Since the birth of my daughter two years ago, my reading time has diminished dramatically. I had to become very selective in what I read, which is probably a good thing, considering the shrinking space in my house because of rising book towers. There were a number of books that brought me immense joy and pleasure: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots, Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, trans. by William Weaver, Seth Greenland’s The Hazards of Good Fortune, C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Ken Grimwood’s Replay. Below are the three which I found myself reading and re-reading, thinking about and wishing they never ended.
Olga Tokarczuk Księgi Jakubowe (Engl. The Books of Jacob; translated by Jennifer Croft)
Olga Tokarczuk’s Księgi Jakubowe (Engl. The Books of Jacob) was the most impressive novel I have read not only this year but in the last few years. It is not out in the English translation until 2020, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, but I have promised myself I will be reading it in the English translation as soon as it is published. The Books of Jacob will be published by a wonderful small publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions, which has released Tokarczuk’s Flights, also in Jennifer Croft’s translation. Flights was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year.
Set in 18th-century Poland, the story follows the life of a self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah, Jakub Frank, who will create a new religion, Frankism, in opposition to Judaism. Tokarczuk creates an impressive world full of minute detail, so much so you can almost smell and touch the world she is describing. I loved the array of unforgettable characters; big or small they all receive the author’s full attention and I felt I was right there with them. The novel is as much about the people whose lives are altered or affected because of Jakub Frank, as it is about finding the answers to the questions about the meaning of life.
Then there’s another aspect to this novel – as a book it is as impressive as its content and I do hope the Fitzcarraldo Editions preserves its character. At over 900 pages long it is a majestic volume– a “doorstopper” as the British literary critics like to describe anything longer than 400 pages – yet the story, built around short chapters, runs so fast I hardly felt overwhelmed by its volume. The numbering of each page starts from the end, which is a tribute to the books written in Hebrew. The word at the end of the page is repeated and then carried over to the next page which helps the reader remember what was on the previous page. Then there are a number of very useful illustrations and maps.
In 2015, Księgi Jakubowe was awarded the NIKE Award, the most prestigious literary award in Poland. It was also awarded the NIKE Audience Award, awarded by the readers, which is a rare event in itself. Although not available in English until 2020, I cannot stop myself telling all my friends about this book. It is a crazy adventure, beautiful and thought-provoking, a beast of a book that demands the reader’s undivided attention, and in the end it is all worth it.
Being A Woman Surgeon: Sixty Women Share Their Stories, edited by Preeti R John
The last few years I’ve been researching and collecting books on the history of surgery. Some of the most impressive ones are Small: Life and Death on the Front Lines of Pediatric Surgery by Catherine Musemeche and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. But it was this collection of interviews with women surgeons across a whole spectrum of the surgical field that is truly impressive. I found these interviews incredibly inspirational, despite the fact I have no medical degree nor have anything remotely to do with surgery in my everyday life. Each contributor reminisces on her medical life, what made them choose this very masculine field, and the place of the family in their lives. Despite the obvious bias many of the women surgeons suffered, simply because they are women, they persevered. The book also contains poems by the contributors and quotes by other women that inspired the surgeons.
Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of Time
I grew up reading science fiction thanks to my dad who regularly fed me the titles I should read or science fiction films to watch: I am truly grateful to my dad for this gift. Science Fiction as a genre has changed throughout the last few decades. SF and fantasy authors often opt for writing series of books and stand-alone big novels are much harder to find. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, published in 2016, has been my discovery this past year. This is an epic story of two intelligent species, humans in search of a new home to escape the dying Earth, and alien life uplifted by a nanovirus delivered by humans mistakenly to the wrong life form. It is smart and exciting story with a great deal of generosity to both civilizations. I was conflicted whether I should be rooting for the humans or the aliens, it is that good. Few authors have imagined alien worlds so convincingly and Tchaikovsky is one of them.