My reading habits change with time, and across the year. There are times, for example during the Tour de France, or while I was doing my one man show, that I am so distracted can barely turn a page. I think we all know that feeling. Equally, I don't tend to read for pleasure while I am writing - I get annoyed that other people are so good.
I have also become aware that I read less and less non-fiction. I am selective about what fiction I read, however. I am extremely intolerant of lazy writing, careless word selection, formulaic ideas. I can promise you, non of these choices are that!
So here are ten of the best things I read last year. There is, you'll note, a preponderance of work by Fitzcarraldo Editions. I think their current list is extraordinary. When you discover an imprint you can trust, it's a wonderful thing.
Anyway, I'm no literary critic - as you can see! But I hope that you might go with one or other of these choices and enjoy them as much as I have.
The Doll’s Alphabet - Camilla Grudova
This is one of the most incomprehensibly brilliant books I have ever read. A series of short stories set in very near-seeming dystopias, populated by desperate people, hungry and malfunctioning, stunted and strange. Themes keep returning to her imagined worlds, none more readily than the sewing machine, part insect, part instrument of torture, part human. The machine stitches these stories together. Grudova is interested in gender, no doubt. And performance. And death, and deep horror. I don’t know, you’ll have to read them. I can’t begin to do them justice.
There Are More Things – Yara Rodrigues Fowler
It wasn’t just that I recognised a reference to a certain Persian café in Peckham which delighted me. There was so much that kept me turning the pages in this story that plays out in two interwoven spaces: contemporary London’s shared flats, pubs, political meetings and schools, interlaced with a story set in the bitter heart of Brazil’s dictatorship. It’s political, vivid, lively, firey stuff. I learned a lot and I think about it often.
The Years - Annie Ernaux
I came to this Nobel Prize winning short account/memoir/novel (?) only after reading three of Ernaux’s other works. She's been a legend in France for generations, but is only just gaining fame in the anglophone world. Some of her approach I find grating in its introspectiveness (the diaries of her affairs, for example), while others are sublime in their honesty – the accounts of both her father’s life and her mother’s death are beautiful in their unflinching gaze. The Years is different in scope and style from much of her other work. It lyrically moves through the passage of French (read Western) life through the latter half of the 20th century with a sociologist’s eye and a diarist’s wit and heart.
Cold Enough for Snow - Jessica Au
A melancholic short story, told at walking pace, about a mother and daughter, and their loving, distant relationship. On a trip to Japan, organised by the tale’s narrator, her ageing mother is mostly silent. Over the days we spend in their company, a sense of their emigrant timeline, their exile from their homeland and from each other and themselves emerges. It's a restrained story, and all the more powerful for it.
Catch The Rabbit - Lana Bastašič
I’ve been fascinated by Bosnia for a few years, and this fiction has done nothing but fascinate me further. Written and translated into English by the author, it tells of the story of a emigrant (refugee?) from Bosnia, returning to their homeland to meet and old, much loved, troublesome friend. Together they go on a chaotic road trip and their past emerges in mysterious encounters. It’s a curious book, with a curious ending. But it paints a rich picture of this unique country, its terrible recent past and its troubled present.
Things We Lost In The Fire and The Dangers Of Smoking In Bed - Mariana Enriquez
Two volumes of (at times horrifying) short stories set in Argentina, mostly in Buenos Aires. Recurring themes of disappearing children, abuse, self-harm and brutality thread their way through these dark tales, in which anything is possible. But amid all of these hallucinogenic imaginings, the personality of Argentina itself emerges, as dysfunctional and unpredictable as the grotesque characters Enriquez revels in animating on the page. I still want to visit, mind.
Rombo - Esther Kinsky
Esther Kinsky writes from a distance. Like a landscape painter, she sets up her easel at a street corner and very slowly fills the canvas with detail. Rombo is perhaps one of her more directly narrated endeavours, telling the story of the devastating earthquake of 1974 in Friuli in North Eastern Italy, which destroyed villages and displaced their populations. She sites the fragile human communities clinging to the mountainsides in their rightful context; tiny in the face of immense age and force. But that is not to say that the individual lives she conjures up are not portrayed with delicacy and humanity.
Emergency - Daisy Hildyard
Hildyard’s story of a rural Yorkshire childhood in the 1990s is narrated by an older self during the 2020 lockdowns. The recollections of a childhood filled with friendship, disappointment, freedom and danger are interlinked with Hildyard’s captivating animation of the natural world surrounding the village in which the events take place; a landscape always alive and shifting, threatened itself and threatening at times in return.
The Books of Jacob - Olga Tokarczuk
Warning: this book is nearly 900 pages long. And the pages count backwards. But it is one of the greatest things I have ever read. It tells the tale, based in truth, of the self-proclaimed Messiah Jacob Frank who, upon being tried by the Ottoman sultan, chose to convert to Islam rather than face death. That was the birth of a cult which spans decades, collected followers and gathered momentum as it challenged and drew in all three Abrahamic faiths. At the centre of it all was the questionable charisma of Frank himself. This book is an almost endless feast. It is a masterpiece.