2020 End of Years No.6

TOP 5

1) The Compromise by Sergei Dovlatov trans Anne Frydman (1983)

2) 3) 4) Dogtown (1991), Soultown (1996), Ghosttown (2007) by Mercedes Lambert

5) Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1987)

THE BOOKS

1) ‘The Compromise’ by Sergei Dovlatov trans Anne Frydman (1983)

‘’A MAN CONDEMNED TO HAPPINESS’…Maybe we’ll use it as a headline!’ Turonok, editor of Sovetskaja Estonija (Soviet Estonia), suggests delightedly to Russian journalist, Sergei Dovlatov. It is 1975, the anniversary of Tallin’s liberation. The city’s four hundred thousandth citizen is conveniently due to be born. Dovlatov must pen the rousing write-up, but first find a suitable baby.

This fifth ‘Compromise’, like the other 11, opens with a concise, Soviet-patriotic article written by Dovlatov for a Soviet Estonian newspaper. The ‘true’ story behind the state-sanctioned one is revealed beneath, plainly exposing deceptions, and drink.

In Dovlatov’s hands, absurd media assignments and rules (countries are written in exemplary order. Turonok nags, ‘Hungary goes third! There was an uprising!’), posing superiors, trying interviewees, make dark, sharp comedy. ‘Compromises’ of those stuck in this stifling environment are described with understanding. Loosened pages fell out my copy- hopefully from past, deserved, frantic re-readings…

Unable to get published in the USSR, Dovlatov emigrated to America in 1979. He has posthumously been celebrated in Russia, captured in a statue on Rubenstein Street, St Petersburg. Unveiled on 2016’s ‘Dovlatov Memorial Day’, after years of arguments on the choicest spot- he would have made a terrific tale of it.

2) 3) 4) ‘Dogtown’ (1991), ‘Soultown’ (1996), ‘Ghosttown’ (2007) by Mercedes Lambert

The reader of the distinctive ‘Whitney Logan’ mysteries would likely try to investigate their author, Mercedes Lambert. The name yields scant useful Google results, bar a dated-looking, palm tree fringed website which bears this pseudonym and her real name, Douglas Ann Munson. Under the ‘Press’ section, six newspaper clippings provide evidence on Munson’s too-short life.

Dogtown begins the ‘-town’ series. Logan, an idealistic Law graduate, estranged from ‘Town and Country’ reading parents, sets up practice in a decrepit office on LA’s Hollywood Boulevard. A well-dressed and fine-smelling woman puts her on the case of her missing Salvadorian maid; a story that soon stinks. Logan’s compelling, series-enduring partnership with shrewd Lupe Ramos, a Chicana who works the Boulevard, begins.

Munson’s own background as a dependency lawyer in the Los Angeles County Court informs the series. Most striking is her conjuring of the disaster-prone, traffic-jammed city. Its subcultures, tensions, the battered Old Hollywood remnants. Koreatown, reeling from the 1992 LA riots, is intently, atmospherically explored in 1996’s Soultown.

The clippings indicate a rising star, but follow-up Ghosttown would be repeatedly rejected by her publisher. Centred on the murder of a Native American woman, its brilliant, ambiguous ‘supernatural’ ending was considered too aberrant. So was the increasingly jaded, Southern Comfort-swigging Logan, though it seems an accurate development. Munson’s disgust at the abuses encountered in her own court work is evident.

Despondent, Munson quit her job, stopped the revisions. She would become homeless and die from cancer aged 55. Ghost-Town was later resurrected by friend, Lucas Crown, and published to deserved plaudits, ‘ahead of its time’ lamentations. The series ends- or remains-with the valley’s lights ‘pulsing in frozen gasps.’

5) Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1987)

Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”

-‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe, Pot Black

‘Pot Black’, the BBC2 snooker tournament show, launched in 1969 to cheaply flaunt colour transmission.

Snooker’s subsequent popularisation was confirmed by 1985’s TV-ratings-topping Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor World Championship final. Burn captures the game’s contenders and clashes with a typically acute eye in this outstanding account of the heady ’86 ‘honeymoon’ season.

