Because the Porridge team couldn’t let you go without an end-of-year round up, we’re sharing the books we enjoyed reading and re-reading this year.
Happy reading and see you in 2023!
Jessica Syposz, Fiction Editor
When thinking of the best books I’ve read this year, Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich (Fitzcarraldo Editions) immediately springs to mind. A collection of essays assembled from first-hand interviews conducted across Russia and the Soviet Union, it documents the private joys and tragedies of ordinary people as the communist system collapsed around them. Magnetic in its attention to detail, these tales are keenly observed and, at times, harrowing. On more than one occasion, I had to put the book down and go sit in a quiet, sunny spot in my local park.
This focus on sorrow can make the book difficult to recommend. But its contents are rich and eye-opening; it generates a strange hold over the reader. In this tapestry of soviet voices, we learn their thoughts on life, death, yearning, corruption and tenderness, and enter a space where incredible suffering sits next to moments of incredible grace.
Next up is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury). The book’s narrator Piranesi lives in ‘The House,’ a labyrinth made up of possibly infinite rooms. In ‘The House,’ the halls are lined with marble statues and violent tides threaten to drown the unwary. Is Piranesi really the only person to exist in the world besides his enigmatic confidante, ‘The Other’?
The elegant prose, the Gothic setting, and the slow revealing of secrets make for a compelling mystery to get swept up in. But it is Piranesi’s gentleness, his determination to live hopefully, even as he starts to piece together the monstrous truth behind his existence in The House, that made this stay with me long after I’d turned the final page.
I’ve read a lot of short story collections this year, but none were more hypnotic than Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur (Honford Star). This is horror fiction meets the horrors of capitalism; surreal, funny, gross, and often preoccupied with bodily functions and paranoia. The final story in the collection, ‘Reunion’ is perhaps the most poignant. Following a Korean academic living in Poland and researching echoes of the country’s wartime past, it completely rewrites the rules of the ghost story. Dazzling.
Honourable mentions also go to Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (Little, Brown), Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Pan Macmillan), Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner (Peninsula Press) and The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (Penguin).
Chris Rouse, Non-fiction Editor
Maybe my favourite book of the past twelve months was the first one I read this year – The World According to Colour: A Cultural History by James Fox (Allen Lane). This was a wonderfully personal, deeply engaging and eminently readable tale of humanity’s quest for and abiding obsession with colour; how we sought, craved, excavated, traded and manufactured the pigments which enrich our lives. Fox explores this fascination colour-by-colour, with chapters detailing the meaning and heritage of different shades in art and daily life, from the base, primeval aspects of the deep history of red, to modern industry’s efforts to bring purple – once the colour of royalty – to the masses. It’s relatively short but is bursting at the seams – a real kaleidoscope of a book.
Art and royalty are at the heart of a pair of books which treat the same subject from slightly different angles: the amassing and subsequent selling of the art collection of King Charles I. Jerry Brotton’s The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection (Macmillan) weaves a compelling, richly illustrated (in every sense of the word) tale of how this Stuart king attempted to attain magnificence by hoarding art and artists. Image was everything to this physically unimpressive monarch who never seemed to leave his late brother’s shadow, and what better way to cultivate image than through images? Having told the story of how Charles painstakingly dispatched agents and summoned painters to build his collection, Brotton goes on to narrate and analyse the causes and consequences of Oliver Cromwell quickly proceeding to sell it off. A wonderful examination of a fervent period of British culture and history. Similarly, the Royal Academy of Arts’ exhibition catalogue for Charles I: King and Collector is possibly the best catalogue I’ve ever read, with interesting, illuminated essays accompanied generously by high-quality reproductions of a range of wonderful art. Details of works by, for instance, Anthony van Dyck, pull back the curtain to reveal the artist’s craft, showing how a few specks of paint here and there can create textures, evoke character and conjure light. I spent lockdown becoming a bore about art, and books like these have more than vindicated that decision.
Finally, a papal conclave is perhaps not the most promising premise for a novel; middle-aged men in red hats negotiating over lunches does not immediately scream ‘page-turner’ (unless, like me, your favourite film is The Two Popes, and you are a devotee of the burgeoning genre of Holy See-Fi). But Conclave by Robert Harris (Cornerstone) is most definitely a page turner. Harris offers a gripping study of character, politics and faith as ambitions collide and secrets emerge in the Vatican. Almost good enough to condone reviewing it with “holy smoke”, but I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.
Georgia Tindale, Founder & Arts Co-editor
As an unapologetic convert to Audible, my reviews for 2022 are both audiobooks.
