Contributors old and new to The Lonely Crowd choose the books that they have most enjoyed reading in 2020. Given the nature of the year, not all of these titles were published in 2020.
Here are some of the books I read, and reread, this year, which made a difference to me.
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song is an anthology of immense richness, assembled with great care, and with an excellent introduction, by Kevin Young. It’s a gift of life-long reading and pleasure for which I’m grateful.
Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is, in my experience as a reader, one of the most powerful books in contemporary poetry. The language is drawn from the case report that followed the 1781 murder by drowning of 150 enslaved Africans by the captain of the slave ship Zong. It’s an immersion, an indictment and a call to life.
Two of my favourite books of poetry published this year came from a press that has only recently started publishing poetry: Granta Books. In Rendang, Will Harris virtuosically explores memory and identity and in Life Without Air, Daisy LaFarge creates a wonderfully rich, allusive, and strange, music. The bones of history and experience are on view in Tyree Ware’s Cardinal, and he makes them shine. Ware’s is a poetic that’s fresh, supple, and absolutely humming with feeling and beauty.
The reissue of Blue in Chicago by Bette Howland was very welcome. As I wrote elsewhere, these are brilliantly percipient and darkly witty stories that go memorably and feelingly deep into life. Laura van den Berg’s new story collection, I Hold A Wolf By the Ears, is unmissable: sharp, vertiginous and truthfully, rawly funny. The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan are the modern fables we need. Modern Times by Cathy Sweeney is a collection of upended, sometimes sour, always incisive stories that leave a stain of uncertainty on the reader. Dark Satellites by Clemens Meyer, translated by Kate Derbyshire, are stories from a Europe, specifically Germany, where the margin is the centre: direct, compelling and memorable. Randall Kenan died this year. I returned to his Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and the stories remain as powerful, original and unsettling as they did nearly thirty years ago. A book of stories I read for the first time, that absolutely should not be out-of-print, was White Rat by Gayl Jones: protean stories of shattering power. Also unjustly unavailable, is Ida Fink’s A Scrap In Time. They are stories of the highest quality that are an essential part of the truth that we regularly need to be telling ourselves about the Holocaust. And again, apologies for being pushy, but the poetry and stories of Henry Dumas should be widely regarded as among the best of 20th century literature.
I reread Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, which is brilliant on too many levels to describe here. ‘The Jolly Corner’ continues to be one of the queerest and most rewarding stories by Henry James to reread. Rereading Elizabeth Bowen is one of the best ways to learn more about how the short story works, and I learned even more by reading her ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’ aloud to a friend. As the season turned colder and darker, I took great pleasure in reading the excellent ghost stories of E.F. Benson and L.P. Hartley.
Together, The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories and The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories edited by E.A. Markham provide a fine introduction to one of the great, and still unfolding, traditions of short story writing.
My novel reading was a little scattered this year, but I hugely enjoyed Eley Williams’s joyous The Liar’s Dictionary. As You Were by Elaine Feeney is a part of the great collective project of bringing into the light the suppressed stories of Irish women’s lives. It’s a compellingly driven narrative, glittering, sometimes darkly, with humour: a gift of voices. Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman is fabulously witty and rewarding. I read the first two volumes of Septology by Jon Fosse, a profound novel about life at the moment of death, at once a compression and expansion of experience: a cathedral in a matchbox. The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is an outstanding, unsettlingly subcutaneous novel of deracination: a haunter. I reread The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy, which grows ever more dazzling and pleasurable. Green Water, Green Sky is the only novel by Mavis Gallant, and it’s a wonderful one, with all the virtues of her essential short stories: attentional fineness, wit, acuity and exquisite writing.
The essays in The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Dick Wing, were a source of wisdom, reflection and grace. Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays have long been a favourite and I very much enjoyed the insights and asperities of Seduction and Betrayal. Wayne Koestenbaum is one of those writers whose new work I will rush to read. His new collection, Figure It Out, is replete with essays, lucent, disquieting and delightful. I have been attempting, most days this year, to read one essay by Montaigne, as rendered by the great Renaissance translator, John Florio. I found it an almost infallible way of opening up some mental space. Adrian Stokes was an aesthetic critic in the tradition of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and I have enjoyed reading and rereading his work over the years. A new, and sensibly generous, selection of his work was published this year as The Outwardness of Art. The Middle Passage: A Triptych of Commodities by Paul Metcalf, like everything he wrote, is a singular, mind-tingling text, which sharpened my view of nature, personhood and the brutality of commodity. I reread Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas de Quincey, which contains some of the strangest, most affecting writing on grief in the English language.