Barry Hearn, the ‘People’s Promoter’ has welcomed Taylor into his slick Matchroom operation, grooming him alongside Davis (indeed, with sponsor Goya’s international fragrance ‘Matchroom). Unmarketable, scandal-stalked players like Alex Higgins, offer unpredictable competition on and off the table. That year, the Higgins-led ‘Four Away’ cover of ‘The Wanderer’ made a defiant alternative to ‘Snooker Loopy’ by The Matchroom Mob with Chas & Dave.

Burn rigorously traces the boom’s shockwaves, leaves portents. The old guard of the WPBSA (World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) recoiling. Matchroom’s tendrils reaching Hong Kong and China.

‘Pot Black’ was pulled in ‘86. But snooker suited a studio setting and ‘Pot Black’ returned as the more rambunctious, quiz-y ‘Big Break’. The BBC1 snooker gameshow presented by John Virgo and Jim Davidson aired between 1991-2002.

Cue for another 2020 highlight – ‘Big Break Remake’ by Swedish Magazines. This stunning snooker-single slyly pondered a bargain BBC bid for lost viewers, following a spate of vintage light entertainment resurrections (‘Family Fortunes’, ‘Supermarket Sweep’, ‘Are you being served?’).

Time has not been kind to the Big Break set. There’s asbestos in the roof and a hornet’s nest in the wall.

Abby Kearney

2020 End of Years No.5

This is not my Top 5 for Manchester Review of Books, which looks something like:

1. Tonino Guerra – Equilibrium (Moist)

2. The Huey P. Newton Reader (Seven Stories)

3. Will Davies This Is Not Normal (Verso)

4. Ansgar Allen – Wretch (Schism Press)

5. all the Adorno and Kracauer reissuing from Polity, in a big pile.

You can read about all those on this website. Well, apart from quite a few of the Adorno and Kracauer reissues, which are so big I haven’t got to the reviews yet (sorry).

But year end round-ups at MRB tend to be about the other reading.

2020 has been all upheaval and intensity for me, involving a house move, living for a time without basic amenities and lots of juggling. Then latterly there has been temp work to keep going with this other, MRB work (which doesn’t pay Joe or I a wage). Blissful lockdown reading, it was not.

Sometimes the only thing I can practically do outside my ‘essential activities’, which also includes various domestic tasks, emergencies and moments of complete exhaustion, is to read poetry. But this year, it has been sci-fi.

There was this massive Barnardo’s near where I used to live. Probably still is. I found a big pile of science fiction in there, in January, in fact it kept getting fed through. I would cherry pick a lot then leave it a week, go back and there would be some more.

Books in there are four for £1. I hoovered up things I had looked at when a teenager in WHSmiths but never had the money to buy. There’s a load of it left to go through, and some of it was started and taken straight out to book swaps in summer. Michael Moorcock’s Elric stuff for a start.

So, in between the above, I have binged on Man Who Fell To Earth – good to finally get the story after watching the film many times – Aldiss’s Hothouse, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, a bunch of John Wyndhams I hadn’t read, Arthur C. Clarke, Vonneguts I missed and New Worlds anthologies.

Steve Hanson

2020 End of Years No.4

  1. The Big Midweek, Steve Hanley & Olivia Piekarski.
  2. Postcapitalist Desire, Mark Fisher, edited by Matt Colquhoun.
  3. The New Me, Halle Butler.
  4. Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze & Guattari.
  5. Suite for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Leger.

My book of the year, in the sense of the book I’ve enjoyed most over the past 12 months, is The Big Midweek by Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski. It’s a book which came out a while ago, but which I never bothered with for some reason despite being a longstanding and quite devoted fan of the group The Fall. Anyway, it’s great and, for me, edges just ahead of other books by former members Brix and Simon Wolstencroft, both of which I also read and really enjoyed this year, due to being solely focussed on life inside the group. Top revelation for me, was the meeting Hanley attended, convened by Mark E Smith around the time of the Cerebral Caustic album, which saw Smith lay out his plans to open a Tapas restaurant in Altrincham. I mean, really, how phenomenal would a Fall tapas place have been.

