:: Buzzwords Archive: December 2016. Click here for the latest posts.

Top Reads of 2016: Hestia Peppe (published 27/12/2016)

The task of describing one’s or indeed any one experience of reading in 2016 is daunting. It’s daunting because, in a lifetime of heavy reading I don’t think there’s been a year when I read more. When I say reading I am aware now that to speak only of reading literature or even words is to place arbitrary limitations on a phenomena much more expansive than that. To read is to recognise patterns and relationships and to spin from them narratives that become the contextual framework we use to navigate reality. There’s a lot to read.

This year I read books in order to counteract the negative effects of constantly disrupted timelines and notifications and screen glare and codependency. I tend to read things as I come to them and seek out the connections between them as I go. These are the ones that were there when I needed them. I’ve pulled a tarot card for each because in this time of context collapse we need more complex points of collective reference than just ever cascading superlatives.



Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels (Translated by Ann Goldstein)

(The Tower: awakening, revelation, purification, breaking free)


I began the year late-to-the-party-obsessed with these books. Their narrative begins, as almost everyone now knows, in Naples in 1944 and follows two working class girls growing up under fascism and undertaking to educate themselves. For Lila and Lenu reading is as much a means of physical and material escape as well as it is a theoretical endeavour. The conversations I had with others reading these books at the same time that I was were some of the most hopeful and energetic I have ever had about a shared cultural experience. It felt so good for once not to be reading alone.



Simone De Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal (Translated by Leonard M. Friedman)

(Six of Swords: moving on, transition, letting go)


A Christmas gift from my mother, that I read alongside Ferrante, De Beauvoir’s history of Europe as outgrowth of toxic colonial masculinity is a cautionary tale told by its vampiric avatar to an actress terrified by her own mortality. Coming on something like a post-war Orlando without the gender optimism, De Beauvoir’s misandry-in-hindsight has plenty of room in it to build a powerful though tragic narrative full of sympathy and tenderness and beauty despite a total absence of hope for anything but death.



Rosamund Lehmann, Dusty Answer

(The Hermit: introspection, wisdom emerging from isolation)


In April a friend recommended that I read Dusty Answer. It’s a sort of late Bloomsbury young/lonely-girl story – an account of a wealthy and over-educated only child’s coming of age and struggle with the out-of-reach-ness of others. In 1927 the book raised a scandal with its frank discussion of teenage sex but perhaps the bigger questions it raises can be read more clearly now. Is coming to terms with awareness and consciousness and self and their ruptures always to become entangled with others, and is there violence inherent in this sense making?



Anguish Language

(Five of Swords: hollow victory, honourable defeat)


Anguish Language, an anthology that “approaches language as a core aspect of the present crisis” was published in 2015, but I kept coming back to it this year. It’s concerned with the material conditions in which we find ourselves writing (and collapsing). The collection opens with such a dedication as to set this tired heart afire; “Too many friends have informed this project to list them here, yet this book is for all nameless friends who have been and shall be”. Its “Table of Discontents” lists essays, fictions, manifestos and poetry by, among others, Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, Anne Boyer, John Cunningham, Anthony Iles, Mira Mattar and Marina Vishmidt. This is a book which refuses to fall into the false confidence of at-least-things-can’t-get-worse and which, if there can be any such thing as an ‘us’ anymore, is an index of these times that we desperately need.



Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

(Nine of Swords: inner struggle, responsibility)


Fluently intersecting accounts of a few tightly knit lives and how they came to be so converge on a cold winter day in Harlem in the nineteen-thirties. Though it’s the young boy John, coming of age, whose story frames the novel, every one of  Baldwin’s characters is, despite many limitations and misfortunes, vivid with agency. Perhaps the most intense description of masculinity, fatherhood, inheritance and legitimacy I’ve read, Go Tell It On The Mountain also demonstrates a commitment to women’s experience right through to the centre of the story. It’s about family, and church, and prayer, and the trials and struggles of mid-century Black American lives. Baldwin’s novel is a rapturous acknowledgement of grace that passionately and critically defies both secular and religious certainties.



