Favourite Books of 2018

Once again this year I’ve been reading the world… here are my top 20 favourites.  There should be something for everyone here!

Graphic novels

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye | Sonny Liew (Singapore)

Sometimes a book just blows you away with its brilliance and its mastery of craft. This is one of those books. This graphic novel tells the history of Singapore through the life of a (fictional) comic book artist, and in doing so use a whole range of styles. Educational, fascinating, and poignant.

Crime thrillers

Smaller and Smaller Circles | F.H. Batacan (Philippines)

An excellent detective novel with interesting characters, driven by angry commentary on social justice in the Philippines. Feels like it should be the start of a great series, but as far as I can this is the only book.

Snap | Belinda Bauer (United Kingdom)

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018, this is the best crime novel I’ve read in a long time. Expertly crafted, with pitch-perfect characterization and pacing, this book winds the tension tighter and tighter until you’re sure it is going to…. snap.

Quicksand | Malin Persson Giolito (Sweden)

This is a riveting thriller that is at once a courtroom drama, a psychological crime thriller, and a devastating social commentary. Brilliantly translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

Weird (in a good way)

The Impossible Fairy Tale | Han Yujoo (Republic of Korea)

This strange novel is a horrifying exploration of the violence that adults do to children through neglect. The book is divided into two parts, and the first part is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Such Small Hands |Andrés Barba (Spain)

This short book – really a novella – is powerful. The tension builds page by page to a devastating conclusion. Exceptionally well written and translated (tr. Lisa Dillman). Highly recommended.

Lincoln in the Bardo | George Saunders (United States)

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2017, this book is as brilliant as you’d expect from the author of The Tenth of December and other story collections. A weird mash-up of historical fiction and ghost story. You’ll either love it or hate it – I loved it.

The Coming | Andrej Nikolaidis (Montenegro)

This is a gripping novel that is at once a hardboiled detective fiction, apocalyptic science fiction, and historical fiction. An interesting read, full of complexity. Also led me to discover publisher Istros Books – check them out!

Succubus | Vlado Zabot (Slovenia)

This gripping novel follows a paranoid retiree who, following news of a gruesome murder in a neighbourhood he frequents, descends into madness. While I found the book somewhat repetitive and uneven towards the end, overall this is great read for fans of psychological horror.

In The Name of The Father | Balla (Slovakia)

This book, containing the title novella and three short stories, is a great find. The novella in particular is a darkly absurdist view of profound social and personal confusion and alienation in the modern era. If you like stuff by Kafka and Camus, or weird fiction by writers like Karen Russell, you’ll like this one. The LA Review of Books has an in-depth review.

Short Stories

Life Stories | Nora Ikstena (Latvia)

A wonderful collection of contemporary short stories, crackling with understated intensity. Favourites are “Still Life with Death”, “Nage”, “The White Handkerchief”.

Collected Stories | Patricia Grace (New Zealand)

Grace is the first Maori woman to publish a short-story collection, and this book brings together her first three short story collections. These highly readable stories drop you right into Maori culture and a society in transition. The gentle prose belies an underlying fierceness.

The Decapitated Chicken | Horacio Quiroga (Uruguay)

Brilliant short stories by an exceptional writer I had never heard of. Quiorga wrote in the early 20th century, and this book was first published in 1925. The stories cover  a range of themes and styles, including horror reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. My favourite stories here were the title story, “Sunstroke”, and “The Son”.

Mesopotamia | Serhiy Zhadan (Ukraine)

This is an exceptional book, both gritty and lyrical, bitter and funny. In nine vignettes, tells the story of Kharkiv, a city in Eastern Ukraine. Not for the faint of heart.

The Sad Part Was | Prabda Yoon (Thailand)

This are such funny and inventive stories, brilliantly translated. Check out this review from World Literature  Today (and consider supporting their web site at the same time!)

 Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree | Niq Mhlongo (South Africa)

A diverse, highly readable collection of short stories that explore contemporary life in the Soweto township of Johannesburg.

Another Morocco | Abdellah Taïa  (Morocco)

This is an exceptional collection of short stories that collects stories from the writer’s first two books. As this LitHub review says: “These are stories of life in a working-class Moroccan family, of a writer’s affair with language, & much more.”

Big reads

Kintu | Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda)

This is a masterpiece that deserves wide readership. While staying true to Ugandan history and culture, it is also highly readable and relatable. It traces the history of Uganda through a family bound by an 18th-century curse. Check out this excellent Guardian review.

