In mid-December I released My Best Books of 2020. These are the books that made a deep impression on me and ones I would highly recommend.
However, in an immensely strange year where being holed up home was the norm, I took comfort from the fact that it was richly rewarding in terms of reading – both in quantity and quality. I read a total of 71 books, probably more than I did in previous years. Most books I read every month were very good, even if they did not find a place in my year-end list.
So, just like last time, here’s all that I read in 2020 depicted in pictures. I have done monthly posts highlighting my reading this year too, should you want to know more about these books.
2020 was so terrible, the less said about it the better. The best thing though was all the reading I did. Books kept me sane. With more time on my hands, I read much more than what I had done in previous years, and as a result discovered some really terrific books.
This also means that I have expanded my ‘Best of’ list to include 18 books. Of these, eight are translated works covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, German and Korean). I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 15:3).
So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2020, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…
THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)
In The Birds, our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Since Mattis is not able to hold on to any job, the responsibility of providing falls on Hege’s shoulders, and she is now tired and lonely. Until one day a lumberjack called Jorgen enters their lives and uproots their daily existence. This is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with.
There’s a reason why To the Lighthouse is a classic, it is Woolf at her sublime best. An impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives – all in Woolf’s trademark stunning prose.
Gwethalyn Graham is a Canadian author I had never heard of before, but thanks to Persephone Books I do now. This is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice. Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues and discussions between the characters.
A book longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize that should also have been shortlisted. The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.
The Witch, a highly reviled figure in the rural Mexican village of La Matosa, is murdered and her corpse is dumped in a canal. Told through four perspectives, Hurricane Season is a tour de force, hurtling at the reader at a furious pace despite the long, winding sentences, and drips with violence, foul language, poverty and an overall feeling of dereliction. It was my favourite to win the International Booker Prize.
Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries. The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.
Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.
It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place.
Almada is one of Latin America’s most exciting contemporary writers introduced to us by the wonderful Charco Press. Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved.
Set ten years after The Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.
Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call. Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.
THE SOUL OF KINDNESS by Elizabeth Taylor
I somehow missed writing a detailed review on this book (the only one on this list). In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.
Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.
In Look At Me, our narrator is Frances Hinton, who works in a medical library during the day and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly mesmerized.
This novel is a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider. Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh. Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough, and despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of her storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch. In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.
Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.
Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality.
The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to. After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin. While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company. In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.
THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (tr. Shaun Whiteside)
This is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.
Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.
Such a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present.
Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever fabulous, elegant and incisive.
Tom Birkin, a soldier in First World War and having suffered shell shock, arrives in Oxgodby in the summer of 1920 to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village church. This is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art. It has everything – nostalgia, an art mystery, romance, and atmospheric descriptions of an idyllic village life.
That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and here’s wishing for a better 2021 in simply everything. Merry Christmas!
A Month in the Country had been getting so many rave reviews over the years, that I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it. It is as fabulous as everyone said it was.
A Month in the Country is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art.
Our narrator is Tom Birkin, who is now in his 70s, telling us the story of that particular period in his youth, a time that holds a special place in his heart.
Rewind to the summer of 1920 and Birkin who had been a soldier in the First World War, arrives in the idyllic village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire on a mission. Birkin is a shattered man, having suffered from shell shock, which physically manifests in the form of a twitch when he is stressed. With a past he would like to forget, and a future that is uncertain, Birkin is looking for some solace in the present by plunging headlong into a project requiring a skill he possesses.
The village church has been left a legacy on the condition that a suspected medieval wall painting above the chancel arch should be expertly restored. Birkin has been commissioned to complete this task – to clean away the elements that have obliterated the painting over the ages. The mural is around 500 years old and appears to depict a typical scene of Judgement where the virtuous enter the gates of heaven and the sinners are condemned to the fires of hell.
