It’s been another year of fascinating literary discoveries. I’ve been able to re-engage with my first love, fantasy and science fiction (seeking out a mix of the canonical and the contemporary). I’ve tried to read more non-fiction (essays) than usual. In some ways, this has been compelled: taking up a day job that requires long periods of non-stop work, interspersed with sudden and unexpected breaks, has necessarily shaped the kind of reading I’ve been able to do – one that is amenable to jerky stop-start bursts. This was certainly why I was unable to finish Cities of Salt, the kind of novel that requires painstaking continuity – and also perhaps why I’ve been able to review less than I’d have liked, since it’s been so difficult to find those uninterrupted three hours that one needs to think through, structure, and write a review. One of the resolutions for 2016 must be to find those pockets of time!
Picks of the year :Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.
Here goes – impressionistic grades out of five, and one-sentence summaries, as ever:
- Sandor Marai, Embers (****): An explosive novel about memory and desire, in the background of pre-War and inter-War Europe stifled by social conventions. Reminiscent of Ismail Kadare, in its atmospherics.
- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (****): Classic Kundera, savage, uncompromising, darkly funny.
- Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City (***): Vintage Kadare, with a few twists. Not as convincing as the rest of his work.
- Colm Toibin, The South (****): Gossamer-silky story of love, solitude, and loss, moving between Barcelona and Ireland (two places I’ve never been to, but dream of all the time)
- Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (***): Surreal group of short stories (the precursor of magic realism, it is said), with some painfully sharp imagery.
- John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (****): Finally got around to reading this classic, and absolutely loved this. Perhaps one of the first instances of meta-fiction; and definitely, a keen and acute sense of gender politics.
- Ismail Kadare, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (***): Another Kadare novel about honour, death and the Kanun in mountainous Albania. Not quite as powerful as Broken April.
1. Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (*****): One of my picks of the year. A sprawling novel about 20th Century Indonesian history, sprinkled with a dose of magic realism and a topping of dark humour. Reminiscent of Llosa at his best.
2. Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind (**): Sruggled with this for 150 pages, and then dropped it. Heretical thought: maybe Pamuk has run out of things to say.
Latin American Fiction:
1. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (****): Llosa’s sheer versatility never ceases to amaze. This novel is pure jouissance, with a single-minded focus on the erotic that reminded me of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but much more, er, palatable.
2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Of Love and Other Demons (****): I’m not a great fan of Marquez, but this was my favourite out of the ones that I’ve read. Taut and tightly-paced, with some truly memorable characters.
North Africa/Middle East/Arab Fiction
1. Ahdaf Souief, The Map of Love (***): A riveting politico-love story set during the heady days of 19th century Egyptian anti-colonialism; tended to get a little too descriptive towards the end, and could have been shorter.
2. Latifa Zayyat, The Open Door (*****): Set in the Egypt leading up to Nasser’s revolt, often called the first Arab feminist novel; depicts events that were contemporaneous with the setting of Mehfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, but from a very different lens. One of my stand-out reads of the year.
3. Kamel Daoud, The Merseult Investigation (****): A brilliant story, told from the perspective of the brother of the unnamed Arab shot dead in Camus’ Stranger. In the tradition of post-colonial reclamation of memory and humanity, such as Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest. Read this through the lens of Edward Said.
4. Abdul Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt (***): The canonical novel about the tragedy that befalls an Arab oasis-village after oil is discovered beneath their land. I must confess, I had to abandon this novel half-way. It is clearly a vital and essential work, but the dense description, after a point, made it very difficult to sustain, especially with my stop-start reading schedules.
1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (***): Finally got around to reading this canonical work, for a book club. Did not resonate with me as much as Anthills of the Savannah, or his book of essays, but I can sense how it was pathbreaking for its time and place.
2. Nuruddin Farah, Crossbones (***): A harrowing novel about journalism in war-torn Somalia. Tended to get a little too descriptive at times, but an essential read.
- Perumal Murugan, One Part Woman (***): I bought this out of a sense of political solidarity, as much as anything else. It felt like a great book bogged down by (what I thought was) an uninspired translation.
