CategorySpanish

My favourite books read in 2021

Here we are again, approaching the end of another year. As usual, I’ve picked out my twelve favourite books that I read in 2021, regardless of when they were first published. I always find that doing this provides me with an interesting snapshot of my reading year as a whole. This year’s snapshot has given me cause to reflect – but more on that in another post. For now, here are my reading highlights of 2021:

12. Angélique Villeneuve, Winter Flowers (2014)
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2021)

A novel set in the aftermath of World War One, in which a woman tries to rebuild her relationship with her disfigured husband, while the community around comes to terms with its own traumas. Winter Flowers is one of those books that cuts through preconceived notions about its subject matter to capture raw feeling. 

11. Judith Bryan, Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (1998)

If it hadn’t been for the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo, I might never have come across Bernard and the Cloth Monkey. I’m so glad I did. This tale of a young woman returning to her family home constantly shifts in register, creating a kaleidoscope of emotion in a seemingly ordinary setting. 

10. Adam Mars-Jones, Batlava Lake (2021)

I like stories that are shaped by a strong narrative voice, and that’s very much the case with Batlava Lake. Mars-Jones introduces us to Barry, a matey, chatty engineer who’s really not equipped to convey the brutality of war in Kosovo. But that very inadequacy is what makes the book work so well. 

9. Andrew Komarnyckyj, Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (2021)

Of all the books I read in 2021, I think this was probably the most fun. It’s a spoof literary biography whose purported author talks more about himself than his subject, and deals with a Twitter troll by (inadvertently) making a deal with the Devil. Just thinking back to reading Ezra Slef makes me smile. 

8. Rebecca Watson, little scratch (2021)

little scratch was the least conventionally written novel that I read all year, with its words scattered in different patterns across the page. Those words are the thoughts of a young woman going about her day while something plays on her mind. It’s a technique that really brought me close to the narrator and the tension that grows throughout the book. 

7. Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue (2009)
Translated from Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood (2019)

This book was probably my biggest surprise of the reading year, in that I wasn’t prepared for the way it turns, so subtly and effectively. Its protagonist takes a summer job working with disabled people, but struggles to cope. Her mental health is affected, which we see entirely through changes in the shape of her narration – which is what makes the effect so powerful. 

6. Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)

More shapeshifting prose here, but in this case the protagonist is finding her voice. A Black British woman working in the banking industry reflects on her situation, and asks herself how she really wants to be. The prose is constantly changing to match her thoughts as she assembles the pieces of her life, building to a crescendo for narrator and reader alike. 

5. Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold (2021)

A worthy winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, this novel strikes me as a carnival – in the sense of both an entertainment and a festival challenging social structures. Sterling and their friends face a nightmarish authoritarian world that works against them in ways they don’t understand. There are matadors, showtrials, time-travelling spaceships – and hope to be found in pushing back. 

4. Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (2016)
Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft (2021)

I love story collections that work as a whole, and this one certainly does. Falco’s protagonists are all facing pivotal moments of change in their lives, and his stories are suitably dynamic. There’s a great sense of place and character about these tales, and each one opens out memorably as it ends.

3. Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (2007)
Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena has Parkinsons, and this novel is structured around the ebb and flow of her energy levels. She’s forced to confront the limits of her knowledge about her daughter, which reflects the limits of what she can do during the day. With so many of the books on my list, the language brought me right into the protagonist’s world – perhaps none more so than Elena Knows.

2. Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand (2021)

I was intrigued at the prospect of a Jon McGregor novel set partly in the Antarctic. In the end, I experienced Lean Fall Stand as viscerally as any of his others. A polar guide tries to rebuild his life and self after a stroke. McGregor explores how language breaks down and re-forms around this event, in a dizzying rush of a novel. 

1. Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians (2021)

The single most powerful reading experience I had in 2021 was this slim novel interweaving conversations between the guardians of Christ’s tomb and a present-day lecturer examining 16th-century depictions of them. The book hovers on the knife-edge of uncertainty, and rivals Convenience Store Woman for the sudden power of its ending. This is why I’m reading fiction in the first place.

***

There we go. I hope you’ve found some books in 2021 that you enjoyed as much as I did these. If you’d like to see my selections from previous years, you can find them here: 2020, 20192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. As ever, thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year – you can also catch me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle): Shiny New Books review

It’s been a while since I had a review elsewhere, but there’s a new one up now at Shiny New Books. This time it’s a book from Charco Press: Elena Knows by the Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro (translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle. Elena is an old woman with Parkinson’s, whose daughter Rita has been found hanging in the church belfry. Elena is convinced that this must be murder, and she’s travelling across the city to see someone who may be able to help her learn more.

Of all the Charco books I’ve read, I think this may be my favourite. It explores themes of identity and motherhood, and the limits of what we can know about other people – and it conveys vividly how Elena’s life is structured around her condition.

Click here to read my review of Elena Knows in full.

#SpanishLitMonth: Yesterday by Juan Emar

Yesterday is the first Latin American book from Peirene Press: it’s a Chilean novel first published in 1935 and newly translated by Megan McDowell. 

