This year, Granta invited contributors and friends of the magazine to reflect on what they read in 2023.
My book of the year is Mark Hyatt’s So Much For life, beautifully introduced and edited by Sam Ladkin and Luke Roberts, and published by Nightboat. Mark Hyatt was a Romani poet who received no formal education growing up, but who was folded into London’s queer scene in the 1960s, where he was effectively taught to read and write by lovers and friends. His story is incredible, his poetry – standing aside from his biography, but as ever and not, informed by it – is so contemporary, so hilarious, so stark, it is hard to believe he was writing in the 60s. The exclamatory and masturbatory poetics of the poem ‘Yes!’: ‘anyway the amount / of dry spunk on your belly / is unimportant / the thing is did you enjoy yourself / Yes!’, and the ambient, ludic abstractions, in syntactically perfect poems like ‘DICE’:
Here’s the to the high explosive deathbird
That troubles the vegetation on language
And separately opens the rare dysgenics
Rough like a mattock in the head!
I could quote him endlessly, and I am grateful to the editors for bringing these poems properly into print. Industrial Roots by Lisa Pike, published by Héloïse Press is an extraordinary, spikey and stylish collection of interlinked stories following working-class women and their lives in Ontario. Infused with the patterns of demotic idiom, the voices in this collection are a necessary evocation of working-class lives. The last few months I have been revisiting Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, and published by NYRB. His scant, grasping lyrical assertions, imagistic and elegiac, space-making and taking, have felt like necessary reading: ‘Night’s content with its skewed vision / day’s a blind man hurling prophecies.’
In a painful, transitional, challenging year for most of us, I’m grateful for how many books I’ve had to turn to: Amy Key’s Arrangements in Blue has been comforting while going through a separation, it revises the societal position of singlehood, especially for childless women and gloriously channels the atmospheric album Blue by Joni Mitchell. Shane McCrae’s Pulling the Chariot of the Sun is excellent for its slippery half-remembered lyricism, also Safiya Sinclair’s How to Say Babylon is unforgettable. Bread and Circus by Airea D. Matthews is a favourite for how it navigates class, race, parenthood, feminism, poetry / prose. John Lee Clark’s How to Communicate has become a staple collection for disability poetics, Naomi Shihab Nye’s The Tiny Journalist grounded me while making sense of the senseless killing in Gaza, as has Mosab Abu Toha’s Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear which rightfully won the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry. I can’t stop thinking about Robin Coste Lewis’s visual poetry collection To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, it’s sublime, as is Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe and Pig by Sam Sax. Nick Laird’s Up Late is his best collection to date in my opinion and Bad Diaspora Poems by Momtaza Mehri is one of the most unique and striking poetry debuts. Lastly, They Call It Love: The Politics of Emotional Life by Alva Gotby and Black on Both Sides: A Radical History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton, both intellectually nourished my thinking and language on gender.
Jeremy Atherton Lin
Curling up with Blackouts, the new novel by Justin Torres, reminded me of spending time in the company of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. To me, these books are intensely intimate but ever-elusive, providing delectable gaps to crawl into. Blackouts is a testament to the significance of intergenerational transfer between gay men, but the connection here is coy, disorienting, fractured. I somewhat recently moved into a flat with high ceilings, and if I wasn’t previously able to quite articulate the phenomenological appeal, I’ve decided it is the capaciousness in which to contemplate a book like this – giving space to shadow and illumination, tall tales and big truths. I can’t wait to read it again.
