Staff Picks: Books of the Year 2017—Chosen by Verso

Covers-

FICTION

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin (Vintage, 1998)

Baldwin spins an elegant and deeply felt yarn with his discerning prose and finely-tuned portrayal of relationships in this novel of a life lived. Moving between the present life of Leo Proudhammer, a successful and beloved stage actor who is laid up in hospital following a heart attack, and his various former lives, we discover Leo as a young boy learning about the world in Harlem; as a young man trying to find his way as an actor; his love affairs with Barbara, a white woman and Christopher, a younger black man, and how these relationships are perceived by those around him.

The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim. Translation by Jonathan Wright. (Penguin, 2014)

Hallucinatory, disturbingly vivid, and breathtakingly beautiful, The Corpse Exhibition is a collection of short stories that blends brutal realism with shocking fantasy. Hassan Blasim has delivered a unique form of storytelling conjured in the cauldron of war-torn Iraq and brought to life by the highest rank of translation from Jonathan Wright. 

The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House Press/Emily Books, 2017)

A novel masquerading as a memoir, artist and NYU scholar Barbara Browning’s The Gift follows the entanglements of her character Barbara’s efforts to explore inappropriate intimacies as a form of artistic exchange. Barbara spams celebrities with her amateur ukelele covers, teaches classes at Zuccoti Park’s Occupy encampment on intimacy, and begins an increasingly personal exchange of performance art with a musician in Germany. We’re gently implicated as readers with the uneasy and bewitching intimacy with which Barbara as author brings us into Barbara the character’s life, and by her gift to her readers of the dances the character Barbara creates for her co-collaborator, which can be watched on an accompanying website. As Browning deftly argues, all gifts involve exchange; creative production is a messy and erotic exploration; and both draw us further into others than we perhaps want to go.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Penguin, 1847; 1994)

"A new servitude! There is something in that," I soliloquised (mentally, be it understood; I did not talk aloud), "I know there is, because it does not sound too sweet; it is not like such words as Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds truly; but no more than sounds for me; and so hollow and fleeting that it is mere waste of time to listen to them. But Servitude! That must be matter of fact. Any one may serve: I have served here eight years; now all I want is to serve elsewhere. Can I not get so much of my own will? Is not the thing feasible? Yes — yes — the end is not so difficult; if I had only a brain active enough to ferret out the means of attaining it."

The Debutante and Other Stories by Leonora Carrington (Silver, 2017)

The new feminist publisher Silver Press was launched this year and has already published two brilliantly curated works: The Debutante and Other Stories by Leonora Carrington, and Audre Lorde's Your Silence Will Not Protect You. More titles are planned. It is exciting to see new projects like this emerge, and thrive, in difficult times.

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns (Virago, 2000)

A creepy, gothic, almost hallucinatory book, this is the story of Alice Rowlands, a young girl in Edwardian London who retreats from her violent and abusive father into her own world only to discover that she has occult powers. At the point where suburban gothic meets hyper realist horror, The Vet's Daughter is an almost forgotten classic of twentieth century literature.

Segu by Maryse Conde (Penguin, 2017)

Beautifully written and expansive historical fiction set in West Africa from one of the great Francophone West Indian writers. Segufollows a prominent family in the kingdom of Segu as it is torn apart by the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, European imperialism and the spread of Islam.

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

Dolls, sewing machines, and malfunctioning bodies are recurring themes in this wild collection of surreal, semi-dystopian, unsettling short stories. In ‘Unstitching’, a feminist revolution takes place. In ‘Waxy’, a factory worker fights to keep hold of her Man in a society where it is frowned upon to be Manless. Exquisitely executed, the stories switch between nightmarish, dark and captivating. For fans of Leonara Carrington, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter.

The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby (Arabia Books, 2010)

This is a contemporary classic of Palestinian literature that combines comedy and fantasy to showcase the complexities of Palestine’s ongoing tragedy. Saeed is the comic hero, the luckless fool, whose tale tells of aggression and resistance, terror and heroism, reason and loyalty that typify the hardships and struggles of Arabs in Israel. An informer for the Zionist state, his stupidity, candor, and cowardice make him more of a victim than a villain; but in a series of tragicomic episodes, he is gradually transformed from a disaster-haunted, gullible collaborator into a Palestinian-no hero still, but a simple man intent on survival and, perhaps, happiness.

