Members of THE WHITE REVIEW editorial team, contributors and friends of the magazine reveal the books they’ve been reading and revisiting in 2020.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley
First and foremost, The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom was a book that I’d been dying to read since I first heard about it, and to my joy it absolutely delivered. Revolving around Broom’s New Orleans childhood home, this is a work that covers memoir, cultural geography, archival practice, oral tradition, and so much more. Broom has such mastery of language that all of this hangs together seamlessly, and on my shelf The Yellow House lives next to Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman, because I think both authors are at work on the same kind of project in each their own brilliant ways. I also want to shoutout Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D. G. Kelley for its rich expansiveness — Kelley is an incredible writer and scholar, and there is nothing better than reading a non-fiction book where the enthusiast in the author spills through. And finally, I too would like to add to the hype of Raven Leilani’s Luster, which I think is a stunning and perceptively sharp debut that glimmers with deep tenderness as well as humour.
This year I was blown away by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, which isn’t out until March 2021 (Granta). It does many things at once, in gorgeous prose. I also loved Selva Almada’s Dead Girls (translated by Annie McDermott, Charco Press), about murdered women in Argentina. It’s crisp, bracing, and beautiful. Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press, 2019) was a satisfyingly nuanced account of the terrible bind we’re in, in relation to social media. I loved reading Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (UCP, 2009), which, amongst other things, explores the limits of identification and empathy as a starting-point for thought and politics — themes that recur in Bruce Fink’s Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique (Norton, 2007), which conveys what Lacanian ideas might mean in practice. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings (Profile, 2020) was brilliant, thoughtful, and funny. Right now I’m loving Bette Howland’s stories Blue in Chicago (reissued by Picador, 2019).
2020 was mainly characterised by my being wholly unable to focus on anything but old volumes of The Princess Diaries for the first part of the year and so throwing myself at anything and everything that would hold my attention for the second. My book of the year was unquestionably Boy Parts by Eliza Clark — a terrifying black comedy and one of the most purely compulsive books I’ve read in forever. I was also lucky enough to read a proof of Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (out in January 2021), a novel whose frankness, humour and generosity stayed with me long after I came to the end. Other highlights included M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again — a novel which walked a perfect line between the moving and the surreal — and Claire Cronin’s Blue Light of the Screen — a poetic memoir on a life spent tangled up in horror movies, which I will certainly be returning to again and again.
With so little real-life movement, I’ve felt a need this year for books that forcibly transport me somewhere else, with an urgency I don’t remember feeling since adolescence. My book-year highlight was reading Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, tr. Sophie Hughes, Fish Soup and Holiday Heart (both Margarita Garcia Robayo tr. Charlotte Coombe) all in the same calendar month (July). Other nuggets of excellence included Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (unputdownable, made me passionately long for Life Outside My Bedroom), The Council of Egypt by Leonardo Sciascia tr. Adrienne Foulke (about a fraudulent translator), On Hell by Johanna Hedva (a meditation on wings), and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (just so great). For research, I read Ray Monk’s superlative biography of Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, twice, and could happily have read it twice more.
This year, books swarmed me with their possibility and concision with language, direct hits to awe, a balm. A tiny portion of the books that left a mark on me in 2020: Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion and A Light Song of Light (Carcanet). Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla, translated by So J. Lee (Tilted Axis). Shane McCrae’s In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press). Wendy Trevino’s Cruel Fiction (Commune Editions). Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Duke). Linda Hogan’s Dark. Sweet. New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press). Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo). I thank them all.
I did Emma for AS English, an experience which left me with the impression that I would always find Jane Austen boring. But this year I decided to read Pride & Prejudice. I’d never even seen an adaptation so I wasn’t familiar with the plot. The next thing I know — I am apopleptic about Wickham’s behaviour, and desperate to meet Elizabeth’s dad. Guys, Jane Austen is… really good! Her foundational place in British culture is… well deserved! Yes, it’s because of incredible revelations like these that the literary world looks to me for guidance. Anyway, if like me you never quite got round to her, I want you to know it’s not too late. Also this year I read a Warhammer tie-in novel, something I never thought I’d stoop to. I chose Xenos by Dan Abnett, because everyone says that’s the best one. I did enjoy it, but overall it wasn’t as good as Jane Austen.
I have read many fabulous books this year, including Passages, Ann Quin, The Condition of Secrecy, Inger Christensen, Indelicacy, Amina Cain, The Italian, Ann Radcliffe, A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux, The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm, The Appointment, Katharina Volckmer, The Snow Ball, Brigid Brophy, and A Room with a View by E.M Forster — for the millionth time — it’s such a beautiful and highly entertaining read, it always gives me so much pleasure! I am currently about halfway through Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, an absorbing and moving study of Bloomsbury and the women who came and went from its environs during the interwar years. It’s a fascinating insight into where and how those women lived in order to assert their independence and the freedom to write — all this time later I find myself identifying with the predicaments they encountered and the difficult life choices they had to make. It’s also made me reflect on how unfortunate it is that London has become so very unaffordable to most writers as a place to live — the notion of ‘literary London’ seems to me an increasingly historical one, which is very sad really. It would have been wonderful if one of those boarding-houses in Mecklenburgh Square had been preserved!
I really liked reading this year. My favourite book (based on its delightfulness) was Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water trilogy. That, along with Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien, which a bookseller sent to me by accident, plus other animal-themed literature, got me through the beginning of the pandemic. Then I immersed myself in Sigrid Nuñez after reading The Friend last autumn and loved Mitz, a fictional biography of Leonard Woolf’s pet marmoset, and A Feather on the Breath of God (but haven’t felt up to Salvation City, about the aftermath of a deadly pandemic — maybe next year??). Other books that left a big impression were Édouard Louis’ intense and beautiful History of Violence, tr. Lorin Stein; Claudia Rankine’s Just Us; Lydia Davis’s Essays (so good!); Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights; and Itō Hiromi’s Killing Kanoko/Wild Grass on the Riverbank, tr. Jeffrey Angles.
