Wrap-up 2020: Some Books I read This Year

My reading this year was a little sparser than usual. Last year I read 290 books (although these included poetry, plays, novellas, and graphic novels). This year I’m at around 100. To a large extent, the difference was made up by watching television. Not even great television: comfort-watching TV shows I enjoyed as a kid and as a teen. One might say, well, it’s been a difficult year (aside from the pandemic, we had a child in March and we’ve had my mother in law staying with us since then as well). But life seems only to get more, rather than less difficult, and a person occasionally needs to make an active effort to set themselves to rights.

There is a tension there: binge-watching eight seasons of The Practice is harmless, but it’s certainly not the best use of 200 hours. Almost all that time came whilst I was watching the baby (I mostly just listened to the audio), but I am a big audio listener, and I could’ve done that instead.

I don’t feel particularly bad about the wasted time. If I could add up all the time I’ve wasted in my entire life, it would be a pretty considerable sum. But I do believe in the concept of wasted time. I do think some activities are more valuable than others, and some time is better spent than other time. On the other hand, you can’t entirely know what is what. I’ve for years thought of this online journal as not the best use of my time, but have lately started to appreciate it for the effects it’s had on my style.

In any case, we were talking about the books I’ve read in 2020. Generally, I get on reading kicks where I read a dozen or so related books. Early this year, before the pandemic, I got very into true crime. This is surprising, because if there’s one genre I’ve always thought not particularly worthwhile, it was true crime: at its worst, the genre is just a dry recitation of facts. But the trick is you don’t read the worst.

The best true crime I read was The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko, about forensic science and the way that two examiners in Alabama put away hundreds of people on unsound medical evidence. Most notably bite mark analysis, where they claimed to be able to prove, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that a given bite mark on a victim came from a given set of teeth, even though this was scientifically impossible based on the incomplete marks (which were often not even really from bites) that they had.

I also liked Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell by Jack Olsen. This one was about a doctor in a small town in Wyoming that for years was raping women during pelvic exams, and about the efforts to bring him to justice.

I also went through a cozy mystery phase. I read ten or eleven of Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness mysteries, about a minor royal in 1930s England who always seems to show up at an isolated country villa right as someone is being murdered. Also in this phase were seven Mrs. Pollifax novels, which weren’t quite mysteries: they’re more like cozy thrillers. They’re about an elderly widow who becomes a CIA operative. I’d recommend both of these series highly if you’re looking for mindless audible listens with diverting characters and interesting narrative voices.

Other than these two phases, my reading this year has been all over the place. I read most of Ibsen’s major plays: I’d never read anything of his. They were entirely worthwhile. I love literature that can mix the domestic and the heroic. Ibsen is full of characters who struggle, in ordinary situations, to do the right thing. The one that stood out most strongly for me (I wonder why….) was An Enemy of the People, which is about a doctor who refuses to recant his finding that the waters which fuel a popular health spa are actually dangerous and unhealthy.

I listened to an incredible history of The Crusades, by Thomas Asbridge. I knew a little about the Crusades before, but primarily from Gibbon, and this rounded out my knowledge. What’s interesting is that each history you read, even a popular history, is usually in conversation with other ideas about the events it covers. In this case, Asbridge clearly had an axe to grind when it came to the portrayal of the Crusades as a mighty clash of civilizations that defined relations between East and West. He contextualized the Crusades as taking place under the backdrop of complex power struggles in the Near East. Frankly, the Crusaders were only one set of players–and often not a particularly important one–amongst many.

I’ve enjoyed what little Puskin I’ve read, and Boris Godunov was no exception: a complex drama about a complex figure from Russian history. I believe I read the linked Oxford Classics edition

I went through a small Eliot phase: I reread Middlemarch and then read Silas Marner and Adam Bede. Neither of the latter are amongst my favorite Eliot: I’d recommend Mill on the Floss and Scenes from a Clerical Life before reading them, but they did fill out my knowledge, and even less-than-the-best Eliot is still great.

When it comes to pure fun, you can’t beat Deirdre Barr’s Parisian Lives, about her attempts to write biographies of Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. These efforts spanned thirty years, from the start to almost the end of her career as a biographer, and were full of backstory about how a biographer makes their career, pursues their craft, and gets the story. And there was also gossip! Beckett in particular seems to have been surrounded by an entire court of schemers! You won’t regret reading this.

Teffi was an early 20th century Russian writer of comic sketches: I really enjoyed her book Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me, for its portrait of prerevolutionary Russian life. But I’d be lying if I said I could remember exactly what was in it.

I’m sorry, I feel like there are a bunch of books, I should be talking about: Portrait of Sebastian Khan, about a college student who finds himself entangled in a relationship with a traditional Muslim girl, even though he drinks and parties constantly (Always in the context of model UN tournaments, which was a funny touch), was one of the best books I’ve read this summer. I had to stop following the author on Twitter, because literally everything he wrote was about Bernie Sanders, but I think he’s talented, and I wish the book had gotten more attention. It’s easily as good as any of the New York Times Notable books you see.

I read and enjoyed Normal People and Kent Haruf’s [Our Souls At Night](https://www.amazon.com/Our-Souls-at-Night-novel-ebook/dp/B00PP3DNDI/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=souls+at+night&qid=1608136446&s=digital-text&sr=1-1. Normal People needs no more hype from me, but I think the praise is deserved. I do feel like the characters could’ve just…not broken up? Like gotten over it? But I was twenty once too, and I think I remember what it was like to feel strong emotions.

Our Souls at Night was typical Haruf, which is to say, excellent. Beautifully written, it’s about a widow and a widower who fall in love in small town Colorado and then for some reason can’t be together. I don’t understand why social proprieties are so against their match, but I’ll trust that Haruf knows better than I do: this is the fifth of his books that I’ve read. I’d say [Where You Once Belonged] is his best.

Jason Ridler’s Fxxk Writing, about the frustrations of pursuing publication, was a bracing read in this year. I enjoyed the honest hopelessless of the book: the sense that nothing you do will ever get published or amount to anything. That’s more the actuality than the gee-whiz optimism of many writing manuals.

In a similar vein, Tillie Olsen’s Silences is a worthwhile, though uneven, series of essays about authors who’ve for whatever reason gone silent: they stopped writing, couldn’t write, couldn’t afford it, went mad, or otherwise got terminally discouraged.

And I think, for now, those are the books I’ll write about. Not that there weren’t other good ones I read this year, but I can’t see any more about which I had anything meaningful to say.

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