lot, despite struggling with the printed word during lockdown. I turned to philosophy for consolation after a difficult summer: Adorno’s MINIMA MORALIA, the Stoics (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Spinoza’s ETHICS, and Thomas Bernhard’s brilliant CORRECTION, inspired by Wittgenstein. Being more contemporary, it’s been a great year for trans and non-binary writing, with Torrey Peters’ DETRANSITION, BABY (Serpent’s Tail), Alison Rumfitt’s TELL ME I’M WORTHLESS (Cipher Press) and Isabel Waidner’s STERLING KARAT GOLD (Peninsula Press), as well as Shon Faye’s important THE TRANSGENDER ISSUE (Allen Lane) and Pluto’s visionary TRANSGENDER MARXISM anthology. Other recent novels I particularly enjoyed were A SHOCK by Keith Ridgway (Picador), Mona Arshi’s SOMEBODY LOVES YOU (And Other Stories) and Sheila Heti’s forthcoming PURE COLOUR (Harvill Secker); in other fields, poet Ed Luker’s OTHER LIFE (Broken Sleep Books) and Iphgenia Baal’s short story collection MAN HATING PSYCHO (Influx Press) were magnificent. More historically, I loved Ivan Goncharov’s OBLOMOV (1859) – its hilarious depiction of inertia and inaction hit a perfect note after the last 18 months.

 

 

Meena Kandasamy

 

I often grumble about how little time I’ve on my hands to read and write as a mother of little children. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost In The Throat (Tramp Press), held up many dazzling mirrors (writing, motherhood, translation). I loved Natasha Brown’s devastatingly brilliant debut novel ASSEMBLY (Hamish Hamilton), and Katharina Volckmer’s scathing and funny novel, THE APPOINTMENT (Fitzcarraldo). I’ve already raved elsewhere about Leila Slimani’s latest THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS (Faber). The poets I love with all my heart have new collections this year: Tishani Doshi (A GOD AT THE DOOR, Bloodaxe), Claudia Rankine (JUST US, Penguin) – I feasted on them. Also loved MY DARLING FROM THE LIONS by Rachel Long (Picador), POSTCOLONIAL LOVE POEM by Natalie Diaz (Faber), and Ranjit Hoskote’s HUNCHPROSE (Hamish Hamilton). I read too much non-fiction, but two memoirs stand out: Annie Ernaux, A MAN’S PLACE (Fitzcarraldo) and DEAR SENTHURAN by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber). Like everyone else, Abdulrazak Gurnah is on my TBR.

 

 

Joanna Kavenna

 

This year I’ve read a lot about anxiety and doubt and whether philosophy can help (answer: not really but we mustn’t give up). I particularly admired Maria Balaska’s WITTGENSTEIN AND LACAN AT THE LIMIT (Palgrave Macmillan), Wolfram Eilenberger’s TIME OF THE MAGICIANS (Allen Lane), Iain McGilchrist’s THE MATTER WITH THINGS (Perspectiva Press) and Tom Whyman’s INFINITELY FULL OF HOPE (Repeater)– in which he argues that Kafka was right (but still we mustn’t give up). I also read some brilliant debut novels: Robin McLean’s PITY THE BEAST (And Other Stories), Adam O’Riordan’s THE FALLING THREAD (Bloomsbury) and Chris Power’s A LONELY MAN (Faber). Olga Tokarczuk is a ceaselessly inventive writer and her latest, THE BOOKS OF JACOB (tr. Jennifer Croft; Fitzcarraldo), is wonderful. Ralph Ellison spent more than 40 years writing and rewriting his second novel; two posthumous versions exist – JUNETEENTH (Penguin Classics) and THREE DAYS BEFORE THE SHOOTING (Modern Library) I re-read both for a book I’m writing on unfinished books (as yet unfinished); both are extraordinary.

 

 

Caleb Klaces

 

I set out to better understand what researchers mean when they write about the collection of neurological and behavioural attributes currently labelled ‘dementia’. In CONFRONTING THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT OF DEMENTIA (Palgrave Pivot) Richard Cheston and Gary Christopher listen carefully to oral accounts of people with dementia, drawing out the often metaphorical ways that they reflect on their own circumstances and experience. I was also convinced by Lucy Burke’s critical exploration of how writers such as Annie Ernaux portray family members with dementia. But I was surprised to find it was two books about everyday perception that gave me new perspectives on so-called cognitive decline. Susan Engel’s CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING (W. H. Freeman): the nature of memory shows brilliantly how memories are always shaped by the social context in which they are recalled and shared. THE HIDDEN SPRING by Mark Solms (Profile) also looks again at what constitutes ordinary experience. It argues that ‘perception is not fundamentally different from imagination: from the subjective point of view, there is little difference between the worlds you experience in your dreams and the one outside your window.’

 

 

Ari Larissa Heinrich

 

RUE ORDENER, RUE LABAT from 1994 in French, and 1996 in English, by Sarah Kofman (University of Nebraska Press). I read it as part of my inadvertent obsession with the lives of ‘foreigners’/non-belongers in Paris in the early 1990s that began with my translation of Qiu Miaojin’s LAST WORDS FROM MONTMARTRE (New York Review Books), the experimental autobiographical work by the queer Taiwanese woman/person after the completion of which she ended her life, which was also from 1995. RUE ORDENER pairs well with LAST WORDS, being a short memoir by a Jewish woman (who happens to be a distinguished French philosopher) about a period in her childhood between 1942 and the mid-1950s when she and her mother went into hiding during the German occupation of Paris. It’s utterly devastating. I could only read a page here and a page there. Probably in large part because I’m Jewish. Every word is a heartbreak. I think of the other book it would inevitably be in conversation with – THE DIARY of Anne Frank – if Frank had survived, and waited to write her memoir until after she’d grown up to be a philosopher disaffected from her mother with complex feelings toward the loving but anti-Semitic woman who saved her life.

