It’s that time of year again! In fact, it’s been that time of year for a few weeks now, but I’m a bit slower this year . . . I really cannot believe Christmas and the New Year are just a few days away. Fortunately, the gifts for loved ones have been taken care of and other things — like work, which has been busy busy — are slowing down enough for me to start to feel the season and the desire to look back on the reading year that was 2016.
When 2016 started I posted a list of reading goals (here), and, though I fell short, I’m pleased to say that I got further towards these than I might have expected. I don’t feel bad I didn’t complete them all, because the list was never meant to be my taskmaster. However, I’m also not sad because one of the things that threw me off was the fulfillment of a wish I don’t think I’d allowed myself to articulate: becoming a judge of the Best Translated Book Award. I’ve been surrounded by waist-deep piles of translated fiction for the past several months. As a consequence, other reading has taken a bit of a back seat, and I also haven’t been able to review as much here, though I’m hoping to correct that a bit (there’s nothing saying I cannot review the translated books I’m judging . . . I just feel short of time).
This means that, for the first time since I started The Mookse and the Gripes, I have reviewed far fewer books than I actually read, making the year-end a bit of challenge since I like to attach links to my reviews. To fix that a bit, below I have two lists: one features books reviewed on The Mookse and the Gripes and the other features some that I haven’t been able to review quite yet.
by Marie NDiaye
translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(original review from May 12, 2016)
“NDiaye’s books have been powerful and illuminating for me, even though they’ve retained so much mystery. The lines between characters always feel blurry to the point I often don’t quite know who’s on the page anymore. This works particularly well in the more straight-forward Ladivine.”
by Graham Swift
(original review from May 31, 2016)
This wonderful little novel takes place on Mothering Sunday, 1924. The twenty-two-year-old servant Jane Fairchild has no mother to visit. An orphan, Jane does not know her origin. Her given name was chosen because Jane is a solid, common English name; her surname because “Fairchild” fits the charitable hopes of those who raised her. In 1924 she serves the Niven family. The Nivens, like their neighbors the Hobdays and the Sheringhams, lost children in World War I. Indeed, there are only two left: Paul Sheringham and Emma Hobday — and those two are to be married in a couple of weeks. The wealthy families or noble origin — apposite to Jane Fairchild in almost every way — must enable their heritage to live on. Jane and Paul, though, have been lovers for seven years.
The Serpent King
by Jeff Zentner
(original review from March 24, 2016)
The Serpent King is sympathetic to its characters and, to my surprise because it is so hard to pull off, not preachy. Rather than outline a plan that would save the friends, the book explores the real difficulties standing in their way, preventing them from pursuing a life many of us feel they deserve. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths: Lydia, the one privileged enough to have a clear pathway, cares deeply about her two friends, and her advice to them — to leave their families, to chase their dreams, to never look back — is great advice and genuinely given. But Zentner deftly explores why it’s not that easy. But more than “not that easy” due to, you know, things being tough all around; Zentner offers understanding. The connection these young men feel to their families is real. They are more human for not wanting to throw it all out just to escape. In this way, Lydia is right to tell Dill and Travis to get out, that they have their own lives to live, and they are right to tell her that they’re not sure leaving is the best option, if it’s even possible.
Death by Water
by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
(original review from July 6, 2016)
Death by Water was my first experience reading anything by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe. I’m so glad I’ve finally started this reading relationship because Death by Water is one of the bets books I’ve read this year, and one that leads me to Oe’s rich back catalog, much of which is actually brought up in this complex, profound, and strange work.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Carson McCullers
(original review from March 11, 2016)
I knew nothing about the story when I first opened it up. I was immediately drawn in, though, with one of those opening sections that I read three or four times before I actually go any further in the book. I love this section, which runs only a page or so. It introduces a town that appears absolutely inhospitable, with its “short and raw” winters and “summers white with glare and fiery hot.” The few buildings are in various stages of disrepair or straight condemnation.
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.
Despite its current state and though now essentially forgotten, the buildings suggest the town once held happiness and hope. It’s a terrible, powerful visual picture of the lost dreams of youth regarded cynically in bitter old age.
by Ursula K. Le Guin
(original review from September 21, 2016)
These stories are not really linked together in any way other than their setting in Orsinia. That they are deeply personal makes it all the more incredible that they come together to form a kind of whole, a portrait of humanity, of each individual, stuck in time and history — indeed, maybe even getting brutalized by time and history — who, though foreigners from an imaginary nation in a distant time, reflect our own struggles today. I loved them, and I can’t wait to see what Le Guin comes next from The Library of America . . . hopefully something that shows us just how well Le Guin can make the strange and even abhorrent poignantly familiar, one that contains, for example, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
The Immense Journey
by Loren Eiseley
(original review from November 30, 2016)
Eiseley is an advocate for “seeing,” a concept that comes up often when one talks of Thoreau. In the book’s first essay, “The Slit,” Eiseley takes us through the prairie on horseback to a slit in a sandstone wall where he comes to an animal skull. Yes, he looks closely at the skull itself, but he looks through it:
The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it that I was never going to see?
