Zabriskie and a year in five books


One of my favourite discoveries of 2016 was Zabriskie, a bookshop focused on ‘culture and nature’ writing and a place where I am always certain to find something new and tempting and I know I am about to emerge back onto the streets of Kreuzberg a few euros poorer but as always with books, infinitely richer. They have been strong supporters of Elsewhere – we wrote about Zabriskie on our blog – and in November they hosted an evening of stories from the journal, and I read alongside my colleagues Saskia Vogel and Nicky Gardner.

This week Zabriskie sent out their newsletter, featuring the book selections of a number of writers who appeared at events in the bookshop over the past twelve months. I was delighted to be included, and also thought it would be nice to share my choices here. The books did not need to be published in 2016 but read in that year… an approach that more ‘best of…’ lists would be well-advised to take. When combined with the rest of the choices on the newsletter, I think there is at least a year’s worth of inspiration for further reading, so go check it out here

Five favourite books, read in 2016:

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life
Picador, 2015

Can you tell a whole life in 150 pages? With this short novel, Robert Seethaler proves you can. Haunting and beautiful, it captures not only the essence of the human experience but also brings the unnamed Alpine valley in which it is set to life. Love, loneliness, parenthood, landscape and the changing nature of society are all depicted in Seethaler’s wonderful prose, fantastically translated by Charlotte Collins.

William Atkins, The Moor: A Journey into the English wilderness
Faber & Faber, 2014

In this book, William Atkins explores the moorland of England, telling the stories and the legends of this distinctive, mysterious landscape. He reflects not only on the folklore but also the politics of the land and its uses, and it is all told in a lyrical style that does a great deal of justice to the melancholy, bleak and yet beautiful landscape it describes; places that are, to me at least, both forbidding and appealing at the same time.

Neil MacGregor, Germany: Memories of a Nation
Penguin, 2016

This book was written to complement a radio show and also the exhibition hosted first by the British Museum and most recently by the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. In it, MacGregor tells the story of Germany through a series of objects, and asks the question “what does it mean to be German?”. It is fascinating, inspiring and – of course – at times, extremely troubling. Especially when faced with the contradictions, for example, of a town like Weimar: home to Goethe and the Bauhaus, and the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Goran Vojnović, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland
Istros Books, 2015

The second novel on the list, “Yugoslavia, My Fatherland” tells the story of a young man trying for find the truth of his father, long-believed to be dead but who is actually a war criminal, in hiding from justice after his involvement in the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. It is a personal story about a disintegrating family in a disintegrating country; a reminder of the power of fiction to help us understand memory, place and history, and how it can help us reach the essential truth of a story.

Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life
Atlantic Books, 2014

Vaclav Havel has long been a hero of mine. The playwright who went to prison for standing up to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, he later became the president of the Czech Republic. Flawed and brilliant, Havel lived a fascinating life and this is well told by his friend and former press secretary. But most of all it is what Havel stood for that resonates – a humanism with an international outlook that is something we could do with a lot more of in 2017.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Julia Stone

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