A new translation appeared of The New Science by Giambattista Vico, translated by Jason Taylor and Robert Miner, with a fine introduction by Giuseppe Mazzotta, and I have been working my way slowly through it, as time and energy permit. It is, among many things, a unique way of rethinking linearity in human time, which seems very appropriate to our own regressive one.
Bernadette Mayer’s ’emotional science project’ of text and image, Memory, made in July 1971, was presented as a most satisfying volume this year by Siglio Press. It’s visually and textually beautiful, and an invaluable way of thinking about time and perception.
Rosa Luxemburg by Dana Mills is the excellent short biography on this figure of hope that I’d been wanting to read.
Poetics of Relation by Édouard Glissant, translated by Betsy Wing, is a great work on the relations of power to language and language to power.
Two haunted, and haunting, memoirs that I enjoyed immensely, and which go far into place, time and feeling, were A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Ghost Town by Jeff Young. In very different ways, these writers escape genre’s confines to gather echoes and memories into plangent, sometimes painful life.
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh, Allen Lane, is as thrilling as it is scholarly. Wordsworth addressed a sonnet to this pioneering fighter against slavery in 1803, but till recently he has been largely written out of mainstream history. A timely reappraisal, worthy of its great subject.
Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Future, makes complex information not just clear but fascinating to the non-specialist, prompting us to rethink fundamental questions about life. A revelation.
Martyn Caira’s The Golden Dodo, Kindle only, is a darkly farcical crime novel and a satire on the literary world, with characters who are sympathetic but exasperating. Through laughter and suspense something larger emerges – an existential study of competitiveness, and the way it can ruin lives. Unsettling but rewarding.
Vivien Freeman’s The Escape of Rose Alleyn, set in 1900, describes the adventures of a sixteen-year-old who narrowly avoids drudgery as a servant in a great house and starts a new life working in a small-town bookshop, where she discovers poetry and progressive thought. It is a Bildungsroman, a love story, and a portrait of provincial life at the end of the Victorian era. Affirmative and heart-warming, it is an ideal restorative in troubled times.
Alan Roderick is a pillar of the south Wales poetry scene, novelist, and author of works on local history. He has brought out three books simultaneously, all from Cath Drwg Publishing: Selected Poems: 1978 – 2015; Twelve Days in Intensive Care, 2010: A Poetic Record; and After You’d Gone: Poems 2016-2020. The Selected is predominantly joyful, full of playful and hilarious wordplay, as well as manifesting a deep knowledge of and pride in Wales. A minority of the poems, and some of the best, are written in German and addressed to his late Slovenian wife. The other two books record her illness and passing, and the poet’s grief. Twelve Days has a simplicity and intensity which is admirable. After You’d Gone is a classic articulation of devotion and sorrow, which will find an echo in the mind and heart of any reader who has known bereavement.
I’ve found crime fiction strangely reassuring during this mad year. Top of the list is Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series – the ninth instalment, The Cutting Place, came out in the spring and is a pleasingly knotty tale peopled with compelling characters. Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man, featuring a ‘true crime’ book-within-a-book, was a sheer joy to read. And Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club is that rare beast – a properly brilliant and distinctive novel from someone off the telly.
Memoir-wise, I particularly loved Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House and how it plays with genre in its depiction of an abusive relationship, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost In The Throat, a self-reflexive account of investigating a centuries-old poem. It’s always so pleasing to see works that explore form while also being compulsively readable.
I consumed more self-help literature than usual this year – much of which was forgettable. But I did get into Buddhist nun Pema Chodron – Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart. And even though it’s (excellent) fiction I would put Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library into this category – his brand of realistic, earned, fought-for optimism is good for the soul.
The madness of the internet felt especially pressing this year, so Meghan Daum’s The Problem With Everything was a tonic – I didn’t agree with everything in there and it was a lovely and necessary reminder that this is a normal intellectual response and not a prompt to condemn something/someone. I also reread George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for its ongoing, terrifying relevance.
At some point I binged on Anne Tyler, including her latest, Redhead on the Side of the Road, as well as Breathing Lessons and Clock Dance; there was also an Elizabeth Strout kick where I (finally) read Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again within 36 hours (both literary masterclass and treat).
