Books for the bookworm on the road less travelled

by Paul Burke

At long last, we have made it to 2021! However, 2020 is not a year that will be easy to put behind us. It was the year of the independents, and with many people seeking ways to avoid lining a certain billionaire’s pockets any more, the upsurge of indies was in full force.

Paul Burke has gathered some of the best 2020 titles from independent presses, books for people who are always looking for something original and intellectually stimulating; rediscovered classics, translated gems and new literary leviathans.

Fum D’Estampa Press

Launched in August this year, this publisher had the intention of bringing the best Catalan poetry, prose and essays to the English language audience, turns out there’s a gold mine of previously untranslated titles out there. I was struck by the genius of Narcís Oller’s tale of a young man’s descent into The Madness, their first book, already reviewed on NB here. Also from them are:

London Under Snow by Jordi Llavina translated by Douglas Shuttle.

London Under Snow is a delicate, compact, mature and profound collection of short stories about winter by Jordi Llavina. Six fragments of different lives in six different moments. In this beautifully written collection, the characters come face to face with their different lives and pasts, all of which are full of ghosts and memories. Sensibility courses through each story, all of them written with a meticulous eye to detail and a careful lyricism that pays tribute to the human condition and the society that we have created.

Bringing winter and Christmas celebrations in a variety of places and cultures to life in a selection of beautifully written short stories, Llavina mixes personal experiences with fictional characters to blur the lines between fiction and reality. Excerpt:

“Five days before I was to set off for the English capital, a colossal snowstorm had set alarm bells ringing and I was worried that the thick blanket of snow shown on the newspapers’ front pages would turn into a terrible layer of ice – I didn’t realise that the services in London actually work reasonably well: snowploughs, workers with reflective jackets and armed with spades and salt all work together to remove the settled snow. On the television, Hyde Park was an indistinct, indivisible white, and all of the hated lead-grey squirrels had sought refuge inside tree trunks or litter bins. The typical phlegmatic British character had been slightly disrupted: the special news reports showed images from Chelsea of playful teenagers building snowmen against the snowy white blanket and keeping bottles of beer cool in the midriffs of their creations…”

The author: Jordi Llavina is an award-winning writer, poet, broadcaster and critic who has published over 10 books in his long and distinguished career. Living and working in Villafranca del Penedès, near Barcelona, he has won numerous prizes for both of poetry and prose including the prestigious Lletra d’or in 2019 for his long poem, The Hermitage.

What the critics say:

‘Llavina exhibits his great ability to successfully penetrate our psyches.’ Lluís Muntada, El País

‘Presided over by tenderness and truth, Jordi Llavina’s stories are beautiful, cathartic masterpieces.’ Anna M. Gil, La Vanguàrdia.

Reviewed in October on NB Magazine by Linda Hepworth.

Fum D’Estampa Press, paperback, ISBN 9781916293960

One Day of Life is Life by Joan Maragall translated by Ronald Puppo

This bilingual collection of both Maragall’s poetry and prose has been edited and translated by Ronald Puppo, a research fellow and translator at the University of Vic. His keen eye and expertise on Maragall comes across in droves as he takes what are arguably Catalan literature’s finest moments and turns them into eminently readable and enjoyable English language poems. Also included in this collection are some of Maragall’s pieces of prose work and personal letters that shed light onto the man himself. Accompanying all this are Puppo’s own indepth comments and insights.

The author: Joan Maragall (Barcelona, 1860-1911), the outstanding fin-de-siècle Catalan-language poet and publicist, holds an eminent place in Spain’s pantheon of diverse literatures. His ground breaking poetry, disarmingly uncomplex, encapsulates both the turbulence of his time and place (the anarchist bomb attack in the Barcelona Liceu Opera House, the spiritual cost of the Spanish-American War) and the serenity of his gaze into world and soul. Maragall’s wholehearted engagement in the debates of his troubled times cuts an emerging figure, not unlike Émile Zola, of prototype for the twentieth-century intellectuel engagé, and his steadfast friendship with Miguel de Unamuno brings to light their divergent views on how Spain might be put on democratic track.

