Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

Best of the Year: New Discoveries

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – 160 books and counting! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. Bear with me, as this is yet another of my posts by categories. When I say New Discoveries, I don’t mean books that were published this year (I’ve already got a post on those), but authors that I may have previously heard about from social media or my blogger friends, but I’ve only just started reading this year.

Ioanna Karystiani: Back to Delphi, transl. Konstantine Matsoukas, Europa Editions.

Quite a challenging read for a mother of sons, this is the story about a middle-aged woman trying to reconnect with her son, who is on a brief release from prison for a rather grim crime. Told first from the mother’s point of view, and then from the son’s, it is a powerful story of the emotional baggage we all carry around with us and the challenges of communicating within the family.

…no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. 

I’m not sure that anything else by this author has been translated into English, and I wish my Greek were good enough to read more. I hear she is also active as a scriptwriter, so maybe I can dig out some films written by her.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence.

I was at work in London the day they announced the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I instantly rushed upstairs to the library to seek out the work of this British/Tanzianian writer. This was the first one I picked up, and on the strength of it, I have bought two more of his books (including a signed copy of his latest Afterlives from the London Review Bookshop, who organised a Q&A one evening with him recently, with Kamila Shamsie as the interviewer). His novels of displacement, of recreating an identity, of the impossibility of a return to your old life, really spoke to me. The quote below, for example, really shook me to the core (a sense of guilt I’ll probably carry for the rest of my life):

we need you here. Forgive me for saying this, but they don’t need you there. They have enough of their own people to do whatever is necessary, and sooner or later they will say that they have no use for you. Then you will find yourself in an alien land that is unable to resist mocking people of our kind. If you come back, you’ll be with your own people, of your own religion, who speak your own language. What you do will have meaning and a place in the world you know. You’ll be with your family. You’ll matter, and what you do will matter. Everything that you have learned there will be of benefit to us. It will make a difference here, rather than being… another anonymous contribution to the petty comfort and well-being of a society that does not care for you.

Marian Engel: Bear.

After hearing Dorian enthuse so much about this book, I had to read it and make up my own mind. I was certainly intrigued by it – although it was far less titillating than some recent reviews have tried to make it out to be. It felt much more like a fable, a simple story but with hidden depths. It is a novel about loneliness, about losing and regaining your passion, about reconnecting with nature and with your own true self.

What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is 

I immediately went on to read another novel by Marian Engel, the far more messy and obviously feminist Lunatic Villas, which I liked less, perhaps because of its sprawling nature. Yet I will certainly explore more of her body of work (not all that extensive, unfortunately, since she died relatively young).

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder, Vintage.

Of course I’ve read many reviews of Ogawa’s books, a number of which have been translated into English. But somehow, I never quite took the plunge. Hearing her talk about The Memory Police (published nearly 30 years ago) at the Edinburgh Literary Festival last year made me think it would be perfect reading matter for me, but I did nothing about it. That’s just how it goes sometimes with inertia! Luckily, book expert Jacqui and her colleagues at the Chorleywood Bookshop sent this to my son as part of his subscription, so I got a chance to read it before he did. I am still discombobulated by the beautiful descriptions which contrast with the rather frightening subject matter of enforced collective forgetting.

… this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife.

Another shocking omission from my reading: Irish (later Canadian) author Brian Moore. I have heard of his work, even bought the Judith Hearne book a few years back, but it’s still sitting patiently, unread, on my shelves. So it’s thanks to the #1976Club and several of my favourite book bloggers reviewing this title that I finally made his acquaintance – and it certainly was memorable, even if the book and its premise feel slightly dated. It is a Madame Bovary for the 1970s, I suppose, but the 1970s in Northern Ireland, which was probably more like the 1950s in England. Nevertheless, I became completely immersed in the story and felt sorry for everyone concerned. Even when they don’t deserve it.

The other thing that most readers take issue with is her apparent readiness to abandon her son. I wonder if Moore is once again pointing out double standards here (how many men readily abandon their children and embark upon new relationships and build new families), but also pointing out that uncomfortable truth that mothers discover their own redundancy when their children hit their late teens, especially boys, who might side more with their father. 

