Ignota friends and family choose their books of the year! <3 As we near the end of a challenging year, we offer this list of books and pamphlets chosen by Ignota's friends and family that have accompanied their journeys.
See Part 2 here.
Intended also in support of the book trade, especially fellow indies, we've added links to Bookshop.org, which unites independent booksellers to provide an alternative to Am*zon, or directly to publishers' websites.
The Anthropocene is producing a remembered form of literature that unravels narrow definitions of the individual and the human to regenerate a transhumanism that has always existed in ancestral and Earth networks, and in oceanic awareness. M Archive: After the End of the World by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Duke) reconstructs the future of our world through a Blackness beyond the bounded knowledge of the capitalist episteme. When I want to think this way, I dive into this book.
Spinal Catastrophism: A Secret History by Thomas Moynihan (Urbanomic) traces the emergence of human consciousness through geological trauma and upright posture in a hypergenealogy of thought that sees our subjective differentiation from the external world internalized and re-rendered as technical exoskeleton. Looking into the deep time stored in morphology, this book seeks out the limits of a twisted future. A few dark drops go a long way.
M John Harrison has achieved his life’s work of balancing the novel at the fulcrum of fantasy and literary dreaming. Gill slits swim through all three of the books recommended here. In The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again (Gollancz) these are glimpsed through a poetry of midlives lost in the everyday madness of the mundane world. Two protagonists seek escape from their aimlessness and isolation, while elusive evolutionary mysteries slip through their fingers, at the edge of vision. An inspiration to escape genre tropes and tiresome human conventions.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's A Treatise on Stars (New Directions) is definitely my book of the year. This extraordinary text has an epic, cosmological scope. Berssenbrugge's generous and intimate contemplations on all life teach me most about the world and poetry. Amy McCauley's Propositions (Monitor) is a raw, reckless and performative take on the idea of a philosophical 'proposition' in the vein of Wittgenstein that I loved. Also, Kim Meong Jeong's sticky, sexy and strange Beautiful and Useless (Black Ocean), translated by Jake Levine and Soeun Seo, stunned and moved me.
Pico della Mirandola was the Mozart of Renaissance philosophy – he conveyed the zeitgeist of his age through a crystalline style, and he achieved immortal fame despite dying at the age of 31. His short text De Hominis Dignitate (Cambridge) is usually mis-translated as ‘On the Dignity of Man’ – it should read ‘Human’ instead of ‘Man’ and is a manifesto for a different, radical understanding of the human being: not a creature that could ever be locked within labels or identities, but the “great miracle” of a being that has no firm seat within the universe, no quality of its own, no other destiny but the tragedy of freedom.
Among the many poets of Sufism (the mystical branch of Sunni Islam), the works of ninth century mystic Al-Hallaj stands out for their passion, intellectual depth and technical refinement. Even when on the gallows, awaiting execution, it is said that Hallaj continued to recite his mystical verses, collected in Poems of a Sufi Martyr (Northwestern University Press). Hallaj suffered the brutality of political oppression and religious fundamentalism – but his influence on Islamic mysticism survived his death, and his work now stands as one of the pinnacles of Persian poetry.
Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language is a fascinating volume, from the ever-excellent Zone Books, exploring the final frontiers of language. Not the word that resounds, but the unutterable sound. Not plain meaning, but the unspeakable excess. Not memory, but forgetfulness. Heller-Roazen offers an insightful, erudite and highly readable exploration of the darkness that inhabits even our seemingly plain use of everyday language.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Penguin), Conversations with Iannis Xenakis by Bálint András Varga (Faber) and The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard (Fitzcarraldo) are three books all centered on duration and spatiality, offering insight on the limits of human perception. Whether regarding the space/time continuum (Rovelli), listening or (extra)musical language (Xenakis/Varga), or one’s existence as an animal on planet Earth (Hildyard), I found all three valuable for appreciating and navigating restrictions, imposed from without or within.
This year many of my anxieties were ameliorated by reading recent nonfiction about totalitarianism and the mess of democracy (How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley (Random House), How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Penguin), and Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone by Astra Taylor (Verso)) although Yoko Ogawa's 1994 novel, The Memory Police (Harvill Secker), has burrowed deeper into me than anything else. Set in one of the most unspeakably terrifying worlds I can think of, where things — peaches, music, novels — are systematically and totally forgotten by a complacent citizenry, I was stunned at the book's depictions of small joys. The birthday party in the hidden crawlspace, where the characters let themselves laugh too loudly, then worry the police will hear them, then forget and laugh again, is one of the most devastating scenes of human perseverance that I've ever read. My other favorite book this year was Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic (British Library), part of the British Library's Tales of the Weird series. I had no idea there was a genre that featured killer plants, zombie fungus, homicidally carnivorous flowers, and interspecies vampirism, nor that it would be so aptly descriptive of psychic and political unease, as only the best horror can do. Also, it was hilarious.
bulbul calling by Pratyusha (Bitter Melon), Hinge by Alicia Pirmohamed (Ignition), and Tongues, edited by Rehana Zaman (PSS), are three pamphlets (or publications, in the case of Tongues) that, whenever I opened them, vibrated with visceral, intimate and political messages and non-messages (signs). Three lines that slip out from these three spaces, before and beyond what a book could be, are: “some forests remind you of other forests” (Pratyusha). “Tonight, I am all joint and animal dark” (Alicia Pirmohamed). “We mother each other. We mother revolution. We mother.” (Aditi Jaganathan) What these lines tell me is that it's not too late. And that we're changing. And that we're not alone.
