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My favourite books read in 2018

By accident rather than design, I read less in 2018 than I had in quite some time. However, unlike last year, it feels right to do my usual list of twelve favourites. One thing that really stands out to me is what a good year it’s been for short story collections – I have four on my list, more than ever before. 2018 was also the year when I started reviewing for Splice, and you’ll see that reflected in my list, too.

As always, the ranking is not meant to be taken too seriously – I like to have a countdown, but really I’d recommend them all. I haven’t differentiated between old and new books, though as it turns out, most are from this year. The links will take you to my original review of each book.

You can also read my previous favourites posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year. It’ll be the tenth anniversary of this blog, so I have some plans for looking back as well as forward.

12. And the Wind Sees All (2011) by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir (2018)

I read this book only a few days ago and it made such an impression that it went straight on to my end-of-year list. Part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series, And the Wind Sees All is set in an Icelandic fishing village, during a couple of minutes during which Kata, the village choir’s conductor, cycles down the main street. Like the wind, the novel flows in and out of the lives of the villagers Kata cycles past, revealing secrets, losses, fears and joys. The writing is gorgeous.

11. Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (2018)

The English-language debut of Colombian writer García Robayo, Fish Soup collects together two novellas and seven short stories. Among others, we meet a young woman so desperate to escape her current life that she can’t see what it’s doing to herself and others; a businessman forced to confront the emptiness in his life; and a student being taught one thing at school while experiencing something quite different in her life outside the classroom. All is told in a wonderfully sardonic voice.

10. Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash

This is a novel of language, motherhood, and biology, told in the voices of a mother in peace-agreement Ulster; the elderly founder of a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. Perhaps more than any other book I read this year, the shape of Three Dreams is a key part of what it means: it’s structured in a way that reflects DNA, and the full picture of the novel emerges from the interaction of its different strands.

9. Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (2018)

This was a book that had me from the title. A composite of corpses comes to life in US-occupied Baghdad. It starts to avenge the victims who make up its component parts, then finds those disintegrating, so it has to keep on killing to survive… and becomes a walking metaphor for self-perpetuating violence. Saadawi’s novel is powerful, horrific, and drily amusing where it needs to be.

8. The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute (2018)

A collection of stories where the extraordinary intrudes on the everyday – such as a cinema showing the never-ending film of someone’s life, or a mysterious treasure trail leading the narrator to an unknown end point. Melnikas’ stories become richer by reflecting on what this strangeness means for the characters, an approach that was right up my street.

7. The White Book (2016) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)

Another deeply felt book from a favourite contemporary writer. The White Book is structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from snow to swaddling bands, all haunted by the spectre of a sister who died before the narrator was born. Reading Han always feels more intimate than with most other writers; her prose cuts like glass, bypassing conscious thought and going straight to the place where reading blurs into living.

6. T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)

My first experience of Solstad’s work, and it’s like reading on a tightrope. A synopsis would make it seem that nothing much is going on, as Solstad’s protagonist seeks anonymity by becoming a librarian in a small town. But the busyness of Singer’s inner life creates a contrast with his essential loneliness, an abyss for the reader to stare into.

5. The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark

Every time I read Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of why I want to read more. Set in a post-war London boarding house for young women, this is a tale of lost (and sometimes found) opportunity and missed communication. I love the way that Spark twists her characters’ (and reader’s) sense of time and space, the undercurrent of dark wit… No doubt there’s even more to see on a re-read.

4. The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood

Everything that Lucy Wood writes ends up in my list of favourites. I love the way that she evokes a sense of mystery lying beneath the interaction of life and place. The stories in The Sing of the Shore are set in off-season Cornwall, a place where children take over other people’s unoccupied second homes, the sand advances and recedes, and both people and things are transient.

3. The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (1993)

I loved this Norwegian classic about a girl trying to come to terms with her friend’s disappearance. Vesaas’ novel is full of the raw sense of selves and friendships being formed, and examines what it takes to find one’s place in a community or landscape. The prose is beautiful, crystalline and jagged, like the frozen waterfall that gives The Ice Palace its title.

