Well, one thing you can say about 2020 is that there was a lot of time to catch up on one’s reading. The ones below are among the best I read, and are all “recent-ish” books, released in the last 2-3 years or so – and very much worth your time. Here’s eight I loved in 2020:
The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox – This sprawling fantasy epic by New Zealand’s own Knox is a dense, glittering exploration into the very meaning of stories themselves. A writer’s sister dies and it launches her on a journey between the world we know and one of demons and magic. With lots of Tolkien and Gaiman in its its DNA but distinctively in Knox’s own voice and grounded in a tense realism, it’s full of fascinating ideas – almost overstuffed – but holds together to be one of the best imaginative reads I had in a year where reality literally felt as strange as fiction.
Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman. This first novel by the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich is a marvel, like one of his twisting films unspooled into print. Loosely the tale of an unbelievably creative “lost film” and one man’s quest for it, it’s sprawling, chaotic and surreal, and often hilariously funny, like Thomas Pynchon meets David Foster Wallace. It may be a tad overlong and I’m still not entirely sure I understand all of it, but it it took me on a wild ride more than any other novel I read this year.
Becoming, by Michelle Obama. I read President Obama’s memoir A Promised Land and it’s very good, but it suffers the syndrome that affects most political biographies – turning into an endless cascade of names and meetings. There’s some dazzlingly good prose in it, and it’s well worth reading, but I have to admit, Michelle Obama’s memoir moved me even more with its candour and ease. She tells her story with heartfelt emotion but also a sense of wonder, as a young Black girl in Chicago grows up to become First Lady of the United States. Twelve years on after Obama’s inauguration day, it’s still pretty cool to type those words. Sometimes, history works out OK.
Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. I’m fascinated by the oldest of stories, the Beowulfs and the Gilgameshes. I’ve got two other translations of Beowulf, the 1000-year-old-epic, and the idea of a “modern”, more feminist translation at first sounds like a very very bad idea. But Headley’s edgy reimagining is faithful to the misty ancient past of the poem, while giving it a death-metal spin of passion that makes the story feel more alive. Her version starts out: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” Modern slang and ancient protocols wrestle in the text, giving it a heaving urgency. Now, that may sound silly, but once you get into her rhythms, Headley’s Beowulf rocks and boasts like a hair-metal epic, while never losing sight of what it is. It’s pretty hardcore, bro.
Demagogue: The Life And Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, by Larry Tye. We all know what “McCarthyism” means, but I only knew about the Wisconsin Senator and his grim legacy in broad strokes. This biography does an excellent job of filling in the story and bringing the Senator to life with all his flaws, hubris and arrogance, and putting his frightening anti-communist crusade in a broader context in American history. There’s so many echoes in the current US political scene that it’s almost disorienting to see the same things happening again. As Faulkner put it, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Imagine what might have happened if someone like McCarthy became President. Oh, wait…
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. Who doesn’t love a mushroom? The kingdom of fungi is a vast, strange place, stretching its tendrils into almost every part of our lives and yet mostly unknown. Sheldrake’s excellent guide takes a tour through the world of fungi, filled with fascinating facts and discoveries explained in clear, evocative prose. The future might very well be in fungi, and this is one of those cool books that leaves you looking at the natural world around you with different eyes.
Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami. I know not everyone is a fan of Murakami’s very mannered, particular storytelling, but I quite enjoyed his latest, a long, meditative read about a painter whose lonely exile on top of a mountain is interrupted by mystery and obsession. I read this during the heart of NZ’s first and longest lockdown this year, and somehow its isolation spoke to me clearly in that suspended moment in time. Killing Commendatore is a meandering journey with few firm conclusions – kind of like 2020 itself often felt – but sometimes the journey itself is the point.
Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro. Shapiro has written a host of really fascinating Shakespeare scholarship books, but this one seems particularly relevant in 2020, looking at the complex relationship the Bard’s plays have had with American history. Did you know that 22 people died in a riot in New York in 1849 that was sparked by a performance of “MacBeth”? Shapiro draws history and literature together to create a fascinating read, culminating in the controversy of a Trump look-a-like being assassinated on stage in New York in 2017 – no fatal riots then, but it shows that the play’s still the thing, 150+ years on.
Also worth noting: “Oscar: A Life”, Matthew Sturgis; “The Overstory,” Richard Powers; “The Nickel Boys,” Colson Whitehead; “All Who Live On Islands,” Rose Lu; “It’s Garry Shandling’s Book,” Judd Apatow; “2000ft Above Worry Level,” Eamonn Marra.