Verso Staff Picks 2020: the lockdown diaries
2020 has been a year when most of the world was locked inside their homes due to the pandemic. With all that extra time on our hands, Verso's staff have been reading even more than normal (or, at least, watching even more TV and then panicking when prompted to pick their top books and pretending to have read a lot more). So, right on cue, for the 6th year in a row, here's our best-of, as selected by the Verso offices in London and Brooklyn.
You can buy most of these books on bookshop.org - please see the list here.
Desert Notebooks, Ben Ehrenreich (Counterpoint)
The world does seem increasingly bleak this year, doesn’t it? And if there is one place that has always signified death and the coming end, with its petrified landscapes and endless vistas seemingly devoid of life, it’s the desert. Ben Ehrenreich’s brilliant and original new book is both a diary of his life in and around the Mojave desert and a series of interlinked meditations on a startling range of texts on the end of days. Yet, in both the desert landscape and the work of mystics and philosophers, Ehrenreich sees the persistence of a hope, however fragile it may seem, in the face of humanity’s destructive force. One of the most clear-eyed, beautifully written, and hopeful, books i have read in many years.
The Sea View Has Me Again, Patrick Wright (Repeater)
I am increasingly obsessed with place as a way to understand history and the techtonic shifts in culture and society. Very few pieces of writing have matched Patrick Wright’s new book in the ability to chart, through one place and one life, the startling shifts of the past half century. On the face of it this is a book about Uwe Johnson (the under-read and perhaps under-appreciated German writer) and his life in Sheerness on the Kentish Isle of Sheppey. But, as with all of Wright’s work over the decades, it is so much more: a study of deindustrialisation and decline, a history of England and of the Kent coast, and a stunning work of both biography and literary criticism.
Abolish Silicon Valley, Wendy Liu (Repeater)
What is life in Mountain View actually like? What does the Koolaid taste of, and why is the hangover so bad the next day? Wendy Liu narrates her pilgrim's progress from start up to tech behemoth and final disillusion with huge skill but also with a critical distance lacking from most memoirs of the uncanny valley. The result is a powerful and perceptive dissection of the problems of techno utopianism and is part of the rise in voices of tech workers - pace Logic magazine - who are determined to change their industry.
Superior: The Return of Race Science Angela Saini (Allen Lane)
A highly accessible introduction to the myths and current debates about race science. Throughout history, pseudoscience has tried to ascribe biological laws to race but, put simply, there is no genetic basis in difference. Supposed divergences in IQ, or capabilities tell us nothing - a reminder that correlation is not causality. Instead, tearing down myths such as the caste system and the Bell Curve Saini urges us to look harder at - both long term and short term - the cultural and social causes of inequality.
I Hate the Lake District, Charlie Gere (Goldsmiths Press)
What a title! This book is both illuminating and maddening in equal measure, a kind of anti-nature writing, seeking to subvert the worst tendencies of a genre prone to awestruck romanticism of supposedly natural landscapes that either occlude, or actively ignore, the human labour and communities that have created such scenery. Gere’s book is a series of short jaunts through Britain’s Lake District that, in its own circuitous fashion, taking in Nuclear power stations and UFO sightings along the way, opens us up to an even more luminous landscape than that offered by the official guidebooks and paeans to Wordsworth Country.
In Search of the Soul, John Cottingham (Princeton UP)
Cottingham, a Descartes specialist and philosopher of religion, has written a book dense with literary quotations that should be palatable to heathens and backsliders. He delineates a unitary inner entity – the soul – that can be developed through heightened experience: the joy of elevated thought, love, friendship, the communion with nature, or the appreciation of art. Such a soul doesn’t have to be immortal or the gift of a supreme being (though Cottingham is a believer), but its developed presence makes life worth living.
Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper (Zone Books)
I got so much out of this book; it's a densely packed, highly engaging history of the connections between neoliberal capitalism and the family. She covers everything from welfare reform, conservative Christianity playing a greater role in shaping government policy, the AIDS crisis, mass incarceration, and inherited wealth, to show how the nuclear family has been propped up to relieve the burden of care from the state.
American Revolutions, by Alan Turner (W. W. Norton)
This corrective to nationalist mythology situates the War of American Independence within a global revolutionary era. Tax and representation are usually identified as the factors leading to the split with Britain, but a less relatable motive was just as important: the drive for westward expansion, constrained by George III. Turner depicts the conflict as a civil war as much as a revolution: a terrifying and inspirational fusion of brutal excess and noble idealism; vicious hypocrisy and self-sacrifice.
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, eds (AK Press)
Envisions a world without police and speaks in concrete terms as to how to bring that about. What I really appreciate about the book is that they don't sell us promises of effortless utopia, but instead, a world where we all do the hard work of repairing harm as a community. It's grounded in on the ground organizing experiences, confronting the questions our movements face with regularity. It's a really powerful reminder that a better world is within reach if we build it.
Meet Me in Buenos Aires, Marlene Hobsbawm (Muswell Press)
At the heart of it this is just a really lovely memoir of a Jewish middle-class woman in London who happens to marry one of the most eminent Marxist historians of our time. They travel the world together and she casually name drops other lefties. You really feel Marlene’s personality in the writing, and it’s clear that she was probably just as much a draw at dinner parties as Eric. This is what I thought being part of the lefty intelligentsia was going to be like, until endless crisis and neoliberalism ruined it for us all.