My second book of the year is Postcapitalist Desire which is the final, unfinished set of lectures that Mark Fisher was giving at Goldsmiths at the time of his death. Here, Fisher is working out his ideas of Acid Communism: considering the later recuperation of the libidinal energy of the 60s and early 70s counter-culture and trying to figure out how it might be possible to reclaim some of those lost futures. I thought this book – brilliantly edited by Matt Colquhoun – delivered a lot and is an important and valuable work: it was a run through of a lot of contemporary or contemporary-ish theory, a great summary of Fisher’s thought up to the time of its writing and an indicator of the direction his thought might continue to move in, it was also a great record of just what a terrifically compelling and engaging teacher Fisher seemed to have been. Besides all this I took from it a whole reading-list I’m still currently working my way through and the clearest explanation yet of some concepts of Lukacs’ that I’ve always found particularly tricky and struggled to get my head around…

Next up is a novel – I read a lot of novels this year after quite a while of reading not many at all: The New Me by US author Halle Butler. It’s about a depressed woman who works in an office, and as a frequently depressed bloke who works in an office I found I could relate very easily. This is a bleak, bitter book but also very, very funny, or at least I found it funny. I think I read it in about a day or a day and a half, it didn’t take me very long anyway. And I mention that just to give an indication of how much I liked it: I couldn’t put it down. Rather, I suppose I could put it down, it’s more that I just didn’t want to. So impressed was I by The New Me that sometime after I’d read it I bought what I think was Butler’s debut novel Jillian. This was also good but suffered a bit in comparison to The New Me. Jillian is about a depressed woman who is thinking about buying a dog.

Fourth place I’m going to give to Anti-Oedipus which I spent May and June slowly wading through with varying levels of comprehension. It feels like a bit of stretch to say I actually enjoyed reading this, maybe it’s more accurate to say I enjoyed thinking of myself as someone who was reading Anti-Oedipus, whichever though…I’m undoubtedly proud of the fact that I’ve read it and it’s certainly had some effect on me as a couple of weeks ago I started reading A Thousand Plateaus, which I probably could say I am enjoying and, as well, I feel I’ve got a much firmer grasp on this than I had on the earlier book. Plus, Deleuze and Guattari are funny, right? There’s quite a lot making me laugh in A Thousand Plateaus anyway.

And my final choice is something of an unclassifiable book Suite For Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger. The author is commissioned to write an entry for a film encyclopaedia on Barbara Loden’s film Wanda but she finds what’s supposed to be a short piece quickly morphing into something much, much bigger. This book is autobiography, it’s biography, it’s about gender, it’s film writing, it’s writing about place…It’s an incredibly rich work and, as is everything else on this list, highly recommended. And despite this brilliant book-length recommendation for the film I somehow still haven’t seen Wanda. I must do, and soon.

Richard Barrett

2020 End of Years No.3

  1. British Summer Time Begins by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
  2. Songs We Learn from Trees edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje
  3. Alienist VIII
  4. The Beauty and The Terror by Catherine Fletcher
  5. Outré by D Harlan Wilson

I was tempted to make some kind of State of the Nation comment here, but I figure we’ll hear plenty of those. Instead, I’m going to keep it concise and give a one sentence summary of each of my choices. If any sound like your kind of thing, I highly recommend checking them out.

British Summer Time Begins: an oral history of glorious summer holidays complete with sunshine, skinned knees, and sandy jam sandwiches.

Songs We Learn from Trees: an introduction to Amharic poetry with its technique of wax and gold that every contemporary poet ought to read.

Alienist VIII: everyone responded to the pandemic but nobody nailed it quite like the Alienist.

The Beauty and The Terror: a new history of the Italian renaissance where the smell of gunpowder hangs in the cherub-strewn air.

Outré: a mindbending novel of Hollywood hyperaggression and a whale that falls from the sky.

A list that veers wildly between nostalgia and chaos, then.

Apt? Perhaps.

Looks like I made a State of the Nation comment after all.

