2020 in books

I try always to carry a book with me for those times when I anticipate or fear I might have to wait – the doctor’s office, obviously, but to smooth all those little gap times between the activities in a day, too.

“Waiting” is what this past year has been about and books have helped a lot. I read more, though not as much as I thought I would. Streaming K-Dramas helped a lot too, and going for walks. And of course, food must be prepared and the house cleaned even when largely housebound, so, all in all, more books were read but not an especially large total.

I read 77 books in 2020, 25 non-fiction and 52 fiction. 28 titles were works translated into English. The desire for escapist entertainment must account for the number of mysteries in the list, but the quality was generally quite high across all genres. It was a bit hard to pick only ten for the years’ “best” list. See the Post ‘Reading List 2020’ for more information on each book.

10+3 Favorites for 2020

Non-Fiction

A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorhead
Black Count by Tom Reiss
Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson
The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas

Fiction

The Return by Hisham Matar
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (transl. Hungarian)
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (transl. German)
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (transl. Arabic)
Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler (transl. German)
Measuring The World by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. German)

I reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy and must put it in the “always a favorite” category.

Special recognition in the ‘just plain fun’ category for The Glorious Hussar by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Best new-to-me mystery discovery is Death On Demand by Paul Thomas. The earlier titles in the short series aren’t readily available here. I liked this so much I sent to a bookseller in New Zealand for copies of the other four novels featuring Maori Detective Ihaka. The internet is good for some things!


Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

December

A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life by Andrew Krivak 2008 Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown 2017 4th Estate the 20th century refracted through her life; insightful on celebrity culture; imaginative technique and structure

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (c2006) 2007 The Dial Press a sad, delicate novel of a boy whose family and world are caught up in political terror

Continue reading “Reading List 2020”

wounds of melancholy

( in medieval Estonia, a student hopes to make a fresh start at a new University)

Laurentius sighed in exasperation, closed his eyes, and started making a serious effort to get to sleep. The carriage shook monotonously, the wheels engaging the furrows in the weathered road surface with a regular measured rhythm, like the swinging of a clock’s pendulum. He imagined that the carriage was a large golem made by Rabbi Eliyah, with people stuffed into its stomach like strips of paper, each one with the name of the Lord written on it. But how does that strip of paper feel inside the mchine’s stomach? Does it have its own place there, or is it just passing through, whiling the time away in boredom? What is it like inside a human? Where does the soul come from, and where does it go? What about inside his parakeet?

Laurentius shook his head and looked around uneasily. He didn’t want to get bogged down in those kinds of thoughts – he had to make sure he stayed rational. But he couldn’t help himself. Fragments of thoughts, individual sentences and memories permeated the edge of his consciousness like blood soaking into a bandage. This was the wound of his consciousness, which he dressed and treated, but to no avail. Laurentius had tried to immerse himself in learning, literature, theatre, other people’s company, anything to soothe this wound and help it heal. But it festered; the same thoughts kept recurring and the bad blood kept rising to the surface.

from The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal

you’re old when…

“…maybe I’m getting old.”

“Don’t be cute. You’re not even fifty.”

“What’s that got to do with it? At my age, not long ago, people were already old, or almost. My father died at fifty-seven; my other didn’t live much longer. Now everybody wants to be young; I understand, but it’s a bit stupid. It seems to me the fun in all this is being young when you’re young and being old when you’re old; in other words: you’re young when you don’t have memories and you’re old when behind every memory you find a bad memory. I’ve been finding them for a while now.”

from the novel Outlaws by Javier Cercas

the writer’s duty according to Doyle

…I am emboldened to say a few words as to my own conception of the art of fiction. That conception is that our treatment may be as wide as the heavens and as broad as the earth, if it does but attain the essential end of interest. All methods and schools, romance and realism, symbolism and naturalism, have the one object in view – to interest. They are all good so far as they attain that, and all useless when they cease to do so…You are right to make your book adventurous, you are right to make it theological, you are right to make it informative or controversial or idyllic, or humorous or grave or what you will, but you must make it interesting. That is essential – all the rest is detail.

But there comes the obvious retort. ‘You say “interesting” – interesting to whom?‘ The difficulty is not really a great one. The higher and more permanent work has always been interesting to all. The work which is the cult of a clique, too precious for general use, must be wanting in some quality. We know cases where obscurity of style has retarded the recognition of really great writers – but obscurity of style is not a virtue, and they were great in spite of it….If you were to make a list of the works of fiction which have proved their greatness by their permanence and by the common consensus of mankind, you would find that no narrow formula would cover them…the only point which they have in common is that each of them holds the attention of every reader.

It is just this power of holding the attention which forms the art of story-telling…It is imagination – and it is the power of conveying imagination. But we do not know what imagination is, and so all our definitions and explanations become mere juggling with words.

