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The public conversation about unpaid and poorly paid carework has faltered post-Covid, but both Edouard Louis’s A WOMAN’S BATTLES AND TRANSFORMATIONS (Penguin Random House), his account of his mother’s life under poverty and patriarchy, and Lynne Tillman’s MOTHERCARE (Soft Skull), about caring for her elderly mother while navigating the American healthcare system, should serve to remind, as does feminist theorist Nancy Fraser in CANNIBAL CAPITALISM (Verso), that capitalism remains a guzzler of care, and this is an unsustainable position. Caroline Walker’s monograph JANET (Anomie), with an essay from critic Hettie Judah, is a visual exploration of this theme, depicting the artist’s mother at her invisible work in the home. Finally, BEYOND THE THRESHOLD (dpr-barcelona), Zaida Muxi Martinez’s history of the women whose contributions to architecture and urban planning have been suppressed, reminds us that other ways of imagining society have always existed, but we have chosen not to listen.
This year I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (Penguin) for the first time; its steady, intricate unfolding is extraordinary. Nuar Alsadir’s Animal Joy (Fitzcarraldo Editions), on psychoanalysis and clown school, gave me a lot of joy, as did Jamieson Webster’s fascinating essays in Disorganisation and Sex (Divided). Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires (Pushkin Press) was a serious delight. Julie Myerson’s Nonfiction was an exquisitely painful and moving exploration of parenting a child with addiction. Sam Johnson-Schlee’s beautiful, deeply researched Living Rooms (Peninsula Press) had me thinking about objects and fabrics in new ways. But the most hypnotic literary experience I had this year was listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s serialisation of his novel (or memoir?) in progress, The Shards (Swift Press). Whether the forthcoming book works as well as listening to Ellis drawlingly evoke the LA of his youth, while musing indirectly on sexual violence and trauma post-MeToo, I don’t know yet. But it is, as one might expect, bleak, disturbing, and gorgeous.
In a year where reading has been difficult, something that stands out is Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy (Penguin), translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, which I first spied as three separate pink and black and white volumes on a friend’s dining table. What seems to be memoir is rendered utterly immediate in Ditlevsen’s commanding and direct present tense as she recounts her struggle to find herself as a writer outside the circumstances under which she was born. I also enjoyed Claire Messud’s short novel on family and privilege, as set in one of Sydney’s great manor houses, A Dream Life (Tablo), and Han Suyin’s crisp, almost noir-ish wartime romance, Winter Love (McNally Editions). Towards the end of the year, I read Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Life Adrift (Hackett), which is more like four records, as two are still missing, and is again an oddly present distillation of everyday life in Qing dynasty China. Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (Sort of Books) combined her wonderful storytelling ability with deeper notes of adult sadness and foresight. I am currently reading Helen Garner’s diaries (Text Publishing), where she permitted herself to redact entries but not to rewrite them, and which show her writer’s ability to pin down life alongside an unpretentious intellect.
When looking back on this year’s reading, a theme emerges: death looms large in most of the books that have stayed with me. These are: BURIED GARDEN by Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins), a dream-like search for London’s lost poets in Stoke Newington’s Abney Park Cemetery; THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH (Penguin Classics), Leo Tolstoy’s hypnotic novella told from the perspective of the titular character’s deathbed, which brought back the almost bodily feeling of awe I felt reading the Russians as a teenager; DANCING IN ODESSA by Ilya Kaminsky (Faber & Faber), a poetry collection that reads like Chagall’s paintings, full of vivid and brutal images of death and dancing; KITS WILDERNESS by David Almond (Hodder Children’s Books), a YA novel in which children play a game called death in the abandoned pits of a mining town in the midlands; JUNKY by William Boroughs (Penguin Classics), a violent and brilliant novel that talks directly to the death wish at the heart of addiction; and WINTER ROSE by Patricia A. McKillip (Penguin Books), a novel based on the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, in which a woman must free her lover from the queen of the fairies by following him into death.
As if there aren’t enough rumours and fibs in the world, this year I was seduced by a series of unreliable narrators: Paul Theroux’s old and weird fictionalised autobiography MY OTHER LIFE (Mariner Books), in which the American tells a story very much like his own, and of my own, precariously writing in a foreign country; Laurie Lee’s A MOMENT OF WAR (Penguin Classics) almost certainly embroidered tale of his time failing to fight in the Spanish Civil War; Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s recently translated THE TRIBE (Fitzcarraldo Editions), by Frank Wynne and Rahul Bery, a crónica through highs and lows of contemporary Cuban life; and, despite his political views, Mario Vargas Llosa’s new HARSH TIMES, translated by Adrian Nathan West (Faber & Faber), the almost true story of how Guatemala got truly screwed by US imperialism (the quip that right-wing Vargas Llosa should read the left-wing novels of Vargas Llosa never felt more apt). The highlight however was catching up on Lea Ypi’s rightfully much praised FREE: COMING OF AGE AT THE END OF HISTORY (Penguin Books), in which the political theorist tells her story of growing up in hermit Albania, a childhood built on censorship, social lies, and family silences. Meanwhile, while mainlining theory by Julia Kristeva and Mary Douglas for a work project, Lucy Mercer’s brilliant poetry collection EMBLEM (Prototype) provided an evening counterweight.
Sometimes, it’s the tiny things that make a book linger. It can be the smallest of details in a scene; a single, fleeting image; the faintest aroma of a personal association – anything can sear a book into my mind, and make it unforgettable. Each of the books on my list is incredibly accomplished as a whole, but I include Sharma Taylor’s WHAT A MOTHER’S LOVE DON’T TEACH YOU (Virago) because it contains the best simile of the year; Tiphanie Yanique’s MONSTER IN THE MIDDLE (Riverhead Books) because of its lyrical prose that feels suffused with the charge of love itself; Sophie Jai’s WILD FIRES (The Borough Press) because it contains the most perfect description of a mother’s bedroom; Ottessa Moshfegh’s LAPVONA (Penguin) because of that understated, and all the more sinister, opening sentence; Douglas Stuart’s YOUNG MUNGO (Picador), because its cover, an image by Wolfgang Tillmans, is so perfect it is a first sentence; Xochitl Gonzalez’s OLGA DIES DREAMING (Flatiron Books) because it reminds us the relationships we take for granted are often the most complicated; J. Vijay Maharaj’s THE MYSTIC MASSEUR’S WIFE (Peepal Tree Press), because it claps backs at its storied precursor with cheek; and Sally Rooney’s BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU (Faber & Faber) because of the absolutely banal yet somehow perfect way W.H. Auden enters the text.
I’ve yet had a chance to rave about the powerful sense of voice in Pamela Mordecai’s A FIERCE GREEN PLACE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (New Directions) or how the lack of punctuation in Aaron Kent’s THE RISE OF… (Broken Sleep Books) turns the text into a deep ocean. I can’t forget the haunted and haunting unfoldings in poet Seán Hewitt’s memoir ALL DOWN DARKNESS WIDE (Jonathan Cape). And I enjoyed Bridget Brereton and Karen Eccles’s ISLANDS AT WAR: TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO DURING WORLD WAR II (Paria Publishing), which ably excavates previously untold histories.
I began 2022 by reading MALINA by Ingeborg Bachmann (Penguin Classics) translated by Philip Boehm and WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Verso), both for the first time, and honestly it was a bit hard after that for the rest of the year’s reading not to feel like a backward slide. Many put up a brave, brave fight, though: GOD 99 by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press), ANOTHER COUNTRY by James Baldwin (Penguin Modern Classics), I AM THE BROTHER OF XX by Fleur Jaeggy (New Directions), IMMANUEL by Matthew McNaught (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and STREGA by Johanne Lykke Holm (Lolli Editions), translated by Saskia Vogel are among those that have really stayed with me. I’m making my way through VIOLENT PHENOMENA edited by Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis) at the moment, which feels like it should be required reading for anybody with even a fleeting interest in language, or translation, or anything really.
My books of the year included BAD GAYS by Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey (Verso) – what a great way to do history/think about identity/consider the history of homosexuality. By turns uncomfortable, outrageous and hilarious, this book, taken from the podcast of the same name, was one of my unputdownables of 2022. Looking forward to the next edition already.
Joelle Taylor’s C+NTO (Westbourne Press) – extraordinary word wrangling which investigates butch identity but also speaks to alienation and grief and coming of age. There is so much language and heat and heart in this book. See her live if at all possible.
I read nearly 100 books in 2021, and barely half that in what has been a less fruitful year in general. Still, I managed a few totemic books: the second volume of Proust and Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s THE DIRTY DUST (Yale University Press), in Alan Titley’s masterful translation. In terms of newer fiction I really enjoyed Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams’s DIEGO GARCIA (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and I bought Colin Barrett’s HOMESICKNESS (Jonathan Cape) literally the day it came out. In Spanish I really enjoyed Esther García Lovet’s SPANISH BEAUTY (Editorial Anagrama), a fascinating thriller based in the netherworld of the Anglo-Spanish Costa del Crime, and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s LIMPIA (LUMEN), upon which Sophie Hughes is working her magic as we speak. I read only two significant works of poetry this year; Ciaran Carson’s brilliant translation from eighteenth-century Irish of Brian Merriman’s THE MIDNIGHT COURT (Wake Forest University Press), and Sylvia Legris’s GARDEN PHYSIC (Granta Poetry), whose words bewitched me even when I could barely understand them.
I’ve just enjoyed Hernan Diaz’s TRUST (Riverhead), a kaleidoscopically structured tale of a wealthy New York family whose fortune continues to grow despite financial crises, and a compelling fictional account of capital’s ability to live off dead labour. Sarah Thankam Mathew’s ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT (Viking) is another recent fiction highlight not burdened by its own genre – but it’s been mostly nonfiction that I can’t get enough of lately. Kirsty Bell’s THE UNDERCURRENTS (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is a deftly woven memoir meets urban history that manages to capture so well the hidden aspects of (a life in) Berlin. Adolph Reed Jr’s THE SOUTH: JIM CROW AND ITS AFTERLIVES (Verso) is a remembrance of the author’s early life below the Mason-Dixon line, while also making a case for class-based inequality as a historical constant. Finally, Elissa Washuta’s WHITE MAGIC (Tin House) is a fascinating collection of essays that tries to grapple with cultural inheritance under continued colonial rule by one of the best essayists out there.
I started this year with EXPERIMENTS IN IMAGINING OTHERWISE by Lola Olufemi (Hajar Press), which pushes at the limits of form and explores radical ways of being. I fell in love with Jenny Offill and read DEPT. OF SPECULATION and WEATHER (both Granta Books) in quick succession. During the hottest days of the summer, I lost myself in MILK TEETH by Jessica Andrews (Sceptre) and THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal (Sort Of Books). And, because I’m late to everything, I finally read THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman (Jonathan Cape) and everyone is correct, she is clearly a genius. I loved Sheila Heti’s latest, PURE COLOUR (Harvill Secker), which movingly depicts the relationship between a daughter and her father. Finally, I will recommend some great audiobooks: GET RICH OR LIE TRYING by Symeon Brown (Atlantic Books), which is an empathetic exploration into the darkest parts of influencer culture, and EMPIRE OF PAIN by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador), a damning indictment of the Sackler family.