2. Mothers (2018) by Chris Power

Stories of family and relationships, travel and searching – each illuminating and resonating with the others. Three stories following the same character’s journey through life form the backbone of Power’s collection. In between, there’s a frustrated stand-up comedian, a couple walking in Exmoor who find their relationship tougher terrain, a chess-like game of flirtation in Paris, and more. I can’t wait to see what Power writes next.

1. Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018)

A novel about a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years, trying to find her own sort of normality. The protagonist’s sense of self is challenged, and the reader is also challenged to empathise with her. Convenience Store Woman is a vivid character study that builds to the most powerful ending I’ve read all year. I won’t forget this book for a long, long time.

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).

Fish Soup – Margarita García Robayo

Here’s one last book for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months and Women in Translation Month. It’s the English-language debut of Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo: a compendium of short fiction translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Edinburgh-based Charco Press, who specialise in Latin American literature. It’s a wonderfully sardonic set of stories.

Fish Soup is bookended by two novellas. In the first, Waiting for a Hurricane, a young woman longs to leave her home by the sea for… well, something more (“you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead,” she reflects). The narrator embarks on a series of relationships which she hopes will facilitate an escape (for example, she takes a job as an air hostess, then becomes involved with the Captain), but doesn’t appreciate what impact all this is having on her family, her lovers, and herself.

The closing Sexual Education is previously unpublished. It’s narrated by a student at a Catholic school who is part of a group taking a new abstinence class in place of standard sex education. However, what she’s being taught in class is rather different from what’s going on among her social group. For example, one girl is being persuaded by an older boy that a certain sexual position is not sinful, but actually allowed by the catechism. The narrator isn’t fooled:

The darkest mysteries – the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Grail – all became much clearer after being doctored by some con man who wanted something in return: a bag of coins, divine grace, Karina’s ass. It was all the same.

As so often in García Robayo’s stories, this bitter humour sits alongside something much darker. If Waiting for the Hurricane is the story of someone who refuses to see what she’s doing to herself and the world around her, the protagonist of Sexual Education is forced to question herself deeply.

Between the two novellas in Fish Soup is a collection of seven short stories with the overall title Worse Things. These pieces frequently feature protagonists who are distanced from life in some way; the stories then often lead to a point of change (or at least reflection). So, for example, in ‘You Are Here’, news of an accident at the airport and an awkward conversation with a young woman at his hotel give a businessman cause to face up to the emptiness in his life. In ‘Better Than Me’, an academic tries to persuade his estranged daughter to let him visit her; it’s a case of closely examining his life to find what might enable him to speak to her. In ‘Like a Pariah’, a woman with cancer has retreated to an old country house to convalesce, but her relationships with others may prove as difficult to handle (if not more so) than any illness.

There’s a lot to like in Fish Soup, and a distinctive voice to explore. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it.

Book details

Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe (2018), Charco Press, 212 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading Borges: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

This story takes the form of an article about one Pierre Menard, a novelist who sought to re-create Don Quixote word for word – not by merely copying the text, but by getting himself into such a state of mind as to write the Quixote exactly as Cervantes would have written it. Menard succeeded, and Borges’ anonymous narrator has great praise for his Quixote, in comparison to Cervantes’ original. In one of my favourite parts of ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator compares (identical) passages from the two Quixote texts, finding a depth and richness in Menard’s rendition absent from Cervantes’, thanks to the different contexts of their composition.

I found this story delightfully absurd, but it’s a particular pleasure to consider the multiple layers of authorship and interpretation within it: Cervantes, Menard, the narrator, then Borges (and then the reader, of course). For example, Menard may have his aspirations, but it’s the narrator who gives him legitimacy by judging Menard’s project successful. Yet, from the reader’s viewpoint (or mine, at least), there’s no difference between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’ so Menard comes across as somewhat of a Quixote figure himself, with delusions of grandeur. Or maybe it’s the narrator who is a Quixote figure for his opinion of Menard. Layers of interpretation…

Read my other posts on Borges’ stories.

