Verso Staff Picks of 2021
So many books! So little time! Ahhhh!
Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery by The National Trust
Perhaps the most controversial history book this year was a report from the National Trust, with a less than exciting title. It was enough to make many of the 'Great and Good' totally lose their shit. More fool them. It should be widely read. In particular it included the work of Corinne Fowler whose own book, Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England's Colonial Connections was a constant revelation and joy to read.
Variations by Juliet Jacques
I absolutely LOVED Juliet Jacques collection of short stories which used archival material to formulate a series of fictionalised accounts of gender queer people through history. I really enjoyed the differing historical snapshots that evoke how the personal is political, but also how the political is personal. My favourite story was Reconfiguration which explores how and why research in the early 20th century ignored trans-masculinity, and how rethinking this path can lead us to rediscover gender variant people throughout history who have previously been erased. A fun, thoughtful and creatively written collection.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
The book that most people have an opinion of, irrespective of whether they've read it or not. Well, I loved it. Intense melancholy, gripping tension, brilliant dialogue, and it's funny! Gentle intimacy builds into moments of fierce emotional energy that, in typical Sally Rooney style, are quietly devastating. I'm not tedious enough to argue over her Marxist credentials, all I will say is that the literary world would be a better place if there were more like her in it. A tour-de-force!
Make Bosses Pay: Why We Need Unions by Eve Livingston
A brilliant corrective to the idea that unions aren’t that useful or powerful any more. It shows what you can achieve with a strong union and importantly how we can build stronger and more effective unions. Its use of case studies provides inspiration and Livingston also provides a plethora of resources.
Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism by Amelia Horgan
This book shows how not just shit jobs are shit, but all jobs are shit, and the only way to improve them (bar full revolution) is a major campaign of unionisation across multiple sectors. In drawing parallels across different industries and facets of work, Horgan creates space for real solidarity and provides inspirational stories which also provide great tools and tactics. Importantly, in telling stories of workers winning, Horgan combats the capitalist realism of anti-union neoliberalism.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara Tuchman
The deeper this book takes you into the era — the rapacity of the ruling classes; the inability of the peasants to discern their own interests; the doublethink of popular faith, abetted by the church — the more clearly our own faces emerge amid the horrors in Tuchman’s mirror. When a man known as the ‘Butcher of Cessena’ is elected pope, she observes, ‘Perhaps at this point the fourteenth century was not quite sane’ — a warning from the past to an age that’s close to quite mad.
Simone Weil: An Anthology edited by Siân Miles
Readers who share the conviction that philosophers should make you uncomfortable might appreciate Weil’s bracing epigrams. ‘The Iliad or the Poem of Force’ is the standout essay, an analysis of the perverse psychology of fascism. But the bedrock is her concept of ‘attention’, an act of focused perception inspired by her reading of Plato: ‘We have to try to cure our faults through attention and not by will.’
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
In this latest novel Riley explores the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter with a blistering accuracy that is, on reflection, breathtaking. Her writing is sharp and uncompromising. Her talent for writing dialogue, unsurpassed. The cruelties of familial relationships are executed with a kind of clarity that is both jarring and entirely mundane. If this sounds miserable then maybe it is, for some! For others it is quietly revelatory.
The Service by Frankie Mirren
In two words: compelling and brilliant. I was hooked from the first couple of pages; drawn into the lives of these women (and the women around them) as they navigate the realities of a world that criminalizes their existence. There is so much woven into the tapestry of this book that speaks to the complexities of survival and work, as well as how dangerous misguided "feminist" perceptions of sex work can be. Intelligent and honest writing, fantastic pace, and brilliant characters; exploring women's lives, bodies, work, power, and more. I loved it.
The Netanyahus by Josh Cohen
Josh Cohen's The Netanyahus is a perfectly poised comedy of manners that made me snort more often than I wish to admit, with a delicious portrait of the future Israeli prime minister as a snotty, unruly brat. But hidden within the comedy is a very serious essay on the misuses of history, academic snobbery and the subtle violence of American antisemitism.
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut
It is difficult to categorise Benjamin Labatut's When We Cease to Understand the World. It is not quite a novel, an essay, a work of popular science, a philosophical warning against putting our faith in reason. It is, instead, all these things. It tells four interlinked narratives on key 20th century mathematicians - Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger- who all glimpsed the darkness at the centre of our rational construction of the world. It is a haunting book that remains in the imagination long after the final page.
The Bell by Iris Murdoch
Some Murdoch novels capsize under a surfeit of authorial eccentricities. The Bell, however, one of her earliest, plays to her strengths. An ensemble piece about a lay religious community attached to a convent (an analogue to Murdoch’s own relation to metaphysics), it’s a novel about flawed human beings told with insight and compassion. If nothing else, read the opening two sentences and enjoy their crisp concision.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
A fascinating and well-researched history of the culture and impact of evangelical Christianity. Surveying the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, Du Mez reveals how the idolization of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism have transformed modern Evangelicalism. While Trump's election is the starting point here, it's a much longer story. The focus on the influence of popular culture in contemporary American evangelicalism was a highlight.
Migrations by Charlotte Mcconaghy
A beautiful and devastating novel about a broken young woman who decides to follow the last Arctic terns in the world on what might be their final migration to Antarctica.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
A deserted wife descends into rage and despair, losing her sense of self, neglecting her children, poised on the edge of madness. It's such a blunt, angry, honest, darkly funny voice, I was completely hooked.
All our books are 40% off until January 4th, as part of our End of Year sale. Browse more reading lists here!
Verso Gift Guide: books to ignite radical ideas
Radical Futures: books to help us re-imagine new futures
The Year in 10 Books: we pick 10 unmissable books from this year
Abolition is the only solution: a reading list for breaking police power
I Do Not Dream of Labour: books that imagine a different working world