January 2020 Wrap-Up

Amulet [1999/2006] by Roberto Bolaño – ★★★★★

Amulet impressed me the most in January, and this is only my second novel by Roberto Bolaño. This story is told by Auxilio Lacouture, a woman who proclaims herself to be “the mother of Mexican poetry” and who is friends with up-and-coming poets, writers and artists in Mexico City. When she is left stranded in an empty and already raided by the army university, she starts to reminisce, opening to us the world which is both imaginative and realistic, artful and honest, uplifting and dark.

The Belly of Paris [1873/2007] by Emile Zola ★★★★1/2

I cannot believe that the following two prominent classics on my list ended up below Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, but here we go. The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, tells of Florent, an escaped political prisoner, who arrives to Paris and tries to settle down with his half-brother’s family. He seems to be a newcomer who unwittingly disrupts the usual flow of life in the area. Zola shows the plight of the working-class in the city, and his descriptions of Les Halles, once a famed food market, are sumptuous and exquisitely-rendered. The characters are also interesting and the atmosphere is conveyed, even if the plot itself requires some patience. 

A Tale of Two Cities [1859] by Charles Dickens  – ★★★★1/2

I was very much looking forward to reading A Tale of Two Cities. I first started reading Dickens when I was very young, such as adapted versions of Oliver Twist, and then progressed to reading David Copperfield and Great Expectations. One of my favourite books of all time remains Dickens’ Bleak House, which I recommend to everyone. A Tale of Two Cities starts with a father and daughter reunion after the father was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille for a number of years, and from then on the saga continues and we see their new life unfold in England, including their fateful encounter with Charles Darnay, who also happens to have aristocratic roots. All this is played out in the context of the French Revolution. I have to admit I expected something a little bit more from this book. The episodic plot worked for me, I love Dickens’ language and some characters were intriguing, but the plot was not as gripping as I thought it would be and many decisons taken by the characters were not altogether believable.  

Satantango [1985] by László Krasznahorkai – ★★★★

This is another book which I expected slightly more from as it is deemed by some to be an “existential masterpiece”, and I love existential themes in my books. This is a debut book by a Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, and tells of desperate Hungarian village residents who interact with the main character, who, in turn, persuades them to take drastic actions. I cannot say that the style of writing appealed to me, even though I appreciated the book’s apocalyptic darkness, unsettling nature and certain otherworldliness. I will probably be returning to this book again in the near future. 

The Affirmation [1981] by Christopher Priest  – ★★★★

If I were to judge this book by its first half, it would be a five star rating for me (as sci-fi goes). I consider it to be the best book of the author, and I previously read The Prestige [1995] (also the film by Christopher Nolan), The Islanders [2011] and The Separation [2002]. In The Affirmation, Priest cleverly intertwines reality and fantasy, presenting us with one unreliable narrator who decides to write his memoir and gets lost in his reinvented world and his character, who is granted immorality through lottery. I thought this was a very clever and evocative science-fiction book, and if not for the book’s second half and some deviations from the main plot, it would have been much higher on my list. I still recommend it for all fans of sci-fi. 

Before We Were Free [2002] by Julia Alvarez – ★★★★

Drawing from her own and her father’s experience of the Dominican Republic at the end of the 1950s, Alvarez wrote this short book that details the struggles of one girl and her family in a country ruled by a dictatorial government, as most of this family’s relatives and friends have already left for the US. This on the first glance simple book is a also a powerful statement in support of freedom and personal resilience.

Another Day in the Death of America [2016] by Gary Younge – ★★★★

Despite what Kalashnikov once said about guns, no gun merely “exists” – it is just waiting to be fired…at some point. “In 2017, nearly 134.000 people were shot and injured by firearms in the US (and some 39.773 died from gunshot injuries, an average of nearly 109 people each day)” – Amnesty International. In the non-fiction book by Gary Younge, he traces ten young lives (from the ages of nine to nineteen) in different US states that were cut short by gun violence, emphasising in particular the effect that gun violence and their deaths had on their families, friends and the community as a whole. The book is rather insightful since it also points out how there is a tendency to “normalise” gun violence over time in certain regions in the US and how some (sometimes very young!) dead victims of gun violence are perceived in the media as “looking for trouble” and “asking for it”. This book really gives voice to forgotten people, and also to people whose violent deaths and, more importanty, lives, personalities or stories, did not even get a small scrap in a local newspaper. 