This year I found myself most enjoying prose with style: any style, so long as it was strong, distinctive, and not just something that read like the first draft of a television script (much as I love my shows). Fiction as different as Jessica Au’s COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW (Fitzcarraldo Editions); Adrian Duncan’s THE GEOMETER LOBACHEVSKY (Serpent’s Tail); Fernanda Melchor’s PARADAIS, translated by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions); Gwendoline Riley’s MY PHANTOMS (Granta Books); Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia, translated by Julian Semilian (Penguin), and SOLENOID, translated by Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum); Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria translated by Max Lawton (NYRB). Essays and memoir like Nuar Alsadir’s ANIMAL JOY (Fitzcarraldo Editions) or Margo Jefferson’s CONSTRUCTING A NERVOUS SYSTEM (Granta Books). My discovery of the year was the work of Monika Maron: ANIMAL TRISTE, translated by Brigitte Goldstein (Nebraska Press), is a brutal portrait of a life sacrificed for desire, told in a hypnotically direct German. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a UK translation – time for one, perhaps?
There was a lot in common with Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout (Viking) and Hourglass by Keiran Goddard (Little, Brown). Difficult mothers and the persistence of ended romantic relationships. An artful appearance of artlessness; unstable marriages of sentiment and nihilism. Yoga by Emmanuel Carrere (Jonathan Cape) was as berserk as the man’s books usually are, another book of bracing candour. The best collections of stories this year came from this side of the Atlantic. Superb second books from Ireland in Homesickness by Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape) and Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (Picador). And three great English debuts: Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury), Reward System by Jem Calder (Faber & Faber) and (admitting but insisting on my editor’s bias) We Move by Gurnaik Johal (Serpent’s Tail).
I often find myself re-discovering the elemental power of lyric poetry, the remarkable sense of feeling oneself addressed and invoked by language. This year was no different, as I read two lyric voices so distilled that they feel timeless: and not in the throwaway sense of that word. The first is Lucy Mercer’s EMBLEM (Prototype), a philosophical enquiry at the threshold of word and image which finds in sixteenth century ‘speaking pictures’ an unlikely holding place for the complexities of motherhood. Fanny Howe’s work has been republished by Divided Publishing and Semiotext(e) recently. Anything she writes is worth reading, but the book that has stayed with me is THE NEEDLE’S EYE: PASSING THROUGH YOUTH (Graywolf Press), a set of mystical lyrics and prose meditations that draw the lives of Francis of Assisi and the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into uneasy, suggestive relation. It is a work of profound ethical ambivalence and insight, qualities that mark a more recent but related book also characterised by a lyric sensibility, Preti Taneja’s AFTERMATH (And Other Stories).
HAPPINESS, AS SUCH by Natalia Ginzburg (Daunt Books Publishing) – for creating, with its tale of the wayward tragic son Michele, told through the letters of his heartbroken yet ultimately inattentive mother, a unique and agonising atmosphere. It also survived the most puzzling re-translation of a title ever; in Italian it was CARO MICHELE (Einaudi), so perfectly chosen and apt – though to say why would spoil the story. DOSTOEVSKY IN LOVE by Alex Christofi (Bloomsbury) – for creating a new genre! This is a biography that intersperses, directly in amongst the life story – only italicised – cleverly chosen and framed excerpts from both Dostoevsky’s letters and his novels. The effect being akin to a novel in the third person (poor epileptic gambling addict genius — and Siberian prison camp-survivor — and doting father whose earnestness knew no limits: Fyodor turns out to be a pretty novelistic novelist), that drops us occasionally into the protagonist’s thoughts. All those claims for biographies bringing their subjects to life — none in quite the manner of the free-indirect biography! Jaume Subirana’s poetry collection, THE SILENT LETTER, translated by Christopher Whyte – for creating a kind of language space I have never otherwise inhabited. As a bilingual Catalan-English edition of Subirana’s deceptively simple poems, it placed me in the midst of a language, in Catalan, which, as a Spanish speaker with a smattering of the other Romance languages, I feel I constantly almost know – and yet also, thrillingly at moments, do not know at all (maduixa for strawberry! Ungla for fingernail!). I read everything Fum d’Estampa puts out — an incredible press. And, Moyra Davey’s INDEX CARDS (Fitzcarraldo Editions) — for saving my life.
AFTERMATH (And Other Stories) by Preti Taneja has been deservedly recognised and is a work of true heart and righteousness in the face of key human questions. I spent time reading and re-reading the work of poets and writers we have lost. I read Irish poet Leland Bardwell’s COLLECTED POEMS (Salmon Poetry), released in this, her centenary year. If any Irish poet deserves your attention right now, it’s her. I also returned to Dermot Healy’s A GOAT’S SONG (Faber & Faber) 20 years after first reading it, and it is still unequaled in its atmosphere and language. In the past few weeks, it has been Alan Halsey’s THE TEXT OF SHELLEY’S DEATH (West House Books), Bernadette Mayer’s MIDWINTER’S DAY (New Directions), and Tom Philips’s A HUMUMENT (Thames and Hudson). I am grateful for all this work.
I was desperately looking forward to Elif Batuman’s Either/Or (Jonathan Cape), and it more than lived up to it. So did Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latch (Daunt Books Publishing), despite the fact that my only prior horse experience involved vomiting. In summer I read Eve Babitz for the first time, and have been thinking about Slow Days, Fast Company (NYRB) ever since. Not long after that, I was a little less late to The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Canongate), and I loved briefly being in its obsessive, distorted version of the world; First Love by Gwendoline Riley was similarly satisfying (Granta Books). I’ve never read anything like Tamara Shopsin’s LaserWriter II (MCD x FSG), which warmly indulged my affection for machines, and most recently I loved how deftly playful The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt (New Directions) ended up being. I’m currently halfway through Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Verso), which I’m enjoying for how rich and insular it is (as was the case with much of this list.)
This year I mostly read novels. I loved Guadalupe Nettel’s STILL BORN, translated by Rosalind Harvey, Daisy Hildyard’s EMERGENCY (both Fitzcarraldo Editions), Susan Finlay’s THE JACQUES LACAN FOUNDATION (Moist), and re-encountering Selin, the narrator of Elif Batuman’s EITHER/OR (Jonathan Cape), which felt like being reunited with an old friend. I’m not sure I could claim to have enjoyed MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley (Granta Books), but the experience of reading it will stay with me for a very long time. I was also completely absorbed by Polina Barskova’s intense, collage-like and experimental work LIVING PICTURES, translated by Catherine Ciepiela (Pushkin). My favourite of all the books I read this year, however, came out in 1980: THE TRANSIT OF VENUS by Shirley Hazzard (Virago). I’m already looking forward to reading it again.
The books that made a difference to me this year, in no particular order, were: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT by Rosa-Johan Uddoh (Book Works); CHILDHOOD, YOUTH, DEPENDENCY by Tove Ditlevsen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman; THREAD RIPPER by Amalie Smith (Lolli Editions); THE DRIVER’S SEAT by Muriel Spark (Penguin Classics); I FEAR MY PAIN INTERESTS YOU by Stephanie LaCava (Verso); WHICH AS YOU KNOW MEANS VIOLENCE by Philippa Snow (Repeater); THE POOR CHILDREN by Suzanna Slackand (VF Press); and HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux (Fitzcarraldo Editions). I have also been desperate for the time and headspace to read ANIMAL JOY by Nuar Alsadir (also Fitzcarraldo Editions), having seen some very early drafts. I’ll read it over the holidays. I know it will make a difference too.
Lauren Aimee Curtis
Elizabeth Hardwick was notoriously sceptical of biography (‘A scrofulous cottage industry,’ she called it). My favourite book this year was Darryl Pinckney’s memoir COME BACK IN SEPTEMBER (riverrun), which paints a nuanced portrait. It is the intelligent, elegant, gossipy book on Hardwick I have been waiting for since I read Pinckney’s letters to the author (archived in her papers). In honour of what would have been his hundredth birthday, I read THE LETTERS OF PIER PAOLO PASOLINI. VOLUME 1, translated by Stuart Hood (Quartet Books). In these early letters, a young Pasolini worries about the war, skirts around – and then addresses – the subject of his sexuality, frets about his poems and admonishes a friend for critiquing them. Other books I loved: THE CHEFFE by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump (MacLehose Press); ALL OUR YESTERDAYS by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Angus Davidson (Daunt Books Publishing); STILL BORN by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and Clarice Lispector’s TOO MUCH OF LIFE, translated by Margaret Jull Costa & Robin Patterson (Penguin Classics).
I’ve been interested in how governments, companies, powers create horrible neologisms that are then adopted and regurgitated by the wider public and shape our thinking, and so I’ve been reading Victor Klemperer’s 1947 classic LTI (Reclam Leipzig), short for ‘Lingua Tertii Imperii’, or, in the belated English translation by Martin Brady, THE LANGUAGE OF THE THIRD REICH (Continuum). Instructive, disturbing, surprisingly chatty: the holy trifecta of non-fiction. Equally disturbing and another favourite: Kari Norgaard’s LIVING IN DENIAL: CLIMATE CHANGE, EMOTIONS, AND EVERYDAY LIFE (MIT Press), which I read to try and make sense of the weird collective cognitive dissonance that lets some people recognise the climate crisis’s existence, even its impact on their daily life, while simultaneously ignoring it. It hasn’t been a great year for literary fiction for me, but I’m still thinking about Badr Ahmad’s FIVE DAYS UNTOLD, translated by Christiaan James (Dar Arab), Montserrat Roig’s THE SONG OF YOUTH translated by Tiago Miller (Fum d’Estampa) and especially Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker’s WILDERER (S. Fischer).
Polina Barskova is a consistently unsettling poet and Air Raid (Ugly Duckling Presse) makes queasily truthful poetry from her scholarly engagement with the archives of the Siege of Leningrad. Valzhyna Mort translates Barskova with the sort of radical freedom a translator might aspire to, and as a result this book is an experiment, in history, poetry, translation and perception. Pavilion Press, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones, has published a really stunning triad of collections this year: Denise Saul (The Room Between Us), Anita Pati (Hiding to Nothing) and Jemma Borg (Wilder). Mina Gorji in Scale (Carcanet) writes of nature and distance with a miniaturist’s perfection. Stephen Watts’s inimitable Journeys Across Breath: Poems 1975-2005 (Prototype) is a poetic landmark of 2022 and destined to be a classic work. Finally J. O. Morgan’s novels are unmissable for their finely-worked prose and conceptual brilliance and Appliance (Jonathan Cape) is no exception.
