Literary Escapades. Reading Highlights 2020

The year 2020 has come and gone. I’d venture to describe it as eventful to say the least – seeing as there have been many pivotal changes in my life and to this blog as well.

The ending year was certainly the most productive reading year of my life, spanning a total of 81 books. As follows, I’ve selected the very best, most memorable reading experiences. Feel free to add your opinions in regards to my choices and your own highlights.

There is no intent of ranking the books below, as all of them have their worth and value and a rightful place in these highlights. All links lead to longer reviews within this blog.

Michel Houellebecq: „Serotonin“

There are no novels by Houellebecq that are published without a small scandal. For one, the amount of explicit sex scenes and arguable misogyny are reason enough to cause a frenzy. Hoewever, the sharp theories on sociocultural changes and ecopolitical trends in his novels are far more fascinating.

Houellebec’s novels can partially be described as dystopan, and many of his theories are quite radical. But „Serotonin“ is simultaneously a heartfelt story about an aging man who loses a grip on his perspective and heavily questions his existence.

This is one of the more user-friendly books by Houellebecq – and still by no means has any less wit and teeth than his other novels.

Joachim B. Schmidt: Kalmann

„Kalmann“ is an extraordinary story about murder, Iceland and humanity.

The protagonist, self-proclaimed sheriff of Raufarhöfn Kalmann is somewhat a special kind of character – an excellent shark hunter and functioning human… but with strong autistic tendencies.

Schmidt’s novel looks to be a crime story at first, but reveals itself to be more of a psychological thriller.

There are plenty of interesting thoughts about the human mind and character in this book, Kalmann is for sure one of the most interesting protagonists I have met this year. But Schmidt also criticises Iceland’s economical landscape by example of mobbing with fishing quotas – whilst capturing the peace and quiet that constitute Iceland’s natural beauty. A fascinating mix!

„Kalmann“ is a psychologically intricate, suspenseful and very special novel.

Rebecca Makkai: The Great Believers

Rebecca Makkais third novel is first and foremost emotionally intense. It meets you like a wall of feelings and hurts to finish reading. The seemingly big plot catastrophy is not the biggest catastrophy at all, you see.

However, the story is more than worth the time and taking the damage, since it covers very important aspects of cultural and social history from the 1980s and 90s.

The main plot does revolve around a deadly, horrible pandemic, but has next to nothing to do with the year 2020.

Apart from the very interesting characters, Makkai needs to be praised for how she weaves her composition together. The two intertwined plots and their subplots all have a very distinct place in the whole story.

Most of all, The Great Believers is a beautiful story about love, art, and loss – and very much worth reading.

Polly Clark: „Tiger“

“Tiger” is a story about the mighty titular animal, its origins, the nature of its habitat, and the dangers one encounters when entering it.

The novel is also about thehumans who play a role in a certain tigresses life and how their encounters effect each other respectively.

Furthermore, “Tiger” does a wonderful job illustrating the shortcomings and foolishness of those humans, who think they can overthrow the majestical animal in the wild.

Consisting of four connected stories, Clark has beautifully described the wildest corners of nature, the instincts of a mysterious animal, and the connections a predator and a human can have to each other.

„Tiger“ is a beautiful novel about the dangers of the wild and the secrets of human hearts.

Don DeLillo: „The Silence

Rather to be categorized as a short story as a novel, „The Silence“ encapsules a moment in time, a day in a life, a state of mind. There is no real plot, development or succession of events.

Two scenes are brought to the reader: a married couple returning from a holiday, experiencing turbulences and a plane crash. Another couple watching the Super Bowl at home with a young guest and experiencing a complete blackout.

While there is a dialogue between the parties, no real communication, introspection or interaction takes place. Every one of the characters is wholly dissociated from reality.

Although potentially fatal threats are approaching fast, the characters are oblivious to them. The fact that DeLillo chooses to omit any unnecessary details helps him play on the individual fears of a reader. Fear of the unknown is a powerful instrument, and the author knows this well.

While I would not call this short piece of literature a novel, I would certainly strongly recommend „The Silence“.

Jurica Pavicic: „Blood and Water“

This highly complex book is a cultiral history of Croatia and a criminal novel at the same time. Pavicic educates his readers about political chances in the 1990s and 2000s, describes generational conflicts over ownership of land and shines a light on economical problems in the country, leading up to those conflicts.

Simultaneously, a grieving family is dedicating their lives to finding their missing daughter and sister who might have been brutally murdered.

The new wave of tourism in Croatia, the burgeoning capitalism, political chances and familial clashes are all described by looking at different families, the relationships between mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – and the changing societal norms that impact those relationships.

The novel is very informative, highly suspenseful and extremely interesting to follow.

Mario Vargas Llosa: „The Bad Girl“

Vargas Llosa is to Peru what Marquez is for Colombia, and although he is lesser known in Europe by comparison to the former, Llosa is one of the most significant Latin American writers of our time.

