At the end of every year, the Verso Blog answers the burning question: what do our staff read when they're not busy publishing your favourite new radical books? Right on cue, here's 2019's best-of, as selected by the Verso offices in London and Brooklyn.
Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Kono Taeko
Brilliant and bristling stories of repressed and unacceptable desires, violences, wants, brutalities, beneath the surface of postwar Japanese life. Winner of Japan's top literary prizes, Kono Taeko's stories account for the constricting nature of motherhood and femininity and social convention itself, told in an adamantly straightforward, precise voice.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemic Novel
This eerie novel came to me at a fitting time: my own decaying apartment seemed to be caving in on me—a new horror materializing every day—despite my best attempts to sustain it. My partner and my anxieties about our dwellings paled in comparison to that of the newlyweds in The Grip of It, who quickly realize that the home they purchased together is haunted by a force of otherworldly strength. The narration alternates between husband and wife, adding to the general sense of joyful disassociation that one feels when reading this book.
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
Based on a true account of a woman awaiting execution in a Cairo prison cell, our protagonist Firdaus tells the story of her life, growing up very poor in the countryside, briefly finding childhood happiness with her friend Mohammadain, moving to Cairo to live with her uncle after her mother and father die. Her desires ebb and flow, teaching her a cruel truth: people are only free when they want nothing. First published in 1975 this classic feminist novel starkly shows how much society can crush a woman.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
"Paul spends a lot of his time dating and fucking, practices that are both complicated by his secret ability to transform his body, instantaneously, through sheer force of will." - The White Review. A gender-shifting 90's dream of a book! A queer and trans novel that readers of Kate Bornstein, Maggie Nelson, and Eileen Myles will love. Surreal, explicit, thoughtful, and experimental.
Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
A short powerful novel about two people caught in an explosive love, a gig economy, and a colonial London experience. Kandasamy, author of the acclaimed auto fiction When I Hit You, was inspired by Derrida's Glas to include columns of commentary, almost a diary of the author's own concerns as she writes the novel. The narrative and the commentary chase each other through the novel until an event ends one thread - or reveals their ultimate fusing.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
I'm a good year or so behind the curve in reading this fashionable collection of short stories. Berlin's perfectly painted face seemed to be everywhere for a while, including on the cover of this volume, where her distracted gaze looks over and beyond the first page. She's a sharp, funny and furious writer, chronicling the interlocking experiences of motherhood, poverty, bohemian nomadism, a faltering literary career and a nascent (then blooming) alcohol addiction in a voice that winks at the third person. The book is a masterclass in taut prose and cinematic detail. Imagine the stories told by Thelma and Louise, if they’d hit the brakes. You'll want food flavoured with fresh limes, filterless cigarettes, the New Mexico desert wind and a lot of bourbon after reading these.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
'A study of provincial life' indeed, be ready to take the plunge into the passionate, witty waters of Eliot's exquisite creation. How masterful! Yes, 'one of the few English books written for grown-up people' (Virginia Woolf)! To reread it over and over, only because by the end these are the only people you will know or care about or dream about, you can't leave them behind.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Halliday appears to have taken her time with this book and it was time spent right. I can't think of another novel I've read in recent years that seemed so well-made, so thoughtfully put together. The final section is a joy, too, and the cherry we don't deserve.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
This was an xmas gift from someone who loves the book immensely and pretty much moved to Cornwall because they were so wrapped up in the brooding, mysterious twinkle of it all. Rebecca came on holiday with me and became my best friend, making me terrible company for the companions who were not books, but they can't help that. Then I watched the film with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, which is also wonderful and really very faithful to the book, but of course not as good. I have a terrible memory for fiction - plot, character, everything is mushed - but Rebecca remains strongly with me.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
Oh London, we love to hate you! The rents are high, the days are long, the air is thick with petrochemical effluvia, and yet - despite our constant threats to return home - we never seriously consider leaving. Selvon's novel, written in the first person voice of a Trinidadian migrant of the Windrush generation is a classic of mid-twentieth century postcolonial literature. But mostly it's a love song to London and the community of people who make the place home. The narrator's experiences of racism and poverty in the city are addressed with a matter of fact brusqueness that, you could argue, is intended to disguise the real hurt of rejection by a country that called for your help to rebuild itself. But the prose sings when Selvon turns to the things that make London worth loving: Picadilly's bright lights cutting through the smog, West End dates in your best clothes, the first signs of summer in the Hyde Park flower beds. Read it on the number 46 to Waterloo, if you can.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
An extraordinary book. A classic worthy of the category, and one that remains as powerful and giddying now as when it was first published in the '60s. Radical not only in subject - the protagonist is a member of the communist party for at least part of the novel, and a fellow-traveller when she is not - but also in form - the book is made up of four notebooks written by the protagonist of an internal novel titled 'Free Women'. As the central character becomes more and more deranged, so too do the notebooks become less and less coherent. Its culmination in the character's breakdown and also in her breakthrough with writing - in the Golden Notebook of the title - were not only the elements that Lessing later lamented were not discussed more by reviewers on publication, but also make this fifty-seven-year-old novel delightfully contemporary (one need look no further than Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment to find remarkable parallels). I'm already excited to give it a second read over the christmas break.
Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler
Late to the party, but this book was recommended to me by a friend and I haven’t ever read anything quite like it. The story follows a freelance writer low on cash who takes on a short-term contract at Amazon’s Leipzig warehouse through the winter season. If you’re interested in precarious work, the gig economy and how to find a language that accurately describes the emotional landscape of modern work, then this is for you!
Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery
Each one of these stories is a pure treat in tone. The voices of these characters are so real, and so realistically ridiculous; Flattery has a fine ear for the things we tell others and the sillier, sadder things we tell ourselves.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Lord knows what most science fiction fans made of this novel when they picked it up in a 3 for 2 with Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick. It owes more to Virginia Woolf’s nod to the genre with Orlando than the SF tradition. What is so thrilling about the novel is the anarchy of its form. After reading politely structured novels with elegant sentences, the furious tumble of Russ’s angry feminist prose and the delirious energy of her ideas is a jolt and a joy - a reminder that the novel is a space where the writer can create the rules irrespective of the canonical law.
Red Shift by Alan Garner
I must admit that I only read this book because it's partly set in my hometown of Crewe, but Garner's Red Shift is totally mesmerising. I'd be hard pressed to summarise the narrative here, but it is told via three interlocking stories that take place on the ancient hill at Mow Cop in South Cheshire. The first is a contemporary love story between teenagers Jan and Tom, the others are set deep in historical time, one in Roman Britain, the other involving a massacre during the English Civil War. As Tom becomes increasingly unstable, and the traumas embedded historically in this ancient site come to the surface, the stories merge and overlap in a beguiling mixture. As soon as I finished Red Shift for the first time i immediately re-read it, partly because I wanted to actually understand it, but mainly because it is so extraordinary.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong:
Probably the most beautiful yet heartbreaking book I've read in a long time. The novel is set up as a letter from a son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother. Blurring the lines between prose and poetry, Little Dog meditates on the hardships he faced as a young Vietnamese boy in Hartford, Connecticut. Detailing the history of his own family, Little Dog's narrative also dismantles the idea of the American Dream in the midst of an opioid crisis while touching on subjects of sexuality, identity, trauma and the power of language. Highly recommend!
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz :
Diaz holds a cracked mirror up to masculinity and turns it side to side (sometimes slowly and sometimes with a jolt) so we can see all its pathetic facets, and all the blemishes we stopped seeing a while back. Affecting and (unflatteringly) relatable.
We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff by Isabel Waidner
A rapid, surreal and disrupting ride through a very British hellscape: exploring queerness, race, empire, working class culture, and inequality. It was such a joy to see this book was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize. It is a treasure.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Having worked in a very similar shop and retail in general I really liked the romanticisation of this seemingly dull job - I also liked the way it implicitly explores the bizarreness of heteronormativity
Commune began as an attempt to bring revolutionary ideas to popular audiences. Beautifully designed, with heavy-hitting pieces ranging from content such as Midsommar, abortion, #MeToo, and Antifa, the quarterly magazine brings debut and established writers from various left tendencies under one international umbrella. It’s always an exciting feeling to read your friends in print, and even better to be excited to one day meet other writers whose pieces inspired you.
