14 books to get the year started with
Anna Cafolla makes January a bit more bearable with this list of transgressive classics, post break-up reads, books that satirise trauma and slow-burning thrillers.
This first column of 2023 has some clashing themes to take your pick from. Expect electrifying friendships and fracturing families, the delicious and disgusting, resolutions to restore you, cult classics and big debuts. Dig in.
Table for Two: Recipes for the Ones You Love by Bre Graham
Bre Graham is an editor, writer and author of the sumptuous food newsletter Dishes to Delight. Her first cookbook is a collection of over 80 recipes, menus and essays based around the pleasure of feeding loved ones. Breakfast, lunch, aperitivo, dinner and dessert are covered, including a lovely essay on the simple joys of eating delivery pizza. From a collapsing chocolate cake recipe that’s perfect for birthdays, anniversaries or just because, to a platter of oysters that hold an ocean’s worth of secrets shared between friends, each entry is gorgeously storied and imbued with love.
Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan
There are certain types of people that move unassumingly through the world, yet carry stories and experiences most couldn’t collect in several lifetimes. Scanlan has this incredible talent for pinpointing these figures, finessing the mundanity of a life and expanding it into the extraordinary.
Kick The Latch blew me away. Based on real interviews, Scanlan narrates the life of Sonia, a horse trainer in rural Iowa, and her journey in and out of competitive racing (after discovering Sonia running a stall at a midwestern flea market, Scanlan convinced her to let her tell the story in writing.) Told through compressed, expressive, distilled down vignettes, Sonia’s story is brutal, triumphant and tender. From high school all the way to the horse races it follows a life lived for the animals she adores and to the extremes of competition.
Avalon by Nell Zink
Avalon is Nell Zink’s sixth novel. Her protagonist, an orphan girl from California named Bran, grows up at a plant nursery run by the Hendersons, the criminal gang family of her mum’s ex-boyfriend. We follow her chaotic arc to a better life (whether that’s what she actually wants or even believes she deserves) and run-ins with middle-class, artsy bullshitters and almost-boyfriends. The writing is so funny – her description of best friend Jay’s hapless pursuit of flamenco and his blind dance teacher is as horrifying as it is hilarious and, somehow, also a provoking reflection on how we hold art.
The Sky is Falling by Lorenza Mazzetti (translated by Livia Fanchini)
Lorenza Mazzetti’s work has spanned books, film, TV and painting, and she’s largely credited with helping to build British New Wave cinema. The Sky Is Falling (Il Cielo Cade) is the first release from the new publishing arm of feminist film journal Another Gaze. First published in 1961, the book transports us to Mazzetti’s childhood in fascist Italy during World War II, under the guise of her fictional alter ego, Penny, as she and her sister are sent to live with a Jewish family after their parents’ death.
It’s been out of print for a long time, and was first translated into English in 1962 by Marguerite Waldman. Because of censorship, the novel had several missing pages, and in the years following became an Italian bestseller. The reissue, newly translated Franchini, features vivid prose punctuated by child-like defiance and an aching loss of innocence. It’s out in February, so get on the pre-order and support an exciting new imprint.
The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier (translated by Daniel Levin Becker)
This is a stealthy psychological thriller set in the French countryside, where Patrice Bergogne’s plans for his wife Marion’s surprise 40th birthday party are overshadowed by a sinister series of events. The story passes fluidly through the consciousness of husband, wife, and child in an immersive third-person narrative, as the rural hamlet where they live is beset by threatening, anonymous letters and stalking strangers. Familial tensions, marital fractures, childhood trauma and pitch-dark secrets rear up at a glacial pace, but the slow-burning mix of horror, noir and suspense is worth surrendering to.
Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey
Monica Heisey is used to making people laugh from her work as a screenwriter on Schitt’s Creek. Here, she makes the story of a young divorcée who can’t afford rent a strong contender for one of the funniest books of the year. Heisey’s heroine, Maggie, ricochets through the world of dating apps, “sadness hobbies”, the world of wellness and questionable impulse buys to find herself at the apex of discovering who she is – cleaved from a relationship she thought she had locked in forever, that is. Really Good, Actually clarifies the most irrational, absurd and vulnerable moments we trip through post-big breakup, bringing us back to earth with little grace but a lot of laughter.
The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis
The Shards is a novel about the end of innocence, written by a man famous for chronicling America’s grisly, violent underbelly and the youth who preside in it. It’s been a long time coming: this is his seventh novel in 13 years. In that time, Ellis has made a web series, written horror movies, and hosts a raucous podcast.
