Kathy Acker set the template for Riot Grrrl, so why didn’t I read Blood and Guts in High School (Penguin, 2017; 1978) till this year? No idea and I wish I’d done it sooner, though if I was doing it again I would not take it on public transport, being forewarned about the number of penis pictures therein. (Conductor: “High School, eh? My daughters love reading. Would they like that?” Me: “NO ABSOLUTELY DO NOT BUY YOUR DAUGHTERS THIS BOOK, THEY WOULD 100% HATE THAT.”)
I was reading it because I was about to review Chris Kraus’s Acker biography, but before that, I needed to read I Love Dick (Serpent’s Tail, 2016; 2017). A weird one: I wouldn’t say I loved reading it, but having read it, I can’t stop thinking about it. Then I did Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (Picador, 2017) for the New Statesman, which is one of those novels that’s written like poetry, i.e. without very many words and all of them feeling overloaded with importance. I lost my rag about the unlikelihood of finding non-rancid butter in an apocalypse scenario and never recovered it.
After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus (Allen Lane, 2017) feinted that it was going to be as tricksy with truth as I Love Dick, but actually it’s a pretty straight biography and a very good one too. It pulls off a rare trick of celebrating Acker without romanticising her (she sounds, honestly, like a complete dick a lot of the time). I’ve thought a lot since about Acker’s relationship with pain, her courting of cancer, and what that means; though my write-up for Literary Review was more about women and art. I did Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness (Nation Books, 2017) for In the Moment, and enjoyed interviewing her about why happiness as a political goal has been sidelined for women.
Hilary Mantel, how are you so good? Fludd (Fourth Estate, 2010; 1989) was great and of course surpassingly strange, a comedy about faith and theology. My friend Pete leant me David Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem (Biteback, 2016), and then I ended up reading it while I was housesitting for him in York: if you want to get to grips with the origins of left-wing anti-Semitism, it’s essential.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (The Borough Press, 2017; 2016) is a thoroughgoing delight, updating Pride and Prejudice to contemporary America and losing nothing from the comparison (Sittenfeld’s Mrs Bennet is particularly wonderful). Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg (Corsair, 2017) also conjures an intimidating forebear and pulls it off – this time, Virginia Woolf, in a novel of overlapping narratives recounting overlapping lives in the run-up to a party. I read them both very happily between swimming off the Yorkshire coast.
I’m a sucker for a juicy true crime, but Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body (MacMillan, 2017) is more than that. As a trainee lawyer and committed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich encountered a client whose crime was so vile, she knew she wanted him to die. In this book, she explores his crime, the life that made him, and the life that made her react to strongly. It’s a deft balance of simmering suspense and moral reflection.
Then, a week in Germany. I was reviewing Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season (Harvill Secker, 2017) for The Guardian, so I read that first. A smart speculative fiction set-up (what if pregnancy could be shared?) that never cashes out fully on either the unsettling scenario or an intimated conspiracy plot.
Somehow, I managed to fit Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth (The Bodley Head, 2015) into my case. It genuinely changed the way I think about the Holocaust: Snyder’s arguments about levels of local complicity and the importance of the state will probably spend years being refined, but the overall picture he draws makes a lot more sense (and is a lot more disturbing) than “Hitler made everyone do it”.
I couldn’t get into anything when I came back from holiday, so I decided to read HP Lovecraft, Omnibus I: At the Mountains of Madness (Voyager, 1999; 1966). It’s a mixed bag. “Mountains” (which I’ve only consumed as an audiobook previously) is great, with weird horror growing out of that deliciously boring phony science report style that HPL excels at; then things go on the slide until “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which is so genuinely boring that I chucked the book aside in the end. (Sample: “back to Dylath-Leen and up the Skai to the bridge by Nir, and again into enchanted wood of the Zoogs”, which is exactly like someone telling you their stupid boring dream.)
For the Speccie, I got a dream assignment: The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume I: 1940-1956 (Faber, 2017), ed. Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. A dream which involved reading 1,300-some pages in a week. A terrible, word-drunk week where I got up, sat at my desk, read solidly and then staggered off in the evening to fix a G&T to perk me up for a pre-bedtime push. At some point, I realised that this is not how these letters are supposed to be read – either by Plath herself (duh, she didn’t want my prowling eyes on them at all) or by the editors (it’s a volume for dipping, or reference). I’m glad I did, though. The piece I wrote is the best review I did this year, I think.
Then, reading for some panels I chaired for the Bath Children’s Literature festival, starting with Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster: Total Control (OUP, 2017) (an excellently malevolent update for an esteemed old villain) and then moving onto Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends (Usborne, 2017). This tells the (true) story of how a party of boys survived a harsh winter abandoned on a bare rocky outcrop off the coast of Scotland in the eighteenth century, and I was riveted by it.
I smuggled in a very fast read of Shelter by Sarah Franklin* (Zaffre, 2017), which I loved so much (mostly for its lavish writing about trees) that I turned it into an In the Moment title. Then back to litfest reading. Alex Wheatle made up the third part of my first panel, along with McCaughrean and Cross. His Straight Outta Crongton (Atom, 2017) is a buzzy, slangy piece of YA hyper-realism. It’s also the only book I read this year by a black British author. Which is a bit of a WTF.