An excerpt from The Siren (Fragment)

“Out over the land, from The darkness,

the scorching whistles of the tainted siren

calls the poor to work.

You’re not quite like the sirens of old,

whose song was another; and yet, similar,

when in that voice of unignorable friend you summon all around you.



Fum D’Estampa Press, paperback, ISBN 9781916293953



Another new publisher Prototype already brought us Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces and The Boiled in Between by Helen Marten, both reviewed here. Now we have a new novel:

Along the River Run by Paul Buck

The blurb: Lisbon: that city at the mouth of the Tagus, that city that whispers, licks and seduces its visitors, that city that haunts those seeking refuge or its pleasures. Who would wish to escape?

It is the start of the millennium and two ‘lads’ from South East London are trapped in Lisbon among people and experiences set to push them to the limits. Attempting to lie low after a fateful night back home, the friends find themselves navigating an unnerving new reality in this haunting story of psychological destruction. A crime novel inspired by a real-life incident, and distinguished by its sensitivity to the subtleties of language and dialogue, Along the River Run is a story of guilt and retribution played out amid the streets, sounds and sights of this bewitching city.

The Author: Paul Buck has been writing and publishing since the late Sixties. His work is characterised by its sabotaging of the various forms in order to explore their overlaps and differences. Through the Seventies he also edited the seminal magazine Curtains, with its focus on threading French writing from Bataille, Blanchot, Jabès, Faye, Noël, Ronat, Collobert and a score of others into a weave with English and American writers and artists.

While editing and translating are still a daily activity – in partnership with Catherine Petit, the Vauxhall&Company series of books at Cabinet Gallery is their responsibility – he also continues to cover new ground: Spread Wide, a fiction generated from his letters with Kathy Acker; Performance, a biography of the Cammell/Roeg film; Lisbon, a cultural view of a city; A Public Intimacy, strip-searching scrapbooks to expose autobiography; Library: a suitable case for treatment, a collection of essays. In recent times he helped Laure Prouvost to write her film Deep See Blue Surrounding You, around which her Venice Biennale pavilion, representing France, was based.

What the press say:

‘A smartly crafted and necessary antidote to this fearful Little England moment. Paul Buck’s fast-moving Série Noire existentialism exposes a pair of lost or posthumous Estuary souls to the treacherous seductions of the Lisbon labyrinth. You can trust the teller and the tale.’ – Iain Sinclair

Prototype Press, paperback, ISBN 9781913513047


Other Press

One of my favourite publishers is American independent Other Press. Here’s two offerings, (suitable for Christmas?):


I’m Staying Here by Marco Balzano translated by Jill Foulston

The Blurb: A mother recounts her life story to her long-lost daughter in this sweeping historical novel about a community torn between Italian fascism and German Nazism.

In the small village of Curon in South Tyrol, seventeen-year-old Trina longs for a different life. She dedicates herself to becoming a teacher, but the year that she qualifies—1923—Mussolini’s regime abolishes the use of German as a teaching language in the annexed Austrian territory. Defying their ruthless program of forced Italianization, Trina works for a clandestine network of schools in the valley, always with the risk of capture. In spite of this new climate of fear and uncertainty, she finds love and some measure of stability with Erich, an orphaned young man and her father’s helper.

Now married and a mother, Trina’s life is again thrown into uncertainty when Hitler’s Germany announces the “Great Option” in 1939, and communities in South Tyrol are invited to join the Reich and leave Italy. The town splits, and ever-increasing rifts form among its people. Those who choose to stay, like Trina and her family, are seen as traitors and spies; they can no longer leave the house without suffering abuse. Then one day Trina comes home and finds that her daughter is missing…

Inspired by the striking image of the belltower rising from Lake Resia, all that remains today of the village of Curon, Marco Balzano has written a poignant novel that beautifully interweaves great moments in history with the lives of everyday people.