- Aditya Sudarshan, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (***): An eerie politici-fantastical thriller, with some acute observations about urban Indian society, but an unsatisfactory ending.
Fantasy and Science-Fiction
1. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Time Wanderers (*****): The Soviet duo have probably written some of the greatest science-fiction in the history of the genre, but continue to be relatively unknown. The Time Wanderers is less popular even within their oeuvre, but I found it absolutely brilliant (especially the premise, and the ending).
2. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard To Be A God (****): Translated for the first time directly from Russian, I reviewed this for Strange Horizons (here). The premise is utterly brilliant, the execution not always so. Still very much word a read. The Paris Review also carried an article on this earlier this year (here).
3. Robert Jackson Bennett, The City of Stairs (****): Good, old-fashioned, thrill-a-minute, stay-up-till-4AM-reading epic fantasy involving Gods, heroes, and a city of stairs.
4. Anthony Trevelyan, The Weightless World (***): An interesting debut SF novel set in Maharashtra (!). I reviewed it for Strange Horizons (here)
5. Karel Capek, RUR and War With the Newts (****): The author who coined the word “robot”. This classic of SF comes with a sharp, brilliant introduction by Adam Roberts.
6. M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart (**): I utterly loved Viriconium. I was expecting more of the same from this one, but it failed to convince. Seemed to be trying too hard, at times.
7. Samuel R. Delaney, Babel-17 (*****): The canonical SF novel from the 60s is worth its fame. Brilliant exploration of the link between language and the construction of reality, set in the background of thrill-a-minute space opera.
8. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (***): Had heard a lot about it, so approached it with very high expectations – which, perhaps inevitably, it did not live up to. Still, an enjoyable epic-fantasy novel with a strong female protagonist, and some vivid imagery.
9. Salman Rushdie, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (**): Takes itself too seriously, is too self-conscious about its politics, and didn’t really work (for me).
10. China Mieville, Three Moments of an Explosion (**): Definitely heretical, but I think China Mieville should stick to novels (which he’s brilliant at).
11. Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (***): A reliably consistent SF novel from Atwood. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons here.
12. Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road (***): I have very conflicted feelings about this SF novel, set in India and Africa fifty years hence, in a world in which India and China are competing in a new “scramble for Africa”. One of the protagonists is an Indian woman – rather rare in SFF! I participated in a Strange Horizons Book Club discussion about the novel here.
13. Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (***): Lovely, dense, old-school fantasy writing, with intricate world building, layered histories and myth, and conflicted characters. Almost too dense at times, if that makes sense.
14. Jo Walton, The Just City (*****): Beautiful SF novel about Athena’s attempts to recreate Plato’s Republic on an island out of space and time. The kind of novel that is stark in its simplicity, but haunts you for long after.
1. Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature (****): Toibin’s portrait of eight writers, whose identities were at least partially shaped by their sexuality, is a beautiful read, albeit a little inconsistent.
2. V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (N/A): Orientalist, racist, and unreadable.
3. Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity (*****): Technically, this is an academic work of history, but is written so lucidly and simply, that it reads like a story. The account of a slave rebellion on board a ship of the West coast of South America is a powerful and moving tale. A must-read.
4. Italo Calvino, The Road to San Giovanni and Other Essays (****): Six essays that typify Calvino’s ethereal, feather-light touch.
5. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (*****): Read this twice – once in March, and then a second time while wandering in Mexico City and Chiapas. Paz’s epistle to Mexico is a thing of beauty.
6. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (***): Fell in love with this the first time I read it, three years ago. Now, in light of all the reading I’ve done in the intervening years, no longer sounds quite as impressive. In particular, the construction of a “Europe” seems essentialist and ahistorical, and the omission of Empire in the historical account of the development of the novel, particularly glaring.
7. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (***): Beautiful, apart from the extended theological musings.
8. Colm Toibin, On Elizabeth Bishop (*****): I’ve always enjoyed Bishop. Toibin makes her look like an unvarnished genius. Beautiful set of reflections by one of the finest writers alive today, on a very talented poet.
9. The Edward Said Reader (*****): Collection of essential Edward Said writings across his life and career. One of the seven or eight books always by my bedside table.
Bring on 2016!