Joe Darlington

2020 End of Years No.2

  1. Laura Tisdall, A Progressive Education? How childhood changed in mid-twentieth-century English and Welsh Schools (Manchester University Press, 2020). A hugely impressive, critical and deeply researched work of scholarship using archival sources and interviews with teachers to challenge many of the perceived narratives about changing experiences in twentieth-century classrooms, asking how widespread so-called progressive education really was.
  2. Lisa Tickner, London’s New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s (Yale/Paul Mellon Centre, 2020). You could be forgiven for wondering if we really needed another book about ‘Swinging London’, but I learnt a lot from London’s New Scene: I enjoyed finding out about the role of small commercial gallerists and felt the book was particularly strong on the growing links between contemporary art and mass culture during this period, the popularisation of art as a lifestyle/entertainment commodity via television and the colour supplements, and as a brand to be exported as part of British identity abroad.
  3. Lynn Pearson, England’s Co-operative Movement: An Architectural History (Liverpool University Press/Historic England, 2020). In ordinary times, one of my favourite past-times is travelling to different towns and cities around the country looking at buildings; spotting an old or historic Co-operative premises has often been a highlight. Even so, there were many buildings which were new to me in this book, which surveys the history and development of co-operative architecture, from shops and department stores to bakeries, warehouses, laundries and even mobile shops. In addition, a wealth of archival material (much of it sourced from eBay) offers a rare glimpse at those premises which have been demolished or changed beyond all recognition (or in some cases never made it beyond plans and drawings!).
  4. Alice Maude-Roxby and Stefanie Seibold (eds.), Resist: Be Modern (Again) (Cornerhouse Publications, 2020). A beautifully designed and illustrated catalogue from an exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton in summer 2019, bringing together contemporary artists with lesser-known female artists from the 1920s and 1930s, to explore their networks of friendship, influence and inspiration through gender, politics and sexuality. A welcome consolation prize for those of us who are kicking themselves for missing the exhibition in person.
  5. Owen Hatherley, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (Repeater, 2020). A popular and accessible history of London’s left-wing administrations, from the London County Council to the Greater London County Council, which attempts to understand Labour’s 2019 election defeat by exploring the ways in which the social, economic and politics differences between London and the rest of the country have emerged and deepened over time. Framed by the emergency policies enacted by the Conservative government due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it also looks to the London of the future, recommending a halt to its expansion as a megacity and the rebalancing of power towards the regions. While focused on London, its discussion of regional politics and power made it a particularly interesting read as a long-term resident of the north (and specifically Greater Manchester, a region with supposedly devolved political power).

After writing my contributions to the book three years ago (I fear that some of them are out of date now, and it would be particularly interesting to revisit the chapter on Statues in the light of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests), it was also good to finally see the publication of Manchester: Something Rich and Strange (Manchester University Press, 2020), edited by Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler. While not entirely avoiding the cliches it seeks to avoid (honestly, I am so sick of hearing about rain – there is really no need to bring it up again!), Manchester: Something Rich and Strange gathers an impressive range of contributors to shine a light on some lesser-explored areas of the city. Aiming explicitly to broaden its remit beyond the city centre, one of the most refreshing elements of the book it that it isn’t the usual tourist guide or local history book, and isn’t afraid to be critical. The approach to defining the city – when we discuss Manchester, are we referring to the city of Manchester or to a wider area encompassing the geographical county of Greater Manchester? – is thoughtful, although the presence of outlying towns with their own history and identity was a little lacking and sometimes these places felt unfairly subsumed into a greater whole.

Many of the books I read in 2020 align to my research interests in some way. I finished my PhD, about Pictures for Schools, a scheme to get original works of art into post-war schools, nearly three years ago, and I’ve been working in an unrelated field outside of academia ever since. Despite this, I’ve never stopped reading around the subject, partly because of my ambitions to develop my thesis into a book, a project I’ve long put off because it feels too distant and overwhelming.

For much of the first half of 2020 I was too emotionally exhausted from my day job in arts administration – the pandemic necessitated changes to its nature, intensity and location – to write, or even to think. Instead, in my spare time I read and read and read and read. I’ve never bought so many books in my life as in 2020 (I’ve long preferred to borrow books rather than buy, and sorely missed the services of libraries this year). This was partly due to the sheer boredom of lockdown and the inability to travel and physically explore places beyond the limits of my everyday environment. Added to this was fatigue from looking at screens day in day out, which made it difficult (initially at least) to engage with the deluge of arts content which suddenly became available online.

