Most things about the last 12 months have been terrible but some good books were released by some nice authors. I also read some of these books so thought I would share some recommendations. Go buy these, from somewhere other than amazon, and then be glad you were clever enough to take my advice.
Also, one of these books technically came out in 2019 but taken together they round out to 2020, I reckon. Shut up.
1) Fiona Benson, Vertigo and Ghost
I started 2020 by reading Metamorphoses by Ovid. It’s a beautiful book and one of the classics, but it can be a tough read. It’s tough primarily because Zeus (or Jupiter, for you of Roman taste) is an absolute piece of shit. I couldn’t believe how dreadful a man the chief of the gods was. He simply cannot stop assaulting women. It’s grim, and after 500 pages of it you can begin to feel a bit dissociated.
I was brought back to myself by Fiona Bensons phenomenal second collection, Vertigo and Ghost. The first half of this book is a collection of poems about Zeus being a rapist piece of shit. Benson is braver than Ovid in facing up to the damage inflicted by patriarchs and violent men. The heroes of these poems are the humans who keep fighting, and just keep living in spite of the pain inflicted on them. Benson’s sacrilegious and iconoclastic poems are also verses of empowerment and life. Go read them.
Here’s Benson reading an excellent non-Zeus poem from the collection, lest I make her out to be a monomaniac.
2) Sean Hewitt – Tongues of Fire
This will be short because I want to write a longer review of this book – but holy crap, this collection is good. The poems are about nature, love, tragedy, and family. The central theme is of the marvellous or unexpected emerging into daily life and having a huge emotional impact.
Poems of this quality would always be astonishing, but in the climate of lockdown and pandemic dreariness, Tongues of Fire achieves something spiritual. It is a gift of a book, and one you should give to yourself. You deserve it after putting up with all this nonsense for the past year.
3) Champagne Football – Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan
For twenty years, football in Ireland was dominated by the strange figure of John Delaney. This man was often publicly praised by a cast of bizarre figures from the worlds of politics and business, and he seemed to be ascending to new heights of power in UEFA. He turned one of the most popular sports in Ireland into a sort of grubby personal fiefdom. Rumours of his corruption and incompetence never translated into mainstream news stories, thanks in large part to his famous litigiousness.
Then, in 2019, Delaney’s world came apart around him, and the true state of Irish football’s moral and financial bankruptcy was exposed to the whole world. Delaney made time for some more absurdity on his way out the door – highlights included the seemingly endless ‘official communications’ from the FAI that were plainly drafted at the desk of Delaney, and an Oireachtas committee hearing where he refused to answer questions and made veiled legal threats to actual TD’s.
Champagne Football is the story of Delaney’s reign and downfall told by two great Irish journalists. Tighe published a good amount of the stories that brought Delaney down, and Paul Rowan has himself had a few run-ins with Delaney. The book does drag a bit in the middle chapters, and there are a few awkward passages where the authors themselves become characters in the story, but these are not large issues. This is one the best sports books, and investigate books, that I have ever read.
4) Exciting Times – Naoise Dolan
A few years ago, I was helping to run a debating competition at Queen’s. I didn’t do very much important; I delivered a couple of messages and helped to judge some rounds. My most meaningful interaction of the weekend was to have a slightly awkward conversation with a very good debater, and very nice man, from a Scottish university who accidentally made a Northern Irish faux pas in a debate. The debater made an off-hand remark about one of the communities in Northern Ireland, using the kind of language that, let’s say, wouldn’t get on the BBC.
He couldn’t have known the nature of the error beforehand, but I was worried that he might attract some unwanted sectarian attention if he absentmindedly repeated these sentiments when in a Belfast pub later in the evening. I tried to let him know that I was not at all offended, but he had to be careful about people who might be. He was very polite and understanding, but I could tell there was a level of mutual incomprehension in the whole interaction. I’m used to that, being autistic, but this particular conversation stayed with me.
I bring this up now for two reasons; both because Exciting Times is a great novel about autistic life, and because I’m pretty sure it’s author, Naoise Dolan, wrote a very nice essay for an Irish paper about this same debater. I enjoy looking for odd six degrees of separation between myself and figures in contemporary literature. In this spirit, I think that I might’ve been to a debating competition also attended by Naoise Dolan, but I am certain we did not speak to one another. I’m a social butterfly.
Anyway, Exciting Times is a story of a young Irish woman who moves to Hong Kong to be an English teacher and ends up having two difficult but meaningful relationships with people she meets there. The narrator is not said to be on the spectrum, but she certainly comes across that way, and Dolan herself is an autistic writer. It’s just a really good book and it makes me feel very seen, both as a young person whose had hard-to-define but meaningful relationships, and as an autistic fella. So thanks Naoise Dolan, and do let your friend know that I’m sorry if I confused him.
I am also here to let everyone know that we can all now stop comparing Naoise Dolan to Sally Rooney. It’s okay to notice similarities between two writers who occupied similar milieux and have overlapping themes. It is also okay to stop being reductive and not let these lazy comparisons define the work of two exciting and interesting young writers.
I am freeing you from this obligation – you are liberated to just read the books.
5) The Wild Laughter – Caolinn Hughes
I meant to review this book earlier in the year, but I was a bit worried about becoming a literary fanboy. I had a review of Caolinn Hughes’ first novel published back in 2018. It was a (deservedly) very positive review, and actually got blurbed on the back of the paperback – which was cool to look at. I have tweeted at Hughes a couple times since then, and I basically want to avoid making a cottage industry out of praising Hughes’ writing. Then again, I genuinely think she’s very good, so I can at least claim to be an honest fanboy.
With my self-consciousness put to one side; I can now declare the truth – The Wild Laughter is a bloody great second novel. It’s a story of the breakdown of a family in rural Ireland, and of the difficulty of being a good son or a good man, and also of the many tiny corruptions of life under capitalism. It is unique, moving and often hilarious. It is also a huge change in tone and style from Hughes’ first novel and marks her down as a darn good novelist.
I’ve gone and fanboyed there anyway. But Hughes and the rest of the writers here are really good so, y’know, they have at least earnt it. Go read some books and reflect on the parts of 2020 worth savouring.