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (Simon & Schuster). The title is not one you’re likely to forget in a hurry – but neither is the emotional impact of reading this memoir by former child star Jennette McCurdy. Beautifully written, candid and peppered with dark humour, McCurdy’s overwhelming and all-encompassing relationship with her mother leaps off the page through the author’s narration as she recounts the grim realities of navigating fame at such a tender age, diving into her anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, shame, and more.
The societal taboo against hating one’s own mother remains enduringly strong – McCurdy confronts us with the questions around the limitations of forgiveness, reconciliation, trauma and culpability, whilst still managing to raise more than the occasional smile along the way. Never even veering towards being navel-gazing or entitled, to me, I’m Glad My Mom Died is the epitome of a memoir done right.
Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by Whitney Goodman (Orion). “Good vibes only”. “Live, laugh love.” “If you believe it, you can be it.” If, like me, any of these statements send a chill down your spine or induce a twinge of nausea in the gizzards, you will get a lot out of Whitney Goodman’s straight-talking dive into the pastel-pink Instagrammable world of toxic positivity. Why, if we are told to always look on the bright side, and to quell negativity when it arises, do we feel so rubbish about life – anxious, depressed and utterly burned out?
Again narrated by the author, as a therapist-in-training, I feel a huge amount of resonance with Goodman’s approach of facing life’s curveballs and shit-tips (illness, loss, grief, breakups, COVID and so on) by talking about, and accepting real feelings: even when they are too complicated or uncomfortable for a highlight reel. Amongst all the noise and advice out there on social media and beyond, this book is a true breath of fresh air.
Lily Beckett, Marketing Officer
I kicked off 2022 with Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism (Pluto Press), a Christmas present from my mum. Horgan’s indictment of the contemporary world of work haunted my subconscious so effectively that I spent the latter part of 2022, after handing in my master’s thesis, applying for PhDs: obviously the most reliable method of obtaining financial and mental stability under capitalism. Hopefully Horgan will release another book in time for Christmas 2026, one that specifically illuminates and offers solutions to escaping the post-doctoral job market.
My degree directed most of my reading this year, but I did fit in a few read-for-pleasures. An honourable mention goes to Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Vintage). As someone who used to cite Brideshead Revisited as a favourite novel,* I have a soft spot for stories set at university. I enjoyed how the motif of mis/communication gives a literary ‘boost’ to what is essentially a coming-of-age narrative, while Selin’s sincere naivety prevents it from ever straying into philosophical abstraction. I will also mention Otessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona (Vintage), which I read upon its release in June. I found it thrilling, especially compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I’d found tedious. I want to call Moshfegh brave for writing filth so compellingly. Around August I picked up Modern Nature by Derek Jarman (Vintage), an artist I discovered earlier in the year during a visit to Manchester Art Gallery. Writing in the 90s following his AIDS diagnosis, Jarman documents his poetic and cathartic process of building a garden against the bleak backdrop of Dungeness. I’ve already planned a pilgrimage here in the new year.
Some excellent reads, but I must admit, I spent most of the year side-eying Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (Europa Editions). I’ve just this month allowed myself to begin the third instalment after reading the first two in 2021. I’d become so invested that I forced myself to slow down – I’ve always hated when good things end, calendar years included. Tempus fugit!
* Used to: last time I made this claim, the person responded ‘Really?’ with the sort of withering look you’d give someone for making a joke in poor taste.
Arbnora Selmani, Arts Co-editor
On reflection, 2022 was all about short story collections for me – especially those which take the everyday and colour it with horror. In this vein we have Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur (Honford Star); Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Granta); Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Vintage); and Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson (Penguin). While all very distinct in their style, these collections are connected by their ability to disturb and force us to revisit what we consider normal.
Quiet and understated narratives held my attention this year too. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin), is a beautiful novella tenderly telling the story of a woman rebuilding her life with her young daughter after her husband leaves her. Another short novel, Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low (Daunt Books Publishing) is a gentle portrayal of the cyclical nature of history — particularly as it pertains to family narratives — and the fragility of intimacy and love in a place where you cannot escape your or your family’s past.
Family history is also the subject of Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi (Fitzcarraldo Editions), the only non-fiction book on my list. Through conversations with her nonna, Lenarduzzi sensitively teases out her family’s multi-layered history of migration between Italy and England — reflecting on classic diaspora themes of nostalgia, hauntings and belonging.
Finally, I fully settled into my classic murder mystery obsession this year and as such special mention must go to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (Penguin), Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (Harper Collins) and Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Publishing).