End of the year review 2017

Like many of you, I have been browsing the best of the year lists. (If you missed them, Large-Hearted Boy has a huge list.) As regards best novels, I have been very disappointed. I did not come across a single novel I had not heard of. There were also relatively few books originally written in languages other than English. Worse still, there were relatively few books from small presses. Indeed, in those lists which consisted of B- and C-list celebrities naming their best books, there were almost none. As a well-known man who does not read books might have said: Sad!

A book on Bomb’s list I have not read

One of the few lists that I found of particular interest was 3 a.m.Magazine’s. You will notice that none of these books actually exists. The other best-of(?) list I really enjoyed which was not an end of the year list but just happened to be published this month was Helena Fitzgerald‘s 20 Authors I Don’t Have to Read Because I’ve Dated Men for 16 Years. I agree with many of her choices (but not all). Finally, I did enjoy Bomb magazine’s genuine and serious list.

A 1000-page novel I didn’t read

There were, as always, a load of books I intended to read but never got round to. These are mainly books originally written in English. You know the ones I mean: Lincoln in Bardo, Moonglow, The Sparsholt Affair, Jerusalem, Commonwealth, Mothering Sunday, My Absolute Darling, Solar Bones, etc. Maybe I will read them next year but, then again, maybe I won’t. I was also going to read some of the literary prize winners: Lincoln in Bardo again, Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt (German Book Prize), Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft (Swiss Book Prize), Paolo Cognetti’s Le otto montagne (Italian Strega Prize and Prix Médicis étranger), which will appear in English as Eight Mountains next March, so I hope to read it soon, Alice Zeniter’s L’Art de perdre (Le Goncourt des Lycéens)… Not surprisingly I have a sweatshirt that reads So Many Books, So Little Time.

A Giono novel first published this year in English

I did, however, manage to read a hundred and thirty-two books, fewer than last year and clearly not nearly enough. Mexico was top as, in accordance with my usual custom, it was selected as the country where I read twenty books in a row, earlier this year. It was followed by fourteen from France (mainly Jean Giono and Julien Gracq), eleven from the United States, ten from Argentina and seven from Ireland (all but one by Joyce Cary). Smaller (as in less-read, not in necessarily in size) countries from which I read a book include: Barbados, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Czech Republic, Dagestan, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, South Korea, Norway, Occitania, Palestine, Peru, Puerto Rico, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine and Wales.

A lot of these books were published by small presses so I would like to pay tribute to Actes Sud, And Other Stories, Charco, Coffee House Press, Contra Mundum Press, Dalkey Archive, Deep Vellum, Fitzcarraldo, Glagoslav, Maclehose, New Directions, Parthian, Seagull and Unnamed Press, all of whom published some first-class novels, which I read this year. I can only urge you to browse their offerings and read their books. You won’t be disappointed. Apologies to those wonderful small presses whose work I did not get round to reading this year or (possibly) did but have forgotten to include. Without the efforts of small presses, my reading and your reading would not be nearly so interesting and they deserve your full support.

There were so many good books I read this year that it is going to be difficult to single out only a few. I did very much enjoy reading eight books by Jean Giono, all but one of which have been translated into English. He clearly has not been forgotten in English as his somewhat strange Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel) was only published in English this year but his other books are all well worth reading. I very much enjoyed discovering what is happening in Mexico, a country, I think, that has been underestimated by English-speaking readers, and found some wonderful novels, not all of which, sadly, have yet appeared in English.

I continue to slowly make my way through the extensive oeuvre of César Aira and have rarely been disappointed. He is a thoroughly original writer who is more and more appearing on possible Nobel Prize winner lists. English speakers are fortunate that New Directions has published quite a few in English. And, talking of Argentinians, I finally got to grips with Martín Caparrós‘ monumental La Historia [History], a cult novel that has been very hard to find but has now been published in a new edition, though not, sadly, in English. It was worth the wait. It was also one of two books I read this year over a thousand pages in length. And, still on Argentina, Luis Sagasti‘s Bellas artes (Fireflies) was a wonderful original and quirky book from new publisher Charco Press.

I only read thirty-five works by women, not as good as last year’s forty-four. Let me mention a few. Carmen Boullosa remains one of my favourite writers. It is such a shame that only a few of her books have been translated. I will almost certainly read at least one more next year. Valeria Luiselli‘s La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth) was a very clever book. Rosa Beltrán‘s Efectos secundarios [Secondary Effects] was a first-class work on the violence in Mexico.

Of those women writers who are not Mexican, I very much enjoyed Teolinda Gersão‘s A cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses) which Dalkey Archive Press published in English. I have read two other books by her, neither of which has been translated into English. She really should be better known, which means more of her books should be translated into English. Doubtless being both a woman and Portuguese has kept her off the radar. Despite the lack of attention from the English-speaking world, her website is partially in English. (She studied English at university and tweets in both English and Portuguese.) Another Portuguese woman who has not received the attention she deserves in the English-speaking world (or, for that matter, in her own country) is Maria Gabriela Llansol whose Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy) was the first book of hers published in English, by Deep Vellum. It was a strange and difficult book but well worth reading.