Sarah Schulman Conflict is Not Abuse

(Six of Wands: possibility, recognition, communication)


This is a book about the parallels between traumatised behaviour and supremacist behaviours. Sarah Schulman traces harmful relational dynamics such as shunning, bullying and overstatement of harm through a cross section of scenarios starting with intimate relationships and working up to state level conflicts and abuses such as those inflicted in 2014 on the people of Gaza by the state of Israel. Drawing on theories and practices developed by social workers and the Schulman’s own experiences, the book has a rough and ready quality. It’s not so much a theoretical work as a manual for anyone seeking to nurture relationship and group dynamics, provide support to reconcile conflicts before they turn into cycles of abuse and encourage accountability in themselves and others. The book’s weakness is perhaps an oversimplification of the role of mediating technology in the dynamics described — there’s a naivete in underestimating the mental stress that makes shunning and blocking out others a viable coping strategy — but Schulman is absolutely right to emphasise what’s at stake and the harm that is possible. Schulman has courageously laid the groundwork for a conversation that is much needed and I read this book with immense gratitude.


Top Reads of 2016: Eley Williams (published 24/12/2016)

Books for which I was thankful this year.



‘Monuments are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape. Each highly perceptible thing makes something else almost imperceptible. This is so matter of fact, but I’ve been told I’m incomprehensible: Anne, what do you mean that noticing one thing can make the other thing disappear?

—from ‘The Innocent Question’

Through sketches, fables and prose-poetry Anne Boyer’s taut Garments Against Women (Mute Books, 2016) rethreads the genre of conventional memoir and critical essay writing. Boyer addresses ‘the conditions that make literature almost impossible’ and submits history’s materials and strictures to extraordinary scrutiny. Memorise parts of this book, buy it twice, read it often.



I do not think I was alone in finding the act of reading particularly fraught in 2016. Some nights I read gluttonously and some days I didn’t have the patience for anything longer than a paragraph. I resented reading and I resented not-reading. I read because I needed explanations, escape, comfort, rallying cries, distractions, apologies; I wished I could read everything all at once and I wished that I would never have to read again. For me, Common Rest (Test Centre, 2016) offered a voice for this sense of unease and confronted head-on the impulse to seek relief. A new book of poems by Holly Pester, Common Rest considers the confidences, wishfulness and vulnerabilities of dreaming through modern cradlesongs. I mistyped that word as careledsongs in an early draft of this description.

‘someone put me to sleep
backwards in the wrong
house you can look up
and still see a form of it
you can see it if you look

(are you guys still together?
mouth to mouth)’

—from ‘Still’

The poems are published with a vinyl album ‘created from recording sessions of improvised vocals and various-noise making’. In these tracks the notion of a lullaby is realised through Pester’s collaborations with Emma Bennett, Nat Raha, Jenny Moore, Claire Tolan, Vahni Capildeo, Verity Spott and Vera Rodriguez. Delivering an unnerving, skittering complement to the written text, the poems and tracks of Common Rest mark a mesmeric, clarifying, welcome project.



‘The first man took out the gun from his back pocket. No one was looking. He hated that.’

—from ‘Trypophobia’

Any contents page that includes titles like ‘A Short History of Creation’, ‘The Time You Cut Off My Hand And Then Prepared it, Pretending It Was Ham’, and ‘Tablescapes!’ has my attention. Published in 2015 and the winner of that year’s Saltire Society’s Scottish First Book of the Year Award, On the Edges of Vision (Queen’s Ferry Press) contains forty stories by Helen McClory. Every piece of flash fiction here reveals something fine-toothed and skirmishing, and this is a collection that retells and twists familiar myths and folktales with verve and dark humour.



‘Home is a collection of contagious objects.

She licks the lid of the project.’

(—from ‘Correspondence as a Writing System’)

Correspondences (Oystercatcher Press, 2016) by Nisha Ramayya considers our age of connectivity and seeks to parse its networks: ‘Tantra may be understood as the knowledge that spreads.’ Much of the power in Ramayya’s second poetry chapbook lies its scouring and teasing of etymologies and the writer’s skilful pursuit of the routes and roots and routs of words. What is it to profess or pursue ownership over words and their exchange? An exciting pamphlet from this new writer.



‘I try to move a large spider but am too clumsy and tear its body apart.’

—from ‘Regret’

The zine Encounters With Nature (2016) by psychotherapist and para-academic Charlotte Cooper fuses autobiography and nature writing, and provides an index for the world and for one’s place within it. Earthworms and hummingbirds and the intimacy of sudden portraits—a work of sharp, sure shocks.



An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin
(Duckworth Press, 2006) by Rohan Kriwaczek is a thorough, illuminating and completely absurd exercise in fabrication. In it Kriwaczek attempts to trace the evolution of a little-known chapter in the history of music which purportedly has its origins in the Elizabethan protestant reformation and is a ‘combination of pomp, ritual and spiritual expression’. Written with a mixture of deadpan alacrity and dogged harrumphing (‘Though I am both unable and, in part, unwilling to discuss the years 1841-59…’), the Incomplete History includes everything from a biography of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and musical scores to archival photographs and confectioner’s advertisements. A meticulous, madcap scuffle between non-fiction and creative hoaxes.



At one point in Ha-Ha Crystal (Copy Press, 2016), Chris Fite-Wassilak provides this account of the speech bubble:

‘The ways into language are slow and sideways, regurgitating and tethering half-swollen noises, latching them onto passing shapes and floating notions. Sounds get tied to words, a set of letters in which the sound is held latently, to be woken upon reading. These tethers for sound are impressed onto paper, folded into newspapers, bound into books, lassoed into balloons. Language spreads: I grew up surrounded by animated, jabbering cats, mice, sponges and paperclips, never really questioning how they were speaking in the first place.’

It is with such an eye for detail that Fite-Wassilak explores both the deftness and daftness in language via architecture, film and anecdote. This short book contains a complex and engaged study of humour and the ways in which thought can form and unspool—ready your glyphs and your grawlixes and get stuck in.



The miniature postcard-book edition of Nancy Campbell’s How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet (MIEL editions, 2014; repr. 2016) features a selection of Greenlandic terms and their definitions, each one accompanied by beautiful pochoir illustrations. The postcards include the words sialliluppaa, ‘to be surprised by the rain’, and unnuaarpoq, ‘there is no night any longer’. As the cards are shuffled and reorganized, one discovers a piece of writing that is part gloss, part game and part romantic narrative. There is tenderness in the simplicity of How to Say ‘I Love You’  but also something wrenching in its attempts to provide explanations for the unfamiliar and endangered. In her introduction to the edition, Campbell recalls leafing through a 1927 Greenlandic-English dictionary: ‘On seeing akaitsanga—officially defined as “take hold (of it) together with me”—amended to “carry me, please”, I wondered what circumstances had led an amateur lexicographer to discover such an error.’ Discovery, comfort and teetering escape: these cards gesture towards a sense of the momentous that lies within a considered moment.



‘Rather than a transparent network of gossamer threads, the golden cape looked heavy and thick, like a priest’s robe. And yet it was made of a material that feels literally, of nothing. When I met with Peers he placed a few threads of Nephila silk on my hand. It was golden bright, but if I closed my eyes I could not feel it.’

Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads (Strange Attractor Press, 2016) by artist Eleanor Morgan is a fascinating book that explores a cultural history of spiders and their silks. As a work of non-fiction I found it struck a perfect balance between personal narrative and far-ranging, rigorous and ricocheting investigation. Also a spider is serenaded. Filled with illustrations, pictures and academic research, Morgan spins a wonderful tale.


In my laggardliness, 2016 was the first year that I did myself a favour and subscribed to various tinyletters—free stories, essays and observations delivered straight to your inbox. My pick of this crop includes activist and educator Sophie Mayer’s archive at http://tinyletter.com/sophiemayer/archive. Fans of Mayer’s work will recognise her blistering, intricate poetics and in each of these new pieces she combines theological, philosophical and philological sallies with precision and artfulness. I would also recommend David Hayden’s fiction archived as tinyletters and available here. His work has been widely anthologised, including in gorse journal and Winter Pages—sign up to be notified of new work at https://tinyletter.com/seventydys and receive glimpses of his uncanny, wheeling stories. Fall into their clutches, regularly.



Top Reads of 2016: Richard Marshall (published 23/12/2016)

12 of what I’ve read this year:

The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880. Frederick Beiser. Beiser is an essential read and this is a great and readable book about an important sub-field of continental philosophy. It includes, for the Beckett fans amongst us, a chapter on Windelband, one of whose books Beckett read and from which he made copious notes.

After Hegel : German Philosophy, 1840-1900 Frederick Beiser. This is a tight little philosophy book about what went on after Hegel in Germany – sometimes the way people talk you’d think there was little of interest between Hegel and the twentieth century – well, this is a great little read and has some surprising women in the mix too that I’d never heard of. As always, a quick-witted and enormously erudite book by one of the best philosophers of this sub-field. Read anything you can get hold of by him. Incredibly good.

Chernobyl Prayer : A Chronicle of the Future. Svetlana Alexievich. Perhaps the most moving read I’ve had since Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope many years ago. If there was just one book that I’d urge others to read it would be this. It’s a necessary book. There aren’t many of those.

Second-Hand Time. Svetlana Alexievich. A detonating insight into what former citizens of the Soviets are thinking. Unsettles glib judgments about reading itself, among other things, and gives a deeper backcloth for assessing Putin’s Russia.

One : Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, Including the Singular Object Which is Nothingness. Grahame Priest. I read this early on in the year. Priest is our leading paraconsistent logician and dialetheist(he thinks contradictions exist) and this is a fascinating book about where this view leaves us.

Constructing the World . David Chalmers. Only just making my way through this. This is an incredible book really, an attempt to do philosophy in the grand style, constructing a huge system of everything via Carnap’s initial attempt at analytical empiricism.

Nietzsche on Morality. Brian Leiter. A classic of Nietzsche studies and updated this year, it’s a model of how continental philosophy should be done. Leiter reads Nietzsche carefully and argues with clarity, precision and a nimble enjoyment of Nietzsche’s wickedness.

The Combinations. Louis Armand. A gargantuan book, set in Prague, one of those plenum giants that continue to intrigue well after the reading has stopped.

I hate the Internet. Jarett Kobak. Kobak’s dirty little bomb of a book, detonating a herd of sacred cows.

Blindspots. Roy Sorensen. Sorensen is one of my favourite philosophers, effortlessly turning thoughts to paradox and epistemological limits through imaginative philosophy of language. I reread this recently and it seemed as fresh and productive as it was when I first came across it. Philosophical twists at the highest level.

Blue Octavo Notebooks. Franz Kafka. I read these near the end of the year and it was like reading the complete works in miniature. Terrifying and alarmingly affecting.

Dostoevsky : The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859. Joseph Frank. I heard Frank on the radio in about 1975 talking about Dostoevsky and his attempt to write the good man into literature. His Dostoevsky biography is a towering achievement, as the cliche has it. I read this volume this year and as always was amazed. Read with the Alexievich it remains immensely important and prescient as Putin’s brand of old-style Russian Nationalism begins to erupt.

The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett. edited by Sean Lawloe and John Pilling. Beckett’s poems get a mixed reaction from readers but his translations of Eluard are wonderful. This is a great volume with superb footnotes to help navigation through the turmoils.