I read many of Willa Cather’s books this autumn while in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up, and my favourite was A Lost Lady, from 1923. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles but in reverse, A Lost Lady is the story of Marian Forrester, who can’t seem to stop marrying people who benefit her materially, and loving those who are disloyal. There is a fantastic scene – reminiscent of Plath’s ‘Words Heard, By Accident, Over the Phone’ – in which Marian rings her lover on his wedding day, and a friend protects her by surreptitiously cutting the telephone wire just as her complaint turns shrill. What a friend! Marian never even knows she has been shielded, a protection in itself. A Lost Lady isn’t quite feminist, but it refuses to punish a woman for understanding she is in a marketplace, seen as a fungible asset like a packet of virgin land. To be so worldly but yet not see herself as fundamentally precious, the way her friend sees her, is Marian’s tragedy. As I stood on 612 acres of unploughed prairie in Nebraska one clear night, Marian in my blood and on my mind, I did not mistake even a stalk of red grass for a commodity.
The most important novel I read this year was The Golden Notebook, which feels apt for right now because it presents the struggle of a politically-minded person who also lives a full and rounded life. Lessing shows the reader Anna’s thoughts and feelings about the Communist Party, but also love and motherhood and cooking and clothes. Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn! also does this, while asking ‘what if contemporary literature’s sad girl heroines joined a political movement instead of taking a long nap?’ The other big reading strain for me was ‘American girl in Europe books’ like Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and The Old Man And Me. Also, Daisy Miller. I hate nothing more than Americans being so ‘I’m an expat’ as a personality, but it’s interesting the way Americanness is interpreted in Europe and vice-versa. There’s something about the plucky American ingenue skating through wicked European self-regard that is delicious, especially when it’s like . . . sweetheart you think I’m an innocent? I’m from the most corrupt place on earth. Also, I love books about chicas getting up to a little trouble away from home, which is why I loved The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun. Julie Hecht’s Do the Windows Open? is a book of stories I read every year because they are the funniest and best stories ever written. I feel like she gets pigeonholed as a comic writer but her stories are also full of emotion and have a style completely their own. I heard a rumour that she has a new book of stories coming out which would make me the happiest girl in the world.
This year I’ve been reading a mixture of nonfiction, novels and poetry and one of the standouts has been Stephen Buoro’s debut novel The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa. Written in the voice of a Nigerian teenager, Andrew Aziza, it follows him and his neighbourhood ‘droogs’ in their daily experiences and dangerous ruminations through white-centric aestheticism and religious turbulence. It caught me with its very funny yet tragic espousal of American and British slang, employed by Andy in a kind of deep-laid self-negation, and its characters who glitter off the page fully formed and irresistible. I’m always hoping, when reading fiction, for something audacious and formally interesting and this novel was a refreshing example of that. Currently I’m reading British writer Aniefiok Ekpoudom’s forthcoming nonfiction debut Where We Come From: Rap, Home & Hope in Modern Britain, which is a (long overdue) social history of UK rap and grime. It’s both moving and invigorating to read about Black-British music with such a thorough depth of research, literary elegance and a palpable love for the art, and Ekpoudom importantly highlights the power of black musical culture as a force for upliftment that is in constant battle with the heavy hand of the state. My poetry highlight for the year was Anthony Joseph’s beautiful Sonnets for Albert; I especially loved the penultimate poem ‘The Work of Generations’ and the general evoking throughout the collection of familial and earthly shifts.
I was surprised this year when I happened upon a copy of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, which is remarkable not only for its psychological subtlety but also its political relevance. Set in the 1930s, it’s a portrait of the tensions among idealistic and intellectual leftists that feels extraordinarily familiar. Sándor Márai’s Embers couldn’t be more different – simultaneously austere and lavish, a story about inherited traditions, entwined destinies, and revenge – though both are complex studies of the perils of adult friendship. But my most constant reading companion this year has been Janet Malcolm, especially in The Purloined Clinic, The Silent Woman, and In the Freud Archives. A friend of mine shudders with theatrical fear every time Malcolm’s name is mentioned, so lethal and uncompromising is the hungry animal of Malcolm’s attention. ‘Would you open the door if Malcolm had come knocking?’ we sometimes ask each other, with wide eyes. I feel warm gratitude toward everyone who did open their door to her, whether from bravery or ignorance. These are books that challenge fiction writers to bring to their invented stories half the level of craft and insight that Malcolm imposes on the unruly lives of her subjects.