The protagonist Ricardo Somorcucio has to be one of the most stupid and self-sacrificing male leads I have ever come across, but to watch him throw himself into a ring of fire for a girl he hopes to tie to him is a heartbreaking emotional rollercoaster worth getting onto. 

In the end, the fact of the matter is that realistically most great love stories do not end happily and are only made great by the magnification of their most intense moments.

Beyond that, the novel is a bag filled with historical tidbits on Peruvian and European history and cultural movements in the 20th century.

Llosa’s raw and fearless caption of the human condition is an absolute must-read. It will keep you on your toes until the very end.

Hubert Selby Jr.: „The Demon“

Selby is a fascinating person and an exceptional writer. Having dealth with drug addiction, poor health, poverty and any and every kind of human being, he has a unique way of describing the finest details of the lives that belong to drunks, prostitutes, thieves, workmen and common people.

Selby extracts the not-so-common, the darker aspects of their minds, and puts those rather unnerving thoughts and inner demons into very simple words. His way of showing someone going mad, someone’s situation worsening to the very brink of their human existence is a – horrifying, but – magical experience.

While Requiem is the more known of the two, The Demon is a true highlight: the novel describes a regular man’s growing appetite for self-destruction, parallelled with his guilt and remorse, and their daily and hourly struggle for the upper hand and control. The way Harry White loses control over his family, his home and his life is one of the most painful and accurately written stories I have read in my entire life.

For those of you who are not afraid to look into such corners of the human mind, The Demon is certainly worth a read.

Amélie Nothomb: „Antechrista“ and „The Stranger Next Door

2020-03-25 Nothomb Antechrista

As already promised in March, Nothomb has made it into my yearly highlights with not one but two books. Her short novel “Antichrista” is the story of a young, charming girl who in the beginning seems to long for friendship and love, but turns out to be an evil sociopath.

For some of the characters, this realization arrives much too late, unfortunately.

The book is too short to reveal too many details, but the female rivalry, the gloomy air of the story combined with Nothomb’s dark sense of humor and, of course, the high suspense level of the entire story make it an excellent read.

It is a speciality of Nothomb to include unexpected twists and turns from the familiar into the macabre, from the pathological into the grotesque, and with this story, she has excelled once more.

Along with The Stranger Next Door (Les Catilinaires), Antichrista is definitely one of my favourite reads by Nothomb so far.

Nothomb’s reflexions on the anatomy of human loneliness and age collide with the truth of the secret hatred her characters have for one another – and  for themselves.

The Stranger Next Door is a gripping tale of two individuals whose only wish is to spend the remainder of their existences entwined and isolated, and their collision with two individuals whose existence is nothing but a neverending terror.

The way in which she reveals every character’s true colors and the unexpected steps toward the ghastly climax of the novel are quite disturbing – but they are also so much more.

The ways in which Nothomb describes certain scenes in this novel are absolutely horrific, grotesque, macabre – and at the same time highly entertaining.

Fans of Dürrenmatt would adore this, but really anyone who isn’t afraid of a little twist in their humor can be prepared for a unique reading experience.

H. G. Wells: „The War of the Worlds“

© dtv

British author H. G. Wells first published his science fiction novel The War of the Worlds in 1897 in Pearson’s Magazine, describing a wealth of scientifically advanced possibilities and stunning notions of technological progress.

At the time, his work could easily have been considered the ramblings of a mad man. From a contemporary perspective, however, one would rather characterize the author as a genius and the novel as a masterpiece.

The unnamed protagonist describes his surroundings and experiences in a businesslike manner throughout the progression of events, all the while fleeing from a Martian invasion and dreading a most painful death. If kafkaesque were a term in Wells’ time, it would fit the descriptory bill.

To sum up this short novel stacked with subject matter: H. G. Wells was an author and a scholar who surpassed regular standards in almost every means.

Nino Haratischwili: „The Cat and the General

This journey takes the reader into the historical and existential of past of two distinct individuals: the plot follows a young woman from Georgia and a man from Chechnya. As chance would have it, they meet in Berlin, Germany and their familial histories are laid bare against each other.

Haratischwili autopsies the shadows their respective pasts throw on their present and future lives, and they must both confront their demons to keep going.

In the German original, this novel exceeds 700 pages, and the author fills all of them successfully. One might think of the great classics such as Dostojewski to compare with this wonderful masterpiece.

The plot is nothing for weak nerves: Both the Cat and the General must pay dues for their past sins, and death is an option at many points of the plot. However, the cultural heritage of their respective homelands and the weight of that heritage play a key part in those developments. In that sense, the amount of psychological and informative layers is even more impressive than the amount of assassins and deaths inside the plot.

In regards to what concepts like home, heritage or past really mean to an individual, Haratischwilis novel surpasses its first, second and third generation of characters and remains timeless. Therein lies this great novel’s true value.

And now I’m excited to read about your best (or worst) reads from 2020! Feel free to share some links to give me new recommendations for 2021.

I’d also love to know if you if you’ve added some of my picks to your own highlights – or if you didn’t like them at all. Please sound off in the comments down below!

Here’s to a happy New Year and many great reads to come.

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