Another weird year. Pandemic aside, I had migraines most of the year, and reading was at times a tricky prospect. I grasped my chances with both hands, and selected books carefully. Still, as is tradition now, here is my selection from what was already a good list.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union -- Michael Chabon
Who does not love a chess murder mystery? And the name of Emanuel Lasker is one to conjure with. So when Chabon's novel opens with a man by that name found dead in a hotel room, alongside a mysterious unfinished chess game, it was clear this was for me. But the book also wraps this in so much delightful texture, spurred by its counterfactual setting in an Alaska in which a Jewish temporary homeland is coming to an end. I loved the turns of phrase, the descriptions of chess, and the reminders of obscure Jewish sects I learnt about as an undergraduate. Above all, I love (minor spoiler) that the murder was zugzwang. I will read this again.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story -- Arundhati Roy
I find I like Roy's essay style as much as her fiction. I appreciate her willingness to highlight the links between rampant capitalism and nascent fascism, the machinery of war and inequality. It is heartening in a Luxembourgian fashion. And while its focus is India, it demonstrates the international nature of this beast. I came late to this book, but it is no less on point half a decade later. I liked the demands on which she ends: no cross-ownership of media and weapons manufacture or mining, for example; and the (almost unthinkable) idea that inheritance (at least of large sums of money) should be prohibited if we are to salvage a future.
Fandom, Now in Color -- Rukmini Pande (ed.)
Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry -- Suzanne Scott
Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race -- Rukmini Pande
I have been reading a lot of fan studies research this year, and these are my three favourites of the year. All three investigate the intersections of power in what is sometimes presented as a space of pure play. The debates to which they contribute lucid analysis are ones I have been familiar with from 2012 onwards, and it is deeply satisfying to see them so competently handled. Fandom, Now in Colour also had the benefit of reminding me how much I loved Drizzt Do'Urden as a kid, placing him in a wider context I had not twigged at the time.
Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences -- Cordelia Fine
I immediately want to thrust this book into the arms of people who claim to use "empirical evidence" when throwing around grand generalisations on gender as biological destiny. I could only read a little at a time, however, as the stupid it uncovers is infuriating; and while it is dismantled, its presence, particularly as it gives me flashbacks to actual discussions I have had, stressed me out and made me have to put it aside for a while. On the whole, though, it is worth it.
We That Are Young -- Preti Taneja
This book, from the ever excellent Galley Beggar Press, provides a retelling of King Lear set in contemporary India. Reading it in conjunction with Roy's essays it was fascinating. The book itself is very well written, with a good account of the voice of privilege as it justifies itself to itself, and a scary depiction of the confluence of capitalism and religious nationalism, with an eye to both Kashmir and other spaces of oppression.
The Book of Echoes -- Rosanna Amaka
This reminds me of Evaristo at times, both in its topic and rhythms. I liked the characters, which is not always a given. Through the eyes of their shared ancestor, it tells the story of a girl from Nigeria and a boy from London, weaving their experiences together with those of their foremother as she was kidnapped and enslaved. It is less depressing than it sounds, and it manages to touch on rhythms of oppression and trauma while remaining hopeful.
This is How You Lose the Time War -- Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Roh recommended this, so I bought it immediately. Which was the right choice, as it is lovely. It is an epistolary novel about/by two time-travelling agents on opposing sides of history. As an (erstwhile) avid letter-writer, the correspondence itself appeals to me, and I loved the literalness of letters that become part of you and change you. Likewise, the idea of tweaking timelines back and forth like a complicated game of chess. It is beautifully structured and neatly wrapped, while written like a prose poem. And there are occasional delightfully political jabs.
The Collected Schizophrenias -- Esmé Weijun Wang
This collection of essays is interesting, not least because of the schizophrenic as subject rather than simply object. It is differently but equally terrifying in its accounts of institutions designed to assume you do not know yourself or your conditions, and the descriptions of psychosis itself, both in herself and others. Those are two of my greatest fears.
Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas -- Mavis Batey
Last year I read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Knox Brothers and loved it. When I realised another biography had been written about my favourite Knox brother, nothing would stop me. I now know more than I ever hoped to about the actual solving of the Enigma cyphers (it sounds like sudoku from hell). The book is also full of delightful anecdotes, both of Dilly Knox' driving (reckless), Ian Fleming's lack of subtlety (repeated), or stories of how the "girls" had to be involved in hiring of scientists because they needed to know that the men could work with them. There is also a lovely scattering of Carrollian logic and poetry. Some people will be surprised at the usefulness of a Classics education to the war effort.
The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women -- Mo Moulton
This biography of Dorothy L. Sayers' circle of friends at Oxford is fascinating. It casts new light on Gaudy Night and the quest for the acceptably equal marriage, but it also provides an opportunity for seeing echoes of her friends in the books elsewhere. I like how Moulton avoids writing a hagiography, while still celebrating the achievements and friendships of the group. And it is interesting to see Sayers in a context that is not the men in her life or the Detection Club.
