Month: December 2021

End of the year review 2021

A second covid year, and undoubtedly not the last has meant, for me, much less travel and none abroad and much less going out – I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema, theatre or a pub and while I can remember the last time I went to a football match, it was well before lockdown. This has meant more time for reading as well as more time for walking and doing stuff around the house but also more of the covid lethargy which seems to affect people.

As in most years, there were some books I read that I had not heard of by December last year and even some authors I had not heard of. Indeed, there were even a few publishers I had not heard of. The publishers I read most from were Columbia University Press (five), Dedalus (five), New Directions (five), Deep Vellum (five), Archipelago (four), Fitzcarraldo (four), Istros (four), Two Lines Press (four), Europa (three) Fum d’Estampa (three), Hoopoe (three), Open Letter (three) and World Editions (three).

New (to me) publishers were Angry Robot, Bordighera, Dzanc, Éditions Philippe Rey/Jimsaan, Mig-21, Nouveau Monde and Pariah Press.

In terms or nationalities, the main ones were Romanian (twenty-one) Catalan (six), German (six), Japanese (six), Norwegian (six), English (five), Spanish (five), French (five), Italian (four) and US (four). Romania was the country selected for my annual reading marathon.

Less well-represented nationalities included Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Central African Republic, Chicano, Republic of Congo, Denmark, Georgia, Guadeloupe, Iran, Latvia, Libya, Lithuania, Namibia, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Syria, Taiwan, Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Wales.

In terms of the language the books were originally written in, the order was Romanian (nineteen), English (fifteen), French (fifteen), Spanish (twelve), Arabic (eleven), German (seven), Russian (seven), Catalan (six), Japanese (six), and Norwegian (six). Less commonly represented languages included Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Danish, Farsi, Latvian, Slovak, Slovenian, Ukrainain, Uzbek and Welsh.

I read forty-six books by women, almost a third of the total, much higher than in recent years.

I read a total of 141 books with 40983 pages, for an average of 291 pages per book. The longest book was Miljenko Jergović‘s mammoth Rod (Kin) (translated by Russell Scott Valentino, published by Archipelago), about his (very) extended family, weighing in at 800 pages, closely followed by El corazón helado (The Frozen Heart) (translated by Frank Wynne), by Almudena Grandes, who sadly passed away this year. The book is about the scars left by the Spanish civil war and also about adultery. Michel Houellebecq‘s new novel Anéantir [Annihilate], the last book I read this year, came next. Interestingly the fourth and sixth longest books I read were also by Spanish authors – Javier MaríasTomás Nevinson, not yet translated into English, and Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Agustín Fernández Mallo, published last year by Fitzcarraldo, translated by Thomas Bunstead. The fifth longest was the last book I read this year: Juan Andrés Ferreira‘s Mil de fiebre [A Temperature of a Thousand Degrees].

Early in the year, my annual country marathon focussed on Romania and my conclusion was that I was glad I did not live in twentieth century Romania, for which I was mildly and rightly berated. This was not a criticism of the Romanian people but partially of their various governments and partially because of the unfortunate circumstances they were exposed to, including both German and Russian occupation and being involved in both world wars. I certainly read some interesting books which, I think, were not generally well-known in the English-speaking world and I hope that I showed that Romanian literature has a lot to offer and that there are quite a few available in English.

One other interesting literary thing I would mention is that African writers won four of the major literary prizes this year and I read them all. Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for literature. I had already read and reviewed three of this books but I added his most recent book- Afterlives. David Diop won the International Booker Prize for his Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black), translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by Pushkin, about Senegalese soldiers in World War I. Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize for his The Promise about a dysfunctional and racist South African family.

In my view, the best of the four was the only one that is not yet available in English but surely will be – Mohamed Mbougar Sarr‘s La Plus Secrète Mémoire des hommes [The Most Secret Memory of Men] about the hunt for an African writer who had success in France and then disappeared after being accused of plagiarism, based on the story of Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem.

I do not do a best of list, not least because I know that there are a lot of fine books that came out this year that I did not have a chance to read and also my view today may not be the same as my view tomorrow. However, here are some of the books I particularly enjoyed. However, I would add that I enjoyed virtually every book I read this year and, unlike, last year, did not abandon any book before finishing it.

In no particular order… Vladimir Sharov is a superb writer. Sadly he died in 2018. Dedalus have published three of his novels in English and all three are well worth reading. This year saw Будьте как дети (Be As Children) (translated by Oliver Ready), another superb book about children and innocence or sin and innocence, but don’t let that put you off, as it is about lots of other things, particularly Russian history from way back up to Lenin. If I were to pick my favourite book of the year, it would probably be this but, as mentioned, I shall not be picking a favourite book.