For all the space they take up (something I was acutely aware of when I moved house at the end of summer 2020), I realised more than ever that the beauty of physical books is that they are portable and lend themselves to outdoor enjoyment. The first national lockdown was made more bearable by sunny weather, which continued on-off for much of the summer, making it possible to escape outside – I read books outside in the garden, in the backyard, in various parks and between outdoor swimming sessions (beginning with EP Thompson’s physically and intellectually weighty, yet illuminating, Making of the English Working Class, which I tackled in chunks during early lockdown laying on the back lawn or sitting under a parasol, having long been waiting for the right moment).

While initially I felt great guilt about my lack of productivity, it soon became clear that all this reading was opening up pathways and connections in my brain – I began to understand my own writing and position better, and where it sat in relation to existing scholarship. Having spent most of 2020 reading, I now feel a renewed and much-needed enthusiasm for my own work – and, at last, a real desire to get back to my own research and writing.

Natalie Bradbury

2020 End of Years No.1

  1. Romance or the End by Elaine Kahn
  2. Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
  3. Pandemic Dreams by Deirdre Barrett
  4. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
  5. The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud

My reading this year has been varied, a combination of poetry, non-fiction, academic textbooks (for a professional qualification I am studying for) and fiction, and I have enjoyed spending time with books in this pandemic, where there seems to have been more hours for such an activity (unsurprisingly).

Number 1. Is a poetry book published in 2020 that I loved and, is fair to say, has influenced my own writing. There is lots of space in between words, (the text had room to breathe) and was also exceedingly funny and insightful. I went on to buy more of Elaine Kahn’s work and though was not quite so impressed by Women in Public (2015) she has certainly left her mark upon me.

Number 2. Is a novel by an author I had not come across until this year. I like Japanese literature so was pleased that this lived up to hopes, with an almost Daphne Du Maurier-esque focus on relationships and the eerie. I also enjoy Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, but have my doubts about the former after a scathing review on Twitter which criticised the way he portrays women. I do not know my own mind, clearly. This author took his own life in the early 1970’s and I was surprised to learn was a Nobel prize winner. Why I was surprised I’m not sure, as I have not committed all Nobel prize winners to memory.

Number 3. Was suggested to me after I posted on Facebook about dreaming of coronavirus and what it could have meant. I read it in an evening on kindle while waiting for the husband in a cinema bar, during a spell of not so locked lockdown (he then went home without me as my battery had died, and he did not look for me properly, but never mind!). It was an interesting read, and, if nothing else, gave me a sense of solidarity with all those other workers having anxiety dreams related to covid-19. I also tried some techniques out suggested in the book for steering lucid dreaming, which worked a few times, but I never got into the habit of it so have lost the knack, which is not to say I will not revisit the approach.

Number 4. Was a very well written novel that I really enjoyed reading and kept good pace from start to finish. The ending was not disappointing (in terms of thought out plot and writing craft) and I will definitely be reading more of this author. However, I have been a little distracted by Jeanette Winterson and a reread of ‘Oranges are not the Only fruit’, initial read being circa 1999. I did not really remember it and found it hilarious this time round. I also grasped that every sentence counts in Winterson’s writing because if I drifted off, I had to reread chunks as I had lost the thread. This was not the case with Number 4. This was an easier read but this is also good if you are me and prone to a wandering mind.

Number 5. I read this for a University assignment, and, it can be argued, might not have been wholly relevant to the subject but was valuable nonetheless. What struck me from this work is that Freudian theory is just that: a theory, which has seeped into popular consciousness and become almost fact. This primary text opened my eyes to the thinking behind id’s and ego’s and enabled me to have a critical view of Freud’s argument, realising that so much of what we now take for granted was just someone’s idea.

2020 has been a good year for me in reading books. Little does she know it, but my Auntie resurged my appetite for novels by sending me one by Tim Winton that I read, doggedly to the end, so as not to hurt her feelings by leaving it half way through. Currently, thanks to a free bookshop in Sale, I am reading ‘The Joke’ by Milan Kundera. This I am also finding funny so far, so perhaps very aptly named (Lol).

Sally Barrett