Articles and Reviews

My 2017 in Books

Having managed to actually stick to my resolution this year and get through 50 full length books (a lot of it poetry, admittedly), I thought I’d take the opportunity to produce some cheap #content for this blog and make a top 10 list. As it turns out, trying to say something interesting about books is actually quite difficult (particularly so when you read them a whole 11 months ago), and reviewers deserve lots of gratitude for doing something they surely do not get paid enough to do, but I digress.

A lot of these books did not actually come out in 2017, so this is expressly my 2017 in books. Nevertheless, much of what I read this year felt timely, especially since I chose a lot of it in response to news stories of the day. I read about ISIS in the weekend of the London attacks, Juliet Jacques’s memoir just as the press seemed to ramp up a smear campaign against the fabled ‘trans lobby’, In Defence of Housing in the wake of Grenfell.

In some things I haven’t done as well as I might. I could have read more narratives from outside my own culture, and I wanted at least half of the authors I read to be women, which I fell just short of. This I will make sure to do better on in 2018. I feel I should also try to read more classics and game-changing texts, and push myself beyond the authors and titles that naturally reach me on social media.

That being said, I think I have read a lot of good stuff this year. In a first full year entirely out of education it’s been fun being able to follow my nose, follow up on recommendations, and branch out into some new subjects. I hope you all had a good year yourselves.

The Full 50

Fiction (12)

Utopia by Thomas More
No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Good Bones by Margaret Atwood
The Census-Taker by China Miéville
The Last Days in New Paris by China Miéville
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Tales of the Early World by Ted Hughes
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Drama (1)

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner

Non-Fiction (10)

The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox
The Rise of Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: A Reader’s Guide by Geoff Mann
October by China Miéville
From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra
The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr
The Production of Money by Ann Pettifor
In Defence of Housing by David Madden
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Four Futures by Peter Frase

Essay, Interview & Memoir (7)

The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue by Matthew Beaumont
Against Everything by Mark Greif
Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Poetry (20)

The Harbour Beyond the Movie by Luke Kennard
Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry
Selected Poems by Mary Ruefle
The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds
Hip Logic by Terrance Hayes
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Happiness by Jack Underwood
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Tandem by Dalton Day
81 Austerities by Sam Riviere
POETRY Magazine January 2016 – the ecopoetry edition
Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day
Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke
The Mystic and the Pig Thief by Fran Lock
Hard Love Province by Marilyn Chin
House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson
Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen
Plainwater by Anne Carson

Needless to say, my choice for a top 10 is again only a list of the books I personally enjoyed most, for whatever reason that might be, and not a representation of what I think are the best of the 50, let alone a slight on the work excluded (except for The Vegetarian – I’m still annoyed I read that book to the end). In no particular order and without further ado:

My Top 10

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

It is hard to summarise a book as eclectic and expansive as Teju Cole’s first book of essays without trying to approach the qualities of the man himself. Cole makes a marvellous cicerone; a true cosmopolitan, he guides the reader through Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, across the US-Mexico border and back, indulging his wide interests in sections on literature, photography and travel. Cole seems able to write with a cool authority on whatever takes his interest. In reading this book I realise that I probably first came across him in 2012, when his essay ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’ went viral. The piece is a quietly seething response to Kony 2012 (remember Kony?) and the vain and wrongheaded ideas it unearthed in the liberal American imagination. As he puts it, ‘The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality.’ As great as this piece still is, its wrangling is really a departure among essays where Cole can be found wandering, in both a literal and figurative sense. He is a flâneur, writing with a peculiar appreciation of place, even in essays where the nominal subject is a work of art or writer; he retraces James Baldwin’s journey to Leukerbad in Switzerland in ‘Black Body’, tries to recreate a René Burri photograph among the high-rises in ‘Shadows in São Paulo’. In his afterword Cole observes that ‘we write in the hope that what we have written will somehow outdistance us.’ The original meaning of essay is attempt, and appears to be a perfect match for Cole’s relaxed and searching intelligence.

