Holly Connolly provides a not-that-festive list of book recommendations, featuring highlights from the past year and works from two writers who’ve recently left us
For me, summer and Christmas are the best times to read. I find that I do a good portion of my year’s reading in that weird stretch between Christmas Day and New Year, where the days all blur into one. But while in summer I gravitate towards books that fit the mood, by Christmas I’m never really looking for a ‘festive’ read, whatever that might be; I think what I want most in December is escapism. What follows then is a not-that-festive list of just some of the highlights from the past year, as well as a couple from two brilliant writers who’ve recently left us.
Weird Fucks by Lynne Tillman
I spoke with Lynne Tillman for AnOther last year and loved her as much as her writing, so this is not an unbiased review, but Weird Fucks is a treat. Slim enough to read in one sitting, the novella charts a series of liaisons in 70s Europe, London, and New York. First published in the 80s, it’s been brought back into print in the UK by Peninsula Press, a publisher I always keep an eye on – upcoming in 2022 both Oval and We Are Made of Diamond Stuff look exciting.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
I read Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut back in spring and it made me viscerally nostalgic for London. Following two young Black artists as they fall in love, the novel treats the city nearly as a third character. “It’s where my world begins and ends,” Azumah Nelson told the New York Times earlier this year. “It’s just this place that I know I’m going to be writing about for so long.” Azumah Nelson is a photographer as well as a writer, and the novel has a beautiful cinematic quality, rich in images and music.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
If you’re in the market for last minute gift suggestions, I think any Fitzcarraldo book is a smart choice, if just for the chic covers alone. I love everything by Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk (I’ve just bought Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob in spite of its biblical size), and Fernanda Melchor’s dazzlingly weird, lurid novel, which centers around the murder of a witch in a Mexican village, is a must-read.
Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz
Earlier this year a very good friend of mine got so emotional talking about Eve Babitz that she decided we should all band together to send the writer a case of champagne for Christmas. (“If she still drinks of course … We should check.”) Sadly, Babitz passed away this December, before our champagne could reach her. When it comes to a cult writer you often want to recommend an off-kilter work, something people won’t have heard of. But for Eve Babitz I think it has to be her most famous, Eve’s Hollywood – I’ve gifted this book more times than I can count.
The Works of Guillaume Dustan, Volume One by Guillaume Dustan
The first thing to say about this collection is that it’s incredibly funny. I lead with this because it’s easy to get distracted by all the sex: “Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex,” opens Paul B Preciado’s jacket blurb. Across three short novels, Dustan chronicles Paris’ underground queer party scene in the midst of the Aids epidemic. “I live in a wonderful world where everyone has slept with everyone,” the narrator tells us. Unapologetic, unsentimental and brilliantly fierce, I felt I was friends with this book by its end.
The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg
That the postwar Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg has recently found a new English-speaking following is a sign of just how timeless her work is. Of course it’s helped that publishers on both sides of the pond have reissued her work, but new audiences don’t just come because the work is there. Ginzburg, in both her essays and her novels, deals in gray areas; I’d draw a parallel between her and Mary Gaitskill. The Dry Heart, which Daunt brought out in the UK this past May, begins, “I took the revolver out of his desk drawer and shot him between the eyes.” Perfect reading for a Christmas with family.
All About Love by bell hooks
There is so much to say about bell hooks. Words like “seminal” and “titan” don’t seem to stretch enough, and feel too like they are slack with overuse, but they are what she was. So foundational that it’s not really possible to engage with contemporary feminism without second hand reading bell hooks, All About Love is one of her most personal works. “Love is an action: never simply a feeling,” she writes in this nuanced consideration of what love is and why we need it.