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  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 decisions taken by the characters were not altogether believable.
Satantango  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  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  (also the film by Christopher Nolan), The Islanders  and The Separation . 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  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  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 importantly, 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  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 watched some years back.
How did you start your reading year of 2020? What new and exciting books have you discovered?