The Best of 2019 – January to June

Every time I publish my wrap-up posts, I choose one book as my pick of the month, and that book then goes on to vie for the book of the year prize in my annual awards ‘ceremony’.  It’s a cruel system, and many a good book has missed out (while a couple of good-but-not-great works have sneaked in), but that’s just the way I roll, and I’m not planning to change the system any time soon.

However, in that awards post, I don’t have the space to do more than simply list the books selected, so this year I’ve decided to devote some more time to the twelve works that have taken out my monthly awards.  I’ll be getting to the nominees from the second half of the year tomorrow, but today we’re kicking off with the monthly champions from January to June (all links are to my review posts), plus a few other books that deserved at least a quick mention.  I wonder if any of these appeal…

JanuaryNatsume Sōseki’s To the Spring Equinox and Beyond
(translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein: Tuttle Publishing)

It isn’t one of Natsume’s better-known books, but this leisurely stroll through the family and relationship dramas of an idle, well-to-do young man is probably one of my favourites.  Quite apart from the usual enjoyment that’s to be had when vicariously strolling through early-twentieth-century Tokyo, the gradually unfolding plot, in which the young narrator spends time with his friend, Sumaga, and that friend’s cousin, Chiyoko, works well, and as a whole the book hints at what’s to come soon in the form of the writer’s masterpiece Kokoro.  Not all translations of Natsume’s books work as well as they might, but Ochiai and Goldstein have made this an enjoyable read, and I’d heartily recommend it – if, that is, you can hunt down a copy (it really is time for the release of a complete set of his works in English…).

Honourable Mentions:
Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kōno
(tr. Lucy North: New Directions)
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri
(tr. Morgan Giles: Tilted Axis Press)

February – Javier Marías’ Berta Isla
(tr. Margaret Jull Costa: Hamish Hamilton)

Revisiting past glories is always a risky business, but thankfully Marías’ latest novel is far more than a trip down memory lane.  The story of a Spanish couple, the Berta of the title and her eventual husband, Tomás Nevinson, the book takes the reader back to the world of the sublime Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, with one old friend in particular making a welcome reappearance.  While Marías does plunge us into the world of espionage once more, in truth, the focus here is on the woman left behind, and the difficulty she has in trusting her husband during his lengthy absences,  The question is whether she can commit to a life with the man she loves, even when she knows that there’s a large part of him that will always remain hidden, and Berta’s struggles to come to terms with her dilemma make for a compelling, absorbing experience.

Honourable Mention:
Alte Abdeckerei (Old Rendering Plant)
 by Wolfgang Hilbig
(tr. Isabel Fargo Cole: Two Lines Press)

MarchJulián Fuks’ Resistance
(tr. Daniel Hahn: Charco Press)

Like Fitzcarraldo Editions before them, Charco Press seem to have the hit the ground running, and it’s hard to find an annual wrap-up of translated fiction that doesn’t mention one of their works.  I read this short, contemplative novel just before the Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced, and I’m still surprised that it didn’t make the cut.  Told by a Brazilian writer investigating his Argentinian roots, the story explores his brother’s adoption, and the issues stemming therefrom, as well as the troubled times his parents’ country went through during the years of dictatorship.  Of course, there’s a connection between the two stories, and Fuks slowly, carefully, reveals these secrets, showing us that the past is something that will always seep out eventually, no matter how hard we try to cover it up.

