Mark's Favorite Books of the Year

Article by mark

Look, I’ll be honest: this year’s top ten list is very straightforward. There is no overarching theme. There are no big surprises. This is simply ten of my favorite books that I’ve read this year, some old, some new. Another ten books were vying for eleventh place. Another three or four would’ve made my top ten except they aren’t published until next year. One of my favorites is currently available only in the UK. In any event, these are ten books that moved me, touched me, and stayed with me.

The Revolutionaries Try Again Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566894463
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Coffee House Press - September 6th, 2016


There’s a lot to be said for difficult and challenging books. This remarkable debut is smart, literary, and brings to mind such luminaries as Garcia Marquez and Antonio Lobo Antunes, which is no small feat. THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN takes place in both Ecuador and San Francisco, played out against the lost decade of Ecuador's austerity and the stymied idealism of three childhood friends—an expat, a bureaucrat, and a playwright—who are as sure about the evils of dictatorship as they are unsure of everything else. You won’t find a better novel this year about friendship, lost idealism and the trials of getting “political.”

Against Nature: The Notebooks Cover Image
By Tomas Espedal, James Anderson (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780857422354
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Seagull Books - May 15th, 2015


If you’ve ever had your heart broken nothing has to be said, it’s understood. A psychic anguish that seemingly has no end. The earth seems to slow, every joke is at your expense; it’s like the flu of your emotions. Well, Norwegian author, Tomas Espedal, wants you to know that he’s had his heart broken too. Toward the end of his novel AGAINST NATURE a much younger girlfriend has left the home they shared and moved to Oslo. The protagonist (ostensibly Espedal himself) walks the house, unshaven and often drunk, reminiscing, brooding, attempting to write, seeing in each empty room the emptiness of his own existence. It is one of the closest examinations of a broken heart I’ve ever read, equal parts painful and beautiful. But AGAINST NATURE is also a about writing and the urge to write and how this urge follows a person through their existence. Like fellow Norwegian contemporary Karl Knausgård, Espedal’s novel blurs the line between memoir and fiction, between narrative and navel gazing. In style, however, there couldn’t be more of a difference; Espedal eschews the pages upon pages of exposition and daily minutiae that Knausgaard has mastered; Espedal has a minimalist approach that often borders on poetry. Thus, AGAINST NATURE is a very lyrical and reflective book, even if the themes are brooding and dark.

Night Prayers Cover Image
By Santiago Gamboa, Howard Curtis (Translated by)
ISBN: 9781609453114
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Europa Editions - March 1st, 2016


I loved Gamboa’s first book in English, NECROPOLIS, and Gamboa’s second book, NIGHT PRAYERS, is a triumph as well. The story is told from two perspectives: a young Colombian philosophy student accused of drug trafficking in Bangkok, and his lawyer, another Columbian living in New Delhi. The chapters alternate between both perspectives, and the texture of the story is rich and rewarding. From the trials of growing up in Columbia with its turbulent politics, to the sweaty streets of Thailand, NIGHT PRAYERS is awash with scenes that are palpable. NIGHT PRAYERS is deft and literary but also readable. The different plot strands are a pleasure to navigate, and the major locations—Bogota, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Bangkok—give the reader a sense of dislocation, much like the characters. Sibling devotion, the world of high-end escorts, and Colombian politics intertwine seamlessly. Brilliantly translated, NIGHT PRAYERS is an incredible reading experience with a pounding heart and wisdom to boot.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador Cover Image
By Horacio Castellanos Moya, Lee Klein (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780811225397
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: New Directions - July 26th, 2016


What do you say about a book by a writer you love who is imitating a writer you love (albeit the imitation itself achieves something wholly new)? This slim book, a stylistic tip-of-the-hat to Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, earned Horacio Castellanos Moya death threats in his home of El Salvador (as well as a book Moya has been trying to live down ever since). It is a bitter, angry, diatribe that happens to be hilarious; a man fuming to a friend at a bar in El Salvador about, well, everything. He’s returned home after decades to bury his mother and settle the estate with his brother and you can almost feel the protagonist’s skin burning from the discomfort of being back home, a country he calls vomitous. The biting eye of the protagonist lands on every social and political aspect of El Salvadorian culture, from its food to its government, and through this poetic vitriol we find the brilliance (and grace) of a first-rate author giving his regards to another first-rate author. Through imitation, a hybrid gem of fiction is born. A side note: the acrobatics of translator Lee Klein are worth the price of admission.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312425845
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Picador USA - April 18th, 2006


There is no way this book won’t leave its fingerprint on the reader. Haunting and visceral, VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL is a major reason why Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize. An oral history, Alexievich, interviewed countless people who’d survived and witnessed the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. From farmers to ex-military to scientists and professors, what Alexievich weaves is a tapestry of the Russian soul. There is disillusionment in one’s government as well as the attempt to make sense of something nonsensical. One of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read. Bring tissues.