I loved we are opposite like that by Himali Singh Soin—the book is a conceptual and typographic wonder, a paratactical almanac of texts written during a residency in the Arctic Circle. Soin’s lapidary, fictive-factive prose exfoliates various Arctic imaginaries, from Coleridge’s Arctic-as-metaphor to the fabled icy origins of the Vedas, and a manifesto of ‘subcontinentment’ solidarity via South Asian Futurism. The excellent SPAM Press published their first book-length venture, portals by Rosie Roberts—part drizzly canicular love song, part Arcades Project, portals writes Glasgow like nothing else I’ve read, a city reassembled through overheard conversations, copses of thought, birdsong, fishy aggregations and collectivity as the bells of bodies chiming beyond their positions. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise of Stars was also a highlight, and I’ve loved discovering the cosmological poetics of Will Alexander. Fiction-wise I was devastated by Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (Norton), and my favourite slow burner has been The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Virago), very on the 2020 anchorite trend, but a sobering ~400 pages on the rainy economics of being a nun in 14th c. Norfolk. Top of my hopeful holiday reading pile is Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick (Bellknap).
The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Vintage) is one of the most extraordinary history books I've ever read. Norman Cohn uses seemingless endless accounts of popular religious leaders, visionaries and mystics, rebellious weavers, mutinous troops, angelic shepherd boys who were visited by angels and shoeless crusading peasants to extract from mediaeval European history a consistent line of spiritual rebellion against the church and the princes. After finishing it I felt like I understood in a much more comprehensive way not just the roots of the Reformation, but a myriad of lost possible worlds — some proto-communistic and utopian, others based in free love and others in chastity, some deeply antisemitic and others the corrupt charades of charlatans. Since its publication in the 1950s the book has been hugely influential on Christian communists and antinomian situationists alike.
As a sex satire and a look at the complexities of dominant/submissive relationships, Dining with Humpty Dumpty by Reba Maybury was a favourite read over a long locked-down summer's day. The book starts off as a class riot, as the dominatrix protagonist humiliates a Tory-boy client who dreams of eating until he's fat enough to become a human beanbag for sexy women. But as their relationship develops, her disgust with the sexual politics of her client grows as she realises his fantasy worship of quote-unquote powerful women feeds his sense of patriarchal power over women as they actually exist, and she decides to decides to force him through a regime of socialist-feminist re-education.
London Contemporary Music Festival: Igor Toronyi-Lalic and Jack Sheen
If 2020 was the year the world threw up on itself, Fitzcarraldo offered two premonitions: Fernanda Melchor's Hurricane Season and Ed Atkins's Old Food. Raining down on the reader a torrent of overconsumption, bodily fluids and multi-dimensional violence. Welcome to the old-new world of fishfingers on silver platters, bagged up bodies, buckets of piss, witches' potions and extinction. No one navigates the gnarliness of now better. Our find of the year is Goatwalking by Jim Corbett (Viking). You learn a lot about goats. But you learn even more about how to live—via deserts, Don Quixote and the Diggers. It's a manual, a memoir, a transcendental philosophical tract. And how can you not love a book that contains a chapter titled 'On Killing and Eating One's Friends'.
My 2020 selections highlight two books by Canadian poets. First, An Alphabet For Joanna by Damian Rogers (Knopf), a poetic narrative and portrait of a mother’s life in fragments. With themes of mother-child, love and separation, memory and forgetting, the violence and fragility of the world next to creative endurance shaped by love, it’s a book that will break your heart and mend it. Like Roger’s brilliant prose interanimated by form and image, Fred Wah’s Music At The Heart Of The Thinking (Talon) experiments with poetics as poem as reality-expanding creative possibility. In this verse and prose sequence written across books and forty five years, MHT is a poetics of process—as opposed to a poetics of knowledge—that directs our attention to the play of reality and time, as being led by words to where “the wickerwack of wonder prevails”.
A year in which I felt supported by the constantly rearranged piles of books, though I could barely concentrate to read them. Aside from those I was working on, not a single novel. Still, there were certain writers with whom I kept regular company for short spells: Fanny Howe’s bewildered love-work and faithful doubting (Divided published her Night Philosophy, “a minor politics around the figure of the child”, earlier this year). Etel Adnan’s poetry that parts the fog of present crises with verses like “hell is not the sole / owner of fire / we call history the wells / brimming with orgasms” in Time, translated by Sarah Riggs (Nightboat). And Fred Moten’s all that beauty (Letter Machine) for irreducible pieces on (dis)appearance in Black life and seeing through the smoke and mirrors of whiteness. A few pages of Renee Gladman’s Calamities (Wave) with breakfast—as a friend said, she’s one of the few writers worthy of a pandemic diary—became a healthy coronatime ritual. A chapter of Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life (Chatto & Windus) in which the analyst sits with an HIV patient in 1989 for sessions and sessions of attentive silence. I have turned frequently to writing related to psychoanalysis, for the ways that, as Jacqueline Rose describes in her recent Freud lecture, it goes face to face with death.
