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…

Authors I Discovered This Year – And Want to Read for Years to Come

There are too many new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered this year. They’ve all brought me surprise and joy: it would be unfair to rank them. However, the books on the list below did make me want to seek out everything else their authors have ever written.

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters (review to follow shortly)

brokenmonsters

Sebastian Fitzek: Therapy

Therapy

William McIlvanney: Laidlaw

Laidlaw

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation

Investigation

Koren Zailckas: Mother, Mother

MotherMother

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

WomanUpstairs

Andrew Solomon: Far From the Tree

FarfromTree

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel

TrueNovel

Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows

AllMyPuny

Ann Patchett: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

happymarriage

 

 

 

Newly Discovered…

This is the joy of reading: that there is such a vast world out there waiting to be discovered… And you find new authors, new books, new genres, new countries to fall in love with.

This is the anguish of reading: that there is such a vast world out there, which you can never hope to explore in its entirety.

It feels at times like the explorers of two-three centuries ago faced with a rather blank map of Africa.  Where to go first?  What part of this vast continent was truly deserving of your time and attention?  Since you could never hope to cover it all.

For the time being, I continue to be somewhat haphazard in my meanderings.  I have not completely ruled out any genre, nor any country or time period.  But I do try to stick to what is easily accessible at present, hence my discovery of contemporary French literature (I had read mainly the classics, and mostly for schoolwork before).

So here are some of my new favourite things:

1) Veronique Olmi: Beside the Sea

Completely shattered after reading this – and yet I could not set it aside. Not the easiest of reads, especially if you are a mother yourself, but it exerted a powerful fascination. A language at once simple, unadorned, conversational and yet poetic. The back story is merely hinted at, never overtly stated. You are never in any doubt about the outcome, but what is remarkable is how the book shows just how fragile the barriers between ‘normal’ and ‘depressed’, between ‘normal’ and ‘dysfunctional’ families are. There are no easy distinctions and that very dangerous slippery slope is there for any one of us…

2) Pascal Garnier: The Panda Theory

This very dark, yet also quite funny and odd little book is the story of Gabriel, who shows up unexpectedly in a completely nondescript Breton town on a Sunday in October.  He seems taciturn yet amiable, maybe a little odd, and he gradually insinuates himself into the lives of disparate members of the local community.  He is an excellent listener and he offers to cook for people, with no ulterior motive whatsoever as far as they can tell.  While cooking a shoulder of lamb for the Portuguese bar-owner, José, he listens to the latter’s anxieties about his wife, sick in hospital. He gently turns down the flattering attentions of the pretty hotel receptionist, even as he cooks calves’ livers for her. He buys a saxophone off a couple desperate for money, although he does not play the instrument, and becomes involved in their sordid lives as well.  He wins a giant cuddly Panda at the funfair and gives it to José for his children.

Yet all is not as it seems.  Occasional flashbacks suggest a more troubled past life for Gabriel, who seems less and less cuddly as the story unfolds.

This is also the story of a small group of outsiders, people drifting at the periphery of society. These loners and no-hopers have somehow found each other and created an artificial family, clinging to each other and to some last shred of humanity.  Gabriel brings this group together, watches them reach their peak of happiness and knows from experience that life for them can only be a disappointment hereafter.

If I say that this is a novel about ‘existential angst’, it will probably put off any would-be reader.  Yet this world-weariness and anxiety are conveyed beautifully through an intriguing storyline, limpid prose and a dialogue of searing sincerity.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

3) And four new crime fiction series that I look forward to reading in more depth. You know me and my love for exotic locations!  Alison Bruce’s DC Gary Goodhew series (set in Cambridge, UK), Adrian Magson’s Inspector Lucas Rocco (set in France) , Jeffrey Siger’s Inspector Kaldis (Greece) and Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva (Brazil).

What have you recently discovered that made you want to get up and do a jig?  What do you want to share with everybody (or – hush! so good you want to keep it all to yourself)?