Books of the Year 2019

After another year of failed projects – re-reading Doris Lessing during her centenary (got as far as three books); continuing re-reading all of Muriel Spark’s novels from her centenary last year (still have four to go) – and one which saw me taking a month off reviewing entirely before more than halving my output, there still remains the annual disappointment that is my Books of the Year. I say ‘disappointment’ as, rather than finding it impossible to choose from the hundred or so contenders, I increasingly find it difficult to select twelve books which have made an indelible, or at least a water-resistant, impression on me – a commentary on my deterioration as a reader rather than on the quality of the literature before me I fear. Anyway, without further delay, in only the particular order in which I read them, my Books of the Year (2019 edition).

Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) was an icy breath of fresh air. The Russian Novel on steroids, I loved the way it flitted between realism and surrealism, with a side helping of science fiction. I also read The Day of the Oprichnik this year and will be tackling The Queue early in 2020.

The Accompanist (translated by Marian Schwarz) wasn’t my first experience of Nina Berberova but the novella form suits her ability to distil intense emotion perfectly, as I was to find again in The Revolt.

I’d already read my favourite of the Man Booker International long list (Annie Ernaux’s The Years) last year, but, of those that were new to me, I was most impressed by Sara Stridsberg’s The Faculty of Dreams (translated by Deborah Bragen-Turner). Repetitive and circuitous in the way dreams are, it also felt wild and untamed like its subject, Valerie Solanas. (Both Ernaux and Stridsberg appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, bizarrely at the same time, but as I couldn’t go anyway, that difficult choice was not thrust upon me).

Two well-deserved republications of German writers come next. The Artificial Silk Girl (translated by Kathie von Ankum) marked the passing into my reading past of Irmgard Keun’s four most famous novels. Not only important for its evocation of 1930s Germany, it has a more universal appeal as a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

Set only a few years later, Heinrich Boll’s The Train Was on Time (translated by Leila Vennewitz) is another masterly novella, where the atmosphere of impending fatality becomes almost unbearable at points.

I’ve yet to read even a mediocre novel from Edinburgh’s Charco Press, but the best this year was Selva Almada’s The Wind Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews). Perhaps more of a ‘traditional’ novel than most of Charco’s output, it was a beautifully weighted observation of character and relationship, with a thoughtful, but never intrusive, philosophical background. Luckily more of Almada’s work will be with us next with the publication of Dead Girls in September.

Another new South American voice to me was Mario Levero. Empty Words (translated by Annie McDermott) managed to make normally irritating attributes such as having a writer as the main character, and even including writing exercises as a secondary text spliced into the main narrative, quite charming. I now long for his much lengthier The Luminous Novel to be translated.

Then saddest book I read this year was Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends (translated by Janet Louth). Even sadder, it is often quite funny. A number of Bove’s books have been translated into English but most are out of print and expensive to come by, so please buy this and encourage NYRB to continue the Bove revival! (Coincidentally, this novel is much mentioned in Brenda Lozano’s Loop which I read this month).

Having made that claim for My Friends, I must admit that Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (translated by Ros Schwarz) is probably bleaker. Set in some future time on an uncertain planet, it’s refusal to answer the questions it asks makes it feel very like reality.

Emiliano Monge’s brutal epic Among the Lost (translated by Frank Wynne) places the reader among Mexico’s people traffickers in a story in which everyone is a victim. Viscerally immersive, this is a powerful, yet at times surprisingly poignant, novel.

Verso’s new translated fiction imprint began promisingly with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund). Though you are fairly certain where this novel is heading, that doesn’t stop it being an addictive examination of a family in denial.

Finally, the novel which explained Brexit to me: Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale (translated by Shaun Whiteside). In the final days of the war, with Berlin in ruins, we still find many who believe Hitler has a plan to ensure Germany’s victory.

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18 Responses to “Books of the Year 2019”

  1. MarinaSofia Says:

    I like almost every single one of your contenders (and have a few of them to look forward to on my own TBR).