Three books about the friends who stay with us long after they’ve deceased never strayed far from my mind this year – Nate Lippens’s MY DEAD BOOK (The Fellow Travelers Series), Daryl Pinckney’s COME BACK IN SEPTEMBER (riverrun) and Alberto Manguel’s WITH BORGES (Telegram Books). While Pinckney’s memoir concerns his friendship with Elizabeth Hardwick, as well as the starry literary milieu that surrounded her, and Manguel remembers his time assisting a blind Jorge Luis Borges, Lippens’s autobiographical novel delves deeply into a personal scene of friends and lovers whose names you will not recognise. Many of these lovers, comrades and strays are dead; the sequence of traumas the American Midwest subjects them to prove ultimately unendurable. Yet Lippens’s narrator prises from the clutches of this bleak landscape the occasional locket of hope, the grimmest humour, a few fleeting nights of human contact with the now lost that briefly expunge from body and soul much of their pain. It is a hard book, but its hardness is like that of a diamond.
This year I’ve been deep in the Victorians. I have loved rereading SILAS MARNER (Chiltern Publishing) (I’d underestimated it before; George Eliot is so moving here on childhood, mixing the realist and the fabular in ways that reveal the strangeness of children) and I loved the reissue of Alethea Hayter’s 1965 A SULTRY MONTH (Faber & Faber). It’s about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Robert Haydon and others and is a kind of group biography, but that’s never an enticing enough term. It’s a daring literary collage, a slow-motion deep dive into a single summer that shows how much of art and life is collaborative – often accidentally so. My favourite contemporary novel has been Selby Wynn Schwartz’s AFTER SAPPHO (Galley Beggar Press), again a book about collective life, this time a novel about literary lesbians across the ages, written as a chorus that opens new possibilities for the collective voice. All this collectivity and collaboration – perhaps there’s something about me or us that needs it right now.
Early this year I was inseparable from Jack Spicer’s MY VOCABULARY DID THIS TO ME, the posthumous collection edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Wesleyan University Press); when, one day, I couldn’t find it I ordered another, express delivery. I then found it in my laundry bag. Speaking of online shopping, I waited impatiently for my copy of Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams’s DIEGO GARCIA (Fitzcarraldo Editions) to arrive; later LIFE IS EVERYWHERE by Lucy Ives (Graywolf Press) arrived on the day Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize, a great day for women writers everywhere. More randomly I obtained an obscure essay by Emmanuel Hocquard, THE LIBRARY AT TRIESTE, in an obscure translation by Mark Hutchinson (The Noble Rider), and this was strangely meaningful. Sara Deniz Akant’s HYPERPHANTASIA (Rescue Press) is a hard gem. So is Jeff Dolven’s *A NEW ENGLISH GRAMMAR (dispersed holdings). Noy Holland’s old copy of Christine Schutt’s ALL SOULS (Mariner Books) is my real book of the year – when these works, and everything I did, helped me understand the political-poetic oeuvre of Nathalie Quintane.
As I’ve returned to varying amounts of part-time work, my reading has often suffered – it’s hard to find a balance that allows me the energy that I need for reading, and often great books go unfinished or forgotten. But some of the best books I’ve read this year are: SEARCH HISTORY by Eugene Lim (Coffee House Press) – the kind of novel that made me say, did you know you’re allowed to write like this? LITTLE SCRATCH by Rebecca Watson (Faber & Faber) – a book that broke apart my conception of how prose works; AGITATED AIR: POEMS AFTER IBN ARABI by Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger (Tenement Press). The most beautiful poems, rewriting each other and the world; HOBBERDY DICK by Katharine Briggs (Faber & Faber); SONATA IN K by Karen An-hwei Lee (Ellipsis Press); CROCODILIA by Philip Ridley (Valancourt Books); A NOSTALGIST’S MAP OF AMERICA by Agha Shahid Ali (W.W. Norton and Company); TRUST by Hernan Diaz (Picador); MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks (Faber & Faber).
This summer in Paris I found myself reading a lot of Annie Ernaux. I wish I had the foresight to put money on her winning the Nobel! THE YEARS completely blew me away. It was like running your hands across a monument. A monument towards time. I also adored A MAN’S PLACE (both Fitzcarraldo Editions). There’s a line about Ernaux’s father sticking his knife into the earth in order to get rid of the smell of herrings that I sometimes think about. Two short books of fiction I want to recommend: COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jessica Au and ANNOTATIONS by John Keene (New Directions).
For poetry, I really loved Renee Gladman’s new book, PLANS FOR SENTENCES (Wave Books). A radical book of poetry and drawing, one that really gets to the heart of what language can be and be building towards. I also want to recommend two UK debut books of poetry that I think are brilliant: Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s QUIET (Faber & Faber) and Alycia Pirmohamed’s ANOTHER WAY TO SPLIT WATER (Birlinn).
Fanny Howe’s NIGHT PHILOSOPHY (Divided), Marguerite Duras’s WRITING (University of Minnesota Press) translated by Mark Polizzotti, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s NEW ENGLISH VERSION OF LAO TZU: TAO TE CHING (Shambala), are three books that became my spirit guides for the year. Each one I came upon accidently, bumped into, gleaned: one an old library book found in a thrift shop; one lent to me by a friend and now too heavily marked to be returned; one sitting on my bookshelf for many years, patiently waiting to be arrived at. All three in their own ways, revelations: whispers of cool air in the stifling too-muchness of our time, each throwing out tender threads with the strength to pull you out of the flow. Skinny volumes made up of fragments to be opened at random and read on their own. Whole tiny grains. Reassuring simply by being within touchable reach – as much talismans as constellations of language. To quote from Fanny Howe: ‘History is no help, the way knocking wood is. Wood is a favourite of mine.’ Mine too.
Emma Heaney’s The New Woman: Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and the Trans Feminine Allegory (Northwestern University Press) made me look at modernist genders entirely differently. I read it alongside a reread of NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes (Faber & Faber); once one has read NIGHTWOOD one is ever after always reading NIGHTWOOD. I had a lot of fun with Esther Newton’s sexy, gossipy memoir MY BUTCH CAREER (Duke University Press). Patricia Highsmith’s DIARIES AND NOTEBOOKS (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) were horribly, deliciously awful. Returning to Highsmith took me back to Terry Castle, who once called THE PRICE OF SALT (Dover Publications) Highsmith’s ‘dykey little potboiler’. The essays in Castle’s THE PROFESSOR: A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION (Harper Perennial) – about Susan Sontag, her mother, an affair with the titular professor—are manic, witty, baroque, hilarious, and the last sentence of her essay on the jazz saxophonist Art Pepper was so brutal I simply stopped breathing.
As TikToks of people in their kitchens and bedrooms invade our psyche, and an automated ghost narrates affirmations to us in the background, I find myself turning to memoirs with their offer of a slower take on the human experience. The most tantalising memoir I read in 2022 was British novelist Deborah Levy’s REAL ESTATE (Penguin Books). A reflective and often hilarious take on the gendered meaning of domesticity, and the emotional and literal cost of emancipation. As Levy comments on the precarious financial life of writers she builds an imaginary home adorned with silk and plush ottomans. In PALESTINIAN WALKS: FORAYS INTO A VANISHING LANDSCAPE (Simon & Schuster), Raja Shehadeh takes us on a sarha, a series of Palestinian walks in the West Bank, transporting us to beautiful olive orchards and hills punctuated with dread-filled moments as he encounters Israeli police checkpoints. Lastly, with the closing of my favorite gay bar in Beirut, Bardo, Jeremy Atherton’s GAY BAR: WHY WENT OUT? (Granta Books) resonated with me. Atherton’s writing, while mostly set in the United Kingdom and the United States, tackles the class and racial dynamics of gay bars, complicating the rose-tinted glass through which such bars were seen as a welcoming space for all.
Claire Keegan’s SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE was my first purchase this year and what a beginning. Her story of a benign Irish coal-merchant employed by a Magdalene Laundry is a masterful reflection on instincts of care run ragged by abuses of power. LULLABY by Leïla Slimani, translated Sam Taylor (both Faber & Faber) provided another compelling read on the theme, with her grotesque tale of a murderous nanny providing the most perfect evisceration of the foul economies of childcare I have ever read. My own post-pandemic reunion with city lights fuelled much reading on women at midnight. Here, Mary Gaitskill’s BAD BEHAVIOUR (Penguin Classics) generously rewarded rereading, absorbing stories of sex work, tricks and affairs, kink and desire offset by anxiety and discontent in dark pockets of 1980s New York. More demimondaines came from Jean Rhys, notably Julia in AFTER LEAVING MR MACKENZIE (Penguin Classics) who roams wet Parisian streets soaked in orange lamplight towards late-licence cafés, fines, cigarettes and indifferent lovers.
After a week in Winterton-on-Sea this summer, where Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland lived for a time, I loved reading their letters – published as I’LL STAND BY YOU: THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER & VALENTINE ACKLAND (Pimlico) – and books, especially STW’s SUMMER WILL SHOW (first published in 1936, Viking), and Ackland’s extraordinary FOR SYLVIA: AN HONEST ACCOUNT (written in 1949 but not published until 1986, Methuen). Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about (queer) coupling, but I can also recommend Janet Malcom’s TWO LIVES: GERTRUDE AND ALICE (Yale University Press) and Phyllis Rose’s PARALLEL LIVES (Daunt Books Publishing, first published 1983) enough. I know I will keep coming back to them. I just read LIVING ROOMS (Peninsula Press) by Sam Johnson-Schlee, who expertly blends social history and memoir, much of which takes place in his grandparents’ self-built kit house. It’s a moving portrait and argument for the home as a living space – alive, lived in – rather than a commodity. I also loved Ruth Ozeki’s beautiful novel THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS (Canongate) and Elif Batuman’s hilarious EITHER/OR (Jonathan Cape) – which both came out this year. I’m currently halfway through Annie Ernaux’s GETTING LOST (published in English this year by Fitzcarraldo Editions, but written 1988-1990), the companion to one of my favourite books of hers, SIMPLE PASSION (also Fitzcarraldo Editions): ‘Love and writing are the only two things in the world I can bear, the rest is darkness.’
Three short, brilliant and vivifying novels I read this year were Kathryn Scanlan’s KICK THE LATCH (Daunt Books Publishing), Camilla Grudova’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE (Atlantic Books), and Max Blecher’s ADVENTURES IN IMMEDIATE IRREALITY, translated by Michael Henry Heim (New Directions). Two long, engulfing novels that I am glad I read were Harold Brodkey’s THE RUNAWAY SOUL (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Herman Melville’s MARDI (Legare Street Press). Manuel Muñoz’s THE CONSEQUENCES (Graywolf Press) and Robin McLean’s GET ‘EM YOUNG, TREAT ‘EM TOUGH, TELL ‘EM NOTHING (And Other Stories), are superb short story collections that I would recommend to anyone. Rereading Maeve Brennan’s THE SPRINGS OF AFFECTION (Peninsula Press) was a pleasure and an illumination. Outstanding poetry included Roger Reeves’s BEST BARBARIAN (W.W. Norton and Company) and Nelly Sachs’s FLIGHT AND METAMORPHOSIS, translated by Joshua Weiner with Linda B. Parshall (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Preti Taneja’s AFTERMATH (And Other Stories) is an essential book about grief, hope and transformation. Reading Georges Didi-Huberman’s CONFRONTING IMAGES (The Pennsylvania State University Press) has helped me ask better questions about what it is to experience art.