Darker With the Lights On by David Hayden (Little Island, 2017)

This collection of short stories is breathtaking – beautifully written and a truly unique voice. Each story a peculiar trip into a new world with its own nightmarish and unpredictable logic, pushing literature into strange new spaces.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Penguin, 2017)

Levy's 25 year old Sofia Papastergiadis is sunburnt, anxious, passionate, and full of rage. She is accompanying her ailing mother Rose to a strange clinic in Almeria, southern Spain, where a potentially quack (or maybe wise) doctor Gómez hopes to cure Rose of her wheelchair-bound paralysis. Sofia is stung repeated by jellyfish, medusa in Spanish, which are treated by Juan, a young man who tends to jellyfish stings in the beach’s injury hut. She takes Juan as her lover, and also Ingrid, a tall German seamstress with a body "hard like an autobahn”. The bind that keeps her by her mother’s side is deeply troublesome, although the strong dependency of Rose on Sofia is complex and perhaps more mutual than would initially appear. Hot Milk is a mesmerising account of the elaborate internal life of Sofia: you will feel the sting.

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail, 2017)

Carmen Maria Machado's debut collection of short stories celebrates the possibilities of the form. Violence and trauma, and sensuality and queerness, are simultaneously present in Machado’s dextrous portraits of the woman’s body as a site of struggle and becoming.

Evening Primrose by Kopana Matlwa (Sceptre, 2017)

Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is a South African author whose bestselling first novel, Coconut , written when she was 21 years old, went on to in the European Union Literary Award and was joint winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Evening Primrose, her third novel, is an incredibly powerful and intimate book that explores bodies, periods, gender and xenophobia in post-apartheid Africa. It’s a beautiful novel that is hugely moving and expertly executed.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta, 2017)

This excruciatingly real and elegant dissection of the psychology of relationships has been rightly acclaimed for Riley’s vision of how women relate to violent men, handled with startling grace & insight.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (Faber, 2017)

For anyone who has read Conversations With Friends it will come as no surprise that Sally Rooney has just won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. A sharply intelligent, funny novel about friendship, queer lust, jealousy, sex and messy relationships, told with intense precision and emotional accuracy. It is highly enjoyable and I loved it.

Love Story by Erich Segal (Harper & Row, 1970)

I read this in a fevered few hours when flued up and delirious. Haven’t reacted to another book in the same way this year :(

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar, 2017)

A big, ambitious novel that relocates the story of King Lear to contemporary India. As a gripping read that sometimes feels like a saga, it re-examines the political issues of the play – power, inequality, family – in acute and sumptuous prose, adding in new dimensions of class, globalisation and gender. This novel should be compared to the best work of Vikram Chandra or Rohinton Mishri.

Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx, 2017)

Atrib. captures the grief and faith at the heart of the ineluctable modality of the sayable. Williams’ playful prose holds the wry and tender, the clever and simple – in her writing of and through the limits of language.

The Hoke Moseley Detective Series by Charles Willeford (Penguin, 2012)

The greatest series of hardboiled detective novels ever? The first, Miami Blues, starts off in typical hardboiled style as it follows Moseley's attempt to catch a violent murderer, yet as the series develops, and Moseley's chaotic life crumbles around him, the books circle more around Willeford's strange obsessions - including the bizarre recurrence of anal sex - than any actual crime. As Will Frears wrote in the LRB, Willeford's work "is neither glamorous nor pulpy; he didn’t write airport fiction and he didn’t write bestsellers with aspirations to literature. He simply wrote crime fiction as though reporting real life."

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Little, Brown 2016)

A truly terrifying novel, exploring slavery and racism in 19th century America. Rightly acclaimed.

NON-FICTION

Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising by Gilbert Achcar (Stanford University Press, 2016)

The title is drawn from one of Gramsci’s famous observations: 'The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Achcar lucidly analyses what happened in the region following the Arab Spring, focusing on the cases of Egypt and Syria where uncertainty still prevails.

After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus (Penguin, 2017)

A rich interpretation of Acker's life and the art/publishing scenes of the 70s and 80s, After Kathy Acker offers an intimate guide through Acker’s many experiments into form, somewhere between art and writing. Kraus includes well-chosen fragments of Acker's writing throughout the book; against expression, against narrative, yet at the same time embodied, immediate and visceral.

Under My Thumb: Songs that Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them edited by Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies (Repeater Books, 2017)

A great collection of essays dealing with the inherent misogyny of pop music. The essays often start from the original pleasure in listening — a pleasure that has a jarring effect on each author's personal politics. 

