2020 wasn’t good for much, but it was a very good year for reading. What else was there to do as we hunkered down in our socially distanced comfort zones for months on end? Theoretically I could have cleared out the basement or shredded papers in the obsolete filing cabinet, but counter-intuitively these tasks seemed more difficult to accomplish with so much time spent at home. I’m no Marie Kondo. So in between frenetic bursts of supervising grandsons at virtual school, I walked and I read and I read. All right, there was some TV binging in there too.
I ended up reading far more of the books appearing on the prestigious Best of the Year lists than I usually do. I agreed on some of them. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener is an insightful take-down of Silicon Valley culture by a young New York publishing assistant who decided to try her luck in a more lucrative profession. She ended up a writer. Erik Larson’s engrossing The Splendid and the Vile proves there can be something fresh to write about the overworked subject of Churchill’s leadership in the first year of the war. But I was disappointed in A Children’s Bible, the novel by Lydia Millet. An intriguing set-up, children escape from their feckless parents in an attempt to survive a climate apocalypse, didn’t quite live up to its promise. As their experiences mirror the Bible stories in a book treasured by one of the boys, the sudden collapse of civilization doesn’t quite ring true. Perhaps the symbolism is a bit too heavy handed. The irresponsible parents obviously represent the generations who have failed to take effective action on climate change and are passing a ruined earth on to the young. Another apocalyptic novel lauded by the critics is Weather by Jenny Offill, the diary entries of a librarian who answers letters from worried listeners of a climate catastrophe podcast. The New York Times found the fragmentary structure “evokes an unbearable emotional intensity,” but I found it just that, fragmentary, and much less than compelling.
Now a confession. I always make it a point to read the Booker Prize winner each year. But this time I passed on Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. With all the awful things going on in the world I just couldn’t immerse myself in a Glasgow childhood of gritty poverty with an alcoholic mother. Instead I read a lot of psychological suspense novels, my favorite escapist genre.
I did read some of the big political books of the year including Bob Woodward’s Rage, but they were all so anxiety inducing that I couldn’t call them favorites.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
The background of this novel, a Ponzi scheme reminiscent of Bernie Madoff’s, didn’t appeal to me. But I loved Mandel’s Station Eleven so much I decided to trust her. I was right. This is no thriller thick with complicated financial details, but a subtle character study about the role of chance and fate in our lives. In a luxury hotel on a remote island a young woman bartender meets a wealthy guest. As they talk an enigmatic phrase is scratched into the glass window of the bar. We won’t learn its meaning, who did it, or why until much later in the book as lives are upended by this chance encounter.
The Searcher by Tana French
This is quite different from French’s famous Dublin murders series so, although it has some elements of a mystery, I think of it as fiction. (The categories are arbitrary after all). A retired Chicago cop buys a tiny fixer-upper cottage in the west of Ireland to get away from it all. At first he enjoys the quiet country life and getting to know his neighbors at the village pub. But when a scruffy kid turns up at the cottage asking for help finding a missing family member, he is reluctantly drawn into the search. As his involvement deepens and becomes known to those quaint friendly neighbors, he encounters the menace beneath the bucolic surface of Irish rural life. French’s writing is full of wonderful descriptions of the Irish countryside, deft character portraits, and heart-stopping suspense.
I did read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, final volume in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It appeared on many Best lists but failed to win the triple crown of the Booker Prize. I thoroughly enjoyed it but found it a less tightly furled Tudor rose than the first two volumes. Instead my choices in this category are:
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
I hesitated to read this book because, as someone who has lost a son, reading of a mother’s grief over her son’s death, even at a historical remove, was not a comfortable choice. But I’ve loved all Maggie O’Farrell’s books and the reviews were so laudatory that I decided to plunge in. I found it beautiful and cathartic. The novel is based on the bare historical record that Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet died of the plague. At the time Hamnet was an alternative spelling of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s wife, here named Agnes, a skilled herbalist, is the central character. Shakespeare himself, who is never named, disappears off to London to pursue his ambitions. As Agnes grieves her son she feels abandoned by her husband, but discovers that he has dealt with his grief by bringing his son back to life on the stage. O’Farrell’s richly evocative writing brings a past world to glorious life.
The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips
The edge of the world is Scotland and the king James VI, a possible heir to the throne of England when the childless Elizabeth I dies. As the aging Queen’s courtiers and spies secretly reach out to James to judge his suitability there is one crucial question. Is James really a Protestant or is he a secret Catholic, which could plunge England into a religious war? To find out spymaster Geoffrey Belloc devises an ingenious plan, a plot that includes poison and the king’s pet monkey. He sends a Muslim doctor to the Scottish court to test James’s religious convictions. Mahmoud Ezzedine, who is in England with a diplomatic mission from the Ottoman Empire, dreams of nothing but returning to his homeland once this task is over. The clever conceit of the novel is that we see England, Scotland, and the religious arguments among Christians from the viewpoint of a complete outsider. Phillips effortlessly conjures up a bygone world in all its strangeness.