This year I got really into scary fairy tales by women in translation, where the menace or horror or monster is revealed to be caused by some sort of political devilry, by the evils and carceral ideologies of ordinary men in power. My favorites were Bora Chung’s CURSED BUNNY (Honford Star), Mariana Enriquez’s THE DANGERS OF SMOKING IN BED and THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (both Granta Books), and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL HER NEIGHBOR’S BABY, translated by Keith Gessen, Anna Summers (Penguin). I loved Mieko Kawakami’s HEAVEN (Picador), which has a similar vibe, although framed more as a Nietzschean philosophical allegory on the nature of evil and power, and how the powerless might resist. Then there was Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s THE FUTURE IS DISABLED: PROPHECIES, LOVE NOTES, AND MOURNING SONGS (Arsenal Pulp Press), which everyone should read. In my house, we like saying Leah’s name like the Bruce-Buffer-esque announcer at the start of an important fight: LEE-ah LAK-shmi PiEPzna-SamaraSIIIIIIIIIIII-NHAAAAAAAAA!
Namwali Serpell’s second novel THE FURROWS (Hogarth) enveloped me; an elegy, a ghost story, a challenge to the structural binds of contemporary fiction, it is an endlessly innovative and deeply moving exploration of grief and family. Fernanda Melchor is one of my favorite writers alive, and her latest novel, PARADAIS, translated by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions), is a slim, grotesque, and often breathless cataclysm, a story of contemporary moral decay that I truly could not put down. And finally, New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv’s STRANGERS TO OURSELVES (Harvill Secker) was revelatory to me in its empathetic, sprawling unraveling of how mental illness forms our identities, and how our modern medicine’s desire for quick fixes denies the varied and heartbreaking lived realities of individual people. It’s the best kind of reported nonfiction, an entire book that feels like the best New Yorker piece you’ve ever read.
Most memorable this year was the chance pairing of Nell Dunn’s TALKING TO WOMEN (Silver Press) and George Perec’s novel THINGS, translated from the French by David Bellos (Vintage Classics). Both were originally published in 1965 and tell a story of the 60s, in Britain and France respectively. On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different: Dunn focuses on people, experience, feeling, while Perec foregrounds objects, style, composition. TALKING TO WOMEN is presented as organic matter; THINGS is pure construct. But they share the same motivating interest in how societies shape our desires, which breed aspirations, which breed frustrations, which in turn reshape our desires. I suppose this connection shouldn’t surprise me, given that I sought out the Dunn after reading comparisons to Polly Barton’s highly anticipated PORN: AN ORAL HISTORY (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and the Perec because it part inspired Vincenzo Latronico’s slyly shattering novel LE PERFEZIONI (Bompiani), about a millennial couple missing one thing from the otherwise perfect life they have constructed together: satisfaction.
When I read allusions to Borges on the blurb of PUGNACIOUS LITTLE TROLLS by Rob Mimpriss (Cockatrice Books), I was (perhaps understandably) somewhat wary. However, my reservations vanished as I quickly learned that I was reading a master of the craft. The dozen or so stories all concern Wales in some way, from pathos-ridden social realism to fantastical tangents with only a passing reference to our home country. Mimpriss uses these stories as tools to interrogate notions of belonging, prejudice and identity that are so prevalent to modern Welsh society. It isn’t a question of which language, but language itself which is so important to the formation of Welsh identity. 2022 has been a phenomenal year for English language Welsh writing. I hope that future researchers of Welsh culture do not overlook this slim volume of short stories, released by a small-scale independent publisher and longlisted for the Welsh Book of the Year award.
In her exceptional book ANIMAL JOY, Nuar Alsadir (Fitzcarraldo Editions) writes that ‘laughter has the potential to be an agent of change’. This year I greatly enjoyed the comic zing of Elif Batuman’s delightful EITHER/OR (Jonathan Cape), as well as a re-read of Ben Lerner’s LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION in audiobook form (Granta Books), which is somehow funnier out loud (see also the audio version of his recent New Yorker story, ‘Cafe Loup’). Another favourite was the brilliant biography RED COMET by Heather Clark (Knopf), which I read in the year when Sylvia Plath – a very funny writer – would have been 90.
Daisy Hildyard’s immersive novel, EMERGENCY (Fitzcarraldo Editions), revolves around a nameless middle-aged woman’s recollection of her childhood in rural Yorkshire. In meditative and exquisitely constructed descriptions, seen through the eyes of a child, the natural world comes to us, blazingly alive, and our place in it does too. Moving between the 1990s and the pandemic-stricken 2020s, Hildyard creates a continuum of moving, rushing life; one where the losses and changes of a former era and human stage are palpably connected to present ones. EMERGENCY comes to us in the interpersonal, cross-species relationships experienced by its girl narrator, in the performed coalescence of all forms, bodies and spaces. It comes to us in flickering fireflies, frisky fox cubs, attention-seeking cows, a three-footed deer who likes cake and many more beautifully captured moments that shape a young mind now grasping in isolation for the force of her former outdoor life.
This year, I’ve found reading difficult, for a variety of reasons. So, I’ve read little, and even less that has been published in the last year. I did find time for Fernanda Melchor’s PARADAIS (Fitzcarraldo Editions), with one of the most relentlessly brutal authorial voices I’ve encountered in recent years; Patjim Statovici’s devastatingly sad queer novel BOLLA (Faber & Faber); and DIEGO GARCIA by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams (Fitzcarraldo Editions), which is a brilliantly inventive response to one of the great political injustices of our times. In older reading, two novels published during the 1980s stood out: THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON by Jacques Roubaud (Dalkey Archive Press), which, in its series of digressions, nicely captures what it means to be a writer, and LANARK by Alasdair Gray (Faber & Faber), a striking, ambitious work about personal and political disintegration. Diane di Prima’s REVOLUTIONARY LETTERS, in a new Silver Press edition, provided some hope amidst ongoing catastrophe, providing a contrast with Unica Zürn’s heartbreaking MAN OF JASMINE (Atlas Press).
It was the 200th anniversary of Percy Shelley’s death in July, and I spent much of the first part of 2022 reading his poems, especially volume seven of the Johns Hopkins COMPLETE POETRY (Johns Hopkins University Press), brilliantly edited by Nora Crook and published a year ago, which includes ‘The Triumph of Life’ and the other poems he was working on in his last weeks. I’ve gone back to Elizabeth Gaskell’s NORTH AND SOUTH (Penguin Classics) – not the least of its many virtues being, as Rachel Malik has said, that it’s ‘messy and uncertain about what it thinks’ – and Vasilii Grossman’s magnificent, devastating LIFE AND FATE, translated by Robert Chandler (Everyman). Of books published in 2022, I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s THE CANDY HOUSE, a worthy successor to A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD (both Corsair), as it explores what it means for us to outsource ever more of our consciousness to cyberspace.
2022 books that changed my life: Annabel L. Kim’s CACAPHONIES: THE EXCREMENTAL CANON OF FRENCH LITERATURE (University of Minnesota Press) and Daisy Pitkin’s ON THE LINE: A STORY OF CLASS, SOLIDARITY, AND TWO WOMEN’S EPIC FIGHT TO BUILD A UNION (Algonquin) are two non-fiction works about, respectively, the radical possibilities of poopoo peepee and the abject misery of Phoenix, Arizona. The poems in Christopher Lanyon’s SWELL (Bad Betty) are humourous and devastating (my favourite is ‘Praa Sands’), and pair nicely with the waves of terror and tenderness in Julia Armfield’s OUR WIVES UNDER THE SEA (Picador). Closest to my heart are the lesbian contradictions and solidarities of Elif Batuman’s EITHER/OR (Jonathan Cape) and Kim Hye-jin’s CONCERNING MY DAUGHTER (Picador), translated by Jamie Chang. Like Dan Erickson’s Apple TV series, SEVERANCE, and Ling Ma’s 2018 novel SEVERANCE (Picador), Kim’s treatment of the precarious body under capitalism is nuanced and hard hitting.
This year I’ve read a lot about hope, despair and time. On these themes (and others), I greatly admired Nuar Alsadir’s ANIMAL JOY (Fitzcarraldo Editions), Julian Barbour’s THE JANUS POINT (Bodley Head), Julia Copus’s THIS RARE SPIRIT (Faber & Faber) and Minna Salami’s SENSUOUS KNOWLEDGE (Zed Books); as well as two books about four Oxford philosophers (Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch): THE WOMEN ARE UP TO SOMETHING by Benjamin Lipscomb (OUP) and METAPHYSICAL ANIMALS by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman (Chatto & Windus). As for fiction: I loved Ned Beauman’s VENOMOUS LUMPSUCKER (Sceptre), Jon Fosse’s ALISS AT THE FIRE (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and Louisa Reid’s THE POET (Doubleday). Hanne Ørstavik’s TI AMO (And Other Stories) is also beautiful if devastating. Leonora Carrington is one of my favourite absurdists and I was delighted (belatedly) to read a new(ish) collection of her work, THE DEBUTANTE AND OTHER STORIES (Silver Press).
I never seem to read books in sync or in time with everyone else. Raymond Antrobus’s debut collection, THE PERSEVERANCE (Penned in the Margins), beguiles with its seductive pacing – the pages disappeared before I could breathe. Antrobus’s poetry overwhelmed me with its capacity to speak of multiple forms of othering, but his tone does not invite the reader to wallow in pity. In 2022, I revisited everything by Greg Tate. I read his edited anthology EVERYTHING BUT THE BURDEN (Crown) in one sitting. Anthologies punctuated the year, such as Margaret Busby’s NEW DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA (Myriad Editions). I was surprised that I made it from cover to cover of Michael Taussig’s WHAT COLOR IS SACRED (Chicago). It felt like a timely treatise on chromophobia. I rounded out the year with Andra Simons’s perplexing and eye-watering collection, TURTLEMEN (Copy Press).
