Greetings from Rome! I’m writing this in my host Andrea’s house absolutely stuffed with amazing Italian food courtesy of his mum.
Whilst I’ve not read as many books this year as I’ve managed in previous years (thanks, College) I still seem to be struggling to a) whittle it down to 10 and b) get them in the right order, so this post is taking some writing. Honourable mentions to White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (trans. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah), Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt (trans. K. E. Semmel) and The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette) amongst many others. No honourable mentions to those bloody textbooks. However, I think this is my top 10, so here goes…
10. Hanna Krall – Chasing the King Of Hearts (translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm)
I read this for the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club and this was one of my favourites of their picks. Published for the first time in English by Peirene Press, this tells the story of a young Polish woman and her efforts to save her husband from the Nazis during the Holocaust in the belief that love conquers all. Heartbreaking and not always easy to read but more than worth the few hours of your time that this wonderful little novella takes up.
9. Arno Geiger – The Old King In His Exile (translated from the German by Stefan Tobler)
Courtesy of my And Other Stories subscription which has proved its worth many times over this year. An autobiographical account written by a son of his journey towards finally getting to know his father after he developed Alzheimer’s. It sounds depressing, but actually it’s much more of a feel-good book than you might (understandably) think, full of beautiful moments shared between a father and son.
8. Louis de Bernières – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
I’d been putting off reading this for a while as I often tend to make the assumption that if too many people like something then it probably isn’t for me. Sometimes this is right, sometimes it turns out to be very short sighted. I found this really hard to put down, the story was incredibly engrossing and made me laugh and cry in all the right places. Lesson learned: Don’t assume that just because something is popular that it isn’t worth reading!
7. Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
Probably the thickest book I attempted this year, aside from university reading, and also not the easiest read, but amongst the most rewarding. The Golden Notebook encompasses Anna Wulf’s five notebooks, into four of which she splits various facets of her life, before the fifth, eponymous, golden notebook pulls all the strands together. It has been described as a landmark novel, contributing to her winning the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, and I can really see why. Worth the effort!
6. Fariba Hachtroudi – The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (translated from the Italian by Alison Anderson)
I picked this up on a summer trip to London Review of Books, completely at random, never having heard of the writer before. It tells the story of a young woman who was held prisoner in a totalitarian nation and subsequently escaped, and the colonel who was responsible for holding her prisoner, flitting between her period in prison and a later time when they meet again. It’s a very intense novel and doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in such stories but this just contributes to how important a read this is, exploring the power play from a female point of view.
5. Ricarda Huch – The Last Summer (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)
Amazingly, this seems to be the first appearance in English from this author, who was described by Thomas Mann as the first lady of German literature. It is set in Russia at a time of social unrest, describing the reaction of students to the closing of St Petersburg University and the subsequent plan of a young intellectual to assassinate the governor responsible. I’m not sure if it’s the setting that put me in the mind of Tolstoy and the like or if there’s also a resemblance in the writing, but I’m very keen to read more by this author so I’m hoping this title will do well for Peirene so that someone will think it’s a good idea to translate more!
4. Kamila Shamsie – A God In Every Stone
Another one set in multiple times, we see the story from the point of view of a young archeologist in the period before and during the First World War, and then fifteen years later an older and changed woman on the streets of Peshawar in what was then British India. The use of detail makes the story that bit more evocative, to the point that I felt like I could see the places being described despite the fact that I’ve never been to most of them. The characters are tossed and turned on the swells of history and the novel comes to a nail-biting climax where the characters’ fates are unknown until the final pages – another very compelling read.
3. Han Kang – Human Acts (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)
The inclusion of this one in the list shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who read last year’s list – in fact, if I have to compare this one with the Vegetarian, I’d say Human Acts *just* edges it. A very stark, brutal account of the Gwangju Uprising in Korea in 1980 – almost history, as it has never been written before. I felt emotionally devastated by the end of this book, but I think that’s kind of the point – there’s no point in art that doesn’t move you and this certainly did.
2. Zoya Pirzad – Things We Left Unsaid (translated from the Farsi by Franklin Dean Lewis)
Set in 1960s Southern Iran, this novel tells the story of Clarisse, who lives a perfectly normal middle-class existence until a new family moves in across the road. I’m struggling to put into words exactly why I liked this so much to be honest but it’s funny, it’s honest, and it made me think an awful lot about the things that we leave unsaid in our relations with others and for what reasons.
1. Miriam Toews – All Our Puny Sorrows
I need to include quite a long quote here, and hopefully this won’t get me into trouble for copyright reasons or anything, but it illustrates perfectly what I loved so much about this novel:
“On the floor next to the microphone was a beautiful wooden urn, like a small wishing well, that held Tina’s ashes. One of my fifty-six cousins’ wives was up there talking about the way Tina sped around town in her van with the flame on the side and knew how to evade cops at every turn and while this woman was talking her little toddler son crawled up onto the stage and over to the wooden urn. He sat next to it and banged on it for a while and then, while his mother, oblivious, kept talking about Tina and all her charming qualities, her boldness, her tenderness, her zest for life, the little kid somehow managed to take the lid off the urn. We all watched, open-mouthed, as he started to sift through the ashes of Tina and then fling them around up there, having a heyday playing with his great-grandma’s remains, and his little white-shirt-and-shorts outfit grew black from the dust and so did his face. And then he started putting the ashes into his mouth with his little dusty hands and by this time everyone had noticed, and his father was up on the stage picking him up, a lot of people were laughing now (except for the perpetual disapprovers who looked on in stern horror) and his mom stopped talking at the microphone and turned around and she saw that the boy’s father now had everything under control and he brushed the ashes the boy’s clothes and wiped his face and put the lid back on Tina’s urn and brought the child back to the table and the mother, my cousin’s wife, turned calmly back to the microphone and finished her story about Tina and her van and I learned another thing, which is that just because someone is eating the ashes of your protagonist doesn’t mean you stop telling the story.”
I mean, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So I did both, and ended up a bit broken. But as I said above, I don’t really see the point in art that doesn’t move you at all, so there we are. This is the story of a dysfunctional family, and of depression, and how we are ultimately able to find peace despite tragedy.
So there we are. This took ages to write so I hope someone makes it to the end of all 1511 words! On another day this could have gone in another order, but they’re all great books, so pick up one of them and see what happens and then it will all have been worth writing 🙂