Unquestionably my most memorable read this year has been the memoir, An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1981), which I came across when visiting my bookshop family at Shakespeare and Company in April. I bought a copy, then devoured the book while sitting on my green sofa back in Lisbon.
The memoir follows an affable man from a Tongan village who made an entire career out of writing a single book – but what an incredible story it is! Kpomassie, who is now 80 years old and set to return to Greenland for his retirement, supposed he was the first African to visit Greenland after becoming obsessed with it in his early 20s. He went on to spend about 18 months there, travelling all over the country, learning the language, and staying with kind families.
What stands out is the fact that Kpomassie is constantly in search of an ‘authentic’ Greenland, in which people use sleds, hunt fish and seal, and generally live off the land. He is quite despairing – even disparaging – about Inuit towns where alcohol is consumed freely, partners shared, and machinery used. Kpomassie, aside from being very intelligent and a gifted linguist, is a likeable narrator; he receives a warm welcome almost wherever he goes, and it is this which enables him to incorporate so many insights about domestic life in Greenland and other places he travels to.
More contemporary reads blew my mind this year. The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan (2021) is a book I looked forward to for months before its publication, and it did not disappoint. Srinivasan’s essays about porn and teacher-student relationships, in particular, stand out as the nuanced and clarifying explorations I’ve been waiting for. She is simply brilliant.
I also want to recommend the short, strange, dazzling In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin (2021). I love most things that the NYRB publishes (they also have an edition of An African in Greenland). But I was mainly drawn to it due to the subject matter: French anthropologist attacked by a bear, and feels the boundaries between her and the bear blurring. Now researching wild animals in an anthropology department myself, this book remains a standout. I recommend it to all my colleagues.
In fiction, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss (2020), recommended to me by a couple of dear friends, is a real standout. Not only did it move me to tears at the end, but it hits home in an era of collective mental fragility when we’re still getting back on our post-Covid feet. So many people have suffered; so many still are. And those sufferings are not always defined or quantifiable. Mason’s book has rung true with so many readers in part for this reason.
I haven’t read as many books this year as in some previous years. I think this is mainly because I’ve been focusing on academic reading, but also because the proportion of nonfiction in my list has grown again. Both of these types of reading are more demanding than a good fiction book, for me at least, and so it takes longer.
- The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan (2021)
- The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (2000)
- The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982)
- Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell (2021)
- The Tree by John Fowles (1979)
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (2015)
- Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi (1994)
- In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin (2021)
- Being and Swine: The End of Nature (As We Knew It) by Fahim Amir (2020)
- Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum (2020)
- “Motherhood and Daughterhood” in Essential Essays by Adrienne Rich (2018)
- The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2018)
- Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)
- Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (2020)
- An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1981)
- From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (2008)
- The Bat by Jo Nesbø (1997)
- The Whales Know: A Journey Through Mexican California by Pino Cacucci (2014)
- The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight (2022)
- Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (2021)
- Pachinko by Jin Min Lee (2017)
- The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022)
- Becoming Salmon by Marianne Lien (2016)
- The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard (2018)
- Unveiling the Whale by Arne Kalland (2012)
- Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi (2021)
- The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963)
- Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)