BTBA Gift Guide [BTBA 2018]
This post was compiled by BTBA judge P.T. Smith.
From now until the announcement of the long list, we’ll be running one post a week from a BTBA judge, cycling through the nine of us. To launch those posts, just in time for the holidays (just in time, yes), here’s a gift guide. These are books that have stood out to each of us, whether for personal reasons or in ways that make them just right for certain types of people and readers. We’ve also indulged ourselves, including a book that’s not eligible for the award, but still so good that some people should be buying or receiving a copy this year.
Caitlin Luce Baker
It was something about wanting to scatter your ashes; something about wanting to scatter you.
August is a meditation of what it means to go on living while forever mourning the death of your best friend. Emilia journeys back to rural Patagonia to scatter the ashes of her best friend who committed suicide and finds herself turning into the person she was five years ago at nineteen.
Pair with several bottles of cheap red wine, weed, Six Feet Under, and a mix CD featuring The Counting Crows, The Police, Bob Marley, and Nirvana.
A Simple Story is an intense look at the high stakes world of the men who dance the malambo.
This was one of my favorite reading experiences of the year. I recommend reading while watching the malambo dancers on YouTube.
Pair with obsession, drama, sweat, Fernet con Coca and Yerba Maté.
Radiant Terminus is set in a desolate landscape after the fall of the second Soviet Union.
It was one of the most disturbing books that I read this year. I read it late at night and welcomed Volodine’s words into my nightmares.
Pair with Swans, Killing Joke, This Mortal Coil, Shostakovich, a survival kit, and damn good whiskey.
Gabe Habash’s stellar debut takes the reader on a road trip through college wrestler Stephen Florida’s senior year of college. We are in Stephen’s head as he navigates sex, love, and his raw desire to win. This is a wild headbanger of a novel.
Pair with Led Zeppelin, Cream, Van Halen, sweat, obsession, a full tank of gas, and cheap beer.
Kurniawan made a big splash last year with his sprawling historical epic, Beauty is a Wound. This is shorter and punchier but just as good: a startling combination of violence, humor, and tenderness, Kurniawan’s gangster road trip novel about the trials and tribulations of a young man whose “little bird” won’t get erect is the perfect gift for the friend who loves movies by Tarantino or Martin McDonagh.
A gorgeous novella from this master of Mitteleuropa. The story of an aging artist who is “rediscovered” by a group of eager young poets, it’s a melancholic but humor-tinged exploration of art, aging, and literary celebrity. Perfect for the friend who enjoys a quiet afternoon or evening with a good book.
In this mesmerizing work, Garreta sets herself a task of remembering, each day, a woman she has desired, or who has desired her. These formal constraints fade into the background amidst the sensuous quality of the memories; their vivid intensity. A spellbinding reflection on memory, list, and literature. Get it for someone sexy.
A rollicking, deadpan, utterly hilarious story about a man who is caught between his mother, his lover, his fiancée, and his aunt. So funny, and so ridiculous, and so wonderful. Anyone who enjoys Flann O’Brien, or Beckett’s novels, will love it.
When a screenwriter and his family rent an isolated villa in the mountains strange things being to happen. The writer hopes the forced solitude, and stunning views of glaciers, will help him complete a long overdue screenplay. But there’s something wrong with the house. Within its walls time and space bleed through dimensional boundaries and overlap. And as the laws of physics collapse around him, the writer slowly loses his grip on reality. Told through a series of journal entries, You Should Have Left is a classic horror novel in the style of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. I do not recommend reading it in an empty house at night. Kehlmann understands too well the power things left unsaid have over the imagination.
What will a father do to save his son? And what will a son do to avenge his father? Matteo and Giuliana De Nittis’ son, Pippo, is hit by a random bullet in the streets of Naples and dies in his father’s arms. One senseless act of violence will cost not only Pippo his life, but his parents their marriage. Matteo takes to drinking in a dive bar with a group of outcasts. The bar’s big-hearted owner, a disgraced professor, a priest on the edge of excommunication, and a transvestite prostitute form an unlikely family. They share their stories, finding and giving comfort. And with them Matteo finally finds a kind of peace. Until, one night, the professor reveals that he has discovered an entrance into the underworld and a daring rescue plan is formed.