One other Russian work I must mention is from Andrei Bely, author of the brilliant novel Петербург (Petersburg). He wrote some fascinating early works which he called Симфонии (Symphonies). I call them prose poems but, whatever you call them, they make for very interesting reading, from the excellent Columbia University Press and translated by Jonathan Stone.

I have read more books originally written in Arabic than I normally do and would single out a couple. Omaima Al-Khamisرواية مسرى الغرانيق في مدن العقيق (The Book Smuggler)(translated by Sarah Enany) was published by the excellent Hoopoe and did not get as much traction as it should. It is set in the eleventh century, when the Islamic world was far more advanced, e.g. in paper making and book publishing than the Western world and follows Mazid al-Hanafi, around the Islamic world. We get a lot of colourful stories, interesting historical and literary tidbits and a lot about Islamic differences. Moreover, this is a book by a Saudi woman, of which there are not many in English.

Another interesting woman writer from the Arabic-speaking world is the Palestinian Sahar Khalifeh, Several of her works have been published in English. I read her الأول : رواية (My First and Only Love) (translated by Aida Bamia) about a woman artist who returns to Palestine after many years abroad. It is , of course, about her lost love but also about the brutalities of the Israeli occupation and told very well.

While we are in that part of the world… The Iranian writer Iraj Pezeshkzad has had two novels translated into English. I read حافظ ناشنيده پند (Hafez in Love) (translated by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia J. Higgins)about the very real Persian poet Hafez, from Syracuse University Press, who publish some interesting books. Yes, it is about love, politics, Islam and, of course poetry and a very enjoyable read.

If you follow me, you will know I like to read a fair amount of Spanish. I will mention a few here. I have not read much from Uruguay but managed thee this year. I have discovered Uruguayan weird fiction and started with Ramiro Sanchiz‘s Trashpunk which, despite the title, has not been translated into English and followed it with Juan Andrés Ferreira‘s Mil de fiebre [A Temperature of a Thousand Degrees].

What has finally been translated is Mario Levrero‘s La novela luminosa (The Luminous Novel) (translated by Annie McDermott), a very long book from the excellent And Other Stories about, well, virtually nothing. Our hero is trying to write this book, The Luminous Novel and, somehow, cannot get round to doing so. We get all his excuses and how he gets sidetracked but, after 544 pages, he still has not written it. A superb novel.

There are two countries in Latin America at the forefront of producing quality writing. The first is Argentina. One of the best and most intelligent writers from that country is Pola Oloixarac. I read her novel Mona (Mona) (translated by Adam Morris). It is about literary conferences, writers, violence against women, political correctness and the French. It is another superb novel from her.

The other Latin American country whose writing really impresses me is Mexico. Mario Bellatin writes short novels but they are first-class. I read two of his this year. The first was one of the two pandemic novels I read this year (though the pandemic in this one is more AIDS-ike than covid-like) – Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) (translated by David Shook). However, it is not a straight pandemic novel.

The second was Poeta ciego [Blind Poet], which has not been translated into English about a blind poet and a strange sect.

Moving to Spain I really enjoyed Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Trilogía de la guerra (The Things We’ve Seen) (translated by Thomas Bunstead). The book, as you can see from the Spanish title, was a trilogy. The first book was about a literary conference attended by a writer on the Island of San Simón, an island that has a history, particularly as a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War. The second book is about Kurt Montana who was the fourth astronaut on the first moon landing. The third book is about the writer’s girlfriend’s Sebaldian exploration of Normandy. A brief summary cannot do justice to this complex, superb work.

While we are in Spain, I continue to read works translated from the Catalan. Fum d’Estampa continue to publish excellent works from the Catalan. I enjoyed all of theirs but particularly Raül Garrigasait‘s Els estranys (The Others) (translated by Tiago Miller) about a translator and the subject of the book he is translating, the bumbling Rudolf von Wielemann, a German fighting in the Carlist wars in Catalonia. It is both funny but interesting.

Other publishers do publish Catalan literature and I would mention two. Max Besora‘s Aventures i desventures de l’insòlit i admirable Joan Orpí, conquistador i fundador de la Nova Catalunya (Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí) (translated by Mara Faye Lethem), from the always excellent Open Letter, a tongue-in-cheek account of a Catalan explorer in what is now Venezuela.

Eva Baltasar‘s Permagel (Permafrost) (translated by Julia Sanches) is more serious – a confession, an outpouring, an apologia.