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World [2018] by Steve Brusatte – ★★★

This was my most disappointing read of January 2020. I enjoyed Brusatte’s insight into the evolution of dinosaurs on Earth, as he starts his account with the time some 150 million years ago when there was a big continent named Pangea, and how back then life was developing with the emergence of some pre-dinosaur species and reptiles, before moving on to describe the rise of dinosaurs, which was the most successful species in terms of evolution the planet Earth has ever known. I definitely learnt something about the sheer diversity of species on Earth in prehistoric times, and which were not dinosaurs, and which co-existed with dinosaurs, and I also found out that modern day birds are, actually, dinosaurs.

However, Brusatte does not strike a good balance between telling his story and telling about dinosaurs. Alongside some exciting information on the Tyrannosaurus, we also read about Brusatte’s education, qualifications, PhD thesis nervousness, field trips, mentors, idols, friends, what he ate in Italy and where he slept when he visited China, and, in all due respect, that is actually a very dull read. His account is slangy and simple, and there is no much confidence in it. And, when Brusatte does finally describe the asteroid event that wiped out the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, the language he uses seems to have been taken word-for-word from one documentary on dinosaurs I wached some years back.

How did you start your reading year of 2020? What new and exciting books have you discovered? 

24 thoughts on “January 2020 Wrap-Up

  1. I felt the opposite way to you about the Younge and Brusatte – I loved Brusatte’s book, including the personal anecdotes (although I could tell that somebody more knowledgable on the subject than me would probably have found it too introductory) and while I think Gary Younge is a brilliant journalist, I found Another Day… a bit thin and thought it would probably have worked better as a series of articles.

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    1. Yes, I completely understand your viewpoint, too. Still, I do not think Brusatte is such a good writer, even if he is a very brilliant palaeontologist. And his approach, well…he compares some dinosaur to James Dean, I think?, at one point 🙂 Well, I guess some people would enjoy this laid-back approach to the subject more than others, and I totally understand your praise for the book.

      As for Another Day, I also agree that it is thin, but I really enjoyed the book’s “economical” and “to-the-point” approach to dealing with this issue. I don’t think anyone is prepared to read a tome on gun violence or be again lectured on gun control, and I thought that was the feeling of the author, too. He wanted his book to be different, and I thought it had a nice balance between telling personal stories and drawing attention to bigger topics and to politics.

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      1. Yes, I loved Gary Younge’s articles on this subject on the Guardian and he’s a great writer – I guess I felt like there wasn’t quite enough for a book, but he definitely has that skill of bringing together the personal and the global.

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        1. Yes, perhaps I liked Another Death that much because I did not have the articles of Younge to compare it to. Thanks for drawing my attention to the articles. I feel strongly about the issue of gun violence and control in the US, and I am sure to check out Younge’s articles.

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  2. What an eclectic month! I agree with you about A Tale of Two Cities, it’s not really his best… I’m slowly reading Oliver Twist my kids. Ireally must read Bleak House, I loved the mini series.

    I’m really interested in Satantango, I’ve only read his most recent short Story collection, but I think satantango is kind of a prequel to his latest novel? I think he’s brilliant but intimidating for sure!

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    1. Thanks! I think almost each month turns out to be more or less eclectic for me because I enjoy different genres and different kinds of books. And yes, I am still amazed that Bleak House works so well considering all the different elements of it – a number of different characters, episodic plot, a number of plotlines, legal commentaries, the mystery unravelling etc., but it does. It is a really great book with a very memorable heroine, and I hope you enjoy it, especially since you have seen the mini-series.

      Yes, I found Satantango challenging, and, perhaps, I did not give it its due in terms of more time and attention. I plan to return to it in future. Krasznahorkai’s short stories also sound appealing to me – perhaps they will prove to be more accessible!

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  3. What a great month! Another Day in the Death of America and The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs are both on my TBR, so I appreciate seeing your thoughts on those especially. I think Another Day sounds like it will be a good fit for my reading taste, though I am disappointed to see that there may be an imbalance in facts and storytelling in the Brusatte! That’s a nonfiction aspect that tends to bother me, so I will probably not be in a hurry to pick that one up.

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    1. Thanks! Maybe Brusatte does think that there is a good balance in his book between himself and dinosaurs, but, in all honestly and I do not want to sound awful, I did not really pick up the dinosaur book to read his detailed autobiography 😉 It was not even presented in an exciting way and rather than talking about himself, which may have been interesting for some, half of the time he goes on telling us about the people who inspired him and his mentors. We do not know these people and, frankly, do not care that much and just await in this book the juicy details about the dinosaurs 🙂 I think you will like Another Day in the Death of America!