Feminism, Interrupted, Lola Olufemi (Pluto Press)
My copy of this is covered in underlinings, exclamation marks, circles and, repeatedly, the word “YES!”. Olufemi – a formidable talent – sets out some of the key debates in modern feminism, some more mainstream, like transmisogyny, and other less discussed, like the role of the archive. On all though, to put it bluntly, Olufemi gives the correct line. This book should be on the national curriculum, though I doubt that will happen any time soon.
Red Metropolis, Owen Hatherley (Repeater)
Being on the left often feels like endlessly series of defeats and while the story of socialism in London isn’t exactly one of victory this book retells and reminds us of our wins, and maybe how we can rebuild in the current climate. Hatherley manages to accomplish something I didn’t think possible: inspire hope and give me a sense of agency and potential. Not to mention the books readability and humour. Also, as part of the books launch Repeater have run a series of incredible online events which I highly recommend re-watching on YouTube!
Ghost Trees, Bob Gilbert (Saraband)
All those books I bought about plagues, viruses and the end of the world - all sit there in pristine condition, the spines unbroken. But as the city that we love has been our only playground, this became an essential guide to the natural world within it.
X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, Tom Moynihan (Urbanomic)
Always beautifully produced, Urbanomic have one of the most intriguing lists going. This book came out in November and its timing is kind of creepy, fantastic though the book is... time for an accelerationist inspired conspiracy theory!
Which Side Are You On: How to Be For Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back, Thomas Geoghegan (New Press)
Though published in 1991, is there a book better calibrated to the year of our lord 2020, when a tidal wave of ‘PMC discourse’ washed over our timelines, then Tom Geoghegan’s brilliant and erudite debut, Which Side Are You On? Geoghegan, a labor lawyer close to his era's rank and file struggles for union democracy, recounts about two decades of struggle in America’s increasingly feeble labor movement. His references are erudite, his neurotic conscience on display. He goes to great pains to remind us that he is not a worker. Still his book is maybe one of the better pictures of that “countercultural” movement known as labor, that suppressed structure of the universe only half-seen in the shadow of the state and of capital.
Beginning to See The Light, Ellen Willis (University Of Minnesota Press)
Before this year, and to my great shame, i hadn’t read anything by the essayist and music writer Ellen Willis, who passed away in 2006. The New Yorker’s first pop music critic, her essays on Dylan, Elvis, The Velvet Underground and others managed to distill the essence of that era of great cultural and social change, somehow saying far more about the culture, politics and society of America than many book-length treatments. As a music writer she was easily a match for her far more illustrious peers Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, but in this collection of her essays from the 1960s and ‘70s–taken from the Village Voice, New Yorker and elsewhere– it’s her keen social and political sense that really shines through. Particular highlights are the brilliant review of Deepthroat (yep, that Deepthroat) originally published in the NYRB, and covering everything from the aesthetics of porn to desire and the male gaze, and her long review essay of Tom Wolfe’s “failed optimism”. As she says, “my deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect" – and it is her willingness to delve into such contradictions and aporias that makes her writing, even today, stand out.
Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Peniel Joseph (Henry Holt)
When the new movement kicked off, I decided to finally read Peniel Joseph's masterfully written history of Black Power, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour. Although popular memory of the sixties and seventies tends to draw a clear line of demarcation between the 'classical phase' of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power struggles to follow, Joseph challenges us by beginning his story in 1957, with the Nation of Islam, a small cohort of radicals around Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, the stratospheric success of James Badlwin's literary career, an NAACP organizer by the name of Robert F. Williams, the dawn of decolonization, and the revolution in Cuba. Rather than a story of succession or declension, Civil Rights and Black Power's histories appear here as deeply braided and joined, often sharing the same organizational vehicles, publications, and personal biographies. Even if one disagrees with Joseph's judgements on individual figures or events, there's a real power to telling a nearly two decade long history of struggle, traversed by so many different personal and political itineraries, together as one single story.
Finally, after a couple of years of looking across the Atlantic with envy, Logic delivers its print issues to Europe! One of the most exciting little magazines to emerge in recent decades, Logic focuses its attention on the inextricable link between capitalism and tech. They also have a book series out with FSG Originals, the first four books of which are equally brilliant. Go subscribe!
Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon (Penguin)
One of the great novels of the capital. The reissue of his short, comic The Housing Lark this summer was nevertheless a sweet surprise. Four immigrants get together to save enough money to buy a house so they can get from under the tyranny of dodgy landlords and cold water digs. Except none of the characters are trustworthy or hard working and the plot follows scams, prat-falls, and near-misses, punctuated by evenings of rum-fuelled revery and tall tales. All set against a background of Rachman and Windrush.
The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley (Penguin/NYRB Classics)
Published in 1953 and set in 1900, this classic summertime novel is a palimpsest of nostalgia. A boy of eleven visits the inevitable English country manor of his rich friend. There the young protagonist becomes a messenger for two illicit lovers divided by class. The cost of war, class conflict, the strength and pain of being young are conveyed in evocative, witty prose that perfectly recaptures for adults the strangeness, fear, and excitement of childhood.