Birkin is happy to stay in the church belfry since he has no money to pay for formal lodgings. As Birkin begins to settle down in his new, bucolic surroundings, he and the reader are introduced to a slew of characters. The vicar, a taciturn man named Keach, is against the idea of restoring the painting, but really has no say in the matter, since the terms and conditions have already been set in stone by the benefactress, the late Mrs Hebron. Birkin, meanwhile, strikes a friendship with the archeologist Charles Moon, also a fellow soldier. Having suffered similar hellish experiences of war and tragedy in love, Birkin and Moon are in a way cut from the same cloth and understand each other. Moon has been commissioned to locate the burial site of Mrs Hebron’s ancient ancestor.
We are introduced to the Ellerbacks – the stationmaster and his family including his young, teenaged daughter Kathy – at whose residence, Birkin is regularly invited for Sunday dinners. And last but not the least, is Alice Keach, the vicar’s wife and a stunningly beautiful woman. Birkin finds himself attracted to her and often contemplates on her marriage with Keach, of what could possibly have brought about a union between the two.
To reveal anything more would be to spoil the plot, so I will touch upon some essential themes that give the novella such a rich flavor.
At its core, A Month in the Country is about finding peace, contentment and a sense of purpose through the healing power of art. The restoration of the wall painting can be interpreted as a metaphor for Birkin looking to restore his sense of self.
You know how it is when a tricky job is going well because you’re doing things the way they should be done, when you’re working in rhythm and feel a reassuring confidence that everything’s unraveling naturally and all will be right in the end. That’s about it: I knew what I was doing – it’s really what being professional means.
The novella also explores the notion of what constitutes hell. There is the depiction of biblical hell in the mural, but what about hell on earth? After all, Birkin, traumatized, has experienced his own version of hell on the battlefields. Birkin, meanwhile, displays a flair for his craft, as he assiduously works on the mural, slowly but surely revealing its true splendor. It dawns on him that what he has uncovered is a masterpiece by a painter unknown to the world.
Who was he! I couldn’t even name him. People don’t seem to understand those far-off folk. They simply weren’t us. Our idea of personal fame was alien to them. This man of mine, for instance, knew nothing of earlier artists, so why should he suppose anyone would want to know anything of him? So it wouldn’t occur to him to sign his work.
Awash with the blazing heat of summer, Oxgodby also represents a microcosm of the idyllic village life, a place where time stands still, where the pace is slow, and life is simple. All of this provides a therapeutic tonic to Birkin, a soothing balm for his bruised soul, as he begins to cherish the place and make new friends.
Day after day that August, the weather stayed hot and dry. These days we call it real holiday weather but, then, only the well-to-do in those parts went far afield and even a week at Scarborough was remarkable. Folk stayed at home and took their pleasure from an agricultural show, a travelling fair, a Sunday-school outing or, if they had social pretensions, a tennis party with cucumber sandwiches…
…And this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content.
But there is so much more going on. Certainly, the reader can feel a whiff of romance in the air – Will Birkin’s attraction to Alice Keach transform into something more than just a longing? An aura of mystery surrounds the wall painting – a man with a crescent on his forehead is depicted falling into the flames of hell. Who is this man and why was his image obscured immediately after the painting was completed all those years ago?
We are also compelled to ask ourselves – Can we truly preserve the past and what are its repercussions on the future? Moreover, the book frequently alludes to the ephemeral nature of time, how those flashes of joy if not snatched could be lost forever.
If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.
Seen through sepia-tinted lens, Carr’s prose is sublime whether he is describing the lazy, languid summers, the vibrancy of the painting as it comes alive, the longing for those heady, tranquil days of the past, or while capturing instances of piercing sadness.
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
Teeming with a tinge of nostalgia, an evocative art mystery and a scent of romance, A Month in the Country is a delicious confection meant to be savoured. I adored this novella.
While looking at my reading habits over the last few years, I realize I haven’t read too many essay collections (something I need to correct), but I have been quite impressed with the ones I have –Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick is the one book that comes to mind. Now, I will also add Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self to that meager list.
Notes to Self is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Emilie Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence.
There are a total of six essays in the collection, but for this review, I will focus on the first two essays, which are simply brilliant and worth the price of the book alone.
Let me begin with what to me is the standout piece – ‘From the Baby Years’, a poignant essay on Pine’s emotional upheaval when it dawns on her that she will never experience motherhood. Pine was not always sure she wanted to be a mother though. In her twenties and early thirties, she observed her friends leap into parenthood and witnessed the extraordinary range of emotions they underwent. But she and her partner R weren’t very sure it’s a step they wanted to take. They debated a lot on the pros and cons, and also talked about their lives as people who loved quiet and calm and the space to read and write. For them, this was a rich and fulfilling life and having a child would mean giving up all of that.
But then, one day she accompanies her friend and her child to the park and observes the love between the two. Yearning for that very same bond, Pine decides she wants to be a mother. She manages to convince R, who is still unsure, but they decide to take the plunge.
There is no luck though after a lot of ‘trying’. And thereby begins Pine’s ordeal of closely monitoring her cycles, endless tests and hospital visits to determine the root of the problem. At one point, Pine does become pregnant only to miscarry and she writes about the emotional pain this caused and the ambiguity surrounding it – the foetus was growing, but there was no heartbeat, and under stringent Irish laws, the foetus is prioritized over the mother, so she couldn’t abort it either unless there was more clarity on its status.
All of this begins to take a toll on the couple’s relationship. It comes to a point when they have to decide whether to go in for IVF treatment. And after an important conversation – possibly the most important of their lives – Pine and R decide not to.
I loved this essay for its frank and honest portrayal of the range of emotions that the author felt – the love of a child that evoked the desire to be a mother, difficulty in comprehending what’s going on inside her body, the jealousy she felt when her sister became pregnant, and the grief of realizing that her dream of motherhood will remain unfulfilled.
But what I loved most is how the author came to terms with this fact, displaying hope and courage. Why grieve over something you can’t have, and focus instead on what you do have? Pine realized that she has a great relationship with her partner and why not treasure that rather than going after something that is not likely to happen?
And it hit me. We are growing old together. This is what it will be like as we watch each other age, as our partnership ages. And this unexpected moment made me happier than I could have imagined. I see a life ahead for us, a shared life. A great life.
It is Pine’s way of saying that she chooses to be happy and put these ‘baby trying’ years behind her.
The first essay in the book “Notes on Intemperance” explores the difficult relationship between Pine and her alcoholic father. The essay hits you in the gut right from the first few sentences. Pine and her sister are in an understaffed and poorly managed hospital in Greece, where their father has been admitted for liver failure. Travelling all the way from Dublin, when the sisters find him, “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.”
Pine’s feelings for her father are very complicated. She resents him for his endless drinking during her younger years, and at the same time she knows that when he eventually calls her for help, she will not be able to refuse. Pine’s father manages to pull through, but the author uses this incident as a medium through which to explore the trials of caring for an alcoholic parent – one who does not even grasp the consequences of his actions. And yet she can’t give up caring for him.
But we are not lost, not just yet. Our relationship may be an unyielding kind of story, a chain of unalterable moments, from arguments in bars to vigils at hospital bedsides. But it is also, just as powerfully, an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter, a conversation that we are both grateful is not over.
In Notes to Self, then, Emilie Pine touches upon crucial themes – alcoholism, infertility, taboos around female bodies and female pain – topics which cause emotional disruptions, but which are never part of ordinary conversations lest it gets uncomfortable for the audience. And yet these are necessary conversations and cannot be swept under the carpet. These are essays laced with fearless and astonishing honesty; they reveal devastating truths and dole out dollops of wisdom.
November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.
But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.
When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.
What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood.
Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.
NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.
DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox
Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.
THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)
Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.
THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer
A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.
As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.