For years I looked forward to a new book by Ruth Rendell, the queen of dark psychological suspense, so when she died in 2015 I was bereft. Morag Joss, whose Half Broken Things was an instant classic, and Erin Kelly filled the void. But I’m always on the lookout for new authors in this genre and one good thing about 2020 was that I discovered three. All are British, which betrays what you might regard either as my prejudice or my considered opinion that they just do it better than all the American Gone Girl clones.
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
A family mansion on the Thames taken over by a cult leader, a crying baby found alone in the house where three people lie dead, and four missing children. Twenty-five years later the baby will find out her true identity and inherit the house. But what has happened to the missing children in the years since the tragedy? There are plenty of unexpected twists in this haunting and suspenseful tale of family secrets.
His and Hers by Alice Feeney
BBC presenter Anna Andrews is reluctant to cover the story of a woman found murdered in the quiet English village of Blackstone, but her career is on the line. Meanwhile the local detective assigned to the case, Jack Harper, becomes a suspect in his own investigation. They are the His and Hers of the title as they take turns to tell the story in alternating chapters. Shocking revelations about the two and the murder victim keep readers guessing. Who do we believe?
The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
Professor Olivia Sweetman is a historian who has become a popular author and TV presenter. The novel opens with the launch party for her latest book based on a rediscovered Victorian diary. But instead of elation she feels fear. Vivian Tester, the odd recluse who found the diary, knows something that could destroy Olivia’s career. She is eager to cut her ties with the woman, but Vivian clings on like a limpet with horrifying results.
My two favorite nonfiction books deserved blog posts of their own:
And two more made the cut:
The Jamestown Brides by Jennifer Potter
In 1621 a ship sailed from England to Jamestown with 56 young women aboard. They were especially chosen by the Virginia Company as woman of good character suitable to be wives. Each of the “Maids for Virginia” was assessed a bride price of 150 pounds of tobacco. The youngest was 15. From original documents, including the Virginia Company’s sales catalog for prospective husbands, Potter resurrects these women from obscurity. The story of their origins in England, their arduous voyage, and their eventual fate in the New World makes a compelling narrative and a fresh perspective on the short-lived colony of Jamestown.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury district was home to five literary women between the wars. The poet H. D., Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf, classicist Jane Harrison, and historian Eileen Power did not all live there at the same time or even all know each other, but each was seeking that “room of one’s own” to build an independent life. Mecklenburgh Square’s grand houses broken up into little flats was the perfect place for such women to find a home. The title comes from Woolf’s diary entry of 1925 describing her London walks as “street-sauntering and square-haunting.” Wade explores each woman’s time in the square and the broader context of changes in women’s roles and ambitions during this time.
Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535 by Eileen Power
I learned about this book from reading Square Haunting. I had heard of Eileen Power because of her famous book Medieval People which is still in print. But I knew nothing else about her and found her portrait in Square Haunting the most compelling. She often surprised audiences at her lectures who expected a dowdy old academic. She was a beautiful woman who wore striking fashionable dresses. More importantly she was a respected scholar known for her vivid writing style. Medieval English Nunneries weighs in at almost 800 pages but is available free for Kindle. It is perfect for dipping into, full of colorful anecdotes and character portraits. I’ve been reading it a chapter at a time between other books. At the outset we learn that the overwhelming majority of medieval nuns came from the aristocracy and most entered a convent as the only alternative to marriage available to them. Many went against their wishes, sent by parents with too many daughters to afford all the marriage dowries. As a result medieval convents were hardly the devout spiritual places one might imagine, but full of intrigue, gossip, scandal, and social climbing. In other words, great fun to read about.
BOOK I THREW DOWN AT PAGE 4
Inside Story by Martin Amis
I really wanted to read this book because part of it is about Amis’s friendship with the late Christopher Hitchens. I’ve loved Hitchens ever since I saw him on television refer to the current royal family as “the Hanoverian usurpers.” But I never got that far. I simply could not stand the extreme level of Amis’s self-absorption.
There are some notable critically acclaimed books of 2020 missing from my list of favorites. They might have made the cut but I’m still on the library waiting list. I’m particularly looking forward to Graham Swift’s Here We Are, he never disappoints, and Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, a tale of societal breakdown and racial misunderstanding that sounds like a book for our times.
If you have opinions on any of these books, contrary or otherwise, please leave them in the comments. Or nominate your own choices for best of 2020. Happy New Year everyone, and may it be a year of satisfying reading for all.