From chainsaw wielding psychopaths and Russian family dramas, to French provincial maidens and AIDS activists in 1980s Manhattan… I have managed to cover a lot of literary ground in 2020. Here, I compile the best of the best.
On New Year’s day, 2020, I set myself a challenge — to read 50 books over the course of the year, and write a little something about each one. When I set myself the challenge, I of course had not a slight inkling of what was to come. I predicted that I would not manage to reach my goal, but that I would at least be motivated to read a whole host of new books and be forced to think more critically about each one. As this year began to descend ever further into abject catastrophe, I was surprised to find that my 50 book challenge gave me something to cling on to. Truly, if we hadn’t spent most of this year in lockdown, I’m still not convinced I would have ever achieved it.
Throughout the year, I read 24 books that I deemed excellent, though I have only listed 10 here. Paring this list down to just 10 books was agonising, with many books unfortunately falling into an ‘honourable mentions’ list that I have not the brevity to write here. So, here is my Top 10 — just know that they were the successors in a very stiff competition. I have also attempted to use pictures of the exact editions I possess — needless to say, different editions can give different reading experiences, so in some cases I have had to forgo aesthetic considerations to assure reliability. Anyway, I hope you enjoy!
*Note: Spoilers of major plot details are included for the novels listed below.
Men, Women and Chainsaws — Carol Clover
*Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual assault
Horror movies, and in particular slasher and exploitation horror movies of the 1970’s, are a hazardous stomping ground for the queer feminist moviegoer. These movies often come under fire for the same worn out criticisms — that they are inherently misogynistic, depicting gratuitous scenes of dismemberment and sexualised threat against their female protagonist for the pleasure of their predominantly male audiences. In this book, Carol Clover provides a radical new perspective — that in these films, the audience is driven to empathise with the victim, not the killer. In an exhaustive exploration of several controversial horror subgenres — slashers, demonic possessions, and most shockingly rape-revenge flicks — Clover argues with conviction that these films present a warped reflection of our societies paranoia surrounding gender roles and sexual repression. She was the first to explore in depth the stock character of the ‘Final Girl’, the plucky young virgin who overcomes the emotionally stunted male killer in an act of symbolic castration. Less well known, but arguably more radical, is Clover’s defence of rape-revenge movies such as I Spit on Your Grave. Clover was not always a horror fan — her position is as a feminist writer who protested exploitation films upon their release, yet grew to appreciate their quietly subversive social commentary. As such her analysis is incredibly balanced, neither afraid to defend the seemingly irredeemable or critique its flaws. This is a book that is incredibly niche, yet deserves to be read by anyone who cares about representations of gender in film.
Madame Bovary — Gustave Flaubert
It is reported that whilst Flaubert was writing the demise of his titular protagonist at the end of Madame Bovary, he was so intrinsically moved by the act of writing her death that he vomited continuously. This may sound dramatic, but truly the strength of this novel is Emma Bovary, perhaps the most empathetic of literary protagonists. Emma is not a perfect human being, by any means — she is on occasion rude, selfish, spoilt and cruel. But this is what makes her so engaging. The novel follows Emma’s marriage to a perfectly pleasant, if rather dull, doctor, and subsequent move to a quiet provincial village. For Emma, this new life turns out to be a nightmare in tedium — and her increasing depression drives her to acts of wild abandon that make her life spiral wildly out of control. This is a painfully relevant story for any age, the ultimate tragedy of realizing your life’s dream is an inevitable disappointment. Aside from the fantastic characterisation, Flaubert shades the book with incredible world building and landscaping. As a writer, Flaubert has been accused of obsessing over minutiae, which is true — but this is an essential stylistic decision that clearly evokes the claustrophobic boredom that Emma is forced to endure. All of this adds up to create a book which, though it may not leave you vomiting like Flaubert, is sure to leave you feeling quietly devastated.
Close to the Knives — David Wojnarowicz
Artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz is perhaps best known for an image taken of him at an AIDS march in the late 80’s. He is photographed from behind, wearing a painted jacket which reads “If I die of AIDS — forget burial — just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A”. This image could easily have been the front cover for Close to the Knives. The burning passion that defined Wojnarowicz’s art and activism takes the form of a full blown inferno within these pages. The first few chapters hold something of a tender beauty — splintered, dystopian set pieces describing anonymous hook-ups in urban wastelands and scorching desert highways. However, most of the power lies in the book’s closing sections, in which Wojnarowicz unleashes a scorching indictment of American society’s response to the AIDS crisis, and the deep seated hatred of queer, working class and black people that informed their apathy. No-one is spared: governments, medical professionals, the police state…all are razed to the ground. Some of the book’s most devastating passages include a fruitless visit across state lines with a dying friend to find experimental HIV medication, and a sombre moment where Wojnarowicz describes his immediate response to the same friend’s dying moments. Wojnarowicz’s writing is powerful, evocative and furious — the perfect voice to describe the horrors that befell the outcasts of American society during the AIDS crisis.