Honourable Mention:
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
(tr. Omid Tofighian: Picador)

AprilJuan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape of the Ruins
(tr. Anne McLean: MacLehose Press)

Speaking of the MBIP, even though JGV’s epic novel of history and conspiracy theories didn’t take out the main prize, our Shadow Panel saw fit to give it our nod of approval – and it deserved it.  A mesmerising tale exploring Colombia’s dark history and a man who spends his life trying to bring it into the light, The Shape of the Ruins has the writer taking centre stage in his creation, trying hard to avoid being sucked into the crazed beliefs of an old man he’s introduced to.  However, once he starts to examine the evidence more closely, his certainty begins to waver.  What if there really was a conspiracy? (At which point, the reader’s thoughts may well wander in the direction of Trump, Brexit and possible Russian interference in foreign elections).   Perhaps the truth is still out there, somewhere…

Honourable Mentions:
The Years
by Annie Ernaux
(tr. Alison Strayer: Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg
(tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner: MacLehose Press)

MayMihail Sebastian’s Women
(tr. Philip Ó Ceallaigh: Other Press)

Having enjoyed Sebastian’s (and Ó Ceallaigh’s) work on the excellent For Two Thousand Years, I was always keen to try Women, and even if it’s a very different book to the earlier release, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a collection of four longish stories, all featuring the Romanian doctor Stefan Valeriu, and as you’d expect, each of them introduces a woman or two who have an impact on the good doctor’s life.  However, there’s far more to the book than simple romances.  The stories are told in a variety of styles, using first-, second- and third-person narratives, and they look at different aspects of love, from a youthful infatuation, to a late-life love; at times, it isn’t even Stefan who’s the focus, but rather a friend infatuated with a woman.  Quite apart from the content, though, Women is simply a joy to read, a light, airy experience belying the subtlety of the writer’s touch.  If you’re looking for a summer read with a little more substance than the usual recommendations (even if most of you are currently heading into winter…), I highly recommend it.

Honourable Mention:
Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo
(tr. Frank Wynne: Fitzcarraldo Editions)

JuneLuis Sagasti’s Fireflies
(tr. Ffion Petch: Charco Press)

I mentioned Charco Press above, and my June choice is the publisher’s second contribution to my first half-dozen winners – quite a feat 🙂  This one is another enjoyable short work, in which the writer tells tales exploring the reason for our existence, mainly by spinning webs connecting seemingly unrelated events and people.  Sagasti has us looking up at the sky in wonder, waking up in a tent in Siberia and wandering through the bombed-out streets of Dresden with Kurt Vonnegut, as animals that have escaped from the zoo roam the streets – and that’s just one section of the book.  At times, there’s a sombre feel to Fireflies, but occasionally Sagasti allows us to soar, marvelling with Yuri Gagarin at the wonders of the universe and reminding us that, in the end, we’re all just people sitting on a rock travelling through the universe, gazing up at the stars.

Honourable Mentions:
The Nine Cloud Dream
 by Kim Man-jung
(tr. Heinz Insu Fenkl: Penguin Classics)
Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories
 by Kim Young-ha
(tr. Krys Lee: Mariner Books)

Well, that’s the first half of the year dealt with; a fine set of books, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Come back soon to see how the second half unfolded, and which books caught my eye.  Do you think the book of the year is already here?  Well, we’ll see soon enough…

6 thoughts on “The Best of 2019 – January to June

  1. Nice to see a few from the Man Booker International Prize there, though I preferred both The Years and The Faculty of Dreams to The Shape of the Ruins. Good to see Women there as well as it’s coming out in Penguin’s European Writers series next year


    1. Grant – Yes, all three April books are MBIP longlisters. I just finished a reread of ‘Women’ yesterday, and it was again most entertaining. The only possible downside to it was that you wonder how many of the negative comments the writer’s creation makes about women we’re meant to agree with…


  2. Lots of intriguing titles here, and thanks for the Charco Press recommendations – I’ve never seen or even heard of these. I did not love Berta Isla – I found the characters behaving in ways that people could only behave in a fiction. Still, any new Javier Marías novel is always a cause for celebration. I still haven’t gotten around to Soseki in any form, though I have one sitting on the shelf.


    1. Scott – I’m a sucker for YFT, and even if Marías’ characters would be out of place down your local, I just loved the whole premise, and the writing. As for Natsume Soseki, definitely a writer to try at some point 🙂


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