Updated: Jan 11, 2021
In 2020 I read 69 books, fiction and non-fiction and all very different. So it was of course hard to pick favourites. But here are my top 5 fiction and non-fiction of the year (in the order I read them):
The Plague by Albert Camus
Like so many others (so many that, apparently, it was hard to get a copy for a while) the state of the world inspired me to read The Plague by Albert Camus. It is the tale of a plague outbreak in Oran and it’s physical and psychological effects on the town's inhabitants. The novel is told masterfully. An appeal to solidarity, love, humanity in view of the seemingly endless and senseless struggle against all evil, every siege, every misfortune.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The winner of the 2020 Pulizer Prize for fiction by the amazing Colson Whitehead tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Florida. Unjustly arrested he finds himself in a juvenile reformatory: the Nickel Academy. Life at the academy is violent and dangerous. A culmination of racist hatred and brutality let out on the bodies of black children. The Nickel Boys is based on a true story, making it all the more devastating. A brilliant though horrifying account of America’s racist reality.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other tells the stories of twelve different characters, mostly black British women from different generations but all loosely linked with one another. Every character is lovingly constructed. This is a highly dynamic and very honest read, joyfully written. One of my absolute highlights this year.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan’s Atonement was the book that made me want to start this blog, the first one I reviewed on here - I just felt like I needed a place to talk about it. It tells the story of young Briony Tallis who’s interpretations of the grown-up world changes the lives of several people forever. The consequences of her action will damage her family and for the rest of her life she will try to atone for what she has done. Atonement is worth reading for McEwan’s skilful and fluid use of language alone.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
One of my last reads in 2020, The Shadow King astonished me. I reviewed it briefly in the Booker Prize Post but let me say it again, to me Maaza Mengiste has written a masterpiece. The work of historical fiction explores the role of female soldiers in the Italian-Ethiopian war and turns it into something near-mythical, almost legendary.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
2020 will always hold a special place in my heart as the year in which I first read Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal work The Second Sex. This ground-breaking study of the western idea of “woman” and her position in society, of inequality and otherness is eye-opening. The French philosopher has not only woven her existentialist ideas into her analysis of gender and sexism, but portrays and impressive understanding of biology, history and mythology. If you ask me for a reading recommendation I will probably tell you about this book. In fact, you probably won’t have to ask. Just talk to me long enough and sooner or later I will find a way to bring Simone de Beauvoir into the conversation.
Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks
Another brilliant account of womanhood that I read this year was Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks. She analyses the interplay of different oppressive powers: the intersectionality of gender and race. bell hooks writes about the effects of sexism on black women from slavery until today. A perfect follow-up to Simone de Beauvoir’s earlier (and very white) account of women’s story.
Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries
In Grand Hotel Abyss Stuart Jeffries introduces the philosophers of the Frankfurt School – Walter Bejamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer – and explains how they matter today. Jeffries’ account explains not only their theories which are based on Hegel, Marx and Freud but explores the lives and characters of these prominent twentieth-century thinkers.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is another more recent read that I already wrote about here. The short book comprises two letters. The first one to Baldwin’s nephew explores the author’s own early life in Harlem and addresses the consequences of racism on the people he knows and loves. While the experiences described are painful, Baldwin always encourages his nephew to keep on fighting for a better future and to meet others with love and kindness. The second letter is to the public and includes an analysis of religion as well.
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell
By reading Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café I finished 2020 with a great book and closed the circle by returning to Simone de Beauvoir and existentialism. Similar to Grand Hotel Abyss the book explores both the philosophies of French existentialism and German phenomenology its origin, and also gives a biographical account of the interesting characters of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and others. Insightful and entertaining.
I cannot finish my account of reading in 2020 without mentioning the most beautiful book that has found its way into my hands (and then onto my mantelpiece) this year: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. This might look like a children's book, but it is filled with wisdom and love that everyone can profit from - especially in a year like 2020. It is, as goodreads says, "a book of hope for uncertain times" and Macksey's drawing are absolutely stunning.