According to Goodreads, I read 64 books this year. Here are the few which I most enjoyed: books which have bored a hole and nested inside my mind, books which I know I will remember fondly in years to come.
Where possible I have added links to places where you can buy the book, and most of these link to Bookshop.org – if you purchase the books there then it helps to support independent bookshops (plus I get a tiny cut).
The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
I think my very favourite was this novel by Japanese-American Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki. This is the second of her books that I’ve read, both have absolutely blown my mind. Although it is a gripping adventure story, it is also a book about books, punctuated by wonderful quotes from Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” (quotes which make me think: I need to read some Walter Benjamin).
Our hero is American teenager Benny, whose Japanese jazz-playing father died when he was 11, and whose mother’s life is falling apart as she fills the house and then the garden with useless junk, while obsessing about the news stories she is paid to monitor. When objects start to talk to Benny he is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which seems very unfair as to us, the reader, it seems that these objects (including the book we are reading) really are talking to Benny.
In an institution he falls in love with an older girl Alice (who prefers to be called the Aleph) who, once they are back on the outside, introduces him to a wheelchair-bound hobo called The Bottleman (who turns out to be a famous Slavic poet). They break into the local library and hang out there at night, with the help of the poetry-loving cleaning staff.
Meanwhile, somebody gives Benny’s mum a book, by a Japanese nun, called “Tidy Magic”, a book that is “woke to the fucked-upedness of carbon-based consumer capitalism that was wrecking the planet”. Slowly, things begin to change for her, and for Benny.
Have I described this book well? Probably not, you’ll just have to read it. To quote the Aleph “it’s kind of esoteric, I probably should have made it clearer”.
Oh, it also recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.
Buy The Book of Form and Emptiness at Bookshop.org
The Matter With Things by Iain McGilchrist
Although this is a list of books I’ve read this year, I’ve still not finished The Matter With Things, despite starting it exactly 12 months ago. I’m barely halfway through its 1,600 pages, and yet it has changed my life.
Like McGilchrist’s earlier book The Master and His Emissary, it is premised upon the difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Some may turn off at this point, saying “all that hemisphere stuff has been disproved”. But no. Things are certainly not as simple as “the left hemisphere does language and the right does creativity”: both hemispheres contribute to both. But each hemisphere has a very different way of apprehending the world (McGilchrist backs this up with scientific studies, literally thousand of them – the book has over 5,000 references).
McGilchrist’s argument is that the perspective of the left hemisphere, which breaks the world up into “things”, has become overdominant, while the right, which sees the world as a gestalt, treated as inferior. He goes on to explore (mostly in the parts I’ve not got to yet) the effects that this has upon philosophy, metaphysics, and religion.
Among his contentions is that the materialist (“left-brain”) view that the universe is all stuff‒ and that all stuff is made of smaller stuff, and if you put enough of the right stuff together in the shape of a human brain then somehow consciousness emerges‒is nonsense. We split the universe into “things”, such as atoms, and split time into “moments” purely as an aid to getting things done; in reality, there are no things, only processes, all feeding into one another. His alternative to the materialist viewpoint is that perhaps the universe is “made of” consciousness, and that matter is an emergent property of this universal consciousness. This theory has, I gather, been long expounded by the likes of Jeffrey Kripal and Anthonty Peake, but it was new to me. And the fresh perspective it offers has fed into so much of my thought this year.
The materialist, logical-positivist, scientismist Dan Sumption of a few years ago is no longer a thing. This book has been part of the process of un-thinging me. And I think that I am becoming panentheistic.
Buy The Matter With Things at Bookshop.org
The Vorrh by Brian Catling
How can I possibly describe this novel? A fantasy set in a version of Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century, on the borders of a strange, apparently limitless, soul-killing forest called The Vorrh. The forest is exploited by colonialists in the neighbouring town because, of course it is, that’s what colonialists do. They send slaves in and out daily, swapping the slaves’ lives for the forest’s wonders.