My Name is  Red | Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)

Embarrassingly, I had never read anything by this Nobel-prize winning writer. This is a brilliant novel set in late sixteenth-century Istanbul. Each chapter is like a piece in a gigantic puzzle, told from the perspectives of  multiple (often unreliable) narrators. At once a murder mystery, a love story, and a meditation on art and religion, this book is also compulsively readable. Highly recommended.

Crossing the River | Caryl Phillips (Saint Kitts and Nevis)

This is an excellent novel that reaches across centuries and continents to tell the story of slavery through four narratives: a freed slave in Liberia in the early 1840s, an elderly black woman in the US west in the late 1800s, the captain of an English slave ship in the  early 1800s, and a working-class English woman in WWII. Read this NY Times review.  The scope and ambition of this book are astonishing.

More good books

Jordan: All the Battles | Ma’n Abu Taleb 

This is a highly readable and enjoyable book. Powered by lean and muscular prose, this novel tells the story of a man in his late 20s who discovers boxing and searches for a meaningful life.

Lebanon: The American Quarter | Jabbour Douaihy 

This is a nuanced and deeply affecting novel that explores several lives that intertwine in this declining neighbourhood of Tripoli. Ably translated by Paula Haydar.

Eve Out of Her Ruins | Ananda Devi (Mauritius)

A highly readable book about a group of teenagers living in poverty in the shadow of Mauritian tourism. Dynamic language in translation, mixing Creole with French.

Paradise of the Blind |Duong Thu Huong (Vietnam)

This fascinating novel sheds light on Vietnam as it modernizes, through the intersection of three women: a young woman, Hang, her mother, and her wealthy aunt. Through their stories, Huong conveys the complexity of Vietnamese life and the contrasts and its political, social, and generational divides.

The Piano Cemetery | José Luís Peixoto (Portugal)

This novel, based on the life Portuguese runner Francisco Lázaro, the first Olympian athlete to die during an event, delves into the complex relationships in a family. The story is sometimes difficult to follow, as it shifts between narration of father (now dead) and son, both with the same name. But it is worth the effort.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth | Sophia Al Maria (Qatar)

A fascinating coming-of-age memoir from a young woman growing up in split lives between Washington State and Qatar, with interesting insights into the changing lives of once nomadic tribes of Qatar.

Land of Green Plums | Herta Müller (Romania)

This is a stark, haunting book that evokes the terror of living in the Romania of Nicolae Ceaușescu. (As an aside, I remember vividly as a 17 year-old living in France watching TV coverage as Ceaușescu was overthrown and executed.) This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a girl and two friends, vaguely dissident, who make their way through a society devastated by totalitarian rule. The prose is spare but forceful, and powers a story filled with bitter rage. Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.

Year of the Comet | Sergei Lebedev (Russia)

A fascinating coming-of-age story that explores the disintegration of the Soviet Union through the eyes of a child. Included on World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2017.

The Hired Man | Aminatta Forna  (Sierra Leone)

This book is so good and I couldn’t put it down. Set in Croatia, it explores the long aftermath of war and its betrayals. The understated narration belies the complex story and evokes a simmering tension and threat of violence. Read this one.

The Sickness | Alberto Barrera Tyska (Venezuala)

A powerful short novel, written in direct and compelling prose, that explores people dealing with illness and mortality. A father-son relationship is that its heart.

Links | Nuruddin Farah (Somalia)

A fascinating novel, the first in a trilogy, that looks critically (and sorrowfully) at the Somalia civil war of the 1990s. Embarrassed that I had not heard of Farah, one of the world’s fine writers and winner of the Neustadt Prize in 2008.

The Blue Sky | Galsan Tschinag (Mongolia)

This autobiography, the first in a trilogy, tells the story of the author’s childhood  living with this nomadic shepherd family in western Mongolia in the 1940s. Its depiction of the difficult but beautiful life in nature, with hints of looming modernity, is deeply affecting. Simply wonderful storytelling.

 

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Upcoming Books

List of countries that remain in Reading the World. Only 19 Left!

Read

  • Liberia: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf This Child Will Be Great

In Progress

  • Lithuania: Breathing Into Marble by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė
  • Timor-Leste: Shooting Balibo by Tony Maniaty

Next Up

On Order

  • Monaco: Graham Green Loser Takes All
  • Sri Lanka: Nayomi Munaweera Island of Thousand Mirrors
  • Swaziland: Sarah Mkhonza Weeding the Flowerbeds
  • Macedonia: Homunculus | Alexsandar Prokopiev (Istros Books)
  • South Sudan: Julia Duany?
  • Tajikistan: Andrei Volos Hurramabad or Animator
  • Vanuatu: Marcel Melthérorong Tôghàn / Sethy Regenvau Laef Blong Mi: From Village to Nation (interlibrary loan?)
  • Solomon Islands: Celo Kulaghoe OR Being the First: Storis Blong Oloketa Mere Lo Solomon Aelan by Aut University (interlibrary loan?)

