Annual Summary: Contemporary Writing

This post was going to be named Contemporary Fiction, but I actually had a very good year of reading poetry and non-fiction, so I wanted to include those, and didn’t know if I (or you) would have the patience for separate blog posts for every single category. So these are books published recently (not just this year, but in the past few years), some of them have been reissued or have only just been translated. There are 59 books that would fit in this category out of my total of 127, so roughly half of the books I read. A higher proportion than I expected, driven partly by my desire to help small independent publishers and bookshops in this difficult year.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Here are the ones that stayed with me:

Fiction

Aoko Matsuda: Where the Wild Ladies Are – a clever, ferocious, fun subversion of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales, made all the more interesting by getting a chance to hear the translator Polly Barton talk about it at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene after lockdown in March

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women – another short story collection with a wry look at the gender gap (I seemed to find short stories more accessible and suitable for my attention span, particularly during the first lockdown). Although these stories were written during the 1950s and 60s, they have been collected and reissued recently… and still have a lot to say about today’s world.

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – two novellas about life as a Jew in the increasingly intolerant Romanian society of the 1930s (and the Second World War) – fascinating initially because of its subject matter, the writing turned out to be truly evocative of its time and place, with a dry, dark sense of humour

Nino Haratischwili (or Haratishvili): The Eighth Life – a mammoth of a family saga, which captivated even me, a reluctant convert to the family saga genre, always balancing between the personal and the historical, the well-trodden and the barely known.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet – this book was a case of right time, right subject matter for me, not just as a Shakespeare fan, but also because I read it at a time when I was so worried about the health of my own children; perhaps slightly over-written, but with moments of real beauty, lyricism and psychological depth.

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow… – so clever, such a beguiling voice, a great insight into a person, a way of life and a rural society, both tragic and comic all at once

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith – finally understood what all the fuss was about, just could NOT stop reading this thrilling example of master storytelling; sadly, was not quite as enamoured of the other books by the author that I then borrowed post-haste from the library

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs – a strange novel, composed of two parts that don’t really have much to do with each other, and yet I loved the way it explored women, bodies, sisterhood, families and the meaning of parenthood in contemporary Japan

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season – one of the most breathlessly enthralling and difficult stories I’ve read this year or perhaps in any other year, with voices that will leave you shattered – one of those life-changing books

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest – by way of contrast, a gentle, subtle, utterly charming book about an exceptional man and author, Chekhov – a fictional account of his summers in the Ukraine

Poetry

I read a lot of poetry this year, but as usual haven’t reviewed much. The two that I have reviewed, however, both shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award – and one the winner of this award – were truly unforgettable: Jay Bernard’s Surge and Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire. But this year I also discovered Jericho Brown, Safiya Sinclair, Caroline Bird, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Nina Boutsikaris and a new translation of Cavafy by Evan Jones, so it’s been an excellent year.

Non-Fiction

Deborah Orr: Motherwell – not just a family history – and the gap between generations – but also the history of a community, which helped me to understand a lot more about the UK and its working class history

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting – reminded me of just how much I loved certain women authors and introduced me to a couple of new women to admire – a thoughtful recreation of a period and women’s aspiration to be independent of thought (and financially too, if possible). Perhaps forced together into the Mecklenburgh Square concept, but it worked for me and I really regret not writing a proper review of it

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling – micro-memoirs, witty, charming, sharp-tongued, experimental – a delight that I discovered thanks to the recommendation of Anne-Marie Fyfe, whose poetry workshop was one of the last things I was able to attend live in 2020

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – an absolute must for literary translators, but for all readers, this is both an insight into the science and art of translation, and throws up all sorts of knotty problems for debate – another of those ‘life-changing’ books, especially since I just started being a literary translator this year.

13 thoughts on “Annual Summary: Contemporary Writing”

  1. Like many others, I’ve been having a bad reading year, so from your list, have only read Hamnet and Fingersmith. Several of your choices look well worth moving to my TBR list, but I’m interested to learn that you have started a career in translation. I hope you’ll maybe post about this from time to time as I find the whole thing fascinating. Just how far can you move from the words of the original to retain the spirit of the original? I’ve tried it occasionally as an exercise, and it’s really hard, I’ve found. Best wishes for the remainder of the Christmas season.

  2. It was A Manual for Cleaning Women that finally converted me to short stories. I’m sure you already know there’s a second collection – Evening in Paradise, also excellent. Very much like the sound of This Little Art which I’d not come across before. On the list it goes.

  3. Another terrific reading list. I also loved ‘Drive Your Plow…’ and ‘The Eighth Life’. I just read another book that has some similarities to the Haratishvili, but handles it very differently. Now I have to finish drafting the post to go out in the new year. Reading serendipity was working well when I read these two within a few months of each other.

    May your translation work thrive in the coming year!

  4. It has been a strange year, for reading and for life in general, Marina Sofia. But I’m glad you found some good reading in and through it all. You’ve reminded me that I must read Hamnet; it’s on my list, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet. Interesting, isn’t it, how you felt so differently about Fingersmith to the way you felt about The Paying Guests<. Shows you, I suppose, that even the same author can strike the same reader in different ways…

  5. So many appealing titles on your list. I’ve read the Tocarczuk but never got around to review I got it. Motherwell, Square Haunting and This Little Art sounds so interesting. You’ve had a good reading year, I’d say.

    1. It has been a good year, thank goodness, in terms of reading, or maybe I deliberately gravitated towards the books I thought would make me feel happier about this year.

  6. What a very rewarding year you’ve had, reading-wise, with so many interesting titles on your list! I was very excited to see Evan Jones’ new translation of Cavafy (I’ve only read the Keeley/Sherrard translation), which I MUST have! Absolutely non-negotiable, despite my mountains of (unread) books, poetry & otherwise. I have copies of a few of your other entries, in my case sadly unread: Hamnet; Where the Wild Ladies Are (really looking forward to this one); Breasts & Eggs & The Little Art. I’m almost ready to try Hurricane Season (enjoyed your review BTW) although I’ve avoided Drive Your Plow, as I’m afraid it might have animal cruelty issues, which I can’t handle). Although I don’t read much non-fiction these days, Square Haunting has been on my list for awhile. I found your reaction to Sarah Waters interesting, as she’s one of those writers I admire a great deal although I don’t always like her work. I did enjoy Fingersmith and The Little Stranger and loved Nightwatch but I’m afraid I was very disappointed in The Paying Guests (haven’t read her two early ones).

    1. It really has been a good reading year, which I suppose made the year more tolerable. I am a bit of an obsessive about Cavafy and have 5 different translations, as well as the original Greek version (which I can barely read, though). I think that Drive Your Plow is very much in the spirit of animal activism, so very much against cruelty to animals, and well worth a read. Hurricane Season you have to be in a good frame of mind to read, as it can be rather gruelling.

  7. I’ve read the Briggs and Wade amd Tokarczuk from your list – all wonderful! I have had a pretty good year of reading but currently am in a fog (too much Christmas food probably). Something light next I think!

  8. Have you read Tim Parks on translation? I’ve been wondering whether to get hold of it. People say it’s excellent.

  9. This is such a fascinating list, Marina. Plus, the fact that we have some favourites in common — Motherwell, Square Haunting and the Lucia Berlin — makes me all the more interested in exploring your other choices. I have the Tokarczuk in my TBR and now regret not adding Hurricane Season to my Fitzcarraldo basket during their summer sale. But the one that sounds most intriguing is the Matsuda – I shall have to take a closer look.

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