Isn’t it funny how, even when you are sure that a certain writer will be your precise cup of tea, you keep on postponing that moment of becoming acquainted? Maybe I am saving them for a rainy day? Well, these past two years have certainly taught us to make the most of things, and not delay for the rainy day…

Best of the Year: Modern Classics

I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.

The Old British Library Reading Room in the British Museum, which I loved with all my heart and where I wrote most of my Ph.D. thesis.

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts [unclear who the translator is unfortunately]

Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.

Max Blecher: Adventures in Immediate Irreality

I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.

Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny

The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn

A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball

How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.

Best of the Year: Rereading

Camille Corot: Woman Reading

I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I will break my list down into categories (some might call it cheating, but I call it ‘very organised’). The first category is one that I haven’t had much track with over the past few years. I have been too busy reading newly discovered authors or recently published books, and have sighed sentimentally about how much I would love to reread old favourites… but then done very little about it.

This year, however, I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole with rereading for January in Japan… and that tendency has continued throughout the year.It has convinced me that I should do a lot more rereading every year, because they are amongst the best, most memorable reads. I reread some other works this year (Arthur Schnitzler plays and novellas, Horvath’s and Noel Coward’s plays, Gogol’s short stories) and they were all very much worth the while. However, the five below were the ones that gave me the most joy.

Dazai Osamu: No Longer Human

I fell in love with Dazai Osamu’s prose ever since I read my first short story by him as a student of Japanese, painfully having to translate every third word with a dictionary or trying to figure out some obscure kanji. I started out the month by rereading his final, possibly greatest novel in a new translation, but then couldn’t resist continuing with a reread of several of his ‘first person stories‘ – often described as memoirs, but that is a slippery concept with this author. This also tempted me to reread another of my favourites when I was a student, a book that fits in well with Dazai Osamu’s outsiders: Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

How can actual, real-life beauty ever live up to the beauty in our imaginations? Are the creation and destruction of beauty our only possible responses to an indifferent, cruel world? Does the artist have to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty – is that the only thing that gives art authenticity? Can we ever really understand and fully appreciate beauty until we feel its loss? And doesn’t darkness or ugliness make the beauty stand out all the more?

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

While I have always been a Virginia Woolf fan, in my youth I had never completely warmed to her most famous novel To the Lighthouse. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age to appreciate the passing of time more? This time I learnt to appreciate its subtlety in characterisation and its wonderful lyricism – it really is a masterpiece!

Liviu Rebreanu: Ciuleandra

This novella about murderous jealousy, social privilege, class difference, guilt and psychological breakdown is now available in English thanks to the work of Gabi Reigh. This time I was much less interested in the ‘love story’ and far more observant of the social critique.

Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni

This was pure self-indulgent nostalgia, rereading a family saga that had been a childhood favourite, after I had finished the Cazalet Chronicles.

It is almost impossible to overstate how much of an influence the Medeleni trilogy had on our childhood in 1980s Romania, although it was a book published in the early 1920s, depicting a period just before and just after the First World War (without actually talking much about that war at all). Maybe we were starved of nostalgic, escapist types of literature and depictions of children who could be lively, naughty, rebellious. Maybe we were just at that blushingly adolescent stage of writing bad poetry and falling in love with the wrong people. For me, as for many others of my age, it must have been the casual acceptance of travelling, living and studying abroad presented in the book, and the openness to foreign languages, literature and music, at a time when we were forcibly cut off from the rest of the world.

However, I was far more critical of the author’s stylistic shortcomings this time round, as I make clear in the second post devoted to the saga.

The problem is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is a family saga as well as a Bildungsroman, it is also an opportunity for the author to air his opinions about literature, art and music, or the shortcomings of politics and the justice system. There are far too many tangential topics thrown in, which have little bearing on the main story or even in conferring depth upon certain characters, such as the first case Dan has to defend as a lawyer (a controversial case of incest). It might be interesting (if uncomfortable from a contemporary woman’s perspective), but it just goes on for far too long. Same with the endless excerpts of ‘prose poetry’ from Dan’s notebooks. Stop, we get it, no need to insist…