Willem Frederik Hermans is one of the foremost Dutch writers and I read his very readable Herinneringen van een engelbewaarder (A Guardian Angel Recalls) (translated by David Colmer). It is both a serious book about the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands and somewhat critical of the Dutch government but also, as the title implies,somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

I have always enjoyed Susan Daitch‘s works and her Siege of Comedians did not disappoint. As always it was a complex novel, this one about face modelling, Nazis, terrorism, human trafficking, German cinema and much more.

I am always surprised at the most-read entries on my website. No 1 was Ifeoma Okoye‘s Behind the Clouds, a Nigerian novel I read and reviewed some time ago. For some reason Dogra Magra pops up every year. I read Hervé Le Tellier‘s L’Anomalie (The Anomaly) last year but as it only came out in English this year, I can see why it got more traction this year. Wilton Sankawulo‘s The Rain and the Night is another oldie but regular. Other golden oldies doing well are John Barth‘s Floating Opera and Paul Auster‘s City of Glass. The first book I read this year in the list is at No 37: Javier MaríasTomás Nevinson.

A final interesting point. Jonathan Franzen‘s Crossroads was published on 5 October this year. It has already appeared in Catalan, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish translation. There are three books mentioned here: Javier MaríasTomás Nevinson, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr‘s La Plus Secrète Mémoire des hommes [The Most Secret Memory of Men] and Michel Houellebecq‘s new novel Anéantir [Annihilate]– all of which are certain to be translated into English but, to date, there is no sign of them appearing in translation into English (or, indeed, other languages). I have no doubt that the Crossroads translators received the English text well before 5 October so the translations could appear soon after the English version. Why does this not happen with books being translated into English?

Quite a few interesting book lined up for next year, as usual all from small publishers. I wish you a covid-free 2022 and good reading.

Juan Andrés Ferreira: Mil de fiebre [A Temperature of a Thousand Degrees]

The latest addition to my website is Juan Andrés Ferreira‘s Mil de fiebre [A Temperature of a Thousand Degrees]. This is a very long novel about two young Uruguayan men who struggle with life. Werner Gómez wants to be a writer and writes huge amounts, including a regular blog, stories, articles and novels but has struggled to get published. He eventually starts work on the Great Salto Novel (Salto is his and Ferreira’s home town). However his mental health issues, including alcohol,drugs and addiction to pornography drag him down. Luis Bruno wants to be a sport journalist and has some ideas but he too struggles and spends time in institutions, losing both jobs and his wife. Both men come from Salto but though of about the same age never meet and their paths only tangentially cross. It is a wonderfully chaotic novel but sadly seems unlikely o be translated into English.

Michel Houellebecq: Anéantir [Annihilate]

The latest addition to my website is Michel Houellebecq‘s Anéantir [Annihilate]. This is a fairly typical Houellebecq novel. It opens in late 2026. There are three main plot lines: a group of terrorists initially sends out some highly sophisticated CGI videos, using a technology not thought possible, and which appear initially on French government sites and then on Google and Facebook. They are then linked to terrorist attacks. No-one knows who is responsible. We also follow Paul Raison, an adviser to the Minister of Finance. We follow both the story of his extended family (somewhat complicated and messy) as well as his close relationship with his minister, Bruno Juge. Juge is involved (though not as a candidate) in the forthcoming presidential elections. The incumbent (clearly Macron but not named) cannot stand for what would be a third term, so a stooge is found. Inevitably all three plots get complicated and messy and Houellebecq takes full advantage to make his usual critiques of society, French politics and wokeness. It is an excellent read if not a great work of literature.

Ghazi Algosaibi: شقة الحرية (An Apartment Called Freedom)


The latest addition to my website is Ghazi Algosaibi‘s شقة الحرية (An Apartment Called Freedom). This novel takes place between 1956 and 1961, primarily in Cairo and follows a group of young men, primarily Bahraini, who have gone to Cairo to study. As well as their studies, they pursue other activities. Girls are their main interest but all of them, one way or another, get involved in politics of varying kinds. Nasser is in power and Fuad, our hero and presumably based on the author, is a keen supporter and eventually gets to meet him. Fuad and one other pursue a writing career with some success. They are young men at university with all that entails but also Arab nationalists and Muslims in a period when there is great upheaval in the Arab world, not least because of the Suez Crisis. It is certainly a fascinating book, not least because Westerners will be able to identify with them in some respects but not in others.