 

 

Quinn Latimer

 

My favorite books of the year 2021 were first published in their original Arabic, Danish, English, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, and Norwegian, in 1969, 1977, 1980, 1994, 1996, 2003, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2019; their translations have arrived in the years since. The recent deaths of Etel Adnan and Sylvère Lotringer sent me back to my favourites of their writings, all of which happen to be wartime – which is perhaps all time – classics: Etel’s novella SITT MARIE ROSE and THE ARAB APOCALYPSE (both Nightboat), the latter of which I read out loud with my students every year; Sylvère’s MAD LIKE ARTAUD (Univocal), and ‘Étant Donnés’ (in the documenta 14 Reader, Prestel), about his WWII childhood in France impersonating a Gentile boy. Yoko Ogawa’s HOTEL IRIS and THE MEMORY POLICE (both Vintage); Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy (FSG); Avni Doshi’s BURNT SUGAR (Penguin); and Linn Ullmann’s UNQUIET (Penguin) have stayed with me. Christos Ikonomou’s stories of relationships excised by poverty and place, GOOD WILL COME FROM THE SEA and SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN, YOU’LL SEE (both Archipelago), are expert allegories-cum-dramatic monologues, or maybe just novels. Finally, just published, Carla Lonzi’s SELF-PORTRAIT (Divided) and a new collection of Diane di Prima’s REVOLUTIONARY LETTERS (Silver Press) are happy, internal events.

 

 

Joanna Lee

 

I found my attention pulled in so many different, fractured ways this year, and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta) was one of the first things I read that captured my focus completely – characteristically unflinching, funny, and devastating. I’m a huge admirer of Holly Pester’s intellect, and adored her debut collection Comic Timing, which probes the strange, restless performance of life under capitalism with formal dexterity and political acuity. It sits on Rachael Allen’s formidable poetry list at Granta, which has published some of my very favourite books since its launch, including Will Harris’ Rendang and Stephanie Sy-Quia’s Amnion. The joys of fixed-term tenancies and shady landlords in London mean I’ve been thinking a lot about renting this year, and the effects of our physical contexts: Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An Intimate History (Granta) and Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims (Penguin) have been particular favourites for their thinking in this space with nuance and style.

 

 

Rebecca Liu

 

I devoured the late Janet Malcolm’s FORTY-ONE FALSE STARTS (Granta), particularly her essay on Gossip Girl. I could read her on bratty rich kids label-hunting at Barneys forever. Meng Jin’s novel LITTLE GODS (Pushkin Press) explores Chinese history, migration and memory so ambitiously. I loved the world-building of Yan Ge’s STRANGE BEASTS OF CHINA (Tilted Axis), while Vigdis Hjorth’s LONG LIVE THE POST HORN! (Verso) on the potential privatisation of the Norwegian postal service, made me want to storm the barricades of Royal Mail. Heba Hayek’s SAMBAC BENEATH UNLIKELY SKIES (Hajar Press) tells beautiful stories of growing up in Gaza, and I treasured Natasha Brown’s blistering portrait of city boys in ASSEMBLY (Hamish Hamilton) (‘each morning, fresh mediocrity slides out’). I’m only halfway through Doris Lessing’s THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK (HarperCollins), but it’s already one of the best books of my life. Lastly, as I continue to negotiate my fraught relationship with being online, Roisin Kiberd’s essays in THE DISCONNECT: A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH THE INTERNET (Serpent’s Tail) made me cry, laugh and feel less alone.

 

 

Fran Lock

 

My books of the year are: ROCKSONG by Golnoosh Nour (Verve Press, 2021), which brings a baroque sensibility to the awfulness of our contemporary moment. Grotesque and tender by turns, Nour’s voice is a border-stepping true original that makes no accommodation to the Poetry Gods of tedious ironic distance, but embraces excess with a dangerous and sensual swagger. C+NTO & OTHERED POEMS (Saqi Books, 2021) by Joelle Taylor, a work that does so much to render the difficult and occluded bodies of butch lesbian women vividly and riotously visible. Throughout the collection Taylor plays a deep concern with the origins, valences and precise meanings of words against the cinematic staging of the poems, producing a conjuration of voice and place that is frankly astonishing. Both collections share a tremendous energy in anger and in joy. THE MELANCHOLIA OF CLASS by Cynthia Cruz (Repeater Books, 2021) is a manifesto for the working-class subject adrift and erased within neoliberal culture; one of the most relevant and deeply moving books on class dynamics I have ever read (and I’ve read a lot)!