Countries Still to Read! Books listed are just ideas – don’t have them yet!

  • KiribatiWaa in Storms by Teweiariki Teaero (interlibrary loan – unavailable)
  • Liechtenstein: Iren Nigg,  Stefan Sprenger, or Armin Öhri The Dark Muse (Not Available in English)
  • Luxembourg – Nico Helminger? Robi Gottlieb-Cahen Minute Stories
  • Mauritania: Moussa Ould Ebnou (French only?) / Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba (self-published)
  • Palau: Susan Kloulechad Spirits’ Tides (unavailable?)
  • Panama: Juan David Morgan The Golden Horse (interlibrary loan – unavailable); ( Justo Arroyo – unavailable in English? Carlos Russell – unavailable?)
  • San Marino: Milena Ercolani (not yet available in  English)
  • Sao Tome and Principe ??
  • Togo: Tété-Michel Kpomassie An African in Greenland

Favourite Albums of 2017

Another year of discovering new music! Lots of Folk & Americana as always, but this year I also branched out to discover some different types of music. So you’ll see albums here that are hard to classify – new classical, new weird, drone folk, ambient – that mix it up a bit. There are artists here from Canada, US, Tunisia, Mali, Algeria, UK.

Along with Spotify recommendations and NPR Music, I enjoyed The Quietus and Headphone Commute for pushing my listening boundaries.

So here’s my list. I had to make some tough decisions to limit it to 20… so just left it at 23. It includes albums that I’ve had on high rotation all year, along with some recent discoveries that I’m just starting to listen to now. Feel free to listen to my whole Best of 2017 playlist on Spotify.

Happy listening.

  1. Rûwâhîne / Ifriqiyya Electrique – new discovery, crazy music from Tunisia
  2. The Underside of Power / Algiers – industrial electronics and gospel
  3. Elwan / Tinariwen – another great one from Mali
  4. Kidal / Tamikrest – call it ‘world music’, whatever, this one rocks
  5. The Navigator / Hurray for the Riff Raff – best US album this year
  6. A Deeper Understanding / The War on Drugs – lush, lyrical folk-rock
  7. The Nashville Sound / Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – just great songs
  8. The Wild / Rural Alberta Advantage – one of the best Canadian bands today
  9. The Weather Station / The Weather Station – gorgeous folk music
  10. This Sweet Old World / Lucinda Williams – a reworking of a classic, 25 years later
  11. We All Want the Same Things / Craig Finn – underrated, exceptional songwriting
  12. Not Even Happiness / Julie Byrne – quiet, beautiful songwriting
  13. Hallelujah Anyhow / Hiss Golden Messenger
  14. Postcards / Pieta Brown – quiet sometimes bluesy folk
  15. All American Made / Margo Price – the good kind of country
  16. Tradition & Public Domain Songs / Marisa Anderson – gorgeous electric guitar
  17. Waterworks / Glenn Jones – ‘American Primitive’ style acoustic guitar, live
  18. A Pink Sunset for Noone / Noveller – cinematic, hypnotic electric guitar
  19. Noplace / Aidan Baker – experimental ambient music
  20. Escapement, Feathers, Sketches / Poppy Ackroyd – neo-classical minimalist piano
  21. All My Circles Run / Sarah Davachi – minimalist experimental strings
  22. Hunter Huntress Hawker / Laura Cannell – more experimental strings!
  23. From a Room (Vols 1 and 2) / Chris Stapleton – classic, straight-up country rock

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!

A successful start-up by alumnus Scott Wahl

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Many people associate start-up culture with business and the sciences. But no one at UWaterloo is particularly surprised to find so many arts people embedded within and leading various ventures. UWaterloo English alumnus Scott Wahl is a prime example as software director at Demetic. As a recent article in The Record reports, “Less than three years ago, Dematic’s presence in Waterloo consisted of three employees, setting up shop in a 4,000-square-foot space….. Today, it numbers more than 40 staff, and is preparing for its second physical expansion.” You can read more at “Waterloo’s Dematic is growing in rapid delivery world.”

Record article and photo by Brent Davis.

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