My honourable marshmallows,
(A moment for me to reject the squiggly red line under “honourable,” we are not American, we add “u” to words for no reason than that they look better. Colour, flavour, humour, labour.)
Anyway, here we are, the last newsletter in a year where I was quite erratic about newsletters, but you know, weeks go by with no inspiration and then suddenly a lot of things happen at once. In the case of this one, my Annual Best Books list (see previous editions here: 2019, 2016 on the newsletter and 2017 and 2018 at Scroll) I was waiting to finish my entire year’s reading goal to send it to you, not that it matters, not that suddenly one book was going to come in and claw its way into my top list—but it might! Normally, I whiz past my Reading Goal, I set it to 150 and emerge at the other end with 180 books read or whatever. This year though, this weird year where I went nowhere and met no one, I struggled, even though it seemed like I was reading more than ever. Partly I think it’s because I read a lot of classic literature this year, that takes longer to read than a murder mystery that you can just whiz through. Partly, because I re-read a bunch of things: the first two in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell series so I could review the third book. All seven Tana French novels one blue month. Stephen King’s massive time travel novel 11/22/63. All took me a while to read even though I’d read them before. Then, I wrote a book which took me the better part of six months, and when I’m writing a book, I find it very hard to read anything of substance, so I dipped in and out of things and watched a lot of television.
I made a switch from Goodreads to a beta site called The Storygraph, which I really like for their recommendations and also the way the site is laid out. However, it seems to have missed some of the books I read this year, because I was going through all the books I read in 2020 as one does before one makes a list and I remembered some excellent books I read this year that Storygraph hadn’t charted. So. After all that, I read 122 books this year thus far. My goal was 120. Goals are just a way for me to keep track, so Storygraph or Goodreads will say “you have read 118 books this year so far.” I like that, it helps me stay organised, and all my reading goals since 2016 have had the ultimate end in this list. But reading is not a race, numbers are meaningless to anyone who isn’t you. If you’re not much of a reader (although that is highly unlikely if you’re subscribed to this newsletter, we mostly talk about books), I suggest you have a 12 book goal, one a month, that’s simple enough for anyone, I think.
Anyway, one last word on themes before I break down the ACTUAL LIST. Once I made my list I realised the best books I read this year with only one or two exceptions were memoir and 19th century classics. I could equate it to the pandemic (inward focused old-fashioned lives) but this trend (in memoir at least) started with me in January, way before I was worried about being a shut-in for the rest of the year. So who knows? It was probably just that sort of year already, written in the stars etc.
Finally, all links are Amazon affiliates so I can earn a little money off the hellsite, but also probably available at your local bookstore if you order in advance.
The Best Books I Read In 2020
The funniest book I read in 2020: Priestdaddy by poet Patricia Lockwood. By the premise you don’t think it’s going to be that gasp-out-loud laughing, it’s about Lockwood’s father, a married Catholic priest and also weaves in and out of her childhood and adult life. She has a Very Particular sense of humour though, that personally appeals to me, and I emphasize this because unlike, say, Bill Bryson or David Sedaris or something, funny for everyone, this feels like you’re hanging out with your one best friend who always winds up making you laugh so hard you fart.
The only Western novel I have ever read that was actually riveting and not all boring guns and saloons nonsense: True Grit by Charles Portis. (I also recently watched the Coen brothers movie, which was excellent fun but besides the point.) Look, I’ve never been one for the Wild Wild West, Louis L’Amour style of gritty settlers. My idea of Westerns comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is to say, domestic with a side of vast outdoors. Hilary Mantel (who always recommends books I love, including the Cazalet chronicles which I am about to embark on a re-read of) loves this book so much she wrote the introduction to my edition. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl who hires a bounty hunter to find the man who killed her father. Because she doesn’t trust that he will do his job, she accompanies him on the trail. Mattie is the most self-composed YA heroine I’ve ever met, and she keeps her dignity through all her adventures.
The one classic novel that I keep thinking about and that I actively miss now that I’ve finished reading it and which will, in all likelihood, inspire my next novel: Middlemarch by George Eliot. I mean, I wrote a whole newsletter about it, but if you want the TL;DR version: it’s about the small village of Middlemarch and really delves into the psychology of its inhabitants in a way you won’t have ever read before. If you like novels about people, actual living thinking people, then you MUST read Middlemarch. Please. Do it for me. 2020 for me will always be the year I read Middlemarch.
The best “oh now I understand all the references” classic novel I read this year: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, which ALSO got its own newsletter. Reading David Copperfield for the first time in my thirties after many years of reading books written immediately after Dickens’ masterpiece was realising that David Copperfield was the Harry Potter of its time. I mean, right now I could throw in a Dumbledore reference and you would understand it immediately, well, back in the 19th century if I described someone as “such a Dora” you’d also know what I meant immediately. It was like discovering a touchstone of a book, I kept going, “Ohhh” and “Ahhh that’s what Mr Micawber is.”