Four Futures by Peter Frase

You might notice that I’ve read quite a few books on the increasingly du jour topic of Universal Basic Income and Automation this year. These books frequently read like manifestos, but manifestos that envision something much more ambiguous and technocratic in the fine print (UBI does of course have proponents among Silicon Valley billionaires such as Elon Musk, as well as the left). Peter Frase’s book is different because it explores this future in a paradigm that injects politics, and specifically class struggle, back into the picture. His book is split, as you might expect, into four chapters: two on Environmental Apocalypse, two on Full Automation, one of each where the working class succeeds and the other where it does not. These are Communism, Socialism, Rentism and Exterminism. The book has a very good introduction that expounds the debate while touching on other interesting topics such as the potential of science fiction. Perhaps surprisingly, Frase’s speculative work ultimately has a more convincing take on where our society could be heading than the more pollyannaish post-capitalism bros (Paul Mason, Rutger Bregman, Nick Srnicek, etc.) for the fact that its visions appreciate that UBI and automation are not political solutions themselves so much as possibilities within a political context where so little has yet been won.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Already canonised as a key text of fourth-wave feminism, I read this book in response to #MeToo and the wider shit show surrounding the Harvey Weinstein story. This book was exactly what I needed to read, methodically separating the strands of some of the knottier myths about rape and violence against women with the hard facts where necessary, wit and brio elsewhere. Solnit makes short shrift of every incarnation of male whataboutery, and I found myself using her arguments to dispatch opponents when it came to our own Westminster scandal. It is rhetorically muscular stuff and served me, personally, to read something so clear-sighted. The only disappointment is that what is great about this book often ends up detracting from 2017’s The Mother of All Questions, in that Solnit rehashes a lot of her best anecdotes, statistics and arguments. Some of the essays in TMoAQ read like an overlong dance remix of a song you’d really loved, but I suppose this serves as further testimony to the power of the first.

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

Emily Berry’s latest book is about the death of her mother. It is a very different book to her debut; at surface a light and playful collection, the poems in Dear Boy offered an assortment of characters and scenes only obliquely linked by private struggles with mental health. Whereas the voices in Dear Boy revealed their anxieties in spite of themselves, Stranger, Baby addresses the author’s depression head on. Although the poems can be arch, still performances of a kind, in Stranger, Baby this appears as a reaction to professionalised care as well as a satirisation of her tendencies as a writer. There are lines to be drawn between the performative and ineffable dimensions of her suffering. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Berry does not feign to express any elemental nature of grief, eschewing that in favour of writing that is more personal – that interrogates, refines, missteps, resolves and shows its working. Some of the fragments of text in the later pieces in particular could have been cut straight out of a journal. As such, the book validates all of the silliest and most unspeakable thoughts dredged up by the grieving process – poems with snot up their wrists, written full caps and all. Of course, I can’t really pretend to comprehend the kind of pain Berry is writing about. At times the poetry in Stranger, Baby is so emotionally acute it feels like a four-dimensional object, like I only glimpse angles of it as it passes through my three-dimensional world. It is messy, but the collection charts a process from beginning to end that is ultimately hopeful. It’s a deeply humane and affecting book.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen

I bought this from indie press Sarabande Books on a whim. Rarely do I get round to reading, let alone enjoying, these impulse buys, which will usually gather height on my windowsill like some sort of ramshackle totem to my skittish good intentions, but in this case I made the effort and was pleasantly surprised. A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause is a crossbreed of essay and poetry on the life and work of pioneering mime artist Marcel Marceau. At a lean 120 pages, the book is a quick and satisfying read, leading the reader through Marceau’s life story in a series of vignettes written in lapidary prose. The most interesting aspect of this book, as you might expect, are the descriptions of Marceau’s performances, which are made vivid in Wen’s words. In her review, Thalia Field notes how ‘Wen holds an uncanny mirror between the mime’s non-verbal brilliance and the pleasures of the text.’ I think there is something in this. A greater feel for language and more original turns of phrase could have elevated this for me, but it turned out to be well worth a punt.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Unexpectedly gripping; I practically inhaled it between boxing day and New Year. The story centres on a menage a quatre involving students Frances and Bobbi, and wealthy, 30-something couple Nick and Melissa. Frances and Bobbi are ex-girlfriends turned best friends and something of a double-act, making waves as a duo in Dublin’s spoken word scene. The older and more established writer Melissa publishes a profile on them both, and in turn they are introduced to her enigmatic husband Nick. Bobbi is drawn to Melissa; Frances quickly strikes up an affair with Nick. What stands out is how well the author understands her characters; the book is packed with razor-sharp social observation as it charts the burgeoning relationships between them. The balance between first-person interiority and plot is pitch-perfect, and the three-dimensional detail in each of the character arcs impressive (I thought the group dynamics when all four friends go away on holiday together were particularly well-observed). I am not the biggest novel reader, but I found it unusual to feel so involved with a whole cast of characters at once, rather than the concerns of a sole protagonist. To have this in a novel in which each of the relationships are so tightly wound with one another really heightens the drama. The romance is realistic and touching, and it is genuinely exciting, as it is in a new relationship, to witness the characters get to know each another over the course of the book. This is helped in no small part by Rooney’s talent for dialogue. I now eagerly await the commission of a BBC adaptation with lots of lens flare and Saoirse Ronan as the lead (budget permitting).