The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds (University of California Press, 2004)

This is the book that convinced the excellent Mary Beard to become a classicist, and you can understand why. Dodds begins with a straightforward mission to undermine the clichéd notion that Ancient Greece was peopled by rationalists — as if the Athenian streets thronged with little cartoon versions of Thucydides and Plato. What he uncovers is a world in which human beings are recognized not only as being prey to irrational forces, but one in which the immortals — Atē, Dionysus, the Furies, and so on — who embody that irrationality form collectively a model of the psyche rivalling that of modern psychoanalysts in terms of complexity.

Why I'm No Longer Speaking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Eddo-Lodge’s debut has rightly been praised as one of the most important books in 2017. It could not be more urgent, and intelligently argues the case for listening and thinking about race anew. The book ranges from memoir to popular culture and the political frontline; it is vital to have voices such as Eddo-Lodge within the mainstream debate.

Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (Zero, 2009)

At the beginning of this year we tragically lost a major writer. There were various moving obituaries, underlining how important his work was to thousands of people, including this from Robin Mackay at Urbanomic and this from Juliet Jacques. I tried to re-read his superb account of the social and psychological effects of capitalism but felt unable to. But this holiday I will be going back to his work, including his most recent The Weird and the Eerie (Repeater).

No Mercy Here by Sarah Haley (UNC Press, 2016)

Sarah Haley's incredible new book, No Mercy Here, tells the story of the brutalisation of black women under Jim Crow modernity. Drawing upon the work of black feminists and vast amounts of archival research, Haley draws out the everyday encounters with gendered carcerality faced by generations of black women in America, and helps to bring new light on to the unacknowledged role played by these same women in the Black Freedom tradition through their multiple forms of resistance.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself by Harriet Jacobs, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Harvard University Press, 1987 [1861])

As a slave in North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs—writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent— was subject to continual sexual harassment, threats of sexual violence, and the paternalistic manipulation of her masters. To escape, she engineered the sale of her children to a different master and hid in an attic for seven years, cramped and confined, with only a small notch as an opening to the sky. When she finally gained her freedom, she joined her brother as an abolitonist activist in the North, and fought to have her story published and circulated.

Incidents is a foundational text for black feminism and for women’s writing in the United States. Moving between personal anguish, political appeal, and a damning collective critique of slavery and sexual morality, Jacobs’ book chronicles how a quest for freedom can involve further confinements and compromises. Jacobs presciently asks the question that still resonates today: how do we get free?

Spheres of Existence by CLR James (Allison & Busby, 1980)

A wonderful, and now sadly long out of print, collection of essays from the great CLR James. Included are essays on everything from Shakespeare and Wilson Harris, to the Comintern, Cricket in the West Indies, Black Power, Paul Robeson, Raymond Williams, and philosophy. Also includes my favourite essay from James, "The Making of the Caribbean People". An amazing introduction to the last great polymath.

Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead by Catherine Ella Laufer (Routledge, 2013)

A superb study of the history of this peculiar part of Christian theology. It’s fascinating to see the various anxieties about exactly how long Christ spent in the underworld and full of delicious details such as how the various different parts of medieval mystery plays became the responsibility of different guilds: ‘The Descent into Hell is performed by the Cooks, a morbid reference to the belief that demons feast on the souls of the wicked.’ There are also insights into how the notion of hell began to take a back seat in much Christian dogma from the 19th century: apparently missionaries in Africa found that it conflicted with indigenous traditions, as many preferred ‘to join their dead parents in hell than be baptised and separated from them forever.’

Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde (Silver, 2017)

The new feminist publisher Silver Press was launched this year and has already published two brilliantly curated works: The Debutante and Other Stories by Leonora Carrington, and Audre Lorde's Your Silence Will Not Protect You. More titles are planned. It is exciting to see new projects like this emerge, and thrive, in difficult times.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina (Picador, 2016)

Ecologist and Macarthur Award recipient Carl Safina presents the case that human beings are not the only animals to have an inner life rich in story, compassion, and intensity. In fact, it appears there may be little in the human experience that is truly unique. Safina finds evidence of humour among elephants and a sense wonder in gorillas. Tool use isn’t solely our domain either. Nor language. Focusing on elephants, orcas, and wolves, he follows a simple rhetorical strategy, elevating readers with the stunning, moving complexity of these beings, and then dashing his audience on the rocks when revealing the malign influence of mankind. The section on ham-handed laboratory efforts to detect a theory of mind in animals is a study in scientific obtuseness. (Spoiler alert: You and I would not pass these tests.) The book is a dizzying blend of the wondrous and the tragic. It seems the search for alien intelligence is a terrestrial matter.

