Summing Up the Decade: Memorable Books

I have no recollection of which books I read in 2010-2011, because I did not keep a record of them on a blog or a spreadsheet. I know I borrowed a lot from the library during that period, so I can’t even look at my shelves and guess from the purchases I made. So my books of the decade will in fact be the books which most stuck in my mind during the past 8 years. To be even more precise: books that I happened to read in the past 8 years, not necessarily books published during this period.

I didn’t have a set number in mind, but have come up with a list of 30, which seems like a nice round number. I did not include rereads in this category, otherwise it might have been skewed in their favour (you reread things for a reason). Not all of them have comprehensive reviews, but I’ve tried to link even the brief ones where possible.

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Claudia Rankine: Citizen

Sharon Olds: Stag’s Leap

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Svetlana Alexievich: The Womanly Face of War

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

Pascal Garnier: How’s the Pain

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy

Romain Gary: La Promesse de l’aube

Emmanuel Carrere: L’Adversaire

Delphine de Vigan: Nothing Holds Back the Night

Gerhard Jager: All die Nacht uber uns

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen ging gegangen

Julia Franck: West

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Javier Marias: A Heart So White

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment

Mihail Sebastian: Journal

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Hanne Orstavik: Love

Antti Tuomainen: The Man Who Died

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters

John Harvey: Darkness, Darkness

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines

Denise Mina: Garnethill Trilogy

Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks

What conclusions might be drawn from the above list? I like rather grim and sad books, clearly, preferably with the words ‘dark’ or ‘night’ in the title. I like world literature: 18 are written in a language other than English, and even the English-speaking authors include a South African, a Canadian and 5 Americans (two Scottish authors – that might count as a distinct category soon). 19 out of 30 are women writers. I much prefer fiction and particularly novels, almost to the exclusion of everything else (only five non-fiction books on this list) Finally, I am attracted to ‘difficult’, controversial subjects – poverty, death, dysfunctional families, social ills, bad physical and mental health, trauma, crime.

So, on that cheery note, here’s to next dystopian decade!

Best of the Year Books (New Discoveries and Open Category)

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!

Of course, I can’t bear to part with any of them…

New discoveries:

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.

Open category:

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

Best of the Year Books (Classics and Non-Fiction)

Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.

Two of the books (Montaigne and Travellers in the Third Reich) were library loans, but the rest are here.

Classics:

Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out

Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker

Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage

Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed

Non-Fiction:

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda

Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive

Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos

November 2019 Summary

November has not been the best month for a happy reading frame of mind. Budgets and hassles and events to put on at work. French exchange student to host and ferry around. Court case stress, a settlement that leaves me teetering on the edge of poverty and a growing realisation that a financial settlement does not mean an end to bullying by the ex. So I might be excused for finishing just five books this month, of which only one was a #GermanLitMonth (or Germans in November) read, and abandoning a couple of others.

I needed a change from my usual rather dark reading fare and escaped in the pages of two ‘feel-good’ reads: The Star of Lancaster from Jean Plaidy’s series on the Plantagenets (featuring mostly Henry IV and V) and the sly irony of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (review to follow imminently).

For German Lit Month, I read the moving blend of History and herstory which is Julia Franck’s Mittagsfrau. I then got a chance to see the author in a lively event at the British Library celebrating the launch of the Riveting Germans magazine and 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The remaining two books were by the same author; I read them with a professional editorial eye, to see which might be most suitable for translating and publishing in the UK and the US. Two very different books by the talented and versatile author Bogdan Teodorescu: a domestic noir entitled Liberty and a political thriller about the sudden death of an investigative journalist Nearly Good Lads (English titles to be confirmed).

There was one further literary event this month, which filled me with a rosy glow of contentment for at least a few days, namely the charity Write-A-Thon in Windsor, which allowed me to spend a whole day reminding myself just why I love writing so much, in the company of other passionate writers.

Finally, in the last two days of the month, I managed to squeeze in two plays. Stray Dogs at the Park Theatre is a drama about the choices faced by Anna Akhmatova during Stalinist times – will she collaborate with the ruthless autocrat in order to save her son? Sadly, Akhmatova’s son never forgave her, believing that she cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard enough for his release.

The poster for the 1979 Maximilian Schell film rather predicts the finale…

The second play is another not so cheery but reliable stalwart from my Viennese life: Tales from the Vienna Woods by Horvath, performed by this year’s final year students at RADA. The jaunty background music and farcical moments contrast with the rather stark messages around women trying to survive in a patriarchal, Catholic world.

October Reading Summary

I’ve had quite a few days of holiday this month, but somehow my plans to spend them mostly reading didn’t quite work. Nevertheless, this is the month that I’ve reached (and overtaken) my Goodreads challenge of 120 books, so it’s not all bad.

