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Ignota Books of the Year 2021: Part II

Ignota friends and family choose their books of the year! <3 As we near the end of another challenging year, we offer this list of books and pamphlets chosen by Ignota's friends and family, which have accompanied their journeys. Part I here.

As this list is also intended 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.

 

Susan Aberth

The Invisible Painting: My Memoir of Leonora Carrington by Gabriel Weisz Carrington
The Ghost-Feeler: Stories of Terror and the Supernatural by Edith Wharton
Succubations & Incubations: Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud (1945-1947) by Cole Heinowitz


Jaya Klara Brekke

Anam Cara by John O’Donohue (1996, Penguin): A stunning and soothing book that keeps reminding me of the wealth that springs from the quiet. I have been re-reading it this year in an entirely new light as I have been thinking and writing and working on what a ‘digital dark’ might entail. The book speaks of the encounter with nature, with the darkness before dawn and of the importance of interiority. I recently joined a major decentralised privacy project as head of strategy. And Anam Cara, apart from calming my racing mind, is also providing a trickle of inspiration for thinking about the growing importance of privacy as almost every action and interaction is becoming digitally mediated. It is giving me some perspectives on how important it is to ensure the possibility to remain unformed, also in the digital, so that we can remain free to not make our minds up, to not have a ‘take’, to not have to maintain our exterior, and instead simply be in what I somehow imagine as the soup of emergence.

Close to the Machine,Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman (1997/2013, Pushkin Press): What does it mean to be ‘close to the machine’? In this brief but essential book, Ullman gives us snippets and stories of life as a female software engineer just before Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley. What is incredible about reading this little book from 1997 today is that the seeds of all the big themes of contemporary digital life can be found in each of these entertaining stories. The beginnings of surveillance tech, the love for the ‘system’ over and above meatspace end-users, the cypherpunks and early dreams of anonymous digital currencies. For those of us with a foot in the world of cryptocurrencies, it is eerily familiar to read the vocabulary of one of her lovers, a young Brian, talking about arbitraging the US legal code to create an anonymous online banking system: ‘His obsession about the privacy of wealth is like my generation’s obsession about the privacy of identity, or sexuality, or belief, or the self’,  Ullman writes. The book is so incredibly refreshing for her personal perspectives and off-hand commentary as she compares cypherpunks to Yippies: ‘Boys being bad, what else is new.’ As Jaron Lanier writes in the introduction to this edition: ‘...a plain account of living with computation is hard to come by.’ As opposed to science fiction, this is a lived account of ‘what it felt like when humans were first engulfed by artificial computation’, as entertaining, incredible and insightful as only ordinary life can be.

New Money: How Payment Became Social Media by Lana Swartz (2020): While walking to the east London Turkish cafe to finish writing these three snippets, I found myself squinting blurry eyed while trying to see the people across the road. I realised I had spent most of my waking hours this week glaring at my phone, then laptop, then phone again, needing these devices to satisfy nearly every task or desire, which has now affected my eyesight. This excellent book by Lana Swartz discusses money as a medium. And with that seemingly simple intellectual twist, she opens up a whole new way to consider how the particular forms that money takes have major societal effects in and of themselves. From the building of nations to the stratification and control of social classes. And, I reflected, also on our bodies, my body. This has been a go-to book for me this year for thinking through cryptocurrencies, cashlessness and central bank digital currencies, and more.

I think a new type of awareness is increasingly required in our day and age, and it is the awareness of the mediums through which things are achieved, their historical specificity, and their ‘externalities’. All too often when considering digital technologies, the focus is on what can be achieved. Instead, the focus should be on how that particular way of achieving things comes with costs: to our spirit, minds and bodies, societal relationships and, of course, environments. These three books have provided me with a ground and compass for such reflections.

 

Jen Calleja

Blind Spot: Exploring and Educating on Blindness by Maud Rowell is part of the 404 Inklings series of pocket-size works of non-fiction, and is a fascinating essay that sets out to correct the erasure of notable blind people in history and reveal the bias awarded the sense of sight in society and culture, including in the appreciation of art. Rowell argues in the book that accessibility should not be an afterthought in any part of life, the sciences or the arts, but rather something integral that can make it possible for blind people to live independently, work, share in experiences with friends and family, bring insight across all fields of knowledge, experience art, and flourish – all of which are fundamental for one’s sense of humanity and dignity. études by the late Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker translated by Donna Stonecipher and published by Seagull Books a year before Mayröcker’s death is a mesmerising and mystical collection that gets closer than close to late-life consciousness through diary-entry-like poems piling up quotidian detail and idiosyncratic, almost absurdly humourous repetition. It is a whole world and in a league of its own, a feat of poetry and of translation.

