It’s that time of the year when every book-related news outlet, journal, or blog is unveiling their “best/favourite books of 2018” lists, and I can’t resist the temptation of scrolling through each and every one of these lists. Although I’m aware that these kinds of lists are entirely subjective and most often don’t really align with my own reading taste, I’m still always curious to find out which books make it onto these lists, and they seem to inspire me to reflect on my own reading year.
Overall, 2018 has been a great reading year for me. I made an effort to focus more on new releases in translation and this goal lead me to read the whole shortlist (as well as the majority of the longlist) of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and the new National Book Award for Translated Literature, and, once again, reconfirmed my love for translated literature. I’m not one of those highly organized people who keep a detailed spreadsheet to track their reading stats, but, according to Goodreads, the majority (~70%) of books that I’ve read this year have been translations, and I’m very happy about this achievement. One of my goals for 2019 is to maintain a similar balance.
It’s also been less than a year since I restarted this blog and I’m very grateful to all of you who have read and shared my posts, left so many thoughtful comments, and decided to follow this blog. Thank you so much for all the support and happy New Year! 🙂
Favourite Reads of 2018
It was a struggle to come up with my own list of favourite reads of 2018 and put them in any definite ranking, so the following list consists of the books that stood out to me the most this year, and I decided to arrange them by “date read” to avoid any specific ranking. Also, you can click on the title of each of the books to read my full review.
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
A wild road trip on the “shadow highway” of America that takes the reader on a Lynchian journey, exploring the fundamentals of American culture. Set in an alternate near-future America, where the Twin Towers mysteriously reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota and seem to transmit music that differs depending on the listener in an America where all music is gradually disappearing. If that wasn’t weird enough, the towers are completely empty, except for one resident in one of the towers: the adult version of Jessie Presley, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley, who is going mad from a voice in his head that doesn’t belong to him and strange memories of a life where he survived instead of his famous twin brother. This book won’t be for everyone, but if you’re fine with some weirdness and disorienting narratives that probe the cultural identity of America, I recommend this highly imaginative speculative fiction novel.
The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt, translated by Nick Caistor
An atmospheric and satirical modern classic from Argentina, published in 1929, it follows Remo Erdosain, a lonely an dispossessed working class man living in Buenos Aires, who has fallen on hard times and gets involved with a group of revolutionaries, who are planning to overthrow the government and exact some kind of revenge on society for the neglect, humiliation and cruelty that they have endured all their lives. It soon becomes apparent that his co-conspirators are a group of disturbed individuals, following a cult-like leader called The Astrologer who is very charismatic but has no clear political ideology as a basis for their revolution.
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff
Another Argentinian novel, this time contemporary, about a young woman who has recently given birth to her second child but struggles with feelings of alienation and is yearning to break free from societal pressures and the mundanity of day-to-day family life. She feels as if her identity is being replaced by the roles that she is expected to perform and that drives her to the brink of insanity. It’s a very atmospheric story, written in a melancholy and, at the same time, a kind of darkly ironic tone, that it stays with you for a long time.
I Still Dream by James Smythe
This book was one of the biggest surprises for me this year. The novel explores some big questions about the potential development and use of AI technology, our right to privacy and the border between man and machine. The central character, Laura Bow, is one of my favourite female characters that I’ve encountered in science fiction, and I could really relate to her love of music (the title of the novel is a reference to a song by Kate Bush), and how she tried to navigate an industry that is traditionally dominated by men. I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for an intellectually stimulating science fiction story.
Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated by Saskia Vogel
Ester Nillson, a writer and poet, embarks on an affair with a married actor called Olof Sten, hoping that he will leave his wife and their affair will turn into a long-term relationship. However, it doesn’t turn out that way and, instead, the book follows the relationship dynamic between two rather delusional people, who stubbornly refuse to accept the reality of the situation. The novel is a subversive, darkly comic, and feminist look at infidelity and the double standard that exists between men and women who are involved in these situations. Also, the satisfying conclusion to the relationship drama between Ester and Olof has really stayed with me.
The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean
A multi-layered journey through the key moments of 20th-century Colombian history that showcases how violence is passed on from generation to generation and its lasting effects on the society. Part political thriller, part courtroom drama, part reportage, part conspiracy theory, and part autofiction, the novel mainly focuses on two defining murders of charismatic politicians in the history of Colombian politics – the assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe on October 15, 1914, and the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. The author presents himself as the narrator of the novel and through an encounter with the fanatic Carlos Carballo, who believes in a conspiracy theory that links these two assassinations, the narrator becomes intrigued and embarks on an investigation to find out the truth. I previously also really enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling by Vásquez, but this book put him on the list of my favourite authors.