The chunky novel is set in 1981 Los Angeles and follows teenage prep school student, Bret Ellis, in an uncanny take on autofiction. He’s writing his first novel, Less Than Zero, while going through the motions of dating a Hollywood producer’s daughter and sleeping with two male classmates. Soon, Bret becomes obsessed with the charismatic Robert Mallory – a fixation which parallels his worry about a serial killer known as The Trawler, who looms large over Bret’s life. As he wades through his paranoia, desires and teen angst, the two clash, B‑movie slasher style.
Brutes by Dizz Tate
This debut novel is an unsettling coming-of-age story told by a group of 13-year-olds (mostly in a haunting “we”, plural). It’s set in Florida, among amusement parks, swamps and trailer parks, where young teens are always watching. Their current obsession? The preacher’s daughter and an alluring love triangle. When she goes missing, the local town’s darkest, most disturbing secrets are dredged up. The writing in Brutes is cinematic, wrapping up the most manic elements of girlhood into a compulsive thriller.
Come Back in September by Darryl Pinckney
Critic and writer Darryl Pinckney’s memoir looks back at his friendship with legendary New York Review of Books founders Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Epstein – “unrepeatable women” – as well as his own coming-of-age as an artist. “Style is more than personality… it is your character” is just one piquant line Pinckney quotes from Hardwick. Through diary entries and contemporary reflections, he explores their friendship and critical points in both of their lives, including the breakdown of Hardwick’s marriage to poet Robert Lowell and the making of her most celebrated work via vulnerable, vivid prose.
The Sluts by Dennis Cooper
Happy belated 70th birthday to the transgressive master, Dennis Cooper. What better excuse to recommend his head-rush of a novel, The Sluts. Released in 2004, it’s a stylish, salacious, eerie and extreme bit of fiction. Set at the advent of the internet, it documents a new era for fringe communities, playing out on a gay escort site in 2001 and 2002. The story of a young escort, Brad, and his potential murder by a client is told through posts, date reviews, emails and conversations by multiple unreliable narrators, dredging through a murky world of domination and deception. It’s a great starting point into Cooper’s world. Additional note: his very well maintained blog is one of the greatest places on the internet.
The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt
The thickly painted, generous slices of cherry-topped cakes by late artist Wayne Thiebaud on the cover of this book are what first caught my eye. The English Understand Wool is Helen DeWitt at her best, fuelled by wicked humour and sly observations of human quirks, all wrapped up into a novella that you can read in one sitting.
It follows 17-year-old Marguerite, a Marrakech-raised daughter of wealthy French and English parents who have instilled in her a lifelong aversion to bad taste. She’s accustomed to cloth made up in London, linen selected in Ireland, constructions by Thai seamstresses in Paris, and long stays at Claridge’s. Her fanciful lifestyle judders, though, when secrets about her life emerge and an editor pursues the rights to Marguerite’s story, in a satirical take on the publishing industry and its penchant for trauma narratives.
Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)
In Is Mother Dead, Norwegian author Hjorth writes a painful, clear-eyed study of mother-daughter relationships serrated by doubt, dislike and generations of handed-down degradation: “The mother is a mirror in which the daughter sees her future self, and the daughter is a mirror through which the mother sees her lost self.”
Protagonist Johanna is a successful painter in her late fifties. Recently widowed, she’s cut off from her family in Oslo, after deciding to leave her marriage and pursue art over law. When she comes home after 30 years to exhibit a retrospective of her work, claustrophobic family conflict emerges, as the past ploughs into the present and family estrangement doubles up as psychological warfare.
The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop and the False Promise of Self-Care by Rina Raphael
Wellness culture is a freewheeling, largely unregulated trillion dollar industry with a legion of followers worshipping at its altar. “The wellness industry is not well,” writes Rina Raphael, a New York and LA Times journalist, in a book that navigates the false promises, fads and filters she’s reported on and experienced. Raphael pinpoints the gender gaps and structures that largely draw women into the wellness machine, and asks how we can build a better well-being movement. If this sounds up your street, I’d recommend a companion read in Jessica DeFino’s The Unpublishable newsletter, which illuminates the beauty industry’s dark intentions.
Hervelino by Mathieu Lindon (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman)
Hervé Guibert was a beloved French novelist, critic, photographer and filmmaker who captured the AIDS epidemic with self-exposing candour. Guibert’s deeply personal novel, The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life catapulted him into a media scandal; its central character, Muzil, who dies of AIDS, was quickly identified as Guibert’s IRL close friend, Michel Foucault.
Hervelino is written by Mathieu Lindon, who met the late Guibert in 1978. The pair struck up a deep friendship, and the book sees Lindon grappling with writing about his friend, who was also a revered cult figure, picking through the shards of their friendship, jagged with illness, looming death and, of course, love.