Monday, January 4, 2021

This Fluid Thrill Book Awards: the best things I read in 2020

You can find similar lists for 201920182017, (...), 2014201320122011, & 2010.

The rules are, as ever, that I'm choosing the books I liked best from what I read in the calendar year, not solely from those released in that year. 

Though my reading does tend to skew towards more recent releases...

For 2019 I set myself reading targets, focussed on increasing the diversity of my reading, and tracked my progress. At the end of the year I set myself the target of reading 70 books in 2020 (which I promptly forgot about, but came pretty close with 66), and left it at that. I wanted to see how diverse my reading would be with a more laissez faire approach.

And the results were... interesting.

Only 6/66 books were in translation, with 3 of those being from French (Flaubert, Camus, Houllebecq).

Only 27/66 books (41%) were by male authors, which is probably my best ever result in terms of reading female and gender diverse writers (last year male authors = 52% of reading).

I didn't do so well in reading non-white writers, with only 12/66 (18%), which is pretty damn poor (2019 = 25%).

And books by nationality tells a similar story:

As per usual, fiction dominated other forms, and audiobooks far outstripped physical books, but I've started reading poetry collections as e-books from my local library and it's really great, hence this surge of poetry & e-books relative to previous years.

Okay, enough quantification, time for some... ur... qualification.

My top ten reads of 2020

1. Winter by Ali Smith / 
Spring by Ali Smith / Summer by Ali Smith

I'm cheating already! 

I wish I'd had time to re-read Autumn (it was in my top 10 in 2017) before the year was up and have something intelligent to say about the quartet as a whole, but here's what I said in November:
Holy shit, Ali Smith. I am in awe of you. 
My favourite out of all four was Spring. Somehow blends The Sixth Sense and No Friend But the Mountains, and spends a lot of time on Katherine Mansfield and Rilke. It works.

2. Weather by Jenny Offill

Loved it. Leaves all the guff of novels on the cutting room floor (explaining who folks are and how they fit together) and just gives us the fluff of daily life.

3. How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

This is a book I'm already finding multiple reasons to recommend to people. It's not about withdrawal from society at all, but a refusal to play on the field as it's defined by the online materialists.

There's a lot of depth to Odell's arguments, and I enjoyed the fact so much of it is grounded in the (visual) art world. And nature. And history. 

So good.

4. Convenience Store Woman by Sakata Murata

Somehow I didn't include this in any of my consumption diaries, so I can't say for certain which month I read this (or quote from a more contemporaneous reaction), but I definitely read it and LOVED it.

A great mixture of weird and banal, sinister and sweet. Looking forward to reading her next book, Earthlings, in the coming months!

5. Lost Connections by Johann Hari

I have had this on my Audible wishlist since it came out in 2018 but, despite depression marching ever closer over that time, I kept putting it off...

I only finished Lost Connections today so I haven't fully processed everything. There weren't many surprises. Materialism is bad. Big pharma is bad. Contact with nature and other humans is good. But Hari stitches it all together so clearly, weaving in his own experiences with depression and anti-depressants. One refrain through the book is why some people can see the off-ramp but never take it - like Joe, the paint-mixer whose mindless job is sucking his will to live and dreams of becoming a fishing guide in Florida but never does anything about it. 

It's what I'm asking myself now. I'm working too much at the expense of everything else because, why? Because I have a mortgage and just a few more years of killing myself to live will be worth it? By which time my kids will have been boiled slowly in this stressed atmosphere, used to being fed and ferried by us but little else. 

Something has to change... 
After writing this, I started applying for different jobs in Wellington, then got very excited about a job in Dunedin and now we're moving back down there at the end of this month!

Right now it feels like there's so much to do and so much to still fall into place (like, uh, somewhere to live), but the big driver is still to have a better lifestyle as a family.

6. Lanny by Max Porter

Porter has a subversive streak, evident both in how he puts a page together and use of narrative... For the longest time, the 'disappeared boy' arc felt fresh and new. That it doesn't hold that line to the very end is a bit disappointing, but it's still fantastic overall.
(The passing of time meant the positives remain vivid while the slight disappointment had been forgotten.)

7. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Very good. Does aging so well. The stories without Olive do a pretty good job of holding their own.

8. Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

O'Farrell rises to the challenge of writing about Shakespeare's life without making it Shakespearean in scope or language but still making art. I really loved this. Agnes takes a while to emerge as the heart of the story, and overtake the eponymous child, but it's masterfully done. Stephanie Merritt's review in The Guardian covers the main strengths. Just so good. Top ten book of the year with a rocket.

9. Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident by Bruce Pascoe 

I felt pleasantly flayed by this one. Like, it should be no surprise that Australia's colonial history actively overwrote a lot of what the indigenous people had going on pre-contact. So much cognitive bias going on then and now. 


Because I'm not done cheating, I'll let two different novels, both "genre" fiction, share the final slot...

10= The Martian by Andy Weir

... I got sucked in quick and finished it in a couple of days.

I'm a sucker for hard sci-fi. This doesn't have the scope of something like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. We're only a couple of decades in the future and every piece of technology described conceivably exists now. But Weir makes it thrilling and epic, while also keeping a sense of the quotidian, both on the surface of Mars and back in Houston.

Two thumbs up!

10= The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen

I really liked this. A YA novel, which is basically an adult novel with permission to have a plot and be a bit emo, that asks what if the X-Men were real, but instead of becoming superheroes they went to therapy?

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