I told a friend before the virus hit that I couldn’t wait for lockdown so I could read Ulysses. Ha ha! I didn’t read Ulysses, but I did read The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence. It’s said that DHL isn’t someone feminists should read, but it’s almost an accident a man wrote The Rainbow. Someone had to. It’s the story of a woman getting free, from her family, the land, society, her own head. There’s so little irony in it, barely a gap between the prose and its reader, that the novel’s an emotional education in itself, somehow. I read feelingly: that doesn’t sound right, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I would wheel my nephew to the park, pointing out the NHS rainbows, and teaching him to say raaain-boh. If this had to be our new religion, I was down. When Ursula Brangwen sees one, it heralds ‘the earth’s new architecture’ — the least we need.
It was a year in which escapism was impossible, so I found myself reading to understand the present. Influx Press, just in time, brought Percival Everett’s I Am Sidney Poitier to British readers. Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments was the optimistic counterpart to her essential Lose Your Mother. Bae Suah’s Night and Day captured the dark dreamworld of lockdown; I got lost in the flow of Jon Fosse’s Septology. T Fleishman’s Time is a Thing the Body Moves Through was a luminous exploration of art, desire, and nature, and it led me back to the exquisite Sygzyz: A Beauty. I discovered Michal Witkoswki’s Lovetown, documenting the life of underground queens in Communist Poland, and why no one will keep down a Polish queen. I mourned with the reissue of Denise Riley’s Time Lived Without its Flow.
The book that meant most to me this year was Sarah Tripp’s Guitar! (BookWorks). It begins with a writer making small illuminated notes in the dark, her record of living alongside a child learning to speak. She marvels at the way he names the world, managing somehow to catch all of it in the vast nets of his first two words: Guitar! and Ba! (What if these were all the words a person needed? the writer wonders). But then it turns, and becomes a different kind of offering: an effort to share a non-prescriptive method for opening yourself up to the energy and resistance and mystery of someone else. It is a quiet manifesto for wonderment, for generosity, for cultivating a responsiveness to whatever comes. It arrived at exactly the moment I needed it.
The novel I most enjoyed this year, if it is a novel, was Threshold by Rob Doyle, which I found deeply funny and reassuring in its scorn for ‘the fashionable ideologies of the day and the cunts who trumpeted them’, and for ‘art that is a festival of piety and earnest political sighs’. It made me suspect I don’t do the right amount of psychedelic drugs any more. There were two thrilling story collections from writers from the north. The Voice in My Ear by Frances Leviston is superbly stylish and bleakly funny in its imaginings of the damage that parents and children inflict upon each other. And James Clarke’s The Hollow in the Land was wonderful in its evocation of the rich life of a Lancashire valley, of the ambition and tragedies of its factory workers, ravers and carers. It’s written with the brio of northern speech and full of its sardonic humour.
This year it was hard to keep in time with what was being published; I mostly read things I already had in my flat. During the first lockdown, I found it difficult to concentrate on reading anything at all until Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White broke the drought. I was absorbed by three novels of maternal ambivalence: Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things, tr. Adrian Nathan West (Verso), Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, tr. Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin) and The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (NYRB). I found Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time (Fitzcarraldo) extremely affecting. Perhaps because I missed in-person readings so desperately, poetry was one thing I kept up with: I loved Rob Kiely’s simmering of a declarative void (87 Press), Holly Pester’s Eclogues for Idle Workers (Distance No Object), Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion), and RENDANG by Will Harris (Granta). Finally, and most recently, So Mayer’s essay A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula Press) helped me face the future with something like joy.
Every book I read to completion this year is in a way my book of the year, but obviously there were highlights. Duanwad Pimwana’s short story collection ARID DREAMS (Tilted Axis) translated by Mui Poopoksakul transfixed me and pulled me out of my reading slump. Vigdis Hjorth’s LONG LIVE THE POST HORN! (Verso) translated by Charlotte Barslund is the third book of hers I’ve loved and I hope I get to read a book by her every year. Katharina Volkmer’s THE APPOINTMENT (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and Sara Baume’s HANDIWORK (Tramp Press) were perfect books to me, I think I even said as much out loud when I finished them. David Karashima’s WHO WE’RE READING WHEN WE’RE READING MURAKAMI (Soft Skull) on the translators and editors who helped Murakami become internationally successful is brilliantly researched and written, and almost read like a thriller to me (even though I’ve never read Murakami).
Lauren Aimee Curtis
Among the various pleasures reading offered this year were books that expanded my sense of what writing can be: Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (translated by Philip Boehm), Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), Wayne Koestenbaum’s Figure It Out. When I wanted comfort, I read two of Natalia Ginzburg’s novellas: Happiness, as Such (translated by Minna Zallman Proctor) and The Dry Heart (translated by Frances Frenaye). I admired the subtle poignancy of Silvina Ocampo’s The Promise (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell), the unflinching focus of Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story (translated by Alison L. Strayer), and the singular world of Amina Cain’s Indelicacy. Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan) restored my (admittedly shaken) belief in the power of ambiguity in fiction. Lucie Elven’s The Weak Spot — with its humour, wise ruminations and scrupulous sentences — was a joy to discover.
I am surprised that I’m still able to read at this point, but I am currently racing through Dune — because who doesn’t want to spend time on a planet that is even worse than this one? In a similar vein I also really loved That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction, a superb collection of stories about monsters, mushroom houses and temp work by writers and translators including Yan Ge and Dorothy Tse; and Tillie Walden’s graphic novel On A Sunbeam, the queer space opera of my dreams. On the more realistic end of fiction, I really admired Jorge Consiglio’s Fate (tr. Carolina Orloff & Fionn Petch) and found Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job (tr. Polly Barton) unexpectedly cathartic. The best non-fiction I read this year was Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire, a collection of essays by key members and allies of the movement.
