On the Lists: Best Books of 2014

The “year’s best” book lists — be they 10 or 50 or 100; poetry or celeb memoirs or children’s books — are such a widespread phenomenon in English-language newspapers and magazines that the Wall Street Journal does a compilation, a master list of best-ofs:

bestBut, on the vast majority of these best-of lists, translations are still rare. Indeed, M.A. Orthofer seems pleased to see a pitiful eight translations on the NYTBR‘s “100 notable books” list. The only translation that seems to appear with any regularity is the very well-known latest Haruki Murakami.

A bit of this is a timing problem: Most of these “best of 2014” lists were made before the fall list of Arabic novels went out to reviewers — if indeed they went out to reviewers. The smaller presses that deal in translations often don’t ship to reviewers until their actual publication date. Meanwhile, mainstream professional reviewers are already talking up their favorites of 2015.

Several Arab-American books made the lists — I saw Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account on a number of them. And a few spring-release Arabic books in translation also made it. Here they are:

On NPR’s Book Concierge: Guide to 2014’s Great Reads

Najwan Darwish’s Nothing Left to Lose, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid

This book makes the concierge thanks to reviewer Amal al-Mohtar, who writes: “Deftly translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Najwan Darwish’s Nothing More to Lose is a passionate collection of short poems written between 2000 and 2014, uniting a wide range of subjects with a heartbreaking love for people, places and poetry. Traveling from Brazil to Palestine, Darwish explores matters of family, tragedy and identity in a marvelously flexible voice suited to both celebrations and laments.”

On Publisher’s Weekly’s 10 Best of 2014

Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Corpse Exhibition,‘ trans. Jonathan Wright

PW writes: “Powerful and disturbing, these stories of the war in Iraq from an Iraqi perspective combine the grit of reality with the surreal. Wise and terrifying, comic and gripping, Blasim, in exile from his native Iraq, is an original voice whose writing is justifiably compared to Gogol, Bolaño, and Borges.”

PW’s Top 10 Authors Choose Their Favorites of 2014

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (untranslated)

So PW asked Hassan Blasim — and their other top-ten authors — to give their own best-of-the-years. Blasim said of Frankenstein in Baghdad: “Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad courageously confronts the bizarre events set in motion by the violence after the American occupation of Iraq. In an enjoyable and intelligent style, Saadawi tells the story of Hadi, a peddler in a poor part of Baghdad who collects and repairs body parts from people who have been ripped apart in explosions. A spirit breathes life into the assembled parts to produce a creature that Hadi calls the Whatsitsname, while the authorities call it Criminal X. The creature exacts revenge on all those who helped kill the people to whom the body parts belonged. It’s a painful and powerful story that goes beyond the limits of reality, in an attempt to reach the essence of the cruelty of wars that disfigure the human spirit and society, as fire disfigures skin. In vain, Saadawi’s novel seeks justice in the labyrinthine chaos of violence in Iraq. His lively style is reminiscent of horror movies and detective stories, with touches of black comedy. The novel will soon be translated into English, and I hope that will be a step toward recognition of the new Iraqi literature that has emerged from under the rubble of constant wars, which I like to call the literature of nightmarish realism.”

The Guardian’s ‘Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014 

The Book of Gaza. ed. Abdallah Tayeh, trans. various

Technically, this probably doesn’t count, as nominator Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hasn’t actually read the book, and says: “As a gift, I would love The Book of Gaza (Comma Press) by Abdallah Tayeh because it sounds like my sort of thing.” But hey. It’s a good book. I hope Comma sent Adichie several copies.

ArabLit will have its own “authors’ favorites of 2014” list closer to the end of the year.


  1. Not helpful if I can’t see the list of books.

    1. I’m not sure what list you want to see? All the full lists of lists that PW, the NYTimes, Economist, NPR, etc. put out each year?

  2. I’m always disappointed by the lack of work in translation that make it onto such lists. Good to see Book of Gaza get some visibility. I wouldn’t class it as a great book but it’s an important one given the political context

    1. Yes, the stories are a mixed bag, but the portrait is still an interesting one. I suppose there are lots of reasons why translations don’t make these lists, but yeah, it’s unfortunate.

    1. Indeed! It should be on more.

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