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Ten Books I Recommend

A few friends have asked me for book recommendations. I can strongly recommend these books from last year’s reading. I enjoyed them a lot. I also included my own book, Pink Flamingos, which I finished translating last summer. Happy reading!

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami: a fascinating story of the Spanish conquest of America (landing in what is now St. Petersburg, Florida) by a Morrocan slave, whose own story is fascinating. The book shows how he related to the native peoples and what happened for eight years after their expedition basically failed and thereafter when they came upon the lavish Spanish conquerors in Aztec capital, Teonochtitlan (Mexico City).

Summer in Baden-Baden, Leonid Tsypkin: a wonderful book with a double story about Tsypkin himself traveling in Russia (about 1950) and a fictional Dostoevsky and his wife traveling to Baden Baden, Germany in the 1860s and then dealing with his gambling obsession by writing his book The Gambler. A very warm book, well-written and stylistically unique work.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer: I love short stories but I rarely read a book of them by an author. ZZ Packer’s fine collection is definitely worth reading. Stories are mostly about young black women, beautifully written, ZZ captures their experiences, lives, and ways of being and speaking without romanticism. When you read these stories about people dealing with religion, coming out, just fitting into society, family dynamics, you enter moments of these lives without judgements. Very entertaining and well written, ZZ is witty and a real artist with her writing.

Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman: possibly the best novel! At least I think it is the greatest Russian novel! It encompasses many layers of society in Russia during the end of World War II, excellently and vividly portrayed, with criticism and compassion, with great detail. The Battle of Stalingrad military as individuals, the scientific community, people in camps, including Jewish concentration camps, young people at the front, even Stalin. Just an amazing array of characters and situations unique to Russian life at the time, a terrible time. Written in 1960, it was published in the West in 1974 and was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. Grossman said he was not sent to the gulag but his book was: “I am physically free, but my book, to which I have given my life, remains in jail. Free my book.”

The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: a wonderful, funny, adventurous novel about a former 70s activist (reminiscent of the Black Panthers), Johny Ribkins, who tries to find the money he gathered “illegally” and buried in different places. Inspired by the W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of “the talented tenth.” Anyone would find this novel interesting with its cast of characters and moments of supernaturalism and great dialogue. For me it was a great lesson in dialogue driving the plot. A great read.

HHhH by Laurent Binet: a real surprise. Normally I shy away from Holocaust books because they are just so painful. This was written with such a wonderful sense of humor and compassion at the same time, it is hard to describe. Weaved in with the author/narrator’s account of the research and writing of the book, it depicts the assassination of Hitler’s right hand man, Reinhard Heydrich in Prague after he led the occupation of Czechoslovakia in World War II. There is so much history in this book too, also made into a film—The Man with the Iron Heart. French author Binet won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010 for this, his first novel.

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis: what an amazing lesbian novel this is. Set in Argentina in the tango world, I don’t want to give anything away. It is about an immigrant girl from Italy who makes her way to Buenos Aires in 1913 and comes into her own as a tango violinist and other things. Carolina is an excellent writer and takes us through a flowing and fascinating narrative and plot. Currently a writing professor at San Francisco State and living in Oakland with her wife and two children, she is from Uruguay. Her approach to gender and sexual orientation is so full of insights. Her sense of humor and good writing makes this topic so accessible and fresh. A wonderful read.

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni: this first words that come to me about this book are haunting, quirky, and lovely. A book I sometimes felt I was devouring and wanted more of. The Farrallon Islands, an animal preserve, the wild weather, a bunch of biologists (odd ones)—once you get there, which is very hard, you can’t leave easily. Miranda, the main character is a loner and she is there to photograph. Her life is gradually revealed. But the real power of this book is the description of nature and the pull for more. It is more than just nature, it is about these humans’ relation with nature and ultimately what we call violence, and there is human violence too. The emotion and the prose are beautiful.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: this one I listened to on Audible. Hearing Trevor read his own book was a total delight. Not only is he a great speaker as anyone knows from his TV appearances, but the touching and amazing moments of his life growing up in South Africa at the edge of apartheid just get to the core of being black in a racist world. It is funny and charming and also a tear-jerker. Definitely worth reading or listening to.

I just have to mention another book here that I forgot I had listened to—Just Above My Head by James Baldwin. It was read by Kevin Kenerly, also a great performance. Baldwin’s novel is about 30 years in the lives of friends and family during the times of the rise of the Civil Rights movement and covers a lot of issues and emotions. I’m a big fan of Baldwin and this is a great read, the book , I mean.

Pink Flamingos by Sonja Franeta. Finally I want to mention the book I finished translating and reading pretty deeply by way of translating. My book Розовые Фламинго: 10 Сибирских интервиью in Russian was actually published in 2004 and the result of interviews I had done in 1992 through 1995 in post-perestroika Russia and the work of my friends in the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Archive who transcribed and edited the book for publication. So the words are those of the interviewees, many of whom spoke of their sexuality for the first time and we all put the book together. It was sold out the first year in Russia. The gay community had never had a book like this. I translated it so English readers could read it.

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