Category: Luiselli Valeria

My favourite books read in 2022

If 2022 has taught me anything with regard to reading, it’s that I shouldn’t bother with firm reading plans! Over the year, I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get into my usual reading routine. I also had a sense that some of my reading cornerstones (such as the Goldsmiths Prize) weren’t chiming with me as they usually did. Whether that’s just a blip or a broader change in my taste, I’ll gain a better idea next year.

Whatever the case, I still read some grand books this year. Here is my usual informal countdown of the dozen that have flourished most in my mind:

12. Faces in the Crowd (2011) by Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2014)

My chance to catch up on a book I’ve long wanted to read, and it was worth the wait. A young woman’s life in Mexico City contrasts with her old life in New York, and with the novel she’s writing, and the life of the poet she’s writing about… Different, blurred layers of reality make this such a rush to read. 

11. Standing Heavy (2014) by GauZ’
Translated from French by Frank Wynne (2022)

A novel about the changing experiences of Ivorian security guards in Paris, Standing Heavy is intriguingly pared back in its form. Three story-chapters capture the movement of history around the characters, and more fragmented observations deepen one’s sense of the book’s world. This is a short novel with a lot to say. 

10. The Sky Above the Roof (2019) by Nathacha Appanah
Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan (2022)

This was a fine example of how a novel’s brevity can bring a distinctive atmosphere to familiar subject matter. Appanah focuses on a young man who’s been apprehended after a road crash, as well as his sister and mother – all three of them ill at ease with the world. This novel has an intensity that might easily be diluted in a longer work. 

9. The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991) by Ágota Kristóf
Translated from French by David Watson (1991) and Marc Romano (1996)

These two novels follow on from Kristóf’s The Notebook: I read them together, and they belong together here. Kristóf’s trilogy tells of two brothers displaced by war. There’s great trauma in the background, but emotions are kept distant. Geography and time are also flattened out, adding to the feeling of being trapped. The trilogy progressively undermines any sense of understanding the truth of what happened to the brothers, and therein lies its power for me. 

8. Love (1997) by Hanne Ørstavik
Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken (2018)

This novel is about a mother and son who live in the same space yet still in their own worlds. That theme is strikingly reflected in the writing, as the two characters’ stories merge into and out of each other repeatedly. Often, the pair seem closest emotionally when they’re separated physically. The ending is sharp and poignant. 

7. The Sons of Red Lake (2008) by Zhou Daxin
Translated from Chinese by Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan (2022)

Breaking the run of short, spare novels is a longer one that I enjoyed taking my time over. A woman returns to her childhood village, falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart, and finds her fortunes changing for better and worse. Zhou’s novel explores the effects of tourism and the temptations of power. I found it engrossing. 

6. Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks

Some of the best writing I read all year was in this book. It’s a novel following the life of an African American woman from Chicago. She has aspirations for herself, but the reality turns out to be rather mixed. In the end, I found hope in Maud Martha, as its snapshot structure opened up possibilities beyond the final page. 

5. Life Ceremony (2019) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2022)

I’m not sure that anyone combines the innocuous and strange quite like Sayaka Murata. This story collection is typically striking, using larger-than-life situations to explore basic questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most of all, Murata puts her readers in the position of her characters, so we see them differently as a result. 

4. Mothers Don’t (2019) by Katixa Agirre
Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis (2022)

Few books that I read this year made such an immediate impression as this one. Agirre’s narrator tries to understand why another woman killed her children, while trying to come to terms with her own feelings about motherhood. Contradictions abound and nothing is reconciled, and this is what drives the novel – not to mention its vivid prose. 

3. Turtle Diary (1975) by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban was my discovery of the year, someone I know I’ll read again. Turtle Diary is the story of two lonely characters linked only by a wish to set free the sea turtles at London Zoo. I really appreciated the ambivalence of Hoban’s novel, the way that saving the turtles in itself isn’t enough to fill the hole in the characters’ lives. I simply haven’t read anything quite like this book before. 