Marnie by Connie Scozzaro
What do the Bay Area and the Lea Valley have in common? Marnie. This book-length poem ties up platonically violent estuary adolescence and blazed dispossessed California adulthood in wrapping paper torn out of Milton and a bow marked Xanax. Slippages of physical pain, from delicate cuts to widening orifices, shatter the fantasy of poetry as a cure to shit life, ‘there is nothing beautiful in our zero hours ekphrasis.’
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
Moving between prose and poetry, Constellations is an astonishing collection of cultural and political reflections on the body. From Illness and physical pain, to patriarchal medical intervention and bodily autonomy (in Ireland), these intimate essays are breathtaking in depth and vulnerability, as well as fiercely angry. For readers of Olivia Laing, Rebecca Solnit, and Maggie O'Farrell.
Generation Game: One Football Club, One Family and a Century of Obsession by Charlie Morris
I doubt anyone expected to see a memoir about a small town football club from a grim part of the North of England on Verso's Year End list, but Charlie Morris's book about his and his family's 100 year old obsession with Crewe Alexandra is a really wonderful achievement. Starting out with the seemingly easy question of what fuels an obsessive passion for an underperforming club, the book widens into a searching analysis of the maladies of contemporary masculinity. Morris also tackles the ongoing child abuse scandal that has rocked the club and the town, providing what is perhaps the only serious appraisal of the club's behaviour I have encountered. I would never come across Generation Game were it not for my own similar obsession with the Railwaymen, and my equal shaken faith following Daniel Taylor's expose, but hopefully more than just Crewe Alex nuts will pick this up!
Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing by Marie Hicks
The role of women in the history of computing is criminally unexplored, drowned out by the bro cheers of Silicon Valley masculinity. This story of the British experience, how the widespread discrimination against women who were essential to the industry's pioneering development, is a morality tale for the collapse of the British computing industry itself.
A Radical Romance by Alison Light
Historian and writer Alison Light was married to Raphael Samuel, pioneering member of the New Left and founder of the History Workshop, for just ten years before he sadly passed away to cancer in 1996. In this utterly engrossing, and very moving, memoir she recounts their shared lives. But more than that, A Radical Romance is a beautiful meditation on loss, grief and the nature of memory from one of our finest historical writers.
Who Owns England? by Guy Shrubsole
As Mark Twain quipped 'Buy Land, they're not making any more of it!' This book shows that it is nearly impossible to find out who owns the land beneath your feet. And this has allowed invested interest, ancient aristocratic families, international sovereign funds, and off-shore bank accounts to control one of the most important commodities. The book shines sunlight onto this hidden source of power. You cannot solve the housing crisis without taking on the question of land not answer the question 'who owns our cities?'. The author is also a co-author of the groundbreaking report Land for the Many that was part of the 2019 Labour Manifesto:
Of Mud & Flame: A Penda's Fen Sourcebook by Matthew Harle and James Machin
I would more or less read anything published by Strange Attractor Press (as the history of early 20th century undertaking on my bedside table will attest), but this one is particularly excellent. Penda's Fen was a little remembered Play for Today screened on the BBC in 1974. Written by playwright David Rudkin, it became something of a cult classic, telling of Britain's deep history, folklore and landscape through 18 year old Stephen and his series of strange visions. Now released on DVD by the BFI, it's gained something of the fame it never quite achieved first time around, and this excellent collection of essays is a perfect companion.
Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain by Alan Sinfield
Does the state owe us the conditions for cultural production? What kind of culture is produced when the pendulum of political opinion swings towards a model of universal welfare? I first read this classic of literary history as a student and was reminded of it again by the explosion of interest in postwar British modernist writers such as Ann Quin and BS Johnson. Sinfield breaks down the economic and political demands that were made by the left in the realignment of the state and society post-1945, and the impact this had for a generation of working class writers, theatre makers and artists. Virginia Woolf, Sinfield reminds us, didn't just need a room, she also needed £500 a year (unearned) of her own in order to have the security and stability necessary to write. Reading this book again in 2019 underlines the fact that the enemy of art is not the pram in the hallway, but rather the letter on the doormat from the DWP.
Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal by Aviva Chomsky
This book cracks open the concept of "illegality"––how it was created and has come to be reified. Chomsky takes us through a history of the US immigration system, bringing to center stage the white supremacist origins of the quota system. For Chomsky, “becoming undocumented is a highly racialized crime": selective enforcement means that poor workers of color pay the price, while (white) employers reap the benefits of cheap labor.
Daddy Issues by Katherine Angel
At the start of this slim essay-book, Angel wonders about Harvey Weinstein's children: following the allegations against Weinstein, his wife Georgina Chapman announced that she was leaving him. "You can, at least in principle, leave a husband, but you can’t leave a father." There is an abundance of literature about the relationship between children and their mothers - probably most of my degree was organised around this pivot - but a lot less that overtly speaks to the relationship between children (and, importantly, daughters) and their fathers. Angel wrests wisdom from vast array of references, from the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and Winnicot to Sophie Mackintosh's recent novel The Water Cure, and films including Charles Shyer's Father of the Bride and Yorgos Lanthimos's brilliantly disturbing Dogtooth, all the while maintaining a light and bright literary approach. A good book for all daughters, fathers, mothers and sons.
Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley
Denise Riley’s adult son Jacob died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart problem. Four years later, she published two new works: a poem about Jacob’s death, “A Part Song”, which won a Forward prize, and the essay “Time Lived, Without Its Flow” in a micro-press edition, and is now made widely available by Picador, introduced by Max Porter. I am delighted that it has made it to a bigger house, since the original pamphlet was desperately moving and important for me. It particularly focuses on the experience of timelessness that accompanies deep grief, and on Riley's experience as a mother, whose lifetime became experienced in relation to the age of her children. A truly exceptional essay.
New Model Island by Alex Niven
Alex Niven is a wonderfully incisive writer, and his new book mixes polemic and memoir to problematise that much fabled modern notion: "Englishness". For Niven, there is no one England, only a series of shifting islands. A searing argument for a new radical regionalism and for the further break-up of Britain, New Model Island is a book i've been longing for!
The Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe
This is what international historical analysis should always look like - it ambitiously looks at the relationship of people and states across continents through the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries and successfully takes seriously the role of women, colonized and enslaved people as agents in historical development.
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
“For in grief nothing 'stays put.' One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, 'I never realized my loss till this moment'? The same leg is cut off time after time.” C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian, lost his wife to cancer three years after they were married. This book is based on the notebooks he kept in the months after she died. Reading it was the closest I have ever come to faith.
Double-Tracking: Studies in Duplicity by Rosanna McLaughlin
"At root, it's a state of mind born of an ambivalent relationship to privilege, that, when perfected, allows those with financial resources the economic benefits of leaning right, and the cultural benefits of leaning left. It curls around the vocal chords of private school alumni as they drop their consonants, sprays the can of legally sanctioned graffiti on the side of the pop-up container shopping mall, and tones the cores of sweaty executives attending weekly parkour classes, prancing about the concrete furniture of housing estates they do not live on."
A glorious, smart, not-a-word-in-excess takedown of some of the most insidious behaviours of the privileged. I loved it.
Who Killed My Father? and The History of Violence by Édouard Louis
The division between fiction and non-fiction falls apart in these two books from a lauded, young French writer. Themes of class, sexuality, family and shame are fused with a powerful eruption of anger. Both books are short, but not a word is wasted.
Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe
This book looks at some quite radical histories, thoeries and politics on gender, race and class - including the poft considered tabboo topic of sex work - to a really mainstream audiance. Stuff I talk about in lefty and/or academic spaces is made interesting and accessible to people who may not have taken a gender studies course.