Posted on Jan 6, 2021
I doubled my yield of books last year, reading 34 compared with 2019’s total of 17. I set myself the goal of reading more widely in 2020, and I think I managed to. This upcoming year I want to read more non-fiction: specifically, there are several philosophy and history books which I want to try to read. What follows is a series of short reviews about some (but not all), of the books I read in 2020.
Back in January, what seems about three lifetimes ago, I read Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire series. As I mentioned last year, while I found I, Robot to be a masterful collection of ingenious short stories, Asimov isn’t brilliant in the longer form in my opinion for a few reasons, notably his relatively poor character development and often stilted dialogue. That trend continues in this work, and has made me reconsider reading Foundations, despite all the praise I’ve heard heaped on it. That said, the plots were as intriguing and interesting as ever.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a story about the fleeting and traumatic period of the Nigerian Civil War was an emotionally harrowing and extremely worthwhile read. Focusing on the interconnected lives of several different people during a highly fractious secession movement, the book feels more claustrophobic and uncomfortable as the situation deteriorates. Personally, it also served as an interesting introduction to the topic of the war itself and some aspects of Nigerian culture of which I wasn’t previously aware. Other novels which I read last year and would describe as “harrowing” include Georges Simenon’s The Snow Was Dirty, and Jenny Ofill’s Weather (a wonderful and quirky modern novel, an excellent review of which can be found here).
I also thought I’d try reading a postmodern novel for the first time, and settled on Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It was wonderful; a perfect example of how a novel can be both politically and socially thought-provoking and still an incredibly fun read. From what I know about 80s’ America it seems in hindsight like a piercingly observant and relevant book: frankly it makes me wish I’d been alive to read it then. Even though elements of the cultural critique are dated, some are still poignant, particularly what it has to say about academia and religion. This beautiful skill that DeLillo appeared to have, to be able to easily pluck out a thread of the zeitgeist and to ridicule it intelligently, made me extremely excited when I read that he would have another book coming out in 2020. It’s also what made me crushingly disappointed when the short novel in question, The Silence, fell so far below the bar that White Noise set so high. It seemed to have nothing to say, or at least what it had to say was not made remotely clear by the over-the-top, aimless prose.
Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet is an excellent series of books. Starting with Autumn (followed by Winter, Spring, and Summer), these books are thin but powerful political and cultural allegories of circa-Brexit Britain. Speaking of political allegories, it would be ridiculous to live through a pandemic and not read Albert Camus’s The Plague, which can be read as an allegory of the French occupation during World War II. Arguably more obviously a theme of The Plague is the absurdist fatefulness that Camus writes so well. I read one of his other works, The Stranger a few years ago (which I also recommend), and the plaintive helplessness of the characters that Camus writes is a wonderful theme throughout.
Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, is a cleverly-written short-story collection. It’s rare to have a book focus on the perspective of so many characters, and rarer still that the book can “win you over” to most of them. But this book succeeds in doing both of these things, and tells convincing, varied, and emotional stories with impressive consistency. The repeated heel-turn the book performs of telling the story of an character previously presented as unsympathetic carries a well-presented moral reminder to not judge books by their covers.
Finally, I read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, both by Margaret Atwood. The former is a classic work of dystopian literature, to which the latter is a highly-anticipated sequel. Both books were good, in my opinion. I think that The Testaments is to an extent less affecting than The Handmaid’s Tale; perhaps it’s something to do with the chapters alternating between different characters (and one of them not being in any present danger), but the book had less consistency in its tension than its predecessor as a result.
Long overdue, I finally read some books on the subject of race. The first, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and the second, Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science, were both extremely interesting and shed light on several historical events which I definitely should have been aware of previously (among them the history of racism in policing in London, where I grew up, around the time I was born; as well as the history of eugenics and the people involved). On the related topic of colonialism, I also read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: an encyclopedic and shocking book about the history of the continent which I probably know the least about. With lengthy and significant sections devoted to the history of certain crops such as sugar and coffee, the history of certain metals such as gold and silver, and a lengthy exploration of the history of mercantilism in general, this book was a worthwhile read, if dense and sluggish at times.
On a more lighthearted note, corporate fraud and nuclear weapons! Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton were very snappy reads that I enjoyed immensely. The former is about Theranos, a biotech startup with a corporate culture worse than Enron and C-level executives to match, and the latter is about all the incredibly deranged plots that the Allies devised during WWII and the subsequent Cold War. I had no idea that we were planning to build an enormous unsinkable ship out of ice and wood pulp, but that was apparently on the table at one point.