The most luxurious, languorous, uninterrupted reading I did this year was in Finland, at the start of the year. My month among the snow, writing, reading, walking, and healing took in Stefan Zweig’s absorbing biography of Marie Antoinette, the epic Finnish poem Kalevala by Elias Lonnrot which sets out ideas of national character alongside the myth and legend of fighting, forests, and cold seas, and Lynda Barry’s What It Is, a creative writing prompt cum memoir which encouraged me to return to writing by hand – sometimes.
In novels, my Booker longlist highlight was Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, an impactful, snowy story of saving a life. Acts of Service by Lilian Fishman, an intelligent, bisexual, psychological romp, I enjoyed for entirely different reasons. I was also drawn into the melancholic Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Dusapin, and Heather Parry’s creepy debut Orpheus Builds a Girl, in which a doctor believes the soul will return to a body preserved after death.
In non-fiction, I was most impressed by The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Mathieu Atkins, a brave piece of reportage trailing a migrant journey from Kabul to Athens. If I was limiting my recommendations to just one book from this year, it would be this one.
Then there was Emmanuel Carrere’s unpredictable, psyche-probing Yoga, which begins in a yoga retreat in rural France, is interrupted by the Charlie Hebdo attack, takes a detour to Iraq, and ends up in Greece. Immanuel by Matthew McKnaught investigates the author’s personal faith and the reach of one charismatic preacher’s ministry in Lagos, Nigeria.
It was delightful to see new books from Saltire First Book of the Year winners Clare Hunter and Stephen Rutt. I stand by my description of Hunter’s analysis of the textiles of Mary Queen of Scots, Embroidering Her Truth, as top-tier Scottish history; Rutt’s new book, The Eternal Season, is a deeply dedicated report on how birds (and the author) are coping with changing British summertime.
In personal memoirs, suspicions were confirmed by Richard Beard’s Sad Little Men, delving into his miserable time at elite private school and providing valuable psychological insight into the overgrown schoolboys who run Great Britain. Another standout was Free by Lea Ypi, about a childhood in claustrophobic, communist Albania.
Memorable too were Angela Hui’s Takeaway, recalling a childhood and early adulthood ‘behind the counter’ of her parents’ Chinese takeaway in rural Wales, The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell, on life with PMDD, and, arriving just in the nick of time to be included here, Carrie Kills a Man by Carrie Marshall, an introspective and often funny reflection on gender transition, sexuality and coming out to family members and broadcasting colleagues.
Beyond recording treacle-slow medical and bureaucratic waiting times and the often banal realities of life during today’s transphobic moral panic and its assault on LGBT and feminist solidarity, Marshall documents great friendships, meaningful acts of kindness, and the euphoria and emancipation that comes with freedom of self expression.
In poetry I enjoyed spending time with Blood, Salt, Spring by Hannah Lavery and the 50th anniversary edition of Liz Lochhead’s Memo for Spring. My friend Henry Bell teamed up with photographer Angela Catlin to present Still Life: a portrait of Glasgow during lockdown that I found a moving tribute to our city and its people. I’m seeing out the year with The Luna Erratum by Maria Sledmere – a poet with a great sense of fun.