Emar’s narrator tells us what happened to him yesterday. The day began with him witnessing a public execution, then he headed off with his wife to travel the city, becoming involved in a series of strange episodes. A trip to the zoo sees the couple joining in with a group of singing monkeys. A visit to an artist’s studio has the narrator debating colour with the painter, who puts green in everything. 

Each chapter ends with the couple exclaiming, “Let’s go!”, but it’s not so easy to leave the day’s events behind. The man’s thoughts and memories continue to spiral around him. What begins as an intriguing account of an off-kilter day becomes a striking look at an interior life. 

#SpanishLitMonth: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is another readalong title for Spanish Lit Month, and my chance to read Vargas Llosa for the first time. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was published in Spanish in 1977 (Helen Lane’s English translation appeared in 1982). It’s inspired by the author’s life in Peru in the 1950s. 

Eighteen-year-old Marito has literary aspirations, though he’s currently earning a living writing news bulletins for a radio station. Two people are about to change his life: one is Julia, a relation of his by marriage, with whom Marito falls in love. The other is Pedro Camecho, a celebrated Bolivian scriptwriter, brought in to liven up the radio soap operas. 

One strand of Vargas Llosa’s novel chronicles the ups and downs of Marito’s relationship with Julia, which he has to keep secret from his family. Alternate chapters tell some of Comecho’s stories, which are eventful and larger-than-life, invariably ending in a series of questions pondering what might happen next. 

I found Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter very enjoyable to read. The Comecho chapters set a heightened tone for the book, and the Marito ones in turn take on some of that feeling. It really keeps the pages turning.

The edition I read was published in Faber Modern Classics.

#SpanishLitMonth: The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories (ed. Margaret Jull Costa)

Over the last few years, Penguin Classics have published new anthologies of translated short stories from individual countries. There have been Dutch, Japanese and Italian anthologies, and this latest one focuses on Spain. 

Renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa has selected over fifty stories from the 19th century to the present day, many of them appearing in English for the first time. As well as Castilian Spanish, the book includes stories originally written in Basque, Catalan and Galician. 

I worked my way through the anthology gradually, and I was impressed by the overall quality of the stories. For this review, I thought I’d pick out some of my favourites. I’ve kept these in the order they appear in the book (which is arranged in chronological order of the authors’ birth). All of the stories below are translated by Margaret Jull Costa, unless otherwise stated. 

Continue reading

#SpanishLitMonth: The Island by Ana María Matute

The theme for the second week of Spanish Lit Month is books from Spain itself. The Island is an autobiographical novel first published in 1959 (it has been translated into English before as School of the Sun; this 2020 translation is by Laura Lonsdale). 

Fourteen-year-old Matia has been expelled from her convent school and sent to stay with her grandmother on Mallorca. It’s a hot, stifling place, where the closest thing Matia has to a friend is her good-for-nothing cousin Borja. The Civil War means that Matia has to stay there, come what may. 

There are frequent references to fairytales, and the book in general has a distinctively hazy atmosphere. Political and religious tensions play out in microcosm on the island, which means that the personal coming-of-age tale reflects a much broader story. The war may seem a long way away from Matia’s life on Mallorca, but its shadow looms large. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics: read an extract here.

#SpanishLitMonth: A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco

Stu chose this book for a Spanish Lit Month readalong, a collection from that fine publisher of Latin American fiction, Charco Press. The five stories in A Perfect Cemetery (marvellously translated by Jennifer Croft) are all set in Federico Falco’s native Córdoba Province in Argentina. The image of the title implies long-term stasis, but Falco’s characters are actually facing pivotal moments of change in their lives. 

Let’s start with the story ‘A Perfect Cemetery’ itself. In the town of Colonel Isabeta, the mayor wishes to build his father the perfect cemetery. The old fellow is 104 and has been ailing for years, but there’s no sign of him going anywhere just yet. Enter cemetery designer extraordinaire Víctor Bagiardelli, who sees the chance to create his masterwork – if only he can bring all the pieces together. Víctor’s obsession is brought to life on the page, with the mayor’s father an equally powerful creation. The old man asks Víctor what he will do with the rest of his life. The events of the story force Víctor to confront this question, and may give him the beginnings of an answer. 

There’s more vivid characterisation in ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’. The title character is a teenager who accompanies her mother when the latter is administering the last rites to people. At the start of the story, Silvi announces that she is now an atheist – but she soon develops a fascination with a visiting Mormon missionary. It’s not straightforward infatuation: the Mormon reminds Silvi of a boy she once visited, who died in hospital. But this is not a situation that can give Silvi the anchoring she needs in the world, and there will be painful consequences. The ending, however, points to a way forward, a different kind of hope. 

In ‘Forest Life’, the home of old Wutrich and his daughter Mabel is placed under threat, and so Wutrich tries desperately to find Mabel a husband. She reluctantly marries Satoiki from the local Japanese community. In another example of Falco’s nuanced character work, we can see Mabel’s ambivalence about entering this marriage, balanced against a genuine desire on Satoiki’s part (and perhaps on Mabel’s as well) to make it work. Seeing her father’s experiences in a care home makes Mabel rethink her situation. Yet again in A Perfect Cemetery, the ending of a story is really just a beginning. 

