Favourite Books of 2017

It was another year of reading the world! (You can read my full Reading the World list here.)

I continued to work by way country by country, with lots of help from Waterloo Library and web sites like Arab Lit, World Literature Today, Culture Trip and Asymptote Journal. I deepened my appreciation of the translators, publishers, and booksellers who make writers’ work available to us.

In no particular order, here are my favourite books of 2017.

  • The Accusation | ‘Bandi’: This book was written primarily in the early 1990s by a writer in North Korea, and smuggled out only in 2017 for publication. It is apparently the only book to have come out of North Korea from a writer still living there. The stories themselves offer a fascinating window into life under Kim Il-sung’s secretive totalitarian regime. It is harshly critical of the regime and its cruel (and often absurd) impact on the lives of citizens. In this translation by  Deborah Smith (who also translated The Vegetarian), the writing is clear and precise.
  • The Queue | Basma Abdel Aziz: Both a dsytopian surrealist novel and a very real (and critical) look at life in the aftermath of Arab Spring and the rise of authoritarianism.
  • The Healer | Antti Tuomainen: An excellent mystery-thriller, made more interesting by being set in a near-future world beset by environmental apocalypse.
  • Eyes Full of Empty | Jeremie Guez: Like the best noir, it uses a standard mystery plot to take a critical look at society – in this case a contemporary urban France divided by race and class.
  • Landscape with Dog | Ersi Sotiropoulos: An exceptional collection of short stories written with precise, poetic language in which the threat of violence or danger lurks just beneath the surface.
  • The Polish Boxer | Eduardo Halfon: A beautiful short novel – almost a set of connected stories – that offer encounters and observations that explore how people search to make sense of their lives, the ways in which literature and reality intersect and inform each other, and the mystery of the human experience.
  • Heaven and Hell | Jón Kalman Stefánsoon: A beautifully haunting novel – an adventure story, a coming-of-age story, and a meditation on life – set in mid 19th-century Iceland that follows the life of a character known only as The Boy. 
  • Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash | Eda Kurniawan: A fierce, rollicking, fun book (despite the bad title) that also provides an angry commentary on misogyny and sexual violence
  • Iraq100+ | Hassan Blasim (editor): An eclectic short-story collection by Iraqi writers imaging their country 100 years after the US invasion in 2003.
  • The Trespasser | Tana French: One of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time,  exquisitely written, with compelling characters
  • A Horse Walks Into a Bar | David Grossman: In this this short novel, a comic delivers a stand-up routine to an audience that includes several people he new in childhood and what starts as a fairly typical, funny comedy routine turns into something else altogether. A brilliant tour-de-force, winner of the Man Booker Prize International in 2017.
  • Carte Blanche | Carlo Lucarelli: Like all great crime novels, this book uses a crime mystery to explore complex themes of society, politics, and relationships. Set in Italy in 1943, in the dying days of the Fascist government.
  • The Return | Hisham Matar: A brilliant memoir that feels like many books in one – political polemic, travelogue, family history – as the author explores the recent history of Libya through his tireless search for the fate of his father.
  • The Tuner of Silences | Mia Couto: This strange, beautiful book follows the story of a boy trying to reconstruct his family history after being closed off in a former big-game park for most of his life. Echoes of Cormac McCarthy with its bleak portrayal of a kind of post-apocalyptic world.
  • Knots | Gunnhild Øyehaug: An exceptional collection of (very) short stories. Read them slowly, and read them again.
  • Swallowing Mercury | Wioletta Greg:  Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, this wonderful collection of linked coming-of-age stories follows the life of a girl growing up in Poland in the 1980s. The writing, in translation, is beautifully understated and precise.
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing | Madeleine Thien: An epic novel that spans decades and continents, and leaves you breathless. Won the Giller Prize and Governor General Prize last year.

Here’s to another year of reading in 2018!

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