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      1. Thanks for the info! I think I would agree with you on Brusatte, I am not interested in his book to learn about his life or inspiration or mentors either. It shouldn’t seem like too much to ask for the focus to stay on the dinosaurs! Especially given the title.
        But I will gladly move Another Day… up my list! 🙂

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  4. I have seen this Brusatte book in the library and mulled over whether or not I should pick it up, needless to say I won’t after reading your review.

    That sounds so dull…as if anyone would give a crap about his tastes in Italian food, what sort of an editor did he have, that this kind of talk would make it into a book about dinosaurs? Really bad.

    I need to read Dickens I haven’t had a chance to read any of his books yet but I’m looking forward to doing so. Which do you recommend first? Bleak house or A Tale of Two Cities? Also, do I need to prepare myself emotionally for a completely depressing read or is there light to match the shadow in these books about Victorian squalor?

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    1. Yes, I do not want to be totally unfair re Brusatte’s book, too – there is interesting information there on dinosaurs and he does dispel some of the misconceptions the public has about dinosaurs, their reign and their wipe-out. But there is also a lot of needless material there about all sorts of people he knows and irrelevant things about his field trips. It is almost as though in these non-fiction books authors are trying to justify their views and positions (and even the published book!) by telling us about their education, qualifications and experience. With books such as these, non-fiction authors (unless they are celebrities) assume that their lives are so much more fascinating and exciting to read about than they actually are. It is only human to assume that, I suppose. Another recent read of mine which I thought made a similar mistake is a non-fiction book “When Death Becomes Life” [2019] about the transplantation of organs.

      I wish Dickens was unexplored for me too! 🙂 I would recommend starting with him by reading one of his better known books such as David Copperfield or even Great Expectations, to get the feel for his prose for example, and only then read Bleak House (though Bleak House may also be a good first book, especially if you have some interest in the history of English law :)) I definitely won’t recommend starting with A Tale of Two Cities, which requires some patience and much more investment from the reader because there is no single character there we can really attach ourselves to. This is just my opinion. I also think there is much light and hopefulness in Dickens books, despite the fact that he does try to demonstrate the sheer poverty and injustice befalling poor people. So, his books do not really feel depressing when you finish them.

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      1. I know what you mean about non-fiction authors. When Death Becomes Life, I have toyed with the idea of getting this one from the library, but if it’s rather too self-absorbed then perhaps I won’t. Sometimes this self-reflective aspect of memoirs and non-fiction can be lovely, profound and meaningful in the right circumstances. I can think of one book – which I review on my blog shortly called ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’ about a Philosophy lecturer who has a pet wolf and all of the lessons about life and love that he gains from his wolf, who is far more of a full-fledged conscious being than many humans. This kind of self-reflection can be very beautiful. Some nature writing can be beautiful like this, sometimes it can become a bit too irritating and mundane though…I agree!

        I am going to give David Copperfield a go then seeing as you recommend this as a first Dickens book. I know the story of Great Expectations too well, probably to actually enjoy it, from seeing several film adaptations of that book. Good to know that Dickens isn’t all doom and gloom, and it does have some lighter moments. Thanks for your extensive recommendations!

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    1. Thanks, other Bolano’s books are also lined up for me for this year, including his 2666 and By Night in Chile, have you read those? I have just read the synopsis of Freedom and Death, it sounds interesting and I think I will add it to my TBR, thanks!

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      1. Yes, I read 2666 back when it first came out in English, and I did enjoy it, but for some reason it didn’t stick in my memory as much as The Savage Detectives. Haven’t read any others, but thanks to your reminder, maybe I’ll try another one this year!

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    1. Thanks! Sometimes I wish that Priest’s execution of his novels were a little better, because I think he has some brilliant ideas and his stories are always so thought-provoking, and I cannot say that I particularly enjoy how he puts it all together on paper and through language, though I just love stepping into and being in his world.

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        1. Yes, he does promise more than he can deliver, and maybe it is because he sets his goals so high. For example, I picked up his book The Separation because I thought he would explore duality and the concept of twinship with some nuance and in some depth, and also the relationship between the twins. But, instead of focusing more on the subtler aspects of identity, obsession about twinship and on the subconscious assimilation of another’s identity, etc., the author went on with the usual mistaken identity theme in a domestic setting that so many comedies and dramas about twins focus on.

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            1. Thanks for this recommendation, now I will try to locate and read The Glamour. After The Affirmation, I do believe his earlier work is stronger and I see that The Glamour was published in 1984.

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