Book details

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. James E. Irby (1962), in Labyrinths (1964 edn), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

Reading Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths

I think that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have a list of authors who I feel are almost Too Famous To Read, let alone Too Famous To Write About, for fear of having nothing original to think or say. I know this is absurd, because a) if I want to read a given book, there’s not much to stop me, and b) the point of writing this blog is to talk about my experience of reading books – something personal to me – not to pass an exam.

Anyway: I need to get over having this list of authors Too Famous To Read. Jorge Luis Borges was on it, but now I’ve borrowed a copy of his Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings from the library for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months. I’m going to blog some thoughts on what I read, and see how it goes.

In ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Dr Yu Tsun – a Chinese scholar of English and agent of the German Empire during the First World War – is pursued by a mercenary in the pay of England. Tsun travels to the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, the only person he knows who can help him get his secret message to the Chief. Albert and Tsun discuss Tsun’s ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, who constructed a model of the universe as a labyrinth of paths, each forking at a point of possibility, creating new paths and futures with each eventuality.

It feels a little odd to read this story now, as a long-time reader of science fiction and fantasy, and therefore used to the idea of parallel worlds and branching realities (I’m assuming, of course, that these ideas would have been reasonably new to Borges’ audience in 1941). Still, there is a strong sense of Yu’s being at the centre of a labyrinth of pasts and possible futures – for example, as a point where the paths of the past collapse into the present (Yu says that he thinks his Chief disdains the Chinese “for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me”). But then there’s the ending, where all potential futures dissipate, and one reality was inevitable after all.

Book details

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Donald A. Yeats (1958), in Labyrinths (coll. 1964), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

The Iliac Crest – Cristina Rivera Garza

Today’s book is a short, strange and slipper novel from Mexico, only the second novel by Cristina Rivera Garza to appear in English. At the start, two women visit, and take up residence in, the unnamed narrator’s house. One claims to be the writer Amparo Dávila, and says she knows the narrator from when he was a tree. The second woman is an ex-lover of the narrator’s, referred to only as “the Betrayed”. The two women begin to speak to each other in a private language, and tell the narrator that they know he’s really a woman. Feeling threatened, the narrator decides to find out if his visitor really is Amparo Dávila – but this sets him on a course that will lead him to question what he thought he knew.

In her introduction, Rivera Garza refers to Amparo Dávila as a writer who has been marginalised in real life. In the novel, Amparo tells the narrator that she is writing about her disappearance – and disappearance is treated as a contagion. The narrator realises that he is part of a community of the disappeared:

And disappeared were our voices, our smells, our desires. We lived, if you will, in the in-between. Or rather, we lived with one foot in the grave and the other on terrain that held only a minute resemblance to life. Very few knew about us and even fewer worried about our fate.

(translation by Sarah Booker)

By treating social marginalisation as a communicable disease, Rivera Garza externalises it, in a way that enables her vividly to blur the boundary between marginalised and ‘mainstream’. Other boundaries are also challenged throughout the novel: boundaries of gender, for example, or the line between concrete reality and abstract conception. The experience of reading The Iliac Crest is fluid and disorienting.

Book details

The Iliac Crest (2002) by Cristina Rivera Garza, tr. Sarah Booker (2017), And Other Stories, 144 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Blind Spot – Javier Cercas (#SpanishPortugeseLitMonths)

July is when Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) have traditionally hosted Spanish Literature Month. I like to join in, because I’ve always found some excellent books that way. Well, now the event has expanded to cover Portuguese as well as Spanish lit, and it goes into August as well. So, welcome to Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months! I have quite a few books lined up for this season, starting today…

Whenever I find myself in a reading slump, the way out is often to try something that breaks the pattern of what I’d been reading previously. My way out of a recent reading slump was some non-fiction. The Blind Spot is an “essay on the novel” by Spanish writer Javier Cercas (whose The Impostor was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize). Cercas explores his approach to his own work, and identifies a tradition of novels with similar characteristics, before going on to consider issues such as the writer’s role in public life.

