The books that got me through 2020
Books that provided solace (or distraction) in a difficult year
I read fewer books than ever this year. I finished thirty-three books and will probably get through three or so more by the year’s end, now that I’ve given myself a little time off. (This, of course, does not include all the books I worked on as an editor!) It wasn’t just the broad-sweeping anxiety of the pandemic that made me read slower this year, it was the busyness of juggling work and care for family members: a combination of physical, in-person nursing and high-level problem solving and decision-making, made more complex by enforced distances due to border closures.
Reading was an essential solace this year, but it was often hard to find the right fit for the moment. I started many books that I didn’t finish. And I probably bought more books than I read! Those packages arriving at the door during Melbourne’s strict lockdown gave me little jolts of excitement and possibility.
Here were some of the books that sustained me this year:
Tasked to write an essay for a creative writing book on an Australian writer I read and re-read the works of MJ Hyland. How the Light Gets In is an intimate and sympathetic novel about an exchange student who fantasises about the possibilities of living other lives, of having another family than her own, and of achieving some kind of real and lasting connection. We are present with her longing, her wilfulness, her compulsions, her repulsions and her physical sensations. A brilliant outsider novel. Carry Me Down is told from the POV of a boy in early adolescence, John Egan, who is out of step with the world around him. He thinks he has a gift for lie detection and he truly wants to believe he is special. He wonders why his parents have begun to act so differently around him and he is distressed by it. This is a book of strenuous, frustrated figuring out as John attempts to cope with human behaviours that do not match his own sensibility. Re-reading This is How was such a pleasure, one of my all-time favourite novels. It’s uneasy, morally ambiguous, compelling.
One of my first events to get cancelled due to COVID-19 early in the year was a chat over some Irish whiskeys about Irish writers. In prep, besides dipping into Edna O’Brien, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, I read When All is Said by Anne Griffin, an author I learned about at a whisky (yes, Scotch) tasting event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019. The book was very moving – the kind of gentle, well-structured narrative I needed to hold me during the early anxiety of the pandemic. It’s about an old man, Maurice, at the bar of a hotel he has history with, raising five toasts to five people who’ve meant something to his life. I cried many times!
I’m a fan of both crime fiction and dark humour/satire and so My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was a real delight. It’s a thriller set in Nigeria about a woman who has to deal with her beautiful sister constantly offing boyfriends. It’s darkly humorous and entertaining, with unexpected twists and turns. I listened to the audiobook and can highly recommend it.
I was keen to read more queer books this year and was pointed in the direction of some light and fulfilling romantic reads, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite – a satisfyingly rich historical romance with science, embroidery and feminism – and Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, about a romance between the First Son of the US and the Prince of Wales, which was delightful. It made my heart soar. My favourite queer book, however, was From a Shadow Grave by New Zealand author Andi C. Buchanan: a haunting, sliding doors supernatural story, set in Wellington and elsewhere from 1931 onwards. Trauma and love, queerness, ghosts, time travel and strange apparitions of parallel lives all feature. It’s effectively and intimately narrated in second person, and is atmospheric and absorbing. I loved it.
Alternating with this kind of transportive reading I went deep into considerations of the various life-changing events of the year… by first turning to my favourite philosopher Albert Camus and his novel The Plague. I read it slowly, and it strangely echoed the stages of the first COVID-19 lockdown. Camus has such a depth of insight into individual and mass behaviour around pestilence and tragedy. I was moved by (**spoiler**) the death scene of Rieux’s friend Tarrou, at a moment when they all seemed to be in the clear. Images of the deathbed and dying captivated me at that time, as, along with pestilence and quarantine, it was a part of my immediate landscape. Around this time, I was also inspired by Star Trek: Picard to read Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life. I read it late at night when I couldn’t sleep up at my parents’ place.I highlighted sections and took copious notes and I can’t say I came any closer to understanding how tocomprehend living and dying, though I appreciated the moments of connection that one can have with the reaching thoughts of another across time and space: ‘We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.’ I also tried, not for the first time, to read Simone de Beauvoir, but I find her style impenetrable. I’m determined to try again and also am very keen to be recommended more philosophers and thinkers who are not men. After my dad died, I sprang from philosophical questions to wanting to better understand physics and so began Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I found I could completely conceptualise the big picture space-time stuff but now, at the quantum level, I have stalled. But I will persist!
My main grief book, gifted by a dear friend, was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which I always wanted to read and have now read at the perfect time. A book of and for grief. About Mabel the goshawk, and T. H. White, the author who haunts Macdonald. It features solitude and focus (and love) as coping. The anger of grief, and carrying it in the body, the desire to isolate, the drawing up of history (one’s own, history of place, more). I loved the specificity, the detail, of Mabel and also the places: Cambridge, the hills and forests. A read in which you are wholly present and that was definitely cathartic, for me. I dog-eared many passages. From the same friend I received To the River by Olivia Laing. This was the perfect read for the extensive heavy Melbourne lockdown. It transported me to sun and water and bees, where history pressed at the present. I followed Laing’s journey and her deep, meandering thoughts. It worked for that time too in the way it encompassed loss, and the meaning of life as the ‘path above the abyss’, as she quotes Woolf in the end pages.
