Some Books I read in 2016
As 2016 draws to a close, I thought I’d mention some of the books I read this year. I tend to have three things on the go at once: prose, poetry and non-fiction – so the selections come from each of those sections, although two of the writers transcend those boundaries.
Lux the Poet – Martin Miller, 1998. (Thanks Jan.)
Delighted to discover Martin Miller this year. Pop fiction at its best. Modern day allegories written in short, punchy sentences. Lux the Poet was given to me by my friend Jan and is set during the Brixton Riots of 1985 as narcissist supreme and idiot savant, Lux the Poet, wanders through the burning, rioting streets looking for the girl he is convinced he is in love with, while trying to find people to listen to his terrible poetry. Having devoured that, I bought Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation and read that too.
Tightrope – Tatamkhulu Afrika, 1996
I recently came back from Cape Town, where Egyptian-born Afrika (aka Mohamed Fu’ad Nasif and Ismail Joubert) lived for much of his life. To my surprise, I found no one who had heard of him. His novel, The Innocents I bought from Rose at Hackney Central, having first become familiar with him through his poem Nothing’s Changed, once a part of the GCSE ‘poems of other cultures’ canon. The Innocents is a faultless piece of writing, the story of a team of coloured Muslim dustmen who join the black struggle against Apartheid. Tightrope I bought from New Beacon Books in Stroud Green and is a collection of novellas exploring some seedy South African underworld at the time of transition. Aids, violence, sex (straight and gay, consensual or otherwise), masturbation, prison, homelessness – the work is visceral and truly uncomfortable at times but brilliantly written and intensely gripping. I also got hold of a couple of collections of his poetry from New Beacon later in the year.
The Black Album – Hanif Kureishi, 1995
Somehow I have managed to avoid reading Kureishi until this year but I picked up The Black Album in a bookshop-cafe in Leytonstone and finally got round to reading it. I think the ending feels a little rushed but it is a great novel – funny and challenging – and six years before September 11th, Kureishi had picked up on the growing problems within Islam and its challenge to liberal Western values.
Damnificados – JJ Amaworo Wilson, 2016
The only novel I read that was published this year I was given by James and Camille at PM Press in order to host Wilson’s book reading at Pages in Hackney. A Marques-esque magical realist fiction based around the true story of how an empty tower block in Venezuela got squatted by homeless people, Damnificados is a fine piece of writing. It is story of hope in the midst of cruel poverty and callous property owners. A timely tale for this decade.
Return to the Streets of Eternity, Jan Carew, 2015
I started the year reviewing this collection for Race and Class and you can read my review here. Guyanese-born Carew was a Renaissance man, who in the course of his long life travelled all over the world, was involved in various political movements, wrote novels, met seemingly every important figure in black struggles, pioneered Afro-American studies and new agriculture. The poems are an education in the post-colonial history and written with a remarkable consistency of imagery and theme.
An Angry Letter in January, Ama Ata Aidoo, 1992
I was really happy to pick up a copy of this from New Beacon having read a couple of her plays and the poetic-prose piece, Our Sister Killjoy. Her voice is very modern, personal and distinctive. Angry, yes, but loving and celebratory at times too. Ghanaian socialist-feminist, I think Aidoo is one of the best modern poets.
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Adrienne Rich, 1981
I had never read Rich before this year but I picked up this collection from Rose and was blown away, particularly by the collection’s first poem, The Images. Looking out over New York, it conveys with great humanity the impossibility of language to convey one’s feelings and, lying in bed with her girlfriend, the futility of poetry in a pitiless, hetero-supremicist, patriarchal world. And in the process, Rich transcends that paradox. Nothing else is quite as good in the collection, I think, but worth it for that alone.
Caliban and the Witch, Sylvia Federici, 2004. (Thanks Jacob)
My brother gave me a copy of this in Spring. Unlike most (male) histories, Caliban and the Witch takes the massacre of women during the transition to capitalism seriously and asks how it was important for the establishment of modernity. She argues that “witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal. … witch-hunting was also instrumental to the construction of a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.” As far as I am aware, the book is out of print but, if you haven’t done already, you should get hold of it.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, 1951 (Thanks Jacob, again)
Jacob gave me this years ago but it is a dauntingly huge volume and I didn’t get round to tackling it until this year. I still haven’t finished it. But if ever we needed some hard analysis about the rise of fascism then 2016 was the year! Too many pertinent paragraphs to quote from, not least the part when she argues that mob leaders always rely on referendums. Quoting her on social media, I have been told of certain criticisms of Arendt (claims that she is racist or anti-communist) but these criticisms are simple-minded and if we are to ignore the work of every writer who crossed boundaries of modern taboos we’d never learn anything. The fact that so soon after the war and still within Stalin’s lifetime she could write such a penetrating and comprehensive analysis (my edition is 650 pages of hardback, small print) is astonishing.
The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler, 1967 (Thanks Teri)
I was put in the direction of Koestler this year and read his novel Darkness at Noon (1940), which is brilliant. Set in a prison, where a high-ranking Communist official awaits the death sentence, as well as being great literature, it is also the best thing I’ve read to understand what went wrong with Soviet communism. I picked up The Ghost in the Machine at the Common House book swap library. He is such a good writer, very amusing, that even if you don’t buy his ‘theory of everything’ that the book seems to be, you’ll enjoy disagreeing with it. Personally, I found it very useful. I don’t know much about biology, neuroscience or psychology so perhaps I was easily convinced. Still, it’s given me a new framework for seeing things. He has been accused of being a misogynist and even a serial rapist, but fortunately this book is not much about gender.
I also read a lot of plays this year, particularly mid-twentieth century. I can recommend Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1957) set in a Trinidad yard; Live Like Pigs (1958) a bizarre piece by John Arden about a traveler family moving onto a London council estate; Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) where liberals of Greenwich village come up against reality; and Little Revolution (2014), Alecky Blythe’s excellent verbatim Hackney-based piece about the 2011 riots (thanks Marina).