The novels that most interest Cercas have what he calls a “blind spot” at their centre: a point of ambiguity or contradiction which animates the whole work:

at the beginning of [novels with such a blind spot], or at their heart, there is a question, and the whole novel consists of the search for an answer to this central question; when the search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is in the search itself, the question itself, the book itself.

(translation by Anne McLean)

Cercas’ key example of a “blind-spot novel” is Don Quixote which, he says, asks whether Quixote is mad, then demonstrates that he is both mad and sane – and, in Cercas’ view, Don Quixote ultimately shows all truth to be as ambiguous. Another example given by Cercas is Moby-Dick, in which the white whale is (irreconcilably) the embodiment of both good and evil.

I found this a fascinating idea to think about, and felt I could apply it to many of the novels that have stood out to me during the lifetime of this blog. For example, The Rehearsal asks unresolvable questions about what happened in a student-teacher scandal, and more widely about the nature of reality and performance. Human Acts asks whether and how the reality of an event such as the Gwangju Uprising can be processed. Nocilla Dream asks what kind of structure there can be in a de-centred, globalised world. In all three cases, the novel itself embodies an answer in the way that Cercas describes.

On the downside, I can’t help being disappointed that all of the novels discussed in The Blind Spot are by male writers, which feels like closing off whole realms of discussion. Still, as a book to think with, Cercas’ essay is nothing short of invigorating. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotations that I (mentally) underlined:

The best literature is not what sounds literary, but what doesn’t sound like literature; that is: what sounds true. All genuine literature is anti-literature.

***

The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.

You can read further reviews of The Blind Spot by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and James Doyle at Bookmunch.

Book details

The Blind Spot (2016) by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean (2018), MacLehose Press, 176 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

The Dinner Guest – Gabriela Ybarra (#MBI2018)

The opening of Gabriela Ybarra’s debut novel (longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize) explains its title:

The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.

The first to vanish was my grandfather.

[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

The novel narrates and juxtaposes two deaths in the author’s family; a prefatory note suggests that this is Ybarra’s way of trying to come to terms with what happened.

The first part of The Dinner Guest focuses on Ybarra’s grandfather Javier, a Basque politician who was kidnapped by separatists in 1977 (six years before the author was born), then killed after a month of unsuccessful negotiations. The second section mostly concerns the death from cancer of Ybarra’s mother. There lies the contrast at the novel’s heart: on the one hand, public events which are told at a certain remove; on the other, a more private, intimate loss.

There are some poignant moments as Ybarra depicts her mother’s decline, but the novel is also striking when she brings the different strands together. For example, Ybarra searches the internet for images of the man who sent her father a package bomb in 2002, and finds herself experiencing a particular that she can’t quite pin down:

Looking at pictures of him, I feel the same way I do when I look at images of cancer cells. I don’t think about the threat, but about the story conjured up. The images of the tumours look like galaxies, and when I look at them, I tell myself stories about space.

It’s that impulse, to make stories out of what could be seen as threatening, which drives the form of this novel. The intersection of those different stories is intriguing.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

The Dinner Guest (2015) by Gabriela Ybarra, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2018), Harvill Secker, 160 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

A Vineyard in Andalusia – Maria Dueñas: a snapshot review

This is a perfect example of the right book coming at the right time. I was in the mood for a long and welcoming novel that could round off the evening. Maria Dueñas’ new book proved to be just that.

It’s 1861. Mauro Larrera is a Spaniard who has made his wealth as a silver miner in Mexico. As the novel begins, Larrera learns that his latest risky investment has collapsed, and he’s going to lose everything. He then has to find a way to get out of his predicament, while maintaining appearances. Mauro’s family and associates have their suggestions, but it seems clear from the outset that Larrera has it in mind to flee. 

Mauro borrows some money from a creditor he’d rather not cross, then sets off hoping to repeat his earlier success. Amidst various scrapes, he goes to Havana, then eventually finds himself back in Spain as the owner of a vineyard, and caught up in the complicated affairs of the family who owned it previously.