Gaudé’s novel explores love, loss, and families—the ones we make and the ones we find—grounding Matteo and Pippo’s tale in a harsh reality devoid of sentimentality, yet still beautiful in its humanity.
Both an homage to the nineteenth-century adventure novel and an experimental writing exercise, de Roblès’ plot (unapologetically madcap) and characters (decidedly eccentric) are entirely unlike anything I’ve ever read. The narrative occurs in two, seemingly parallel, universes. The first is set in present-day France and revolves around a cigar turned e-reader factory managed by Wang-li Wong, a revolting man who spies on, sexually harasses and assaults his female employees. Until, one day, the tables begin to turn. The second storyline is an overtly fabulous tale that bears the hallmarks—names, places, plot devices—of multiple works of classic 19th-century novels. Readers will easily recognize the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Our delightful group of protagonists travel across the globe on a fantastical adventure to catch a thief.
The two plot lines repeatedly intersect and diverge until the long, meta-fictional game Robles’ is so masterfully playing finally reveals itself. Funny and playful, for the right reader this is a book that delivers huge payoffs again and again.
NDiaye took my breath away last year with her masterful novel, Ladivine. But I think that this, her most recent novel in translation, is even better. My Heart Hemmed In is extraordinary: an original and suspenseful novel that exposes all that is monstrous and ugly in the way that we regard those around us—our tendency to harbor suspicions, judgments, and prejudices against people we do not want or even try, to understand. NDiaye takes us inside the disturbing mind of Nadia, her unforgettable protagonist, with writing that is arresting; the tension, immediately palpable, builds steadily. The temptation to turn the pages quickly is great but the prose is so fine that you will want to savor it. With its unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, NDiaye’s brilliant novel obtains pride of place with the very best literary horror. My Heart Hemmed In is a morality tale for our times. NDiaye may well be our most important living writer.
This slim, propulsive novel is the perfect cure for a reading slump. The story is narrated in the first person by the novel’s protagonist, Michele, a successful, divorced woman with a grown son and an aged, eccentric mother who seems to have everything but is nonetheless dissatisfied with life. When a young couple with a new baby moves next door, Michele’s life is up-ended in ways that are unexpected and force her to confront her carnal desires and what these feeling mean for her self-identity. Elle is well-written, tense, and dark—an intriguing character study of a middle-aged woman who is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, all the while deceiving those most important in her life.
If you have never heard of Cristina Rivera Garza you need to remedy that fact, immediately! Reading The Iliac Crest is as fascinating as it is disorienting. Let’s start with the narrator. Yes, almost from the beginning you question the narrator’s reliability but what’s more you wonder who the narrator is: woman, man, transgendered; alive, dead, something in between; rational, insane, periodically delusional? The novel begins when the narrator is visited one night by two women: one, an ex-lover whose arrival is anticipated; the other, an unexpected and unknown young woman, presumably seeking shelter from the storm outside. But really the young woman needs the narrator’s help in retrieving a manuscript that she believes was left at the nursing home where the narrator is a doctor. This concise novel is so full of intrigue, allusions, and symbolism that you might just feel compelled to read it once and then immediately start at the beginning and read again, which is exactly what I did!
I am embarrassed to confess that until a few months ago, I had never read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Laureate. And losing myself within the pages of The War of the End of the World was among my most satisfying reading experiences of the year. What a novel! What a writer! Vargas Llosa’s epic novel is about the 1896–1897 War of Canudos in northeastern Brazil, a series of battles that pitted the Brazilian army against a large group of religious fanatics guided by a messianic leader who preached that Brazil’s new republican government presaged the Rapture. Vargas Llosa takes us inside the minds of the politicians, the landowners, the merchant-exploiters, and the religious zealots, many of them very former slaves and indigenous peoples. On a scale as grand as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Vargas Llosa portrays the motives, hopes, values, and beliefs of not just the battle leaders but also the very ordinary people whose seemingly inconsequential acts, taken together, played a pivotal role in creating Brazil’s history. A novel that is dense with atmosphere, character, and plot and just simply a marvel.