This moment, imagining what it was he himself was never going to see, is fascinating as it also represents a moment of “seeing”; indeed, it encourages a lifelong quest to see, both the object and through the object. Not seeing has emboldened him to imagine, to overcome, and to see so much more than most of us will with our eyes alone. He encourages us to do the same:
Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort.
by Louise Erdrich
(original review from July 29, 2016)
The terrors that Erdrich explores with nuance and courage are sadly relevant to the world today, a world that would probably rather Erdrich’s rich book were easily categorized tightly as a book about Native Americans, particularly those of generations gone that can be brushed aside with something like, “It’s terrible, but it’s all in the past.” This is a very human book, hardly limited to the Ojibwe community and the history of these families. These events reverberate. Because she is strong and a master, Erdrich’s book reverberates as well.
by Jakob Wasserman
translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(original review from January 26, 2016)
To be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading My Marriage. That’s not to say I was dreading it or anything; rather, I figured it would be pretty good, but it wasn’t the book I was most excited for to begin this new year. But when I started it . . . it’s just exceptional. It wasn’t happy reading, but it is an exquisite rendering of pain that is brought on by union and separation at once. Wassermann seems to be exploring, trying to comprehend just what happened with this central experience of his life, and I loved the step-by-step exploration of his painful past — not that it was entirely the past.
by George Eliot
(original review from June 9, 2016)
I bought my copy of Middlemarch from a bookshop in Wales in 2004. I’d just finished Eliot’s great debut novel, Adam Bede, and I fully intended to quickly continue my relationship with Eliot’s work. I started the book in 2006, got 100 or so pages into it, and then moved across country. I have carried the book from home to home since, and almost every New Year begins with me thinking: “I’ll read Middlemarch this year.” I actually downloaded the audiobook, narrated by Maureen O’Brien, several years ago, hoping that would help me reach my goal. Alas, the book is so long! But . . . late last year the book topped the “100 Greatest British Novels” list (see here), and I couldn’t wait any longer. I finally know what all the fuss is about! And I can think of no reason this amazing book should not top that list.
And now, in no particular order, for a few that I didn’t review but that might be somewhere in the list above if I had.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. I have read a few of Christie’s murder mysteries, and I have genuinely enjoyed them. This was the first that I couldn’t put down and that, for me, really showcased her genius. It also helped me escape almost completely from a particularly stressful period of the year. The stress is gone, but I will always remember this excellent book.
The Door, by Magda Szabo and translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix. Last year The New York Times listed this as one of the 10 Best Books of 2015, and I’m right in line. This is a wonderful examination of a toxic yet touching and necessary relationship between two women.
Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marías and translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. This is not my favorite book by Marías, but it is still an exceptional book. I’ll be reviewing it in the near future, so that’s all I’ll say for now.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón and translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Working through my piles of translated fiction, I picked this one up mostly because it was short and I thought I could get through it in an evening. I was right about that, but it also emerged as a favorite read. I’m also hoping to review this one soon.
Vampire in Love, by Enrique Vila-Matas and translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. This is a great collection of Vila-Matas’s short stories. It took me a few years and a few books to finally fall for Vila-Matas’s work, but I’m all in now.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. I watched The Great Courses lessons on science fiction earlier this year, and I realized there are many books I need to read, including this classic collection of stories by Ray Bradbury. I was surprised again and again by how much I was enjoying these stories and by how unique each is from the others.
The Front Seat Passenger, by Pascal Garnier and translated from the French by Jane Aitken. Garnier is so dark that a few of his books almost turned me off. But with Gallic Books continuing to publish his work in lovely editions, it’s hard to say no — especially when, though dark, his work remains in my head. With this one I have no hesitation in embracing it and recommending it. It’s clever and horrific.
Murder Most Serene, by Gabrielle Wittkop and translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie. This book was longlisted for the most recent Best Translated Book Award. I had picked it up a day or two before the announcement and was immediately impressed by the prose and the very strange story.