This has certainly been a year for reading, and, although I enjoy watching disaster movies, when choosing a book I have preferred to go back in time at least a hundred years and to a calmer political and social situation, or a different one, anyway. I look for a well-bound old hardcover with clear, dark print (acquired at low cost from an independent second-hand bookstore). I have ordered a pile of novels by Willa Cather and was moved to send for Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and Conrad’s Nostromo when Michael Hofmann mentioned reading them early in his own isolation. Meanwhile, I sometimes sharpen my wits on a more demanding text, currently Eric Auerbach’s Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Then, for a relaxing contrast, I dive back into Nicolson Baker’s recent, incredibly detailed, affectionate, and revealing account of spending days with kids in the Maine public schools. Substitute, formidably thick, goes like lightning.
Patrick Wright’s The Sea View Has Me Again, about the German novelist Uwe Johnson’s time on the Isle of Sheppey, is a huge achievement: a comprehensive portrait of a place and a person, and the best book about Brexit that’s yet been written. I loved Annet Mooij’s De eeuw van Gisèle, a fascinating Dutch biography of the artist Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht — a German translation will be published next year. I also loved Michael Hofmann’s translation of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass, a novel about guilt and the legacies of war which takes place in a single day in Munich in 1948. I was attracted by the title of Jordi Llavina’s London Under Snow, translated by Douglas Suttle, and was rewarded with six Christmas stories, crystalline miniatures.
It’s been a poetry year for me. I can’t remember the last time I read so many great collections, many of them debuts. I adored RENDANG by Will Harris, Shine, Darling by Ella Frears, Homie by Danez Smith, Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort, The Air Year by Caroline Bird and Wow by Bill Manhire. Citadel by Martha Sprackland was my favourite poetry book of the year: original, startling and exquisitely patterned. I read it very slowly — rationing myself to a few poems a day — because I was enjoying it so much.
My reading this year was slanted towards non-fiction, perhaps in response to the prevailing unreality. Mushrooms featured unexpectedly strongly. Stranded in west Ireland for the spring lockdown, I found succour in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s assault on human hubris in The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton) and a handguide to local songbirds; in the autumn, in Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (Random House). The same Copernican impulse to reorder the world runs through Aby Warburg’s astonishing Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (Hatje Cantz), published to complement a landmark exhibition at HKW. I loved Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (Faber), Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo) and Amy Sillman’s Faux Pas (After 8). Because this is an end-of-year roundup, let me boast about having set aside what would otherwise have been pub time to Sophie Wilkins’ translation of The Man Without Qualities (Picador). It’s very good — who knew? — but couldn’t quite justify the trade-off.
Paul B. Preciado’s Je suis un monstre qui vous parle (Grasset) is the text of a talk Preciado was meant to give to a conference of 3,500 psychoanalysts in Paris on gender and transsexualism, when half the assembly booed him off the stage (the other half applauded his speech). Preciado takes the profession to task for their complicity in maintaining social binarism and othering trans people as mentally ill or gender dysphoric. Out in English in 2021 from Fitzcarraldo. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press) is the most gorgeous essay on the author’s preoccupation with an eighteenth-century Irish poet, her time in medical school, and the all-encompassing labour of the heart and body that is motherhood. This book saved me this year. Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World (Semiotext(e)): Take my word for it: just read it.
My reading this year has been slowed down by health problems which led to me being diagnosed with cancer last month. I’ve found myself immersed in anthologies such as Poems for the Millennium Volume 4: The University of California Book of North African Literature, and Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures and Minor Pleasures, which collect so much joy it’s sometimes hard to take. I’ve read a few wonderful poetry books and pamphlets: Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash A Heart, Jay Bernard’s Surge, Miles Bradley’s Emotional Dance Music, Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love, and Maria Sledmere’s Nature Sounds Without Nature Sounds. In terms of fiction I did manage to read, I was held and healed by Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, and J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. And as ever, my ultimate comfort reading has been fan-fiction, written and shared online anonymously, freely, out of love.
This year I discovered the work of Ann Petry after coming across my grandmother’s first edition of The Street, a novel about a singer and single mother living in Harlem in the 1940s: the time in which it was written. It’s a dazzling study of how racism and objectification eat away at the spirit, and it came as no surprise to learn that it was the first best-seller by an African American female author. The Street led me to The Narrows which, although not as widely acclaimed, I personally enjoyed even more. Published in 1953, The Narrows is a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the predominantly black area of a town in Connecticut. Fragrant kitchens, beer-soaked bars, dingy hotel rooms and a stately home filled with Gainsborough paintings are some of the tense interiors illuminated by the novel. This year I also fell in love with Maud Martha, a novella published the same year as The Narrows by Gwendolyn Brooks, a slightly younger author known for her poetry.
This year I was grateful for the writing of Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville West on gardening, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden Book, David Olugosa’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting and Abi Palmer’s Sanatorium — the last two being books that actually came out this year.
What a fucking year. I’m closing it out with the tremendous The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack, which makes me laugh the kind of laugh that puts doom in perspective. How useful! Each chapter elucidates a different apocalypse scenario supported by physics — the big rip, heat death, vacuum decay — and I feel weirdly lulled when I read about all the many ravishing ways the universe might, and will, end. I felt transported to a much-needed far-away place (the Himalayas) and state of mind (Zen Buddhism) in The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and by the stunning, whirligig language of Harry Dodge’s My Meteorite (Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing). Right before lockdown I read Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness and its warmth was revelatory, at once raw and complicated, somehow transcendent yet made of tiny, earthly moments. It helped me get through those first claustrophobic months in a small apartment. The revolutionary ardency of this year propelled and fed me, and of the many books I read on that path, my favourite is Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture by Anaîs Duplan. The work of abolition is never over, and it is beautiful, and looking into the future with that knowledge kept close feels like a way to persevere.