This has been a year for me of rediscovering lost wonderful books, both released and still out of print. Elspeth Barker’s essays, Notes from the Henhouse, Dinah Brooke’s stunningly grotesque Lord Jim at Home, Great Granny Webster, The Fate of Mary Rose and Good Night Sweet Ladies by Caroline Blackwood (Great Granny Webster is the only one still in print, by NYRB), Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, No Love Lost a collection of stories and novellas by Rachel Ingalls. After some discombobulating personal experiences and betrayals, Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion and Carmela Ciuraru’s Lives of the Wives told me to carry on writing when I felt I shouldn’t, while Alice Slater’s Death of a Bookseller provided delicious escape. Jen Calleja’s Vehicle renewed my sense of what literature can do, as did How High? That High by Diane Williams.
Early in the year, I read an essay on the ‘paraliterary’ in Samuel R. Delany’s Shorter Views which put me on to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and since then, I keep noticing the gutter between every seemingly slick scene transition. These are some recent books I’ve been reading: Edward Said’s Out of Place, Yara Hawari’s The Stone House, Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, Rashid Khalidi’s The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, the poems of Najwan Darwish.
Whatever happened before the summer has been forgotten, so this is a fall list. Normally I don’t teach, but I had an opportunity to lead a class called ‘The Creative Moment’ at the University of Western Ontario this year. ‘The Creative Moment’ can mean anything, so I thought I’d use it as an opportunity to re-read some of my favourite books. First, we covered Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, an amazing document by Samuel R. Delany about the disappearance of the gay porn theatres in Times Square in the mid-nineties, and the intimate, rich, unique culture that vanished with it. Then we read one my favourite novels, The Wall, written by Marlen Haushofer which is as great as any beloved classic, and should be considered one. We read Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time, and talked about capitalism, Stalinism, the richness of the interview format, where soul comes from, how it’s lost. Next week we’re reading Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, which is about the appearance of the department store in Paris, and what it did to local commerce and the size of the human being relative to the size of what can be consumed, a story that continues to be told with all this online shopping. We also read The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and thought about how the human creature does not change, and about the list as a form of literature, and how interesting and revealing the minutiae of a life can be. I’m in the middle of Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner, about the history of the CIA – it’s research for an article. And this summer and fall I enjoyed some wonderful books by friends: Family Life by Akhil Sharma, The Marriage Question by Clare Carlisle, The Blue Book by Amitava Kumar and Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder, plus manuscripts-in-progress by other friends (Sean Thor Conroe, Sarah Manguso, Michael LaPointe, Miranda July, Tamara Shopsin). I’ve been obsessed by the techniques and innovations of the mid-century psychologist Carl Rogers and am reading his books and listening to his Client Centred Therapy on audiobook. Because of my commute to the university, I’m also enjoying, on audiobook, Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken and, for the second time, Laverne Cox’s wonderfully vivid narration of Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I am sick of podcasts, just sick of them all.
The best book I read this year was Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe, a reissue of the 1994 novel which blends the voice of the English mystic with that of a modern man in the crucible of love. It is breathtaking. I’ve recently finished Hisham Matar’s new novel, My Friends (out in 2024) – a sweeping yet intimate look at exile and the bonds of friendship told with real humanity. In poetry, I loved Vona Groarke’s Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara, which blends archival study with the imagined life of a young Irish migrant to the USA, and I also spent a lot of time with June Jordan, in particular her Haruko/Love Poems, which was reissued early in the year. In stranger territory, Gabriel Cooney’s Death in Irish Prehistory is a brilliant, beautifully illustrated exploration of the archaeology of burial sites in Ireland, and Rebecca Perry’s short lyric essay On Trampolining was full of light, air, and floating, and took me into a world I wouldn’t ordinarily read about.