The book is dark, so dark: it opens with a man deconstructing his lover’s body in order to make a longbow from it, because this is what she has instructed him to do. There are scenes addressing issues of racism and slavery which may be triggering for some. But it is also strangely beautiful, almost painfully haunting.
The cover is decorated with laudatory quotes from Big Names. Terry Gilliam says that it “makes me realise how little imagination I have”, while Alan Moore calls it “the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy”. Iain Sinclair says that it “rearrange[s] the molecules of your being, turning your eyes inside out”, Phillip Pullman praises its “unbounded vision and imagination”, and Tom Waits is “glad to have the book as a companion on my own dark quest”. I think they’re all right. But, even more than with The Book of Form and Emptiness, I’m at a loss to explain how or why. Read it, if you have the nerve.
Seventeen: Last Man Standing by John Brownlow
Sometimes I just want to kick back and enjoy a good thriller and, wow, what a rollercoaster ride this book is. “Seventeen” is a 007 for the 21st century, a licensed assassin, who himself becomes prey for his predecessor “Sixteen”. The book is gripping, smart, surreal, cinematic, often funny, bang up-to-date, and surprisingly well-informed (when Brownlow writes about gadgets‒from computers to cars to guns and explosives‒there’s a sense that he knows exactly what he’s talking about, which is rarely the case in books of this genre).
Weaving Fate: Hypersigils, Changing the Past, & Telling True Lies by Aidan Wachter
This book was recommended to me by a witch. I used it to cast a spell. It worked.
Buy Weaving Fate at Bookshop.org
What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Rupert Callender
In a year in which I have been thinking a lot about death, and completed foundation training as a Death Doula, this was a very welcome read. Part autobiography of a “punk undertaker”, part critique of the way we currently deal (or fail to deal) with death, and part rage at the financialisaton of the funeral industry. A necessary read for our times.
Buy What Remains? at Bookshop.org
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard
This is an incredibly short book‒about an hour’s read‒which appears to be a history book except… suddenly it doesn’t. Fascinating both for the history it tells, and for the way in which it reveals all history to be a lie.
Buy The War of The Poor at Bookshop.org
Cosmic Trigger 1: Final Secret of Illuminati – Robert Anton Wilson
A book that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and that has changed the lives of many people I know. This is supposed to be a list of the best books I read this year and, to be honest, this isn’t one of them. It has dated very badly (published in the late 70s, it’s almost as old as me; it predicts, among other things, that by the year 2000 humans will be effectively immortal). However it contains plenty of mind-blowing passages, and for those bits alone it merits inclusion here.
Buy Cosmic Trigger 1 via its publishers Hilaritas Press
Not a single book but a small press which puts out about ten chapbooks per year, each containing one short story (usually creepy, often surreal, often experimental). Publisher Nicholas Royle is rightly esteemed for his ability as a curator of such stories, and every single one of these books is a banger.
Visit Nightjar Press’s websites to see all available chapbooks
Revisiting the past
I am not a big re-reader of books: addicted to novelty, each book I re-read means that I get to read one less new book. This year though I made a conscious effort to revisit stuff I’d enjoyed before (most of it many many years ago) to see how it had aged. Like a fine wine, it turned out. Particularly in the following cases:
Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
This sprawling saga, which I previously read in the mid-90s, tells of the very different lives of three boys who grew up in the small Canadian village of Deptford in the early 20th Century: Dunstan Ramsay, Percy “Boy” Boyd Staunton, and Paul Dempster. A rogue snowball, thrown in 1908, has an impact which determines the course of these three men’s lives over the next 60 years. All three novels are told from the perspective of the end of this period – the first, Fifth Business, is narrated by Ramsay on his retirement as a teacher. The second, The Manticore, is told by Staunton’s son David as he recounts his life to his psychotherapist, and the third, World of Wonders, involves a cast of characters making a film which stars Dempster (now reinvented as the stage magician Magnus Eisengrimm).
I absolutely love generation-spanning sagas, and this is one of the best I’ve read. When I reached the end, I was sorely tempted to go straight back to the beginning and read the lot for the third time, always the sign of a good novel.