 

Anne Duffau

This year I have been craving for more comic books to daydream and evade. I have discovered: Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong (2021), teenagers, basketball, hopes and revenge - Leong is a self taught talented writer and illustrator who creates immersive sceneries with acidic and pastels colours that will make you stick to the pages to the end.

I keep on returning to Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, published by American company Image Comics (2015-19). The colourist is Matt Wilson, the letterer and designer is Jared K. Fletcher, and the colour flatter is Dee Cunniffe. It is a sci fi adventure set in the late 80s following four paper girls on their bikes; they encounter other teenagers who are time travellers and make a life changing discovery.

The second comic book that I cannot stop returning to is Motor Crush, another sci fi action by Authors/Illustrators: Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr, Cameron Stewart (2017) – Domino Swift is the main character and she is a talented motorcycle racer, she competes with gangs at night in violent bike wars. 

I am impatient to read Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel: Noor which will be out on the 16th of Nov. 2021 following the character Anwuli Okwudili who calls herself: AO (Augmented Organism) and is using body augmentations to compensate for her physical and mental disabilities over the years. Set in a near-future Nigeria, she’s partially robotic and can defend herself.

 

Federico Campagna

You know you’re reading a great book, when halfway through it you begin to feel a surge of irrational resentment towards the author. Oh, if only I had written it! That’s precisely how I felt while reading I Miei Stupidi Intenti by Bernardo Zannoni, a 25-years old author at his first novel. It is the story of a weasel who is sold into slavery by his mother to a food-lending fox, in exchange for one and a half chicken. In winter, when starvation bites, there is no room for sentimentalisms – especially among the animals of the forest. And all the protagonists of the novel are animals; all, except two. The old fox who has taken the weasel as his own slave does not see himself as an animal. One day, years earlier, he found something in the forest that irrevocably changed his idea of himself. And the young weasel might be the only other creature in the forest who could take this gift and this burden off the fox…

Half-way between an enchanted fable, a brutal remake of a Pixar film, and a treaty on theology and violence, I Miei Stupidi Intenti deserves to be available to readers in all languages – yet, at the moment it is available only in Italian. Anglophone publishers don’t let it pass you by!

 My second choice is another great book, which is as-yet unavailable in English: Theophania, by Walter Otto, originally published in German in 1956. Today, in the English-speaking world, Walter Otto is known mainly as the teacher of Karoly Kerenyi and as an influence on Martin Heidegger. But his work deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated also in its own right. This short book, written towards the end of his life, beautifully summarises the main lines of enquiry that Otto pursued throughout his life as a scholar. Theophania talks about the existential experience of reality, as disclosed by the mythological and epic texts of ancient Greece. These are not only literary works, but they are the faithful reflection of a particular way of looking at reality, which makes it possible to become aware of the ineffable, divine and archetypal forces that swarm within it. Guided by Otto’s clear and lyrical prose, the reader will learn to read the Greek classics of art and literature with entirely new eyes, and to take seriously the image of reality which they convey. This is the best piece of Pagan propaganda since the time of Julian the Apostate.

 My third choice is a classic of late-ancient Mediterranean literature: The Alexander Romance. A mix of anecdotes, myths, letters, historical accounts and folk tales collected over the centuries, it hardly counts as a “book”. Rather, it is a broad narrative frame where the life and adventures of Alexander the Great are allowed to proliferate well beyond the limits imposed by history. In the Romance, Alexander’s story begins in Egypt, as the secret son of a Pharaoh-magician, and it proceeds beyond the edge of the map: in the Land of Wonders, among the giant desert-ants and the trees that vanish with daylight, in the valleys inhabited by monsters and prodigies, all the way to the complete darkness of the Land of the Blessed, which hides the secret location of the Spring of Eternal Youth. Best enjoyed together with its Arabic and Persian spin-offs (the popular Iskandarnamah and the section on Alexander in Ferdowshi’s masterful Shahnameh), the Alexander Romance is a great ancient classic that deserves to be rediscovered.


Hannah Gregory

Jackie Wang’s The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void has been assisting me in dreaming and writing deep; in not fearing the intensity of dreams, which is to say, the intensity of life. This poetry of dream translation – splinters of the unconscious brought to language – shows how an attention to our movements in dream worlds might guide us to exist differently in relation to others when wide awake. 


