Tag Archives: Yale University Press

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (tr. by Chris Andrews)

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is a Guatemalan writer of significant acclaim. I haven’t read any of his other works, but Severina with its bookish theme appealed to me. So when I saw a copy in the LRB bookshop, I picked it up with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month in mind.

Bookshops are infested with ideas. Books are quivering, murmuring creatures. That’s what one of my business partners used to say. (pg.9, Yale University Press)

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Severina is narrated by an unnamed bookseller, a man who has recently split up with the latest love of his life. One day, he notices a new customer in the bookstore; there’s just something about this young woman, and right from the start he has her down as a thief, even though she doesn’t steal anything that day. From one day to the next, the bookseller waits for this mysterious girl to return – somehow he knows she’ll be back. Finally, on the afternoon of a poetry reading, she reappears:

She stood by the curtains that separated the main part of the store from the little space where the readings were held. This time she was wearing a rather loose-fitting dress made from a single piece of blue cotton, which came to down to her knees (perfectly rounded knees they were, shaped with evident care), a broad silver-plated belt, and black leather sandals. She was carrying a sequined handbag. She stayed until the end. She went to get a drink at the bar, exchanged glances and greetings, and, before leaving, slipped two little books from the Japanese literature section into her bag. The speed of it was impressive. Then she walked out straight through the door in no hurry at all. The alarm didn’t go off; I wondered how she’d done it. I let her go: again, I was sure she’d be back. (pg. 4, Yale University Press)

And sure enough, two or three weeks later, she’s back again; this time a copy of The Thousand and One Nights makes its way into her bag. On the girl’s next visit to the store, the bookseller finds himself alone with the girl and decides to take action:

She didn’t hear me. I came up behind her so close I could smell the scent of her hair.

“Where have you hidden them this time?” I asked. She started, spun around, and bumped into me. “What!” she cried. “You frightened me! What do you want? Are you crazy?” When she saw that I was smiling, she laughed.

“Sorry.”

She put her hand on her chest, covering her neckline. “You really scared me.”

“I really want to know where you’ve hidden them.”

Now she was cross; a fine line appeared between her thick, dark, shapely eyebrows. She pushed me aside and started walking hurriedly toward the door. I reached out, pressed a button, and although she ran the last few steps the security grille came down just in time to block her exit. She stopped and shoved at it.

“This is outrageous,” she said and turned to look at me. She took a cell phone from the pocket of her trousers and dialled a number. “Either you let me out or I’m calling for help.”

“Calm down.” A spotlight was shining in her eyes; without turning away. I reached out and switched it off. She was very beautiful. Corned like that, I found her irresistible. I smiled. “Easy now, easy.” (pgs. 6-7)

And so the bookseller falls in love with this young woman who seems attracted to him, too. And yet, try as he might to get close to her, she remains somewhat elusive and evasive. Her reasons for stealing books remain a mystery; she hints at complications in her life, but seems reluctant to reveal much more. Even her name might be an alias – the young woman says her name is Ana, but once again, the bookseller wonders if this is true.

Ana lives with an older gentleman, a man she claims to be her father. Intrigued to discover more about this mysterious girl and her companion, the bookseller rents a room in the pensión where they are lodging. But as soon as our narrator moves into the pensión, the couple disappear, leaving the bookseller somewhat confused and frustrated. At first our narrator thinks he should forget all about this woman, but several unanswered questions linger in his mind:

I kept going over the books that she had taken from me and trying to imagine the complete list of every title she had ever stolen. It was as if I thought this would help solve the mystery of a life that seemed bizarre and fantastic to me. (pg. 37)

And so begins the search for this girl for whom stealing books seems to be ‘a mode of existence.’

Severina is a beguiling novella, best experienced as a one-sitting read. On the surface, Rey Rosa’s prose appears clear and lucid, but dig a little deeper and the narrative seems to have an almost dreamlike quality. The young woman haunts our narrator’s days and nights, and at one point he wonders whether he has imagined the whole episode. There is an air of ambiguity about this story with its themes of identity, love and lives lived exclusively through and for books. And I’m sure a second reading – the story runs to just under 85 pages – would reveal additional insights.

