My Favourite Books in 2021

As usual with this list, these are my favourite books I read in 2021. Not all were published in that year. I’ve kept my comments brief, but hopefully to the point.

twittering machine1. The Twittering Machine – Richard Seymour (Indigo Press)
A book about our relationship with social media. It’s fluently written, extremely quotable, profound and devastating. If you use Twitter (or any social media platform, really), read this book. You may still feel you need to use Twitter, but it’s good to have our eyes firmly open.

holub2. Poems: Before & After – Miroslav Holub (Bloodaxe)
This is very much a re-read, as I’ve been a fan of Czech poet Holub’s work for ages. I read it and all his other books as research for a talk I gave at the StAnza International Poetry Festival. Easily the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done.

tenderness3. Tenderness – Alison MacLeod (Bloomsbury)
A brilliant novel built around the life of D.H. Lawrence and the Lady Chatterley trial. Besides being a gripping story, the book examines issues of censorship, expression, power games, tipping points, morality, artistic singularity and responsibility, and the courage needed to put your head above the parapet.

GMB selected4. Selected Poems 1954-1983 – George Mackay Brown (John Murray Press)
The first of three GMB-related titles in this, his centenary year. This is a new Selected (ed. Kathleen Jamie) and also a Collected Poems, which I’d recommend more than this particular volume but, if you aren’t familiar with GMB’s poetry, I’d advise you to change that. It’s among the most unique work of the 20th century.

GMB maggie fergusson5. George Mackay Brown: the Life – Maggie Fergusson (John Murray Press)
This biography is outstanding, one of the best I’ve ever read. GMB’s early life in Orkney, illness, his Edinburgh years and the famous Rose St bars, his fractious but also close relationships, his return to Orkney, his development as a writer of poetry and prose, and his later years – all are brought to life. Not a paean or a put-down, but a complex human life.

GMB Bicket McCue6. An Orkney Tapestry – George Mackay Brown (Polygon)
One of GMB’s seminal works, originally commissioned by the Orkney Tourist board as a guide to the islands, GMB combined  history, poetry, prose, drama, myth, song, geography and opinion to create a hybrid work that tells you more than any traditional guidebook ever could. Reissued this year, with a fine introduction by Linden Bicket and Kirsteen McCue.

our cancers7. Our Cancers – Dan O’Brien (Acre Books)
The author and his wife both received diagnoses of cancer within a few months of each other and this poetry collection charts how it affected them as they sought to care for each other and their young daughter. But this is less narrative and more of a quasi-surreal fragmented meditation, as if what was happening couldn’t adequately be told in well-behaved linear terms. It’s an astonishing, heartbreaking, visionary collection.

eunice de souza8. A Necklace of Skulls – Eunice de Souza (Penguin Random House)
A short Collected Poems volume from this pioneering 20th century Indian writer are about family, culture, women, identity etc. They owe something to U.S. New Yorky influences but are also firmly rooted in India. I came across her work first after reading an article by Vidyan Ravinthiran, and I’m glad I investigated further.

buried gods metal prophets9. Buried Gods Metal Prophets – Maria Stadnicka (Guillemot Press)
An extended sequence set in a Romanian orphanage, mirroring political tyranny and revealing how easily ordinary people can be co-opted into a cruel and heartless system. But the book also contains seeds of hope beyond the damage caused. It’s also a beautifully produced book. I reviewed it in Magma Poetry issue 81.

sam riviere10. Dead Souls – Sam Riviere (Orion)
A satiric novel about the poetry world, plagiarism and pretentiousness which I found both hilarious and disturbing. A book without paragraphs, which is at first off-putting but, once you get into its rhythm, it’s hard to stop reading. Riviere is not saying that all poets everywhere are egotistical, jealous, fearful  douches, but you may recognise certain types even if not definite individuals.

Howdie-Skelp-2-437x69011. Howdie-Skelp – Paul Muldoon
I always look forward to every new Paul Muldoon poetry collection and he very rarely disappoints. This one is double-length and full of Muldoon’s characteristic word games, formal hi-jinks, and weird juxtapositions. It’s fun, at times intensely moving, often with a cutting edge. I appreciate the way he just does his thing, no matter what’s fatally trending all around him.

Proust12. In Search of Lost Time vol. 1: The Way of Swann – Marcel Proust (tr. Lydia Davis)
I’ve decided to read all seven volumes at the pace of one a year over summer. It is lush stuff. The plot shifts forward at a snail’s pace but the luxurious detail and the intrigue of what’s revealed and not revealed make this a compelling read. Roll on next summer…

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