Buy The Deptford Trilogy at Bookshop.org
The War with The Newts by Karel Čapek
This book from 1937, which I last read around 2000, is justifiably a classic. Told in epistolary form, it covers the few years between the discovery of a new species of amphibian humanoid living in the seas around a pacific island, and the subsequent war triggered by humankind’s thoughless exploitation of the passive and rapid-breeding “newts”. Like The Vorrh, a powerful allegory upon the things humans’ will do to turn a quick buck.
Buy War With The Newts at Bookshop.org
This Is The Place To Be by Lara Pawson
A memoir, but unlike any other memoir I’ve read. Pawson was, for a decade, BBC Foreign Correspondent in Africa, and the book includes recollections of her experiences there. But the compelling short anecdotes which make up this book are not arranged chronologically, nor with any regard to where they happened. They build thematically, hopping sometimes from the war in Angola to childhood in London and back again. Pawson’s raw honesty and soul-searching as she grapples with issues of inequality is humbling. Plus she is also often laugh-out-loud funny.
Buy This Is The Place To Be at Bookshop.org
Four Quartets by TS Eliot
During lockdown, I started to learn these four poems – Eliot’s masterpiece – by heart. Since then they have spoken to me almost every day, and I am forever finding new depths in them, and reflections of them in the world around me. This is a book which I will continue to read for the rest of my life.
Buy Four Quartets at Bookshop.org
I also started reading children’s books, for the first time since my now-grown-up children were not grown up. I was humbled, and learned a lot, from the way that really good children’s’ authors manage to pack so much meaning and emotion into such simple, concise pacakges.
Momo by Michael Ende
Ende is best known, if at all, for his book The Neverending Story – or rather for the film of the book. But Momo is his masterpiece. Mysterious orphan Momo has a gift for listening. And when others tell her their stories, those storied somehow become filled with life and liveliness. As Momo plays with the children of the town, a group of mysterious bankers – the Grey Men – have persuaded the adults to “save” time. They do this by cutting from their lives all unnecessary activities such as caring for pets, the disabled, and elderly relatives. It is down to Momo and the children of the town to educate the adults about what’s really important.
Certainly not just a children’s book, it is a favourite read of many adults including former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland. Philosopher David Loy and literature professor Linda Goodhew wrote an article about the book which calls Momo “one of the most remarkable novels of the late twentieth century” and says “one of the most amazing things about Momo is that it was published in 1973. Since then, the temporal nightmare it depicts has become our reality.”
Odd and the Great Bear by James Roose-Evans
A very personal choice this, it was a book given to me by my grandparents when I was around 4, subsequently lost, and then searched for the whole of my life. It transpires that I had been looking for it under the wrong name.
It was a joy, 50 years later, to read this tale of a little bear called Odd, who goes on a quest to find another bear, in order to find out what it means to be a bear. Odd is told that a great bear called Arthur once lived in Wales, and is now said to be buried beneath a mountain. Many others have searched for Arthur, but they were all looking for gold, jewels, or a round table; Odd is simply looking for another bear to tell him how to be a bear.
I’m getting goosebumps writing this.
After rediscovering this book, I discovered that its author James Roose-Evans was still alive, at the age of 94, and so I wrote him a long letter. I got a lovely card in return. I am so glad that I found it when I did, as James died just a month later.
[You’re going to have to head over to eBay or to a second-hand bookshop if you want to find a copy of this]
Bogey Beasts – Sidney Sime
A very singular book, 100 years old this year, which I have owned and treasured since childhood. Sime is best known for illustrating the fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany in the early 20th century. In this book he illustrates his own poems about fantastical creatures, each of which is then set to music. I dug it out for the first time in years and revelled in the pictures – quite unlike anything else in the world. I wrote a blog post about it here.
You’d be very lucky to find this on eBay, and copies now go for around a thousand pounds, but some kind soul has made a video with all of the illustrations and poems set to the music in the book – the first time I have actually heard the music, despite owning the book for decades.
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