IONE

The Heart of the World: Travels in Tibet by Ian Baker
Future of the Ancient World: Essays on the History of Consciousness by Jeremy Naydler
Dawning Moon of the Mind by Susan Brin Morrow
All We Saw by Anne Michaels
The Narrow Road to the Deep North: and Other Travel Sketches by Basho 
The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz

Comforting beside my bed – drawn upon through their bindings, receiving through time/space – they are opening in me throughout – they are journeys that I continue through night and day dream time – comforting the traveller in me. 


Pam Grossman

A Helen Adam Reader, edited by Kristin Prevallet

 The marvellous Helen Adam is difficult to sum up, but in short, she was a witchy Scottish poet, playwright, and collagist who moved to the states with her sister Pat, and became part of the magic circle of Robert Duncan, Jess, Jack Spicer, and other kindred American occulture makers. Many of her supernaturally-infused poems were written and performed in the ballad tradition, and her reverberating readings of her own work were, by all accounts, chilling and exhilarating. Duncan wrote of her work, "At the heart of these poems there is a compulsive beat. It is the pulse the narrative poet contrives in her art to subject the listening intelligence to the story's spell." Her pieces are stuffed with witches, elves, ghosts, and beasts. Tarot and celestial images abound, as do gothic landscapes and chthonic gardens. From her Anne Boleyn poem, "A Swordsman From France":

...They called me the witch Queen
For a weird that is mine,
Six Fingers! Six Fingers!
A manifest sign!
Now broken and slandered,
Cast off by my Lord,
With the jewels of lost magic
I'll conjure a sword...
You know you want more of this poetry, and A Helen Adam Reader is the place to get it, along with wonderful interviews, essays, correspondence, and other dark Adam delights.

Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, by Michael Duncan et al.

I've been a longtime fan of the visionary painter Agnes Pelton's, so it's been a joy witnessing the world's recent rediscovery of her work, thanks to a traveling retrospective that kicked off at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2019. Though she only got her due posthumously, she didn’t work in isolation, as she was part of the Transcendental Painting Group which began in the 1930s. Deeply influenced by Theosophy and the mystical energy of the southwest, the TPG’s aim was to express esoteric ideas through abstract forms - and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Another World is an extensive exhibition celebrating the TPG's artists and their cross-pollinations, and it is currently making its way to various museums. Lucky for us, the catalog is available already, so those who would like to see this splendid work are now unbound from temporal and spatial limitations! Soon folks everywhere will be swooning over the chromatic, cosmic art of Emil Bisttram, Florence Miller Pierce, and Pelton’s other transcendent contemporaries. About time.

Darkly: Black History and America's Gothic Soul by Leila Taylor

Every now and again, one reads something that is so insightful and impactful that one's perspective is forever changed. Darkly is one of those books for me. Taylor writes from the perspective of a Black American woman who's had a life-long love affair with goth culture. At first she muses on the perceived incongruities that exist in holding this allegedly dual identity - after all, isn’t there some irony in her adoration for an aesthetic that is arguably very British and very white? But as the book unfolds and constellates between the work of such tenebrously tempered artists as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Edgar Allan Poe, Toni Morrison, and Jordan Peele, she makes the case that shadowy narratives can be a balm for deep melancholy and intergenerational trauma - and that Black people are perhaps the gothest of all. It's a brilliant examination of culture and identity, and a sharp, lyrical reminder that America truly is a haunted house.


Shoukei Matsumoto

If I were to pick a favourite English book this year, I would choose The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric.

I was deeply inspired by the question of ‘how can we become good ancestors’ in this book, which I translated into Japanese and published this year in Japan.

This book encourages us to cultivate ‘acorn brain', or long-term thinking. which is more important in this age of extreme short-termism. As a contemporary Buddhist from Japan, I would be happy if you change the way of life so that you can become better ancestors for the future generations.

 

Jay Springett

My recommendations for 2021 are the books that have left me thinking about them well after closing their back covers.

The Two Antichrists by Peter Grey: A deep dive into the partnership between Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard. The book is a fascinating account of their relationship and work. It includes some thought provoking and detailed original research and commentary. Concerned primarily with the lead up to (and aftermath of) the pairs' Babalon Working of 1946. The Two Antichrists is an important work for those wrestling with the legacies of Crowley, Parsons and the OTO. It is clear that if we are to claim influence from these figures we must also stay with the trouble and reckon with the legacy of L Ron Hubbard. The two figures (antichrists) in twentieth-century culture are bound to one another in ways that are difficult to tease apart. This is a book about space magick, psychosis, and cults.

Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki: I was extremely happy to read the news that Verso was bringing the collected writings of Izumi Suzuki to the English language for the first time and pre-ordered it immediately. Until this year I have only ever encountered her work through the eyes of others: either an actress through the lens, or via anecdotes and footnotes of her influence on other (mostly male) artists and writers working in late 70's-early 80's Japan. Terminal Boredom's stories articulate the contemporary anxieties of the culture they were embedded in. Mass media, gender discrimination, drugs, violence, and the growing influence of technology. It is not unfair at all to say this collection is an important proto-cyberpunk book and a must-read for fans of the genre.

Ledger: Poems by Jane Hirshfield: This slow, unfolding collection of poems was a gift from a friend that arrived in the early lockdown dark of this year. A gift that was very much welcomed and enjoyed. Hirshfield's poems are light, gestural – many have a quality of a bird riding the wind. Each poem seems to ask something of the reader: 'Here's an idea, and here's another, look at this, notice this, how does it make you feel?'. The poems in this collection concern themselves with a variety of topics including climate change, social justice, the plight of refugees etc. But, more importantly than the subjects of the poems themselves, the book's central thread asks us to reconsider our relationship to the wild, the world, to other people, and how we think about ourselves.

 

Leila Sadeghee

This year I chose to lead a group on a pilgrimage in the way of Mary Magdalene, and in preparation I finally read the gnostic text ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind’, and was summarily blown away. I had been looking to purchase Hal Taussig’s text and writings on it for years, but was put off by the price tag (it’s out of print). I dug a little deeper and found a whole mess of translations on the internet.

I love the weirdness of the phrasing of most transmissional texts, and this one is ideal for someone looking to orient to non-dual reality, or who loves the Divine. I love the amoral choice-less imperatives of this God-poem. I love how it makes nothing wrong in a sequence of paradoxes that embrace manifestations of spiritual immaturity:

Come forward to childhood, and do not despise it because it is small and it is little.
And do not turn away greatnesses in some parts from the smallnesses,
for the smallnesses are known from the greatnesses.
Wow. How helpful is that? We can learn from folks who don't have it all together. We can maintain spiritual self-confidence in the face of our own contracted behaviours. We don't need to look for a spiritual magic bullet, but can flow with the patchwork of smallness/greatness and embrace the movement itself. We can know the difference between smallness & greatness without collapsing into all or nothing. In a time when spiritual immaturity is arguably 'the problem' - well, at least it's propping up a host-world of insane oppression forces - , I think it's a useful reminder - maybe even a rule of thumb for navigating these times. For me it's a big deal to find an ancient text that doesn't easily lend itself to a kind of spiritual morality. It strikes me that it would be tough to wangle this one in that direction - it's a direct critique of that kind of dualism. This one, as I receive it, is an initiation to the Power that Is Creation. I want to work with it more, to recite it aloud, and see how it wants to work on my system.

Mark von Schlegell

Reading goes well of late. But it's not so easy to find surprising, well-edited, portable editions of classic literature any more. Happily I managed to pick up Dr. Jenny DiPlacidi's Mathilda & Other Stories by Mary Shelley (Wordsworth) at Treadwell’s in London, just before travel became impossible. Blacklisted and forced to work anonymously, the author of Frankenstein nevertheless continued to write weird fiction all her days. The work is surprisingly unknown. In today’s context, Shelley’s fearless, post-Gothic, death-metal tales of possible female survival (sprinkled with science fiction) shock with relevance and clarity.

As travel resumed, I was lucky to catch Georgia Sagri’s tour for Stage of Recovery (Divided Publishing) when it passed through the Rheinland. I like how the book comes without editorial apparatus or explanation. The texts speak for themselves, raw shards of a communal, political history the writer/artist/activist has lived and critically engaged in the moment. Immediate, mournful, full of love and humor, this scrappy volume occupies the future with the just-past it can't escape.

If I had been able to read the translation of Un-Su Kim’s first novel The Cabinet (Angry Robot) before encountering the author’s first Englished meta-noir The Plotters (HarperCollins), I wouldn't have been so surprised by the latter's later pages. I've only started this strange book, and it's even more original …

 

Something Other: Mary Paterson, Diana Damian Martin and Maddy Costa

‘It was generally believed,’ writes Eliot Weinberger in Angels & Saints (New Directions, 2020), ‘that angels have neither biological bodies – although they do emit a heavenly fragrance – nor are they entirely incorporeal.’ It is no surprise that this book about impossible beliefs appealed to me at a time when the world was combatting an invisible and ever-mutable threat. The philosopher C. Thi Nguyen says that although the scientific method arose from the principle that people can test ideas themselves, it has created a body of knowledge that is impossible for any individual to comprehend; instead, we must trust other people’s scholarship. In other words, we no longer live in a world structured by spirituality but we do live lives filled with belief. Weinberger’s book is a poetic compendium of centuries of thought, from the biblical to the mythical, beautifully illustrated with illuminated manuscripts (with an explanation by Mary Wellesley). It is a small flavour (a heavenly scent) of the human endeavour to make sense of the mysteries of existence. 