Taken as a whole, this proved a year of re-reading rather than first dates – partly for reasons of leisure, partly out of professional duty. I spent the summer with Eric Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times, a witness document of twentieth-century history that might just surpass the official achievement of Age of Extremes. The book is much more of a first-hand report, yet still has at least one multi-year research project buried in every page. To get a grip on the familiar and unfamiliar geopolitics of the 2020s I read the collected essays of Peter Gowan, particularly his A Calculus of Power. Gowan’s might just be the best textbook in international relations from a Marxist point of view. Just for the sake of hygiene I re-read Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror, after a short infatuation with Arthur Koestler and his works on ancient Judaism; perhaps even more imposing as a book in an age in which politics has returned but ideology is still conspicuously absent from our political scene. I also read Elias Canetti’s third instalment in his memoir series, Die Fackel im Ohr, which covers the Viennese interwar years with colourful luminaries by the likes of Broch, Musil and Brecht. In terms of more dangerous reading I finally found my way to Carl Schmitt’s Land and Sea; a despicably apologetic text, but with occasional flashes of brilliance, particularly in his intellectual history of sea creatures as political metaphors.
This summer I was traveling along the Ganges and I got stuck high in the Himalayan region due to a landslide. Buses, trucks, cars on the highway at a standstill for sixteen hours. On Audible, I listened to Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. It made everything I was experiencing both real and fantastically funny. A few months earlier I had cremated my father on the banks of the Ganges and this trip had been a way to return to my grief. In the time since I have been reading more about writers and the death of fathers. Martin Amis, Experience; Sharon Olds, The Father; Louise Glück, Ararat; Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark; V.S. Naipaul, Letters Between a Father and Son; Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place. This week, however, I have been reading Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl. The narrator has been told that her father is dead and then she finds out that he is still alive. I have reached the place in the novel where the father, unaware of his connection to our narrator, has been hired to give her a driving lesson. The reason I’m reading this novel is that Geoff Dyer said on the LRB podcast that Hadley’s novel is ‘the rosetta stone of fiction’. I saw Geoff last week in New York and he told me that he particularly remembers the first seventy or so pages that he read as if in a trance. I was on a train when I read those pages and I had the same experience.
I must so obviously belong to the target demographic for works of fiction that feel like essays without being directly auto-fictional; such books always find me and I always enjoy them. My favourite recent entry into this category is Margarita García Robayo’s The Delivery, more specifically Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish of Robayo’s novel, which was published this year by the always-satisfying Charco Press. (A good way to decide which contemporary novels to read in a sea of deeply trivial garbage is to just read whatever Charco is doing. The Edinburgh-based publisher’s entire mission is to bring contemporary Latin American fiction to English-reading audiences and I’ve been obsessed with their books for many years now.) The Delivery centres on a writer in Buenos Aires who is procrastinating on a grant application and ambivalently dating some guy when a huge box is delivered to her apartment. Her estranged mother, apparently, is inside the box, an arrival that sets off a surreal and uncomfortable few weeks during which seemingly neither of the women know what’s going on and both are trying to pretend everything is normal. The prose is staccato. The scenes are rendered in pointillist detail. A sense of madness simmers just below the surface, coming close to a boil but never quite reaching it.
Estrangement has a colour. Dispossession has a scent. The Last Exit is a local cafe. The sea retains what is repressed. Hussein Barghouthi’s The Blue Light makes a good case for these epiphanies. I read Fady Joudah’s translation of Barghouthi’s classic in a haze, ambushed by its gentle, propulsive energy. Madness, or its looming presence, breaks open the memoir form. With these shards of light, Barghouthi casts shadows of historical and personal memory. We first meet him as a young Palestinian student in Seattle, awash with alienation, on the precipice of losing his mind. His relationship with an enigmatic Sufi helps him make sense of these stirrings, leading to philosophical and literary wanderings. Language, like exile, is a series of disfigurements. There’s something so bewitchingly honest about madness as explored by Barghouthi, an integrated state of abandon that both terrifies and fascinates him. It’s the blueness of incitement. The blue of al-ghayb (the unseen) and the sky of childhood. Barghouti is staunchly imagistic, a keeper of a vagrant inventory, one of neon street signs, gas lamps, bleached rocks, naked solitude, and contraband feeling.
