2017 in Review
I said this about last year and I’ll say it this year, too: 2017 was not the best year on all counts. That is, politically — or maybe more accurately, in terms of the news cycle. But it was still a good year for me in a bunch of ways (also bad in a bunch of ways, obviously), but particularly in terms of culture. I read 100 books, saw plenty of films, and listened to lots of records. I wrote about some of my favourite reads of the year for The Cardiff Review, which you can read here, but this is the longer version.
Last year I made the promise to read 50% books by women — which I managed by quite a long way in 2016 — as well as to read more writers of colour, to read more poetry and non-fiction and to get into sci-fi, which I hadn’t read much of in the past. This year I only read 38 books by women, not including anthologies in which women are included. If those are included (I’m not sure they should be) that brings the number up to 42. I also read 9 trade paperback comics that had female illustrators but were written by men. Do these count? I don’t think so. Female artists are important but so are female voices. I should do better next year. I read 21 books in translation, which I’m quite pleased with. I read about 12 books which might be described as science fiction or fantasy. I read 13 books of poetry.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
George Saunders is undoubtedly a genius. He’s a modern day Kurt Vonnegut in terms of his style: humble, witty, to the point. A lot of people have talked about this book as a difficult one to get into, but I didn’t find that. It looks on the page far more like a play than a novel (the whole thing is either direct speech or quotation) which might throw people off at first. But I just fell into it and totally devoured it. It does really interesting things with form and genre which I wrote about at greater length here. But really it just made me connect with the characters: ghosts who don’t know (or do, deep down) that they’re dead.
Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang
This collection is utterly brilliant and the first story in particular showed Zhang to be master in her command of voice. These are quite long short stories, which is partly why it took me a while to start this book after first buying it. In this sense, they are more like short novellas, because they hold the weight and obsession of a longer work — how it flits between perspectives and characters and in terms of scope — within the short story form. These are stories about immigrant communities, poverty and girlhood. The only qualm I had was the form of connected stories. They didn’t need to be explicitly connected; however, this was nodded to quite a lot throughout the work, often jarringly. Despite that, it was a strong contender for my favourite book of the year but ultimately led me to being unable to choose just one. I can’t wait for her next work, whatever that is.
The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon
This collection, like Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales had me smiling by the end of each story. They’re so postmodern, so witty, so cleverly rendered, so brilliantly performed in the prose. Each one is a masterpiece of modern fiction.
The White Book by Han Kang (trans Deborah Smith)
Like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (also one of the best books I read this year), The White Book is a book centred around obsession with a colour. Han explores the life of her narrator through white objects and white feelings, floating in and out of her memories and the imagined memories of her older sister, who died within a day of being born. This is another book that plays with genre and form, appearing poetry-like on the page and often misattributed as memoir. There’s not a lot I can compare it to, in that way. It’s just haunting. Haunting, in a nice way.
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds is one of the best poetry books I’ve read in a long time. If not, the best. Vuong obviously has a natural flair for imagery and each poem is simply perfect. I wrote a more lengthy review for The Cardiff Review. Emily Berry’s Stranger Baby was also fantastic — a moving and realistic depiction of grief. I also read Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara (not published this year, obviously) which was honest and lovely.
A Land Called Tarot was the standout comic of the year for me. I wrote a lengthier review of it here. As usual I’ve been keeping up with Saga, Snotgirl, Paper Girls, and I also read all of Y the Last Man this year. Although this is a best-of-the-year list I will say I was slightly disappointed with Y The Last Man. I ultimately enjoyed it but I think it suffered quite a lot from a kind of casually off-colour humour that has dated quite badly since its original run. Ostensibly the cast of characters is a very refreshing change, as there is necessarily only one male character. And yet, queerness and femininity are so often caricatured or the butt of a joke. This was probably quite funny to a general audience when it was written and was likely seen as good-natured fun. Most of it is pretty mild, really. But it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
This year I read The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector which I wrote about here. It’s an unusual book and a testament to what a novel can do with the third person narrator and the idea of fiction within fiction.
