Staff Picks: Books of the Year 2018—Chosen by Verso staff
It's your favourite time of the year! Time for joy, and time for books. As Verso staffers have found over the course of this year, we turn to books for resources to help us make sense of and respond to this monumental year and times to come. As much as we publish books for both these purposes, there are others out there doing much of the same good work. So once again, here's our non-Verso staff picks from Verso staff in London and New York!
A Nation Under Our Feet by Steve Hanh
Hanh retells the overthrow of American slavery, the tragedies of reconstruction, and the migrations that followed from the vantage point of the grassroots self-organization of rural black people. In documenting the multitudinous and varying practices of self-government employed by the newly emancipated, Hahn mounts a serious challenge to the boundaries of politics.
Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America by Kathleen Belew
A superb history of how white supremacist violence is scripted from American military violence abroad, and about the danger of thinking of white supremacist violence as the work of lone wolves rather than a highly networked social movement. This is a history of our present.
Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution by Michael Braddick
John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, has inspired generations of radicals. In this, the first biography of Lilburne since Pauline Gregg’s in 1961, Michael Braddick uncovers his fascinating story and the pivotal role he played in the English Revolution. In Braddick’s book not only does the incredible strength of Lilburne’s convictions shine through, suffering years of hardship and imprisonment for his beliefs under different regimes, but also Lilburne as the cantankerous rouge – wasting days of court time disputing whether the names Colonel John Lilburne is the same man as Mr John Lilburne, for instance. As his great friend the regicide Henry Marten said of him, “if there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John”. A brilliant book about a fascinating individual.
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World by Adam Tooze
Tooze weaves together a good but unoriginal breakdown of the events leading to the crisis of 2008 (he studiously avoids questions around deeper structural factors). After the reader is up to speed, the books brings the reader on a tour tracing the way this crisis has shaped political, social, economic outcomes across the world but particularly in the EU and US.
Desire: A Memoir by Jonathan Dollimore
Way back when I did my book-learning, Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy was a key text for me, and is one of the few from those years I still keep on my shelf. Still, I hadn’t expected to enjoy this memoir so much. It’s difficult to write about one’s past without getting wistful and/or self-important. Dollimore does neither, but what he does do is serve up motorcycle crashes, affecting ruminations on desire and depression and lots of sex (some of which goes down at The Saint in 1982).
Digital Tarkovsky by Metahaven
Benjamin H Bratton has been devising a new curriculum, The New Normal, at the Strelka Institute that is very exciting, that has resulted in a series of engaged and engaging ebooks. Bratton’s own edition gives a great introduction to this new area of exploration. Keller Easterling’s, Medium Design, fleshes out the new ways we should think about architecture and urbanism as a medium. The Amsterdam design group, Metahaven, clears new ground with Digital Tarkovsky, that combines the study of technology and our experience of media as a way of understanding our platform-based world. Read alongside their current exhibitions at the ICA and the Stedelijk.
In the Marxian Workshops: Producing Subjects by Sandro Mezzadra
The majority of Mezzadra's work in English has, to date, been both collaborative and contemporary. Writing with Verónica Gago, Michael Hardt, Brett Neilson, Antonio Negri, Nicholas De Genova among others, he has looked to reground a communist politics in the contemporary operations of capitalism, and has attended specifically to extraction, borders, migration, the state and globalization. In his first solo book to hit the anglophone world, Mezzadra reads Marx "beyond Marxism." The ambition is not to vindicate the the old man's thinking in toto, but rather to ask what he might help us understand about the changing dynamics of political subjectivity and class composition.
Inner City Pressure by Dan Hancox
Journalist Dan Hancox tells the story of Grime as he saw it; and he tells the story with great intimacy. But he also sets the story of the emergence of a music that started on East London within the story of the capital at large. It is as much a study of finding a way to survive in austerity London as it is about placing Grime in a musical tradition. It is the best kind of popular culture book that spans politics, beats and the council estates of Bow. It also comes with its own Spotify playlist.
Is Capitalism Obsolete? A Journey Through Alternative Economic Systems by Giacamo Corneo
This book offers an accessible and rigorous sketch of different modes of distribution, investment, and allocation. Without being bogged down in any of the sectarian hang-ups that we might associate with these debates on the far left, Corneo synthesizes the ideas of various important contributors to debates while appraising the core ideas in a clear and straightforward fashion. Corneo is an excellent starting point for readers exploring socialist political horizons both near far.
Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman
There's a lot of noise around Hartman's work – it's something you really ought to read for yourself. An achingly moving meditation on slavery, on solidarity, and on what history can and cannot do.
Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm
Moral Origins is written into a debate at the intersection of evolutionary biology and social science. To what extent can utility maximization explain social dynamics and individual behavior? This book covers topics typically only found in highly technical literature coming from places like the Santa Fe Institute or journals on the philosophy of science. The reader is left with a more complicated vision of human nature and its emergence. Even the array of forces driving the evolution of species is complicated by this book. For readers who have been convinced of the methodological rigor of rational choice (and those readers who do battle with them), this book provides a healthy counter argument.
Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution by Neil Lanctot
There's nothing as American as baseball (and segregation). This detailed history of the Negro League is fascinating and informative, showing how black Americans were able to build parallel institutions in the face of enormous racial discrimination. Through the creation of the Negro League to its demise due to the gradual integration of Major League Baseball, Lanctot provides a richly researched account of the enterprise that entertained and supported thousands.
Race and the Undeserving Poor by Robbie Shilliam
In the wake of Brexit and Trump everyone was talking about the “white working class” - but what was this quasi-mythical figure? In this exciting book, Robbie Shilliam mines the last 200 years of British and colonial history to attempt to understand how this racialised figure emerged. Charting in the shifting colonial and post-colonial regimes the emergence of the distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” as a guide to our contemporary political moment.
The Reactionary Mind (2nd edition) by Corey Robin
A selection of essays examining the way the reactionary right commandeers the language and concepts of the left in defence of established power structures. Schmitt, Hayek, Nietzsche, and others make an appearance, but Edmund Burke is the (ahem) fountainhead of modern reactionary trends. The standout essay is “Affirmative Action Baby,” a profile of the late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia, whose defensive stance concerning his own eccentric Catholicism was a sad mirror image of progressive forms of identity politics.
The Rise and Fall of the British Nation by David Edgerton
What is the British nation, and when did it emerge? This is the question that guides Edgerton’s brilliant new book. Anyone familiar with his work to date will know his disdain for “declinist” narratives, perhaps a little overstated and hard to defend, and The Rise and Fall gives his longest defence of his particular brand of iconoclasm to date. Reading twentieth century British history somewhat against the grain, Edgerton’s narrative is fascinating and constantly surprising.
This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death by Harold Brodkey
Just a few years before effective HIV treatments became available, Brodkey, a writer from the New Yorker stable, fell prey to pneumocystis, a signature disease of AIDS. Brodkey’s account of his slide toward the grave spares the reader nothing of the terror and pain of the experience. Yet this frank, sober, hyperarticulate, and eminently sane writing uncovers tenderness and humour at this horrible extremity, making for a peculiarly life-affirming, darkly uplifting work that delivers a bracing slap. Brodkey’s descriptions of the way he and his wife act out roles within their marriage, how they manoeuvre around each other at this difficult time, dishes up a hearty slice of wisdom and insight.
Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women by Silvia Federici
New essays from the vital and evocative Marxist feminist theorist. In a year when witches are again in political vogue, a necessary investigation into how the regulation of women's bodies -- with the witch-hunt as its misogynist signature -- is a central feature of capitalism, both historically and in our present moment.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
A dark, enigmatic and densely packed philosophical novel that follows the intricate, and often troubling, lives of characters brought to the city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have gone missing. A Sweet Sweet Summer – Jane Gaskell (St. Martin’s Press, 1972) In perhaps the first fictional depiction of post-Brexit Britain, Britain is cut off from the rest of the world – telephone calls don’t connect, aeroplanes never return – and loosely supervised by aliens who delivery cryptic instructions in orbs. Featuring the public execution of Ringo Starr, the novel is narrated by Pel, whose house has been taken over by a band of fascists. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday An extraordinary debut that kept me awake many nights. This beautiful novel narrates two seemingly unconnected stories in order to create a compelling portrait of the chaos dominating the modern world and human relationships. Halliday’s unique engagement with structure and language makes this a challenging read.
Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher
They say what they say, but I’m a judgemental person and I’m swayed by the covers of things and sometimes they sway me the right way. The front of the old Picador paperback edition I bought features a line of coke cut to look like shooting star in the Los Angeles night-time sky and a blurb from Jane Fonda – sold. I came to this looking for a snarky roman à clef but wound up finding a charming and relatable mess of styles with characters sidestepping their way in and out of addiction and love.
The Bad Sister by Emma Tennant
First published in 1978, The Bad Sister retells James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, relocating it to London and female protagonists. An almost forgotten, delirious, nightmarish tale of doppelgängers that should be part of any feminist classic reading list.
Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen
Originally published in French in 1968, this witty, evocative, and ultimately very grim novel is set in Switzerland in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe. It is at once a biting satire of social custom, a heartbreaking deconstruction of love and desire, and a bitter indictment of political institutions. Solal is the cynical and debonair Undersecretary General of the League of Nations, a position of power and privilege setting him at odds with his Jewish roots. To relieve his boredom, he seduces Ariane, the wistful and haughty wife of Adrien, his dull, social-climbing underling. All is excitement and passion for the lovers, until they attempt to start a life together during the Nazi ascendancy. The League ousts Solal for his insistence that their member states take Jewish refugees; Ariane is reviled by society for leaving her husband. The two live in exile, friendless and without purpose save the futile attempt to sustain themselves on a faded romance. It ends tragically.