Himali Singh Soin
Ernesto di Martino's Magic: A Theory from the South (HAU), translated and annotated by Dorothy Zinn. Neopolitan philosopher, Ernesto di Martino, is a rare thinker who writes about the remnants of the invisible but omnipresent 'southern' worlds of magic, superstitions and suffering. His detailed descriptions of spells and local practitioners draw out an intimate, entangled world in which people find ways of coping and healing from a crisis of lost presence, a crisis that seems to resonate in this contemporary moment more than ever.
Much of my reading this year has been poetry, for obvious reasons. Danez Smith’s Homie (Chatto & Windus) didn’t disappoint. I went back to Anne Carson, and made some new (old) discoveries, particularly Crush by Richard Siken (Yale) and Recyclopedia by Haryette Mullen (Graywolf), published in 2005 and 2006. These are books with boots and bruises. Gigantic Cinema, the anthology of ‘weather’ poetry by Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan (Jonathan Cape), introduced me to many new poems and poets. Their unusual methodology leaves you not knowing quite where you are, but I grew to like it. Observing the strange sex lives of dragonflies led to an excellent recommendation: Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation (Vintage). (Humans are the most mundane of maters.) But the book that has haunted me all year, charted uncertain waters, made me work, kept my ears keen, is M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Silver), an epic poetry cycle that I have spent a lot of time with as co-publisher of a new edition, but have hardly begun to know at all. It still gives me shivers.
2020 didn’t feel quite so lonely thanks to two extraordinary new books by my ingenious friends: forthcoming on Deluge Books is Emily Segal’s Mercury Retrograde and just out on Ignota is K Allado-McDowell’s Pharmako-AI. Both books interact with the future.
In Mercury Retrograde, messages from hereafter come in the form of a visual shimmer across the protagonist’s perceptual field: a form of “future nausea” or “a distortion of the manufactured field of normalcy as it stretches to accommodate the future.” Future also speaks to Emily through eye twitches, which must be one of my favorite visceral moments in the book. She asks: “How are you supposed to operate when the scripts you’re running are not your own?” When, as subjects of late capitalism, we don’t have full control over our consciousness.
Pharmako-AI is written in collaboration with OpenAI’s neural net language model GPT-3. In the book, K inhabits the world of the AI, meditating on and experimenting with a language ecology that’s not limited to human meaning. The scripts running here are founded on spiritual, ancestral and ecological concerns as well as the idea of symbiosis between humans and machines. Together, the two authors imagine a post-cyberpunk future where the objective, in the words of GPT-3, “is to live in the expression of the universe in its own image, which is semiosis, or the creation of meaning.”
It's been a strange period for reading—at times I've been incapable of engaging with anything, too numb to really connect. So the books that really kept my interest have had to be potent enough to burst through the walls of panic and sadness. A new book which held my wavering attention from first page to last, has been Daisy Lafarge's Life Without Air (Granta). This book's poetry deftly melds nonhuman, environmental exploration with biting considerations of misogyny and toxic relationships. It's fiercely original, strange and vital. I also couldn't get enough of Jen Calleja's Goblins (Rough Trade), a slim pamphlet of non-fiction which looks at the ecstatic freedom of letting one's dirty, monstrous self come out into the light. Finally, I have gone back to Jamaica Kincaid's fiction throughout this year, especially Autobiography of My Mother (Vintage) and Lucy (FSG). The intensity, visceral honesty, and strength of her voice has reminded me why we bother—with reading, with writing, with living.
Jenny Hval's Girls Against God (Verso) is actually a divine book. What it's against is: the mediocrity of whiteness, the dichotomies forced by religious-academic-political orthodoxy, the constraints of language, hate as the only revolt against hate, AND MORE. Required reading for reformed (but still angry) teenage goths, filmmakers who have never made films, and people who are in love but have no current lover.
The epigraph of Byzantine Intersectionality (Princeton), a historian's book about sex, gender, and race in the Middle Ages, is a quote from Monica Lewinsky about slut-shaming. In the ensuing chapters, author Roland Betancourt takes you through centuries of debates about consent, queerness, and othering in Byzantium that help reframe stale contemporary conversations on the topics. Questions include: Did the Virgin Mary agree to be impregnated by God? How many medieval monks were trans? How were eunuchs gendered? Why did everyone think Empress Theodora was such a slut?
So many people recommended I read The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin) before I finally got around to reading it. And now I recommend the book, which is psychologist Bessel van der Kolk's expansive summary of decades of trauma research, to everyone else I know. Basically: your body knows things about your experience that you don't. Only by reading this (seemingly rather dry and analytic) book did I start to make the connections between somatics and mind, and it fucked me up. Read it immediately but make sure you're in a good frame of mind before you start.
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