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Five Favorite Books read in 2016

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Iceland courtesy of Laura Frankstone

As a big consumer of literary fiction in translation it was exciting this year to witness the rebirth of the Man Booker International Prize, which merged with the former Independent foreign fiction prize to recognize a single book, with the prize split evenly between the winning author and the translator. The books on the longlist were all alluring. Small independent publishers continued to win literary prizes this year, an encouraging trend for these dedicated publishers. And then there were all those books to read recommended by friends that had been passed over in recent years, but a few were finally retrieved. Below is a list of recommended books of fiction, some in translation; some new, but not all, and one, 512 pages long, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, and was published nearly ten years ago after being out of print for half a century.

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    This novel about tragedy, grief and atonement is set on an Indian reservation and is the continuation of a family history already partially explored in two previous novels by Erdrich, "The Plague of Doves" and “The Round House.” Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe, tells the story of LaRose, a young boy, who, in keeping with in Native American culture, is given to a family whose son, and LaRose's friend, was shot accidentally by LaRose's father. LaRose, wiser than his years and a patient observer, sees both families through the tragic event. 

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    The Gardens Of Consolation

    Written in French, Tehran-born Parisa Reza’s first book plunges the reader head first into Iranian history between 1920 and 1953. Talla and Sardar, from a family of illiterate shepherds, are teenagers who fall in love, marry and move to the outskirts of Tehran. Their son, Bahram, who has great intellectual promise, gains an education and becomes a fervent supporter of Mohammad Mosaddegh and his belief in the transformation of Iranian society. Political and social upheaval is at the heart of Reza’s novel, which is also a love story.

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    The City of Your Final Destination

    This book, published in 2003, which became a rather tired James Ivory film in 2010 is a nuanced, dream-like novel that takes place in Uruguay. A doctoral candidate in the US obtains a grant to write an authorized biography about an obscure author. The author's family denies his request to provide information, so the would-be biographer decides to travel to Uruguay to speak to the three executors: the author's brother, his wife and his mistress. He finds an isolated family group living out-of-time in Ochos Rios, far from any urban center. Although the characters are all very defined, the book's atmosphere is what prevails here, languid and whimsical, so that the reader is absorbed into a timeless place where love and work are questioned with both humor and seriousness.

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    A Cup of Rage

    This new translation of Brazilian author Raduan Nassar's "The Cup of Rage" by Stefan Tobler was on the 2016 longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. It packs a punch. First published in 1978, only 47 pages long, "A Cup of Rage" is about a steamy night spent on a farm between an older man and his young, urban lover. Sex, quarrel, violence, and chauvinism are treated with brutal honesty. Rife with voluptuous descriptions of nature, Nassar's writing is exciting and electric as is this novella. 

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    Independent People

    As long as "The Cup of Rage" is short, no words are wasted, however, in Halldór Laxness' epic tale of an Icelandic farmer and his family at the turn of the 20th century. Published in Icelandic in 1935, it was first translated to English by J.A. Thompson in 1946, and Laxness went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for it in 1955. For the next half century though, this masterpiece was out of print until it was reissued in 1997. It is the story of a proud and stubborn sheep farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses, who is determined to live free of debt and free of religion, in poor, harsh circumstances and climate, where survival often means having to count on one's neighbors. His obsession with freedom proves tragic to his family, but Laxness balances the grim tale with black humor and deep introspection into his characters. On a backdrop of rugged, beautiful landscapes; dreams, superstition, poetry, tragedy, misery, love, politics and hope are part of this magnificent novel. 

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    Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.