Besides the characterisation, there’s also a strong sense of place and environment in Falco’s stories. ‘The Hares’ introduces us to the self-styled “king of the hares”, who lives out in the wilderness and maintains his own altar of bones. This individual turns out to be a human named Oscar, who has abandoned society for his own reasons. Nobody asked the hares, of course, and Oscar is quite happy to eat them – a tension between character and place that adds another dimension to the story. 

The closing piece, ‘The River’, takes us to the depths of winter, and Señora Kim, who may be living with her late husband’s ghost. When she thinks she sees a naked woman running in the snow towards the river, this could be an hallucination – or it could be a chance to rescue someone and turn a corner. Falco leaves the question open: as so often in this compelling collection, the stories only open out once you finish them. 

#SpanishLitMonth: Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero

July is Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos, and I have a few titles lined up for the blog. The theme for the first week of July is contemporary Latin American fiction, and I’ve chosen this story collection from Ecuador, published by Influx Press.

Ampuero’s stories shine a light into the darker corners of ordinary domestic life, and confront brutal subjects head-on. I have to say that this is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time. 

The opening story, ‘Auction’, sets the tone. Ampuero’s narrator recalls cleaning up after her father’s cockfight as a girl, and how she would use the birds’ viscera to put off jeering men in the crowd. It then becomes clear that, as an adult, the narrator has been kidnapped by a taxi driver and taken to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The only way she can save herself is to draw on her childhood experiences. 

So you have a carefully drawn situation (in prose powerfully translated by Frances Riddle), with a closing shift into deeper darkness. The story ‘Griselda’ starts off more innocently, with the narrator telling us of Miss Griselda, who baked extraordinary cakes. But there are suggestions of what might be going on behind closed doors, until events reach a crescendo – and, afterwards, the narrator’s birthday cakes never taste as good again. 

Much of Cockfight takes a pessimistic tone, but there are glimpses of light to be found. The protagonist of ‘Other’ is out shopping, constrained by the thoughts of what her husband wants buying, and the likely consequences for her if he doesn’t get it. A small act of rebellion at the end of the story may or may not turn out well, but there is at least the possibility of hope. It’s a precarious end to a vivid collection. 

Fitzcarraldo Editions: The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo

The original Spanish title of this novel is ‘Trilogía de la Guerro’ or ‘War Trilogy’ – because (according to an interview with the author) each of its three sections deals with the echoes of war playing out in the characters’ lives. The title of the English translation comes from a line of poetry repeated throughout the book: “It’s a mistake to take the things we’ve seen as a given.”

These themes – the shadow of war and the idea that reality doesn’t stand still – are apparent from the novel’s beginning. A writer (possibly a version of Fernández Mallo) travels to an island to take part in a conference on digital networks. The island was a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War, and the writer spends time finding the places in a book of photographs he has from back then, and taking pictures of those same locations now. Some of the results are reproduced in the novel, past starkly juxtaposed with present. 

In the second part of The Things We’ve Seen, we meet Kurt Montana, purportedly the fourth, unseen astronaut from Apollo 11. Now, Kurt lives in a retirement home, and recounts his life to us. He’s clearly haunted by his time serving in Vietnam, perhaps to the point where he can’t trust his senses or memory. The third part of Fernández Mallo’s book sees a woman take a walking tour of Normandy, where the remnants of war are never far away. 

Nocilla Dream was an earlier novel by Fernández Mallo which used fragments of prose on recurring themes to present the world as as a network without centre. The Things We’ve Seen also uses techniques of recurrence and remixed facts, but its paragraphs are lengthy and discursive. The effect (in another fine translation by Thomas Bunstead) is to suggest that there’s no way out of the writing here, just as there’s no escape from war for Fernández Mallo’s characters. The Things We’ve Seen is a hazy, striking experience. 

The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga

In the mood for a long book? Here’s a 700-page Mexican tale of revenge (translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne and Jessie Mendez Sayer) that never flags. Our narrator is Juan Guillermo, who grew up in Mexico in the 1960s. His brother Carlos had his own drug business, and was killed by the Good Boys, a Catholic youth gang protected by the local police chief. Juan Guillermo’s parents died in a car accident a few years later, but he sees their grief over Carlos as the root cause. He would like vengeance, but that won’t come easily. 

The structure is what really makes The Untameable stand out to me. For a long way into the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between different periods of Juan Guillermo’s life, as though highlighting that none of this is really over for him. A parallel strand sees a young man hunting an infamous wolf in the Yukon, which mirrors Juan Guillermo’s search for revenge – and intersects directly with his story in the end. In between chapters, there are shorter passages on different beliefs and practices around death, which show how much this weighs on Juan Guillermo’s mind. 

I found The Untameable to be fascinating, poignant, and a good old page-turner.

Published by MacLehose Press.

© 2022 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: