My Best Books of 2020
One of my silver linings of Corona has been the long empty afternoons curled up with a book. Here are some of my favourites from 2020… not books that were published in 2020, just ones I happened to read then ;-)
Another Country - James Baldwin (1962)
I loved loved loved this novel. His vivid descriptions, his raw unforgiving journeys into the human psyche - it had me gripped from start to finish. Baldwin can make a scene where very little actually ‘happens’ completely fascinating, because of everything that’s going on underneath. In this novel we accompany Harlem jazz musician Rufus Scott, at odds with himself and the world around him, and we delve into the bohemian world of 1960's New York that was his doing and his undoing.
I’m just going to have to put some quotations here, and let the juiciness of his writing speak for itself: ‘He wished that he had been better prepared for this moment, … that his hunger would vanish, that his fear would drop, and love lend him a transcendent perception and concentration. But he knew himself to be physically weak and tired, not drunk, but far from sober; part of his troubled mind was far away, gorging on the conundrum of himself.’
‘Her face was hideous, was unutterably beautiful with grief’
‘He hated himself for the sincerity of this reflection and was baffled, as always, by the particular and dangerous nature of its injustice.’
‘Women don’t see men the way men want to be seen. They see all the tender places, all the places where blood could flow.’
Factfulness - Hans Rösling (2018)
I have both doom-mongering pessimists and blind optimists in my family, so this book was a breath of fresh air - putting a rational (and reassuringly positive) perspective on many of the issues we like to throw around the dinner table. Hans Rösling shines a critical light on many of our assumed truths, and presents a refreshing new perspective on world data and statistics. An example - he throws out the window the idea of the world being divided into ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, as ‘Eighty five percent of mankind are already inside the box that used to be named “developed world”’ and thus a 4 tier system of world income is much more fitting for the world we live in today, where ‘most people, 75%, live in middle-income countries. Not poor, not rich, but somehow in the middle and starting to live a reasonable life’.
With a series of graphs, Rösling shows how all the ‘bad things’ are decreasing whilst all the ‘good things’ increase (this is what we want to hear!) - legal slavery, the death penalty, HIV infections, plane crash deaths, smoke particles, hunger, child labour are all going down, whilst access to water, girls’ education, science, immunization, child cancer survival, electricity coverage are all on the up. A recognition of these broad sweeping positive changes are precisely what we miss when we toil through grim media articles every day, that exploit our short attention spans and natural capacity for fear. Thus the paradox - we are more exposed to negative stories than ever before, due to development of the media and the internet, when actually the world is safer today than it ever has been and many things are changing for the positive.
I love his fresh and witty outlook, and critical way he cuts through common assumptions ‘You should not expect the media to provide you with a fact-based worldview any more than you would think it reasonable to use a set of holiday snaps of Berlin as your GPS system to help you navigate around the city’
I would absolutely recommend this book - it's like a handy compass to keep in your back pocket whilst you hike through today’s media frenzied world.
The Glass Castle - Jeanette Walls (2005)
I loved this book. I remember getting off the train and walking home just as I was coming to the end of it, walking and reading with tears running down my face. Jeanette Walls, now a successful journalist, tells the story of her impoverished childhood as part of a nomadic family travelling around the USA. Daughter of an artist and an alcoholic inventor, both passionately opposed to conforming to modern life, Jeanette and her siblings grow up in a dysfunctional household, barely attending school and having to cook for themselves, whilst their parents spend any cash they scrape together on art supplies and alcohol.
With romantic notions and pseudo-enlightened theories, the parents attempt to justify their hideous parenting. Instead of Christmas presents, Jeanette’s father assigns each of the children their own star - ‘We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘you’ll still have your stars.’ ’ For me, the book was a constant weighing up of the parents' undoubtedly admirable philosophies of non-conformity, non-materialism, empathy and non-judgement, alongside horror at their irresponsible and selfish parenting. Getting a star for Christmas could be a cute idea, if it weren't that the man who gave it to you then stole your pocket-money to go and buy alcohol.
Again, the movie adaptation was a disappointment, over-exaggerating personal rifts in place of all the little delightful and shocking moments that the book describes so poignantly. But the book is a must!
Alone in Berlin - Hans Fallada (1947)
Written in 1947, this was one of the first anti-Nazi novels to emerge from within Germany after the war. It really brings to life the fear and repression that went on under Nazi rule. Based on real events, wherein Otto and Elise Hempel (who appear as Otto and Anna Quangel in the book) began to write postcards encouraging Germans to rise up against the Nazis, and distributing them in various locations around Berlin, it's a fascinating portrayal of everyday life in Nazi Germany, and the different ways people dealt with living under the regime.
We explore the fates of the various neighbours living in one apartment block on Jablonskistrasse, from the elderly professor helping to hide his Jewish neighbour, the post-lady who is required to be a member of the Nazi party herself in order to keep her job, whilst being mortified to discover that her son has joined the SS, the ne’er do well Enno Kluge piecing together an existence out of cheating and stealing, and the aggressive SS family who cast a shadow of fear over the building.
Whilst the book is fantastic, I’d personally give the film a miss. As with most film adaptations, the film paints with a thick brush and misses the intricate detail of the book, concentrating just on the main characters and leaving out many of the side stories and other characters that make the book so rich. The bizarre decision to have the all-German (apart from Emma Thompson) cast speak in English renders otherwise great actors stilted in their dialogue, and definitely took away from the immediacy and authenticity of the film, in my opinion.
Born a Crime - Trevor Noah (2016)
I loved Trevor Noah’s fascinating story of his upbringing in South Africa. It’s as funny as the man himself, but also doesn’t shy away from exploring the dark history and politics that shaped his early life. Within this horrifically unjust system Trevor’s very existence was a crime, as he was born from a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father. The book takes us through his childhood and teenage years, overshadowed by the fiercely loving and vociferous relationship with his mother: ‘She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her’.
Devoutly religious and hilariously kick-ass, Trevor’s mother was on a mission to break free from ‘‘the black tax’. Because generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.’ As one of the US’ most successful TV show hosts, she definitely achieved her goal with Trevor! I’m a big fan of the Daily Show and its dry and witty look at American politics, so it was fascinating to discover the history of its cheeky hoodie-wearing presenter.
The Lonely Polygamist - Brady Udall (2010)
A man who has fathered 29 children with four different wives, and then (as if that wasn’t enough) has an affair with a fifth woman - not someone I would immediately imagine being drawn to! But somehow we are sympathetic to Golden, the hapless hero of this patchwork Mormon family, just as we are to his various wives and children, all attempting to make their way within this chaotic system of crossed allegiances and hurt feelings. Golden is surrounded by family and yet profoundly lonely, and is wound up in a system that catapults him to the top of this enormous family, and yet leaves him ultimately powerless. This book is hilarious and sad, and full of witty observations about people and our inherent ridiculousness and hypocrisy.
Girl Woman Other - Bernadine Everisto (2019)
So much was written and said about this book last year there’s not much to add. The array of delicious and interlocking characters, the sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic storylines, and the sensuous stream-of- consciousness style its all wrapped up in. We see the world briefly through the eyes of each of these women, snapshots of their trials and their joys, before the juicy last scene where they accidentally meet. We are left observing, with that eerie feeling you get when introducing two people you know so well to one another, and watching how they fit into caricatures of themselves and dance around each other in misunderstanding.
With its many characters in the arts and theatre scene, and revolving around so many well-known parts of London, this novel felt very close to home. The arresting almost song-like way it’s written only took a few pages to get used to, and then seemed completely natural. Its a feast.
Confession with Blue Horses - Sophie Hardach (2019)
This is a quick read but a very interesting one, exploring one family’s memories and secrets from East Berlin during the Cold War. It tells the story of Ella, who grew up with her family in the GDR but now lives in London. She travels back to Germany to unravel her past and that of her family, and to answer all the questions that still hang over her childhood. Her fate then becomes entwined with Aaron, who works in the Stasi archive, and finds himself drawn to the story of her family. This book brings alive the clash between east and west, and between the British perspective and the German, and how all of these can exist within one family.
The Underground Railroad - Colston Whitehead (2016)
Powerful and tragic, this book is well worth a read. We accompany Cora, a former slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, on her escape from slavery and attempts to forge a new life. In North Carolina she has to hide in a dark attic for a number of months as escaped slaves are brutally executed in the state, and it is only in Indiana where she glimpses a short spell of freedom, on a farm run by ex-slaves. ‘
Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits’
The Dutch House - Ann Patchett (2019)
‘I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.’ The Dutch House tells the story of Danny Conroy and his family, bound together and strung apart by the imposing Pennsylvania villa they live in. It's a slow-burner this one, slowly and carefully dealing with themes of absence, regret, longing, love and forgiveness.