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The first book of 2017


Today I am celebrating the reclamation of my reading sofa with an illustrated anthology of writing about the pleasures of reading. The German title translates as Read and Let Read. Similarities between the the reader on the dust jacket and myself are entirely coincidental, though as I can slouch once more in my reading nook, I am as happy as the proverbial ….

I hope 2017 proves to be an excellent reading year for us all

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There’s a surprising correlation between my 2016 reading statistics and this list.

  • 31% of my reading was in German or translated from German giving 33% of the following list.
  • 48% of my reading was in translation. 50% of this list is.

There are, however, a couple of surprising discrepancies too.

  • 70% of my reading was by new-to-me authors as are 11 of the 12 titles in this list. That’s an amazing 92%!
  • Male:female reading ratio was 56:44.  In my favourite picks it is 25:75.

The conclusion is, I think, that to increase my reading pleasures I must read more new-to-me women authors in translation. I’ll test that theory out in 2017.

But for now, here are my picks of 2016 presented mainly in chronological sequence of reading, to  form a mini-journal of 2016 – a life-changing year for me. Links are to my full reviews.

January: I began what was meant to an alphabetical Adventures Through the TBR reading project. I didn’t get very far, never consciously moving onto B, but I did read 15 titles associated one way or the other with the letter A. The Austrian novel I Called Him Necktie was my favourite of these and also The Most Moving Read of the Year.

February: Time for my annual Peirenathon and the magnificently dark and cruel the Norwegian The Looking-Glass Sisters became my favourite Peirene to-date and Gothic Read of the Year.

March: Time for AyeWrite and Julie Myerson’s The Stopped Heart delivered The Villain of the Year.

June: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days was the hottest and fieriest read of my #20booksofsummer and her Home Secretary takes my Slimiest Politician of the Year award.  (No mean undertaking given the events of 2016.)

August: Month of the Year: I retired just in time for the Edinburgh Book Festival. So with time on my hands I read lots of great books, 3 of which make this list.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions roared into my consciousness to become the  Zeitgeist Read of the Year.

David Tennant’s reading performances of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train A Dragon series had me in fits of giggles driving to and from Edinburgh, confirming my inner child and my continuing delight in all things alliterative – not just my blog’s name.  They are my Audio Books of the Year.

October: I’ve spent two of the last three months of the year on the road, aligning reading with my destinations. The Munich Art Hoard was a fascinating glimpse into the unexpected moral and legal ambiguities that continue to exist around treasures stolen by the Nazis and taught me to look a more closely at the labels in art galleries. I had an entirely different experience that previous ones when I visited the Städel in Frankfurt after reading it. It is my #gapyeartravel Companion of the Year.

November: From an English book about Germany to a German book about Scotland – #germanlitmonth delivered Fontane’s Beyond the Tweed, a travelogue of his journey around the most famous bits of Scotland in 1858. (They are still the most famous bits btw so the book can still be used as a travel guide.) My Travel Book of the Year and the only book on this list by an author I have read before.

December: I may have been avoiding the Scottish winter in Gran Canaria, but I was deep into my #dutchlitautumn. The Boy is my favourite from among my choices for this and my Psychological Read of the Year.  It would make an excellent book group read; the mother being sympathetically tragic – or is she?

And so to my top 3.  In reverse order:

Back to August, the Edinburgh Book Festival and Helen Ellis’s Southern gothic and hysterically funny short-story collection American Housewife. Some of these ladies could given Myerson’s villain of the year a run for his money. Winner of my Short Story Collection and Comic Book of the Year awards.

In February I read my Most Anticipated Book of the Year.  Volker Weidemann’s The Summer Before the Dark lived up to expectations and resulted in the Gush of the Year.  I even read it twice, the second time in German, for Book Group at the Goethe Institute, where there was a hot debate about whether to categorise it as fiction or non-fiction.  Actually it’s neither. I suppose that makes it my Faction Book of the Year and, because I read it twice in 2016,  my Reread of the Year. It’s also the book that added more books than any other to my TBR  and started a whole new reading stream, making it the Most Influential Read of the Year.

So why is it not my Book of the Year?

In another year, it would have been, but in May  Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar came out of nowhere.  I picked it up to read along with TJ at My Book Strings and was not looking forward it at all.  Holocaust novels not being my reading material of choice. 7 months later and I can only summarise the experience in one word – revelatory – and that’s what makes this the Book Blogger Recommendation of the Year, Classic of the Year and Lizzy’s Book of 2016.

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Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing


Bottle-dungeon St Andrew’s Castle

One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife.  Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this.  There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision.  Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.

imageI had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.

The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there.  Man-eating animals perhaps?  As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay.  Noone is moving, noone is speaking.  Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.

What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation?  To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.

That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store.  For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death.  Deeper humiliations await.  They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity.  This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed.  The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….

… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!

Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English.  An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans.  If only someone would translate it.

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imageI have every intention of taking part in the 1947 Club, only I’m not able to do so in real time; i.e in the week hosts Kaggsy and Simon have put aside for it.  What I can do, however, is recommend a couple of brilliant reads for anyone who is looking for something exceptional to read this week.  Both authors were added to my completist reading list on the basis of their 1947 efforts. Links are to my reviews.

1) Hans Fallada – Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

2) Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves of Solitude

I have also reviewed Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (but I didn’t like it much).

The book originally published in 1947 that I intend reading before the end of the year is forthcoming from Pushkin Press and will be published on 3.11.2016.   In a 2002 poll, members of the Society for Dutch Literature ranked The Evenings first among works since 1900 in the Dutch canon.  Once upon a time I might have read it in the original language, but I can’t do that anymore.  I’ll just have to wait patiently for this little beauty.  (I might even review it during German Literature Month in November.  Ssssssshhhh – don’t tell Caroline.)

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… while I attend to other priorities.  Needs must.


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In just a few hours, I’ll be home from home, in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square once more for the biggest and best public book festival in the world.  I’ll be spending 8 out of the next 10 days there, bankrupting myself in the bookshop listening to the authors of the books I’ve been enjoying over the last month or so.


10 books for the first 10 days

I intend to unveil all ten (and possibly a few more) as the days pass, though blogging time will be limited.  My twitter account, @lizzysiddal, will be extremely active.  Follow along especially if you want to keep in touch with the action as it happens! Better still, follow the hashtag #edbookfest, because that’s where ALL the action is.  I can’t wait to being right in the midst of it!

Let the festival begin!

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I’ll start the third Women in Translation month in usual fashion, listing the books read and reviewed in the past 12 months, but I’ll make no apology for the lack of linguistic diversity.  I’m concentrating on the German Lit TBR this year (actually, probably for ever and a day looking at the mountainous height of it.)

17 read, with 13 reviewed as per the hyperlinks.  Not a bad effort at all.  Titles of my favourite 5 are in bold.

Dark Heart of the Night – Leonora Miano
Translated from French by Tasmin Black

The Vegetarian – Han Kang
Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

They Divided the Sky – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Louise von Flotow

August – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

This Brave Balance – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

The Secret of the Water Knight – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

Erebos – Ursula Poznanski
Translated from German by Judith Pattinson

Fly Away, Pigeon – Melinda Nadj Abonji
Translated from German by Tess Lewis

The Weight of Things – Marianne Fritz
Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Who is Martha? – Marjana Gaponenko
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

I called him Necktie – Milena Michiko Flasar
Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything – Daniela Krien
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Five – Ursula P Archer (Fantastic! – Review to follow)
Translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle

The Happy City – Elvira Navarro
Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

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