I was also impressed by Lize Spit‘s very dark Het smelt [The Melting], a wonderful debut novel. I am sure that you will be hearing more of this book when it finally makes it into English (not till 2019), though you can read it now in the original Flemish or in Catalan, French, German, Italian or Spanish translation. Cristina from Barcelona, for example, had it in her best of the year list.

I read a fair amount of books from Eastern Europe – Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Ukraine – every one of which I enjoyed. This is partially because UK and US publishers (primarily small presses, of course) have been publishing books from this part of the world. They have realised and I have realised that Eastern Europe is now matching Latin America as the source of some of the most interesting writing being produced. I would particularly mention Slovenia. I have visited the country twice now (once this year) and will probably do so again in the near future. It is a lovely country with lovely people. I read three books from Slovenia this year and have quite a few more to read. It is wonderful that such a small country is producing so many worthwhile novels and that they are appearing in English.

I was glad to have discovered Pierre Senges, a most original writer, whose work is starting to appear in English. Three are already out in English and I hope more are to come. I hope to read one or two more soon.

Speaking of writing in French, I was particularly impressed with Kamel Daoud‘s latest Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms], which will be appearing in English in 2019 from And Other Stories, after they have published his Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010–2016. I thought it a better book than the well-received Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation).

Javier MaríasBerta Isla appeared in Spanish this year and will doubtless appear in English soon. It is, in my opinion, his best, about one of his favourite topics, British spies.

Yoshio Aramaki‘s 神聖代 (The Sacred Era) was published by the University of Minnesota Press, his first book in English. It does not seem to have got much publicity but that is a pity. This is perhaps because he is seen more as a science fiction writer but this one is less sci-fi than his later ones though it is set on a planet that is not Earth but resembles Earth in many ways and deals with the highly topical subject of climate change. I know someone who should perhaps read it but he won’t. Sad!

I could go through all of the books I read, as all of them are worthwhile. Indeed, there was only one bad book – Angus Robertson‘s An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor) – and it was interesting as the first novel published in Scots Gaelic to be translated into English and the only the second novel written in Scots Gaelic.

On the technical side, I moved both the main site and blog from http to https. This is seemingly becoming more and more important as this article shows. However, apart from favour in the eyes of Google, I cannot think that readers are going to be any safer from blogs they know and trust but it does, I suppose, make you feel safer for a blog or site you do not know. When checking links, I found that a significant number of other sites have moved to https. In practical terms, it makes no difference in accessing sites. If you type in http://www.themodernnovel.org, you will be automatically and immediately forwarded to https://www.themodernnovel.org.

Next year I am looking forward to new books by Hamid Ismailov, Eugene Vodolazkin and Sara Stridsberg though I have no doubt that there will be new authors I will discover whom I shall enjoy as much. I do know that many of the most interesting translations I read will be published by small, independent presses. Long may they survive and continue to give us first-class books to read.

I also joined Twitter which I have enjoyed more than I expected, with lots of interesting info about new books and authors and publishers, not to mention photos of people’s breakfasts and unseemly and highly critical remarks about the President of the United States. It is interesting to me to note that the most active and most interesting publishers on Twitter are the small ones. The larger publishers do tweet but they are not so interesting. I have felt tempted to add the latest Trump jokes but have resisted so far.

I must close with thanks to my fellow bloggers. You can see the links to many of them on the right and up a bit. As always, I have learned a lot from them. They have read many interesting books, some I have read, many I have not. While I may not always agree with them – which is good – I have enjoyed their points of view, their pointing me to interesting books and authors and, of course, their lively interest in fine literature.

A Happy 2018 to all of you and your families and read lots of books. There are some really first-class ones that have come out recently and are coming out next year.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. readerswords

    What a wonderful selection ! As someone who shares a passion for Latin American literature, I look to your blog to discover new writers and books. Some of your recommendations are sure to make it to my reading list in 2018. Keep up the great work!

    1. tmn

      Thanks for your comments and thanks for reading

  2. Terry Pitts

    Great list. Thanks for continually pointing me to new books.

    1. tmn

      Great list. Thanks for continually pointing me to new books.

    2. tmn

      Thanks for your comments and thanks for reading

  3. Richard

    Happy New Year to you, John! I very much looking forward to seeing what books cross your path this year. Glad, by the way, to hear that the new Kamel Daoud so appealed to you. I’ll try to a get to a second book by him sometime in 2018 along with a host of other Algerian writers (many at least partially inspired by previous reviews of yours) since I only really “read” Algeria through the eyes of Frenchman Jean Lartéguy last year. That, however, was a very inspiring experience. Cheers!

    1. tmn

      Richard, Thanks for your comments and thanks for your blog which I always enjoy reading

    1. tmn

      Very much so. I am currently at Mt Cook and I also follow your blog. We are shortly off to Tasmania and my wife is currently reading some of the Tasmanian novels you recommended. I should read more ANZ novels but there is so much to read…

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