Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

37 thoughts on “Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

  1. Many of the books you mentioned are unknown to me. So cannot comment on that. But the last paragraph where people told books were the worst Christmas gifts ever is very sad. I love books and getting books as gifts more than anything. But I know many don’t. In my immediate family, I am the only one who reads and my three sisters hate books and love movies. However there was an incident where my sister once told me she got a book to which she was hooked and that I should try it. It was a non fiction one on mathematics, which I did not enjoy. But it opened my eyes to the fact the everyone would read if the right book comes along.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know my own reading tastes sometimes run to the obscure, but I am always happy just to see people reading and enjoy reading blogs by people who may have very different interests but who are passionate and intelligent and offer great insight into what they do like… and every now and then I find something I might not have found on my own.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I very much enjoyed Aashish’s comment to you recently on Twitter that Seagull Books are artefacts. It was only this year that I truly came to appreciate the unique quality of Seagull Books though I had many of their books on my shelves. My ambition either this year or next is to visit Kolkata and the Seagull Book shop.

    Our reading intersects in many ways so perhaps it isn’t unexpected that your blog has become an important part of my literary firmament, one of those lit blogs that show a commitment to writers that have found some way of dealing with the ongoing challenges of modernism.

    Pleased to hear that health and sanity are holding together. ‘Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, When we will tempt the frailty of our powers.’

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    • I would love to attend one of Seagull’s programs in editing or publishing just to be in that environment. If you get there for a visit I want to hear all about it.

      I appreciate the thoughtful way that you engage with literature and always look forward to your observations and reflections. Your blog has become somewhat of a compass for my reading as my literary focus has become more finely tuned. I have only recently started to look to more literary criticism, otherwise my reading and writing about literature is primarily intuitive, informed more by age and experience than anything else.

      My health, physical and mental, is improving thanks. This year I hope to return to work but not back to the same high stress management. I hope to cobble together some way of making a living with books and words, whatever that looks like.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. If it wasn’t for the way you champion small, indie publishers I would never have heard of some of these books but so many of them are now on my wish list I am counting the months until I can retire and indulge myself in them. Seagull Books do have some gorgeous works on offer don’t they??
    I knew you’d been seriously ill when you came back from South Africa but never realised you had come so perilously close to finality. I so hope you are feeling stronger now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I am feeling much better, but there is an emotional component to an experience like that which is harder to deal with.

      I have had the advantage of being off work this past year and a half but I will have to look at return to work soon. At this point in my life I am re-evaluating what I want to do/what’s important to me and hope it has something to do with books and writing. Just have to figure out how little money I can get by on!

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  4. Fascinating list – I enjoy reading your blog because it has such a wide range of books. Please continue to champion them and share them with us, and I hope you have a good festive season!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The feeling is mutual. And I love your capturing of all those cunning finds that follow you home! I would also like to read more Russian lit this year so I may be seeking your advice on translations at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As always, I like the how as much as I like the what of your writing – the way it meanders in and out of books and life and solstices.

    You are so right about the dearth of book lovers – the UAE is a desert in that sense, albeit with an occasional oasis. It’s both humbling and heartening to know how much there is out there to read yet.

    I too have a shelfful of books from Seagull – the much-loved remains of an art exhibition held here in the UAE back in April, which was what introduced me to Seagull Books. They are such works of art in themselves. I’m now waiting for some more to reach.

    P.S. And as always, you are guilty of lengthening my bucket list. Humbling to know how little one has read.

    Stay well, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This was really lovely to read. Congratulations on being added to the masthead at Number Cinq! You’ve had a year with many challenges but from my angle it appears you have come through them all successfully. I do hope 2016 has fewer challenges, it is always good to have a breather before life throws something else at you! Thanks for a wonderful year of books. You really do have a knack for finding interesting stories that no one else is talking about and you have made me add many of them to my TBR list. Happy Solstice and happy holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Stefanie. All the best to you and your better half over the holidays and into the new year.

      2015 has been, looking back, mostly good (I need to remember that when I feel down). It would be nice to have a breather but my dad had a stroke on Sunday and at 87 he won’t be going home to my frail mom in their cottage in the woods. So, as they say, life goes on. 🙂

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  7. I’m really pleased to have discovered your blog this year, Joe. Like others, I enjoy reading your reviews as you feature such a diverse range of books, many of which I would never have come across otherwise. Your posts demonstrate a real depth of engagement with literature, too – they are always a pleasure to read.