A Vineyard in Andalusia is a glorious yarn, almost every chapter adding a new twist to Larrera’s travails. It was also great fun to read in self-imposed instalments – there are plenty of cliffhangers. There are times when certain events happen ‘off-stage’ that I’d have loved to read rather than being told about them after. However,  this doesn’t detract from a highly enjoyable tale, narrated in the snappy prose of Nick Caistor’s and Lorenza García’s translation.

A version of this review was previously published as a thread on Twitter.

Book details

A Vineyard in Andalusia (2015) by Maria Dueñas, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García (2017), Scribe Publications, 534 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane

August is Women in Translation Month, and that’s going to be my main focus on the blog this month. But Spanish Lit Month has also been extended to August (and expanded to cover Portuguese lit) – so I thought I’d start the month off with a book that falls under both headings. 

Lina Meruane is a Chilean writer and academic living and working in New York. Seeing Red is her fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English. It’s also semi-autobiographical: Meruane’s protagonist has the same name as her; and the book revolves around a medical condition that the author herself lived with. 

It begins at a house party. Lina is on her own in the bedroom when suddenly blood fills her eye: juvenile diabetes had meant that her retinal veins were fragile, and now one has burst. Immediately, Lina starts wondering about the future: is this going to lead to “the dark passage where only anonymous, besieged cries could be heard,” or is there a way out? Lina won’t have any answers until she sees her doctor in a few days, by which time there’s enough blood in her second eye to leave her effectively blind when she moves. The doctor suggests that it may be possible to restore Lina’s sight with an operation – an option she leaps at – but not for another month at least. Much to her consternation, Lina has no choice but to wait. 

Naturally, her sudden sight loss affects Lina’s life in many ways. A flavour of some is given in this passage, where Lina has travelled back to Chile on vacation and is met by her father at the airport:

My father comes to the rescue and pulls me out of my introspection. It’s his bony tourniquet hand that falls onto my shoulder. His debilitated skeleton, his long femur I hold onto. He leans over to kiss my forehead and I extend my fingers to run them over his face, trying to trace his face into my palm. I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s alive in there, inside his body. Then his voice, the word daughter, winds its way through the crush of passengers waiting for suitcases, and in my ear drum his relieved words echo: I had to insist before they’d let me come in and look for you. 
(translation by Megan McDowell) 

Here we have a clamour of sensory information, as well as a laborious process of working it all out, something that’s increasingly familiar to Lina (that wry “professional blind woman” comment). I’ve quoted at some length here because that’s the nature of the book: each chapter is presented as a single long paragraph. This has the effect of bringing the reader down to Lina’s pace, having to work through situations slowly. It also heightens the sense that there’s no escape from Lina’s circumstances, no short cut to recovery – especially in the sections concerning Lina’s treatment, when it’s unclear whether the operation will work, and she has to take extreme care to avoid causing damage while her eyes heal. 
Megan McDowell’s translation is superb, so much rhythm, sound and colour. Here, for example, is Lina in bed with her partner Ignacio:

I started by putting my tongue in a corner of his eyelid, slowly, and as my mouth covered his eyes I felt a savage desire to suck them, hard, to take possession of them on my palate as if they were little eggs or enormous and excited roe, hard, but Ignacio, half-asleep or now half-awake, refused to open them, he refused to give himself to that newly discovered desire, and instead of giving me what I wanted he pushed me back onto the bed and put his tongue in my ear and between my lips although he didn’t dare lick my sick eyes when I asked him to… 

That sentence goes on still further, evoking the slow unwinding of Lina’s desire. There are strong feelings throughout Seeing Red, as Lina’s relationships with her loved ones come under strain, and she fixated on the possibility of a cure for her blindness. Strong feelings on the page turn into an intense experience for the reader; a fine English-language debut for Meruane.

Book details 

Seeing Red (2012) by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell (2016), Deep Vellum Publishing, 162 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The UK edition of Seeing Red is published by Atlantic Books

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