The Best of 2019 – July to December

Yesterday, I introduced the first six contenders for my book of the year award, all the monthly winners from January to June – and a great selection of books they were, too.  Of course, that means there are still six books waiting to be introduced, which is the subject of today’s post.  We’re looking at another six of the best, the monthly picks from July to December, and while the first half-dozen choices were all written by men, it’s female writers who take the honours today, even if I don’t quite make it to overall gender parity (once again, all links are to my original reviews).  But who, and what, are we talking about?  Let’s find out 🙂

JulyAhmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote
(translated by Frank Wynne: Vintage Books)

July’s choice was an epic journey through the life of an African strongman, the President-dictator of a fictional African republic, a man who travels the continent and faces down hordes of foes – all in the best interests of his beloved homeland, you understand.  Related in a series of vigils in the style of traditional African storytelling, with large dollops of humour and magical-realism, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is a cutting satire examining how the countries of central Africa have struggled to escape exploitation, slipping from colonial rule into the arms of greedy dictators.  This one was personally recommended to me by its translator, Frank Wynne, when we met earlier this year, and having enjoyed it immensely, I’m more than happy to pass the suggestion on to my readers 🙂

Honourable Mentions:
The Tales of Ise
, translated by Peter MacMillan (Penguin Classics)
The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
, edited by Jay Rubin (Penguin Classics)

AugustKyōko Nakajima’s The Little House
(tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori: Darf Publishers)

It took until Women in Translation Month for the first monthly winner written by a female author, but of the several worthy contenders in August, it was Nakajima’s story of twentieth-century Japan seen through the eyes of a typical Japanese family that impressed me most.  Told by an elderly woman looking back on her years as a maid, The Little House shows us a picture of Japan’s rise towards becoming a major power, and how for ordinary people the aggressive nature of the 1930s and 40s actually ushered in a period of pride in the nation’s new-found power status.  Add to that a rather unreliable narrator, along with hints that there are some hidden relationships bubbling away beneath the surface, and you have a wonderfully entertaining story, another book that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Man Booker International Prize longlist.

Honourable Mentions:
Fu Ping
 by Wang Anyi
(tr. Howard Goldblatt: Columbia University Press)
The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
(tr. Asa Yoneda: Soft Skull Press)

SeptemberThomas Bernhard’s Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works)
(tr. Sophie Wilkins: Vintage International)

Thomas Bernhard is a frequent flier in these round-up posts, and Das Kalkwerk is another supreme slice of excellent grumpiness.  It begins with the discovery of a woman’s body, presumably after she was murdered by her husband, but this is no detective story.  Instead, we go back and learn about the couple and their chilling existence in a disused lime works, which Herr Konrad has chosen as the perfect setting for his ‘research’ into hearing.  The truth is that the old converted factory premises become a living tomb for the couple, and Bernhard painstakingly describes his anti-hero’s downward spiral into madness in the usual, inimitable style.  Bleak, definitely, but it’s another example of the Austrian writer’s mastery of taking one central theme and circling around it, leaving the reader both spellbound and appalled at the same time.  No, trust me – that’s a *good* thing 😉

Honourable Mention:
Nirliit by Juliana Léveillé-Trudel
(tr. Anita Anand: Esplanade Books)

OctoberPaulina Flores’ Humiliation
(tr. Megan McDowell: Catapult)

While the translator here is very familiar, the author is a new name, and another of the wave of female writers from South America whose work is finally making it into English.  Humiliation is a wonderful collection of stories examining life in Chile, with a focus on the downtrodden of Flores’ native country as well as on the relationship between parents and children, even after the kids have grown up.  Despite obvious parallels with the work of Mariana Enríquez and Samanta Schweblin, Humiliation relies less on the eerie and supernatural and more on the realities of everyday life, and the final piece, ‘Lucky Me’, a novella-length story looking at a woman with a disturbing past and a humdrum present, brings all of Flores’ ideas and themes together superbly.  In my review, I predicted that the UK release (from Oneworld Publications) might bring an International Booker nomination, and I see no reason to change my mind.

Honourable Mention:
The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
(tr. Anton Hur: Pegasus Books)

NovemberChrista Wolf’s Medea. Stimmen (Medea. Voices)
(tr. John Cullen: Nan A. Talese)

Like Bernhard, Wolf seems to take out the monthly prize most times I read her books, and Medea. Stimmen may well be the best one I’ve tried so far.  In her second revisionist take on Greek mythology (after the equally wonderful Kassandra), Wolf attempts to reexamine the character of a reviled figure, exploring what could have driven Medea to commit the crimes she’s generally accused of.  What emerges is a complex tale of political intrigue, xenophobia and gender violence, with Wolf’s Medea a strong women attempting to help her family, and her people, while plots are hatched against her from the shadows.  Jason doesn’t come off too well in this version of the tale, and we come out of the book wondering just whose side of the story really is closest to the ‘truth’.

Honourable Mention:
Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross)
 by Anna Seghers
(tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo: Virago Modern Classics)

DecemberOlga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times
(tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones: Twisted Spoon Press)

By complete luck, Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance this month coincided with a couple of reviews I wrote on her early works, and while both were impressive, I went for Primeval and Other Times as my December selection.  Once again, the book is set in the Polish countryside, but it’s a dazzling tale that explores the nature of existence in a series of short chapters, each of which focuses on a person (or object) in the region the writer calls Primeval.  Over the course of about seventy years, the reader is taken around the woods and villages of the region: people come and go, as do occupying armies.  Meanwhile, a rich squire shuts himself up in his mansion, playing a game in which the object is to escape a series of worlds.  Whether it’s in the game, or outside in the woods, escape proves hard to come by, but luckily Primeval and Other Times is a book you’ll be happy to lose yourself in for a while 🙂

Honourable Mentions:
House of Day, House of Night
by Olga Tokarczuk
(tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones: Northwestern University Press)
Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)

And there you have them – my twelve monthly choices, supplemented by eighteen other books receiving honourable mentions.  The next step, of course, is to narrow that selection down to a shortlist, and then crown one book as my best read of 2019 – that, of course, will be revealed in my end-of-year awards post, coming up very soon.  I wonder which book it will be…

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