Talk about a weird reading year. I don’t even know what happened. (I mean, I do. A global pandemic happened.)
Even though I read 110 (potentially 111 if I finish my audiobook today) books in 2020, my reading year largely sucked. Usually when I’m writing this list I have to whittle it down from at least 20 books and it’s a rather painstaking process, but this year my list kind of wrote itself. Which is good in the sense that I’m spending much less time on this blog post but also kind of a bummer that I’m not coming away from this hell year with more favorites. But you know what, it’s fine, here at 10 books that are all equally incredible and that I recommend wholeheartedly.
First, some stats:
7 are by women
3 are translated, 2 translated by women
1 is Irish (record low for me!) (though – it’s 2 if you count Maggie O’Farrell)
3 are nonfiction
3 are by authors of color
4 have something to do with Shakespeare, lol
10. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
“No royal dynasty would ever again hand down the Crown with such security and ease for as many generations as the Plantagenets did between 1189 and 1377.”
This was recommended to me by Brandon Taylor after I asked Twitter for a nonfiction rec about the Medieval English monarchy that wasn’t too heavily academic, and this ended up being exactly what I was looking for. A very unexpected side effect of reading Shakespeare this year is that I fell unbelievably in love with the history plays and I was looking to supplement that reading with some real historical context, and if (god knows why) you’re in a similar boat, I highly recommend The Plantagenets. This is dense reading–not in the sense that it’s laden with academic jargon, indeed it’s written in rather accessible language–but it’s over 500 pages, every one of which is crammed full of indispensable information. So it’s the kind of book you need to take your time with, but it’s also never a chore; if you’re interested in this period of history, this could not be more gripping.
9. This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith
“We make Shakespeare mean what we want him to mean.”
I don’t really listen to podcasts, but my friend Abby suggested I check out Emma Smith’s Approaching Shakespeare podcast so I decided to give it a try and quickly fell in love. Smith is an Oxford lecturer who recorded her lectures and uploaded them to that podcast–in each lecture she examines a different play through a particular question (“why doesn’t Marcus give Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus,” for example, or, my favorite: “is Lear a little too sad?”). In This is Shakespeare she turned her lectures into an essay collection, examining 20 plays each through a unique lens, and the result is an utterly invaluable resource for Shakespeare lovers. Smith is an intelligent, incisive writer, and she almost always succeeded in inspiring me to think about the plays from an angle that I hadn’t previously considered. It was a joy reading this and the only downside to it is that she doesn’t have an essay for every single play.
8. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang
“Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew.”
I was curious about this international bestseller when it was first published in English earlier this year, but also, because of the way I’d heard some people talk about it, I expected to be slightly underwhelmed by it. On the contrary, it punched me right in the gut, despite–or indeed because of–how prosaic it is. This book is a story of a woman crumbling under the strain of unrelenting misogyny, and it’s stripped down to its very core. This is not a poetic, flashy, romantic book; it’s perfunctory, it’s candid, and it’s utterly unapologetic. I found it all the more successful for that fact, and it’s really stayed with me.
7. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
“My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.“
I’m a big Donal Ryan fan but for whatever reason I’d never read the book he’s arguably best known for. Thankfully it was worth the wait. Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, The Spinning Heart chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community. It’s a short novel and it follows too many characters to remember, but its emotional impact is devastating and Ryan’s writing, as always, is lyrical and evocative and just so pleasurable to read. This really cemented Ryan as one of my favorite writers.
6. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
“When I think of my father, I think of my heart breaking in stages. A dull pain, then piercing. Electric. Still, somehow, gradual.”
I listened to half of this book on a flight to Los Angeles (pre-covid, obviously) and it was honestly disappointing that the plane had to land, I was enjoying this book THAT much (and I HATE flying). This essay collection was just… so tender and heartbreaking while also being emotionally fortifying; it tore me apart and then I somehow felt more whole after reading it. This collection’s nonlinear structure was executed impeccably–the final essay ties the whole thing together in ways you weren’t even expecting.