The best historical novel I read this year: Hilary Mantel’s final book in the Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and The Light. Listen, I adore La Mantel, and I think she was robbed out of the Booker shortlist nom, and The Mirror and the Light is a book of such pure genius, the writing is so perfect that you’re immersed before you know what you’re doing. Of course, you must read the other two Cromwell books before you read this one, but make sure you do. I’m invested in that historical period—blame Philippa Gregory, I guess—so I enjoyed reading of Cromwell’s fall as much as I enjoyed his rise. (I reviewed this for Open, so you can read that here.)
The best historical MURDER MYSTERY series I read this year: Cheating, but I couldn’t pick between Mantel and Sansom, author of the Matthew Shardlake series, also set in Tudor times so I put them both in under different subheadings. Look, while the Cromwell books are all Grand History Unfolding etc etc, the Shardlake books (beginning with Dissolution) are about what actually happened on the ground to regular people while all these politics went on. Matthew Shardlake is a lonely, hunchbacked lawyer with an ethical soul, so ethical as to be on the line of anachronistic, but still stays very much within his time who keeps bumping up against large crimes, and has to help solve them for his powerful clients. Seven books recommended to me by Friend Of The Newsletter, Akshata, I took my time reading them all, but delicious.
The best writer’s memoir by an Indian author I read this year: One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale. I was only vaguely familiar with Shanta Gokhale before I read this book, but when I finished I was struck with her sheer good humour. I had just read Listen To Me by Shashi Deshpande the year before, also a memoir by an Indian woman author of a certain age, but while Deshpande’s book was full of rage and grief, Gokhale stayed light-hearted almost all through. She tells her story through different physical memories, a broken foot, her first period and so on, and the result is engaging little snapshots of India during a certain time.
The best writer’s memoir from a Western author I read this year: Dead and gone, but Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest was full of the juiciest gossip about dead authors and a bygone age. My favourite is when he described Truman Capote’s “fat fetus-like face” (the two were great rivals) and the book is full of bitching like that. In a year starved of any kind of gossip, Vidal was like the friend you always want to stay on the right side of, especially so he can whisper in your ear.
The best weird book I read all year: I’m not a huge genre fan, but I made an exception for Susanna Clarke’s latest, Piranesi, which is this delicious tribute to CS Lewis and Narnia and The Magician’s Nephew. It was a book club pick, and we all loved it, so there’s that. It’s very thin, so I can’t tell you much more about it, but I’d recommend it. It’s an odd, sweet, engrossing little book.
The best book I read about sisters: In a year of reading all over the globe, I fell deep into a pothole of Japanese literature, starting with The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki. The story is VERY Indian, two older sisters despair of ever getting their younger sister married, even though she keeps meeting matches, it never goes right for her. Meanwhile, the very youngest sister keeps doing unsuitable things and meeting unsuitable men, all this has a knock-on effect on the whole family. It’s a very slow read, unfolding over a few years, Japan right before WWII, and not much happens, it’s sort of like watching the scenery go by when you’re on a train, flashes of lives presented to you. I was drawn in from the very start.
The best graphic book I read this year: Another memoir, but one I loved so much, I suggested it for book club and gave it to a friend as a birthday present was Good Talk by Mira Jacob. It’s about young Mira, and also Mira as a parent, as she navigates America as a person of colour. I thought it was moving and beautiful, always exactly what I’m looking for from my graphic novels/books.
The best book written by a friend: Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits would be on this list even if he was NOT a friend, but I feel like I have to add a friendship disclaimer, given that we speak constantly. But a dystopian view of Delhi in the near future felt so real, it was almost like he was saying, “This is GOING TO HAPPEN” instead of “this could.” I always love Samit’s characters too, especially Joey, the “female lead” as they say, whip-smart and with an inner voice that felt exactly like my own head.
And that’s a wrap from my Year In Reading 2020! Let me know what your best book of the year is in the comments and y’know, tell your friends if you liked this post.
Links I Liked On The Internet
(I normally wouldn’t put a LILOTI on my best books list but it’s been so long since we talked that I have a bunch.)
How the internet broke our parents’ brains.
Nice interactive feature on India’s pollution and inequality.
I’ve been singing Aaj Shanibar all morning since I read this story about a long lost record by a woman in Calcutta that’s become super popular on YouTube.
Lovely essay about following Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram.
Turns out COVID learning pods are pretty toxic.
The weird world of LinkedIn.
An excellent essay about a subject I’ve always been curious about: racehorses in Mahalakshmi and so on.
Phew! That was a lot to fit into one newsletter! Hope you’re enjoying the last month of this strange as fuck year in the best way you can.
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you?Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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