Following my annual tradition – this is a quick round up of some of the best books I read in 2019. For previous roundups, see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and to see all books I read this year, see Goodreads.
A solid portion of the middle of this year was dedicated to re–reading books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Over and over again, until I knew all the characters inside out, their experiences and lives, everything. And watching everything I could find where she talks about her writing and her books; reading interviews with her, short stories she’s written, major reviews of her work. The reason: I had the (still slightly surreal) opportunity to sit down with her in conversation at the International Literature Festival in Berlin in September, just the two of us.
After four years of moderating literature festival events in Berlin, she is definitely the highest profile author I’ve had the privilege of chatting with – not to mention she’s one of my favourite authors – so it was a true dream come true to sit down with her. We talked about her writing, politics, racism, power, and much more, and I hear a recording of our discussion will be released sometime in 2020.
Including re–reads of all of Adichie’s novels, I read 55 books this year, of which:
- 14 (25%) were first published in a language other than English
- Somewhere between 35-40 where the primary geographic/cultural reference was not Western Europe or North America (this is a hard one to count, as so many authors I read have multiple points of reference!)
- 12 were by men, 42 by women/non-binary authors.
As ever, recommendations very welcome - below are a few of my favourites from this year.
Focus: books in translation
This year I was aiming to read more books in translation, but it ended up being surprisingly hard – this perhaps says more about the sources I have for book recommendations, but I really had to search to find recommendations. I ended up taking one easy route: becoming a subscriber of non-profit publishing house And Other Stories, who publish a lot of translations. At the level of subscription I signed up to, I get four books a year in the post, one every quarter – which has been a lovely surprise every couple of months.
Along those lines, I realised that – as I didn’t necessarily know the names of authors to look for – keeping an eye on publishers who publish translations might be a better way to go. I came across Tilted Axis Press, a “a not–for–profit press on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature” – their newsletter has been a fantastic source of books, and their 2020 publication list looks so fantastic that I just signed up for a subscription – one description included “a contemporary feminist retelling of Japanese myths and folk tales, in which ‘ghosts’ are almost always tragic, wronged women”, yes please.
I had two clear favourites for books in translation – the first, a fiction book called Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina A. Kover, which was a gorgeous mix of people’s histories and personal experiences, from generations of the narrator’s ancestors in Iran, to her own experience from Iran to France. It was a beautiful way to explore Iranian history, and the stories are incredibly real.
My favourite non-fiction book in translation this year was The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. It’s a thoughtful analysis of the consequences of the rise of English as the world’s ‘universal language’, and the consequences for other major languages, including Japanese. Ironically enough, it was a good reminder that some things cannot be translated, and without knowing the language, there are meanings that will be lost. It isn’t preachy though, nor nationalistic in the slightest – just thoughtful analysis of knowledge–sharing across languages.
The books I recommended the most
There’s three books that I kept mentioning again and again (sorrynotsorry, friends) – the first was “Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini. She’s the author of another one of my favourites, “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” so I went into it expecting to like it – but this was an incredible read. On a meta–level, the breadth of deep research that must have gone into this is pretty astonishing, and the way the story combines both personal tales and her own experience, with analysis and reporting, is brilliant. On a substantive level, the book is hugely relevant to the political moment we’re in, and debunks a lot of both historical and current narratives, revealing them for what they are – white supremacy, hidden within race science.
The second that I kept recommending was “Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience”, by Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier. It was first published in 1995, which is pretty amazing given how timely it felt to read. Though, obviously, there are a few key political moments missing from the book, the historical reminder it brings – that the politics of movements matter – is still very relevant. I learned just before reading it about the existence of ‘Ökonazis’ (econazis) here in Germany, and the book put this movement of people who weaponise climate protection and ecology arguments for a far–right agenda, in historical context. It’s a short read, and one that I’d really recommend.
And the third, for German readers, was Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum, edited by Fatma Aydemir and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah - loosely translated, ‘Your homeland is our nightmare’, though ‘Heimat’ has many, many more layers to it. It’s a collection of essays from German people who have a ‘migration background’ about their realities and everyday life - the racism and xenophobia they face, the prejudices they’ve seen and experienced. Having lived now in Germany for nearly nine years, none of this necessarily surprised me, but I learned a lot - and I have to say, the shocked reactions of (mostly white) Germans while I was reading this in public further emphasised for me why this book is so important. I only wish that more of them would read this.
The book that made me question my actions
This is a strange metric, but I feel like good books – really, really good books – often change or affect my behaviour, if only for a short time. The Left Hand of Darkness made me rethink how I was reacting to and greeting people; Native Tongue made me think about what I was saying and what the meanings were. And ‘Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language’ by Gretchen McCulloch, made me read and re-read what I was writing on the internet, and read and re-read what friends were writing to me. Why do I find myself writing “hahaha” instead of “lolol” like I used to to indicate something is funny? Why, sometimes, do I deliberately write “omg” instead of “OMG” or “Omg”? And which of those three actually indicates the greatest amount of shock?
If you feel like finding the answers to these questions, or at least, reading an incredibly entertaining discussion of these issues, this book is definitely for you. Fellow language nerds, I can’t recommend this enough – it’s engaging, well–informed, funny at times, and very timely.
The book that I keep thinking about
I fell upon this on the internet, rather than through a recommendation – and then discovered that a lot of people I know and deeply respect either love it or have it on their ‘to–read’ list. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a gorgeous combination of memoir, science/nature, poetry, and sometimes fiction via short stories and indigenous folk tales. It sits at the intersection of scientific logic and rational thought, and listening to the world around us, caring, leading with heart, not head, and combines the two in a way that nothing I’ve ever read before has. It’s a nature book, it’s a science book, it’s a book about caring for the world, all at once.
Somehow all of the books that came to my mind while writing the above were non–fiction, but I read and enjoyed a lot of fiction this year, too! Here were some of the best ones:
- In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez – about three sisters during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, it’s a story of courage and love, power and justice, based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters.
- Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft – by the winner of the Nobel Literature Prize, this is somehow a book about a lot and a little, without a wholly coherent storyline, but rather lots of fragments of stories, about travel and flight and life.
- The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix – from a Hungarian author I’d never heard of before, I was very happy to receive this one as a gift! One of those books that takes you by surprise, far more engaging than the blurb might originally indicate – I feel like I inhaled this book, I couldn’t stop reading it.
- Circe by Madeleine Miller – hopping on the Circe bandwagon, because it really was that good. I didn’t want to put this down – make sure you have some time for it before you start.
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – how could I not end with an Adichie book? If you’re wondering where to start from her repertoire, and you’re ready for a heavy – but engrossing and spellbinding – read, this is it.