The latest addition to my website is Brenda Lozano‘s Cuaderno ideal (Loop). This is the story of a modern-day Penelope (from The Odyssey). Our thirty-year old Mexican woman lives with Jonás, whose mother has recently died. She was Spanish so Jonás, his sister and his father go off to Spain to trace her roots, with Jonás staying longer to travel around. Meanwhile our Penelope is left at home weaving, only her weaving is in the Ideal Notebook of the Spanish title. She jots down not a plot-based novel but snippets of her life and, above all, of the anchors in her life, be they family and friends, books and music or what she calls useless things. She discourses on many things from typefaces to Juan de la Cosa, from dwarves to swallows, all the
while waiting, waiting and hoping Jonás will come back safe and sound. It works very well as she jumps around, as we gradually get a picture of her life.
The latest addition to my website is Iraj Pezeshkzad‘s حافظ ناشنيده پند (Hafez in Love). This is a wonderful book about a period in the life of Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, better known as Hafez, the fourteenth century Persian poet. A new ruler has taken over (by force) in Shiraz, where this book is set – Mubariz al-Din Muhammad, known as Mobarez in this book, and Hafez, not known for his tact, risks making an enemy of him and others, including the police chief who is as attracted to the poet Jahan Malek Khatun as Hafez is. She, of course, prefers Hafez but the police chief now has two reason to get rid of Hafez. Hafez seems to be indifferent to the danger he faces,though his friends are not, while he prefers to focus on his poetry, his lively social life and Jahan Malek Khatun. When he is arrested, it seems that his friends were right. It is a lively book with an interesting plot and lots of colourful and poetic discussion among the poets.
The latest addition to my website is Tahi Saihate‘s 星か獣になる季節 (Astral Season Beastly Season). Two seventeen- year old boys are obsessed with a J-Pop star, attending all her concerts. When she is accused of murder, the two, who are in the same class but are polar opposites and have rarely spoken to one another before, get together to save her and they try to do this by one of them, Morishita, doing further killings so that the police will suspect him and not her while the other, Yamashiro, is reluctantly dragged in. The killing spree continues… The second part, set two years later, has three survivors reviewing the situation. It is a chilling and somewhat sinister book but superbly well told.
The latest addition to my website is Dmitri Lipskerov‘s О нём и о бабочках (The Tool and the Butterflies). This is a complex story, focusing on one Arseny Iratov who, at the beginning of the novel, is rich (money made from Soviet-era illegal currency speculation, and later dealing in precious stones and an architectural business he owns) with a much younger, loving girlfriend, Vera. One day he wakes up to find his genitals have disappeared (the tool of the title). Soon other men are in the same situation. Meanwhile we are following a series of people, mainly male, who seem to be connected to him (one is his grandson) who seem to be different, on the face of it ordinary people, but with strange powers and knowledge, particularly detailed knowledge of Arseny and his life and, in the case of the grandson, superior intelligence. While telling his complicated tale, Lipskerov is wittily satirising contemporary Russia – corruption, drunkenness and the like. It is a very clever and original book and well worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Andriy Kokotiukha‘s Адвокат iз Личакiвської (The Lawyer from Lychakiv Street). It is set in 1908, primarily in Lviv, now in Ukraine but then called Lemberg and in the Austro-Hungarian empire, with a majority Polish-speaking population. Our hero is Klymentiy Nazarovych Koshovy, known as Klym, a lawyer from Kyiv, who had been arrested for subversive activities but had been freed thanks to the influence of his father and had decided to flee to Lviv, to stay with his friend, Genyk Soyka. However, when he arrives he finds Soyka dead, apparently a suicide but, in fact, a murder. Much of the book is his Sherlock Holmes-type investigation, involving murky Russia/Ukrainain/Austrian politics, terrorism and the murky underworld of Lviv, and with our hero, like Sherlock Holmes, always one step ahead of the police.
Every year I plan to give an indication of books published 50, 100, 150 and 200 years ago and every year I forget. This year I remembered so here goes.
Not a bumper year. It included Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), the follow-up to his better-known Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship)
Walter Scott’s Kenilworth
James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy and Shelley’s Adonaïs. I have to admit to having read none of them.
Definitely a better year with George Eliot’s Middlemarch (the first instalments) being the highlight and also including:
Henry James’ Watch and Ward
George Meredith ‘s The Adventures of Harry Richmond
Palgrave’s Personal Narrative of a Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia
Émile Zola’s La Fortune des Rougon
Lewis Carroll ‘s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. And I have read all of them.
In case you missed it… 1 January is when some books are out of copyright and and can be published without royalties. This list mentions quite a few for this year but, warning!, it applies to the US. Other countries may have different rules. As you can see there are quite a few interesting works now out of copyright and not just books, but also films and music. I shall now feel free to sing Yes Sir, That’s My Baby in the bath without fear of retribution (except from my wife).
You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a grim year, with Covid and Trump, Brexit and Putin and the world generally seeming to be going to the dogs. I have certainly found reading a relief, partially from the lockdown – we have essentially had three in the UK – but also from the grim news.