 

 

Benoît Loiseau

 

In spite – or because – of the circumstances, 2021 was a tragically good reading year. I blame a panoply of queer novels for keeping me wildly entertained (Brontez Purnell’s 100 BOYFRIENDS; Cipher Press), weirdly aroused (Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s THE FREEZER DOOR; Semiotext(e)), gasping uncontrollably (Torrey Peters’ DETRANSITION, BABY; Serpent’s Tail), and silent for a while (Dennis Cooper’s I WISHED; Soho Press). Oh, and shout out to Amelia Abraham for birthing her thoughtfully edited anthology, WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS (Vintage). Possibly as a symptom of the pandemic, I have also found myself delving into the history of medical thought, a daunting enterprise aided by Georges Canguilhem’s THE NORMAL AND THE PATHOLOGICAL (1943) and Michel Foucault’s BIRTH OF A CLINIC (1963). Speaking of the devil, I have recently discovered – to my delight – that Didier Eribon’s MICHEL FOUCAULT (1989) isn’t just a biography of the man but, rather, of intellectual life in post-war France, filled with insightful anecdotes, by which I mean gossip, of course. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

 

Rosanna Mclaughlin

 

There is nothing by Natalia Ginzburg that I have not loved, and I found THE CITY AND THE HOUSE (1984, Arcade Publishing, translated by Dick Davis) particularly moving: a novel written as a series of letters sent between friends and relations as their circle is breaking apart. Set between Rome, the Italian countryside and New York, and underpinned by themes of alienation, loneliness and loss, the book is made especially poignant by Ginzburg’s capacity to animate her characters with humour and warmth. I also enjoyed reading THE HAIR CARPET WEAVERS (1995, Penguin Classics, translated by Doryl Jensen) by Andreas Eschbach – a tale of empire, indoctrination, and extravagant revenge, that begins on a world where men dedicate their lives to weaving excruciatingly complicated carpets out of their wives’ hair – and THE NEW ANIMALS (2017, Victoria University Press) by Pip Adam. The New Animals follows the life of a woman working for a fashion company in Auckland run by arrogant and clueless men. What begins as a portrait of power relations and shitty jobs takes a fantastical and unexpected turn. In its syntax – Adam approaches the sentence like no other contemporary writer I know – and its storyline, it’s a hugely liberating read.

 

 

Daniel Medin

 

I marvelled at the ingenuity, cheek and charm of Monkey King: JOURNEY TO THE WEST by Wu Cheng’en in Julia Lovell’s lively new translation (Penguin Classics): what a book to return to! Same goes for Yasmine Seale’s renderings in TALES FROM 1001 NIGHTS (Liveright), which, like the stories themselves, provoked wonder and belly laughs. I’ve been much impressed by the intrepid ‘island books’ project of ISOLARII, e.g. their editions of MODERN ANIMALS by Yevgenia Belorusets (tr. Bela Shayevich) and the Edouard Glissant interviews (tr. Emma Ramadan). Other memorable highlights: COMME UN CIEL EN NOUS by Jakuta Alikavazovic; FIFTY SOUNDS by Polly Barton (Fitzcarraldo); CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett (Jonathan Cape); THE MEMBRANES by Chi Ta-wei (tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich, Columbia University Press); THE NETANYAHUS by Joshua Cohen (Fitzcarraldo); FORTY NAMES by Parwana Fayyaz (Carcanet); AFTERLIVES by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury); NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by Norah Lange (And Other Stories); TOUS TES ENFANTS DISPERSÉES by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse; DA ICH MORGENS UND MOOSGRÜN. ANS FENSTER TRETE by Friederike Mayröcker; STOMPING THE BLUES by Albert Murray (University Of Minnesota Press); THE ORPHANAGE by Sirhy Zhadan (tr. Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, Yale University Press); and two volumes of correspondence, THE PARAMETERS OF OUR CAGE by C. Fausto Cabrera and Alec Soth (MACK), and TRADING TWELVES by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (Vintage).

 

 

Lucy Mercer

 

My very favourite books that I read this year were Chantal Akerman, MY MOTHER LAUGHS (Silver Press, 2019), Fanny Howe, NIGHT PHILOSOPHY (Divided Publishing, 2020) and Anton Chekhov, ABOUT LOVE AND OTHER STORIES (Oxford University Press, 2008) – though I think any collection of Chekhov short stories would be good. I fell deep into all of them and came out changed.

 

 

Gerald Murnane

 

I’m the daddy of all eccentrics. All I read nowadays are books from my horse-racing library, most of which books date from the twentieth century, and books from my Hungarian library, the latest being FÜGGETLEN EMBEREK, a Magyar translation of INDEPENDENT PEOPLE, by Halldor Laxness.

 

 

Rastko Novakovic

 

In MY MOTHER (1966), Bataille drinks from the cup of trembling, writing an imbrication of libertinage and taboo, an endless sacralisation of the profane and profanation of the sacred: ‘I am a bit afraid, I admit, but I want to be afraid. Mother, make me tremble.’ TALES OF A LONG NIGHT (1956) by Alfred Döblin is a set of classic stories an English family tells to heal the son shell-shocked in WWII. The tales rip through the household like shrapnel: ‘Goddamn Europe. If only it were destroyed.’ Mill’s ON LIBERTY (1859) reminds us that ‘ages are no more infallible than individuals’ and mounts an evergreen defence of freedom of opinion and speech: ‘…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.’ The light, powdery touch of SNOW BALL (1964) by Brigid Brophy masks the three holy motors which power this New Year’s Eve party: ‘‘Mozart, sex and death,’ she said.’