Finally, Irish-lit wise it felt like everyone had a book out and they were all brilliant, but my favourites were Actress (Anne Enright), Strange Flowers (Donal Ryan), and Savage Her Reply (Deirdre Sullivan).
I gained a great deal this year from a book published in 2018, Performing Wales: People, Memory and Culture by Prof Lisa Lewis. It is a fascinating exploration of ways in which the culture of Wales is performed in museums, in heritage practice, in festivals and theatre and how this cultural performance influences relationships between people, memory and place. How culture ‘grows’ and is shaped, I’d put it. I have written about how the book fed into my own work during this year here.
A debut collection of poetry this year by Uzmah Ali, Breathe Before Thought introduced me to a poetic experience which links Wales and Pakistan. This young poet is ‘a native of Cardiff, a daughter of the Punjab and a resident of London.’ A voice to listen out for.
And 2020 brought a gently perceptive debut collection from Gaynor Kane: Venus In Pink Marble.
In October 2019 the collection of poems Still Life by the wonderful Ciaran Carson was published, ten days after his death. I particularly enjoyed his use of a long line, as in, ‘Claude Monet: The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1880’:
Today I thought I’d just take a lie-down, and drift. So here I am listening
To the tick of my mechanical aortic valve—overhearing, rather, the way it flits
In and out of consciousness. It’s a wonder what goes on below the threshold.
Contemplating an eclectic bundle of contender NOVELS including The Mission House (Carys Davies), a quiet tide (Marianne Lee), and the sometimes controversial but invigoratingly challenging and so very acute, Lionel Shriver, with The Motion of the Body Through Space, as my chief recommendation, I have plumped for The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey. Wild and contemporary, a mermaid story set in the 1970s Caribbean. Curses, myths and sea battles, yes. But. Big but. Not a strident feminist re-working, rather a rich, complex incarnation nuanced on many levels: socio-politically, post-colonial intricacies and conflicts across the community spectrum are addressed deftly and sensitively; as to gender and sexuality; environmentally and ecologically. Sensual, earthy, it also bears Roffey’s stamp of an ‘evocative creole eroticism’. In an interview with The New Statesman, Roffey articulates as to the multiple perspectives and the weave of myriad colourful influences in the story and her writing – favouring, she says, a fragmented, montage approach that, I found, nevertheless results in a fluid absorbing read.
I’ve learnt from writers like Ondaatje and Le Guin … great experimenters and world-builders. A non-linear plot, a pastiche of voices …, feels closer to how I experience my life… [which] … is made up of numerous influential voices and ideas: Buddhist dharma; the Caribbean lexicon; the tarot; text-speak; the secular world of London; the East End … its mosques and multiple immigrant histories, a part of London with its own vernacular… diverse … yet works as a whole. So, everyday life shows me a non-linear form … and that it’s utterly viable to compile a novel to reflect this.
The tale is the ultimate hybrid that is magical realism. I need to be reminded dragons are imaginary. Genuinely hooked, I believe in this mermaid.
My BIG TOME selection. I hail Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light. (If you need temptation to embark, the Radio 4 production is the glorious catalyst).
As a reader, writer and devotee of the SHORT STORY, I must mention at least one. For a change in tone, I choose ‘The Literary Prize’ by Chris Lee because it made me grin, as well as flinch, in lockdown. An evil blend of acid, pastiche and wry wit.
OK, two! ‘The Canvas of Her’ by Urška Vidoni. An exquisite tale told by tattoo. (Both on-line at Storgy).
If I may indulge in a 2019 publication: ‘Say Say Say’ by Lila Savage. Briefly, and appropriately in a pandemic, about caregiving, but with a young, fresh perspective. To quote Tessa Hadley: ‘perhaps the timbre of a new generation’. Original with a quite stunning and delicate emotional awareness and analysis.
In my TBR Christmas stack: Fathoms by Rebecca Griggs because of her essay Whale Fall. ‘The whale as landfill. It was a metaphor, and then it wasn’t.’
Finally, and in terms of sequence, rather perversely, a FIRST LINE noted by many but so strong, to begin with such sting: ‘I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.’ burnt sugar by Avni Doshi.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, I bought Daily Rituals: Women at Work, by Mason Currey. I find other people’s routines fascinating – when they work, what they wear, what they eat. When, mid-March, all sense of my normal routine went, I returned to the book, looking for structure in the lives of other women. During lockdown, as I was teaching from home, I had the luxury of more time to read. And accidentally, I read mostly women. With bookshops closed, I selected old favourites from my shelves and arranged them on the coffee table, building myself a sort of bookshop which included Plath’s The Bell Jar and Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight, but also comforting children’s books such as Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge.