I am constantly amazed by the poetry of Justin Phillip Reed. His latest collection THE MALEVOLENT VOLUME (Coffee House Press) is a kind of horror poetry, subverting tropes of the ‘monstrous’ to expose the mechanisms by which marginalised groups are terrorised and turned into fantasies of terror. Reed is a wonderfully dialectical poet: his lines are baroque then direct, his syntax sinuous then flourishing, his voices excoriating then tender. This year I also encountered the work of socialist playwright, essayist, and actor Wallace Shawn. THE DESIGNATED MOURNER is about a fictional totalitarian state, and how a group of intellectuals choose to respond to the repressive regime. Shawn examines (in disquieting and often very funny detail) the insidious, cynical lengths some of us will go to preserve our material comforts, confuse co-option for rationality, and make virtues of our crimes.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
It’s been a sludgy reading year. I’ve picked up many books but my anxious brain has been unable to absorb many probably excellent ones. Still, some broke through. In particular, narratives that paired humour with a willingness to look into the shadows. Some top choices: Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko — a collection full of acerbic ghosts. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez — a book about what it means to be an aging woman, written with a wry touch. Fans of Cusk will enjoy Nunez. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo — as good as the hype and funny too which no one warned me about. When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy — a novel about a writer with an abusive husband. As the protagonist attempts to preserve herself, she uses all the tools of her artistry to nurture her own brain.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s A Country Doctor’s Notebook (tr. Michael Glenny, published in 2010 by Vintage) was my Book of 2020. I’ve read it before, but this year, of all years, I needed a laugh, I needed truly assured storytelling to keep me in, and I needed reminding that things could be worse. These are Bulgakov’s semi-fictionalised accounts of his time running a small Russian country hospital ‘thirty-two miles from the nearest electric light’ as a junior doctor — forty-eight days out of medical school (‘suppose they bring me a hernia?’), and with peasant-loathing a defining feature of his bedside manner (‘Shut up! Nobody asked you!’). The first of Bulgakov’s nine carefully dispensed doses of drollery begins: ‘If you have never driven over country roads it is useless for me to tell you about it; you wouldn’t understand anyway. But if you have, I would rather not remind you of it.’
My reading year started off strong with the exquisite A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, a celebration of sense, perception, desire, and so much more. Other standouts included Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (despite its 800 or so pages the story absolutely flies by), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (so funny that I actually guffawed out loud while reading), and the intricately plotted The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I will also remember 2020 as the year I finally read Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice which, for being a grisly story about immortals, I found surprisingly and endearingly human.
This year I am even less able to remember the books I read; as the days have blurred into one, reading has felt less situated for me, difficult to tether. I do remember there was a fairly long time when I could only read the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, with their minutely described interiors and sense of encroaching threat. (I think it will be hard to ever read them again.) I know that I loved Luster, by Raven Leilani, with its exhilarating, energetic prose, and The Appointment, by Katharina Volckmer, a wry and brilliant debut. I was devastated one empty day by When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt, an exquisite, painful account of loss and memory that I will always associate with 2020.
In late March, I settled down to a year of wide, deep, thick reading that never really arrived. Reading was harder this year, and I came to value books of slow accumulation, inviting slow inhabiting — books that sit just slightly out of time. I was moved by John Berger’s Portraits — a late, sparse history of portraiture — and Christopher Neve’s Unquiet Landscapes — a mesmerising study of modernist English landscape painting — both products of decades of thinking about looking. Two books of lonely poetry — read slowly, each morning, over months — reminded me what an expansive present tense can feel like: John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, a real-time record of Obama’s presidency interlaced with retrospective commentary, taught me the power of careful rethinking. I loved Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift, a shimmering, shape-shifting epic of Zambia written over twenty years. Bob Dylan’s long, cumulative retrospective glance in Murder Most Foul was overwhelming. And then there was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books, whose slow rhythms descended gently from their moment into mine.
This year I’ve mainly been reading novels in which the characters are trapped in an unreal reality that makes no sense, and where the ostensible rules keep changing… I loved the rich emotional mayhem of Natasha Randall’s Love Orange; the savage dark comedy of Sam Byers’ Come Join Our Disease and Lina Wolff’s Many People Die Like You (translated by Saskia Vogel); the tender nuances of Ben Markovits’ Christmas in Austin; and the wry optimism of Tahmima Anam’s The Start-Up Wife. Also, Gary Budden’s wild, dreamlike London Incognita and Agustín Fernández Mallo’s dynamic-anarchic The Things We’ve Seen. I also read some brilliant non-fiction, much of it concerned with the strangeness of ordinary life: Julian Baggini’s The Godless Gospel, Sam Mills’ The Fragments of My Father, Sophie Ratcliffe’s The Lost Properties of Love and Raymond Tallis’s Seeing Ourselves. Also, two outstanding books about culture wars past and present: Circles and Squares by Caroline Maclean and Elitism by Eliane Glaser. Finally, I was delighted to read Inscription, an excellent new journal created by Gill Partington, Simon Morris and Adam Smyth. It’s a beautiful physical object and the perfect antidote to Zoom.
These are three books I’ve managed to finish this year. Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry by David Hinton is a collection of poems by Tu Fu, each with two translations into English and an accompanying short essay. I enjoyed triangulating the book’s various parts, and was excited by Hinton’s declaration that the poems suggest ‘new possibilities for biography not as the usual narrative of events that define an identity-centre, but as a story of the existence-tissue Cosmos open to itself through an individual lifetime.’ Martin MacInnes’s second novel, Gathering Evidence, is a compelling mystery about various identity-centres interacting across species boundaries. Joyelle McSweeney’s overwhelming double poetry collection Toxicon and Arachne suggests new and vital possibilities for biography. McSweeney’s ‘Toxic Sonnets’ are voiced by the tuberculosis that killed John Keats.
