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 did try to avoid books about pandemics, plagues, etc. No Station Eleven, La Peste (The Plague), Defoe’s Plague Year and the like. Both Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob) and Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh) mentioned plagues but only in passing. If you are interested in apocalyptic books, with plagues, zombies and the like, here is a list for you.
One slightly disturbing theme I did find was cannibalism. I read three books where cannibalism featured: Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner and Yan Ge‘s 异兽志 (Strange Beasts of China). With food shortages caused by climate change, maybe it is a coming thing. The Russians don’t seem to like it.
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.
My annual one-country marathon this year was Brazil and of the twenty Brazilian books I read, the one I think I enjoyed most was not, in fact, a novel but a history written as a novel – Euclides da Cunha‘s Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign), a wonderful 500+ page epic. I also really enjoyed Bernardo Carvalho‘s Mongólia [Mongolia], sadly not available in English.
I have already mentioned Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner, one of the cannibal novels, but it was undoubtedly the funniest novel I read this year. Cannibalism funny? You have to read it to see why. The other very amusing and decidedly quirky novel I must mention is Anne Serre‘s Voyage avec Vila-Matas [Journey with Vila-Matas], about a writer going to a literary festival where she meets Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. Or does she? This book has not been translated but her quirky Les Gouvernantes (The Governesses) has been translated into English.
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.
Of books that have been translated into English I would mention Agustina Bazterrica‘s disturbing Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), Joseph Roth‘s Die Geschichte der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls; The Tale of the 1002nd Night), Miljenko Jergović‘s epic Bosnian novel Dvori od oraha (Walnut Mansion), Volter Kilpi‘s unfinished but finished by translator Doug Robinson updating of Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia) and Miklós Szentkuthy‘s exuberant Fejezet a szerelemről (Chapter on Love). I had previously enjoyed Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman). This year I really enjoyed her 地球星人 (Earthlings), about three young people trying to live a sensible alternative way.
Of the new publishers that appeared this year I read a book from two. V&Q Books is run by superb German translator Katy Derbyshire. I read Francis Nenik‘s interestingly titled Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert (Journey Through a Tragicomic Century), another non-fiction work written as a novel, about Hasso Grabner, a colourful German writer who seemed to be involved in various often dubious activities in Germany in the last century.
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.
I do not know what next year will bring. There have been various indications of next year’s offerings, such as this list from Beyond the Epilogue and this list of lists from the Complete Review. Solenoid was to have appeared but now seems to have been pushed back to 2022.
Olga Tokarczuk‘s The Books of Jacob should appear in 2021.
J. G. Farrell‘s The Singapore Grip was the most read page on my site presumably because of the TV version of the book, which I also saw and enjoyed. Surprisingly, number two was Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ (Dogra Magra), a relatively obscure Japanese novel. Another relatively obscure Japanese novel also got a high rating – Kaori Ekuni‘s きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle). In third place was Paul Auster‘s City of Glass. The only other novel not originally written in English in the top ten was Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle).
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.
Have a covid-free 2021!