 

 

Elizabeth O’Connor

 

I’ve had a strange year of reading, mostly working my way through a three-volume record of British folk tales by the folklorist Katharine Briggs (FOLK TALES OF BRITAIN, Folio Society, 1971), and re-reading Brenda Chamberlain’s memoir TIDE-RACE, recounting a decade living on the isolated and declining Bardsey Island off the coast of Anglesey in the 1940s (Seren). Both had the (positive) effect of making want to stop reading and go outside immediately. From folklore to fairy-tale, I loved Mizuki Tsujimura’s LONELY CASTLE IN THE MIRROR (Doubleday, tr. Phillip Gabriel). Following a young girl in the surreal world behind her bedroom mirror, the novel presented an adolescent landscape that I felt keenly: one of vulnerability, anxiety, the quiet suppression of childhood imagination, and the tender, hopeful meeting of inner self and outer world. I found it very moving.

 

 

Irenosen Okojie

 

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s tremendous novel, THE FIRST WOMAN (Oneworld) is a heady brew that’s partially a feminist coming of age tale and part fable. The story follows Kirabo, a young girl growing up in a Ugandan village who refuses to conform. Her journey from girl to womanhood under the dictatorship of Idi Amin is potent. I love this book for its ambitious, complex portrayal of a rebellious African heroine. Leone Ross’s distinctive voice and literary prowess establishes her as one of our most important writers. Her latest, the incredible THIS ONE SKY DAY (Faber), a veritable feast for the senses showcases her talents beautifully. Two lovers make their way towards each other in the vibrant POPISHO. This sweeping tale is filled with memorable characters. Bold, inventive, and political, Ross remains one of my favourite writers. Look out for some compelling vulva moments. STERLING KARAT GOLD (Peninsula Press), Isabel Waidner’s outstanding second novel is a surreal, mind-bending meditation on marginal bodies challenging state violence. Here, a non-binary migrant cleaner is arrested in London. Throw in the negotiation of spaceships, bullfighters and footballers, and we fall down Kafkaesque rabbit holes. One of the most exciting voices around. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

 

 

Tom Overton

 

Of things published this year: Claire-Louise Bennett’s CHECKOUT 19 (Jonathan Cape) is brilliantly clever and brilliantly fun. Otherwise: Leonardo Sciascia’s novella ANTIMONY, the subtlest, most interesting thing I’ve read on the Spanish Civil War, though it wasn’t written till the 1950s. I read it in Alfred Alexander’s translation, from a collection called STORIES OF SICILY (Elek Books, 1975), earlier parts of which were richly instructive for John Berger. Sciascia’s first-person narrator signs up to fight with Franco for no reason other than getting away from his work in a Sicilian antimony mine, sees more of the world, and starts to get the sense he might be on the wrong side. Sciascia told Alexander that he had been writing partly about his own conscience, about being too young to fight in the war himself, but growing up in a world which still had its shape.

 

 

Ingrid Pollard

 

New to me but published a while back, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, UNDROWNED (Ak Press). What a joy of a book, feminism and whales, walruses and the ccasional dolphin. A.P Gumbs carries her research and intellect with a light touch. Telling stories and tales of ecology that throw light on the depths of human involvement with our ocean friends. A book to read aloud to a fishy friend.

 

 

Alex Quicho

 

After a year on a leash, I was after stories that were daring and roguish – and found them in Marlowe Granados’s Happy Hour (Verso) and Shola von Reinholdt’s Lote (Jacaranda Books). Both are barbed with wit; both gleam with controlled euphoria that both encases and buoys away sadness. And both are aspirational, in that I so wish I was as headstrong and magnetic as their protagonists. Time for a personality make-over! After a year of spartan austerity, I was a glutton for plenitude, too. For elegance in spite of – because of – complexity, I went back to Don Delillo’s Libra (Penguin), where I found comfort in a time when even the loopiest conspiratorial thinking had cohesion; when ‘the system’ was lethal but at least halfway legible. A friend I consider an aficionado in brutality recommended Mira Mattar’s Yes I Am Destroyer (Ma Bibliothèque). I loved dissolving into its luscious, depersonalised masochism. And I dissolved, too, into Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun (4th Estate) where dystopian water wars are the unusual aftertaste to a long, satisfying slug of Hollywood noir. Finally, the Atlas of Anomalous AI, edited by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell (Ignota Books), was a godsend, re-enchanting the mundane and ever-present terrors of technology with Warburgian spin on the ancient and occult.

 

 

Elias Rodriques

 

As a Professor, I have the good fortune to revisit my favourite books for a wage. This year, Gwendolyn Brooks’s IN THE MECCA (Harper & Row Publishers, 1968) helped me rethink life amidst structural antiblackness. Alice Childress’s SELECTED PLAYS (Northwestern University Press, 2011) shed new light on the ways the stage could be a vehicle for Black Left Feminism. And the opening line of Toni Cade Bambara’s THE SALT EATERS (Penguin, 2021) – ‘Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well’ – recurred in my head like a song I cannot forget. Even among these giants, Mariame Kaba’s WE DO THIS ’TIL WE FREE US (Haymarket Books, 2021) stood out as my favourite read of 2021. The essays on prison abolition collected here opened doors for me in their critiques of prisons and imaginings of life without them. Find this book, read it, and then share it; it is a communal document, a path to new modes of being with others.

