My Best Books of 2020


Artwork by Agnes Martin

Almost every article I've written this year has started with the usual hyperbole about the 'year that was' ~ some commentary of our collective undoing and how we've managed to face (or not face) it as individuals and together.


I'm going to give it a miss here. The irony of using the word 'best' for anything associated with 2020 is not lost on me (although, it was the year my partner asked me to be his wife, so there were some 'best' moments in there), but I'm going to put that aside to get down to this.

And so: a list. Of the best books, I read this year.


These books moved me, shaped me, enraptured me, and most of all, changed me in some way. They left me a little better on exiting the pages than when I went in, and for that reason, I gather and share them here.


Enjoy.


Best Fiction Reads


What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt


'This is the story of two men who first become friends in 1970s New York, of the women in their lives, of their sons, born the same year, and of how relations between the two families become strained, first by tragedy, then by a monstrous duplicity which comes slowly and corrosively to the surface.'


This was the second of Hustvedt's books that I read and to say now that I am an adoring, dying fan of her work is an understatement. What I Loved is a moving, layered book, so rich in detail, emotion and human connection. I read it at the start of 2020, and I can still recall paragraphs word for word. Hustvedt is powerful in the way she conveys human relationships and our (in)ability to understand what motivates us.


“I've always thought that love thrives on a certain kind of distance, that it requires an awed separateness to continue. Without that necessary remove, the physical minutiae of the other person grows ugly in its magnification.”


The Invention of Love, by Sara Schaff

'What is love, if not an invention—not just a human instinct but an artful construction? The women who people The Invention of Love, Sara Schaff's second story collection, long to conceive of themselves as artists, as lovers, as good sisters and daughters—while contending with financial insecurity and the reality of twenty-first century womanhood.'


Schaff eloquently details this rollercoaster of a journey across fourteen short stories. Deftly touching across a wide variety of themes centred on love, Schaff calls our attention to the unexpected ways love can show up in our lives. This was a superb collection for me. I thoroughly enjoyed every single story; not one of them felt like an afterthought addition to pad out the book (as can so often feel like the case in some short story collections). The ways Schaff chooses to highlight love are highly nuanced and rarely visited.


Read my full review at The Book Slut.



Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill


'Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.'


I LOVED the lucid-dreaming style of writing that Offill uses to deliver her story. It’s one that’s been told countless times, and yet Offill manages to find a way to tell it that captures the reader from the first sentence. Staggered in neat vignette-like paragraphs, cleanly jumping across the years to chart the experience of domestic life, including the arrival of the couple’s first child. Neither wife nor husband is referred to by name, only by their respective roles within the marriage itself. Offill dispenses with all the conventional trappings of a novel, paring back on excessive explanations and leaving the reader with the bare bones of the wife’s experiences. Explorations of motherhood and the accompanying loss of identity are examined deftly and poetically.


Read my full review at Aniko Press.



A Room Called Earth, by Madeleine Ryan


'As a full moon rises over Melbourne, Australia, a young autistic woman gets ready for a party. What appears to be the start of an ordinary night out, though, is, through the prism of her mind, extraordinary. As the events of the night unfold, she moves from person to person, weaving a web around the magical, the mundane, and the tragic. She's charming and witty, with a touch of irreverence; people can't help but find her magnetic. However, each encounter she has, whether with her ex-boyfriend or a woman who wants to compliment her outfit, reveals the vast discrepancies between what she is thinking, and feeling, and what she is able to say. And there's so much she'd like to say.'


Gosh, this book was such a breath of fresh air to encounter. A Room Called Earth is a deeply enriching experience of what it means to understand and pursue one’s identity, to speak out about what it means to be “us” even when who we are is complicated and sits outside a “normative” pattern of existence. It’s a witty, effervescent and joyful account of one woman’s journey through life and her capacity to find true moments of living within it. Simply: read it.


Read my full review at Aniko Press.


Read my interview with Madeleine Ryan at Write or Die Tribe.


“Even if we don't get the chance to meet, or to talk, we can remain in a state of wonderment together. My dream is to leave people wondering and nothing more. It's safe, it's sexy, and I want to live there forever.”

Swallow the Air, by Tara June Winch


'When May's mother dies suddenly, she and her brother Billy are taken in by Aunty. However, their loss leaves them both searching for their place in a world that doesn't seem to want them. While Billy takes his own destructive path, May sets off to find her father and her Aboriginal identity. Her journey leads her from the Australian east coast to the far north, but it is the people she meets, not the destinations, that teach her what it is to belong.'