Arsène Lupin : gentleman cambrioleur -- Maurice Leblanc
I had read bits and pieces of Lupin, but back when I read Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief I felt inspired to invest in all of them in French. I have been postponing the reading of them, however, because I felt that if I could read French I could work. The new adaptation gave me the push I needed just as the summer holiday approached, and to my delight I discovered it to be a much easier read than expected. This book contains both his origin story and the excellent "Sherlock Holmes arrive trop tard" (or Herlock Sholmes, as my edition has it for copyright reasons), as well as a series of other sneaky enterprises.
The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine -- Rozsika Parker
Embroidery is interesting; gender history is interesting; political gender history about embroidery is very interesting. Both on how embroidery has featured in the construction of femininity and suffered under the association. It is a good investigation of the contradictions in women's experience of the art (or craft? -- itself an interesting discusson) and the political double bind: pick up a needle and conform, or reject the heritage of women.
Whose Body? -- Dorothy L. Sayers
Strong Poison -- Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase -- Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night -- Dorothy L. Sayers
Busman's Honeymoon -- Dorothy L. Sayers
It has been a weird year, and like last year I reached for old favourites to get me through it. I decided to read all of Peter Wimsey in order, short stories and all. While it was an interesting experience, I keep returning to these as my favourites. Harriet Vane adds a certain something. Not just in that she adds an intelligent interlocutor, or the presence of a woman in her own right rather than as a simple addendum to Peter. Quite apart from the detective plot, I love how these books set out the ongoing thinking of balance and equality in marriage. Gaudy Night is probably my favourite, with its portrayal of the Oxford women's college, but the more I read Busman's Honeymoon, the better I like it for the way it ties the series together (both with respect to the question of equality and the ethics of meddling).
The Shadow King -- Maaza Mengiste
This book, set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, is by turns horrifying and fascinating. I liked the way it balanced the stories of Ettore (Jewish Italian soldier photographer) and Hirut (female Ethiopian soldier bodyguard to the Shadow King, as Haile Selassie fled the country to the tones of Aida). It undercuts straight-forward redemption narratives, and Ettore's own oppression does not relieve him of responsibility, his own humanity does not give him the licence to trample that of others. Not an easy book, but worth reading.
Master and Commander -- Patrick O'Brian
Tor bought a boat this year, and as a result we both had to read Patrick O'Brian (it's the law). It was more fun than I expected (book and boat, both): I had expected something more obviously coded male. I love the friendship of Maturin and Aubrey. I am no great fan of battle scenes, and I find it hard to follow some of them (not least because of the dedication to obscure nautical terminology -- I refuse to believe "woolded boomkin" is a word), but I find them more engaging than expected. I now feel I have much better understanding of what Jane Austen's Captain Wentworth meant when he spoke of being "at sea".
The City We Became -- N. K. Jemisin
I had saved this for ages, because I wanted to read the full trilogy all in one go. It just took too long, and I caved. As urban fantasy it is very different from her other books, and I felt a little out of my depth at times because New York has never been a city I knew much about. I loved the avatars of the boroughs, however, (particularly Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx) and I will never confuse them again. And the book has a delightful throughline that is a delicious take-down of Lovecraft, aligning him with the horror that will tear cities apart: the fear of otherness. That, and capitalist sameness. It feels complete in itself, though I am now waiting impatiently for the next (and I hope to find out at some point what exactly London did to its boroughs).
The Hands of the Emperor -- Victoria Goddard
I think this is the discovery of the year, for me. I loved this book, but I am not entirely sure how to describe it or explain my reaction. I think it must be the most relaxing piece of literature I have ever encountered. It is the story of the high-level bureaucrat Cliopher Mdang, secretary to His Serene and Radiant Holiness, the Sun-on-Earth, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Last Emperor of Astandalas and Lord of Zunidh, whose eyes should not be met and who cannot be touched. The first few chapters describe a holiday, and it felt just like taking one, and I love how the book does not introduce unnecessary complications and hindrances, but offers a slow, competent unwinding of the central knot, dotted with political and philosophical observations. A delightful surprise.
Grand Hotel Abyss -- Stuart Jeffries
This has been on my list (and shelf) for ages, and Christmas seemed ideal. It was lovely to sink back into the Frankfurt School, and it served as an interesting refresher on the philosophers I have worked less on. It is not perfect, but the placement of each theorist's ideas in a historical, ideological and biographical context was very interesting. I found I had rather more sympathy with Adorno than I have been used to thinking, and less with Habermas. It was also delightful to be able to sink into a bit of low-stakes non-fiction reading after a year in which I have mostly been reading for work or total relaxation.
I recommend them all.