5. Abigail by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
“Never before had she been in such a strange building, with such a tangled branching-out of corridors.”
I enjoyed Szabó’s The Door last year but Abigail really blew it out of the water. This coming of age novel set in an austere boarding school against the backdrop of World War II is one of the most effective things I’ve ever read about the loss of childhood. At times it’s a funny and playful book–the protagonist, Gina, is headstrong and fiery–and at times it cracks your heart open as Gina’s emerging awareness of the horrors of the world around her begin to creep inside the walls of her horrible academy. As someone who’s read quite a few campus novels, this is unlike any of them, in the best possible way.
4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
“It is to him she speaks in her disordered mind, not the trees, not the magic cross, not the patterns and markings of lichen, not even to her mother, who died while trying to give birth to a child. Please, she says to him, inside the chamber of her skull, please come back.”
This historical novel pushes William Shakespeare into the background and instead reimagines the lives of those closest to him, namely his wife Agnes and his son Hamnet, who died aged eleven. In Hamnet, O’Farrell examines the relationship between life and art but she does so with such a deft hand that it’s a much gentler, subtler, and more unexpected novel than you might imagine from its premise, but it balances historical detail with innovation in a way that I found absolutely striking, and its treatment of grief is poignant and devastating. This is a beautiful, haunting book, and I’m very glad it won the Women’s Prize.
3. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses
“There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.”
Tender is the Flesh is a bold, grotesque, horrifying piece of work. A dystopian novel which satirizes factory farming to its shocking and inevitable conclusion, it imagines a world where humans eat human meat, and it spares the reader absolutely no details of this new and disturbing reality. This is a hard book to read, but I also found it to be an utterly engrossing examination of the ways we allow our ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power. This book is disgusting and unforgettable.
2. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
“There is exquisite lightness in waking each morning with the knowledge that the worst has already happened.”
Emily St. John Mandel set the bar so high for herself with Station Eleven that I was almost afraid to pick this up, but she knocked it out of the park with The Glass Hotel. On paper, this book doesn’t sound very good at all–most summaries of it mention Wall Street and a Ponzi scheme and that’s when my mind starts to wander–but the sum of this book is greater than its parts. It’s a gorgeous, quietly affecting novel that focuses on the lives of a handful of characters and examines whether our choices make us who we are and whether we can ever outrun our pasts. It’s subtle, nuanced, structurally exciting, and one of the most haunting things I’ve read all year.
1. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme”
Seeing as he’s, you know… Shakespeare, it feels weird to say that Shakespeare was never really on my radar as a reader. I’d read maybe six or seven of his plays before this year and although I’d actually enjoyed them all, I’d be lying if I said that reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare was ever a goal of mine.
Well, evidently, all that changed this year with an email from my friend Abby in March, inviting a group of friends to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Zoom a few weeks after covid hit the U.S. and everyone was feeling frantic and panicked and miserable. Shakespeare has been the biggest solace for me in an otherwise atrocious year–there’s the social element, of course, of using this as an excuse to hang out virtually with some of my closest friends once a week, and there’s the element of performance, of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself in a way that I never thought I would.
But then there’s also the plays themselves–the words and the stories and the characters. In a year where it truly felt like society as we knew it was crumbling around us all, there was something so immeasurably satisfying about reading these words written ca. year 1600, words that have moved and shaped countless people across the centuries, and finding comfort there. Reading through Shakespeare’s works on the one hand served as a project, something to keep my mind occupied away from the horrors and anxieties of 2020, and on the other hand, it was one of the only things this year I found actual, genuine pleasure in. I think Shakespeare and 2020 are always going to be deeply entwined for me in the future, but I also know I discovered something that isn’t just a passing fad for me as a reader. The only thing more exciting than the fact that I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays is the promise that I get to do it all over again.
What was your favorite book of 2020? Comment and let me know!