  2. roughghosts Says:

    You had a productive reading year, Grant. I made a note of a few titles on your list to add to my own wish list out for next year. I’m afraid I fell short of all goals in 2019, but I did read some unexpected books that I really loved and by year’s end I hope to get them into a post.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Hey, don’t beat yourself up too much, Grant. Judging by the tempting selection of books on this list, I’d say you’ve had a very interesting year of reading with several notable highlights. Lovely to see The Artificial Silk Girl on your list (although I can appreciate your regret at not having any more of Keun’s work to look forward to in the immediate future). The Boll is in my TBR while the Hjorth and Almada are on my wishlist for the future. (I recall you recommending the latter to me when we chatted about Charco Press earlier this year.)

    Wishing you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead. I know you’ve been having a bit of a rethink about your reason for blogging this year, but I do hope you find a way to continue posting about your reading in the future. I love your blog! You’ve introduced me to so many *new* writers and offered up fresh perspectives on familiar ones. Plus, it’s a testament to the quality of your reviews that they never fail to engage me even when the book in question is probably not for me!

    Have a great break over the holidays. All the best, Jacqui

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks, Jacqui. Cutting down on my blogging seems to have helped make it more proportionate to everything else I have going on in my life. I have had a good year of reading but I still don’t seem to be very good at focusing on one thing fro very long!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I shouldn’t worry about challenges, Grant – I went in for very few and failed most. I shouldn’t even try! You’ve read some wonderful books and your best of the year is a great selection. I do hope you’ll continue to post in the future – your reviews are always so interesting, as are the books you read. Merry christmas to you and yours!

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks, Karen. The one challenge I always try to make at least one contribution to is you and Simon’s clubs – I’m already looking forward to the next one!

  5. Ryan Says:

    I discovered Bove and Levrero on here and both are on my list of favorites.

  6. Scott Says:

    Great list, especially the inclusion of “The Wind That Lays Waste” – hoping to see it as a Booker International contender.

  7. Scott W. Says:

    I’ve read exactly one of the books on your list (the Keun) and knew zero about the others, so thanks for all of these recommendations the are new to me. The Almada and Levrero seem particularly interesting.

  8. banff1972 Says:

    Like Scott, I’ve only read the Keun, but I’m looking forward to most of the others, especially Bove, Berberova, Sorokin, and Harpman.
    Like Jacqui, Ali & others, I’m so glad to see you persevering with the blog. Your pieces are as much interpretive as impressionistic, which I appreciate.
    I wonder if your struggle to find twelve titles that really got you has anything to do with how much you’ve read. The more you read the harder it is for something to amaze, no?
    Anyway, I wish you all good things in 2020, Grant!

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks, Dorian. I often wish I could read less but read more carefully! I think cutting down how often I write will help as I’m now trying to be more selective. Hopefully buying no new books for a couple of months will also help as there’s always a danger of only looking for the latest, rather than the best, thing.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I should read so badly as to have a list like that! It may not seem it from your end, but that’s an impressive end of year list with some really interesting books on it.

    The Levrero I didn’t love as you did, but then I tend not to love books about writing.

    The Keun of course made my own end of year list (the of course being mostly I think that it seems to be on the end of year list for anyone who reads it).

    Novellas do seem to be where Berberova shines. I hope one day she gets a Penguin Classics release.

    I plan to pick up the Böll, in part based on your recommend, and already have the Almada which I’ll bump up the queue since it appears here.

    The Monge looks good and I read a fair bit of Mexican fiction, so I’ll look out for that. I’ll take another look at the Harpman, it hadn’t grabbed me to look at but that might have been an error. The Hjorth had rather passed me by, but I think appears on Caroline’s list too.

    Were there any that were always going to be on the list, with others going on once you thought about it a bit more?

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks, Max. Usually I have about twenty to cut down – either because all twenty are great or because eight are and I need another four. This year, however, the twelve stood out quite quickly – so at least that part was easy!
      On the Harpman – it didn’t seem to be widely noticed (perhaps because it’s a reprint) but it has really stuck with me.

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