The Author: Marco Balzano was born in 1978 in Milan, where he lives and works as a high school teacher. In addition to essays and poetry collections, he has written four award-winning novels, including Il figlio del figlio (Premio Corrado Alvaro), Pronti a tutti le partenze (Premio Flaiano), and L’ultimo arrivato (Premio Campiello and Premio Volponi, among others). His bestseller Resto qui (Premio Bagutta, Premio Asti d’Appello, Prix Méditerranée, and runner-up for the Premio Strega) was published in 2018. His essay Le parole sono importanti (Premio Città delle Rose) was published in 2019. His books have been translated into several languages.

What the press say

“Quietly devastating…Balzano’s unvarnished approach heightens the poignancy of a story based on real events.” —Publishers Weekly

“Haunting and powerful.” —Booklist

“Brilliantly drawn…a quiet but heart-rending novel.” —Irish Examiner

Other Press, paperback, ISBN 9781635420371.


Proustian Uncertainties By Saul Friedländer

on Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time

The Blurb: A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian revisits Marcel Proust’s masterpiece in this essay on literature and memory, exploring the question of identity—that of the novel’s narrator and Proust’s own.

This engaging re-examination of In Search of Lost Time considers how the narrator defines himself, how this compares to what we know of Proust himself, and what the significance is of these various points of commonality and divergence. We know, for example, that the author did not hide his homosexuality, but the narrator did. Why the difference? We know that the narrator tried to marginalize his part-Jewish background. Does this reflect the author’s position, and how does the narrator handle what he tries, but does not manage, to dismiss? These are major questions raised by the text and reflected in the text, to which the author’s life doesn’t give obvious answers. The narrator’s reflections on time, on death, on memory, and on love are as many paths leading to the image of self that he projects.

In Proustian Uncertainties, Saul Friedländer draws on his personal experience from a life spent investigating the ties between history and memory to offer a fresh perspective on the seminal work.

The author: Saul Friedländer is an award-winning Israeli-American historian and currently a professor of history (emeritus) at UCLA. He was born in Prague to a family of German-speaking Jews, grew up in France, and lived in hiding during the German occupation of 1940–1944. His historical works have received great praise and recognition, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945.

What the press says:

“[A] haunting work…Friedländer has always imbued his scholarship with an acute literary sensibility…incisive and quizzical…[an] intimate and subtle book.” —Wall Street Journal

“[A] superb new book…Friedländer, the great historian of Nazi Germany and the Jews and also the author of his own Proustian memoir, When Memory Comes, argues that Proust’s narrator is a ‘disembodied presence unlike that in any novel before,’ and that it’s the relation of that presence to Proust himself that makes the Recherche, with its biting social satire, so unique.” —Times Literary Supplement, Books of the Year

Other Press, Hardback, ISBN 9781590519110.


Night in Tehran by Philip Kaplan

The Blurb: Based on historic events, and frighteningly relevant to today’s headlines—a taut, Year of Living Dangerously-style thriller set in Tehran in the days leading up to the Iranian Revolution.

In the style of Alan Furst, this suspenseful thriller — based on real events — places an idealistic American diplomat in a turbulent, US-hating Tehran in the days leading up to the Iranian Revolution. Backed by the CIA, and trailed by a beautiful and engaging French journalist he suspects is a spy, David Weiseman’s mission is to ease the Shah of Iran out of power and find the best alternative between the military, religious extremists, and the political ruling class — many of whom are simultaneously trying to kill him.

The author: Ambassador Philip Kaplan, had a 27-year career as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, including being U.S. minister, deputy chief of mission and Charge d’Affaires, to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines during the tumultuous overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos.

Now retired from the State Department, Kaplan is currently a partner in Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe LLP’s Washington, D.C law office where his practice is focused on public and private international law. He lives in Washington, DC.


“This taut and fast-paced novel has a particularly compelling feature: Philip Kaplan, after a career in the State Department, brings to his book a sharp political and international sophistication–rare in thrillers, abundant in Night in Tehran.”  — Alan Furst

This book will be reviewed in January.

Melville House Books, hardback, ISBN 9781612198507.

Surely there’s something here that appeals? Happy reading!