Muhsin al-Ramli: حدائق الرئيةة (The President’s Gardens)

The latest addition to my website is Muhsin al-Ramli‘s حدائق الرئيةة (The President’s Gardens). The novel tells the stories of three close Iraqi male friends. At the beginning of the novel, in the village where htey live, nine crates are found, containing the severed heads of various villagers, including one of the three friends, Ibrahim. The book tells how w got there, with lots of violence as a result of the Iran-Iraq War, the the Gulf War, the interim period when Saddam sees enemies everywhere, the Iraq War and the aftermath of that war. The three friends and we see a huge amount of violence as a direct result of the wars and of Saddam Hussein’s butchery. Al-Ramli spares us no details. We learn why Ibrahim was murdered, the origins of one of the three friends, Abdullah, a foundling, and what the President’s Gardens had to do with the story which, despite the beautiful gardens, turn out to be no prettier than the rest of the book. Al-Ramli left Iraq for Madrid in 1995. This book shows why he and many other Iraqis went into exile.

Ismail Kadare: Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods)

The latest addition to my website is Ismail Kadare‘s Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods). Kadare spent some time in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, primarily at the Gorky Institute and this is an account of that period. While he loved the big city, it was not all sweetness and light. He has various women troubles. Most of his colleagues are from various regions of the Soviet Union or, like him, from other countries and they are often stereotyped by the Russians. Moreover, he is not terribly enthusiastic about the Soviet view of literature. He does discover a manuscript left in a room about a doctor called Zhivago and, later, the big event will the award of the Nobel Prize to Boris Pasternak, which brings down a furore on Pasternak, supported by many of Kadare’s colleagues (but not Kadare himself). Towards the end, we learn that Soviet-Albanian relations are deteriorating (Albania will move away from the Soviet Union and ally more closely to China) and the embassy warns Albanian nationals to keep away from Russian women, an instruction Kadare ignores. While not of the standard of his novels set in Albania, it is certainly an interesting account.

Almudena Grandes: El corazón helado (The Frozen Heart)

The latest addition to my website is Almudena GrandesEl corazón helado (The Frozen Heart). This is a long and complicated novel set mainly in the present but very much looking back to the Spanish Civil War. We follow the stories of two related families, one primarily Francoist and one primarily Republican, and their respective fates during and following the Civil War. The Republican one behaved more or less honourably, the Francoist one did not, cheating the other out of its property. We see much of this through the eyes of Álvaro, son of the Francoist Julio, though he himself is left-wing who, after his father’s death meets one of his father’s bankers and starts an adulterous affair with her. At the same time, he gradually uncovers some of his father’s dirty deeds and what happened to his father’s mother who did not die of tuberculosis, as his father had always claimed. What he uncovers and his affair will disrupt the family. Grandes, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago (27 November, 2o21), superbly exposes some of the non-military horrors of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Ramiro Sanchiz: Trashpunk

The latest addition to my website is Ramiro Sanchiz‘s Trashpunk. Trashpunk, a term coined by Sanchiz, is the developing country version of cyberpunk. This book consists of several stories but the main one concerns a writer called Federico Stahl (Sanchiz’s usual alter ego) who, through his friend Rex, a serious drug user, meets Enrique Wollfig, an old man living in a flat in Montevideo surrounded by masses of antiquated computer equipment but which houses an artificial intelligence which has a mind of its own and wants to communicate with humans but can only do so through the use of drugs. Rex tries and enjoys it but does not communicate with it so then it is Federico’s turn. The other stories touch on similar themes – the idea of an artificial intelligence, initially created by humans but which then takes on a mind of its own. There is a Southern Cone sci-fi/cyberpunk movement of which this is a part but sadly not available in English.

Jana Bodnárová: Náhrdelník/Obojok (Necklace/Choker)

The latest addition to my website is Jana Bodnárová‘s Náhrdelník/Obojok (Necklace/Choker). This novel tells the stories of two Slovak women – Sara and Iboja – who meet in their hometown after Slovak independence in the late twentieth century. Their stories and the stories of their families are the stories of Slovakia as we follow them and their families from the 1930s to the post-independence era. Both came from well-to-do families but suffered from the Holocaust, the war, exile (Sara is in Germany, Iboja’s mother and father went to France while she stayed behind with her grandparents). Both families suffered bitterly under communism with Sara’s father, a painter whose paintings were not approved, going to an early grave and Iboja’s grandfather being arrested for being a bourgeois parasite. Bodnárová shows how much the area has lost, something that can never be regained, while the two women – aged fifty-five and seventy respectively – can only look back with sadness.

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