Against The Grain by James C. Scott (Yale University Press, 2017)

A brilliant survey of new thinking about our early history. It looks at the moment when hunter gatherers settled, and the role of grain as the commodity on which the first societies and cities were built. He argues that grain was so important because it could be taxed, and this lies at the heart of early civilizations. The books ends with a robust defense of barbarians. It is rigorous, challenging and will have an influence on many different areas of thought.

The Black Pacific by Robbie Shilliam (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Everyone knows about the Black Panthers, but what about the Polynesian Panthers? Robbie Shilliam's book charts the way that Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha activists incorporated the ideologies of the African diaspora into their struggle against colonial rule and racism in Aotearoa. This book should be held up as a model for writings on the international connections between postcolonial movements.

Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital by William Clare Roberts (Princeton, 2016)

The Deutscher prize winner takes you into capitalism’s underworld and explores the political organisation of workers found in the pages of Marx’s great work.

Storming Heaven by Steve Wright (Pluto Press, 2002)

A formative text for many, myself included, this is the essential text on Italian Operaismo. Covering its development in the Italian communist milieu of the 1940s until its dissolution in the late '70s, Wright's book gives lucid and compelling overviews of the main debates and thinkers in this current, which included such luminaries as Antonio Negri, Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati and Sergio Bologna. Anyone looking for an introduction to the dissident currents of twentieth century communism should look no further.

POETRY

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto, 2017)

Kumukunda translates as ‘initation’ – the tribal rites of passage a young boy from from North Western Zambia and surrounding regions must pass through into manhood. Chingonyi’s debut traverses this passageway as “an approximation” in its absence – he moved to the UK from Zambia aged six. Witty, angry and nuanced, Kumukanda draws on performance, music and literature to examine masculinity and blackness in the crucible of hybrid identities.

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi (Wave Books, 2016)

Poet Don Meet Choi’s Hardly War is an experiment in “geopolitical poetics” that seeks to “disobey history and sever it from power.” To retell a story of modern Korean nationalism and identity, Choi turns to her family’s history in Korea during the destructive Korean War. Drawing from the faintly imagined, poetic fragments, and her father’s photographs from the war, Choi brings into focus the country that was, the country that is, and the war that is still ongoing.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Ursula K. Le Guin (Shambala, 1998)

Le Guin’s poetic rendition of this classic text, including her commentary illumining its influence on her work and anarchism, captures the nuances and grace of Lao Tzu’s thought. A meditation on the use and misuse of power and control, this version of the Tao Te Ching is also a manual for psychic survival.

Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night by Morgan Parker (Switchback 2015)

Parker, a poet, publisher and teacher, dives into the racist and patriarchal heart of the contemporary and emerges with incisive dispatches from the everyday that are searing in their familiarity. Her delivery comes with the light touch that knows the heaviest of hands.

Wild is the Wind by Carl Phillips (FSG, 2018)

Phillips has written that ‘as with personality, poetry requires some unpredictability in order to be interesting — it needs something to be wrong with it.’ And it’s the jolts in his syntax here that, as ever, render his poetry startlingly tactile and relatable —  sharp slashes of desire and loss cutting into the metaphorical.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Cape, 2017)

This extraordinary debut by young Vietnamese American Ocean Vuong draws on myth and memoir to explore themes of trauma, violence, displacement, liminality, abuse and sexuality. Vuong’s fresh engagement with different forms produces an intimate, painful and gorgeous tapestry of memory and possibilty.

MEMOIR

Living for Change by Grace Lee Boggs (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

Grace Lee Boggs was one of the great activist-intellectuals of the twentieth century. Her autobiography is a fascinating and inspiring document of a life dedicated to radical social change.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz (Canongate, 2017)

Wojnarowicz was only 37 when he died, but he left behind an extraordinary body of work and cultural legacy as part of the 1980s East Village art scene alongside Jean-Michel Basquait, Nan Goldin and Kiki Smith. "It is 24 years since Wojnarowicz died, and yet his struggle has lost none of its relevance. We might like to think that the world he documented ended with combination therapy, or with marriage equality, or with any of the other liberal victories of the last two decades. But the forces he spoke out against are as lively and malevolent as ever. Even his old enemies are back in fashion.” - Olivia Laing. This memoir is dark, visceral, sharp, and painful; an exploration of the world as he saw it, and one that feels as real today as it ever was.

Until January 1: ALL our ebooks are 90% off and ALL our print books are 50% off (with bundled ebooks - where available). See also our End of Year Highlights and Gift Guide.