In 2023, I did a lot of catching up on books published in previous years but it was worth it. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson completely blew me away. I’m particularly late to the party on this one (it was published ten years ago) but I cannot stop thinking about it. It is so rare to find a novel that speaks to both the head and the heart. Life After Life explores what would happen if its protagonist died as a baby, as a young child, as a young woman, or in later life. It is deftly experimental yet compulsively readable. Jenn Ashworth’s Notes Made While Falling is one of the best books I have ever read. The writer’s experience of various kinds of hurt and healing is cleverly woven amongst a dazzlingly broad collection of things Ashworth has read, seen and observed. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans is a remarkable book. Its titular short story takes character development to a level rarely seen in narratives of any length, challenging our perceptions of who is good, who is bad and (crucially) how we cross over from one to the other. Another novel, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, is a deeply impressive book of interconnected narratives: he writes so convincingly about both violence and tenderness. Finally, Andrew McMillan’s Pity, forthcoming in 2024, is that most envious of books: an excellent novel by an excellent poet.
The then-Twittersphere only marginally prepared me for the powerhouse that is Christina Sharpe and her 2023 genre-defying book Ordinary Notes. It’s winter now but I remember reading Ordinary Notes in high summer. It has productively haunted me since. Sharpe combines autobiography, memoir, photography, literary and cultural criticism in this deftly moving exploration of personal and collective grief, and joy. One wants to do to Ordinary Notes what Sharpe has done to her copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved: destroy it with notes, markings, sticky tabs, re-readings, coffee spills, etc . . . This is essential reading. Visionary is not a word that should be used lightly, though it is the only word that comes to mind since I first read Ben Lerner’s The Lights. It’s not a thin collection, it’s more like an ocean, or what I imagine the spectacular energy from a quasar would feel like, wild and pure. I let Lerner’s loquaciousness wash over me, multiple times, and each time I feel enriched. To me, its great achievement is the depiction to the artist who struggles, loses and re-finds faith in his craft. 2023 has been my hunt for great sentences. I have Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence to thank for this (to which Dillon’s own and the ones he cites satisfy the hunt). Or perhaps anything written by Zadie Smith (interviews as well!!). Early this year, I happened upon The Journal: 1837–1861 by Henry David Thoreau: ‘For our aspirations there is no expression as yet, but if we obey steadily, by another year we shall have learned the language of last year’s aspirations.’ My aspirations for the end of this year and beginning of next is to get even more lost inside Thoreau’s swirly, evocative sentences that somehow always seem perfectly wrought.
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes is still with me months later. I often visualise the book’s final images and try to piece together the enigmatic shards of the story, always failing but enjoying the effort. Another book I still think about, and apply to my life, is Ultra-Processed People by Dr Chris van Tulleken. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s a book that can potentially change your life for the better, detailing the science and dangers of ultra-processed foods and highlighting the shady corporations that put profit before public health. Finally, finding myself in a mid-year reading slump, I also revisited a few old favourites to rekindle my enthusiasm for reading: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (surprising how underrated his novels are), Cain by José Saramago, In the Ditch by Buchi Emecheta, White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, which I’m now certain contains some of the best set pieces I’ve ever read.