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal
This was my first experience with Jansson’s adult fiction. The True Deceiver is a skilfull character study of two women with very different personalities that plays with the reader’s, as well as the characters’ perceptions against the backdrop of the harsh, rural winter setting. Kari Kling is an unusual young woman with yellow eyes who is fiercely protective of her younger brother Mats. In order to ensure their financial security, she decides to ingratiate herself with the local recluse – a privileged, rather eccentric, and seemingly naive children’s book illustrator Anna Aemelin who rarely leaves the house and relies on other people to bring her all the necessary supplies. Katri and Anna represent two opposing worldviews on how to deal with their isolation and their interactions provoke a change in both characters. It’s a short, atmospheric read that makes you feel that something sinister is lurking just around the corner.
The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated by Marija Marcinkute
An excellent short story collection that brings together an assortment of characters, who are searching for some higher purpose in life and their mundane lives are interrupted by something strange that leads them to wrestle with some existential questions. A major theme of the collection is identity since the characters are forced to examine the layers of self-deception that they’ve constructed in order to deal with the reality of their lives.
Katalin Street by Magda Szábo, translated by Len Rix
My first experience with Magda Szábo’s fiction and I loved this psychologically nuanced story about the lives of three neighbouring families that live on Katalin Street in pre-war Budapest against the backdrop of significant periods in Hungarian history – the interwar period, the German occupation and Communist rule. It’s a melancholy story about the unreliable nature of memory and how people, often unintentionally, inflict suffering on those that they love. It was such a well-crafted book that I look forward to picking up more of Szábo’s work, in particular, her most famous novel, The Door.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover
A sprawling story about one Iranian family against the backdrop of some of the key moments in 20th century Iranian history. The book follows Kamiâ Sadr as she sits in a fertility clinic in Paris and recalls her family’s history, her relationship with her dissident parents and other relatives, and her experience of fleeing Iran to move to France. The author seamlessly interweaves the politics and cultural aspects of Iran with the multi-generational family story. Shifting back and forth between different time periods, the novel is an insightful and moving examination of Iranian history, grief, the immigrant experience, and identity, both cultural and individual.
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
I haven’t read that much science fiction or fantasy this year, because I felt that I needed a break from these genres, but I’m glad I made an exception for this dark and psychological fantasy novel that follows Sasha Samokhina who is manipulated by a sinister stranger into attending a strange Institute of Special Technologies in rural Russia, where she is forced to keep up with an incredibly demanding study schedule that doesn’ seem to have a purpose at first, but eventually leads to a significant transformation and provides her with a new understanding of the mysteries of existence. It was one of my most engrossing reading experiences of the year.
Most anticipated books of 2019
In addition to reflecting on my favourite reads of the year, I’d like to mention some upcoming releases that I’m really looking forward to reading in 2019.
Optic Nerve by María Gainza, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (Harvill Secker)
The novel follows an Argentinian woman who is obsessed with art and her life story is fundamentally linked to the pieces of art and artists that matter to her. What I gather from the synopsis is that the novel consists of different episodes from the lives of famous artists that have some kind of meaning in the narrator’s life in Buenos Aires, and together they form an impression of the main character.
Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah, Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press)
Published as part of their There Be Monsters series, the novel is set in 1819 and follows a young assistant to a notable French explorer who sets off on a journey to the Russian wilderness. They soon discover a group of creatures living in a cave: children with animal traits. But are they animals, or human? This sounds like it’s going to be a dark, but very intriguing story.
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Publications)
I really enjoyed her strange and unsettling novella Fever Dream, so I look forward to reading more of her work. I hope these stories are just as dark and suspenseful as her most famous novella.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton), the first book in his planned Dark Star trilogy.
I was very impressed by his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings which won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, so I’m very excited to check out his foray into the fantasy genre. Inspired by African history and mythology, the book is described as a fantasy saga that explores the fundamentals of truth and the limits of power. The book follows a mercenary called Tracker, who reluctantly joins a group of unusual and enigmatic characters that have come together to track down a mysterious boy, who disappeared three years earlier. the search takes them on an adventure through different cities, dense forests, and deep rivers, where danger lurks at every step. As they struggle to survive, they start to question: Who, exactly, is this mysterious boy and why is he missing?
Balco Atlantico by Jérôme Ferrari, translated from the French by David Homel (MacLehose Press), the sequel to his 2012 Prix Goncourt winning novel The Sermon on the Fall on Rome.
I was impressed by his short, philosophical novel The Principle about the physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was involved in the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb.
