Taghistorical fiction

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 30-21

We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.

You can also read my previous instalments, nos. 50-41 and 40-31. Now, on to the next ten…

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 40-31

Welcome to the second part of my countdown of 50 bookish memories from the 2010s. The first part went up last week, with the rest to follow each Sunday.

Compiling this list has made me realise just how idiosyncratic a personal reading history is. I read quite a lot of debuts, especially at the start of the decade, and didn’t begin reading works in translation seriously until about 2014. Both of those factors have helped shape my list. When I looked through some other ‘best of the decade’ lists, I was surprised at how few matches I saw with mine. But perhaps that’s how it was always going to be. Anyway, on to the next set of books…

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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#InternationalBooker2020: Melchor, Kehlmann, Azar

A selection of titles from the International Booker Prize longlist

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2020)

Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.

Set in a Mexican village, Melchor’s book begins with the murder of a woman known as “the Witch”, whose house is rumoured to hide a stash of treasure. Subsequent chapters unpeel the events that led to the killing, and show the dark realities of life in this community.

It’s a powerful translation by Sophie Hughes, and a novel that’s not soon forgotten.

Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll (2017)
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (2020)

Tyll Ulenspiegel, the main character of this novel, is based on a trickster figure from medieval German folklore. Kehlmann brings him forward in time to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Tyll escapes the childhood village where his father is accused of witchcraft, and as an adult becomes a travelling entertainer and court jester.

Kehlmann’s novel is at its best when Tyll is at centre-stage, the prankster who breaks through the superstitions and mores of his society. When he isn’t front and centre… well, it probably helps to know about the historical background. Overall, though, Tyll is engaging and enjoyable. ⁣

Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (2017)
Translated from the Persian by an anonymous translator

Following the 1979 Revolution, Bahar’s family were forced to flee Tehran for the small village of Razan, seeking to maintain their intellectual freedom, and at least some sort of continuity in life.

But the authorities catch up with them eventually. As the novel begins in 1988, Bahar’s mother has climbed a greengage tree and apparently attained enlightenment. At the same time, Bahar’s brother has been executed elsewhere. Brightness and brutality are intermingled in the text. ⁣

Azar’s novel is full of stories within stories, and the supernatural is never far away (even Bahar, our narrator, is a ghost). It’s compelling to read, delightful and powerful in equal measure.⁣

A Peirene Press round-up

Claudio Morandini, Snow, Dog, Foot (2015)
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

Peirene’s series theme for 2019-20 is ‘Closed Universe’, and this first title takes us into the troubled mind of one old man living in the Alps.

Adelmo Farandola (always referred to by his full name) spends the winter up in the mountains away from people, and the summer even further up in the mountains. When we meet him, he goes down to the village to stock up on supplies for the winter. The shopkeeper is surprised to see him because (she says) he visited only last week. Adelmo has no memory of that.

For most of Morandini’s novel, it’s just Adelmo, his dog, and the young ranger who goes by from time to time. Adelmo is snowed in for months, then has to decide what to do when he sees a foot poking out of the snow.

What makes Snow, Dog, Foot so compelling is the ambiguity running through it. Reality is fluid for Adelmo, so there’s no fanfare when (for example) the dog starts talking to him, because that’s just the way things are. Adelmo has complete trust in his senses, which means we have constant mistrust. The book grows ever more poignant as the layers of perception peel away and we understand what’s happening.

Emmanuelle Pagano, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (2012)
Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis (2019)

Part of Peirene’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series, this is a collection of linked stories set in rural France. These are vivid tales of character: the hitchhiker who stands in drivers’ blind spots. The old man near the holiday rental who’ll tell stories of the local area to anyone who will listen. The father remembering his daughter’s childhood through an old jigsaw puzzle.

Characters and images recur, not least the roads that link up places but also lead away from them. The repeating references to individuals and events serve to remind how small a community can be. But the details of the stories reveal how even familiar faces may be unknown or forgotten.

Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me (2016)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2019)

Another title from the ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Vanderbeke draws on her own childhood for this tale of an East German refugee trying to settle into West German society in the 1960s.⁣

I particularly like the childlike tone of the narration: the hurried gabble of this happened and then that and this and you know what else, as though the narrator wants to tell us everything.⁣

The Measure of a Man – Marco Malvaldi: a European Literature Network review

On the table today, an Italian novel: The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi (translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor). If you like the idea of a Renaissance murder mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci, with added political intrigue and a few sly nods at the present day… you’ll want this book in your life.

Click here to read my review of The Measure of a Man for European Literature Network.

Book details

The Measure of a Man (2018) by Marco Malvaldi, tr. Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor (2019), Europa Editions, 272 pages, paperback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi: #MBI2019

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies (2010)
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (2018)

Today’s book from the Man Booker International Prize longlist is the first I’ve read from Oman. It’s the second novel by Jokha Alharthi, a tale of two families and social change across several generations. At its centre are three sisters, each of whom takes a different approach to love and marriage. Mayya marries a merchant’s son at her parents’ instruction, though she has an unrequited love for another man (she names her first daughter London, after the city where the man of her dreams studied). Asma loves literature and feels sure that marriage and motherhood will be wonderful, though this is not necessarily reflected in what she reads:

Why wasn’t there even one book, among all of the volumes on her shelves, which singled out motherhood as the radiant experience it must be? Had her grandfather, Shaykh Masoud, whose library her mother had inherited, not been interested in motherhood? Or were books in general reticent on this subject? She didn’t know the answer to that one, since she had never seen another library in her life.

The third sister, Khawla, has waited since childhood to marry her cousin, and still waits for him, though he has now emigrated to Canada, and she waits for him to return. All three women have their individual ideals when it comes to love; Celestial Bodies explores the different ways in which reality measures up (or fails to measure up) to those ideals.

Alongside the three sisters’ tales are episodes from the lives of other characters, which reflect different experiences and common themes across the generations. Mostly the chapters are presented out of chronological order, which turns Alharthi’s novel into a forest of stories.

Book details

Celestial Bodies (2010) by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (2018), Sandstone Press, 244 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

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