Books of the Year 2014: Chosen by Verso

It's that time of the year again; Verso's team on either side of the atlantic have laid down their VERSO books just long enough to recommend the NON-VERSO books they've found the most memorable, moving and inspiring in 2014!

Citizen: An American Lyric
Claudia Rankine, Graywolf Press

It’s been received as a symphony of microagressions—a timely inquiry into everyday racism, but it zooms from twilight glimpses of awkward intimacies to world-historical concerns—in a fascinating, mysterious, perfect blend of fiction, nonfiction, lyric, and image curation. 

Chubz: the Demonization of My Working Arse
spitzenprodukte, Montez Press

Obscene, hilarious and sharp-eyed, spitzenprodukte channels Stewart Home-meets-Alan Hollinghurst-meets Kathy Acker realness in a startling debut of 21st century Grindr modernism, set in a familiar, dystopian political landscape dominated by poppers addict Nigel 'Nige' Farage.

Spitzenprodukte says in an interview with Rhizome: "As for the fanfiction; well I think Owen Jones as a public persona is kinda an interesting avatar. To be honest, he's completely instrumentalised in the book, devoid of real agency as a character, and totally 2-D. But his book [Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, 2012)], and the way he has produced himself as a public figure from the publicity surrounding it, is for me a really interesting hook to talk about the disconnect between class, sex, and politics as a Question Time debate, and as lived experience in streets and shops and bedrooms."

Airless Spaces
Shulamith Firestone, MIT Press

Airless Spaces comprises Firestone's first collection of fiction—stark, sad and sometimes sly short stories about "airless spaces": mental illness and the institutions that seek to contain and cure it. The author of the feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex (Verso, 2015) paints compelling portraits of those in mental hospital, precarious lives after hospital, "losers", suicides and obituaries of people she knew, including Valerie Solanas. 

Also recommended on mental health is Hannah Black’s acutely perceptive and sad essay ‘Crazy in Love’.

Ann Quin, Calder Books

The lesser-known mid-century Modernist writer Ann Quin is often compared to B.S. Johnson. Her debut novel, Berg, was first published by Calder Books in the company of literature by writers such as Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco, Peter Weiss, Alexander Trocchi et al.

In the Guardian Lee Rourke writes: “Ann Quin's was a new British working-class voice that had not been heard before: it was artistic, modern, and - dare I say it - ultimately European.”

Juliet Jacques says in the New Statesman: “Berg remains most critically acclaimed for its imaginative take on the alienated male, lost within Brighton’s tawdry seaside-resort culture, and for its dark humour. Berg turns Freud’s Oedipus complex into high farce.”


A Girl is a Half Formed Thing
Eimear McBride, Galley Beggar Press

This dynamic novel deserves every word of praise and award that has passed its way this year.  "Blazingly daring" said the New Yorker, most of the London office have read this book and been absolutely blown away by it. It can be hard to get into at first, but once you're there it really is truly outstanding.

Heinrich von Ofterdingen 
Novalis, Waveland Press

Novalis’s great, unfinished Bildungsroman contains some of the most abiding images of early German Romanticism. A beautiful book made up of a strange mix of poetry, philosophy, fairy tale and some of the most magical German prose.

The Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury

The Men We Reaped is one of the most illuminating books I've ever read. Jesmyn Ward's unflinchingly devastating memoir chronicles the lives of five young black men in her rural hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi who died too soon. While the men died  from different causes, Ward's delicate and poetic prose yields intuitive disgust. It is clear that these deaths, rooted in the persistence of racism and its endlessly unquantifiable effects, are all intrinsically linked. Ward doesn't labor to deconstruct the role race plays in these deaths, or employ analytic terms to classify them as a tragedy; the stories are nakedly tragic. The Men We Reaped is a book that challenges readers to connect the dots themselves, in the sacred space that literature provides, free of talking heads and even academic intellectualizing that is usually relegated to a defensive position. I found myself wondering not why we are complacent with black deaththat is already apparentbut how can we afford to look away? 

Odes to TL61P 
Keston Sutherland, Enitharmon Press

Challenging and funny poetry drawing on themes of politics, love, desire, and a defunct Hotpoint tumble-dryer.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 4th Estate

A powerful, tender story of race and identity by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun.

"An extremely thoughtful, subtly provocative exploration of structural inequality, of different kinds of oppression, of gender roles, of the idea of home. Subtle, but not afraid to pull its punches" Alex Clark, Guardian 

Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol)
Breanne Fahs, Feminist Press

Brilliant, necessary context for the Manifesto with a wild cast of characters— Flo Kennedy, Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Ben Morea, Jeremiah Newton and the rest of the Factory crowd.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Harper Collins

This study of early human sexuality was completely fascinating and convincingly debunked many of our long-held assumptions about monogamy and sexual relationships. The authors do make a lot of assumptions and play into the concept of human nature as having one true origin, but it’s still a very accessible and informative study of human sexuality and makes the good point that we could learn to relax our modern social mores. 

Assata: An Autobiography

Assata Shakur, Zed Books

From civil rights activist to FBI's most-wanted ,this fascinating biography of a leading figure in the 70s Black Liberation Army is a must-read.

Esther Leslie, Unkant

Typically brilliant book from Esther Leslie, which contains some amazing passages on Kurt Schwitters, Walter Benjamin and other early 20th Century German luminaries.

Gentrification of the Mind

Sarah Schulman, University of California Press

An incredibly moving and empowering book on the relationship of queers to the lived environment in NYC, relating housing policy and gentrification in the city from the 90s onwards to the government and city's neglect of the queer population during the AIDS crisis. It's not just the city blocks that have been gentrified, Schulman argues: it's also the idea of a contestational, polymorphic queer identity itself, a queer subculture linked intrinsically to space. Some of the arguments fall flat, but the overall effect swept me up and opened my eyes to the devastation still wrought by apathy, indifference and bigotry. Anecdotes are like punches of consciousness: walking past a skip outside an apartment at the height of the crisis and finding it full of a playwrights unpublished manuscripts; a life's work, uncollected by friends and family, we're lead to assume, because all his friends are dead and his family uninterested. As a polemic, it's rich, engaging and very challenging.

The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

edited by Robert B. Strassler, Anchor Books

Herodotus is a surprisingly reliable historian and reporter, considering the shortage of lending libraries and WiFi in the fifth century BCE. Sure, he gets it wrong about the Hippopotamus (to which he attributes a mane), but he’s bang on the money with a whole lot else. The Landmark Ancient History edition is full of maps, illustrations, and notes, beautifully produced, so you never put a foot wrong in the ancient world and know exactly how much of Herodotus is backed up by modern research.

Norman Rush, Vintage Books

Reviews of Subtle Bodies, and a great NYT profile of Norman and Elsa, sent me back to Rush’s 1991 book. The narrator is totally compelling company, even if her and Denoon’s views of Marxism and (to a lesser extent) feminism now seem somewhat of their time. The novel tests the veracity of the narrator’s complex self-image, and her portrayal of love as a calculated, high-stakes strategy. 

The Slum Outside: Elusive Dharavi
URBZ, Strelka Press 

The ever brilliant Strelka Press list produced a wonderful short ebook from URBZ, a collective of researchers in Dharavi, the largest informal settlement in Mumbai. A radical re-imagination of the city's most misunderstood places.

Pavel Florensky, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press

Orthodox priest, art theorist and victim of the Stalinist repression, Pavel Florensky was one of the most refreshing and untimely thinkers to have discussed art over the past century. In this book, Florensky explains the origin, nature and meaning of Russian Icons, developing what seems at first a merely aesthetic analysis into a fully-fledged philosophical enquiry into the relationship between platonism, art and the limits of knowledge. If you want to know why a true artist must be a saint (and why a true saint must be an artist) this book is for you.

The Box
Marc Levinson, Princeton University Press

Totally engrossing economic history of the shipping containing. Firmly places containerization as one of the key developments in the development of today’s totally globalized capitalism.

The Decline of the West 
Oswald Spengler, Oxford University Press

A visionary philosopher of history and one of the most influential intellectuals of the 1920s, Spengler's personal involvement with National Socialism decreed the complete oblivion of his theories in the post-war, English-speaking world. Drawing equally form Nietzsche and from Goethe, in this book Spengler develops a daring, surprising, explosive theory of the development of civilisations. Take it as science fiction or as experimental literature, and you’ll love it.

Seeing Like the State: How Certain Scheme to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
James Scott, Yale University Press

Originally published in 1999, a thrilling read that takes everything for 18th Century attempts by the German state to regulate forestry to the present day urban planning. In a passionate attack on 'development theory' Scott shows that every time to state tries to quantify or centrally plan, it will fail. 

Nikil Saval, Doubleday

Cubed is a wonderful history of the workplace. But it is, in the end, more than where we work but also where we are organised. 

Stoner and Augustus 
John Williams, New York Review Books

NYRB Classics exhumed Williams’s 1956 novel Stoner a few years back, and reviewers and readers fell over each other to pile on the praise. I came late to the party, but couldn’t have enjoyed myself more. Augustus is Williams’s epistolary novel about the eponymous Roman emperor, a description that does scant justice to the pleasures on offer. Like Stoner, it’s a study of integrity retained against the pressures of the world—exultant, dizzying reading, with none of the dustiness that sometimes adheres to ancient history novels.

Museum Without Walls
Jonathan Meades, Unbound

Published by a crowdfunded model via Unbound, Jonathan Meades' book is everything you want Meades to be: a magpie eclecticism (the first chapter jumps from buzzards to Hamas via David Beckham within a couple of paragraphs), a glittering linguistic style that is nonetheless always precise, and his usual arch wit. But its charm lies in the fact it feels almost unfinished. This is unsurprising — it's an anthology of spiked articles, unused scripts and the like — but that also suits Meades' style, adding snippets of his broad cultural knowledge and unorthodox criticism to his general focus on architecture, spaces and the people who make them. 

The Missing of the Somme
Geoff Dyer, Phoenix

One of Dyer’s early books, this exploration of First World War memory is a rich collage drawing on anecdote, history, and academic study, seasoned with wit and personal observation. There’s a slight tendency toward glib overstatement and easy paradox. Is it possible to write that ‘the war’s true subject is remembrance’ without telling a bit of a fib? But this is to cavil: the book is a touching and thought-provoking memorial to those who died. 

Levels of Life
Julian Barnes, Knopf Doubleday

In Levels of Life Julian Barnes gives us Nadar, the pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer; he gives us Colonel Fred Burnaby, reluctant adorer of the extravagant Sarah Bernhardt; then, finally, he gives us the story of his own grief, unflinchingly observed.

"It is extraordinary... [It] would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world.” – Guardian 

Another Country
James Baldwin, Penguin Classics

Though written in 1962, Another Country’s commentary on the position of the black man in the US still feels more incisive than much of what populates the blogosphere and op-ed pages today, and with the recent mobilizations over the police killings of black men, it also feels particularly timely and relevant. 

Spinoza Contra Phenomenology 
Knox Peden, Stanford University Press

A brilliant piece of intellectual history. Challenges many of the preconceived ideas about 20th Century French thought as primarily concerned with a phenomenologically-inspired critique of reason, by re-reading the tradition through the great, and often neglected, French rationalists.  

Air Raid
Alexander Kluge, Seagull Books

A small masterpiece of exploratory fiction, Kluge traces the bombing of his hometown Halberstadt by the allies in WWII, recounting the horror on the ground and the logic of the airmen.

Marx on Gender and the Family 
Heather Brown, Haymarket Books

A long-overdue study focusing on Marx’s writings on gender. Appropriately critical of the lack of any systematic examination in his writing, Brown nonetheless convincingly argues that Marx differed significantly from Engels, and provided a nuanced analysis which could be the beginnings of a successful unitary theory of class and gender. 

Malign Velocities 
Benjamin Noys, Zero Books

This is a fascinating tour through the beginnings of accelerationism by one of the leading British philosophers, ranging from the futurists to Deleuze and Guattari and the extremes of Nick Land’s theory.

Be Here Now
Ram Dass

Describes one man's transformation upon his acceptance of the principles of Yoga and gives a modern restatement of the importance of the spiritual side of human nature.

The Sky Between the Leaves: Film reviews, essays, and interviews, 1992-2012
David Walsh, Mehring Books 

For many years now, David Walsh has been something of a film critic’s film critic. That a cultural critic in such a position is a socialist is not so surprising. But Walsh is neither a "conference communist" nor an ambitious social democrat, but rather an old line Trotskyist of the American section of the International Committee of the Fourth International—the in-house critic for the World Socialist Web Site. Film reviewing in North America is bounded by the same horizons as the most middling American progressivism, making Walsh’s popularity in these quarters somewhat remarkable. But one must spend only a little time with this collection—or searching through his archive on the WSWS—to understand the appeal his work holds for even those of utterly hostile ideological orientation. Though Walsh’s politics might be overly teleological, and his conception of film’s contemporary social role a little undertheorized,he is a sensitive viewer, a rigorous analyst, and inhabits the world from a serious, unfailingly materialist viewpoint—giving his reviews a concreteness and urgency that eludes almost all of his contemporaries.  

Samuel R. Delany’s autobiographical writing: 
Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (Bamberger Books)
The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1962 (University of Minneosta Press)
Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York (Fantagraphics)
1984: Selected Letters (Voyant Publishing)

Never much of a sci-fi reader, for many years, I slotted Delany into that (ever-growing) category of obviously fascinating writers I would likely never get a chance to read. As for many others I would imagine, the exception was Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, an essential part of both the urban and queer studies canons. When I finally got around to reading it earlier this year, I wanted more of his voice—warm, rigorously good humored, unfailingly intimate—and more of the flexible, scrupulous interpretation he draws from his own experience. I have since hovered up every volume that makes up his ongoing autobiographical project, which spans from his youngest years of writer to those of mid-career instability. An exemplary bohemian, a prefigurative queer theorist, and a systematic (if somewhat loosely committed) Marxian thinker, Delany’s reflections offer one of the most revealing windows into New York life (and artistic life more broadly) of the late 20th century. 

Other Festive posts that you may wish to read:

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