Another book that is good for loss or grief is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. It’s about Gottlieb’s patients and also her own therapy process after a break-up. About what therapy is and does. About the relationship between patient and therapist (from both sides). About grief, and dealing with grief as a part of life. I found it genuine and insightful. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is also a beautiful and carefully structured novel about grief. A mother’s, mainly. I loved the fully developed character of Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife. It’s told at a gentle pace by an omniscient narrator and is incredibly immersive, like taking a trip back in time to Stratford and London.
I read some brilliant Australian books this year. Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe is highly recommended. Ying, Lai Yu and Meriem are compelling characters who we follow into the cesspit of oppression that was colonial Australia, with all its heat and stench and flavour and noise. It’s a searing and tragic read, but there is also tenderness and possibility. And I finally read Too Much Lip. This Miles Franklin-winning novel by Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko is worth reading for every reason as it’s a great book but its characters in particular are complex, memorable, and real.
That dear friend I mentioned before, Josephine Rowe, had a new book out this year, On Beverley Farmer (Black Inc.’s Writers on Writers series). It is exquisite, and deep and far-ranging for such a tiny book. A real pleasure to read. Here’s a Farmer quote from it: ‘How stubborn life is, when you think, lodging its residue in the worn old skin of the earth until some convulsion crumpled it into mountains, studded with coiled and spiny fossils from the earliest beginnings...’
lt like a friend this year. The Illustrated Man is a book of short stories full of heart and fear and wonder; rocket ships and electric houses and red Mars. My favourite story was ‘Kaleidoscope’, which I wrote about earlier in the year (as well as on his essays in Zen in the Art of Writing). I also spent time with another favourite writer of mine, James Baldwin. I’d never read If Beale Street Could Talk and, wow. Its protagonists are Tish (Clementine) and her fiancé Fonny (Alonzo). They are a young black couple in 1970s New York City (mainly Harlem). The story begins with Fonny locked up in jail (the Tombs) and Tish visiting him to tell him she is pregnant. Then Tish and both her family and Fonny’s work to prove Fonny’s innocence. Through interwoven backstory, we learn about them both: their families, their beautiful relationship, and, as the story builds to its crisis, the danger of white cops, racism and structural oppression.
One of my steadiest companions during the year was the Shadowhunter Chronicles, a YA urban fantasy series by Cassandra Clare. What do you read by the side of a hospital bed in Emergency at four in the morning? Turns out, this. I bought the books because I had found the TV series so fun, and I knew I’d need this kind of comfort food when dealing with one of the most difficult and saddest experiences of my life. I now have the fourth book in the series sitting around the house in case I need a little treat. My favourite character is Magnus, the fabulous bisexual warlock, played in the TV series by gorgeous Harry Shum Jr.
I had a little true crime kick near the end of the year (in the heavy lockdown). The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule was sickeningly compelling. It’s a unique true crime book because the author actually knew the killer, Ted Bundy; they worked together when he was young. So you get real insight into the ‘two faces’ of a psychopathic killer. Very scary. Rule was already writing true crime for magazines when she met him, so it’s a strange coincidence. Then I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote because I thought I should catch up on classics of the genre. Written like a novel with a strong cast of characters, Capote gives time to the victims, those affected (townsfolk), and the killers. He was one of the first writers to get up close to death row killers like that, as most of you probably know! I’ve held off for years on watching Capote, even though I love Philip Seymour Hoffman, because I always wanted to read the book first. The story is elegantly presented without intrusion from the author, which was not what I expected for some reason. (Possibly because contemporary narrative and investigative nonfiction almost always has authorial intrusion/inclusion.)
I read a little poetry, too (mainly Ali Alizadeh) and in 2021 I would like to read more. I’ve already ordered a couple of books for the pile. I’m currently getting through Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and loving the fragmentary nature of it, dipping in and out and picking up tales and drawing the threads together. I’m also reading classic women-authored crime novels from the 1940s, starting with Laura by Vera Caspary. I’ve started on Tyson Yunkaporta’s incredible Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. And finally, on audiobook, I’m loving Barack Obama’s A Promised Land (read by him), how detailed and deeply intimate it is. I never thought I would find the patch-up of the economic crisis in 2008–9 so compelling (which is where I’m up to), but when you’re in the presence of a great mind…
So how about you? What books helped you, gave you solace, or entertained you, throughout this difficult year? Click the comment button to discuss.
Opportunity of the month
Fantasy is seeking original fantasy and dark fantasy stories and also original fantasy and dark fantasy poems. It’s a competitive market and pays professional rates as defined by HWA and SFWA. It’s open to subs the first week of every month.
Wishing you a truly happy and healthy new year!
Thanks so much for reading, and do get in touch if I can help with anything,