One other person who seems to have been reading well during the pandemic is Michiko Kakutani, the former New York Times critic, feared by authors and publishers. In an interview she mentions some of her reading.
The interview was because of the publication of her book of essays on her reading, called Ex Libris, which I have read. While I do not particularly share her taste in reading (she’s a big fan of Muhammad Ali and Dr Seuss, for example, but not a very big fan of translated literature – I only counted five works of translated fiction all stunningly obvious and including The Odyssey), she makes an interesting point in the book, namely that she is writing less as a critic than as an enthusiast. In other words, when writing for the New York Times, she presumably had to review whatever she was given, good, bad or ugly, while, in this book, she can read and review what she wants.
That, of course, is the huge advantage of being a blogger. I read the books that I want to read and ignore those that I do not want to read, which means a certain amount of books which get a lot of publicity or which others enjoy, I do not read.
Equally, it means that I can abandon books that I find that I am not enjoying. This is actually quite rare but, most unusually, it happened three times this year. I shall not name them as others may enjoy them and I do not want to put people off, just because I did not finish them. There was only one novel I finished this year that I did not enjoy and I read it only because it appeared in in a list of the 100 best novels in Spanish of the 21st century.
One advantage of the lockdown was that not only did I read more books than in previous years but I also read a few longer ones – several over five hundred pages and two over a thousand pages (the latter two not, of course, available in English, though one of them should appear in 2021 in English).
I do not do a best of for two simple reasons: there are loads of excellent books that came out this year that I did not get around to reading and because a lot of the books I read this year (as every year) were older books and it seems to silly to compare some random older books with the new books. However, I will mention a few books I particularly enjoyed. This does not mean that the other books I read were in any way of less worth – nearly every one I read was worthwhile except, as mentioned, the three I abandoned and the one I did not abandon.
Probably the best book published this year that I read is not, sadly available in English – Martín Caparrós‘ Sinfin [Endless], an ambitious dystopian novel from Argentina. Another interesting and somewhat disturbing novel not published (yet) in English (the last one not published in English, I promise) I enjoyed was Hervé Le Tellier‘s L’Anomalie (The Anomaly) with several stories converging and all involving an Air France flight from Paris to New York which goes wrong.
Fum d’Estampa specialises in Catalan books translated into English. As I have read and reviewed quite a few Catalan books (twenty-eight to be precise), too many of which have not been translated into English, I really welcomed this press. I read Narcís Oller‘s La bogeria (The Madness), a fascinating 1899 novel about insanity.
I must mention several other small presses as I read a lot of their books: five from Glagoslav, four from And Other Stories, four from Archipelago, four from Deep Vellum, four from Maclehose, three from Lavender Ink / Diálogos (a publisher I only discovered this year), as well as two each from several others. Please support all of these small publishers. They need your support and they are producing first-class works for your reading entertainment and edification.
Before getting into the numbers, I would mention one piece of good news. The Untranslated blog sadly went into hiatus in 2019. He was still very active on Twitter so we did not lose out entirely. However, the good news is that he is back with a Patreon blog to which I would strongly urge you to subscribe. You will learn a lot.
In 2018 and 2019 I read 138 books in each year. Yes, it was a coincidence. This year, thanks (?) to covid I am up to 154 and, if I counted the pages, which I do not and have no intention of doing, the gap would probably be higher. I have said elsewhere that I consider the most interesting fiction writing to be coming from Latin America and Eastern Europe. This year I read twenty-six books from Eastern Europe and forty-two from Latin America. The Latin American figure was inflated by the twenty Brazilian books I read as part of my annual one-country marathon.
Of individual countries, Brazil, of course, came out top with 20, followed by France (13), Argentina (10), Hungary (10), Austria (6), Poland (6), Spain (6), England (4), Germany (4) and Italy (4). There were four new countries: Chukotka, Liechtensein, North Korea and Taiwan. Less well-represented countries include Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia, Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Occitania, El Salvador, Slovenia, Syria, Ukraine and Wales. The sex ratio is, as usual, dismal. Forty-three of the books I read were by women, marginally better than last year (thirty-six).
Last year I read twenty-six books that had not (yet) been translated into English, this year thirty-two. Some of them will make it into English; sadly some of them will not.
Will 2021 be better than 2020? Maybe, maybe not. However, of the books I read this year, there were twelve authors I had not heard of a year ago so this year I am looking forward once more to discovering authors I have not heard of to distract me from the problems of the world. I hope that you will do the same and I hope you will find some of them on this site.
The latest addition to my website is Jan Balabán‘s Kudy šel anděl? (Where Was the Angel Going?). The novel is set in Ostrava, site of a huge coalfield, with many of the people involved in mining. We follow primarily Martin Vrána but also various others as they struggle with life. Martin’s first romance (with Eva) goes wrong but he never really gets over her. He later has a failed marriage, before finally meeting Monika. Like for most people in the book, life is grim and the normal recourses – alcohol and sex/love – offer temporary relief but they too have a cost. Even in the post-Communist era, though things are somewhat better – no secret police, for example – they are not hugely better and life remains a struggle, particularly as far as love and sex are concerned. Martin has a glimmer of hope at the end but it really is only a glimmer. For others, things do not work out.
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