Many of the authors I discovered this year are not really new authors at all, simply new to me. You all have been raving about some of them for years!
Olga Grushin: Dream Life of Sukhanov – freedom and the artist, censorship and compromise, all in a satirical and surrealist tale of midlife crisis
Cora Sandel: Alberta Alone, transl. Elizabeth Rokkan – so daring and modern, very relatable and touching
Fernanda Torres: The End, transl. Alison Entrekin – my favourite combination of humour, satire and sadness – what the Germans call ‘zartbitter’ (tender bitter)
Kent Haruf:Plainsong – all those bloggers who recommended him: you were right! I’m not normally a fan of small-town America, but there is something deliciously plaintive but also muscular and lean about his style, reminded me of Sam Shephard’s Cruising Paradise
Livia Braniste: Interior zero – the Romanian millenial Bridget Jones is by turns funny, cynical and much more subtle than her British counterpart
David Vann: Aquarium – hard-done-by children and their stories always grip me, and this one is beautifully written and heartbreaking
Gerhard Jäger: All die Nacht über uns – this clever blend of personal and social history is just my cup of tea – it will probably go straight onto my best of the decade list.
Anything goes here really – writers I’m already familiar with, poetry (which I read a lot but very seldom review), things that defy all categorisation etc.
Julia Franck: Die Mittagsfrau – started slowly and then just grew and grew on me
Ilya Kaminsky: Deaf Republic – political narrative poetry at its most lyrical, metaphorical and troubling
Shirley Jackson: Raising Demons – sweetness wrapped in bitter chocolate – or should that be bitterness wrapped in milk chocolate?
Isaac Babel: Odessa Stories, transl. Boris Dralyuk – virtuoso storytelling, comedy and tragedy in equal measure
So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!
I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.
This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.
How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…
Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While
Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution
Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)
Best Rediscovered Classic
J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country
I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.
To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
Best Regional Curiosity
Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods
Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.
Most Recognisable Situation
Sarah Moss: Night Waking
Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.
Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.
Best Crime Fiction
I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.
Best Book About the Yugoslav War
A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.
Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:
Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.
This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”
I’ll stick to the books this time and make no comments about other aspects of 2016. But even so, I have to admit it’s been a bit of an atypical year. I’ve read 167 books, Goodreads tells me, and have a couple more weeks to reach 170 or so.
But it’s not a race.
I’ve had moments of furious reading, and some months of disruption, when reading was in scarce supply. The proportion of crime fiction seems to be lower than in other years. My Top 5 Reviewed Crime Reads will appear as usual on the Crime Fiction Lover site, so I thought I would look at other books here on my blog, particularly those which were released before 2016.
I wonder if the format for reading them also added to their memorability: most of the ones featured were physical books (only four were e-books).
My overall percentage of translated fiction was perhaps roughly 40%, and the books in this category have proved memorable and contributed considerably to my ‘best of’ list (8 out of 17). Likewise, I may feel that I don’t read as much poetry and non-fiction as I would like to, but they tend to stick with me and so appear quite a bit on the list. 10 out of the 17 books were written by women, 10 of these were published before 2016.
It’s been an emotional year, so I’ve gone for visceral response rather than careful analysis of literary merits. However, most of the books below show evidence of both. Sadly, not all of them have been given the review they deserve. I’ve found that I often struggle to review those books which have meant most to me and which I want to reread. For those I haven’t reviewed, I just give a short quote from the book itself.
I had no right to refuse her help. The myth of my future was what kept her alive. For the time being, I had to swallow my pride and continue my race against time, to try and keep my promise towards her, to give her absurd and tender dreams some reason for being… I don’t feel guilty about that. But if you find that my books are cries for dignity and justice, if they all talk to such an extent about human decency, it’s perhaps because until the age of 22, I lived off the back of an exhausted and ill woman. I owe her so much.