 

 

Silvia Rothlisberger

 

My reading highlight of this year is SLASH AND BURN by Claudia Hernández (translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches; And Other Stories) a novel that sheds light on the aftermath of civil war from the point of view of women and in which Hernández set out to write the grammar of emotions rather than language. It was a joy to read A MUSICAL OFFERING by Luis Sagasti (translated from Spanish by Fionn Petch; Charco Press) a constellation of fact, fiction and non-fiction that celebrates the power of music and storytelling. The book I will come back to is KING KONG THEORY by Virginie Despentes (translated from French by Frank Wynne; Fitzcarraldo). A novella and an essay that I stumbled upon and really enjoyed reading online this year: Sang Young Park’s novella THE TEARS OF AN UNKNOWN ARTIST, OR ZAYTUN PASTA (translated from Korean by Anton Hur; Words Without Borders) and Janet Malcolm’s 1995 essay ‘A House of One’s Own’ about Virginia Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, in the NEW YORKER.

 

 

Samuel Rutter

 

Alongside books about colour – Michel Pastoureau, David Batchelor, Derek Jarman – two books in particular took my fancy this year: Pola Oloixarac’s MONA, which you can read in a translation by Adam Morris (Serpent’s Tail) as limpid and wicked as the original, and NEW ANIMAL (Two Dollar Radio) an Australian début novel from Ella Baxter. I’m a big fan of having your cake and eating it too, and here the reader is served up thick slices of both style and plot. Highlights from MONA include a spongy tarantula and the castigatory practises of Etruscan pirates, while in between all the grieving and flogging there was a vivid image of a horse mask in NEW ANIMAL, and the strange idea that we are little more than mechanical oceans, recycling our own salt.

 

 

Sofia Samatar

 

Kate Zambreno’s TO WRITE AS IF ALREADY DEAD (Colombia University Press) is part detective story, part meditation on the body and its limits, and part ecstatic immersion in the work of Hervé Guibert. This book absorbed me so deeply I left part of myself inside it. Other highlights of my reading year include Dodie Bellamy’s electric essay collection, BEE REAVED (Semiotext(e)); Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s uncanny novel of trauma and healing, SAVAGE TONGUES (Mariner Books); and Noor Naga’s IF AN EGYPTIAN CANNOT SPEAK ENGLISH, a complex and vibrant diasporic romance (forthcoming from Graywolf in 2022). I also returned to Dionne Brand’s A MAP TO THE DOOR OF NO RETURN: NOTES TO BELONGING (Vintage, 2002) 20 years after it was first published, and found it as urgent and energising as ever. I adored Ilya Kaminsky’s DEAF REPUBLIC (Faber). Maria Stepanova’s IN MEMORY OF MEMORY (translated by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo) had me buying Frozen Charlottes on Etsy. Manuela Draeger’s ELEVEN SOOTY DREAMS (translated by J. T. Mahany, Open Letter) gave me a dozen of my own, and when I got tired, I refreshed myself with Luigi Serafini’s CODEX SERAPHINIANUS (no translation necessary) (Rizzoli International Publications).

 

 

Lucy Scholes

 

When it comes to new books published this year, the two that stand out for me are Keith Ridgway’s A SHOCK – a dark, slippery novel that cleverly explores the interlocking lives of various South Londoners – and Arifa Akbar’s beautifully written, extremely moving memoir about sisters, art, grief and tuberculosis, CONSUMED (Sceptre). I was also thrilled that Daunt Books re-issued the Canadian writer Marian Engel’s astonishing, unforgettable BEAR. Originally published in 1976, it’s the second-best book ever written about a lonely librarian (Anita Brookner’s LOOK AT ME (Penguin) takes first place, always), who also embarks on a sexual relationship with a grizzly bear. The best of the rest were also novels I re-read: HOME, the second of Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD quartet (Virago), which has to be one of the finest books ever written; Kamala Markandaya’s THE NOWHERE MAN, (Small Axes at Hope Road) published in 1972 and set in 1968 – the year of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – it’s a powerful tale of British racism in the London suburbs; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s sinister and strange SOMETHING IN DISGUISE (Picador); and the book I consider to be Rosamond Lehmann’s masterpiece, THE WEATHER IN THE STREETS (Virago).

 

 

Izabella Scott

 

This year, I read a lot of  ‘true crime’, as I looked for writers that did something weird or exceptional with the genre. I began the year reading Rebecca West’s astonishingly lyrical essays on the Nuremberg trials, which she witnessed in the 1940s, in her collection A Train of Powder (Ivan R Lee, 2000), and returned to Janet Malcolm’s juicy opus, in particular her two trial books, The Crime of Sheila McGough, (Vintage, 2000), and Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, (Yale University Press, 2012), both of which manage to display the way truth is produced in the courtroom. I also read fiction that claimed ‘true crime’ as its own, bending and sometimes evolving the genre: Susanna Moore’s classic In the Cut (W&N, 2021), recently republished, which is a murder novel that is enraged about the blurred lines between sex and violence; Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (Fitzcarraldo, 2020; tr. Elisabeth Jaquette), a quiet and devastating novel on the effects of living in occupied territories and inside a true crime that is perpetually unfolding; Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (Fitzcarraldo, 2020; tr. Sophie Hughes), a dirty, sweet dessert of a novel, stuffed full of filthy lingo, and based on the real-life murder of a ‘witch’; and the poetry collection Obit (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), in which Victoria Chang cleverly takes on the form of the newspaper obituary, in poems about grief and survival. I also read a lot of essays on sex, in particular Katherine Angel’s brilliant Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Verso, 2021) and Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex (Bloomsbury, 2021), which are great to read as a pair. Both dig into, among other things, sex and ethics; porn and pleasure; the way the criminal law tries – and often fails – to manage the line between sex and assault; the troubling rise of carceral feminism; the lie detector and the illusive history of the female orgasm.

