The 2020 reading corner

We’ve made it through 2020! I did well in the birthplace lottery and I’m very fortunate to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, which has been less severely hit by the pandemic than most other places. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones or had major health issues, been on the frontline of healthcare, lost jobs or otherwise struggled in 2020.

It has been a strange year for reading. We had an early and very strict lockdown. For some people that meant more reading, but I was one of another group – pretty big, I think – who found it difficult to read in 2020. In the first half of the year I had very little spare time, as I worked (from home during lockdown) and cared for an ill family member. Because this was all a bit overwhelming, and because of some ongoing chronic health concerns, I took early retirement in June. That gave me more free time, but I still struggled to read. Undoubtedly doomscrolling (voted word of the year in New Zealand by Public Address) had much to do with that: between the pandemic, climate change, US elections and New Zealand elections, there was a lot of news to follow. It was very easy to get distracted by Twitter or news websites or online scrabble (an addiction started during lockdown!). I lost the ability to concentrate.

I wanted to be able to read again, so I created a new reading corner. After a big clearout of my home office I was able to get rid of one filing cabinet, which made space for a comfortable old armchair I picked up in a junk store. I declared this a device-free zone, so I could sit and read there without distraction – it worked!

These, then, were my favourite reads in 2020 – some fresh off the shelves, and some from the underground stacks of the library. Taste is a very personal thing, of course, but maybe you will enjoy some of these too.

Memoirs

My favourite book of 2020 in all categories – indeed, my favourite book of many years – was Diary of a Young Naturalist by Northern Irish writer Dara McAnulty. The ‘young’ of the title is no exaggeration, for this book is the diary he kept when he was 14 years old. Dara is many things: he is a schoolboy, environmental activist, autistic, and a great lover of nature (especially raptors), but he is above all a brilliant writer. He writes of his personal struggles, of his wonderful loving family (all nature lovers, and his mother and siblings are also autistic) and most beautifully his observations of the natural world. Like all really good writing, it is a book to read slowly and savour.

Another book I read slowly, since I kept wanting to reread bits, was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a 2007 memoir by one of the great masters of nature writing, set in a variety of wild landscapes around Britain and Ireland. If you, like me, love nature writing, I can also recommend a couple of great podcasts by English nature writers: The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison, and Birth of a Naturalist by Jonathan Tulloch. Both happen to be very good novelists as well: last year I devoured all of Harrison’s novels, and this year I enjoyed Give Us This Day by Jonathan Tulloch.

A different sort of memoir about walking in Britain is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. She and her husband lost their farm and business and became homeless at the same time as he received a terminal diagnosis. This is a beautifully written and very moving description of the big journey they took, walking the English South West Coast Path and free camping.

Crossing the Atlantic, I enjoyed a couple of very good memoirs by African American women. Like millions around the world, I read Becoming, Michelle Obama’s well-written and interesting account of her life, from childhood to her years in the White House. I also appreciated A Burst of Light and Other Essays by poet Audre Lorde, first published in 1988. She writes about her struggles and activism as a Black lesbian woman, with connections all over the world. The book includes diaries she kept as she lived with breast cancer.

Closer to home, I read the memoirs of two remarkable people who now live in New Zealand. Green MP Golriz Ghahraman is still in her thirties, but she has had an eventful life. She and her parents fled Iran when she was aged nine and they claimed asylum in New Zealand. In Know Your Place she writes of her early childhood in Iran, settling to a new life here, her career as a human rights lawyer and politician, and her recent experience of adjusting to disability due to multiple sclerosis. This is a well-written book by a significant and boundary-breaking woman.

Like Ghahraman, journalist Behrouz Boochani is in his thirties, Kurdish and a refugee from Iran, but he fled his homeland later, in 2013, and had the great misfortune to encounter the barbarity of the Australian refugee detention system. No Friend but the Mountains is a very moving and disturbing book, in which he writes of his perilous journey from Indonesia by boat and imprisonment on Manus Island. Boochani is a deep thinker and philosopher and his writing is poetic; the book is in a mixture of poetry and prose. The tale of the book itself is extraordinary. He wrote it in prison, through messages sent to friends on his phone. Friend Omid Togifhian translated it from Persian to English (and wrote a longish introduction). No Friend but the Mountains won several major literary prizes in Australia, no doubt greatly annoying the government it criticised so heavily. It became his key to a new life, as he obtained a visa to attend a literary festival in New Zealand, where he was subsequently granted refugee status. He remains a strong advocate for his fellow detainees.

Novels

First, a word of warning – some of the links are to Wikipedia entries and may include plot spoilers!