I grew up near the Italian border and read (in French) a lot of Italian authors who had a long lasting effect on me. I have loved seeing Natalia Ginzburg get all the attention she deserves and this year I reread a novel that shaped me as a reader, LA STORIA by Elsa Morante (who Ginzburg described as the best writer of their generation), translated by Michel Arnaud (Gallimard). It is set in Rome in 1941-1947 and follows a woman who lives alone with her two sons, the youngest born after she is raped at the beginning of the war, and entwines her story with history in the most spellbinding way. I am told that it is in dire need of retranslating in English but read it and read everything else you can find by her. ARTURO’S ISLAND is in print in a recent translation by Ann Goldstein (Pushkin Press) and NYRB are publishing her first novel LIES AND SORCERY in 2023. I can’t understand why she is still relatively unknown in the English speaking world. And there would be no Elena Ferrante without Elsa Morante…
Other books I have loved this year are CHER CONNARD by Virginie Despentes (Grasset), TRUST by Hernan Diaz (Picador), the reissue of THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer translated by Shaun Whiteside (Vintage), TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy (Bloomsbury), THREAD RIPPER by Amalie Smith translated by Jennifer Russell (Lolli Editions), GOODBYE RAMONA by Monsterrat Roig translated by Megan Berkobien and Maria Cristina Hall (Fum d’Estampa) and STILL BORN by Guadalupe Nettel translated by Rosalind Harvey (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
I feel like everything I’ve loved lately has had a woman mystic spiraling and sending out signals at its centre – or coolly receiving them through the ether (maybe the same thing): Christa Wolf’s CASSANDRA: A NOVEL AND FOUR ESSAYS, translated by Jan van Heurck (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Ottessa Moshfegh’s DEATH IN HER HANDS (Random House), Lauren Groff’s MATRIX (Riverhead), and Mieko Kawakami’s incredible BREASTS AND EGGS, HEAVEN, and ALL THE LOVERS IN THE NIGHT, all translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd for Europa Editions. I just started Fleur Jaeggy’s THE WATER STATUES, translated by Gini Alhadeff and dedicated to Ingeborg Bachmann (And Other Stories), but have already stolen some lines for art catalogue essay epigraphs. Jaeggy is always the best kind of cutting to start things off (aesthetically speaking). And I’m looking forward to reading Mirene Arsanios’s THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A LANGUAGE (Futurepoem) and Robin Coste Lewis’s TO THE REALIZATION OF PERFECT HELPLESSNESS (Knopf).
2022 was a year of grand discoveries new and old. Other than a complete tour of Proust’s RECHERCHE [In Search of Lost Time] (Penguin Classics) and a pilgrimage to the sites of Henry James’s most famous novels (both covered over with syntactic brambles, the latter more than the former). I loved Mircea Cărtărescu’s SOLENOID most of all, brilliantly translated by Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum), was befuddled by the lukewarm reception of THE PASSENGER by Cormac McCarthy (Picador), a brilliantly postmodern piss taken straight into the mouth of death, enjoyed both of the newfound Céline novels, but was blown away by LONDRES (Gallimard). Almost vomited dozens of times reading Régis Jauffret’s MICROFICTIONS 2022 and P. Guyotat’s DEPUIS UNE FENÊTRE (a great accolade) (both Gallimard), was wickedly disappointed by Michel Houellebecq’s ANÉANTIR (Flammarion), laughed raucously at the political piss-taking of Orhan Pamuk’s NIGHTS OF PLAGUE (Penguin Random House), continued my long, long love affair with Péter Nádas by way of RÉMTÖRTÉNETEK [Horror Stories] in German (Rowohlt), loved the Chekhovian flair of Vladimir Sorokin’s DE FEMINIS (Corpus), shuddered convulsively from the brain-fucking of Blake Butler’s AANNEX (Apocalypse Party), and read Ottessa Moshfegh’s heavy-metal LAPVONA (Penguin) twice (someone bring Alexei German back from the dead to film it!).
I read José Saramago’s BLINDNESS (Vintage) this year and it’s made a permanent imprint on my brain: blistering, unrelenting, horrifying, yet still somehow luminously redemptive (but, as I learned the hard way, decidedly not a beach read). I was blown away by Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s QUIET (Faber & Faber) – she’s a writer of staggering intellect, grace and style, and these poems are balletic in their elegance, powerful both when they whisper and when they yell. I’ll read anything Sandeep Parmar writes, and I was stunned by her latest collection, FAUST (Shearsman Books), a masterfully wrought, searching rumination on displacement, legacy, grief, wanting. Finally, I read Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY (Penguin) for the very first time, which made me feel a bit like a time traveller as I earnestly recommended it to everyone I know. Turns out it’s pretty good, actually, and that everyone’s read it already.
Jeremy Atherton Lin
I once sat across from a twink who proclaimed ‘when you’re gay, life ends at thirty’. The sexagenarian protagonist of Andrew Holleran’s very funny, melancholic THE KINGDOM OF SAND (Jonathan Cape) has indeed seen the cessation of a life he once knew – the late nights in lower Manhattan, etc. In rural Florida, his days are lonely, routine and, I’d contend, quietly fulfilled. The whole final section consists of his evening strolls to Walgreens, carrying a torch for two of the young men on staff. Holleran’s prose has the effect of a vast, polluted sunset. His book left me with a sense of peace and yearning. I thought of it often through several carless weeks in Los Angeles, walking alongside and under freeways towards the boba tea shop or Target. I keep recommending it to whoever will listen, pleased to find others genuinely receptive to my enthusiasm for its uneventfulness.
Last year, while writing about the history of Chinatowns in Britain, I was excited to discover that the famed twentieth-century Chinese writer Lao She had lived in London in the 1920s and wrote a satire based on his time here, MR MA AND SON. Then I was dismayed to find that it was basically impossible to find any copies (which was ironic, because my interviewees spoke of the persistent exclusion of Chinese-British stories even today.) And so Penguin Classics’s reissue of the novel this winter was a delight. Following a hapless father-son duo who newly arrive in London to run an antiques shop, it is funny, devastating, and achingly relevant. Here is Lao She, as our characters cross the border: ‘although the officials of English Customs vary in appearance, you would never mistake them for those of any other profession […] Towards their fellow countrymen they are most affable, jesting and joking as they examine passports […] Towards foreigners, however, they have a different attitude. They straighten their shoulders, set their mouths and bring their imperial superiority to the fore. Sometimes, it’s true, they go so far as to give the ghost of a smile. Which is certain to be followed by refusal to permit you to land.’
This year, Vinciane Despret’s recently-translated, by Stephen Muecke, OUR GRATEFUL DEAD (University of Minnesota Press) kept me company while Marie Darrieussecq’s (hopefully) soon-to-be translated PAS DORMIR (POL) kept me up at night. I’ve also loved mining the late Donald W. Woods’s poetry, available in the anthology BROTHER TO BROTHER: NEW WRITINGS BY BLACK GAY MEN (Red Bone Press). In a different register, I’ve enjoyed revisiting THE COMPLETE FABLES OF JEAN DE LA FONTAINE, translated by Norman R. Shapiro (University of Illinois Press), whom I was delighted to discover was one shady queen.
Kristian Vistrup Madsen
First I want to recommend Monika Fagerholm’s VEM DÖDADE BAMBI? [Who Killed Bambi?], which was published in Swedish in 2020, but followed this year by translations in French and German. Fagerholm, who has been a star on the Finnish literary scene since the 90s, writes a prose so startlingly alive, so intensely poetic and yet somehow ugly, past the threshold of language into the abyss of reality, it made me want to put the book down at every page and start writing myself, but at the same time never write another word – Fagerholm has already finished the job. I got a collection of five of the American poet Fanny Howe’s short novels titled RADICAL LOVE (Nightboat Books). Written between 1985 and 2000, I read one after the next, at once frightened and enamoured by her brusque characters and piercing images. Among the many things Howe does well is write hesitation: ‘Because I could – because he could – because it was easier because, in the end, it’s easier – for some people – to love alone.’ Finally, Louise Glück, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize, published a new collection at the end of 2021, but it was 2001’s THE SEVEN AGES (Carcanet Poetry) which I happened to come across in a bookshop and fell in love with. Glück has a keen sense of how humans look for beauty in what they missed or lost, the beauty there is in that, and of course also the sadness: ‘how ignorant we all are most of the time, / seeing things / only from the one vantage, like a sniper.’ Ouch.
Before I read YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber & Faber) everyone warned me it was a romance novel. Thank the lord for that, but there’s also more craft to this book than most of what I read over the year. Emezi queers the romance genre to create something lush and excitingly fluid. It’s a book about grief, healing and delighting in frankly bonkers behaviour. On the other side of this, there was ACTS OF SERVICE by Lillian Fishman (Europa Editions), an exploration of how desire is so often politically incorrect and socially disruptive. I enjoyed this novel for its unapologetic capacity to go there, which is so lacking in millennial fiction otherwise. The best thing I read was Tove Ditlevsen’s COPENHAGEN TRILOGY (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, a monumental work which still feels so alive and fresh. Finally, what’s going on in THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFÉ by Carson McCullers (Penguin Classics)? I loved this short, strange and sad novella about how love makes weirdos of us all.
I allow myself to reread a couple of Ross MacDonald’s detective novels every year. THE CHILL (Penguin Modern Classics) is among his best. The Freudian malarkey he leans into is coarse and the social commentary blunt, but the plotting is divine. I had to take several runs at THE MIND BODY PROBLEM, Rebecca Goldstein’s debut novel from 1983 (Penguin Books), before it clicked, and the click came alongside the realisation that this is an old fashioned bedroom farce about people who have spent too much of their lives in the fusty groves of academe. A clue was to be found in the overblown and overlong epigraphs from Plato, Einstein and Anne Sexton. BAD MARIE by Marcy Dermansky (Harper Perennial) is about a woman named Marie who does unaccountably bad things for, and on account of, the people she loves: her bank robbing fiancé, a fraudulent French novelist, the two-year old child she kidnaps. Blank, unabashed and uninterrogated badness begets a great novel. MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW by Peter Høeg (Vintage) has a lot going for it, but I particularly enjoyed reading about Smilla’s many and varied outfits. ‘I’ve chosen a dinner jacket with wide lapels of green silk. Black breeches that come to just below my knees, green stockings, and green daisy duck shoes, and a little velvet Fez over my bald spot.’
After moving to France two years ago, I am keen to be a little less dumb in French. So, I’ve been reading a lot of French novels. I don’t know if any of these books are in translation but they should be. Anthony Passeron’s beautiful, sensitive book LES ENFANTS ENDORMIS [The Sleeping Children, forthcoming from Picador] about the HIV crisis masterfully switches focus between the wide lens of the epidemic and the tighter focus of its effects on families. Guillaume Lebrun’s FANTAISIES GUÉRILLÈRES [Guerilla Fantasies] (Bourgois) is a mad, joyous, form-shifting retelling of the Joan of Arc myth and introduces the historically ignored, but now brilliantly realised, Duchess Yolande of Aragon. Lastly, Hadrien Bels’s CINQ DANS TES YEUX [Five in Your Eyes] is about young men growing up in a city quickly gentrifying. That city is Marseille, my new home, and the main character of the book. It captures the raucousness of this city-state perfectly.
STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND (1984) by Samuel R. Delany (Harper Voyager): The magic of Delaney’s writing is the way he drops you right into alien worlds. There is no hand-holding, no spoon-feeding context. The reader is left to marvel at the creatures, places and objects they encounter, experiencing them in all their alien glory. Of the many remarkable things in the book are a three-sexed bird-like species with multiple tongues, sex tunnels, and what is surely one of the best dinner party scenes in literature, containing a potentially lethal table, astonishing dishes and bizarre eating rituals. THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY (1913) by Edith Wharton (Oxford World’s Classics): It’s dangerous to read Wharton, because she sets the bar so high. The protagonist of THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY, the wonderfully named Undine Spragg, is a spoilt, beautiful, charming, selfish social climber. When she’s finished bulldozing through New York society she turns her attention to the Italian aristocracy, without a care for who or what she destroys on her quest for the ladder’s next rung. Which is another way of saying: I’m in love.
I adored Wong May’s IN THE SAME LIGHT: 200 TANG POEMS FOR OUR CENTURY (Carcanet). Classical Chinese poetry has not lacked outstanding translators into English, but this volume is a game changer. Her sprawling afterword about the poets – accompanied, unforgettably, by commentary from a talking rhino – is itself worth the price of admission. WHAT’S GOOD: NOTES ON RAP AND LANGUAGE (City Lights) by Daniel Levin Becker brims with delectable sentences; the delight they take in the linguistic playfulness of hip hop is infectious. Sparkling with joy, this book is proof that the Oulipo endures, not just as pastime but as literature. In a spirit of excess and appreciation appropriate to the season, here are other standouts from my readings of the past year: TIME SHELTER by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Roda (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); ROMBO by Esther Kinsky translated by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions); QUAND TU ECOUTERA CETTE CHANSON by Lola Lafon (Stock); A MOUNTAIN TO THE NORTH, A LAKE TO SOUTH, PATHS TO THE WEST, A RIVER TO THE EAST by László Krasznahorkai translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Tusker Rock); DIE AUFDRÄNGUNG by Ariane Koch (Suhrkamp); FEELING SONATAS by Eugene Ostashevsky (Carcanet); WEASELS IN THE ATTIC by Hiroko Oyamada translated by David Boyd (Granta Books); SÃO BERNARDO by Graciliano Ramos translated by Padma Viswanathan (NYRB); IN DIAMOND SQUARE by Mercè Rodareda translated by Peter Bush (Virago); SEVEN EMPTY HOUSES by Samanta Schweblin translated by Meghan McDowell (Oneworld); TOMB OF SAND by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis); and CHINATOWN by Thûan translated by Nguyễn An Lý (Tilted Axis).
This year, I’ve been happily haunted by poetry books that present openings, alternative temporalities, never-endings, nonlinear lives. Our most exciting form of critical thought, poetry lets us experience the weirdness of time. ‘The boxes were there, to be opened at any time…’ Emily Berry, UNEXHAUSTED TIME (Faber & Faber); ‘For by then all the lilies on the pond had opened,’ Carl Phillips, PALE COLORS IN A TALL FIELD (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); ‘no matter what we do for it (this life) / will never need us twice’, Anthony Anaxagorou’s HERITAGE AESTHETICS (Granta Poetry); ‘I’ve been a long time dead without my life / And when it comes back it comes back to me’, Shane McCrae, SOMETIMES I NEVER SUFFERED (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Turning to the future, Will Harris’s extraordinary BROTHER POEM (Granta Poetry) navigates a speculative multiverse in poems that crack and dissolve the limits of the imaginal.
Nora Ephron’s essay collection I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK, AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON BEING A WOMAN (Vintage Books) delighted me with its witty and candid take on womanhood, ageing, food and life in general. It (obviously) led me to Alan Davidson’s THE PENGUIN COMPANION TO FOOD (Penguin Books) and to Sloane Crosley’s I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE (Granta Books) which has been lying on my shelf for years. Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s THE HOUSE OF RUST (Graywolf Press) blew me away with its lyrical prose that is steeped in the ancient, oral storytelling tradition of Kenya’s coastal people. Bajaber masterfully narrates the adventures of a free spirited Hadhrami girl in Mombasa who sets out to a sea full of fantastic creatures in search of her missing father. I also enjoyed A STRANGER’S POSE, Emmanuel Iduma’s (Cassava Republic Press) tender reflections on his travels around Africa through photographs and lyrical vignettes, as well as Jennifer Makumbi’s MANCHESTER HAPPENED (Oneworld) which I admired because of the clever manner in which she kneads and bends the English language into englishes that best embody the culture, language and lived experiences of Ugandans in the diaspora. I’m currently reading Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (Penguin Classics) and reminiscing about my good old days as a schoolteacher.
PLUNDER by Menachem Kaiser (Mariner Books) is a consistently surprising, undefinable work which emerged from the author’s attempt to reclaim a building in Sosnowiec, Poland belonging to relatives murdered in the Holocaust. The bureaucracy which turns out to be involved in this task is its own darkly funny and insanely frustrating matter, but PLUNDER moves from this origin point in all sorts of fascinating directions and registers. I surprised myself by spontaneously bursting into tears at its conclusion, and my tears did not come – as one might have assumed when reading a Holocaust narrative – from sadness exactly, but actually from a sort of joy at what curious, open, wonderful things Kaiser’s mind did with that subject matter. KICK THE LATCH by Kathryn Scanlan (Daunt Books Publishing) is another genre-defying wonder for which I was unprepared. Scanlan used transcribed interviews with Sonia, a horse trainer, to create this novel of ecstatic simplicity, the plain truth and dignity of an actual life rendered with a tenderness which recalls A FORTUNATE MAN by John Berger (Canongate).
This year had the aphorism ‘only the dead have seen an end to war’ nailed to it: THE STATE IS THE ENEMY: ESSAYS ON LIBERATION AND RACIAL JUSTICE by James Kelman (PM Press/Kairos); SECOND-HAND TIME by Svetlana Alexievich (Fitzcarraldo Editions), translated by Bela Shayevich; WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING by Chris Hedges (Public Affairs); OVER OUR DEAD BODIES: WOMEN AGAINST THE BOMB edited by Dorothy Thompson (Little, Brown); WAR AND THE ILIAD by Simone Weil (NYRB); THE CONQUEST OF VIOLENCE: AN ESSAY ON WAR AND REVOLUTION by Bart De Ligt (Pluto Press); WAR AND PEACE: ON THE PRINCIPLE AND CONSTITUTION OF THE RIGHTS OF PEOPLES by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1861, in a new 2022 edition from AK press), which ends with the words: ‘Men are petty. Up to a certain point they are able to disturb the course of things, but by doing so they can only hurt themselves. Humanity alone is great, infallible. Now, I believe I may say in its name: HUMANITY RENOUNCES WAR.’
Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams’ DIEGO GARCIA (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is funny, angry, inventive: everything I’d hoped it’d be. Jo Clements’s OUTLANDISH (Bloodaxe Books) takes the little engraved tail-pieces in Thomas Bewick and Ralph Beilby’s HISTORY OF BRITISH BIRDS (Legare Street Press) and spins them into wonderfully visual poems about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller lives from the Enclosure Acts to the present. At the beginning of the year I was reading Émile Zola’s LA DÉBACLE (Wentworth Press), and now I’m reading ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’ by W. S. Graham. I love the last two lines: ‘Do not be sentimental or in your Art./ I will miss you. Do not expect applause.’
There are several books of criticism have shifted my thinking this year, mostly ones about forms, culture and its hierarchies: AGAINST CREATIVE WRITING by Andrew Cowan (Routledge); POETRY AND BONDAGE: A HISTORY AND THEORY OF LYRIC CONSTRAINT by Andrea Brady (Cambridge University Press); and WORLDS WOVEN TOGETHER by Vidyan Ravinthiran (Columbia University Press). Cowan’s well-researched and often searing objections to the creative writing industrial complex are much needed for its UK context (similar studies abound in the US). Brady’s book gives us a missing piece in the familiar (yet unfamiliar) wide panorama of the lyric puzzle, dipping its toe into lyric and whiteness. Ravinthiran is a rare critical mind whose sovereignty lies in an inextinguishable curiosity and drive to read more deeply. His critical writing is also inexorably beautiful. Speaking of forms and hierarchies, I’ve also recently returned to Caroline Levine’s 2015 book FORMS: WHOLE, RHYTHM, HIERARCHY, NETWORK (Princeton University Press) which I always feel renewed by. Levine’s persuasive model of reading works against staid historicist or materialist approaches.
I chaired a panel discussion with magazine editor and curator Pascale Obolo on publishing and marginalisation at Portikus during the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. Obolo’s book DECOLONISING ART BOOKS FAIRS (Afrikadaa, Miss Read and Mosaïques) looks at the politics of publishing on the African continent, shows how resources for the printing and distribution of books aren’t scarce, and how this affects the global literary landscape. On the value of cultural criticism, and the politics embedded in what we read and why, ART CRITICISM IN CRISIS (Sternberg Press) is a book to consider. Jessica Lynne and Taylor Renee Aldridge’s letters to each other as collaborators and Black art critics are a standout.
I read THE IDIOT and EITHER/OR by Elif Batuman (both Jonathan Cape) in quick succession, and loved both books. In Thomas Bernhard’s WOODCUTTERS (Faber & Faber) I found a quiet thrill in the withering monologues of the narrator, who denounces the artists and writers of Vienna he is surrounded by. I returned to Janet Malcolm’s FORTY-ONE FALSE STARTS (Granta Books) to re-read the profile on the former Artforum editor, Ingrid Sischy. It felt like a nice companion to ALSO A POET: FRANK O’HARA, MY FATHER AND ME by Ada Calhoun (Grove Press), the daughter of the late New Yorker art critic Peter Schjehdahl, on the New York School of poets and artists, as well as the relationship between a daughter and father, and how to write biography, if we should at all. Some other highlights: Remi Onabanjo and Marilyn Nance’s LAST DAY IN LAGOS photobook on FESTAC ‘77 (New York Consolidated); a return to Annie Ernaux, SHAME (Seven Stories Press), and SIMPLE PASSION (Fitzcarraldo Editions); LOSING THE PLOT by Derek Owusu (Canongate); DIEGO GARCIA by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams (Fitzcarraldo Editions); I’M A FAN by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Books) and THERE ARE MORE THINGS by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet).
So: Henri Thomas, LA NUIT DE LONDRES [London Night] (Gallimard); Ernst Bloch, THOMAS MÜNZER, THÉOLOGIEN DE LA RÉVOLUTION [Thomas Müntzer, Theologian of Revolution] (Amsterdam éditions); Antoine Hummel, EST-CE QU’IL SE PASSE QUELQUE CHOSE? [Is Something Happening?] (Eric Pesty); Théo Robine-Langlois, LE GABION [The Gabion] (After 8 Books); Stephen Loye, LE VENTRE DE LA MONTAGNE [The Belly of the Mountain] (ESAAA éditions); Hélène Bessette, SUITE SUISSE [Swiss Suite] (Gallimard) and the fourth issue of the journal Attaques (Al Dante/presse du réel).