 

 

Kashif Sharma-Patel

 

This year I read widely and voraciously. I have been delving back into history with THE MANY HEADED HYDRA (Verso) by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, a particular highlight, along with the weighty historical fiction of COUNTERNARRATIVES by John Keene (Fitzcarraldo). Alison Rumfitt’s TELL ME I’M WORTHLESS (Cipher Press) and Isabel Waidner’s STERLING KARAT GOLD (Peninsula Press) both continue the spate of contemporary queer avant-garde fiction we’re witnessing. Clarissa Alvarez and Petero Kalule’s (petals) MARSH-RIVER-RAFT-FEATHER (Guillemot Press) and Tongo Eisen-Martin’s WAITING BEHIND TORNADOS FOR FOOD (Materials) are awesome additions to radical poetics, while Luke Roberts’ GLACIAL DECOYS (Boise, ID: Free Poetry) is a subterranean tour de force in balancing the discursive and the immersive. Finally, the Ludd Gang zine series is an incredible initiative materially supporting writers through the Poet’s Hardship Fund; get involved.

 

 

Sarah Shin

 

In the second (or third) year of the plague, I most appreciated books that helped to deepen my sense of the connections between medicine and language. María Sabina: Selections (University of California Press) brings together the Vida and the chants of the Mazatec medicine woman, the first to open her healing ceremony to Westerners in the 1950s. It is through Language, given to her by the sacred mushrooms, that Sabina heals: ‘words are medicine’. The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage) by David Abrams delves into systems of language to explore the relationship between humans and the more-than-human world. Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals (Pollity Press) is a brilliantly succinct examination of rituals as narrative processes characterised, like poetry, by an excess of signifiers, and which have declined in our age of compulsive production. With Jupiter and Saturn transiting my fifth house, I read Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (Routledge), which provided compelling and compassionate ways to think about ‘the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated’. Himali Singh Soin drew on research into Tibetan and Bon medicine to create ancestors of the blue moon – a book so beautiful that other books are moved to cover their eyes (Whitechapel Gallery). Like many, I read and re-read Etel Adnan: ‘one closes a book as/ one closes one’s life’.

 

 

Kandace Siobhan Walker

 

What a beautiful year for reading! I enjoyed the critiques of capital in its various forms in Natasha Brown’s ASSEMBLY (Hamish Hamilton) and Jo Hamya’s THREE ROOMS (Jonathan Cape). Both PLAYING IN THE DARK: WHITENESS (Harvard University Press) and GOODNESS AND THE LITERARY IMAGINATION (University of Virginia Press) by Toni Morrison and BECOMING HUMAN: MATTER AND MEANING IN AN ANTIBLACK WORLD by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (New York University Press) interrogate what expands and what limits our imaginations. I took a long time reading Taylor Johnson’s INHERITANCE (Alice James Books) and Caleb Femi’s POOR (Penguin), because both were so rich and expansive. Brandon Taylor’s REAL LIFE (Daunt Books) and Torrey Peters’ DETRANSITION, BABY (Serpent’s Tail) both raised questions, for me, about love and family – about where and with whom do we try to find belonging. And I guess I was thinking a lot about love this year, because I reread ALL ABOUT LOVE by bell hooks for, like, the third time. It’s the kind of book that makes sense out of the world.

 

 

Natasha Stallard

 

Some of my favourite books this year were ones that made a breakaway from the discourse (whatever that means) or at least made fun of it. MONA by Pola Oloixarac (Serpent’s Tail) is in the latter category, an excellent satire of literary culture with an audacious, glamour-hungry anti-hero. LOSERS by Josh Cohen (Peninsula Press) is a funny psychoanalytical essay on what it really means to be a loser. Beginning with an analysis of the winner-loser obsession in political discourse, Cohen makes a case for the humble loser via close readings of Plato, Barthes, Ben Lerner and Thomas Bernhard. If you have depressive tendencies, a loved one with depression or you just feel like shit, then you might enjoy THE EMPIRE OF DEPRESSION: A NEW HISTORY by Jonathan Sadowsky (Polity Press) as much as I did. Sadowsky is a medical historian at Case Western and the book follows the black bile through its various iterations – from the Punjabi ‘sinking heart’ to pharmaceutical warfare – with references to the depression of Mark Rothko, Charles Mingus and Jenny Diski, plus lots of psychiatry gossip.

 

 

Rebecca Tamás

 

All of the novels that really excited me this year reminded me of the endless flexibility and novelty of the form: books like Jhumpa Lahiri’s WHEREABOUTS (Bloomsbury), Raven Leilani’s LUSTER (Picador), Ottessa Moshfegh’s DEATH IN HER HANDS (Vintage), Olivia Sudjic’s ASYLUM ROAD (Bloomsbury), Matthew Sperling’s ASTROTURF (Riverrun) and Katie Kitamura’s INTIMACIES (Jonathan Cape). In poetry, I was captured by two collections which offer new ways for poetic language to change our relationship with the natural world – THINKING WITH TREES by Jason Allen-Paisant (Carcanet), and the soon to be published GARDEN PHYSIC by Sylvia Legris (New Directions). I also loved the brilliantly tender STONE FRUIT by Rebecca Perry (Bloodaxe). And, as anyone who has spoken to me over the last year will know, I’ve spent much of my time reading the dazzling back catalogue of South Korean-born, German philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han – one of the few thinkers who seems genuinely able to work through the complications of our current moment, and offer something like a way forward.

