Verso Staff Picks 2022
Our favourite (non-Verso) reads of the year, chosen by our teams in London and New York!
Clash of Empires: From 'Chimerica' to the 'New Cold War' by Ho-fung Hung
This is the first serious attempt at a materialist explanation for the degradation in US-China relations that I've come across. Hung's thesis is that American businesses stopped the US state from pursuing a containment strategy against China so they could enter the highly lucrative Chinese market. But since 2010, US businesses' orientation towards China has changed as they've become increasingly frustrated with technology theft and the state's support of their Chinese competitors. With US businesses no longer lobbying for Chinese interests, the American foreign policy elite has been let loose to pursue a hawkish containment strategy. As a bonus, the book is under 70 pages for those of us trying to hit our end-of-year Goodreads goals…
Keeping the House by Tice Cin
This is Cin's debut novel and it crackles with the buzz of Tottenham's high road across the nineties and into the noughties, all the tastes and smells and sounds that Cin is so good at rolling around given her poetic expertise - you feel as much as read this book. The use of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot words and phrases fully integrated into the text (with their English translations written in small around) adds to this sense of feeling the words, no footnote interruptions, straight to the cabbage heart of the matter.
Lapvona Ottessa Moshfegh
Set in the past or perhaps the future, a time comprehensible thanks to the nastiness of rulers and encompassing all of their playful and breathtaking cruelty, Lapvona is glorious, shocking and absolutely one of the funniest and strangest books I have ever read, even including all of Moshfegh's other books, which I love and are also very funny and strange. But this one wins.
Absence by Lucie Paye
In Absence, Paye's debut novel (translated from French this year), the author simply and beautifully interweaves two narratives to explore the relationship of the artist to their work, moving deeper to consider who this artist might be and how their 'work' aligns with the creative process.
Paye exercises such restraint that the secrets hidden deep in the narrative remain elusive, appearing in poignant flashes and tapping into this notion of who the artist might be, and what the creative process means for them.
Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac
Lucien de Rubempré is a vain young man of literary ambitions who flees scandal in the French provinces for Paris. Abandoning the committed, idealistic writers who befriend him, Lucien squanders his talent in a self-destructive spree in the early years of the Bourbon Restoration. He becomes a creature of the yellow press, an arriviste built up and tossed aside by double- dealing editors and publishers.
Giving depth to this sordid vision is Balzac’s insistence that there persists a genuine paradise of literary ideals lost to this flawed hero in his plunge toward moral and physical squalor.
Like by A. E. Stallings
Stallings is a “new formalist,” apparently, which means her poems scan and often rhyme, which I like. The great test of poetry is whether you’re moved to memorize it, and were you to recite it drunkenly one night, is there any chance you might impress rather than alienate a listener? Stallings’s work hits the mark.
The standout poem here is “Half of an Epic Simile Not Found in Hesiod.” It’s about a woman getting her hair done: “And all she asks for is a color adjustment, / For rays of honey to eclipse the grey, / And for the light to lengthen just a little.”
A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch
The waters of Murdoch’s oeuvre are as treacherous and polluted with her writerly eccentricities as they are invigorating and fun. If you’re not familiar with her novels, choose your point of entry with care. This one is a great place to dive in.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat is the story of a wager. A cold-bloodied genius (a recurrent type in Murdoch) bets he can manipulate the love lives of a small circle of friends to demonstrate how tenuous are even the strongest bonds of affection. His playthings are a cast of leisured, highly educated characters who never seem to do a moment’s work (again, typical of Murdoch), each of them brought to life with a clarity actual existence rarely offers.
Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the Edge of Taste by Carl Wilson
On the one hand, this hilarious extended essay on Celine Dion explores the nature of taste, covering Bourdieu and various notions of cultural capital. On the other, it’s a story of a brokenhearted snark-master of a music journalist getting in touch with the feels on a commission to write about an artist he has always disdained. Along the way, you might be moved along with Wilson to think better of maligned Dion — advocate of New Orleans looters, comforter of Elliott Smith, idol to some deeply sympathetic fans. It’s always good to run a snobbery-check on your convictions.
Ways of Being by the brilliant James Bridle, author of New Dark Age
Transforms the way we think about the idea of intelligence. With the rise of AI we have to think about what is knowing - and Bridle finds it in many different ways: trees, mushrooms, octopuses, but also in collective intelligence - the origins of machine learning, the power of sortition to the internet of animals. It introduces a strange world that we are barely starting to comprehend but offers a radical vision of the future.
Survival of the Richest by Douglas Rushkoff
Explores how the superrich are future proofing their privilege. It is a journey into hubris and the absurd. But the most telling truth that resonates through the book is that the billionaires are most concerned that when the end of the world comes their human servants and guards will turn their guns on them, and they can't do anything about it. It is a morality tale for our times.
Show Me the Bodies by Peter Apps
This is the most chilling and unforgettable piece of investigative journalism into the Grenfell fire tragedy. Everyone should have to read this book in order to understand how far and deep the callous disregard and corruption reaches in today's London towards its most vulnerable. This book is an extended witness statement for the prosecution.
Small Fires by Rebecca Mae Johnson
The radical potential of the small fires that burn in our appetite, kitchen and mind come alive in this beautifully written, gentle polemic. Traversing gender, domesticity, politics, and the body, Small Fires is a delightful combination of memoir, theory and food-writing. Like the tomato sauce Johnson has cooked a thousand times (Marcella Hazan's), it is to be savoured!
I'm a Fan by Sheena Patel
Obsession and toxic relationships take the focus in this explosive debut. Structured as short, diary-like entries (with delicious titles like "Vienetta really is the epitome of luxury" and "I might look innocent but I screenshot a lot") the pace of the novel takes on palpable urgency as the protagonist's infatuations take hold [one of the most interesting being the hours she spends scrutinising the Instagram of “the woman I am obsessed with”, a white influencer with a perfectly curated life]. Under-pinning all of this is a razor-sharp critique of the relationship between race, power, social-media, desire, and influence. A brutal and addictive novel.
London Feeds Itself edited by Jonathan Nunn
It's not often you see ‘limited to two copies per person’ in a bookshop, which should tell you everything you need to know about this brilliant collection. This is a book about food and food culture in London; explored through its marginal spaces, set against a backdrop of rapid urban change. From shopping centres to mosques, community spaces to allotments, the thrill of food and eating comes alive —without a "landmark restaurant" in sight. Contributors include Rebecca Mae Johnson, Owen Hatherley, Melek Erdal, Jeremy Corbyn, and Zarina Muhammed. Good luck getting a copy!