A picture of two books

My End of Year Books

(Books I find myself reading at the end of the year).

My favourite books of the year are, of course, books published by my friends in 2022 and I’m not going to list those here since lists of that kind are already liberally dotted throughout social media. Instead, this post is about two books I bought in mid-December, which passed the tough test of holding my attention on jolting trains and rainswept station platforms, when I was surrounded by noise and constant interruptions in the cold days of last-minute Christmas shopping.

I have never met and know little of either author, other than what I’ve read in reviews in literary magazines. I bought their books because I saw and liked extracts that had been shared online – here’s an extract from Amnion at Granta and two poems from Scenes of Life on Earth at New Writing (UEA).

Amnion (Granta, 2021) by Stephanie Sy-Quia is told in fragments, in a style I found similar to Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. However, unlike those books, the biographical details and anecdotes of Sy-Quia’s family history, which shape Amnion, insist on a linear reading, cover to cover, rather than a dipping-in-and-out of different sections. Not that the family history she documents is straightforwardly linear or easily explained, something the author is forced to repeatedly explain in various encounters at school and university, as she details in the book.

Where are you from?

My mother is British but grew up in West Germany and my father is Filipino but grew up in Spain and they met here but had me in California and moved to France and now I am here.

Oh OK wow.

Threads of family stories from different languages and countries, some of which have endured shifting borders because of colonial rule and wars, are eventually tied in a knot by two people, Sy-Quia’s parents, who meet, fall in love and start a life together which includes the author. It’s the kind of diasporic, international, multicultural family history that many people know of and experience by birth, marriage or friendships, although it is a minority who experience the privileges of intercontinental travel, private boarding schools, elite universities and salvaged histories which are told here.

I admire the achievement of Amnion as a sustained project, the way the author is able to bring to life and combine complicated histories with her own present-day story. Stephanie Sy-Quia’s book is an exciting advertisement for fragmental writing and the possibilities it offers poetry and hybrid literature.

Scenes from Life on Earth (Salt, 2022) by Kathryn Simmonds is also biographical in part, addressing the author’s experience of parental bereavement and parenthood as well as poems of the natural world. Reading both books in close sequence, I couldn’t help noticing my own reactions to the texts. I felt more of an emotional punch reading Simmond’s poems, and wondered if this was because I connected more with the book’s themes, or was it because the brevity of its poetic forms compresses extraneous information the longer line of fragmental writing allows? Is the condensed form more immediately powerful? Whatever the answer, several of Simmonds poems moved me to tears and thoughtfulness and made me feel foolish for not buying her earlier books.

And her poems observing the natural world are wonderful. Here’s the opening lines from ‘Dandelions’

They pitch up overnight, a festival
on every verge, settle
where their own seed blows,

the living
tangled with the dead,

raggy spats of yellow
making merry on their hollow stems

beside the elegantly spent,
heads like tiny
empty pincushions.

So, this is the end of not a review, not a list of favourite books, simply notes about two books I was glad to have the company of in the middle of a hectic, distracted time. I wonder which books are keeping you company at the moment?

A picture of two books

8 thoughts on “My End of Year Books”

  1. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – on venturing into Waterstones on Christmas Eve several of the enthusiastic young booksellers told me it was brilliant! As a sucker for enthusiasm I bought the hard back as a present to myself and am finding it a very engaging and positive read. I need these vitamins!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy New Year, Josephine. Kathryn was one of my tutors at Morley College years ago. Always so generous in her comments and lively in her discussions. I saw her recently at the South Bank and we talked about her new collection. Sadly I couldn’t make the launch but on your recommendation I will order it.

    I’m reading mainly fiction… just started E M Forster “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and it’s so funny, which I wasn’t expecting. I last read anything by him in my 20s. I guess sometimes just living life gives you a different perspective.

    All the best for 2023
    Ali

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How wonderful to have that connection with KS. I want to read more fiction this year. I’ve read ‘Foster’ and ‘These Small Things’ by Claire Keegan – both very short books. I’ve read A Passage to India by Forster, and the film of A Room with a View (I like to think that counts!). I think ‘Angels…’ was recently dramatised on BBC Sounds. ** Happy New Year to you Ali and best wishes with all your writing and life! Jx

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