 

 

Preti Taneja

 

I’ve mostly been reading books in translation for the last few years, especially over the pandemic – a way of remaining connected to the world, perhaps. Fum d’Estampa Press has been a revelation – this is Catalan literature presented in such beautiful editions they are objects of art themselves. The two books I’ve loved most are FORTY LOST YEARS by Rosa Maria Arquimbau (translated by Peter Bush), and ONE DAY OF LIFE IS LIFE by Joan Maragall (trans. Ronald Puppo). The first is a re-found classic – the story of a working-class woman who becomes a high fashion dressmaker during Franco’s dictatorship, told in a voice so scathing, resilient and unique; and the other is a set of poems, letters and fragments from one of Spain’s leading poets and thinkers. I also loved Sri Lankan born Australian author Michelle de Kretser’s SCARY MONSTERS which will be out in January 2022 with Atlantic Books. A book of two halves, it is literally a radical representation of the novel form, turning everything liberal elites think about Islamophobia, immigration and our feeling for our fellow humans, upside down.

 

 

Adam Thirlwell

 

I ended up reading more books by dead writers than living writers this year. Maybe this is normal, or maybe it’s some pandemic effect of timelessness. I loved Claude McKay’s ROMANCE IN MARSEILLE (Penguin Classics), so witty and so precise, a little instrument for imagining another kind of modernist history. Then there was the polymorphous waywardness of Goliarda Sapienza’s THE ART OF JOY (Penguin Modern Classics), a giant novel that also contains its own hints for constructing a different idea of fiction. Finally, Norah Lange’s NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD (And Other Stories) obsessed me: a series of memories that read like dreams. And meanwhile isolarii have continued to publish their little books of urgent invention, most recently Hans Ulrich Obrist’s conversations with Édouard Glissant, called ARCHIPELAGO: it’s tiny, this book, but it’s also intellectually fierce, poignant and beautiful.

 

 

Skye Arundhati Thomas

 

I began this year with Chloe Hooper’s THE TALL MAN (Vintage, 2010) which was so sharply self-aware, laser-precise in its observation, so brutal, and still so tender. It’s a masterpiece: true crime writing where Hooper takes no prisoners. No conversation can be had about crime without thinking about it systemically, about considering institutional complicity, and tracing its legacy back to empire. Claudia Hernández’s SLASH AND BURN (And Other Stories, 2021) was impossible to put down, with the kind of narrators that you could follow to the ends of the world. The artist duo Cooking Sections chase dyed salmon and unmake the contemporary myth of ‘wild fish’ in SALMON: A RED HERRING (isolarii, 2020). It’s a forensic analysis of flesh, scales, skin, and even feathers (birds that turn pink when they eat salmon feed) – and it’s completely riveting. I loved all the small details of Peggy and Greta’s lives in Pip Adam’s NOTHING TO SEE (Giramondo, 2021): the carrot sandwiches, the soft sleeping poses. Brandon Taylor’s FILTHY ANIMALS (Daunt Books, 2021) is so delicate, an absorbing portrayal of friendship and love in this time of terrible alienation. And lastly, there is a passage about juvenile elephants in DETRANSITION, BABY (Serpent’s Tail, 2021) that I am still thinking about, which I will not forget.

 

 

Zakia Uddin

 

I spent most of the year reading ANNIVERSARIES, Uwe Johnson’s unruly two volume diary/novel translated by Damion Searls (New York Review Books). Among more recently published books, I loved Melissa Broder’s MILK FED (Bloomsbury) and Sam Byers’s COME JOIN OUR DISEASE (Faber), two feverish novels about abjection and care. Tice Cin’s experimental KEEPING THE HOUSE (And Other Stories) was a perfect multi-layered London novel, while Kjell Askildsen’s collection EVERYTHING LIKE BEFORE translated by Seán Kinsella (Penguin Classics) was relentlessly weird in the best possible way.

 

 

Kristian Vistrup Madsen

 

Among the books I’ve read this year, I’ve taken particular – and, for me, rare – pleasure in collections of essays. The late Danish writer Inger Christensen’s poetry is generally considered among the finest in Europe (IT, ALPHABET and BUTTERFLY VALLEY, all translated into English by Susanna Nied, are modern classics). But in her essays, too, the innermost workings of language and literature come alive to a mind-blowing effect (THE CONDITION OF SECRECY, New Directions, 2018). Elizabeth Hardwick takes a more analytical approach in her essays on SEDUCTION AND BETRAYAL (Faber, 2019). I’m endlessly impressed her unwavering intellectualism, always severe but never brutal. As she writes of the Bloomsbury homosexuals: ‘virility is itself an aesthetic quality’– so is feeling, Hardwick shows us. Another great mind, Janet Malcolm, passed away this year. ‘No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked: one’s own house suddenly seems cluttered, inchoate, banal,’ she wrote, famously, about Rosalind Krauss’s apartment, and so I cannot return to Malcolm’s essays on writers and artists, without too feeling a little rebuked – but in the best way, of course (FORTY-ONE FALSE STARTS, Granta, 2013).