Severina gives us a very literary story containing many references to books, and at one point the woman tells of how she once took a volume from Borges’s library – a book that comes complete with handwritten notes in the margins.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Severina; it’s an ideal story for a spare hour or two. Guy at His Futile Preoccupations and Scott at seraillon have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Severina is published in the UK by Yale University Press. Source: personal copy.

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from the Arabic by the author

I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and this post covers my thoughts on one of the longlisted titles.

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The Corpse Washer is narrated by Jawad, the youngest son from a Shi’ite family living in Baghdad. Jawad’s father (like his father before him) washes and shrouds corpses prior to burial and he expects his youngest son to learn this time-honoured ritual in order to continue the family’s calling. At an early stage in the novel, we follow the young Jawad as his father takes him to the mghaysil (washhouse) for the first time to learn the basics of the trade. Jawad’s first task is to observe his father and Hammoudy (his father’s assistant) as they attend to the ritual of cleansing and shrouding bodies. In an extended section covering several pages, Antoon describes Jawad’s introduction to the mghaysil with grace and humanity:

It was a bit smaller than I had imagined it. The scents of lotus and camphor wafted through the air, and I felt the humidity seeping into my skin. He closed the door behind us and went inside ahead of me. The first object that struck my eyes after we crossed the hallway and entered the main room was the marble bench on which the dead were washed. Its northern part, where their heads would rest, was slightly elevated so that the water could flow down. The mghaysil was more than six decades old, and many generations of our family had worked in it, including my grandfather, who had died before I was born. (pgs. 14-15)

As the young Jawad grows up, he becomes reluctant to continue the family’s vocation. He has a talent for art, aspires to be an artist and chooses instead to study at Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts. But events in Baghdad intervene and impinge on his dreams; years of economic sanctions under Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq take their toll:

After weeks of bombing we woke up one morning to find the sky pitch black. The smoke from the torched oil wells in Kuwait had obliterated the sky. Black rain fell afterward, colouring everything with soot as if forecasting what would befall us later. (pg. 61)

Jawad feels trapped in a place where ‘even the statues are too terrified to sleep at night lest they wake up as ruins’. His father dies (along with his brother who is killed in the Iran-Iraq war) and it becomes virtually impossible for him to find alternative work, or to leave Iraq for the matter. As the casualties of the Iraq War continue to mount, Jawad returns to the mghaysil to maintain the ritual of washing and shrouding. Death is a dominant presence in the narrative, and our protagonist seems unable to escape its shadow:

Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them to sleep in its lap? Is death punishing me because I thought I could escape its clutches? If my father were still alive he would mock my silly thoughts. He would dismiss all this as infantile, unbecoming to a man. Didn’t he spend a lifetime doing his job day after day, never once complaining of death? But death back then was timid and more measured than today. (pg. 3)

Antoon augments this effect by showing us how a combination of mind-numbing insomnia and horrific nightmares haunt Jawad by night. These distressing dreams punctuate the narrative, and in this example he’s visited by and old man with long white hair and a long white beard – once again, death is a recurring theme: 

Wake up, Jawad, and write down all the names! I think it very odd that he knows my name. I look at his eyes. They are a strange sky-blue colour, set deep into his eye sockets. His face is laced with wrinkles as if he were hundreds of years old. I ask him flatly: Who are you? What names? He smiles: You don’t recognise me? Get a pen and paper and write down all the names. Don’t forget a single name. They are the names of those whose souls I will pluck tomorrow and whose bodies I will leave for you to purify. (pg. 26)

The Corpse Washer is a powerful and very moving book. The narrative’s timeline moves backwards and forwards as Antoon shows us snapshots of key moments in Jawad’s life, almost like a series of vignettes. It’s a story of a young man’s choices in life, his dreams and ambitions and his family’s expectations. And it gives us an insight into the pain and sorrow of living with the inevitable death and destruction that come with war.

The Corpse Washer certainly deserves its place in the IFFP longlist; I particularly liked Antoon’s portrayal of Jawad’s relationship with his father and the scenes set in the mghaysil (which has the calm atmosphere of a haven within the tumultuous city). As with many of the books I’ve read this year, it took me to a different place, another world.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this book: Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This post was originally published as a guest post on Tony Messenger’s blog (20th April 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

The Corpse Washer is published in the UK by Yale University Press.

Source: library copy.