No preamble from me. First up is Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan. I treated this slim book almost like a holy text at the time I was reading it. During the long commutes and weird detours, this story about a woman who loved horses was all I cared about outside of my immediate family. Immortal Thoughts: Late Style in a Time of Plague by Christopher Neve is technically non-fiction, but it’s also a work of astonishing imagination and joy. Each submersion into the final days’ work of great artists is itself a submersion into Neve’s own constant struggle to be there, to see it happen. I loved Amy Key’s Arrangements in Blue, both for the quality of the writing and for some complicated reasons I keep failing to express properly. It confronts, and triumphs against, an atmospheric kind of fear I’ve lived with since I was a child, of being alone; of not quite being enough. Of course, it’s not actually about me, but is a profoundly uplifting and personal book. I felt grateful to the author every time I picked it up. Joshua Jones’s story collection Local Fires too had a hold over me that is rooted in memory, with its vignettes of small-town life, damp at the edges with lager, stupidity and all-consuming romance. I’ve been kept company while writing by the pure quality of Brother Poem by Will Harris, Brutes by Dizz Tate, August Blue by Deborah Levy, Eastmouth and Other Stories by Alison Moore, and everything I can find by M. John Harrison.
I spent a revitalising summer with the work of two extraordinary novelist-critics, Milan Kundera and Adam Mars-Jones, who, though very different – see Mars-Jones’s takedown of Immortality – nonetheless started out with a book of loosely linked L-laden stories (Laughable Loves, Lantern Lecture), collaborated with Edmund White (he was translator in one case, co-author in the other), and specialise in a sort of cerebral comedy that tackles themes of desire and social mores against a frequently repressive backdrop. The return to Kundera was prompted by his death aged 94 following a long illness, the return to Mars-Jones by the happier occasion of his triumphant new novel Caret, the third in an ongoing series. In my own reading life, they have a strong association with Faber paperbacks purchased during late adolescence – Amazon tells me I bought their first novels in the space of a fortnight – and then greedily consumed, and with a store of insight into the craft and history of the novel on which I constantly draw.
My favourite new book published this year is likely one you’ll see on many other lists – Penance by Eliza Clark is simply as excellent as they say. Outside of that, though, I’ve been rather bad at reading books published this year. I’ve started listening to the audiobook of Julia Fox’s Down the Drain but podcast episodes I need to listen to keep coming out and eating up my precious listening time. There are many other new books that I know I’ll like but which I haven’t gotten round to; most of the other books I’ve read have been older. Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco, for example, has been very useful to me in terms of learning how shorter fiction functions. It’s also wonderful nightmare fuel. Along similar lines I recommend one of the few new books I did read, Michael Wehunt’s The Inconsolables, a collection of short horror stories of similar gravity. Returning to older books though, I’ve continually gotten a lot from Kōbō Abe this year, in particular The Ark Sakura and Secret Rendezvous.
This year, I returned to Hisham Matar’s staggeringly beautiful A Month in Siena, a slim volume documenting the aftermath of writing his memoir The Return. It’s a book about art and love and the beauty of civil society, and it made me weep once again. I read Amy Bloom’s In Love, a memoir about seeking (and obtaining) assisted suicide for her husband after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, in one sitting, practically through the night. Alison MacLeod’s Tenderness is a doorstopper (not usually my type), but a deeply moving, and sprawling, narrative of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s inception and later obscenity trial. Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes was a shot in the arm: sexy, pulsing, rangy academic writing at its best. I read Oscar Moore’s PWA: Looking AIDS in the Face, the memoir compiled from the Guardian column of the same name which ran from 1994 to 1996, when Moore succumbed to the disease. The writing is witty, gorgeous, operatic, and reads like the rage-fuelled poems of Wilfred Owen. Finally, Octavia Bright’s This Ragged Grace was a wonderful piece of intertwined life writing combining sobriety and care and has given me an aphorism for the ages: ‘one of the most complex dynamics in a family is navigating everyone’s right to denial’.
I loved Cousins by Aurora Venturini (translated by Kit Maude). It felt so singular in its vision; ruthlessly ambitious, honest and piercingly unsentimental about language, class, art, people. I also read Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney for the first time over the summer; it felt so brilliantly current to have been published forty years ago. I felt like it was asking a lot of the same questions that a young person would be asking now, about economics, the point-of-it-all, the tribulations of love – all while being incredibly funny and forgiving. I also reread Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook; startling, spare, with a last line that made me feel like I’d dropped off the edge of the book into a whole new world. I’m very excited to read The Illiterate next (translated by Nina Bogin) which was republished in May.
Reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was a wonderful experience, something like Under Milk Wood, but set in Monterey, California. The style and sensibility are completely unlike the spare prose and harsh realism of his big novels. Cannery Row is instead – in Steinbeck’s words – a tone, a quality of light, a poem, a dream. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was my summer read, a 950-page epic western about men who never stopped being boys; men with impoverished emotional lives, who can neither forget nor face up to the past, and who express themselves through conquest, violence and suicidal frontierism. So: cowboys and cattle, mostly. But McMurtry’s ability to conjure an atmosphere of searingly beautiful nostalgia makes you feel sort of drunk while reading it (good drunk, not bad drunk). I also read Lauren Aimee Curtis’ Strangers at the Port, a mesmeric and lyrical novel about a fictive island and its inhabitants, which eschews narrative convention in favour of something more elusive, fractured, and choral. The novel gestures to themes of imperialism and ecosystem collapse; masculinity and maternity; incarceration, ostracisation and superstition. Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to categorise, which is another way of saying it is truly original. Anything else? Momtaza Mehri’s Bad Diaspora Poems: a generous debut collection of poetry by a visionary artist and inspiring thinker.
A lot of my year seemed given over to different types of uncertainty – moving between houses, falling behind with jobs, negotiating new sorts of wobbly imbalances with a toddler and newborn – and I was particularly grateful for all the books that offered exuberance or inventiveness on their pages, with characters or depictions written with swagger, intensity or delight. Reading the McNally Edition’s reprint of A Green Equinox by Elizabeth Mavor was a sprawling pleasure (come for the oddly troubled surface of a reclaimed gravel-pit, stay for the tragicomedy of intergenerational queer desire), while Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché’s co-authored ‘techno-noir’ Prophet gave just the right mix of edge-of-your-seat action and chewy ethical dilemmas: a blast. Both M. John Harrison’s Wish I Was Here and Thunderstone by Nancy Campbell were stand-out playful reframings of the memoir form for me, while the intimacies and intimations of My Child, the Algorithm by poet Hannah Silva staged an enlivening, provocative encounter between notions of parenthood and storytelling, via AI and glitching. Difficult to categorise in terms of form, Tomoé Hill’s narrator in Songs for Olympia laces theory, art history and erotic vexation together in the best of ways, and I found it made for a great pairing with Isabella Streffen’s pursuit-portrayal of myth and myth-making in Fabulae: How it Begins. Getting me out of the house, I also really enjoyed Richard Smyth’s The Jay, The Beech and the Limpetshell: Finding Wild Things With My Kids which managed to be both funny, urgent, authoritative and tender: I know I will return to it often.
I’ve been letting friends direct my reading this year with great results. Particular favourites have been Marie Redonnet’s Hotel Splendid, which is about a woman trying to keep her family hotel from rotting into the surrounding swamp, and Nathalie Sarraute’s The Golden Fruits, which was about the extreme pretentiousness of literary criticism. Both books seemed to be about spectacular failures, or at least I thought so, and I enjoyed witnessing that. I also read Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse after having been told that I’d like it for years. I did. And then I read René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, mostly for its title, which it absolutely lived up to. It left me thinking a lot about scapegoats, good ones and bad ones, and why we need them. Lastly, this was the year I decided to read more in Czech, and I’m glad I decided to because I discovered some amazing things. Veronika Korjagina’s wildly inventive Nepřišel čas (The Time Hasn’t Come) made a huge impression on me, as did Marek Torčík’s new novel Rozložíš paměť (Memory Burn), which only just came out this year, and is really beautiful, calm, and thoughtful. I hope they get translated someday.
Image © Specious Reasons