Come Together: The Years of Gay Liberation 1970–1973 — Aubrey Walter
When it comes to written and verbal histories concerning the birth of the gay liberation movement, the US-centric narrative often takes centre stage. But there was just as much resilience, determination and passion happening this side of the Atlantic. This book by Aubrey Walter collects entries from Come Together, a zine curated by the UK branch of the Gay Liberation movement. This book is a fascinating queer historical document, tracing the movement’s tumultuous yet hugely fertile first 3 years. These passages, concerning everything from sit-ins, to political manifestos, to poetry and prose, detail the movement’s early post-structuralist and Marxist beginnings, its internal conflicts concerning respectability politics and intersectionality, and its eventual splintering and dissolution. In the 3 short years it was published, Come Together documented a movement that was as radical as it was fractious, and the sociological heft of these publications remain startlingly relevant today. Of most note are the vivid descriptions of the many political actions and public provocations that the group undertook, including ‘kiss-ins’, heckling at arts venues, and drag-raids of staunchly heterosexual university bars. But my favourite entry here is from an anonymous contributor in the 15th edition entitled ‘Of Queens and Men’. This short but beautifully written piece could act as a overview of the whole collection — the ruminations of a drag queen deciding to release themselves from the grip of rigid heteropatriarchy, calling for an intersectional and radical approach to revolution that has lost not a single ounce of its power nearly 50 years later. This is an essential book for all British queers and their allies.
The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov is an absolute behemoth of a book. It is also a near perfect one. On the surface it is a domestic turn courtroom drama that minutely follows the lives of 4 brothers and their oafish, selfish father. When Fyodor Karamazov is murdered half way through the narrative, it is revealed that each of his sons — hot-headed Dmitry, rational cynic Ivan, devotional Alyosha and his bitter illegitimate son Smerdyakov — are each intrinsically tied in some way to their father’s passing. This is a book infamously dense with plot, merging together extremely intricate world building, told through many interwoven narrative strands, with extensive ruminations on philosophy, religion and tradition. But none of this would be warranted if it were boring — and despite its length and exhaustive detail, it is electrifying all the way through. At its heart, this is an incredibly human story — one that many modern audiences may see is built around the lingering spectre of childhood trauma. Dostoyevsky tragically lost his own son part way through the completion of this, his final novel — the question of patriarchy and legacy hangs heavy like a sombre cloud over the book, imbuing it with a vital emotional edge that warms the writer’s esoteric ramblings. The result is a book that is, I’m almost sorry to say, simply essential.
Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain — Beverley Brian & Rachel Dadzie
2020 has been a year of radical change in a variety of ways, and the Summer of 2020 will forever be defined not by a global pandemic, but by a global movement. Though many eyes were on the American Black Lives Matter movement this year, protests of global solidarity sparked long overdue discussions about the intrinsically racist past of countries worldwide — with Britain’s own blood-soaked history of colonization and slavery coming into particularly sharp focus. For Brits looking to understand more about their countries own racist foundations, Heart of the Race is an absolutely essential starting point. The pioneering book by Beverley Bryan and Stella Dadzie is already a stone cold classic, originally being published in 1985 — but the appendices, an interview with the authors 30 years on, helps tie it perfectly to the current moment. By focussing specifically on the history of black women in Britain, Bryan and Dadzie forge a succinct, powerful and all-encompassing timeline of the intrinsic anti-blackness present in all corners of British society. Charting the timeline from the Windrush generation through to the Thatcherite years, and covering a myriad of institutions such as education, healthcare, the workforce and the prison system, the accounts within these pages paint a vivid picture of systemic oppression plaguing a nation. Utilizing a blend of theory, historical analysis and interview testimony, this history is easy to follow but rich with nuanced discussion and insight. This should be necessary reading for all non-black allies, British or otherwise, and a starting point for the many more important conversations to come.
The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain — Brett Christophers
The New Enclosure was my first (ever) foray into the murky waters of economics, and yet I’d be hard-pressed to think of a book that has inspired more genuine rage in me than this. Privatisation is a word bandied about but rarely interrogated, and the privatisation of land even less so. But Christophers tackles the complex labyrinth of land privatisation head on, and his analysis is bound to leave you wincing and grinding your teeth. Starting with a general historical overview of land ownership, Christophers then proceeds to dismantle the logic of rentier capitalism and fiscally conservative ideology with wit, precision and brutal simplicity. By laying out the conflicting narratives of ‘surplus’ used to legitimise the transferal of land form public to private ownership, the underhanded tactics used to decree said land as surplus, and the rage inducing ways in which it is exploited and wasted, Christophers has managed in these pages to construct a bulletproof argument that should be the final nail in the coffin for privatisation once and for all. Economics can be seen as a cold and sterile realm of theory, but the human cost of corporate greed and exploitation can be huge. For those looking to get their head round it all, this book is a perfect place to start.
Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation — Eli Clare
Exile and Pride is a perfect combination of robust, intersectional scholarship and almost poetic narrative flow. As we become more accustomed to approaching our political discussions from a point of intersectionality, it can be invigorating to read a book that balances a broad range of social justice issues with such grace. Ostensibly, the core concern of Clare’s book is finding a home in your own body, and questioning the forces that divide us from our own lived experiences. But in order to reach that point, Clare takes us on a labyrinth journey through queer and disability studies, environmental justice, workers rights and sex positivity — often covering all of the above in the same paragraph. Clare weaves his own biographical anecdotes as a transgender man, growing up in a rural, working class American town with Cerebral Palsy, throughout historical accounts ranging from the complex battle between Americans working in the logging industry and the northern spotted owl, to the even more complex relationship between disabled people working in Victorian travelling sideshows and their employers. Clare’s attention to detail and worldbuilding is more akin to that of a novelist, painting vivid descriptions and never letting the wealth of critical theory bog down the book’s readability. The piece de resistance is Clare’s annotations, made almost 20 years after the books initial publication. Not only do they mark Clare’s personal transition from identifying as cisgender lesbian to transgender man, but also make necessary addendums to Clare’s original thesis. What results is a book that provides questions and possibilities for new features of empowerment and resistance, as much as it pays necessary deference to the past.
The Castle — Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka’s The Castle has all the key ingredients of a true Kafkaesque nightmare — the stifling bureaucracy, the gnawing feeling of anxiety, an uneasy depiction of banal day to day life that feels just out of step with our reality. The book follows K., a land surveyor who is sent for by the local council of an unnamed village. Upon his arrival, K. discovers that he is no longer needed — in fact, his ignorance of castle protocol means he is despised — and yet he is not allowed to leave either,leaving him trapped in some sort of provincial purgatory. So far, so Kafka. But for those who have otherwise remained unimpressed by Kafka (and I must admit, I was a part of that group), The Castle may surprise with something the author’s other books sorely lack — an emotional heart. On the surface, The Castle is about labyrinth bureaucracy– but at the centre of this bewildering tale is a domestic drama, that deals as much in the internal world of its characters as it does the bleak, snow-blanketed village in which it is set. There is a roundedness to the characters here that is missing from, say, The Trial. That does not mean they are sympathetic, however— each one still acts with an uncanny uneasiness, and the repulsion that radiates off each of the town folk towards the presence of our protagonist gives the book the authentic feeling of nightmare. Combined with the book’s elastic use of time and place, as well as the character’s bewildering actions and allegiances, the various elements that make up The Castle create a disorientating vision that is imperceptible, unfathomable, and yet somehow strangely recognisable. For those who want to experience the true power of Kafka, this is the place to start.
What’s the Use? — Sarah Ahmed
This year, the legendary queer and feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed has vaulted straight into my top five favourite writers. Two of her books were vying for a spot on my end of year list, but I felt What’s The Use? held a broader appeal than the equally fantastic, but slightly more niche Queer Phenomenology. And because I, like many of us I’m sure, have returned to the prase ‘what’s the use’ (or some variation thereof) many times over 2020. Ahmed has a truly idiosyncratic style — obsessed with following the meanings of words through their personal histories, weaving through autobiography and intersectional politics along the way. What’s the Use? is a perfect example of her style. Unsurprisingly, the word of interest is ‘use’ — a deceptively simple word with a host of illuminating ramifications. The questions Ahmed asks here are numerous, and her conclusions often surprising — who defines ‘use’, and by extension, ideas of misuse or uselessness? How have these terms been manipulated historically to drive narratives of exploitation and utilitarianism? And how may a queer ‘use of use’ (a very Ahmed phrase) help us create new strategies for liberation? Ahmed draws on a variety of historical and contemporaneous example, ranging from social evolution to sexual harassment in higher education institutions, to drive home her thesis on the uses and misuses of use within neoliberal institutions. Once you have fallen head over heels for Ahmed’s style (as you are more than likely to do), you will wish to devour everything she has written, to experience the world through her unique and brilliant lens. What’s the Use? serves as a perfect place to start, a book that blends ingenious ideas, humour and surprising revelations that are bound to resonate with anyone feeling out of step with a fast-paced and unforgiving world.