Once I had adapted to my new routine, I read many short story collections that offered anything but comfort – Fen, by Daisy Johnson, Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell, Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, and Modern Times by the Irish author, Cathy Sweeney. Published this year, her short stories are often strange and unsettling, yet funny, and clever. The Chair and The Woman Whose Child Was a Very Old Man stayed with me long after reading.
I also enjoyed Natalie Ann Holborow’s raw and honest second poetry collection Small, as well as her collaboration with Mari Ellis Dunning: The Wrong Side of The Looking Glass. This is a beautiful pamphlet (I have the papercut cover edition) full of poems inspired by legends, myths, and fairy tales.
After lockdown, like many, I read Zadie Smith’s Intimations. It was the first book I had bought in real life since March, and beginning the reflective essays outside Brodie’s Coffee in Gorsedd Gardens felt, in many ways, like the beginning of a new year, and therefore, of new routines.
This year seems to have been rich in novels and I am not sure whether it is by chance or design, but I read more fiction in translation than ever. Among the novels which stand out is the fiercely vivid Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor. I read Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michele Hutchison just before it won the International Book prize and can confirm its spare, striking prose delivering a challenging, unflinching story. I want to flag up Alan MacMonagle’s Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame as one of the most engaging reads which I had been looking forward to. Warm and insightful, as we follow the main character on her particular path for fulfillment – a real lift in these times. I loved Evie Wyld’s earlier novels so was eager to read The Bass Rock offering different settings from her earlier work but with familiar tones. She writes acutely about the experience of three different women across time. Darkly probing and exciting.
I also caught up with the lyrical My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan from last year and Sea Monsters, by Choe Aridjis – a wonderful exciting narrative of constant surprises.
The death of the poet Derek Mahon returned me to his work, especially The Hudson Letter but also his translated poems. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat from the intrepid Tramp Press this year was a really exciting discovery and helped in my frail attempts to connect with a lost family language. In non-fiction, I have always enjoyed Rebecca Solnit and was not disappointed in her Recollections of My Nonexistence. I love how she traverses several disciplines, marrying her own interests to connect with larger universal issues. Ireland, Literature and the Coast by Nicholas Allen came out this year from OUP. It encompasses some of my main interests and places I know, so I loved diving in and will return to it time and again.
I’ve inhaled almost 50 books since January. A mix of old reliables, old but new to me, books published in 2019-20, and four books-to-be. Exciting to read manuscripts before they’re suited and booted for the bookshops but I probably can’t mention them here. Here are my standouts from 2020.
Love of Fat Men, Helen Dunmore. Short stories are my first love. I first read these when isolated on a quinta/house mind in Portugal and I re-read them every year. Understated enjoyable tales I wonder about long after the read. Some are quite odd but that’s good.
Old but new to me
Tales of Ordinary Madness, Charles Bukowski. Shocking scenarios in this collection but I found myself quickly desensitised and able to read without flinching. It’s one to intersperse with something elegant like In The Land of Dreamy Dreams, Ellen Gilchrist. Stories of New Orleans, this had admirably flawed characters with stunning failures, and I can’t believe I had never heard of Gilchrist until a friend loaned me the book.
Paris Syndrome, Lucy Sweeney-Byrne. This was my first read of 2020. The notion of travel being an empty and disappointing activity resonated, and the humour gave me many LOLs.
Michel-Michelle, Margo Gorman. I was lucky to be on host duty, pouring wine at Margo’s book launch, and I feel a bit like the book’s aunt who helped out at the christening. This story of Axel, son of transgender Michel-Michelle, was a welcome escape into the fictive dream, and the beautiful reflective prose was a balm during lockdown.
Big Girl Small Town, Michelle Gallen. Loved this story set in a small town on the northern side of the Irish border. Total northern gallows humour, authentic dialogue, attitudes and cultural norms, this is told through the unique lens of Big Girl Majella.
The Art of the Glimpse, selected by Sinéad Gleeson. Short stories by Irish authors in a big fat book, what could be better? One for the sofa as it’s too heavy to read in bed.
Photo by John Lavin.