Actually, the racial split of my reading had started to worry me a long time before this. I pitch the titles for my In the Moment pages: how come I hadn’t managed to pitch any black authors yet? The problem starts with what comes through my door. It’s very, very rare for me to be sent books by black authors. Scouring the pre-release lists on Amazon and the publishers’ catalogues, I find out there’s a (partial) reason for this: very few books by black authors are being published, and when they are, they’re unlikely to fit the genres (litfic, or non-fic with a self-knowledge bent) that I can use. Publishing remains ridiculously white. Wheatle spoke about this during the panel – about how his move into YA had been precipitated by his adult novels’ pattern of vanishingly small sales and awkward solicitousness from posh white publishing professionals. YA, he said, was more welcoming, more capacious: a genre defined by its readers’ age doesn’t impose the same narrow ideas of who an author can be.
My second panel covered two books about dragons: The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury, 2017) (sweet-natured romance, in the mythic-beasts-and-questing sense) and Claire Fayers’ The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island (Macmillan, 2017) (good, chaotic fun with jokes to spare). Then a book about, rather than for, a young adult. My review of Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts (Bloomsbury, 2017) will be in the New Statesman in the new year. Smutty, shocking, but slight.
I got Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? (Simon and Schuster, 2017) when I saw her at Cheltenham Literature Festival. I usually don’t read politicians’ books (they’re either manifestos in disguise, or after-the-fact efforts to shape history, or very bad novels) but could make an exception to the rule for this one. Unusually self-critical, insightful on US policy and international affairs, occasionally so American it made me cringe (the yoga routine!), unsparing on the rival who beat her – this is neither quite a stall-setting nor a reputation-fixer, since while Clinton is resigned from further pursuit office of, she doesn’t have a legacy as such to protect right now. I came away from it feeling the loss of the election harder than I had for a long time, but also invigorated by her commitment to service, and her refusal to make of herself either martyr or scapegoat.
Han Kang’s The White Book (Portobello, 2017; 2016), translated by Deborah Smith was a spare, elegant emotional savaging on the topic of unspoken grief and dread mortality. Danny Denton’s The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow (Granta, 2018) is likely to make a big impression next year, with hefty pre-release buzz and winningly dystopic future-Ireland setting. It left me cold, though, by only including women characters who were mothers, dead, or (the ideal!) both.
I cursed myself for not having read Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello, 2017) when it first came through my door, and so missing out on pitching a review: it’s a genius collection of nightmares with a beadily feminist perspective. Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard (MacMillan, 2018) takes on a hard topic (teenager groomed and abducted by her teacher) from a difficult POV (the loyal best friend swayed by talk of “agency” and “love”), and proves again that inside or outside YA, few authors understand more about girls’ friendships.
More emotional brutalising from Han Kang with The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015; 2007), a staggeringly violent parable of feminine – resistance? Dissolution? I’m not sure, and that ambiguity is probably why I’m still thinking about it (also the violence). My review of Peach by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury, 2018) will be in The Guardian in a few weeks, and I have much to say about the cultural space we give to this kind of “girls fall apart” narrative.
I met Gwendoline Riley at a literary party where I was having one of those awful times where there were not enough canapes in the world to stuff the mouth of my imposter syndrome (a man asked me for a book recommendation and basically started eyeing the exits when I launched on an encomium on the merits of Lovecraft, and I couldn’t make myself stop it). Then I read Riley’s First Love (Granta, 2017), and bumped into the line: “It must be a dreadful cross: this hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you. This need to burrow.” At which point I felt the most devastatingly read that I have maybe ever felt, but this dissection-sharp noticing is Riley’s art. A brilliant novel.
Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano’s The Woman Who Fooled the World (Scribe, 2018; 2017) is less fun than I’d hoped. Phony cancer survivor and disgraced “natural health” entrepreneur Belle Gibson is a fascinating subject, but this feels like a feature spread thin, with no bigger argument or clinching psychological insight. Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories, 2018) is wonderful. Quin was a female, working-class, experimental writer working in the sixties and seventies, a peer of B. S. Johnson, with a gift for the grubby and the cruel. The best stories in here (“Nude and Seascape”, “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails”) are among the best I’ve read this year. And I did Caroline Williams’ Override: My Quest to Go Beyond Brain Training and Take Control of My Mind (Scribe, 2018; 2017) for In the Moment.
My name is Sarah Ditum and I did not enjoy The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray, 2016; 2015). I thought I was going to love it (McInerney’s prose is terrific, stuffed with sideways metaphors and unlikely laughs), and then I didn’t. Maybe that’s because it was basically a story about men, and 2017 has left me hardline misandrous. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t get on with McInerney’s way of telling a story: she periodically jumps the characters forward, then informs you how they got from their last position to this one, which doesn’t work for me as a staple narrative technique.
But I love Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017) (I interviewed him for an upcoming issue of In the Moment), love it with the kind of proprietary intimacy which makes me want to argue the walls down when people get it “wrong”. The life of a village, the loss of a girl, the natural history of human society, the secret world of nature, the gentle shift into oblivion of a certain kind of rural existence, the spare poetry of its neutrally-observing narration: all these things meant an immense amount to me.
Also excellent: Look What You Made Me Do by Helen Walmsley-Johnson* (MacMillan, 2018), a memoir of an abusive relationship that comprehensively answers the question “why didn’t she just leave?” And finally, splendidly, my son gave me two Stephen King novels for Christmas, in answer to my constant wittering about how I have got to 36 without reading him. I did The Shining (Hodder, 2011; 1977) over three days. God damn, King can do story, wheeling away from one strand just as the claustrophobia of the Overlook has begun to feel like a dead end, then bringing it all back together. The well-hewn naturalism of his prose lets him carry off the strange and experimental layering of characters’ conscious thoughts, unconscious thoughts and the intrusions of the hotel; you have to be basically a master of free indirect discourse to pull off a novel about psychic powers (see also Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel), and King is.