Isobel Wohl’s COLD NEW CLIMATE (Weatherglass Books) is about the breakdown of a relationship, but also about how small we are in The Grand Scheme of The Universe: just scrambling around, blinded by shame, not seeing the edge of the cliff. You could thread some of her sentences through a needle. Sam Cottington’s PEOPLE PERSON (JOAN) made me squirm, thinking about bad art and bad hats and getting black-out drunk – all of which, for my sins, I still do. I felt very young and very old at the same time and I also laughed a lot. Lastly, not contemporary, but I read it this year: CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING by Dorothy Baker (Daunt Books Publishing). Everyone always recommends it and they are right to! A perfect novel.
A reading highlight from this year is GREY BEES by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Quercus), a novel that took me on a road trip around Ukraine. Through a very stubborn character and his bees, it relays the background of what is happening at the moment between Ukraine and Russia. A very enjoyable, important and eye-opening read was UNTOLD MICROCOSMS (Charco Press): ten Latin American authors select a piece from the Latin American collection of the British Museum and use fiction or the essay form to challenge the relation between western museums, colonialism, gender studies and Indigenous cultures. THE QUEENS OF SARMIENTO PARK by Camila Sosa Villada, translated by Kit Maude (Virago), is a novel that portrays the lives of a group of travesti prostitutes in Cordoba, Argentina. Sosa Villada constructs a compelling novel based on her own experiences of becoming Camila, and the resulting book is a coming of age story, a rite of passage, a group portrait and a political manifesto. FAMILY TIES by Clarice Lispector, a short story collection featured in COMPLETE STORIES, translated by Katrina Dodson (Penguin Modern Classics). As always with Lispector I found the short stories in this collection memorable, funny and inspiring. A scene that stayed with me is when a woman has an epiphany after seeing a blind man chewing gum in a tram station: ‘she stared intently at the blind man, the way we stare at things that don’t see us. He was chewing gum in the dark. Without suffering, eyes open. The chewing motion made it look like he was smiling and then suddenly not smiling, smiling and not smiling…’
Until very, very recently, I had a job that involved reading a lot of fiction in other languages, and the most outré novel I read this year was a début from Catalan author Pol Guasch, NAPALM AL COR (Anagrama). It’s a sort of cli-fi novel but also Tarkovsky’s Stalker by way of Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING. It’s completely atmospheric: each sentence is crisp and weighed as the unnamed hero writes letters to his lover Boris – maybe Boris Vian? – and recounts the saga of transporting his mother’s body across a kind of post-human Europe where nature has re-imposed its order on the Anthropocene. Or maybe not. Strange and lyrical and coming soon in English, I believe. Also coming soon in English is Clara Drummond’s OS COADJUVANTES (Companhia das Letras): a slim novel (novels should be either 100 pages or 600 pages) where a young woman who washes down pingers with Heinekens on Wednesday nights and consorts with gay artists only faces a social reckoning when the riot police beat the hell out of a street vendor at a rave in a public square in Rio de Janeiro. I’m talking ennui, I’m talking sex, I’m talking comeuppance. Constance Debré’s LOVE ME TENDER translated by Holly James (Flammarion / Semiotext(e)) is another short novel, which makes sense because the author knows how to deliver austere episodic flashes without the kind of baroque sophistry other novels of rupture tend to bask in. Meticulous with detail! And our protagonist – very close to our author, in the chic French mode of auto fiction, as opposed to the hand-wringing Brooklyn mode – is exactly the kind of Lothario contemporary literature has been crying out for.
The first book I read in 2022 was AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Helen R. Lane (Picador). I had never read any Vargas Llosa before and I chose this one because of the aunt in the title: my general feeling is that most books are improved by the presence of an aunt. Aunt Julia, the 18-year-old narrator’s young, sexy and divorced aunt-by-marriage, was not what I expected, and nor was anything else in this endlessly funny, clever and chaotic novel about a Peruvian radio station and its increasingly over-the-top soap operas. The last book I read was YOU WERE ALWAYS MOM’S FAVORITE! by the sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (Ballantine Books), a study of the way sisters talk to one another. If you have sisters (I don’t), I suppose you might read it as self help, but for me it was pleasurable in the way that listening to gossip is pleasurable, or reading agony aunt columns one after another.
In the gloom of the new year, I read Nathalie Léger’s trilogy of slim, mesmerizing books: EXPOSITION, translated by Amanda DeMarco, SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN, translated by Cécile Menon and Natasha Lehrer, and the devastating THE WHITE DRESS, translated by Natasha Lehrer (all Les Fugitives). I was amazed by the intellectual agility of these books, their strange calm, and the vitality of their sentences, which reached me through the hands of all the different translators. Summer brought me the claustrophobic labyrinths of Heike Geissler’s SEASONAL ASSOCIATE, translated by Katy Derbyshire (MIT Press), about a hellish job at an Amazon distribution center, and Hiroko Oyamada’s THE FACTORY (W. W. Norton & Company), translated by David Boyd, about a weird factory of Disneyland proportions, infested with animal life and apparently inescapable. In autumn, the season of bursting growth and fungi in my front yard, I read several mind-bending books by women from Latin America: the eerie domesticity of Amparo Dávila’s stories in THE HOUSEGUEST, translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson (W. W. Norton & Company) gave way to the hallucinatory and brutal odyssey of THE NAKED WOMAN by Armonía Somers, translated by Kit Maude (The Feminist Press at CUNY), and culminated in the ferocious and stylistically adventurous teen girl mayhem that is Mónica Ojeda’s JAWBONE translated by Sarah Booker (Coffee House Press). These paired well with the tentacular, mutant imagination of my other favorite reads of the fall, Octavia E. Butler’s DAWN and ADULTHOOD RITES (both Headline). Now, as the days darken into winter quiet again, I’m lighting my way with Amina Cain’s lambent essay collection, A HORSE AT NIGHT (Daunt Books Publishing), and Kate Zambreno’s THE LIGHT ROOM (Penguin Random House), a despair-tinged irradiation of beauty and desire (forthcoming in 2023).
A knockout year for my non-fiction reading. I loved Anna Neima’s THE UTOPIANS (Picador), and Nuar Alsadir’s ANIMAL JOY and Maria Stepanova’s IN MEMORY OF MEMORY, translated by Sasha Dugdale (both Fitzcarraldo Editions). I was blown away by Anna Della Subin’s ACCIDENTAL GODS (Granta Books) – the book’s scope is stunning, and I find myself returning to it again and again as I investigate witchcraft, tradipratiques and (de)/sacralisation practices in Mauritius. Fiction highlights include Olga Tokarczuk’s THE BOOKS OF JACOB, translated by Jennifer Croft, and Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams’s DIEGO GARCIA (both Fitzcarraldo Editions). For poetry, John Keene’s PUNKS (Song Cave) and Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s QUIET (Faber & Faber) are two gorgeous collections I recommend to everyone. I’m ending the year with some novels of László Krasznahorkai – I’ve never read his work before and I can’t wait to get started.
I’ve slowly come to realise that my favourite novels are either under 200 pages or over 500; I want impressive brevity or depth, but nothing much in between. When it comes to the former, two highlights from this year have been Helen DeWitt’s THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL (New Directions) – a little jewel of a character study so sharp and swift it gave me whiplash – and Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, MAUD MARTHA (Faber & Faber) – the story of one Black woman’s life in mid-century Chicago told by means of a series of luminous vignettes – which, although originally published in America in 1953, has taken till this year to get a UK edition. On the flipside, I eked out Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ magnificent debut, THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS (4th Estate), for as long as possible. This multi-generational family saga was one of those rare novels I didn’t ever want to end. I also have to mention one-time child actor-turned-director and writer Sarah Polley’s memoir in essays, RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER (September Publishing), which is essential reading for anyone who admired her beautiful, brilliant documentary about her family, STORIES WE TELL (2012).
The Employees, written by Olga Ravn and translated by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions), is a marvel. It is structured as a set of witness statements, and with each testimony, a plot emerges: a story of a ship drifting through space, a crew of sad humans and dreamy robots, and a room of strange artefacts. I also enjoyed Olivier Guez’s novel, The Disappearance of Josef Mengele, translated by Georgia de Chamberet (Verso), for its lush prose and mocking depiction of Mengele on the run: both an enemy of mankind and paranoid loser. Preti Taneja’s Aftermath (And Other Stories) is wholly devastating, as she finds a fragmented form to trace a web of grief and culpability, following the 2019 London Bridge stabbing. I was startled by the writings of political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah, published in the collection You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (Fitzcarraldo Editions), especially those that subvert legal formalities – a hearing before the public prosecutor, say – for a different purpose: public address. Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is so beautifully written it made me want to weep. It begins softly – a daughter relaying a trip to Tokyo with her mother, a kind of travelogue; but the writing builds, taking the reader to a place of mystery and sorrow and exquisite perception.
Most recently I read and loved MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks (Faber & Faber), which formed the perfect triptych with Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s QUIET (Faber & Faber) and THE SOVEREIGNTY OF QUIET by Kevin Quashie (Rutgers University Press); THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Vintage Earth); Audre Lorde’s CANCER JOURNALS (Penguin Classics); MAMA AMAZONICA by Pascale Petit (Bloodaxe Books); LINEA NIGRA by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina Macsweeney (Two Lines Press); and Ursula Le Guin’s non-fiction. Before that my memory is hazy, but CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH? stands out – a collection of essays by British Muslim women, edited by Sabeena Akhtar (Unbound), radical and refreshing in its disregard of UK publishing’s white-centric gaze.
Rose Higham Stainton
I have been devouring slim and tightly packed books that limn life as stories – books like Marguerite Duras’s THE LOVER (Harper Perennial) translated by Barbara Bray, that can only really be devoured the way the young girl with the Fedora hat, red threadbare dress and gold lamé shoes devours, and is devoured, inside of it. For Duras, clothes are more than just metaphor, they are affect, drawing out the strange and ‘crucial ambiguity’ of a girl on the brink of sexual awakening. Continuing with French coming of age stories, I also read Simone de Beauvoir’s MEMOIRS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER (Penguin) translated by James Kirkup, followed by her recently discovered THE INSEPARABLES (Vintage Books) translated by Lauren Elkin, and consuming these one after the other felt like a useful lesson in revision and extraction. Desire is to de Beauvoir what despair is to Duras and that same primality runs through Ellyn Gaydos’ PIG YEARS (Knopf), in which she renders the squalid beauty and blunt power of nature through her accounts of itinerant farm work. As someone who works the land, I shared in her pleasure for ‘labouring outside with its attendant sensations both plain and deep.’