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra offers an alternative history of the East, focusing on three lesser known but highly influential thinkers – Rabindranath Tagore, Jamal-al-din-al Afghani and Liang Qichao – as they try to come to terms with the imposition of Western modernity in their thousand years old cultures. I have huge respect for Mishra: well-known for his piece taking Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilisation: The West and the Rest’ to pieces in the LRB in 2011, From the Ruins of Empire can be read as a fully-footnoted fightback against the kind of self-satisfied supremacism peddled by the Fergusons, Starkeys and Scrutons of the world. Mishra reveals their understanding of history as not merely small-minded, but destined to become an artefact of catastrophic hubris to some future generation, if not our own. Beginning the book with a defeat for the West at Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, Mishra compiles a panorama of responses from future leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Mustafa Kemal, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong, who as young men receive news of this first defeat for the West as a dawning of previously unthinkable possibilities. By standing both the anointed heroes and villains of the West’s narrative shoulder to shoulder in witness of this instigating event, Mishra’s prologue faithfully foreshadows the rest of his book’s work: a history that is morally complex, its judgements not preordained. Throughout the book, Mishra remains sensitive to the specificities of each country’s struggle while also managing to finally draw out the wider themes and consequences in his brilliant conclusion ‘Asia Remade’. It’s a really great piece of work, extensively researched and entertainingly told, and part of an education process for me that is long overdue and ongoing. This is the book I outright learnt the most from this year.

No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July

Titled like a @sosadtoday tweet, No one belongs here more than you might at first glance, if you are anything like me, raise your suspicions. In a way these stories are everything you might expect: vignettes for the emotionally immature and perennially lovelorn. But beneath their surface quirkiness, I think there is insight here – about loneliness and fantasy, love vs. dependency. July’s stories seem to find a sweet spot between feeling light without being lightweight. She also has a happy knack for finding a metaphor that will put you on your backside. I dare say her voice will irk some, but I enjoyed this book a lot.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

I read my first Ocean Vuong poem in the May 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine. Sometimes a poem just sort of stops you in your tracks. I read it once, then read it a few more times, scrutinising the lines on the page as if I were lost and trying to place myself on a map. Titled ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’, it begins: ‘Young enough to believe nothing / will change them, they step, hand-in-hand, / into the bomb crater.’ It’s a pretty audacious poem. Imagining his parents as young people, images of sex, violence and life juxtapose and crescendo euphorically, and finally conclude with what seems to be Vuong’s own conception. Set to the backdrop of post-war Vietnam, the poem confers a narrative to his and his family’s existence that is at once irony and miracle: life dropped from the lips of war’s bloody maw. However this strikes you, the poem is indubitably stunning. A glance at Night Sky’s contents pages might prompt you to raise an eyebrow: ‘Ode to Masturbation’, one poem called ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’. But if this is you, listen to him actually read it. Vuong’s is a bitter and vulnerable voice, exploring what it is to be caught between places, what to discard and what to hold onto from his lost life in Saigon. Reading Vuong’s work for the first time reminded me how bloody exciting poetry can be. It’s the kind of writing where the approximation of language to feeling and thought is so close as to make its pleasures immediate. Reading him again in 2017, after winning the Forward Prize and innumerable other awards, that sensation has not dimmed.

Plainwater by Anne Carson

As a classicist, Carson has described her interest in ancient Greek poetry as like going back to ‘the dawn of language.’ In Plainwater Carson recreates that feeling with language made new, unburdened, selcouth. Beginning with translations of verse by Greek poet Mimnermos, Plainwater sojourns on subjects as diverse as phenomenology, renaissance art, Christian pilgrims, and ends in the realm of personal essay. Carson is a writer of capacious learning, with a talent for finding just the anecdote to make the ideas she explores get up on their feet and walk. My favourite essay in the book is ‘Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men’. Carson documents a fling with an Ancient Chinese scholar (which she reveals is her first relationship with a man) in which she imagines herself as the concubine to his Emperor. It is a deeply meditative piece which weaves the account of a road trip with him with ruminations on anthropology, Chinese proverbs, stunning landscape writing, and memories of her father. The writing is sublime; layered, riddling, often dreamlike in its intensity. By strokes Carson is able to shift from teasing meaning out from arcane aperçus to a prose style that is almost elemental. ‘Water Margins: An Essay on Swimming by My Brother’, the piece that ends the book, is special in that it operates almost exclusively in the latter mode. The essay animated in me a kind of joy I had forgotten I knew how to feel. This was the most moving reading experience I had this year. It’s an astonishing book.