I’ve read some cracking fiction this year. Four very different books topped my list. I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winner, Girl, Woman, Other, an originally-styled tale of the lives of many black women, all linked in some way. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a wonderful imagining of the lives of Shakespeare’s wife and children; it’s a moving tale of love and of grief for a child. The Bees by Laline Paull has an unusual narrator – a bee. It can be interpreted as a fable about society and hierarchies, but is also just a compelling story about bees and their hives. A recent standout read was Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 sci-fi classic, The Dispossessed. It features two contrasting societies – one is anarchist and possessions are insignificant; the other capitalist. I was especially struck by some comments about the decline of Earth, which are thrown in at one point rather than featured throughout – they seem highly prophetic.

I don’t know that Juliet Marillier can be counted as a local writer, since she has lived in Australia for many years. Still, she grew up in Dunedin and she’s an Otago graduate! She is one of my favourites, writing wonderful sensitive historical fantasy. I loved The Harp of Kings, the first in her latest series, Warrior Bards. Another Dunedin writer I really like is Laurence Fearnley: I especially enjoy her descriptions of the natural world. Scented, which I read in 2020, isn’t my favourite of hers but I still liked it. It is unusual in being a novel that is very much about smell. Speaking of the natural world, another great read this year was Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Overstory. It’s a story about trees and a group of people, all deeply developed, involved in protecting them.

I happened upon Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald’s books this year, and read Fall on Your Knees, an extraordinary historical family saga set on Cape Breton Island. She is a wonderful writer, but a word of warning: this book includes child abuse (including sex abuse). After reading this and a couple of other very grim books, which shall remain nameless, I decided I needed to read more cheerful things in this stressful year! Crime fiction is one category I’ve gone off. I’ve never been a fan of violent movies, though I used to watch some of the innumerable TV crime series. But now I find it hard to stomach as a mode of entertainment, especially when it involves violence against women. Also, I served on a jury in a horrible case in 2020, and that experience made me pretty cynical about our justice system.

I asked on Twitter for good ‘uplit’ recommendations, and people kindly gave lots of suggestions. The ones I’ve read so far are very good. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (translated from Japanese) is a lovely tale of a woman and her son, caring for an aging mathematician whose memory lasts just 80 minutes due to a head injury. My friend Jason recommended Salley Vickers and I found The Librarian unputdownable. It’s the tale of a young children’s librarian and her influence in an English village in the 1950s, with wonderful characters. I love a good book about books, and I also like well-written child characters in adult novels – they are a big feature in this one. I also read The Boy Who Could See Death, a collection of Vickers’ short stories. They are interesting tales of people, some with a supernatural edge, but mostly about very human things.

Book podcasts are a good source of recommendations. There are a couple I’ve followed for ages, but it was in 2020 that I first encountered the brilliant Backlisted, which includes wonderful rambling and witty conversations about older books. I recommend especially the 2020 Christmas Day programme, about The Dark is Rising, a Susan Cooper book I read and loved in 2019, as part of my binge of 1960s and 70s children’s novels. The Backlisted podcast features novels of all genres, literary and popular, and it was thanks to it that I read the hugely enjoyable Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson, published in the 1930s. I vaguely recall reading some of her books way back when, but had forgotten how good they are. This is a charming and hilarious tale about a naïve woman who writes a book based on the residents of her English village. Published under a pseudonym, it becomes a bestseller and chaos ensues as the villagers try to identify the dastardly writer.

History

I only read one New Zealand history book in 2020, but it was a significant one: Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand by Brian Easton. It’s a long book – the distillation of a lifetime’s work as an economist – but happily very readable and low in jargon. Economic history has been rather neglected in this country, so it’s good to have this comprehensive study. More expert friends tell me that Easton’s inclusion of environmental aspects in this book is novel, but I guess I’m more radical, since it doesn’t go quite far enough for me! I was disappointed that, despite a disclaimer, it focuses on economic growth, with no consideration of newer theories like doughnut economics. I may be too harsh a critic on economics, though.

My favourite history read of the year was Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Everything Solnit writes is good, and this 2000 book is, as ever, full of quotable bits. It covers a huge range of time and geography and philosophy about walking. I also liked Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which seemed appropriate reading for a plague year; Simon Garfield’s Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World, a nice piece of science and cultural history; and Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History, a great read about some of the more positive sides of humanity.

Society

Rounding off the list are some miscellaneous works of non-fiction that I liked. I’m certainly not the first to say that Imagining Decolonisation is a must-read for New Zealanders. It’s a multi-authored book, very readable, about the issues and practicalities of decolonisation. The Black Lives Matter movement moved me to read Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt. She is an American social scientist with expertise in racial bias, especially as it relates to the police, but this book is of broader relevance too – highly recommended. Finally, I was inspired by two books I read by Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook and The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. Hopkins is the founder of the Transition Towns movement, encouraging grassroot groups who work to make communities more self-sufficient to increase resilience in the face of climate change and economic instability. If you are interested in local action these are a good read.

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Well, those are my best reads of 2020. A big thank you to all the writers, publishers and podcasters who provided me with sustenance in a difficult year!

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