2022: Another year in reading (as in books, not the town near Slough)

Well, there goes another down, up, down, straight-line for a while, meander a little, pop round some corners, accelerate, reverse, up down up year. 

Bookwise, in 2022 I managed to immerse myself in 59 of the things (at least, of ones that GoodReads counts, which means I probably read a few more poetry pamphlets by indy publishers, that hadn’t been added to the GR list yet).

I’d set a target of 60, but in the final week of December, decided that I must finally finish ‘Middlemarch’, so that put paid to squeezing in another. 

However, despite predictably squealing ‘Nooooooo, don’t do it’ as Dorothea Brooke settled on the notion that the ridiculously dusty Casaubon would make the perfect husband, and then, experiencing similar stomach-pit lurchings when Lydgate started making eyes at Rosamond Vincy, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

I doubt I’d have felt quite the same when I was in my twenties and somehow managed to avoid climbing aboard the George Eliot express during the Victorians II module at Uni. 

Of course, critically speaking, I should note that I enjoyed the style, (surprising) humour and social/political commentary, as Eliot/Mary Ann Evans cast her gimlet eye over mid-19th century midlands life in town and country. However, not being an academic, I’m free to get suckered in by character and plot, enjoying the reading experience emotionally, rather than diligently attempting to decode a paper-based, textual cultural artefact, so stick that where the semiotics don’t shine M Derrida!  

Aside from my Penguin copy of the book itself, glowering at me, reproachfully from a shelf for year after year as I once again ignored it, I was ultimately pushed over the edge into picking Middlemarch up and reading it by an excellent episode of Radio 4’s ‘In our time’, which can be found on BBC Sounds, or here. (Warning – Spoilers – in so far as a discussion about a 150 year old book can have spoilers).

So, on to the rest of my reads of the year…

Is there a pattern?

No. I can detect no particular pattern or theme to my reading over the course of 2022, other than that my ongoing attempt to read books and poetry that hasn’t only been written by Anglo-American men, seems to be going ok. Although, when it comes to areas of interest, I largely seem to have ploughed the same old furrows: 

General Lit fiction, supernatural short stories, particularly ghosts, longer-form fiction with a supernatural element, nature books and poetry, with a few random other topics thrown into the mix. One day I’ll read more science and economic theory, but not today.

Fiction

In fiction, I read 14 books, mostly novels, but also a couple of short story anthologies – (yup both supernatural-ish). 

Two of the novels featured different types of undead revenants coming back to haunt, terrify and kill/eviscerate characters who had either done something bad in the past, were racist, or descended from racist killers. 

Take a bow, Booker shortlisted The Trees, by Percival Everett and The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones.

Between these two, I felt that the various Southern rednecks, offed in particularly nasty, emasculating, wire-cutting involving ways in Everett’s novel (which as well as gripping, thrilling and righteously angry, was often hysterically funny), deserved it, whereas the various Native American men, hunted down and killed by the wild spirit of a determinedly vengeful elk, didn’t, so much. Though both stood out amongst the fiction I read this year. 

Way back in January, I read Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat, a kind of pandemic love-story, treatise on art, life-purpose, relationships and sex. I love Hall’s short stories and this was excellent too. 

In early March, looking for a quick read for a train journey, I picked up The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, attracted by its mysterious looking cover – which, with its lugubrious looking child’s face portrait, reminded me of covers for The Tin Drum and The Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman. I had no idea what to expect, from this 1950s Norwegian classic, but was quickly enthralled. A mysterious, magical, strange beauty of a book, centred on a brief young friendship/relationship between two girls and its tragic repercussions. 

If this sounds of interest, I’d highly recommend listening to the Backlisted Podcast about it, which came out in the Autumn – allowing me, for once, to feel smug that I’d actually read the book they were talking about already. Just. 

Other fictional highlights were Jon Ransom’s The Whale Tattoo – the sparely told story of troubled Joe Gunner – grim, redemptive; nothing is quite as it seems. “Like migrating geese, I reckon wood hangs on to memory. Has secrets buried in the grain. This marshland is ridden with the untold.

Dead whales, fishing, water, violence, queer love, sex and loss. Amongst the darker moments, there’s an underlying, haunting, stark beauty to the story, especially in Ransom’s writing on place. 

It remined me a little, tonally, of the film ‘God’s Own Country’. A fantastic debut, I look forward to reading whatever Ransom does next. 

I also thoroughly enjoyed Zoe Gilbert’s (no relation) Mischief Acts. Most of this novel is set, literally, in my neck of the woods – The Great North Wood & Dulwich (ie Norwood) A time-jumping, history spanning narrative with different periods, serving as the setting for various bawdy/edgy/comic supernatural episodes – often involving Herne the Hunter, who here, inhabits The Northwood, rather than Windsor Great Park. Makes you think about Herne Hill differently. For a superficial sense of how it reads, I’d say, think Angela Carter, mixed with Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton and that gets somewhere near the style and tone. 

Poetry

In poetry, I read a larger pile than normal – in part thanks to my National Poetry Library card, enabling me to dip into all sorts of collections without always having to fork out for them. 

I find it harder to isolate highlights here, because in most collections, I find at least one or two poems that make me feel my heart has expanded, or take the top of my head off – Emily Dickinson style. 