I began the year with Ada Limon’s The Carrying (2018) and ended it with Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air (2020), poetry collections I cherished — beautiful, difficult, on nature, the environment, what is wrong and hopeful, loved and lost. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings (2020) was a favourite book of essays, as was Moyra Davey’s Index Cards (2020), which led me to Gail Scott’s strange and brilliant My Paris (2010). In correspondence, Moyra reminded me of Hilton Als’s The Women (1996), which I revisited and gulped down greedily, ‘a perfect book,’ we agreed. Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal (2020) absorbed and transported me, made me forget where I was (stuck). On trauma, family, memory, nationality, loss, I was undone by Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose (1978), Tanya Tagaq, Split Tooth (2018), Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House (2019), Chantal Akerman (wonderfully translated by Daniella Shreir), My Mother Laughs (2019), and Mira Mattar’s slender, furious, lovely YES, I AM A DESTROYER (2020).
‘Many copier artists are women and some copy themselves exclusively,’ the photocopy artist and writer Pati Hill writes in Letters to Jill: a catalogue and some notes on copying (Mousse Publishing), her 1979 book that Kunstverein München reprinted this year for Hill’s posthumous survey. Hill writes a wry, urbane prose and poetry (shades of Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick), and her examination of xerography is totally compelling. I spent the long spring interior with The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader (Siglio), which collects the architect-writer’s experimental novels, essays, and poems, and Dream of Europe: Selected Seminars and Interviews, 1984–1992 (Kenning), which collects Audre Lorde’s late Berlin period of pedagogical poetics. The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick and her Sleepless Nights (both NYRB Classics) were my weirdest and best beach reading. Then in lockdown again I found myself wanting writing in which the dicey, fervent politics of home and hospitality are centred, so: Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (New Directions), Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (Portobello), and Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart (Liverpool). I also loved Fanny Howe’s Night Philosophy (Divided Publishing) and Susan Taubes’s Divorcing (NYRB Classics).
My reading habits, towards the end of the long 2020, coalesced around three themes: self-help books (The Self-Compassion Workbook, etc); contemporary memoirs by women— seeing lives unfold on the page offered a refreshing sense of direction while I was stuck in a loop of sitting on my couch, my desk, and my bed — and grand nineteenth-century novels about cuckolds by men (revisiting the classics). In non-fiction, I loved Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon a Time in the East (Chatto & Windus); Mary Gaitskill’s Lost Cat (Daunt); Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm (FSG x Logic) and J. Hoberman’s Film After Film (Verso). In fiction, Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman (Hamish Hamilton); Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Orion), and Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist (Serpent’s Tail) stayed with me. I re-read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, after reading it for school years ago. I hated it back then; this year I discovered just how wrong I was.
Andrew Durbin’s Skyland (Nightboat Books, 2020) is my book of the year. What a curious little book that is, at once haunting and haunted — quite literally. Durbin takes us on a voyage to a Greek island as he searches for a long-lost portrait of the late French author Hervé Guibert, supposedly painted by Yannis Tsarouchis. Those familiar with Guibert will relish in an abundance of biographical and conceptual references (the French aesthete was himself obsessed with the idea of a ‘ghost image’ — the title of his 1981 essay collection written in homage to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida). Others will appreciate the escapist intrigue and riveting prose. In good Guibertian fashion, it is unclear how much of this novella is fiction, but that’s beyond the point. Skyland is the travelogue to a journey without a destination; a salute to the departed.
Mary Gaitskill has done it again. Don’t be fooled by the petite proportions. The 89 pages of her astonishing memoir Lost Cat will stay with you longer and make you think harder than most books three times that size. Starting with the loss of a beloved cat and moving on to her relationship with two young mentees and memories of her father’s death, Gaitskill’s subjects include loss, grief, love — and pain, and why we so often choose it. Covering themes this big, using language this precise, in a space this small: this sort of radical distillation can only be achieved by a writer who has honed her talent to a very fine edge indeed.
My 2020 began with Toby Ferris’s Short Life in a Strange World, a sensitive essay-memoir on Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Netherlandish painter’s crowded village tableaux — everyone shouting, swilling, and grabbing on each other — stayed with me for months as a dream image of the warmth we’d lost in the pandemic. By contrast, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, a murder mystery set in rural Mexico, shocked me with its vivid dissection of misanthropy and desire. In a year of toppled statues and unraveling national narratives, the book that taught me most was Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, a classic study of collective memory-making from Columbus Day to Disney. It left me wanting to sink not only Columbus, but also the fleet of replica ships that crossed the Atlantic on the fourth centennial of his voyage.
Edward Enninful’s Vogue, which traced the pandemic, the UK government’s failings, the Black Lives Matter protests and the rise of the hero that is Marcus Rashford with honesty and style. I looked forward to each issue as an unexpected place to reflect and dream — and as a demonstration of how institutions can change. And audiobooks: Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries entertained me when nothing else could (and made me nostalgic for a social life I didn’t have even before the pandemic), as did The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Both books are thrillingly read by their authors. Finally, Danez Smith’s Homie felt like a book for this year as we learned to look after one another in new ways. I thought about certain lines often, including this, from ‘acknowledgments’: ‘if luck calls your name, we split the pot / & if you wither, surely i rot’.
Over the course of our first lockdown I came to rely on the writings of Eric Chevillard, from his grimly hilarious columns in Le Monde about ‘le confinement’ (translated with gymnastic agility by Daniel Levin Becker for Music & Literature) to Monotobio (Editions de Minuit). I lingered over the heightened attentiveness of Esther Kinsky’s sentences in Grove (tr. Caroline Schmidt, Fitzcarraldo), and was dazzled by Robert Alter’s three-volume edition of the Hebrew Bible (Norton). Audiobooks of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet prompted laughter, delight and wonder. So did Goldsmiths Prize-finalist Mr Beethoven by Paul Griffiths and a most welcome UK edition of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Influx). In their volumes of short fiction newcomers Yevgenia Belorusets (Fortunate Fallings, forthcoming from New Directions in 2021) and Souvankham Thammavongsa (How to Pronounce Knife, Bloomsbury) evoke life at the margins with precision and grace. The pleasures of Jules Renard’s Journal 1887-1910 are legion; here’s hoping riverrun’s new edition (tr. Theo Cuffe, ed. Julian Barnes) makes its way to nightstands of more than just the happy few.
