It was an odd year in books, with some notable disappointments and some unexpected delights.
January started well, with Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, a witty memoir of how one man reorganized his life–and retrained his concentration–to make room for book reading. A lot more book reading, that is, and most of it literary fiction, which improved pretty much every other aspect of his life, and lifted off the fog of general discontent and inertia. I followed it with a sociological classic, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, which is a study of the British working class culture before American pop culture and American mass media took over there, as would everywhere else around the globe. The month ended with Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, a look at the darker corners of the internet manosphere like 4chan, an activist book that has since come under scrutiny for unreliable referencing. (The publisher, Zero Books, replied with a “we never claimed this was a work of academic research”. ^^)
What the hell happened in February that kept me from reading? There’s a single book in my records for that month, and my memory is blank. I didn’t travel anywhere, and I don’t think I had any huge writing assignments? In any case, the book is Kapka Kassabova’s Border, which disappointed mightily and which I started skipping near the end. It looked promising on paper: a Bulgarian expat returns to the permeable borders of the Balkans to write about the then and the now. Ah but a couple of chapters in and we are settled in the Balkanism genre: Jungian mysticism (collective unconscious! archetypes!) meets magic realism meets lazy writing. No.
March improved the state of the affairs: Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (her memoir of motherhood which brought her so much flak for daring to voice some ambiguities), Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny (it’s fine, and Slimani’s public engagement is fabulous, but the book won’t be one of my favourite psychological thrillers of all time). Chris Power’s collection of short stories, Mothers, completes the month.
In April, I got round to reading Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (which was an intriguing look at a writer who doesn’t want to engage politically while the world is being set on fire), Peter Boyle’s indescribable poetry ‘anthology’ Ghostspeaking (where he voices a number of invented poets, gives them biographies and distinct esthetic approaches), Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox (my favourite that month and a highlight of the year. One of the best things that Galley Beggars published) and Lisa Halliday’s Assymetry (in which she puts her former lover Philip Roth and their May-December affair into fiction… but also she is aware that that’s an exercise in narcissism, so she counteracts the affair part of the book with a section where an American of Iraqi origin tells about his complicated Americannes and troubles in belonging and the war in Iraq… One of those beautifully written books that do nothing for me).
Apart from Esther Kinsky’s River (another book where somebody with means to travel does travel and wanders slightly unfamiliar landscapes for a while (in this case, London’s outer edges), without much pressure to earn a living, and tells us how uprooted she is, but it’s the human condition innit), May was good. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is for the most part brilliant; I would have excised or reworked the slumped mid section where the narrator is doing nothing by staying home, crying and having arguments with live-in partner–over and over. Dimitri Nasrallah’s The Bleeds is a funny and fast-paced take on a certain kind of exaggerated east Mediterranean masculinity–and the way it’s entangled (wedded?) with the region’s political culture. Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger was a delight–her voice is always lively–although it only contains well off people. That it kept me interested and entertained in spite of that is a credit to its author.
Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis was one of the best books I’ve read all year, and one of the best books ever written on psychotherapy period. Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex 3 is the other book I managed to finagle this month of travel. While Vernon 1 and 2 built up the expectations for the creation (at least in fiction) of a new radical collectivity, Vernon 3 deflated them. The group around Vernon falls apart, Paris is wounded by terrorist attacks.
Deborah Cameron’s gorgeous (and you can almost hear her deep contralto speaking voice in the tone of the writing–unamused, wry, fair) The Myth of Mars and Venus dissects how pervasive the “women are naturally like this, men are naturally like that” myth in neuroscience, language studies, and popular culture is. Edith Hall’s Aristotle’s Way was surprisingly humdrum and would have worked better as a long-form essay. Rosalie Knecht’s Who is Vera Kelly? was joy from start to finish. Imagine if Patricia Highsmith was out, and imagine if she was a feminist, and also imagine if she centred female characters? That’ll give you an idea of what Knecht’s Argentinial spy romp, Vera, is like. Olga Tokarczuk’s extraordinary Flights (Int’l Man Booker Winner; beat Binet’s Seventh Function of Language, and Despentes’ Vernon, among others) rounds up the month.
Rachel Cusk Kudos, Kitty Aldridge’s A Trick I Learned From Dead Men, Andrew Sheer Greer’s Less and Dasa Drndic’s EEG filled up my August reading time. September, Drndic continues (I won’t say much about her work here as I’m working on a longer Thing for an Online Literary Magazine) with Dying in Toronto, Belladonna and Trieste. Catherine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone made me stop and think. And adopt a re-training of attention regime, part-time. It’s a struggle. Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers was tremendous: a collection of psychoanalytic essays on what we expect of mothers and why.
October was a travel month, so only two to report: Daniel de Roulet’s Quand vos nuits se morcellent (written in the form of letters to Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler) and Drndic’s April in Berlin.
Paul Ewen/Francis Plug’s Writer in Residence, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Ivana Sajko’s The History of My Family from 1941 to 1991 and Further, and Drndic’ Leica Format were what you would call books in traditional format of the month of November. I say traditional, because I’ve discovered Posy Simmonds’ graphic art by this time and really got into it. PS’s Mrs Weber Omnibus (the entire collection of her comic strips written for the Guardian over the many years), Gemma Bovery and this year’s offering, Cassandra Darke, have been a shining light in a darkening winter.
I finished off this bout of PS with Tamara Drewe in December. Then I turned to the latest collection of short stories by Ben Marcus Notes from the Fog, which didn’t go down well. His Leaving the Sea I thought was genius; this one is clearly what BM sounds like when he’s coasting. Every story is in the same mode (a less imaginative Black Books) and contains the same heterosexual couple who are falling apart. I also read Drndic’ Doppelgaenger; KD Miller’s stories inspired by Alex Colville paintings, Late Breaking; Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua (endless rain in Naples and some inexplicable local events are messing up the locals). Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (fun fun fun) and Alexandra Oliver’s excellent poetry collection Let the Empire Down complete my December and my year.
Edited to add: This is the first time in, like, probably ever that I’ve read more women than men in a calendar year. Waaaaay more women than men, and not on purpose, I did not set out to do that. Which is a good & hope-giving note to end the year on.