And still critics are found to write, ‘The book is interesting, but we confess that we are unable to say what useful purpose it serves.’ As if interest were not in itself the essential purpose!…[to help escape life’s troubles through] the window of imagination which leads out into the enchanted country…The life of a writer of fiction has its own troubles, the weary waiting for ideas, the blank reaction when they have been used, worst of all the despair when the thought which had seemed so bright and new goes dull and dark in the telling. But surely he has in return some claim to hope that if he can but interest his readers he fulfils the chief end of man in leaving others a ittle happier than he found them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

from the Author’s Preface in The Glorious Hussar, The Best of the Exploits and Adventures of the Brigadier Gerard (originally published in 1902 Smith Elder edition of his work)

the book as keepsake and souvenir: Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun

Among the many reasons I have too many books in my home, one of the most difficult to resist is sentimental attachment. I have practiced a fairly ruthless approach to the memorabilia issue, what might be called the detritus of a life. Precious little of it remains, making what does, perhaps, more precious than any evident value. And books, for me certainly, are among the most potent carriers of meaning and connections. Beyond its intrinsic merit, a book can also serve as a tangible link to a special person, a connection to the past, or a prompt for treasured memories.

I think a well-worn copy of Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is the only relic of my early school years. Holding it, seeing my name so carefully printed on the endpaper, I feel like laughing again with that lively family and at the memories conjured of my own family growing up.

I like receiving books as gifts but am wary of the danger of conflating gift with giver. I also like to give books, but almost never write an inscription. No pressure, you’re free to pass it on as you like. A written name works a kind of binding magic on me. One day while sorting books for the library book sale I opened an old dictionary to see my husband’s name and college address. It was an artifact of a time before I knew him, finding me somehow forty years later. Of course I brought it home.

My husband and I buy lots of books when we travel, only a few of which, museum guides for instance, might be classified as trip souvenirs. Many will prompt memories of a trip, of course, but that is an incidental function. Possibly only one time did I buy a pretty random book just to have a keepsake. The purity of its purpose can be seen in that I only got around to reading it this month, 17 years later, when a memory of carefree travel seemed especially desirable.

So, my daughter and I were walking across England – I love saying that, and it was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done – when our knees demanded a rest day. We took a tiny bus, slowly, sharing the road with many sheep, into the town of Shap where we spent a delightful day. We watched lawn bowling, walked to some ruins, ate Stilton with apricots (who knew it came in anything but blue?), and found a used bookshop. The shop keeper seemed very dubious about two Americans in boots and packs, and was rather short with my query for “something about sheep”. Undeterred, I browsed until I found something that looked rather jolly.

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I was looking at a book about English Game Laws, popular enough to have gone to a 6th edition in 1927. The author’s preface was highly humorous and many charming pen and ink cartoon sketches enlivened the text. No sheep, alas, but stories of real life in English countryside seemed a good alternative. I paid a few pounds, tucked it into my pack, and eventually carried it across the ocean to sit until whim should call for it.

So there it was, waiting for this right moment when I really wanted something that would take me traveling again if only in memories. And it turned out to be an interesting and rather entertaining account of a slice of English life and law. The author has a sharp wit and flair for anecdotes. The drawings are a welcome leaven to the mind-boggling intricacies of the laws and their application. The layers of laws, rights, and customs and the contradictions implicit and in practice are beyond the explication of even so skillfully plain a stylist as our author.

Really, although entertained, I felt quite baffled and concluded this was definitely more than I wanted to know about when and when not one may within the law shoot a particular animal/bird, or the circumstances when it is acceptable or prohibited to carry same away. My confusion seemed generally shared among the characters populating the stories of poachers, tenants, and feuding neighbors who seek counsel from Mr. Six-and-Eight in his chambers. At least, much work is made for lawyers and much talk for the pub. As learned counsel has it, “Nothing is certain in law except the expense.”

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secrets will out

(After midnight an old classmate drops in on Inspector De Vincenzi at the police station.)

De Vincenzi looked at him. Why in the world was he here at this hour? And why had he come?

They had been classmates and friends. They were certainly friendly, but not, perhaps, close. Come to think of it, where could one find closeness these days, with men all hurling themselves towards their own destinies, with their own passions, their own needs and all the vices of the human body?

Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.

from The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

tension rising in Death Going Down

Gaby heard the click of the receiver being replaced on the stand, then she moved away silently. Once she was in her bedroom and had got into bed, she took a packet of cigarettes from the drawer in her bedside table. Long hours unfurled ahead of her like an image multiplied in a house of mirrors. She smoked with relish, tricking her wakeful anxiety with the calm appearance of her gestures, her gaze lost in the whitish smoke that slowly dissipated in the darkness of the room.

from Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco
translation by Lucy Greaves

…time has solidified

It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and knowing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front…so as not to let the dying man feel that he has been abandoned. Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice.

Khaled Khalifa from Death is Hard Work