I’ve been enjoying the exceptional poetry books published this year, in particular those that opened out to me new possibilities of what poems can do — like being shaken awake! In particular, Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air (Granta, 2020) and Wayne Holloway-Smith, Love Minus Love (Bloodaxe, 2020). Also: Leo Bersani, Thoughts and Things (University of Chicago Press, 2015) which is written very beautifully, and Michael Baxandall’s Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press, 1988) — a social history of the commercial practices of the Renaissance picture trade, where painters come across more like fashion photographers commissioned by investment banks under zero hours contracts.
I’m currently reading Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. I wish I could say that I read it before all the awards for bonus cool points but, alas, I chased the hype. It is as good as they say but I’ve had to take breaks from its emotional brutality with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series and have enjoyed discovering the progenitors of fantasy genre tropes. This year, I read Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season and Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones. It had a fascinating effect to read them back to back. Melchor’s prose is raw and wild and a testament to the translator, Sophie Hughes, who has somehow captured the colour and tessellation of Mexican slang in English. Mars-Jones on the other hand has a surgeon’s precision and control with language. Yet, with their shared themes, transgression and sexuality, there was resonance among that dissonance.
In 2020, speculative fiction transformed into disturbingly prescient cultural commentary; it also provided a much-needed escape. Reading Ling Ma’s Severance in a pandemic, in which an airborne infection is turning the global population into zombies who repeat their work routines until they die, was a trip. During summer lockdown I travelled to the frozen world of Gethen, location of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: a mesmerising tale of political intrigue set among an ambisexual population. I also happily lost myself to Shola von Reinhold’s historical fabulations in their debut novel Lote, a work of cultural criticism that re-centres black modernism, and makes the political case for luxury, that doubles-up as a page turner. Lote’s skewering of the joyless abstractions of art theory and academia is truly a wonder to behold.
Anne Enright’s Actress, a gorgeously ambivalent novel reflecting on the lives of a Dublin theatre star and her daughter, might well have been written for my specific enjoyment: I’m susceptible to swooning nostalgia for lost heydays in any case, and also happen to be the daughter of an Irish playwright, so reading this was like absorbing a kind of very intelligent and very melancholy gossip. Annie Ernaux’ A Girl’s Story was the most appallingly true rendition of the adolescent girl’s twinned shame and voracious hunger I’ve ever read. In New York just before Covid shuttered it all, I bought Daniel Poppick’s book of narrative prose poetry Fear of Description and in quarantine upon my return to Ireland I kept returning to its final lines, about stumbling on a dead coyote, aghast:
were still cracked open
I stepped back, then stepped forward,
and this is what he said
MMXX marks 700 years of Dante’s COMEDY (1320) — still too early. For Hermann Broch’s DEATH OF VIRGIL (1945) on the other hand, it is still too late. Two of this year’s debuts which uplifted me were Shola von Reinhold’s orchidaceous LOTE and RAINBOW MILK — Paul Mendez’s songs of experience. Raul Ruiz’s POETICS OF CINEMA (1990-2009) speaks of what cinema could be, freed of simplistic templates, and Tag Gallagher’s monumental JOHN FORD, HIMSELF AND HIS MOVIES (2017) gets underneath Ford’s gruff mask to reveal the complexity of his art. The book which healed me was Sarah Schulman’s CONFLICT IS NOT ABUSE: OVERSTATING HARM, COMMUNITY RESPONSIBILITY, AND THE DUTY OF REPAIR (2016). Gertrude Stein’s IDA (1941) was as devastating as when I read it last time.
The first book I read this year was Anita Brookner’s HOTEL DU LAC (Jonathan Cape). I didn’t know it then, but Brookner’s depiction of solitary life inside a continental hotel, punctuated by yearning and unanswered letters home, would become absurdly fitting for a year spent indoors. My favourites of the year: Barbara Pym’s NO FOND RETURN OF LOVE (Jonathan Cape), Olga Tokarczuk’s PRIMEVAL AND OTHER TIMES translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Twisted Spoon Press), Dubravka Ugrešić’s BABA YAGA LAID AN EGG (Canongate) translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, and Yoko Tawada’s MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR (W. W. Norton), translated by Susan Bernofsky. They were random choices, but I can see their attraction now: ordinary surrealism, small communities, distractingly good writing, and the illusion of being in another place and time.
Fiction, broadening the horizons of storytelling: Malina, Ingeborg Bachman; The Palm-wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola. Non-fiction: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, E. E. Evans Pritchard, a mirror onto ourselves; On the Abolition of All Political Parties, Simone Weil. Poetry: Poems of the Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra, Arturo Desimone, Hesterglock Press, described in a recent review by C. Putschkin of Spamzine as ‘something as curious as an actual, living avant-garde poet’, a new way of seeing; There’s the Hand and there’s the Arid Chair, Tomaž Šalamun.
My plan for everything being closed was to read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series in sequence: the French Second Empire traced through a family tree, a grubbily palpable, odiferous world for when everything’s behind a screen or a mask. To date I’ve managed half. John Berger, whose biography I’m still writing, loved it, so it felt vaguely justified. There are a few album-track stinkers in there, but on the whole it’s capacious enough to always feel ‘timely’ in some way. News reports about the end of the department store arrived against the story of its beginning in Au Bonheur des Dames, and the same for anything to do with corruption, disease, Empire, markets and urban planning. OUP have recentlyish done a full set of translations with footnotes gamely trying to follow the endless granularity of the research beneath them. Dan Hicks claimed his book The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution was only ‘timely’ in the sense that a stopped clock could be right once every 150 years. But it’s hard to think of a better word for the reconsideration of the museums and what they contain at the book’s Zoomed launch with Subhadra Das, Victor Ehikhamenor, Errol Francis, Wayne Modest and Alice Procter. Or in our absence from galleries, Helen Marten carrying her endlessly inventive conjunctions of objects over to language in The Boiled in Between.
As I’ve made plain elsewhere, Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart is a book I’ll return to frequently and one that I needed in this year of Brexit and plague. I’m enjoying Fred D’Aguiar’s Letters to America. I’m going to teach it next year alongside his brilliant long and multi-voiced poem from the 1990s, ‘At the Grave of the Unknown African, Henbury Parish Church’. In my deep re-reading of Goethe’s Faust this year I’ve also been re-reading Auden’s anti-political polemic The Prolific and the Devourer alongside poetry that may not make things happen but enriches our understanding of politics in the present like Valzhyna Mort’s beautiful Music for the Dead and Resurrected.
In the first week of January I read PARALLEL LIVES by Phyllis Rose (Daunt) and THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by Helen Garner (Text). Victorian marriage and mid-2000s Australian true crime don’t have much in common, but Rose and Garner share a precise matter-of-factness about what is and isn’t knowable about other people. From March to June, I read nothing, or remember reading nothing, but the news. In late summer, I started innumerable books and finished only those that I could read in a single day: Makenna Goodman’s THE SHAME (Milkweed), PASSING by Nella Larsen and Guidebook to Relative Strangers by Camille T. Dungy (Norton). Two of the books that I started during this period I am reading still: Samuel Richardson’s CLARISSA (I joined a CLARISSA book group, but fell behind with the weekly reading) and Norman Rush’s MATING (Granta). Many people over the past five years have told me I would love MATING, and they weren’t wrong. Even so, I’ve been reading only a few pages every few days, and I’m grateful that the narrator’s funny, unflaggingly cerebral, hopelessly self-deceiving voice has been keeping me company through the second half of 2020.
I have a friend who moved to Colorado and started an avant-garde black metal band. He’s already been offered several record deals. But his main obsession is novelist and critic Gary Indiana, to the extent that he bought a signed first edition of GONE TOMORROW which bears the following inscription: ‘For Richard — wish I was licking your butthole at my luxury suite at the Grand Hyatt — maybe next time xxx ooo.’ That’s the sort of charm that leaps off every page of Indiana’s novels. A Proust of Downtown New York in the eighties, Indiana also wrote the art column for the Village Voice and a suite of novels that are brutal, funny, wicked and wistful. During a Zoom event for the New York Review of Books, I watched as Gary vaped semi-surreptitiously when he thought no one was watching. Over the spring, I ended up reading five of his books, but if I had to pick one, I’d go with HORSE CRAZY, a novel of erotic obsession set on a Lower East Side already ravaged by AIDS. The city in lockdown, with its empty streets with shuttered storefronts, felt uncannily similar to the world of the novel, and at every turn, you wanted to save Gary-as-protagonist from his torrid but chaste romance with Gregory, a sullen, handsome boy. Just kiss him, Gary! Tell him how you really feel! A madcap novel in High Indiana Style.
I highly recommend Robert Glück’s experimental novel of 1994, MARGERY KEMPE (reissued this year by NYRB Classics). Short but dense, the novel is comprised of two stories, set in different centuries (but both really about Glück himself, a trait typical of New Narrative, from which this novel-as-autobiography was born). In MARGERY KEMPE, the life of a fifteenth-century mystic named Margery — a woman infatuated by her masturbatory prayer-object, Jesus — melds together with Glück’s own painful passion for an elusive and quasi-divine figure named L. The novel is weird, uncomfortable (in its total cooption of Margery, which Glück calls ‘literary drag’); but also a lesson in historical writing and risk. And the language is just exquisite: erotic, queer, seditious. An amazing read. I also loved (but is that the right word?) reading Ling Ma’s extinction novel Severance. Published two years ago, Ma tells the story of a fever emerging from China, and which travels around the world via consumer goods — figuring as a sort of punishment for consumer capitalism. As we live through some of what Ma imagined (travel bans, designer face masks, fevered online shopping as the apocalypse approaches), I read the novel gripped by terror, excitement, and awe.
I read Octavia Butler for the first time this year and was completely gripped. First by the prescience of Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) — both of which are set in a near-future America ravaged by the escalating climate crisis, social inequality, the violence of the far Christian right, and the election of a US President who promises to ‘make America great again’ — and then by the skill on show in her masterpiece, Kindred (1979), which explores the horrors of slavery through the prism of time travel, and is quite simply one of the very best books I’ve ever read. Two other novels stand out from the rest, both of which are unjustly out-of-print: J. J. Phillips’ Mojo Hand (1966), a Black, female Beat novel that combines mythology and herpetology, published when Phillips was only 22; and Kay Dick’s They: A Sequence of Unease, an eerie dystopian tale of diminishing personal, intellectual and artistic freedoms that recalls the novels of Ann Quin and Anna Kavan.
In a year where most of my reading time and energy was swallowed Twitter doom-scrolling, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season was the book nasty enough to rip me off the internet until I finished all of it in a marathon sitting. My other favourite new novel was Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. Kate Lewis Hood and Maria Sledmere’s Infrastructure and Sam Walton’s Self Heal are two of the most exciting recent books from UK poets about the environment; Jo Sacco’s Playing the Land was a reminder of why long-form comics journalism does things other non-fiction genres can’t. In 2020 I discovered that I can only get through the tedium of jogging by listening to sprawling historical fiction or fantasy — so I guess thanks are due to the Wolf Hall trilogy (good), Pillars of the Earth (less good) and, erm, the Witcher novel (things were hard in April) for helping me stave off lockdown blues and gut.
The three novels which really stayed with me this year were Paul Mendez’s visceral, affecting and gorgeous Rainbow Milk; Huw Lemmey’s mystic, fiercely original Unknown Language; and Amina Cain’s Indelicacy — sly and subtle, crammed with intelligence and strangely urgent poise. In Loss Sings, James E. Montgomery refracts his own experiences of suffering through translations of the laments of sixth-century Arab poet al-Khansā, creating a hybrid work of great emotional delicacy and thoughtfulness. I learned much from Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which gives an Aboriginal perspective on our current moment — reminding the reader that there is no future for sustainable life on earth, unless we draw from indigenous thinking and knowledge. Finally, it was another dazzling year for poetry, but I was held particularly by Aracelis Girmay’s fizzingly potent Teeth; Bhanu Kapil’s compassionate and rigorous How to Wash a Heart; and Will Harris’s brilliantly layered and arresting Rendang.
