Ashley Stokes’ Top Five Books of 2018 12th December 2018 – Posted in: Blog
Every year we ask Unthank authors to compile an end-of-year list from the books they have read that year, one refreshingly unconstrained to books published in 2018. Any bibliophile worth his or her salts is an omnivore. We don’t just read what everyone is chattering about. What we choose to read, and when, may offer us a revelation of how things are, taking us on a journey through the corridors and byways our imaginations, emotions and fears have drawn us to unwillingly. The third in our seasonal series this year is Ashley Stokes.
The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder
I had previously read Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands, and although I didn’t feel I learned much I didn’t already know about the events he describes, I did come away admiring the compassion Snyder showed toward the victims of 20th century tyrannies and his thoughts on how we should commemorate them by recording their stories accurately. The Road to Unfreedom is a different type of book. Part history of recent and not so recent political ideas and part polemic, it describes how Russia has, since 2012, subverted liberal democracy in both Europe and America with the aim of turning the West into a version of Russia itself. Snyder’s stirring account of the Ukrainian Maidan protests reads like first-hand reportage but lit-up with that compassion and contextualising insight again. The devices he uses to analyse our current malaise, the Politics of Inevitability, the Politics of Eternity and The Fable of the Wise Nation are at the very least extremely interesting and at best powerful telescopes through which we can glimpse the scale of the conspiracy against us. I can’t see any better purpose for historical knowledge than it be deployed for the purposes Snyder uses here. His pamphlet, On Tyranny is also well worth a look (“Fascism says that what you and I experience, or what reporters experience as facts are irrelevant. All that matters are impressions and emotions and myths” – stick that on a side of a bus). As for other books about the conspiracy against us, I also found JJ Patrick’s Alternative War grimly fascinating (and terrifying).
And now to a novel, but a novel written in the form of an oral history about an early eighties Airdrie post-punk scene that never happened. It’s centred on the short-lived career of a band called Memorial Device but takes in a motley of local faces: hangers-on, bit-part players, wannabes, freaks, dreamers and deadbeats, all small-town superstars, one’s their Nico, one’s their Syd Barrett, all telling their own stories attended by acres of references that take up half the book, that no one is going to read, but which do make it feel genuinely archival, the work of an obsessed local historian. Sometimes it makes you mourn for a lost world, or lost youth, lost possibility, lost days, forgotten riffs and refrains. Sometimes it makes you laugh. I particularly liked the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to a punk drummer called Pig Ignorant, and the story of Street Hassle, a guy whose secondary claim to fame is once being seen passed out on a roundabout.
A short novel about a delusional man holed up in a grimy, out-of-season seaside town, sometime during the sixties, waiting for an opportunity to murder the father who abandoned him as a child. The backdrops come straight out of Graham Greene at his rain-streaked murkiest but the inner voice is like something out of Beckett or BS Johnson. I loved the angular turns of the voice here, and the grey wit and horribly English sleaze and sordidness. One of the best first lines I’ve ever read kickstarts the worst ever holiday in a grimy world where nothing is reliable and no one has much to show for their being and doing (it’s as English as rickets and rain, basically).
The Stone Tide by Gareth E Rees
I first came across Gareth’s writing when he submitted a story for Unthology 10. Superficially The Stone Tide is a book about trying to write a book that wants to be an occult history of Hastings but by turns becomes a raw account of living and loss, ambitions and failures, illness and limits. No genre goes unspliced in the telling, yet all the strands meet at the heart of a web of, at first, unfocussed ideas and contingent obsessions. I found this a brave, inventive and profoundly moving book, new English landscape writing at its most expansive and necessary. Gareth E Rees is a post-punk Sebald, like Will Ashon, like Gary Budden, and well worth watching out for. He also has a fine horror story, We are the Disease in Tales from the Shadow Booth Vol 2 (edited by Dan Coxon). The Stone Tide is published by Influx, who are producing some very intriguing titles, one of which I’d also recommend is Paul Scraton’s Ghost on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast.
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani
Early in the year, I enjoyed this short novel by an Italian writer I’d never heard of before. Ostensibly the story of Doctor Fadigati, a much-admired and respectable schoolteacher whose reputation is ruined when he’s involved in a homosexual sex scandal, it’s really a document of Italy’s slide into antisemitism. I loved the way the first half of the novel was told from a group perspective of the Ferrara schoolboys who follow Doctor Fadigati about and start to wonder at the company he’s beginning to keep. There’s also a sad and strange backstory in which the Mussolini-supporting Jews of Ferrara realise they’ve been duped by the regime when Italy adopts new Nazi style anti-Semitic race laws. The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is an elegiac story of doomed men, doomed love and doomed everything.