In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.
The second post is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul), one of the nicest folks on Book Twitter. (Which is saying something.) Paul lives with his wife in a small house in Colorado filled with boys, books and a Basset.
In spite of everything, 2020 turned out to be a great reading year for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across some books this year that will stick with me for a long time. Here are my favorite reads of 2020.
Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym has become one of my favorite authors in recent years and her first novel, detailing the lives of two sisters in a small village in post-war England, was a perfect read amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020.
Sons And Lovers – D.H. Lawrence
Lawrence’s ability to capture the complicated tides and eddies of family lives and relationships is staggering. I read and admired Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, but this book is on a whole different level. I’m already contemplating which of his books I’ll read next. Perhaps The Rainbow? [Ed—yes!]
My Ántonia – Willa Cather
I wish I could travel back in time and tell my slacker high school self to actually read this instead of skimming the CliffsNotes version. Then again, given its wide lens on the cycles of nature and of human lives, maybe this is one of those books you only truly appreciate with age. [Ed–Makes sense.] I plan to read it often in the coming years and I’m sure I’ll discover something new every time.
The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley
In the wrong hands, a child narrator can be disastrous. But when done well, as in The Go-Between, it can perfectly capture the magic, mystery and confusion of being young in a world you don’t fully understand. I’ve heard people rave about this book for years, and now it’s my turn to join the chorus. Don’t ignore it any longer.
The Mountain Lion – Jean Stafford
Speaking of stunning childhood narrators… A pair of siblings get a reprieve from their cloistered routines and protective mother when they spend a summer in the backcountry of Colorado. The descriptions of landscape and pitch perfect immersion into the tenderness and brutality of childhood blew me away. This book is devastating.
Weather – Jenny Offill
There’s always a mix of excitement and foreboding when one of my favorite authors comes out with a new book. For years now, I have recommended Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation as often as any other book I can think of, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her follow up. Let’s just say I’m now more of an Offill evangelist than ever. Have you heard the good news?
Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
Few books have made a larger impact on me than Susanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I still remember certain scenes and images I read 10+ years ago far more vividly than those from books I’ve read in the past few months. As with Offill, I was both thrilled and a bit queasy when I heard Clarke had a new one on the way. Again, I needn’t have worried. Piranesi is very much its own book, but it contains the magic, mystery, and spectacular settings that are everything I could have hoped for. It was definitely worth the wait.
The Unreality Of Memory – Elisa Gabbert
I’ve found myself reading more essays in recent years, and this is one of the best collections I’ve come across. Given the subject matter—“disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting collective sense of doom”—I was afraid that 2020 might be the wrong time to pick this one up. Instead, it was strangely cathartic to stare directly into the sun, guided by Gabbert’s masterful hand.
Winter Morning Walks – Ted Kooser
I first came across Kooser through Braided Creek, a wonderful “conversation in poetry” between Kooser and author Jim Harrison that often left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends. Winter Morning Walks is made up of 100 poems that Kooser sent to Harrison on postcards after Kooser developed cancer in the late 90s. Written and sent over the course of 12 months, these early morning ruminations are by turns elegiac, humorous, and contemplative. Accompanying Kooser during his year of doubt, fear, and hope made for perfect 2020 reading.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
Over the past 10 years, I’ve begun to collect a handful of treasured nature writers: Robert Macfarlane, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, Rebecca Solnit. This year, I added Kathleen Jamie to the list. This collection displays an impressive range, focusing on everything from microscopic cellular landscapes to mammoth whale skeletons hanging in the rafters of museums. As with the other authors on my list, I plan to slowly parcel out Jamie’s remaining books to make them last, despite the strong temptation to gobble them up as quickly as I can.
Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor
This is one of several books I read this year that felt like jumping into a raging river and holding on for dear life. Dark, grimy, violent and incredibly compulsive, it refuses to provide the reader with any relief, even once you’ve turned the last page.
Ulysses – James Joyce
As I get older, I am increasingly drawn toward what Roberto Bolaño describes as “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown.” Ulysses is all of those things and more. What can I say? It’s breathtaking. I highly recommend reading it while simultaneously listening to Jim Norton’s incredible narration.
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman
How can a book that has received so much attention and hype still deserve more? I have never read anything like it. Even after nearly 1,000 pages, I didn’t want to leave the narrator’s troubled, compulsive, and familiar head. She was a much-needed companion during the darkest parts of this year. The fact that I can’t stop thinking about this book. The fact that I may just read it again in 2021. The fact that you should, too.
In Search Of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
Like many others, I’ve spent years warily circling Proust’s masterpiece, simultaneously fascinated and intimidated. I should have started sooner. Spending the last few months making my way through the first four books of In Search Of Lost Time has been wonderfully immersive. As I make my way through the last two volumes, I find myself slowing down, savoring every word, reluctant to see it end.
What a great post, and an excellent year of reading! Sad to say the only one of these I’ve read is The Go-Between (absolute classic). And my own reading of Ulysses this year stalled around p.400. But you’ve given me many more to look out for in 2021.
Not a dud among the bunch, that’s for sure. (Though I confess I am not a particular fan of Ulysses, it’s heretical I know.) But really, you can’t go wrong with anything Paul’s chosen.
Thanks, Keith! I definitely understand the mixed feelings on Ulysses. Not to keep repeating myself, but if you ever make another attempt, give that audio idea a try. Listening as I read really helped me through some of the slower and tougher sections.
Thanks Paul! I actually love Ulysses, it may be my favourite book I’ve never read 🙂
Will get back to it someday, I’m sure. And will check out the audio!
Great DHL comment and yes! thirdly, to The Rainbow, second only to The Plumed Serpent as my favourite, though Women In Love can be magnificent too. I think DHL is a nature writer too … a great one.
*whispers* Not a fan of Ulysses either.
Thank you! I look forward to reading a lot more Lawrence, so I’ll move The Plumed Serpent up my list. And that’s a great point about his nature writing – those were some of my very favorites sections.
He was a great nature writer, no question. His poetry is marvelous in that respect.
Some of the poems are wonderful, “Snake”!!!! And, “Bavarian Gentians”.
I have never heard anyone say their favourite Lawrence is The Plumed Serpent!
And yet, here I am!!! 😉
That’s a stunning painting at the top of the post, and an impressive reading year! I am reminded I have some Jean Stafford in the stacks…
Thanks! (although credit for the painting goes to Mr. Stuber)
The credit goes to Albert Bierstadt, really, I just chose it. Great painter of the American west, including the Colorado Rockies.
NYRB classics used a Bierstadt painting for their cover of John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing (which I have not read). Makes sense though.
Ah, I didn’t know that (haven’t read it either). Great minds, etc…
I didn’t realize it was the same person, but I love both of those paintings. And Butcher’s Crossing is amazing. I would highly recommend it.
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