The synopsis suggests that Balco Atlantico is about the relentless pursuit of happiness and fulfilment that leads to despair and disillusionment. In a village square in Corsica lies the body of ardent nationalist, Stephane Campana, shot down at close range. And over his body weeps Virginie, the young woman who has venerated Stephane all her life – a veneration that has led her to abandon herself to him and his twisted desires completely. Meanwhile, brother and sister Khaled and Hayet, who once gazed out to sea from the shoreline path known as “Balco Atlantico” and dreamed of a better future, are now stranded in Corsica.
Mars by Asja Bakić, translated from the Bosnian by Jennifer Zoble (The Feminist Press at CUNY)
Mars is a collection of feminist science fiction stories that explore the themes of knowledge, freedom, and power by showcasing different universes, where every character is tasked with making sense of their strange reality.
Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Grove Press)
Inspired by his own father’s struggles with mental illness, David Vann explores the destructive effect that the dark logic of depression has on the main character’s life and his relationships with family and friends, and his persistent struggle to wrench himself free from his thoughts that have the potential to lead him to his end. I really enjoyed Vann’s lyrical writing in Bright Air Black, which is a retelling of the story of Jason and Media, so I can’t wait to read his latest novel.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adélaïde Bon, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions)
When Adélaïde’s parents find her mute and unable to explain why she is crying, they bring her to the police station and file a complaint against “X” for sexual assault. Adélaïde grows up without showing any outward signs of damage. As a teen and then as an outwardly cheerful young woman, she suffers in silence, battling her demons alone. Twenty-three years later, Adélaïde receives a call from the juvenile squad. An investigator has reopened the classified case of “the electrician” and DNA analysis points to a man known to the police as a serial burglar. He is subsequently charged with assaulting 72 minors between 1983 and 2003, and it is suspected that he has hurt hundreds of others who never filed complaints. In the spring of 2016, at the Paris city court, along with 18 other women, Adélaïde confronts the rapist who destroyed her life. This sounds like a terrifying but important read.
77 by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Open Letter)
This is another Argentinian book that I can’ wait to read. Its been described as a haunting, dream-like novel about absence and the clash between morality and survival when living under a dictatorship. Set in 1977 Buenos Aires, in the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, tries to keep a low profile as one-by-one, his friends and students begin to disappear. When Esteban, one of Gómez’s favourite students, is taken away in a classroom raid, Gómez realizes that no one is safe anymore, and that asking too many questions can have lethal consequences.
Abel and Cain by Gregor Von Rezzori, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough (NYRB Classics)
This edition actually includes two of the author’s novels that have been collected for the first time in one volume and presented as the author had originally intended. It’s a sprawling story that takes on the Jazz age, the Anschluss, the Nuremburg trials, and postwar commercialism. The central character is the unnamed narrator, holed up in a Paris hotel room and struggling to write his novel about love and work, sex and writing, families and nations, and human treachery and cruelty. But how can a man who lived in a time of lies know himself? And is it even possible to tell the story of an era of lies truthfully?
The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories)
I’ve been meaning to read something by Lina Wolff for quite some time and the premise of this book sounds very strange and intriguing so I might start with this one. Ellinor is thirty-six. She wears soft black sweatpants and a Michelin Man jacket. She fights. Smart and unsentimental, she tries her hand at online dating, only to be stranded by a snowstorm in Stockholm, far from her village in the south of Sweden. Ellinor finds herself at the heart of an intrigue involving an ex-wife who happens to be a blind medium, an overweight literary critic with a Houellebecq obsession, and a manuscript: a very important manuscript. Cut to Max Lamas, its author, who dreams of a polyglot lover, a woman who will understand him, in every tongue. His search takes him to Italy, where he befriends a marchesa on the brink of ruin, and where her granddaughter, Lucrezia, brings this tale to its final, shocking conclusion.
Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott (Coffee House Press)
A writer fills a notebook with exercises to improve his writing believing that this will lead to improvements in his character. His determination and commitment despite interruptions, distractions, highly inventive procrastination and worries about his mental health. What appears to be merely a functional exercise transforms into reflections and anecdotes about life, coexistence, writing, sense and the senselessness of existence.
Valerie by Sara Stridsberg, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A reimagining of the life of Valerie Solanas—the writer of the infamous SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol—who, in April 1988, was discovered dead at fifty-two in her hotel room, in a grimy corner of San Francisco, alone, penniless, and surrounded by the typed pages of her last writings. In Valerie, Sara Stridsberg revisits the hotel room where Solanas died; the courtroom where she was tried and convicted of attempting to murder Andy Warhol; the Georgia wastelands where she spent her childhood, where she was repeatedly raped by her father and beaten by her alcoholic grandfather; and the mental hospitals where she was shut away. Through imagined conversations and monologues, reminiscences and rantings, Stridsberg tries to reconstruct this most intriguing and enigmatic of women.