The Dispossessed and The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula Le Guin were also two of my favourite discoveries of the year. The Dispossessed is a utopian novel set on two planets which orbit each other. one is an anarchist and separatist colony originating from the other, which is a world dominated by two main superpowers — one communist, one capitalist. Meanwhile, the anarchist physicist, Shevek, has invented instantaneous interstellar communication. It’s damn good. The Earthsea Cycle is a fantasy saga set in a racially diverse archipelago, in a world where magic exists. Sparrowhawk begins the cycle as a young boy and ends it as the greatest wizard to have ever lived. This sounds cliche, but it’s not. The first book is so internal and psychological in its main quest — a struggle that ultimately comes down to a philosophical battle with one’s own self. The cycle as a whole boils down to understanding the balance of the world and its own ambivalence towards man. Books two and four focus on smaller stories of women and more humble and common folk among what would, on the surface, appear to be a story more likely to focus on the epic deeds of “great men”.
For fiction in translation, I really enjoyed Moonstone by Sjon and Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. Moonstone is set in the early 20th century in Iceland during the First World War, the birth of surrealist cinema, the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, and the eve of Icelandic independence from Denmark. The novel is the coming of age story of the eponymous, queer “Moonstone” (Máni Steinn) who works by night as a prostitute and is obsessed with cinema by day. It’s quite refreshing to have a story about prostitution that doesn’t cast it as either shameful or empowering, but just as a fact. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is quite a strange concept. It follows three stories of anthropomorphic polar bears who live otherwise very normal lives in Germany and Canada from the Cold War until the modern day. It’s beautifully realised and very fun.
Also, for a second year in a row, I want to praise Tilted Axis Press for their astonishing work. They published two of my favourite books of the year, The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon and Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay. Other great publishers I’ve been appreciating this year are Pushkin Press and Canongate.
This year I was a Season Ticket holder for Specialist Subject Records, which meant a serious amount of great releases and a discount on their distro, which I heavily abused. Out of their releases my favourites were Austeros’ EP “I’ve Got This”, Smith Street Band’s album “More Scared of You Than You Are of Me”, “Fresh” by Fresh, and “Eight Nights” by Grand Pop.
In terms of other stuff that’s been colouring 2017 for me, I have to say that Julien Baker’s first and second albums have been constant, necessary listening. I’ve also been listening to the Honey Pot EP, “Concussion,” an awful lot, as well as Mitski and Slaughter Beach, Dog.
My favourite films of the year were probably, in order, 20th Century Women, Mustang (released in 2015, actually) and A Ghost Story. 20th Century Women is by far the standout film and is just beautiful from start to finish. It’s about a single mother, a young woman and a underage girl who take it upon themselves to jointly raise a pubescent young man. It’s just plain good. I found Mustang very charming and affecting, with fantastic child acting and depiction of girlhood and repression. A Ghost Story was just a great concept and quite a ballsy filmmaking project. Would recommend for fans of Kurt Vonnegut. It is a bit of a pretentious man-film though, and I can accept that.
I’m starting off 2018 listening to Andy Shauf’s "The Party" and reading The Little Friend by Donna Tartt as well as the cooking book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. I don’t think I’ll read 100 books again this year. I’m aiming for 70, but we’ll see. I have a big reading list right now, and a lot of them are big, big books. This year I’m hoping to read 2666 by Roberto Bolano as well as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Cecilia Holland’s feminist sci-fi epic Floating Worlds.
In terms of resolutions, I’m not really sure what to do. Suggestions welcome. There’s nothing I necessarily want to give up, per se. I don’t believe I have no bad habits; I’m comfortable with the bad habits I have right now, if that makes sense. I always think New Years resolutions should be about doing something new or achieving something creative rather than reductive. With that in mind, I’m hoping to be more creative. I am currently working on a website/project with my housemate. I’m also hoping to do another Toodles record or release. The eventual aim is to complete an album — but that is a project that may take longer than a year from writing to recording to releasing. My other hope is to work more on creative fiction. I have stories that are unfinished, new ideas for stories that need working on, and ambitions for longer work. I want to have something published in a bigger magazine by the end of the year, but ultimately I’m aiming to turn writing into more of a focus in my life.