I've recently ordered The Yield, Winch's incredible award-winning novel from this year, but I wanted to read Swallow the Air first and I'm so glad I did. It's a stunning novella. While this is an Aboriginal story, it is not the sort of Aboriginal story most white Australians are comfortable with. Winch focuses on the lingering fallout of the Stolen Generation, the abuse and displacement of an entire people, as well as the inherent racism still prevalent today towards the custodians of the land we live on. May’s life is one clouded by “grog,” drugs, and scraping by. An unflinching account of the ongoing rift across Australia and of what happens when you try to remove the identity of people through degradation, Swallow the Air is an intensely relevant and compelling book.


Read my full review at Aniko Press.


“The thing is, we weren’t allowed to be what you’re looking for, and we weren’t told what was right, we weren’t taught by anyone. There is a big hole missing between this place and the place you’re looking for. That place, that people, that something you’re looking for. It’s gone. It was taken away. We weren’t told, love; we weren’t allowed to be aboriginal.”

Best Non-Fiction Reads


Becoming Myself, by Irvin D. Yalom


'Irvin D. Yalom has made a career of investigating the lives of others. In this profound memoir, he turns his writing and his therapeutic eye upon himself. As Becoming Myself unfolds, we see the development of the compassionate and insightful thinker whose books have been a beacon to so many. This is not simply one man's life story — Yalom’s reflections on his life and growth are an invitation for us to reflect on the origins of our own selves and the meanings of our lives.'


Yalom is someone who I think we would all do well to sit on the floor of his library, while he regales us with tales of is incredible life. His story had me enraptured. His prose is succinct, humorous and filled with empathy and love. It was a joy to spend time with his memoir - a gorgeous reminder of everything that makes a life and that saying 'yes' to the right things is really the only thing we should be doing.


And gosh I hope his wife plans on writing one too.


Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo


'Based on years of immersive reporting and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy. Three Women introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.'


This book became a global phenomenon and it took me a while to around to it for that reason - but I'm so glad I eventually did. Taddeo is an excellent writer & all three stories were compelling. Although I don’t believe Taddeo has achieved what she wanted entirely - this is not a book about female desire. It is a book about three women experiencing desire, but rarely does this seem to be as a result of their own decisions. The stories were more about how trauma shapes sexual desire, but also our need to be seen, held, valued, respected - all the things wrapped up in desire more generally. There is a lot in here I think many women would find alignment with amongst their own personal experiences and it is well worth reading.



The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson


'An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family. Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of "autotheory" offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author's relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson's account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.'


Nothing I say could ever do this book justice. Nelson manages to be intellectual without being pretentious. Intimate without being narcissistic. It's a sublime book, one I encourage everyone to read.


“I told you I wanted to live in a world in which the antidote to shame is not honor, but honesty.”

“How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”

“Whatever I am, or have since become, I know now that slipperiness isn’t all of it. I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Intimations, by Zadie Smith


'Deeply personal and powerfully moving, a short and timely series of essays on the experience of lockdown, by one of the most clear-sighted and essential writers of our time. Crafted with the sharp intelligence, wit and style that have won Zadie Smith millions of fans, and suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these unprecedented times, Intimations is a vital work of art, a gesture of connection and an act of love -an essential book in extraordinary times.'


In under 90 pages, these essays manage to cover a great breadth of experience. Threading together “normal” experience and interactions with the transformation of thought and connection the pandemic has wrought, Smith creates a smooth parallel between how we lived “then” and how we live “now.” This a lightly felt collection that, despite its subject matter, sparkles with clarity and (dare I say it) hope. Smith embalms her words with a depth of empathy that had my heart melting. A much-needed antidote to the year.


Read my full review at Aniko Press.


“The writer learns how not to write. The actor not to act. The painter how never to see her studio and so on. The artists without children are delighted by all the free time, for a time, until time itself begins to take on an accusatory look, a judgemental cast, because the fact is it is hard to fill all this time sufficiently, given the sufferings of others.”



Returned-To Reads


I've been trying to return more to books I've read and loved. To further uncover why I loved so much and see what new meanings I can take-away in re-reading.


Here are three, much loved books, I re-read this year.


And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, by John Berger


I may make it a new year tradition to begin every year by reading this book. It is unbearably lovely, an intimate and articulate collection of thoughts and mediations spanning a number of topics. A wonderful embrace of romance.


Felicity, by Mary Oliver


In a world of uncertainty, Oliver offers a beautiful constant in her odes to love and nature. This poetry collection never fails to make my heart swoon and is a bright light on dark days.


Blue Has No South, by Alex Epstein


Translated from Hebrew, Epstein's flash fiction collection had me floating on air. These tiny vignettes are like tiny word puzzles, sentences slowly slotting together as you read. His words are magnetic, magical, lucid - everything I want in shortest of short stories.



And that's it. That's all I've got for you.


I hope this new year brings you real magic and moments of unadulterated joy - and continued connection to everything it means to be human, through each other and through the books we invite into our lives.

Copyright © 2021 Elaine Mead