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The Watchlist: December 2020

By Tobias Carroll

Each month, Tobias Carroll shares a handful of recently released or forthcoming titles in translation that he’s especially excited about. 


From Tilted Axis Press | Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang | Fiction | 320 pages | ISBN 9781911284444 | UK£9.99

What the publisher says: “In the city of Yong’an, an amateur cryptozoologist is commissioned to uncover the stories of its fabled beasts. These creatures—with their greenish stomachs or gills or strange birthmarks—live alongside humans in near-inconspicuousness, some with ancient forbears, others engineered as artificial breeds.”

What The Skinny says: “The narrator’s stories begin as serialized accounts of magical realist encounters, an academically motivated exploration of the intersection between anthropology and cryptozoology. Yet the further we delve into this world, the more the narrator discovers the eerie ways in which these beasts’ lives are entangled with her own past.”

What I say: Strange Beasts of China begins in a Calvino-esque place at once philosophical and fantastical. And had that been where it stayed, it would have been wholly compelling on its own; there’s plenty of inventiveness in the ways the beasts are described within the narrative. But the addition of conspiracy elements and a touch of body horror take this novel in unexpected directions, keeping it wholly unpredictable.

Note: This novel was published in the UK last month; a US edition is forthcoming from Melville House in summer 2021.


From Archipelago Books | Salt Water by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush | Essays | 310 pages | ISBN 9781939810724 | US$20.00

What the publisher says: “Dripping with a panache that can turn in a comic instant to the most conciliatory humility, Josep Pla’s foray into the land and sea most familiar to him will plunge readers headfirst into its mysterious (and often tasty!) depths. Here are adventures and shipwrecks, raspy storytellers and the fishy meals that sustain them.”

What Kirkus Reviews says: “Most of the stories are laden with references to the glories of Catalan cuisine, so much better, Pla asserts, than the butter-heavy French cuisine up the coast; in just about every story, someone is eating anchovies and sardines and sea bream, and it’s a book not to be read on an empty stomach.”

What I say: It’s hard to read this book and not feel compelled to set out on the open water, provided you live somewhere near open water. There’s a lot to be found here about male friendship, along with the logistics of journeys made by boat; if Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez resonates with you, it’s likely this will as well.


From Hanover Square Press | Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot | Fiction | 272 pages | ISBN 9781335430991 | US$19.99

What the publisher says: “Heartwarming, wistful, mysterious, and delightfully quirky, Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s internationally bestselling novel explores the age-old question: What would you change if you could travel back in time?”

What Publishers Weekly says: “Kawaguchi’s characters embark on lo-fi, emotional journeys unburdened by the technicalities often found in time-travel fiction—notably, they are unable to change the present. The characters learn, though, that even though people don’t return to a changed present, they return ‘with a changed heart.’”

What I say: Many time travel narratives deal with loss, and Before the Coffee Gets Cold is no exception. What begins in a borderline-twee manner gradually accrues a grand amount of emotional weight. Across the novel’s four sections, its characters grapple with wildly different manifestations of loss, giving this book a bittersweet tone.


From New Directions | An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Jackie Smith | Fiction/Essays | 224 pages | ISBN 9780811229630 | US$22.95

What the publisher says: “Each disparate object described in this book—a Caspar David Friedrich painting, a species of tiger, a villa in Rome, a Greek love poem, an island in the Pacific—shares a common fate: it no longer exists, except as the dead end of a paper trail. Recalling the works of W. G. Sebald, Bruce Chatwin, and Rebecca Solnit, An Inventory of Losses is a beautiful evocation of twelve specific treasures that have been lost to the world forever, and that, taken as a whole, open mesmerizing new vistas of how to think about extinction and loss.”

What Kate Zambreno at the New York Times says: “I found myself longing for more of a mosaic, for more connections and atmospheric frisson between the stories, fulfilling the elegiac promise of the opening essays, although there is much to admire here in the richness of historical research and the intelligence and eloquence of thought.”

What I say: To call the essays and stories in this collection elegies wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but many of them have an elegiac tone. At their best, they capture a sense of something wholly lost to the era in which Schalansky wrote this book (and in which it’s being read): historical figures, now-extinct animals, works of art. The result is paradoxical and haunting.


From Other Press | I’m Staying Here by Marco Balzano, translated from the Italian by Jill Foulston | Fiction | 224 pages | ISBN 9781635420371 | US$16.99

What the publisher says: “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.”

What BookPage says: “Through headstrong, opinionated Trina’s narration, author Marco Balzano voices the anger of a people whose story has been overshadowed in history. Though some nuance has been lost in translation from the Italian and the tense shifts confusingly at times, I’m Staying Here reads like a confessional, conveying raw emotion with a forceful, memorable impact.”

What I say: Set in the border region of South Tyrol, Balzano’s novel focuses on a woman and her husband striving to make a life for themselves in the first half of the twentieth century. The rise of fascism around them makes for some heart-rending moments, and a sequence in which the two flee their village includes a host of nerve-wracking scenes. Loss and alienation abound within this story, captured by a memorable narrative voice.

Looking for more reading suggestions? Check out Tobias Carroll’s recommendations from last month.

Disclosure: Words Without Borders is an affiliate of and will earn a commission if you use the links above to make a purchase.

Published Dec 21, 2020   Copyright 2020 Tobias Carroll

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