As protests swelled at home in Sri Lanka, I read Sri Lankan fiction, which can feel like a flimsy, homogenising label for sprawling – often competing – political, ethnic and religious specificities. I read Michelle De Kretser’s THE HAMILTON CASE (Vintage) and A. Sivanandan’s WHEN MEMORY DIES (Arcadia Books). (Sivanandan is best known for revitalising the Institute of Race Relations in the UK.) I read LEARNING POLITICS FROM SIVARAM: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A REVOLUTIONARY TAMIL JOURNALIST IN SRI LANKA by Mark P. Whitaker, which is a biography of Sivaram, who fought in a Tamil paramilitary group in the 1980s before becoming a journalist. Whitaker met Sivaram as a graduate student, and the book is surprisingly intimate, a testament to their decades-long friendship, and an interrogation of biography as a genre. It was a lighty collaborative exercise: Sivaram read drafts and offered corrections up to Chapter 5, but then he was assassinated. Sivaram was a university drop out from Eastern Sri Lanka who could quote Wittgenstein and Marx. Whitaker describes him as unimaginable – and unpublishable – by American journal editors. I was reminded of Sivaram when I read Elaine Castillo’s HOW TO READ NOW (Viking). I loved Castillo’s description of her father’s deep love of Plato, what it is to read books by white people without a white-centered view, and, ‘to see myself shimmer in many worlds – to let many worlds shimmer, lively, in me.’
It’s been a particularly great reading year for non-fiction: Nuar Alsadir’s ANIMAL JOY (Fitzcarraldo Editions); Amina Cain’s A HORSE AT NIGHT (Daunt Books Publishing); the last book of Tove Ditlevsen’s THE COPENHAGEN TRILOGY (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman; Sam Johnson-Schlee’s LIVING ROOMS (Peninsula Press) and Julietta Singh’s THE BREAKS (Daunt Books Publishing), all reminded me of the dazzlingly cold flame prose can provide, burning through to necessary truths. In fiction, Yiyun Li’s THE BOOK OF GOOSE (4th Estate), and Olga Ravn’s THE EMPLOYEES, translated by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions), were strange, beautiful and unpredictable in the most satisfying ways. I was challenged and refreshed by the poetry of Will Alexander’s REFRACTIVE AFRICA (Granta Books), which fiercely weaves together colonialism, ecology and political resistance; Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s QUIET (Faber & Faber), a profound exploration of black selfhood, and the delicate balance between intimacy and expression; and by the great Solmaz Sharif’s new collection CUSTOMS (Bloomsbury Poetry), whose poems interrogate the relentlessly divided world of borders and violent nation states that the west has created.
This year, the 75th since the British Partition of the Indian subcontinent, I’ve been immersed in research on the political and legal details of that history, its origins, and its key players. Priya Satia’s TIME’S MONSTER, HISTORY, CONSCIENCE AND BRITAIN’S EMPIRE (Penguin Books) embraces the very different understandings of the nature of time in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism to think through the revolutions of violence during Imperial rule, and what monsters it made. Satia critiques key figures from Macaulay to Orwell, showing the limits of their liberalism within the framework of white supremacy. She brings in the literary connections, from Iqbal to Faiz, that shaped Indian politicians’ world views, weaving in the role of these poets and philosophers to show their deep influence in the shaping of the subcontinental political imagination, in a way no other book on the subject has. A brilliant rage, a blistering voice and a radical desire is at the heart of Sheena Patel’s I’M A FAN (Rough Trade Books), an unforgettable novel whose carefully planned, seemingly intuitive structure also makes nonsense of linear narrative form and refuses comfortable closure. I loved this book for the uncompromising brilliance of its absolute refusals; it’s a completely stand out debut. Finally, this wouldn’t be complete without an expression of my love for Gina Apostol’s BIBLIOLEPSY (Soho Press), her 1997 debut about a young woman caught between the desire to read books and seek writers as lovers, or take part in revolution in the Philippines. It’s an essential introduction to the writer as a stone cold genius and to her decades of subsequent work.
Two books still preoccupy me because they seemed so fearless. There was QUIET by Victoria Adukwei Bulley (Faber & Faber), which does so much work stretching out the usual form of the poem and the line. And there was PURE COLOUR by Sheila Heti (Harvill Secker) which does different but equally necessary work enlarging the limits of the novel: I loved its simultaneous delicacy and giant scope. Meanwhile this winter I got rereading as much Georges Perec as I could. It began with the amazing new edition of his Lieux project (Seuil), which sent me back to David Bellos’s translations of Perec’s W and LIFE A USER’S MANUAL (both Harvill). In his flipping between unseemly plot and transparent fragments, Perec feels more and more contemporary.
Skye Arundhati Thomas
I couldn’t put down Olivier Guez’s The Disappearance of Josef Mengele (Verso), which is a novel, but not fiction. There’s the romance and political madness of Evita and Perón, the post-Third Reich lifestyle in Argentina (black-tie parties on boats, booming businesses, networks of informants and spies that kept the Nazis alive). I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics) immediately after, which feels like a sequel, and is a masterpiece of narrative, reportage and analysis – Arendt’s grasp of form and critique is godlike. It’s dangerous to exceptionalise the Holocaust and Arendt shows us why. ‘I’m blown away by the twists in destiny’s road – but not surprised that they intersect on Palestine’s threshold,’ writes Alaa Abd el-Fattah in ‘Palestine on my Mind’, an essay in You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Abd el-Fattah’s political thinking is crystal-clear, and his writing a gift and toolkit to reading the interlocking violence of fascism and the international market. And, still staying with the slow deconstruction of power – maybe some of the best writers of today are working on Succession, and as a way to cope with not having more episodes I once again raced through Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press), which is also a reimagining of King Lear and, if you will believe me, is even better than TV.
A book that’s been on the way to us for a century, LETTERS OF BASIL BUNTING (OUP), is finally here, selected and edited by Alex Niven. Can’t help sharing snippets. There’s Basil Bunting writing to Louis Zukofsky with high praise for the young (18-year-old) poet Tom Pickard’s talent, and telling him about Pickard’s reading series in Newcastle’s Morden Tower: ‘About fifty, half academics, half teenagers, with a sprinkling of thugs, turned up to listen.’ He then recounts how his own reading went: ‘It was a curious experience, reading to these youngsters. They were not hindered by the difficulties that annoy their elders. They took poetry as poetry – a nice noise – without questions about its “meaning.” They laughed at the comic bits, they were rapt at passages of intricate metric that nobody ever took any notice of before – not that they understood what was attracting them, but it certainly did attract – and the piece about the sick child made at least one girl cry. I found it all very encouraging.’
Fiction-wise, Sheena Patel’s I’M A FAN (Rough Trade Books) and Vanessa Onwuemezi’s DARK NEIGHBOURHOOD (Fitzcarraldo Editions) blew my mind. Their writing is unpredictable, masterful and locked onto the unconscious. I was mesmerised by Lucy Ives’s COSMOGONY (Soft Skull) and Philip MacCann’s THE MIRACLE SHED (Faber & Faber). Helen De Witt’s THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL (New Directions) is joyful. I started to read more concertedly through Chekhov’s short stories (Penguin Classics). The freshness! I learned that there are great works that I will only finish during insomnia. For example, THE ILIAD (Penguin Classics). Non-fiction-wise, Sophie Lewis’s ABOLISH THE FAMILY (Verso) is the manifesto I needed. GRAVITY AND GRACE (Penguin), for the otherness and urgency of Simon Weil’s ideas. Rachel Aviv’s unsettling STRANGERS TO OURSELVES (Harvill Secker). Finally, Charlotte Van Den Broeck’s BOLD VENTURES: THIRTEEN TALES OF ARCHITECTURAL TRAGEDY (Chatto & Windus) was excellent, idiosyncratic company.
The book I have recommended to the most people this year, hands down, is Ned Beauman’s anti-sci-fi novel VENOMOUS LUMPSUCKER (Sceptre). An author’s note at the beginning explains (warns) the reader that everything to follow in the book is pure fact (minus the currency – money has not been converted to future rates for ease of reading). A perfect lampoon on what people always ask (demand) of science fiction: predictive accuracy. And what follows indeed teeters on the edge of the plausible yet is more imaginative than anything capitalist realism presents us with. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s terrifying, and it’s the first book I’ve read about the extinction era that critiques conservative conservation politics. I was also thrilled to re-read Marlen Haushofer’s THE WALL (Vintage Earth), which I think of as a ‘domestic apocalypse novel’. Living after the end of the world here turns out to be fantastically mundane, and mundanity turns out to be a page-turner. And speaking of the intricacies and mysteries of seemingly humdrum life (in this case academia’s particular stultifying atmosphere), Lucy Ives’s LIFE IS EVERYWHERE (Graywolf Press) is a totally uncategorizable work of Borgesian proportions. Books within books, fictions within facts: wonderful.
I had to look back through my phone’s camera reel to see what I’ve been reading this year. 2022 started in lilac with Guy Hocquenghem’s THE SCREWBALL ASSES (Semiotext(e)), translated by Noura Wedell, the new Penguin edition of Samuel R. Delany’s DRIFTGLASS and Jesse Darling’s startling pamphlet VIRGINS (Monitor Books). These set the tone for a year of very gay reading and writing. Spring found me turning to academia: Jules Gill-Peterson’s HISTORIES OF THE TRANSGENDER CHILD (University of Minnesota Press) and Katherine McKittrick’s DEAR SCIENCE (Duke University Press) are two of the sharpest analyses of how knowledge gets produced on various bodies that I’ve ever read. In the summer, Jean Genet’s OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS (Grove Press) and Valerie Solanas’s UP YOUR ASS (MIT Press) helped me break open two previously impossible pieces I was working on, and I finish the year making my way through two fat books of poetry: a copy of John Berryman’s THE DREAM SONGS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (a gift from a friend) and WE WANT IT ALL: AN ANTHOLOGY OF RADICAL TRANS POETICS, edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel (Nightboat Books), a collection so surprising and full of life I never want it to end.
Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
POONACHI: OR THE STORY OF A BLACK GOAT by Perumal Murugan, translated by N. Kalyan Raman (Context). It’s got everything you could want in a novel: goats, a mysterious dictatorship, tender relationships between characters. I loved it so much. TIME IS A MOTHER by Ocean Vuong was heartbreaking and perfect, and EITHER/OR by Elif Batuman, which was just as funny and self-aware and clever as THE IDIOT (all three Jonathan Cape).
The best books I read this year took up some sort of space inside of me and often dealt with spatial feelings. Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s BOREALIS (Coffee House Press); Danielle Dutton’s A PICTURE HELD US CAPTIVE (Image Text Ithaca); Elvia Wilk’s DEATH BY LANDSCAPE (Soft Skull); Sofia Samatar’s THE WHITE MOSQUE (Catapult); Gillian Osborne’s GREEN GREEN GREEN (Nightboat Books); Niina Pollari’s PATH OF TOTALITY (Soft Skull); Kanai Mieko’s MILD VERTIGO, translated by Polly Barton (I am writing the foreword for the New Directions edition). And I read through every Annie Ernaux translation I could find (most of which are published in the U.S. by Seven Stories Press) in order to be in conversation with her – such an intense experience, I don’t think any single book has moved me as much as reading a life’s work of such tremendous thought and feeling.