    Many congratulations on the Numéro Cinq gig, that’s quite an achievement! I hope you have a restful time over Christmas and wishing you all the best for the year ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It has been wonderful getting to “know” you too Jacqui. I was very new to book blogging at the beginning of the year and I have learned so much from your thoughtful and sensitive reviews. And I have added a few books to my shelves and wishlist along the way too, thanks to you.

      Likewise I wish you the best of the holiday season. It seems to be rushing up so fast. I may have to hide my computer for a day or two just to prepare!

      Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Joe. I was travelling most of this afternoon so only came across your blog now. Thanks so much for your kind words re Istros Books ( and the fab photo of my door:). I’m now in Coproatia for the holidays and wish you peace and happiness this festive season season and beyond!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Susan for your encouragement. You know I believe in Istros and look forward to seeing what you have coming in the new year. Wishing the best to you and your family over the holiday season!

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  9. Thank you for this lovely honest post, Joe. I tried to comment yesterday but the WordPress app on my phone wasn’t behaving (I’m in Italy for Christmas). I knew you’d gone to South Africa earlier in the year and you’d been unwell, but I had no idea it was so serious. I trust you are fully recovered – at least physically, as I’m sure a death-defying experience like that must leave its psychological mark.

    I love the list of books you’ve provided here…though my credit card won’t! And thanks for the tip off about Seagull Books, which I will definitely explore further.

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    • Thanks for your kind words, Kim. I am much better, still dealing with emotional fallout and a rib cage still aching from the chest compressions.

      I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and be careful with Seagull – they know how to craft a beautiful book!

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  10. What an interesting list.
    So glad to hear you’re feeling better and that your son could help. Sounds like a narrow escape.
    I really need to explore Seagull Books.
    All the best with your own writing.

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  11. Congratulations on being published with Número Cinq! And, I found that being a part of the Shadow Jury for the IFFP is a significant part of my reading year, too. I love the exposure to novels from around the world, and I loved meeting new bloggers such as yourself. May we have continued joy and pleasure in books and blogging company in 2016!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The year ended with my father’s stroke on the 20th which has slowed my reading (he’s several hours away), but he is making a remarkable recovery for an 87 year-old so maybe it’s a good sign for my whole family healthwise.

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  12. I’ve just realised that Feedly had unsubscribed me to your blog. It keeps doing that. What a difficult year you’ve had. I’m sorry to hear of all the troubles, and I hope your father continues to improve.

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    • Thank you! I am routinely reminded of the wisdom of that Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. Funny thing is there has been much good mixed with the difficult, and I must try to remember that. 🙂

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  13. Your blog is rather unique since you share a lot of your personal life and experiences with us readers; this together with this great list of books (that give me plenty of ideas for future readings/reviews) made me read this post with much interest. I wish you a better 2016, personal, health-wise and also regarding your writing project.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your well wishes. Through my blog I have found myself most comfortable aiming to read critically and illuminate a reading of the work – what is the author trying to achieve that makes this a book worth reading – rather than judging or rating a book. I realize my reading is idiosyncratic and I am similarly drawn to other readers who have their own unique interests.

      As for writing about my life, I am developing a sense of comfort with sharing my reflections on my experiences, with, of course, what I hope are healthy boundaries. My writing project will, if I’m successful, combine some sharing of my personal life experience with the goal of exploring the philosophical questions that have come to dominate my thinking as a result of that experience. (I am remaining deliberately vague here, by the way.) It does seem to me a fine line between writing about something personal and private without falling into self-indulgent solipsism.

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      • I am looking forward to your writing project – no worries, even when you are writing about private matters, it is always immensely interesting (and never self-indulgent).

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  14. Congratulations on Number Cinq. Well deserved and no doubt welcome after what sounds a rather tough year. I’m glad you’re still with us.

    And a fascinatingly diverse list (yes, I did start a sentence with and, I’m a bad person). I’ve noticed Anthony talking about Seagull too, who’re completely new to me but who I shall now check out.

    Thanks and good luck for 2016!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Max. 2016 has been off to a slow start but I have been working on some review projects elsewhere. Family and household(read plumbing) matters have cut into my focus. But as I type this I am out in the middle of nowhere with my parents with lots of books, limited internet – so time to read. Hooray! Of course Dad is in no condition to be home but that’s another story! Seagull. Books are not cheap but they are very special and a little addictive.

      P.S. I start sentences with “and”, for emphasis I think there is a place for it.

      Like

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