‘I am writing also to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction’, writes Julietta Singh in The Breaks (Daunt Books 2021), a love letter on survival in the interstices of multiple futures and pasts. This is not only a book about what binds us together, and what climates our bodies and worlds might carry into an uncertain future, but also how tending to breaks might offer us fierce models for queer love. Singh moves with fiery beauty in the languages of relation that we carry with, in the openings that care offers, and in the knowledges that move through care and love. 

Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Serpent’s Tail, 2019) slips between the sheets of the archive to hear the lives of black womxn at the beginning of the 20th century in new ways. Refusing the contemporary and historical insistence on deprivation in both the economic and moral sense, Hartman sees instead a series of energetic attempts at different ways of living, communal, feminist and queer, predating later sexual and political liberations by several decades. What she writes about theatre – ‘a domain of collective bodies, kinaesthetic experience and gestural language’ – could be a description of the book as a whole, which brings the rhythms of jazz to its movements, felt in a resistance of linearity and objectivity. It is a powerful vision of how past and future are deeply entangled, and how visioning emerges from different capacities to listen, feel and form.

 

The White Review

I read a lot of sci-fi this year, and one book in particular really captured my imagination: The Hair-Carpet Weavers, by Andreas Eschbach. Written in 1995, and translated from German by Doryl Jensen, the novel begins in a universe where craftsmen dedicate their lives to weaving carpets from their wives’ hair. Their intricate designs, laboured over for thousands of hours, are sold upon completion to representatives of a mysterious and revered emperor, the proceeds of the sale used to fund the next generation of hair-carpet weavers. Where the carpets end up remains a mystery, until it's revealed that the emperor is dead, and the myriad carpets are being used as part of an astonishingly grim vendetta. The book takes on grand subjects: the fall of empire, the fate of the individual worker in the face of a gargantuan political system, the deification of ideologues, and the profound difficulty of breaking free from indoctrination. But the way in which Eschbach depicts the everyday lives and craftsmanship of the weavers themselves, the beauty, skill and futility of their labour – and the extent to which workers and their families give over their lives, hair and all, to a failed and inhumane political project – is now permanently etched onto my imagination. – Rosanna Mclaughlin

I loved reading Gina Apostol’s ultra-elaborate novel Insurrecto (2018), which is luxuriant in its prose, fully po-mo in form, and tackles a true crime of Filipino history: the 1901 Balangiga massacre, when American troops slaughtered 30,000 people on Samar Island. The novel entwines the life of Magsalin, a translator, mystery writer and cinephile from Manilla, who becomes the reluctant guide, confidante and ghostwriter of a pampered American filmmaker, Chiara Brasi, who has arrived in the region to make a film about the Balangiga massacre plus her auteur father’s attempt to shoot his own war film the Philippines in the 1970s. As the novel evolves, it spirals inwards, slipping between points in time, as Magsalin and Chiara wrestle for the authorship of this little-documented history. I love how dizzy I got. Insurrecto is itself a mystery, a mise en abyme, a dazzling puzzle, full of lush clues, doppelgangers, alternative histories, voids. – Izabella Scott

Moustache by S. Hareesh, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil in 2020, was an immense pleasure to read. Its protagonist, Vavachan, is a superhuman being whose life becomes something of an oral history, taking on mythical proportions. The novel is set in Kuttanad, Kerala, and deeply embedded in the region’s history. It springs to life the stunning lushness of Kerala, mimics the devices of local storytelling traditions, and more politically, takes on the violent particularities of caste. Vavachan has grown a large moustache, which makes him look powerful, too powerful, upsetting the sensibilities of upper-caste village folk, who begin to spin tales. Kalathil had an immense task before her, the Malayalam text is written in dialect, and often in something close to meter. But there are striking interludes as the translation shows how complex Malayalam is, how fine and hyper-specific its imagery: a character’s presence is described to be like the ‘shadow of a coconut tree in the slanting evening light’ or, like ‘a strand of scutch grass nibbled by a calf.’ Moustache is an immersive, transporting read, and a keen exploration of a remarkable language. – Skye Arundhati Thomas