The Crack by Emma Tennant
A giant crack appears in the centre of the River Thames, pushing the two halves of a contemporary London in the midst of the International Convention of Psychoanalysis apart. Chaos ensues, and we watch Baba, a bunny at the Playboy Club, try desperately to get to the other side of the Thames (the South, obviously) which is blossoming into a paradise while the North descends into chaos. The Crack (or The Time of the Crack as it was originally titled) is a short, utterly bizarre and hilariously funny satire on social class and Britain in the 1970s (and much else!). This now tragically forgotten work deserves to be a classic.
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Eighteenth-century romp meets queer love story meets anti-colonial marxism with a scathing critique of the neoliberal university conducted in the footnotes. The infamous thief Jack Sheppard – most familiar as Brecht’s Mack the Knife – is re-imagined as a trans man achingly in love with the Southeast Asian sex-working Bess (“We have to take the unquestioned nature of Bess’s characterization as white as less a reflection of ‘actual’ history than as the occlusion of it,” comments the narrator). A wildly sexy, hugely ambitious and moving debut.
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
Set in Japan after an unnamed disaster compels the country to close its borders and inverts the typical effects of birth and old age, The Emissary occupies a strange niche: lighthearted dystopian fiction. Yoshiko and his frail grandson, wise and compassionate beyond his years, live daily life in a world with seemingly no future. The Emissary paints a picture of familial love that endures in a world that is deeply confusing for all its occupants, a welcome read in our world, where climate change may rob younger generations of a stable future.
The Final Friends Trilogy by Christopher Pike
My babysitter leant me her copy of this when I was ten and I’ve yet to return it. (Sorry, Lisa.) It’s a 1980s mass-market teen murder mystery in three patiently plotted instalments. I re-read it this summer and found that it holds up pretty well, partly due to how open I leave myself to nostalgia but also because the writing is shot through with kindness and warmth for each one of its sun-kissed and supremely stereotypical characters. Ruggedly handsome track star with an alcohol problem? Check! Mean blonde cheerleader? Check! Handsome but dim quarterback? Check! Best friend who’s brim-full of sass but not so lucky with the boys? Yep. Transfer student from the wrong side of the tracks struggling for acceptance and possibly finding it on the sports field? They’re all here waiting for you, right where you left them.
Frankenstein in Baghdad: A Novel by Ahmed Saadawi
A surreal and horrifying glimpse into the reality of contemporary Iraq. Haidi, a hoarder and odd-ball collector, gathers the remains of human body parts strewn across the streets of Baghdad to builds a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people in order to give them a proper burial. However, when the corpse comes to life and displays an insatiable need for flesh to survive, Haidi quickly realizes the monster he has created.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Read it before you see the film and read it because it will fill your soul with sadness and love. Baldwin’s prose is exceptional – always – and here, describing the deep relationship between Tish and Fonny, it is heart-wrenching. Fonny is arrested for a crime that he did not commit, and the great injustice of this event is brought into stark relief by Baldwin.
My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries by Elizabeth Chin
A kind of auto-ethnography looking at the author's relationship with the everyday things in her life. A very fun read, part personal essay, part theory, that explores themes of inheritance, social relationships, consumer culture, and political economy. It's not a straightforward critique of consumerism, but an analysis of object fetishization and a funny, relatable look at our relationship with the things we have and the things we want.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
A sprawling epic, a tragic and somehow not moralistic look at the damage that humans have inflicted on the planet, especially on trees. Trees are the focus and feel like characters themselves, but the most fascinating parts involve the struggles of radical environmental activists in California and Oregon in the 1980s. Each of the dozens of characters wrestle with dark secrets and tragic pasts and their shifts to environmental awareness feel convincing and unique. I doubt I'll remember many of the plant factoids, but the complex characters and the ways their paths merge and fall away will stick with me.
There, There by Tommy Orange
This is a terrific debut from a young native American author based in California. It tells the story of a collection of lives who converge on the Big Oakland PowPow, with a fateful resolution. The characters cross generations and experiences, and the result is polyphonic and gripping. It is a clear-eyed, passionate display of the contemporary struggles faced by the urban American Indian community. It has humour, tragedy and anger on every page.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
A dark and spare modern fairy tale about what gets taken, what gets eroded, and the flotsam and jetsam left as lives clash into one another.
Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
There's a good reason this book won the National Book Award and all the acclaim. It's a deeply affecting, haunting story of three generations of a Black family in rural Mississippi, torn apart by the racist prison system, poverty, drugs. The reader gets a chance to be in each character's head, to see all the desires and conflicts play out. It's a ghost story and a road novel and a coming of age story and a book about running from demons and trying to find oneself, written in lyrical, poetic language.