 

 

Ralf Webb

 

Imogen Cassels’ astounding, perfectly formed pamphlet CHESAPEAKE (Distance No Object) is flush with descriptive and syntactic flourishes that defy and so re-ignite the imagination. Fathima Zahra’s debut pamphlet SARGAM/SWARGAM (Ignition Press) considers, among much else, home, shame, desire and selfhood, and contains the kinds of poems you could carry around in your inside coat pocket for emergencies. Sam Buchan-Watts’s PATH THROUGH WOOD (Prototype) is an immaculate puzzle box of a book, probing and upending modern masculinity, ‘nature poems’, and the Lyric. Caleb Femi’s POOR (Penguin) is, in a word, phenomenal. After watching Timothée Chalamet’s Paul whisper the words ‘desert power’ in a way that somehow wasn’t totally stupid, I started reading Frank Herbert’s DUNE the next day. I saw a tweet that said DUNE has endured in the cultural imaginary because the sand worm is a rare example of a simultaneously phallic and yonic symbol. Which, maybe. But DUNE is also about ecology and resource extraction; an early ‘cli-fi’ novel. Importantly, it is, also, about getting high on space drugs to surf time’s fractal waves, so. (I’ve memorised the Bene Gesserit prayer ‘Fear is the mind killer’, which I un-ironically intend to use the next time I have a panic attack. Thanks, Frank!)

 

 

Jay G Ying

 

There is a line in Rachel Cusk’s SECOND PLACE (Faber) about the legacy of art to have custody over the human soul; some books do get uncomfortably close to holding custody over the reader. For poetry, I felt that grip when reading: THE RIVER IN THE BELLY by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (tr. J. Bret Maney; Phoneme Media); LIFE WITHOUT AIR by Daisy Lafarge (Granta); and IN THE MURMURS OF THE ROTTEN CARCASS ECONOMY by Daniel Borzutzky (Nightboat Books). For prose, I recommend: THE BLUE CLERK: ARS POETICA IN 59 VERSOS by Dionne Brand (McClelland & Stewart); THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD by António Lobo Antunes (tr. Margaret Jull Costa; W. W. Norton); and SWEET DAYS OF DISCIPLINE by Fleur Jaeggy (tr. Tim Parks; New Directions).

 

 

Kate Zambreno

 

I spent time this year reading many vital thinkers of the capitalocene, trying to think through the possibilities of actual transformation amidst the sludge – Mark Fisher’s CAPITALIST REALISM (Zer0 Books), Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey’s THE UNDERCOMMONS (Minor Compositions), Cristina Rivera Garza’s GRIEVING: DISPATCHES FROM A WOUNDED COUNTRY (translated by Sarah Booker; The Feminist Press). I am still thinking through this conversation Moten and Harvey had with Rivera Garza and other Spanish translators of THE UNDERCOMMONS), Bhanu Kapil’s HOW TO WASH A HEART (Pavilion Poetry), Sofia Samatar’s essay ‘Standing at the Ruins’, Silvia Federici and ‘sad politics’ (and Jordan Kisner’s profile of Federici), Heather Davis’s work on plastic (really looking forward to her Duke University Press book, Plastic Matter), Peter Sloterdijk’s BUBBLES (Semiotext(e)), Jane Bennett’s VIBRANT MATTER (Duke University Press), Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s BOREALIS (Coffee House Press). I read so many sublime works of literature in translation – Yoko Tawada’s MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR (trans. Susan Bernofsky; Granta), Mariana Oliver’s MIGRATORY BIRDS(trans. Julia Sanches; Transit Books), Marie NDiaye’s SELF PORTRAIT IN GREEN (trans. Jordan Stump; Influx Press), Maria Judite de Carvalho’s EMPTY WARDROBES (trans. Margaret Jull Costa; Two Lines Press), Tove Jansson’s THE SUMMER BOOK (trans. Thomas Teal; Sort of Books), Natalia Ginzburg’s FAMILY LEXICON (trans. Jenny McPhee; Daunt Books), Jazmina Barrera’s forthcoming LINEA NEGRA (trans. Christina MacSweeney; Two Lines Press), Silvina Ocampo’s THE PROMISE (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine; City Lights Books). The work I just read that reminds me so marvellously and morbidly of THE PROMISE is Nate Lippens’s MY DEAD BOOK (Publication Studio). I’d pair the Lippens with Dodie Bellamy’s BEE REAVED (Semiotext(e)) (especially her essay ‘Hoarding as Ecriture’).

 

 

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

 

This year I read INTIMACIES by Katie Kitamura (Jonathan Cape). It completely revamped the way I thought about fiction. What would it mean to write without all the tricks that a writer can so easily hide behind? HOW TO END A STORY by Helen Garner (Text Publishing) was a favourite. Garner never misses and this third volume of her diaries is perfect in the way it catalogues the moments that the breakdown of a marriage is made up of. ONE HUNDRED DAYS by Alice Pung (Black Inc.) was also excellent. It’s been called a mother daughter novel but it’s also for me a novel about time and what it can do. I devoured Curtis Sittenfeld’s whole ouerve this year. I loved RODHAM  and AMERICAN WIFE  of course but also her second book, THE MAN OF MY DREAMS (Black Swan) was special to me. She really dignifies young womanhood and love. I think Sittenfield’s voice almost single handedly got me through the Melbourne lockdowns of 2021.


share


READ NEXT

fiction

August 2013

How to Be an American

Will Heinrich

fiction

August 2013

Begin with a man on the beach. The sea is strangely iridescent, lighter in its lights and blacker in...

poetry

August 2017

From The Dolphin House

Richard O’Brien

poetry

August 2017

Note for the following three poems: In 1965, a bottlenose dolphin christened Peter was the subject of a scientific...

feature

Issue No. 11

Literature in a Distracted Era

Adam Thirlwell

feature

Issue No. 11

There are two categories in the literary system I’d like to celebrate at high speed: the lonely writer, and...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required