A book of major learning and originality is Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus: a life of Toussaint Louverture that removes him from C. L. R. James’s (wonderful, but stately) Black Jacobins and makes him closer to the versions in Glissant or Césaire — seething with complicated, nuanced, kreyol life (‘Zautres pas capable battre la guerre contre nègres’). But I wonder if what I’ve most thought about is writing and drawing, about drawing as some kind of limit point or complement to writing — thinking that was prompted by a random sequence of three witty, savage books: Lynda Barry’s textbook, Making Comics; Adrian Tomine’s memoir The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist; and Amy Sillman’s wonderful collection of essays and drawings, Faux Pas. All three had a wildness that restored me to something resembling happiness. What I want for 2021 is someone to reproduce all of Amy Sillman’s zines: The O.G. Then I might even stay happy.
I thought I was going to finish In Search of Lost Time, with two volumes left, but reading about someone never leaving the house was too experiential. I re-read all of Marie Redonnet’s novellas instead — brutal visions of loneliness in deserted valleys and rotting hotels, brilliantly translated by Jordan Stump. Johny Pitts’s Afropeans and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings spoke to me. I started Andy Warhol’s diary in 2015 and have portioned out its 800 pages since. It lacks introspection, which I find soothing — it’s all cab fares and parties. Denis Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee, and Gina Berriault’s stories were revelatory. Mary Gaitskill’s last two volumes of short stories and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness demonstrated again their emotional fearlessness as writers. It wasn’t a hugely different reading year, but I was grateful for anything funny — Jessica Anthony’s Enter the Aardvark and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary were joyous reads.
Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence led me to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 Dictee, an astonishing blend of narrative, image, prose poem and document, which forms a collective (auto)biography of sorts, structured in fragments around the nine Muses and told through the stories of women including Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, the revolutionary Yu Guan Soon and Cha’s mother. My book of the year was the NYRB reissue of Susan Taubes’s 1969 novel Divorcing, an intimate depiction of a psyche mapped onto twentieth-century European history. Its fractured form makes a powerful mirror to the themes of displacement and generational trauma that it dissects: it feels rare to find a novel of interiority that also feels so capacious and political. Among more contemporary fiction, I loved Percival Everett’s hilarious I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Makenna Goodman’s sharp and witty The Shame, Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women and Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile. I read David Copperfield and am working my way through the various film adaptations; so far Armando Iannucci’s is narrowly losing out to the 1935 version, based on the omission of certain random memorable details from the book. And I greatly enjoyed Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, among much else a satire on literary Paris which makes the corruptions and intrigues of modern publishing seem tame by comparison.
Of the new poetry I read this year I thought Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves (Picador), Hannah Regel’s Oliver Reed (Montez Press) and Rachel Long’s My Darling From The Lions (Picador) were all absolutely phenomenal. I was also introduced to the poetry of Maged Zaher which I am currently reading and really enjoying. In the middle of lockdown, for about a month, I rediscovered that kind of crazy adolescent thirst for reading, and read anything and everything. Some favourites were Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs. And then the desire to read completely disappeared, and I didn’t read anything for about six months, except for, like, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Don’t judge. I just finished Denis Johnson’s posthumous short story collection The Largesse of The Sea Maiden (Jonathan Cape). How to sum up? It’s… mind-blowing. Seriously. A lifetime book.
After many years out of print, Kathe Koja’s bizarre, disturbing, brilliant novel from 1991, The Cipher, has just been re-released by Meerkat Press. The book’s premise: two people discover a bottomless hole in the storage closet of the narrator’s rundown apartment building. The hole (vortex? portal?) is patently terrifying, seemingly evil, and in any case otherworldly. They name it The Funhole. What ensues is something like a mystical treatise on mortality and divinity, in sci-fi horror story drag. The premise of the newly translated Ornamental by Colombian author Juan Cardenas is also somewhat misleading: a researcher discovers an addictive drug that makes (some) women ecstatic. The speculative pharma-fiction quickly gives way, however, to a meditation on art, access, class conflict, and of course ornamentation in life and work. Cardenas draws an uneasy equivalence between the work of art (including this book) and artificial mood-altering substances. Both rub your nose in reality by estranging you from it. Or vice versa. Finally, a premise I can hardly explain, and don’t want to reduce. Huw Lemmey’s Unknown Language, a novel bookended with a narrative poem by Bhanu Kapil and a biographical afterword by Alice Spawls, might be described best as fan fiction for a medieval saint. Inspired by the life and works of twelfth-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, Lemmey’s story spins between deep past and future speculation. Enter the funhole, equal parts terrifying and transcendent.
Jay G Ying
All things considered, I found innovation and shelter in poetry this year. My mind keeps returning to those sky translations in Don Mee Choi’s DMZ COLONY (Wave Books); the human-plant hybrids in Itō Hiromi’s WILD GRASS ON THE RIVERBANK (Tilted Axis Press); an icy red heart at the centre of Bhanu Kapil’s HOW TO WASH A HEART (Pavilion Poetry); the azure noises of Vahni Capildeo’s ODYSSEY CALLING (Sad Press); the planets in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s A TREATISE ON STARS (New Directions); and the lethal sonnets piercing through Joyelle McSweeney’s TOXICON AND ARACHNE (Nightboat Books). The three most interesting novels of the year got far too little attention, as these things usually go: Bae Suah’s UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY (Jonathan Cape), Jon Fosse’s THE OTHER NAME (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and Claude McKay’s ROMANCE IN MARSEILLE (Penguin Classics).