Friend and fellow Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún suggested this great collection by another Bolivian author Liliana Colanzi. The stories are at once earthly and yet there’s a sense of the strange hovering over all of these tales. A dazzling collection that blends the fantastic and the bizarre into stories that feel grounded and somehow timeless.
I envy subtlety in a writer, a soft touch. And Hasbún has this even when writing about subjects that are traditionally treated with a heavy hand. Affections is a novel that goes all the places you don’t expect. Based loosely on Hans Ertl and his family who left Germany after World War II and settled in Bolivia, this is a story of a family living under the burdens of history. Each chapter is told by a different character but focuses especially on Hans’ daughters who come of age during the turbulent and revolutionary 60s and 70s in South America. A subtle, often sympathetic and evocative novel—stunningly translated by Sophie Hughes—that manages to carry the breadth of a big novel but with a third of the pages.
This was one of the many books from Latin America that New Directions began publishing around 2007 and 2008, right around the time Bolaño was on the cusp of exploding (I also remember some incredible New Directions titles from Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Evelio Rosero during this period). Visceral, haunting and completely unforgettable. This novel, about a man hired by the Catholic Church to edit a 1,100 page report detailing the massacres of indigenous people in an unnamed Latin American country, is by turns funny and haunting. The translation by Katherine Silver is seamless. An explosion of a book that has not left me in the decade since I’ve read it.
In these stories, Øyehaug sharpens the surreality of life through formal experimentation, then uses our resulting focus as a tool to wedge the mundanity of the everyday even closer to home. Odd, funny, and sad, Knots would be a perfect gift for lovers of Lydia Davis, Amelia Gray, and early George Saunders.
Two unattractive, overeducated college students push theory into practice through their horniness, culminating in a video game that turns the Argentinian Dirty War back on itself, disappearing the place, rather than the people. Also: it’s a comedy. I promise. This manically ambitious book would be a great gift for the funniest person you know.
Olivares maps the space of symptoms meeting audiences. She linguistically organizes a physical world around individual otherness, prioritizing the experience of the ill and the unique, and the haunted ways that they live and suffer in our everyday world. Enfermario would be great gift for someone whose trust you want to gain.
Simply put, this is the best short story collection ever written. Buy yourself a copy. You deserve it.
This book is about the space between eyes and what is seen and felt that leads in some way to darkness. For fans of Maggie Nelson, Virgina Woolf, and Anne Carson.
A spellbinding story about childhood, loss, and belonging, Barba nails childhood perfectly and the translation by Lisa Dillman is extraordinary. I will never forget this gem and hope one day Sofia Coppola brings it to the screen!
An investigation for space and time. Tadeus, a dead poet, makes circles through different times and places (mimicking a Buddhist mandala) attempting to find a lost love and classmate. The poet travels from Lisbon across Europe, his travels copying the events of Isabel’s life. Tadeus interviews people who knew Isabel at different points in her life. The book reminds me of a dream that when you awake slowly fades from the perception of reality.
One of my favorite books ever written and this new edition and translation is gorgeous. This book will make you question who you really are and you’ll come out transformed.
Binet’s second novel is a colorful amalgam of crime novel, academic satire, and conspiracy theory. Starting with the historical fact of the famed literary critic Roland Barthes dying in a traffic accident, the book considers the possibility that it wasn’t an accident at all. Binet weaves together fact and fiction, developing a secret history of 1980s (primarily French) intelligentsia, including stars such as Foucault, Derrida, Searle, and Umberto Eco. Taylor’s translation takes us on a lively ride and pulls back the curtain. This book is ideal for those who have survived academia and may have vague recollections of theory, but also would like to imagine a more exciting version of the ivory tower, featuring plenty of sex, violence, duels, and debates. For fans of a slightly exciting version of semiotics.