2. Appliance (2022) by J.O. Morgan

I loved this novel exploring the ramifications of new technology. Morgan imagines the development of a matter transporter and, step by step, puts humanity’s relationship with it under scrutiny. What is perhaps most chilling is the way that everything just trundles on, away from the people actually experiencing this technology. Appliance provides a welcome space for reflection. 

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1. Cursed Bunny (2021) by Bora Chung
Translated from Korean by Anton Hur (2021)

At the top of the tree this year is a story collection that grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Some of the stories are strange and creepy, others more like fairy tales. Many are built around powerful metaphors that deepen the intensity of the fiction. It’s all held together by Chung’s distinctive voice, in that wonderful translation by Anton Hur. I look forward to reading more of Chung’s work in the future.

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That’s my round-up of 2022 – I hope you had a good reading year. Here are my selections from previous years: 2021, 202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

With that, I will leave you until 2023. In the meantime, you can also find me on TwitterInstagram, Facebook and Mastodon – and I’ll see you back here next year.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

My short Mexican season begins with a debut novel that came out in the early 2010s, just before I really started paying attention to translated fiction. It’s just been reissued as a Granta Edition, so now was a good chance to catch up.

Faces in the Crowd is narrated in fragments, a life (or lives) that won’t be pieced together easily. Valeria Luiselli’s narrator is a young woman who contrasts her current family life in Mexico City with her earlier, freer life in literary New York. That earlier life is now so far removed that it might as well be another world:

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffolding, structures, empty houses 

Translation from spanish by Christina macsweeney

The narrator is writing a novel of her life, and the question arises of what we can trust to be ‘true’. She tells outlandish tales, such as the time she fabricated an entire manuscript to get a New York publisher interested in the (historical) Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. Not to mention that she kept seeing Owen’s ghost.

On top of this, the narrator’s husband reads and comments on the novel-in-progress, adding a further layer of fiction. Then there are passages apparently narrated by Gilberto Owen, who catches glimpses of a mysterious young woman…

In the end, perhaps nothing in this novel can really be trusted – which is what makes it such a rush to read.

Round-up: Aussie crime and famous teeth

I’m trying out different ways of writing about books, because I was getting a bit tired of the cycle of read, review, read, review. I’d like my blogging to be more responsive to how I read: to group things together, zoom in and out, make connections, and so on. This is one post format that I’m going to try out: a round-up of shorter comments on a few books that I’ve read. We start this round-up with a couple of Australian crime novels…

Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident explores the aftermath of a young woman’s murder in a small Australian town through the eyes of two characters: the victim’s older sister, and a journalist sent to cover the story. Where you might normally expect a mystery to give a sense of progressing towards a solution, there’s a void at the centre of Maguire’s mystery, which fills up withmore and more uncertainty. It’s engrossing stuff, with a strong narrative voice.

And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic is the sequel to Resurrection Bay, once again featuring deaf investigator Caleb Zelic. This novel begins with a young woman dying in front of Caleb moments after she has sought him out, and sees the protagonist follow her trail to his home town. He becomes caught up in the local drug trade as he tries to find out who the woman was and why she wanted to find him. Like its predecessor, And Fire Came Down is briskly told with plenty of intrigue in plot and character.

From Australia to Mexico: The Story of My Teeth (tr. Christina MacSweeney) is the first book I’ve read by Valeria Luiselli. It’s narrated by one Gustavo Sánchez, an auctioneer who buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own, then auctions off the old ones by making out that they belonged to famous people. Then it gets stranger… I found this book great fun to read: tricksy and playful, with a serious exploration of how the meaning of an object (such as a tooth) shifts when you change the context. After this, I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Luiselli’s work.

Book details

An Isolated Incident (2016) by Emily Maguire, Lightning Books, 320 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

And Fire Came Down (2017) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 344 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Story of My Teeth (2013) by Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2015), Granta Books, 196 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

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