My poetry reading in 2022 was pretty varied stylistically and thematically making it almost impossible to compare. I read a lot of Selima Hill, because she tends to make me laugh, but also often has a sneaky sucker-punch of anguish. 

I found lots of wit, spark and cleverness to enjoy in Victoria Kennefick’s Eat or We Both Starve, while Naush Sabah’s Litanies, was gripping – and very moving, especially on loss of faith and the behaviour with regard to that, and other things, of men. 

I can’t isolate a particular collection as an out and out favourite, but for having lots of great lines, moments, resonances, smiles, tears etc, I’ll say Zaffir Kunial’s England’s Green and Matthew M C Smiths The Keeper of Aeons, will both draw me back for more. Xgl is forever resonant and redolent of Kunial’s Foxglove Country now. 

In November I read rock | salt poems by Larissa Reid, which I liked very much. Here’s my review.

Nature & Place

The other constant strand of my reading habits tends to involve Nature Writing, New Nature writing, Place writing, or plain ol’ Natural History.

As I hand-picked the books I read, there weren’t really any duff ones. I particularly enjoyed Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, in part because it was the furthest from my male, British perspective on plants and wildlife. But I got a lot out of Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights and Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down too. 

Re: Place – Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, is filled with strange, emptied, sometimes brutal, scary, derelict places, but also contains hints of nature-fuelled hope, so I found much to think about within its deeply enthralling pages. 

Music

I didn’t read many books on music this year, but Jarvis Cocker’s Good Pop, Bad Pop was cracking, from the punning title on. 

Finally, my random, unexpected read of the year goes to Last Summer in the City, by Gianfranco Calligarich. This was recommended by a bookseller in Salisbury’s Waterstones, while I was killing time between Prehistoric Stone Circles and Medieval Cathedrals. He saw me perusing the fiction, took his chance and said: ‘Read this’. 

An Italian classic, concerning the misadventures of half-arsed writer/journo Leo Gazzara, as he moves between bar and street, rich-friends’ apartment and beach, falling in love a little, becoming disillusioned with his lot, a lot. 

If I had to sum this up with one of those naff comparisons/elevator pitch lines, so beloved of book blurbs, I’d say: Think The Catcher in the Rye, but set in 1960s Rome, with a thirty-something wastrel at its heart, add a pinch of Gatsby and a twist of La Dolce Vita.

So, thanks to fate and an enthused Wiltshire bookseller, I discovered an unanticipated cult classic. 

Oh, it’s not a book, but I must mention another cultural highlight of my year (and many others) the brief return of Detectorists to telly, in Christmas Special Form. Once again, subject of a rare trending tweet from me. On second-watching, I think I detected (arf) another reference to Witness. Think Lemonade…

Here’s to 2023 – may there be more love, green things and art, with less war, financial doom, and (for the pedants, FEWER) right wing arseholes in general, Tories in particular. 

My 2022 book’s-read list in full, in order of reading: 

Treasury of Folklore: Woodlands and Forests: Wild Gods, World Trees and Werewolves, Dee Dee Chainey & Willow Winsham.

Burntcoat, Sarah Hall

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

The Whistling, Rebecca Netley

North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud

Waterbearer, Stuart McPherson

The Screaming Sky, Charles Foster

Eat or We Both Starve, Victoria Kennefick

Life in the Forest, Denise Levertov

Wanderers: A History of Women Walking, Kerri Andrews

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas

Alison Blackberry: Selected Poems

Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960, Denise Levertov

Map of a Plantation, Jenny Mitchell

Oak, Katherine Towers

The Blind Roadmaker, Ian Duhig

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

Waiting for Bluebeard, Helen Ivory

The Whale Tattoo, Jon Ransom

The Electricity of every living thing: One woman’s walk with Aspergers, Katherine May

Frozen Air, Andrew Ray

Mischief Acts, Zoe Gilbert

Tourists, Grevel Lindop

Cliff Notes, Kathryn O’ Driscoll

Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans, Francis Pryor

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald

Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs: New and Selected Poems, Selima Hill

Empty Trains, George Sandifer Smith

The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones

Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald

Complete Poems, R F Langley

People Who Like Meatballs, Selima Hill

Footprints: an anthology of new eco poetry, Charlie Bayliss

All the Names Given, Raymond Antrobus

On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging, Nicola Chester

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, Cal Flyn

Good Pop, Bad Pop, Jarvis Cocker

Splash Like Jesus, Selima Hill

After the Formalities, Anthony Anaxagorou

Zonal, Don Paterson

The Illustrated Woman, Helen Mort

Poetry: Reading it Writing it Publishing It, Jessie Lendennie

Temporary Stasis, Lucy Holme

Last Summer in the City, Gianfranco Calligarich

The English Summer, Holly Hopkins

Knife Edge, Colin Bancroft

The Poet’s Companion: A guide to the pleasures of Writing Poetry, Kim Addonzio

Mr Magenta, Christopher Bowden

The Fever of the World, Phil Rickman

Poetry Toolkit: For Readers and Writers, William Harmon

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, Anne Carson

Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo Saxon Year, Eleanor Parker

England’s Green, Zaffir Kunial

Strange Relics: Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural (1895-1954), Amara Thornton, Katy Soar

Litanies, Naush Sabah

Red Doc> Anne Carson

The Trees, Percival Everett

The Keeper of Aeons, Matthew M C Smith

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, Sathnam Sanghera

Middlemarch, George Eliot

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