This slim book is the first novel by Greg, a Polish poet who lives in England, and richly conveys a coming-of-age story is a rural village in southern Poland. Childhood rituals are a colorful mix of the Catholic and the pagan, or folkloric. In Eliza Marciniak’s deft translation, the short, episodic portraits give readers an unusual perspective on events both large (the Solidarity movement, collapse of the Soviet Bloc) and small (a beloved cat drowning in a pond). Although we don’t discover what becomes of Wiola, it is clear that her reconstruction of the past is cherished, but remains unsentimental. This debut is a true gem and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. For fans of provincial prose and novellas written by poets.
Named after a metro station in Prague, this short novel packs a punch, giving a glimpse of a run-down neighborhood shortly after the end of Communism. The main character, Hooks, is a meth head who has spent time in mental hospital. Zucker’s translation renders the highly colorful, colloquial language, drug trips, and other adventures. While occasionally hard to follow, Topol’s rough-and-tumble tale takes us along for a ride. It’s a thrill watching Hook get into trouble and hope for the best as he tries to get out alive. Written directly after City Sister Silver, it can be seen as a shorter, more accessible version. It may burn going down, but Angel Station can be read in a single sitting. It will stay with you for a while. For fans of Trainspotting and Prague.
Yoko Tawada is perhaps one of the most interesting writers in contemporary German fiction. Memoirs of a Polar Bear tells the story of three generations of polar bears. One of the many changes that occurs over these generations is a decreasing ability to communicate with humans. Although the first two bears are circus performers and the third lives in a zoo, the bears are never quite let into the fold. In its own way, it is a story of family, exile, and what odd creatures humans are. Susan Bernofsky’s translation preserves the unique voice, rendering a prose full of vivid imagery. Memoirs of a Polar Bear was awarded the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. For fans of deep thought and polar bears.
Gifting someone a book, you want to give something that suits them, but it should having something of you, too. So, the most transparently biased recommendation here is this book from Quebec, the drum I beat whenever I can. Does someone have a loyalty to American literature? Do they love realism and historical settings? Do you think they can handle more? Give them The Longest Year. Part contemporary story of a young American boy coming to terms with his absent father and his French-Canadian heritage, and part historical tale of a man who hardly ages (once every leap year) and wanders Quebec and American, stretching across borders and across time, from the 1700s and on. Grenier’s is a beautiful book, American and Quebecious, grounded and mythical.
Is someone you know tormented? Prone to heartbreak? Obsessive in both love affairs and friendships? Fiercely loyal and quick to see, and forgive, betrayal? Are they honest with themselves about this but unable to change? Then this book is for them. Or if they just enjoy reading something like that, then yeah, it’s for them too. In this novel told through notebooks, Qui Miaojin creates characters who are passionately human in their struggles, with themselves, their sexuality, their identity, and with those they care for. It’s raging with feeling, in beautiful sentences, and painstakingly works out the nuances of those emotions.
I’ve probably been told to shut up about this novel. Who is it a good gift for? Anyone. Tell me you like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, or Pink Floyd, I’ll tell you to read this book. You want funny books? There are cows bred by a monstrously rich family in a mad, clueless scheme, cows that turn out to be cannibalistic, and decapitate and rape horses “in that order.” It is intellectual, heady, aesthetic fiction that uses all of that to find depth of heart. Whatever you read for, you can find it here. It’s the type of book that opens itself to let someone discover they can read “difficult” fiction.
This one is for SF fans. There’s only a little doubt about it in my mind, but Banks is my favorite SF writer. Most of his SF books are set in the same universe, one of post-scarcity, a society that’s lasted for centuries, held together by hyper-intelligent AIs called Minds implanted in ships, and is filled with possibility for the humans who inhabit it. These are massive books, massive in scope, world-building, ambition, ideas, and yes, number of pages. They are works of genius and absurdly entertaining. They can be read in any order. So why Surface Detail? It’s what I’ve read most recently, and it’s got a pitch. There exist computer-generated afterlives, hells in which real consciousnesses suffer. Civilizations are fighting a simulated war to end or preserve these hells. That war is about to break out into the Real.