Twenty books from 2020

When the pandemic started, I dug out a number of plague stories to read – Camus, Defoe, Marquez, the Adam Mars-Jones short story about the Queen getting rabies, and studies of the Spanish Flu epidemic. I didn’t read any of them – I wasn’t in the mood. So instead here are twenty books I did read that seem worth noting. They are not the only books I read in the year – there must be at least a couple of dozen others I read for work alone. These are not in any order, other than chronological order of reading.

  1. Patrick White The Living and the Dead. Until I went back through my pandemic diary I had forgotten I read this earlier in the year. In my teenage years I remember there were a few dog-eared copies of Voss in the school library, but I never read it – I was more interested in Simenon. This is a family in decline in the 1930s. There’s something of Anthony Powell’s Dance series about it, but it’s darker.
  2. Sara Blaedel is a Danish crime fiction author and we spend – spent, before the pandemic – a fair amount of time in Copenhagen for family reasons. Her Louise Rick series is ideal distraction reading. This year I read several, so let’s go with The Midnight Witness, a murder story set in Copenhagen itself.
  3. The Swedish journalist and crime fiction writer, the late Stieg Larsson, was the source of the material for the next book, which is based partly on his files on the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme: The Man who Played with Fire, by Jan Stocklassa. It’s a thorough piece of investigative journalism, irritating in its development in places, but an important assessment of the failures of the investigations and the right-wing networks that may have been involved.
  4. The Alanbrooke diaries. Lord Alan Brooke was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff for much of the Second World War. This is a fascinating read on the thoroughness of the planning for the defence of the UK, the preparation for D-Day, and the interaction between Churchill and his military chiefs. Anyone who thinks Johnson is another Churchill should read this and think about Churchill’s preparation for speeches and decisions.
  5. Derek Raymond’s The Crust on their Uppers (written when he was known as Robin Cook – not the late Labour politician). Raymond’s Factory series is gripping and doesn’t hide the realities of violence and murder. This is a much earlier thriller set in a 1960s milieu of upper class decadence and criminal association.
  6. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach had sat on the bookshelf for a while. It was engaging and cleverly-imagined, though I thought there should have been some development of both male and female characters in the years following the separation.
  7. Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains has also sat on the bookshelf for years. In the early days of lockdown I wanted to ensure a real break between the week and the weekend and without football I turned to shorter novels for a Sunday read, like this and Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Both deal with relatively unknown – to us in the UK – periods in European history – the first, Czechoslovakia’s occupation by the Nazis, and the second, West Germany under threat from the Red Army Faction. The first has many unlikeable characters but contains a tragedy: the latter, I enjoyed more for its sense of a society under threat.
  8. The Mirror and the Light. This was the big one. I found I couldn’t read it in one go as I had the previous two volumes – and Mantel herself has said it is a more difficult read for the reader. I kept seeing Brexit parallels throughout – Henry VIII as a manic Johnson – and the politics of the Kingdom, relations with the North and the Scots, played a significant role. Cromwell’s last days were very effectively conjured.
  9. Curtis Sittenfield’s Rodham was a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end: the story of what Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life would have been like if she hadn’t married Bill. She created plausible futures for both Hillary and Bill after their break-up, and didn’t duck challenges. One of my favourite books of 2020.
  10. We have been to Sicily a couple of times in 2018 and 2019 with Sicily Unlimited and were due to go again on the Montalbano Unlimited tour in 2020 which was of course cancelled by Covid. I am late to the Montalbano novels of Camilleri but I started with the first three and I prefer them to what I have seen of the TV series. Camilleri uses dialogue substantially to shape plot development and character and has said he learned a lot from the way in which Simenon’s Maigret novels were torn part for TV reconstruction on Italy’s public service broadcaster, RAI. The Shape of Water introduces Montalbano and the fictional town of Vigata (we have visited its real-life equivalent), as well as the cuisine, culture and politics of Sicily.
  11. I loved Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes. I spent a lot of time in Scotland in the 1980s for work and personal reasons and this brought back much of that milieu and its culture and distinctive developing politics as it criss-crosses time periods from the 80s to the present. It’s not all set in Scotland, but Scotland – and radical politics, feminism and popular culture north and south of the border – is its centre.
  12. Fintan O’Toole has been one of the most acute observers of the post-Brexit UK, writing from an Irish internationalist perspective. Heroic Failure is full of sharp observations drawn from both political and cultural analysis on how we got to our current crisis and why.
  13. Eimear McBride is an extraordinary writer. I much preferred The Lesser Bohemians to her previous novel, although that itself still sticks in my memory two years after reading it. Bohemians is rich, evocative, challenging and contains one of the most remarkable 70 pages of a single character’s story you are ever likely to read.
  14. Leonardo Sciascia was not only a novelist and short story writer but also a Sicilian politician who wrote devastatingly about Italy and Sicily’s history, political corruption, criminality and social unease. I have read a lot of Sciascia in the last few years and we visited Racalmuto, his home town, in 2019. He wrote a scathing account of the murder of the Italian Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in the 1970s. The Wine-Dark Sea is a volume of Sciascia short stories which is a good introduction to his writing.
  15. I haven’t read any Martin Amis for probably thirty years, but I wanted to read Inside Story largely on because of his exploration of his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, including in his last years (and also with Saul Bellow). It’s not really a novel, though it has novelistic aspects and fictional elements. I’d call it a meditation – it explores themes of life, death, physical decline, and love.
  16. I found Don Delillo’s The Silence a bit thin – it’s a spare, dystopian account of what happens to a small elite group when the electronic systems on which we rely start to fail. I couldn’t really engage with this, despite the contemporary themes and despite having enjoyed much of Delillo’s previous writing.
  17. Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem is an extraordinary piece of dystopian science fiction written by a Chinese writer who actually gets the science of a lot of key issues in physics. It’s the first volume of a trilogy. I enjoyed it not only for the concept itself but also for the insights it gives to Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution and after.
  18. Amongst other things, Hani Kunzru tackles the strategies of the alt-right in Red Pill. The term comes to us of course from the film Matrix but it has been adopted by the alt-right as a description of the process by which people come to shed their supposed delusions and turn to the alt-right world view (I discuss this a little in Facebook, the Media and Democracy). Cleverly done, the novel explores the breakdown of a writer’s sanity.
  19. Jock Colville’s The Fringes of Power cover his years working as Private Secretary to Churchill. They contain a revealing paragraph about Churchill’s conception of the Empire, based on the emotional solidarity of its white inhabitants, which illuminates the Churchillism of the Brexit-backing right today, and on which I have written in a forthcoming book.
  20. I ended the year reading thrillers. There’s always a new Michael Connelly to read around Christmas-time. I read The Law of Innocence in a day. Gripping escapism in itself, as an aside, it is the first novel I read last year that mentions Coronavirus.

Leave a Reply