The Siege by Helen Dunmore
The siege of Leningrad lasted almost two and a half years and claimed the lives of something like a million residents. Most of those casualties died in the first winter, the period of this gripping historical novel. Anna is a young woman struggling to keep her orphaned little brother alive in the devastated city, where frozen corpses crowd the park benches and cannibals haunt streets at night. A literary novel that pulls the reader through its pages without mercy.
Marx Returns by Jason Barker
Karl Marx is a revolutionary. He is not alone. It is November 1849 and London is full of them: a bunch of fanatical dreamers trying to change the world. Persecuted by a tyrannical housekeeper and ignored by his sexually liberated wife, Marx immerses himself in his writing, believing that his book on capital is the surest way of ushering in the workers’ revolution and his family out of poverty. But when a mysterious figure begins to take an obsessive interest in his work Marx’s revolutionary journey takes an unexpected turn...
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
"I myself don't know if the "I" I am setting before you in these serpentine pages really exists or is merely a false, self-created aesthetic concept of who I am. I have sculpted my life like a statue made of a material alien to myself." Published posthumously in unedited form in Portugese, the book was introduced by Pessoa as a "factless autobiography." Halfway between prose and poetry, this kaleidoscopic series of fragmented reflections explores desire, apathy, melancholy, ecstasy, and the destruction of the self through the creation of art.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
A charming and erudite essay on the recurring denunciation of contemporary poetry, in which Lerner argues that hatred of poetry is intrinsic to the form. A highly recommended reassurance for anyone who ever finds themselves intimidated at the task of navigating the modern poetry scenes.
Don't Let Them See Me Like This (Nightboat Books) by Jasmine Gibson
A stunning collection of poems exploring the intersectional minefield created by the state, the body and all of their weighted layers. Gibson's poems cut through capitalism's violent impositions on the body and the heart in a true dialectical fashion, exposing the lingering debris of class war that so often goes unspoken and unseen. Gibson wields a lyrical power that is both precise and euphoric.
Pamper Me to Hell & Back by Hera Lindsay Bird
Unnervingly perceptive and compelling. A brilliant collection of meditations on feminism, love, death, money, the tragedy that is modern life and last but not least, Bruce Willis.
Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan
I was glad I didn’t slip out to the bar when Hannah Sullivan, who I’d been sadly ignorant of (and whose spell at the microphone fell between those of two friends of mine), took her turn to read at an journal launch. I bought this collection the next day. It’s very good.
Subversive Economies by Daniella Valz Gen
A powerful debut from artist Daniella Valz Gen. Her work investigates different forms of embodying liminality, stemming from her experience as a multilingual migrant negotiating territories, modes of address, and value systems.
Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás
Spells brings together thirty-six contemporary voices exploring the territory where justice, selfhood and the imagination meet the transformative power of the occult. Reflecting recent struggles around #MeToo, and the growing interest in witchcraft and astrology, these poems unmake the world around them so that it might be remade anew. Spells are poems; poetry is spelling. Spell-poems take us into a place where the right words can influence the universe.
Not a book, but Logic is a brilliant magazine – both online and in print - from the frontline of the Silicon Valley wars. Started in 2016, it holds true to a manifesto that promises to ask the right questions: 'How do the tools work? Who finances and builds them, and how are they used? Whom do they enrich, and whom do they impoverish? What futures do they make feasible, and which ones do they foreclose?’
Salvage is a quarterly of revolutionary arts and letters. Salvage is edited and written by and for the desolated Left, by and for those committed to radical change, sick of capitalism and its sadisms, and sick too of the Left’s bad faith and bullshit. Salvage has earned its pessimism. Salvage yearns for that pessimism to be proved wrong. Salvage brings together the work of those who share a heartbroken, furious love of the world, and our rigorous principle: Hope is precious; it must be rationed. Salvage is committed to publishing the best radical essays, poems, art and fiction without sectarian, stylistic or formal constraint. Salvage requires only that they cleave to liberation. Salvage does not believe the first, last and only word with regard to prose style was passed down on a stone tablet by Orwell in one overrated essay.
The resurrection of this British socialist institution is something every on the British left should be celebrating in 2018. The first issue, released at this year’s Labour Party conference, was full of fascinating essays on the history, politics and culture of the British left. The second is eagerly awaited!
PaperWork is a sometimes-annual art writing magazine and event series. We invite writing for performance and writing for page; or writing for a group together at a gallery or writing for a person browsing the magazine in a bookshop or reading in bed. We give each element (print and event) its own space, so the magazine is not a document and the events are not launches. We offer editorial support by and for artists who write as part of their practice and we host reading groups alongside each issue.