Sweet Days of Discipline: Novel Cover Image
By Fleur Jaeggy, Tim Parks (Translated by)
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780811212359
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: New Directions - May 17th, 1993


This is why social media can be wonderful. Had I not seen another bookseller praising the strength of Fleur Jaeggy’s small novel, I would’ve never read it (or heard of it). This diamond of a novella is the simple story of a young girl looking back at her time at a Swiss boarding school. Yet Jaeggy’s writing, incisive and insightful, explores the relationships we have in our formative years and the influence they have for rest of our lives. I’m happy that New Directions is publishing both a book of essays and short stories by Jaeggy next year.

Staff Pick Badge
A Whole Life: A Novel Cover Image
By Robert Seethaler, Charlotte Collins (Translated by)
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780374289867
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - September 13th, 2016


Simple. Unadorned. The title says it all. A WHOLE LIFE by Austrian author Robert Seethaler, tells the entire life of Andreas Egger, an unremarkable man living in a remarkable century. In its brief 150 pages, the reader experiences the simple but eventful life of Eggers, from a young mountain climber to a widower to a prisoner of war in World War II. Fans of STONER and TRAIN DREAMS will find much to love in this elegant and universal story, as a man sees the world around him transform. A book of astounding restraint and quiet beauty, A WHOLE LIFE is illuminating, reminding all of us of the fleeting time we’re given on this planet. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and translated beautifully by Charlotte Collins, A WHOLE LIFE is brilliant.

To the Lighthouse Cover Image
ISBN: 9780156907392
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Mariner Books - December 27th, 1989


No, I had never read Virginia Woolf until this year. I’ll take some of the blame, but I partly blame the professors I had in college. How did I graduate with a degree in English and NEVER read her? Anyway, this brief, utterly transformative novel made me want to take two years off from all other books and read only Virginia Woolf. The book is deeply philosophical, all interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness. It focuses on the Ramsay family at their summer home, returning in the second and third parts to the family ten years later. A masterpiece on family, human relationships and the passage of time.

Ema the Captive Cover Image
By César Aira, Chris Andrews (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780811219105
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: New Directions - December 6th, 2016


The highly imaginative (and equally prolific) Cesar Aira writes some of the strangest and most illuminating novels around. EMA THE CAPTIVE was only the second of his seventy-plus novels to be published in Spanish and, now in English, it’s easily my favorite. Picture a South American Western. Picture the Pampas of Argentina during the 1700’s. Picture a brave and stoic woman of mixed heritage (the novel’s namesake). There is majesty in this novel. There is history. There are scenes and visions of fantastic imagination. Ema is a woman who learns to survive on not just her beauty but her wits. A gorgeous book that reads like a history lesson from an invented past. Anyone who wants to read for escape but not feel cheated, this gem is a perfect choice.

Thus Bad Begins: A novel Cover Image
By Javier Marias, Margaret Jull Costa (Translated by)
ISBN: 9781101946084
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Knopf - November 1st, 2016


Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Javier Marias. He’s probably my favorite living writer. His works are smart, sexy and philosophical. He’s an expert at creating a sense of danger and letting it hover over what can be a slow-moving story, literally for hundred of pages. Imagine if Proust or Henry James wrote a James Bond, plot-driven novel. This novel takes place in Madrid in the 80s and hits upon some of Marias’ favorite themes: secrets, betrayal and the responsibility of knowing too much. An unhappy marriage is seen through the eyes of a young man during the La Movida, the period just after Franco’s death when Spain was having a renewed period of freedom and hedonism. Secrets are discovered and the young man must decide what to do with the knowledge. There is eavesdropping, men with eyepatches, and dozens of passages you want to read over and over just to savor the language as well as the lucid translation by Margaret Jull Costa. THUS BAD BEGINS is an amazing novel, on par, I think, with some of Marias’ best.

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