9 books read, 7 of them were for a particular purpose, while two were just to relax. Only three of them by women, and a total of six in translation. Here were the reading targets I set for myself:

1930Club – a reread of a classic of Romanian literature and a sobering look at the First World War – Camil Petrescu

Orentober – Orenda Book authors, with two dark and twisted tales from Antti Tuomainen and Will Carver

Swiss in October – my own attempt to read thematically by geography every month, with three Francophone writers and one Allophone writer. From physical bank robbers in Basel to corrupt businesses in Lausanne, from feeling alien in LA to reacting to ‘aliens’ in canton Vaud.

Finally, the two that were just for relaxation, commuting or travelling by plane were: How It Was by Janet Ellis – a rather piercing portrait of family dynamics in the 1970s and rivalry between mother and daughter; and Tammy Cohen’s They All Fall Down, set in a psychiatric clinic, yet miles away from All Dogs Are Blue, for instance.

November is German Literature Month, so instead of allowing Indonesia, the Middle East or Canada to beckon to me, I will probably linger in Europe for just a little longer.

Reading Summary Sept 2019

10 books and some excellent ones amongst them this month. I read 4 authors for China in September: the rude and rowdy The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, the fascinating speculative fiction of Maggie Shen King, the disappointing Shanghai Baby and the sophisticated, subtle work of Eileen Chang. The settings were in the east, south-west and north of China, and the authors were as diverse as those regions.

These were all women writers, as were in fact 8 of the 10 authors I read this month. The other four were: Joyce Porter from the 1960s, creator of the obnoxious Inspector Dover and writing a fairly enjoyable (occasionally dated) comic detective fiction genre; Deborah Levy’s excellent memoir The Cost of Living (review to follow); Nicola Barker’s witty reinvention of the novel I Am Sovereign (review to follow); and Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne.

The two male authors I read this month were as different as they could possibly be from each other: the earnest political novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (review to follow) and the easy escapism (and night frightener) A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay.

So, after some of the largest countries of the world: US, Russia, Brazil, China, maybe it’s time to tackle a small but diverse country in October. Or at least, diverse in terms of languages, because it’s almost exclusively male authors. It’s Switzerland and Pascale Kramer is the only woman amongst the others: Alex Capus, Pascale Kramer, Jonas Lüscher, Pascal Mercier, Sebastien Meier and Joseph Incardona. Let’s see how many of these I manage to read…

August Reading, Events and Book Haul

There I was thinking I hadn’t done all that much reading in August, because my #WITMonth contributions have been a miserly five. However, when I counted them all up, I realised I’ve read 16 books, 7 of them in translation (5 of them Brazilian, to fit in with my August in Brazil reading). 10 books were by women, and I even read two non-fiction books (Sylvia Plath’s diaries and The Secret Barrister’s rather terrifying descriptions of the shortcomings of the English legal system).

I have reviewed The Head of the Saint, Middle England, The End, Lost World, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Pine Islands and Clarice, so only about half of what I read. I still intend to review some of the above, but don’t hold your breath, as out of sight tends to be out of mind! I will not be reviewing Plan B or Guilty Not Guilty, which were quick fun reads but nothing to get worked up about, while Platform Seven is the kind of novel that started out very eerily and got my hopes up, but became a bit too much of a bog-standard thriller about a psychologically abusive relationship. Fatechanger is a YA novel about a Dickensian Boston of thieves and newspaper boys during the First World War and a time-travelling girl who has to pretend to be a boy in order to survive.

Next month I will be focusing on China – and I have a good haul of women writers, including Eileen Chang, Wei Hui, Xiaolu Guo and Yan Ge, so my #WITMonth is set to continue!

It’s been a good month of events as well: a powerful play about immigrants, a writing retreat at my house, a Russian film about life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an exibition on writing at the British Library, a triumphant GCSE results day, a day trip to Oxford and, last but by no means least, an extremely inspiring conversation between Ali Smith and Nicola Barker, two of the most innovative and daring and poetic writers at work today.

With all of the back to school preparations, we’ve been going shopping and therefore ‘accidentally’ ending up in bookshops (my older son is nearly as addicted to them as I am – hurrah for him, but boo-hoo for my wallet). So this month has been the scene of another massacre of my book-buying ban (it hasn’t really been in place since April).

These two are actually for the boys: one is required for the GCSE (for younger son), the other was older son’s choice as he pursues his plans for world domination. They liked the tactile covers and wordcloud/ quotations on the front.

Speaking of beautiful editions, I just had to get these two favourite Murdochs in the new Vintage editions. Yes, I like stories about cult-like communities and dodgy patriarchal leaders.

Some politically prescient novels and another edition of To the Lighthouse. When I first came to the UK, I only had two medium-sized suitcases but I brought my battered editions of Virginia Woolf’s diaries (5 volumes), A Room of One’s Own and 5 of her novels. I left this particular one at my parents’ house and haven’t been able to find it since, so it was high time I got myself a new copy.

Last night’s haul from the London Review of Books bookshop. The Ali Smith and Nicola Barker ones are now signed, of course, while the very slim Korean novella was devoured in the train on the way home. I so hope I will get to see George Szirtes again to have him sign this book for me – a moving account of his mother and her journey into exile. Last but not least, Deborah Levy’s story of starting over as a middle-aged divorcee, mother and writer.