30.12.14

2014: Around the Year in Twenty Books

My Varsovian Reading Corner. I won't fool you: I often  fall asleep on that armchair.

One year, one country, one home, one job, and some reviews later, here we are with the list of the best twenty books I read this year.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to write something on all of them on these columns: apologies. What strikes me the most is that I missed the best two books of my year out. Shame on me, lazybones!

Just like it happened on last year, I've therefore selected a pretty good review which I read online to match each of the titles - save one - that I forgot to rate and discuss down here.

01. Israel Joshua Singer - The Family Carnovski
Rise and fall of a Jewish family turned secularist through three generations and caught between two world wars superinflation, antisemitism. From Poland to Germany and to the US. Excellent stuff.  

02. Giorgy Faludy - My Happy Days in Hell
The picaresque and cosmpolitan adventures of a poet (and womanizer) in and out his native Hungary first to escape the invading Nazis and then torturing Commies. Better than a spy story. And real.

03. Victor Sebestyen - Twelve Days*
A fantastic, detailed and objective account of the 1956 Hungarian revolution/uprising written by a historian with Magyar roots. The perfect travel companion if you plan to visit stunning Budapest.

04. Witold Szabłowski - The Assassin from Apricot City
Excellent and up-to-date reportings from Turkey. A dozen dispatches either from famous or hidden corners of a dynamic but troubled country torn between East and West, religion and secularism.

05. Chil Rajchman - Treblinka
Not another book on Holocaust, you might say. And you would be wrong. For the recently discovered account of this survivor of the worst Nazi extermination camp is a testimony to courage like no other.

06. Jacek Hugo-Bader - White Fever
All aboard a crappy but sturdy Soviet jeep for a mesmerising tour through contemporary Russia and former USSR. The author will take you to hippie hangouts, Siberian Messiahs and  Geiger counters.

07. Kader Abdolah - The House of the Mosque
A richly-textured and exquisite family saga with turbulent Iran in the background. The transition from the elitist Shah to the grim Khomeini won't be smooth for those in charge of a rural beautiful mosque.

08. Stefan Zweig - The World of Yesterday
The director of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' claimed that his movie was inspired by this memoir. Don't believe him. And yet, this book is a gem and a wonderful guide through a bygone old Europe.

09. Boleslaw Prus - The Doll
Generations of Polish students hate this compulsory school reading. Don't be biased towards it. Sure, you have to be patient, but you'll be rewarded. Reads like Tolstoy or Chekhov stranded in Warsaw. 

10. Halik Kochanski - The Eagle Unbowed
The long and winding history of what Poles did during WWII. For Polonists or Polonophiles only? Not quite. Ms Kochanski draws an interesting picture of a country that paid a dear price to victory.

11. Isaac Bashevis Singer - Love and Exile
Or how a future Nobel Prize in Literature struggled to focus on his work and was often seduced by women during his youth in Poland. A very honest and humble memoir from a masterful storyteller.

12. Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex
You will either love or hate this bestseller of a few years ago. I liked it very much and found its author's writing style never annoying and always engaging. A lively introduction to LGBT issues. 

13. Isaac Babel - Tales of Odessa
Excellent short stories from the once multicultural hotspot of Odessa, Crimea. Mr Babel - who died far too young - had a knack for describing the vices and virtues of local gangsters and conmen.   

14. Stefan Grabinski - The Dark Domain
Spooky short stories from one century ago. The author is called the 'Polish Poe', but is much more modern and daring than Edgar Allan. These tales flirt with science, early technology and psychology. 

15. Marek Hłasko - The Eighth Day of the Week
Depressing, nihilist, if you like. And yet, this book takes a brilliant snapshot of many a disillusioned Varsovian in the 1950s. The author, a maudit, knew the blues he wrote about in this striking novella.

16. George Grossmith - The Diary of a Nobody
And now for something completely different, some pitch perfect bits of British humour old style. This fake diary, originally published in instalments, joins the same jolly club of Wodehouse and Jerome

17. Anna Swir - Talking to My Body
Poetry anyone? True, verses might not be your cup of tea (they aren't mine too), but this Polish author knew her business. Her brief, no-nonsense poems aren't any worse than Szymborska's ones.

18. Orlando Figes - Crimea
All that you need to know on the curr former Crimean War. The one fought in 1853-1856, I mean.  Just a remote bloodshed? Perhaps, but something worth to read on given the news from Sevastopol.

19. George Saunders - Tenth of December
The 2013 sensation on many a 'books of the year' list. Not bad, not bad at all. Ok, perhaps not consistently good, but at least half of the short stories here are first class material. And it shows.  

20. Ben Lerner - Leaving the Atocha Station
Was going to forget this one as I read it in February. But come to think of it, it was good. Mr Lerner wrote an interesting and original novel on the ramblings of a young American poet in Madrid.

*Another book by Mr Sebestyen that I read this year, 'Revolution 1989', would have made it into my top 20, but I left it out on purpose. I didn't want to have two works written by the same author in the list. Sorry. Luckily, Kinga wrote a great review of the aforementioned book. 

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