Stalingrad by Vassily Grossman (Harvill Secker/NYRB Classics)
When the pandemic hit New York and the Sanders’ campaign came was swiftly defeated, I needed counsel against despair. I got one in Stalingrad, the 'red epic' rejoinder to War and Peace. Those opening sections of the book were pitch perfect for March and April: the feeling of history hurtling forward even as your own movements are arrested and your life locked in place. Don’t let the Cold War cover copy fool you. This is a very good book.
In The Distance, Hernan Diaz (Coffee House Press/Daunt Books)
I read this novel in my book club after having it recommended by three different friends and it did not disappoint. It's sort of an anti-Western Western that follows a young Swedish immigrant as he walks across America in the 1850s in an attempt to reunite with his lost brother. It's a page-turning, coming of age adventure but also a critique of frontier myths and the American dream and a lyrical meditation on solitude and loneliness; it's totally unique and beautifully written.
Winternight trilogy, Katherine Arden (Del Rey)
This series of historical fantasy novels are such a thrill to read! They are influenced by several old Russian folktales and filled with magic and Slavic mythical beings; the fantastical elements are woven into stories of political intrigue, complex family relationships and nuanced depictions of magical power. You never stop rooting for the young woman heroine, though she's a complicated and flawed character, and the brutal depictions of the violent world she lives in are detailed and compelling.
Boy Parts, Eliza Clark (Influx Press)
This book is actually quite horrible, and I loved it. Irina is an artist and photographer, finding men (from all sorts of bizarre interactions in her hometown of Newcastle) to take explicit photos of. Placed on sabbatical from her dead-end bar job, she is offered an exhibition at a trendy London gallery. As her grasp on reality weakens, her spiral of self-destruction and violence matches perfectly the grimness of the art world. Disturbing and dark, it made me laugh out loud and also wince at the same time. A truly unique book from a brilliant indie press (Infux).
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong (Penguin/Jonathan Cape)
Written as a letter to his mother, this novel weaves together wounds of colonialism and war with fraught relationships underpinned by great love, trauma, and shared experiences of otherness. The prose is beautiful and gentle in places, yet powerful and brutal. This is as much a book about race, class and masculinity, as it is about survival and possibility. Pain and hope leap from the pages in equal measure.
Plainwater, Anne Carson (Vintage)
Reading this in the spring during the UK's first lockdown, there were fewer cars on the road and the birds seemed to be having a good time. It certainly felt easier to slow down, and I would recommend reading Plainwater as slowly as possible. There's a lot of space in this book, which is subtitled 'essays and poetry' – space to think, an evasive but desirous anthropology of water, a pilgrimage to Compostela in Spain, loose odes to the ancients: "Now Ovid is weeping. Each night about this time he puts on sadness like a garment and goes on writing."
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (Penguin)
Written in dialect and set in the post-Civil War South, Hurston tells the lush whirlwind story of Janie Crawford's life. Janie's sense of personal autonomy drives her life's journey, through love and heartbreak, always striving for a state of freer consciousness. I read this book back in January but it has stayed fresh with me, funny, so sad and deeply felt. Hurston has a light touch; whilst Their Eyes proffers no spoon-fed history, I came out the other side of reading this book feeling like I'd taken a momentous journey with Janie.
Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami (Picardor/Europa Editions)
I knew I wanted to read this after the author very calmly and eloquently took Haruki Murakami to task for his often sexist portrayal of women. The story explores Japanese patriarchy, womanhood, motherhood, class, sexuality,…. in a way that is never preachy or polemical, often leaving big questions asked and unanswered. Also the scene with literal eggs is just *chefs kiss*
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Yasunari Kawabata (FSG)
A spare and evocative master stylist of 20th-century Japanese letters. The men in his books all long for something; the women are ciphers of desire instead of people -- but he's not a master of character, he's a master of the smallest gesture that grants a world of meaning. That great gift is on full display in these exquisite stories -- so short they fit in the palm of your hand.
Counternarratives, John Keene (New Directions)
I have never read a more brilliant evocation of the violence of history than these short stories, each taking a character, a point, an aesthetic, a sensibility in the long history of colonialism, slavery, and partial emancipation in the Americas and across the Atlantic. I read the opening story, "Manahatta," during lockdown in New York, and it gave me back the city -- the maroon and radical meeting city that has always been here and which isn't always visible.
The Madman of Freedom Square, Hassan Blasim (Comma Press)
I just discovered Hassan Blasim, and this is his first collection of short stories from the amazing Comma Press, a publisher based in the north of England, focussed on translated short stories. Blasim is the kind of writer where people throw around references to Borges and Kafka, but they don't capture his singular documentation of the experience of an Iraqi in the midst of war, sanctions and exile. It's simultaneously terrifying, rooted and fantastical.
Kindred, Octavia Butler (Beacon)
The horrific science fiction story that uses an unexplained time travel narrative device to explore slavery in 19th century America. Ugly, frightening and utterly essential.