This past spring, many people found they could not read and were grieved by it. I had about a week of shock where I read at a slow, slow pace and found myself rereading everything I read, the words not sinking in. But quickly books became a good companion through this time. I put myself on a personal Pandemic Reading Course, reading all sorts of books set in the midst of plague or the aftermath. I’ve always been fascinated by how people get through difficult times, the resources they draw on, so I was both drawn to the content of such books but also found in them the friends I needed for the journey. Sometimes, too, it’s been nice to simply escape the present reality: a couple of the books on my list have given me the opportunity to be an armchair traveler. I read fewer books this year than in the last few years, probably because this fall I was also reading for school, but also because I watched more television than I have in a long time, classic movies and a couple of tv series. In addition to my top 10 list of books, I’m adding a short list at the end of the best films and tv shows I enjoyed in 2020.
In a countdown to my favourite book of the year:
10. Unto Us a Son is Given – I don’t know whether I’ve recommended Donna Leon before or not but I can’t say enough about her series of detective novels and her wonderful detective Guido Brunetti. The books are set in present-day Venice with its challenges of tourism and other forms of corruption. The plot in these books is always secondary to the characters and the setting, both of which are wonderful. A new Donna Leon book comes out each spring but somehow I read #29 this spring and missed #28 in 2019 until this fall. These books don’t have to be read in exact order to be enjoyed but they really are something to savour, with a tinge of melancholy and decadence and humour added to the warmth of married love, parental love, love for literature and for the magical city of Venice. I highly recommend Donna Leon’s series.
9. No Friend But the Mountains – I actually read this book last December after my top 10 list for 2019 came out. I had heard of this book for the way it was written: the author is an Iranian refugee in an Australian immigration detainee facility on Manus Island off the coast of Papua New Guinea; he wrote this book on his cell phone in a series of WhatsApp messages he smuggled to a friend. The book is extraordinarily powerful as a prison story but is also so well written. It won Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction, and was considered the most important Australian book of 2018. This is not an easy read but it asks necessary questions.
8. The Gracekeepers – I’m realizing there is an international quality to my choices this year. This book written by Scottish author Kirsty Logan vaguely fits into my Pandemic Reading category as it is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which only a few privileged people live on land while the rest are forced to make a living on the ocean. The stories of two young women—one a circus performer and the other a kind of ritual-keeper—intertwine. This is a beautiful, powerful and originally created world whose atmosphere and characters will stay with you long after you finish the book.
7. All The Devils Are Here – Next stop, Paris, France. Louise Penny and her detective Armand Gamache are longtime favourites of mine, but unlike many of her fans, I don’t adore all her books. This one is particularly good. The action moves away from Three Pines and even Quebec to France where Gamache’s children live. The book is rich in detail about a city Penny has great affection for. The longstanding relationships in this series undergo significant new growth and challenge. The mystery is compelling and exciting without being silly. A great edition to the Penny canon!
6. A Paradise Built in Hell – A friend who heard I was reading pandemic stories recommended I read this book by essayist Rebecca Solnit. I had never read Solnit’s writing before but I highly enjoyed this book in which she takes the reader to a variety of disasters to examine whether our expectations about what the experience would be like are true. It is not a spoiler to say that the experience of disaster can be unexpectedly positive, bringing out the best in people. Solnit looks at the San Francisco earthquake in the early 20th century, the Halifax explosion, the Mexico City earthquake of the 1980s 9/11. A fascinating read.
5. Burnout – Don’t skip this one. Twin sisters Amelia and Emily Nagowski wrote this book and I keep recommending it to people. I’m not keen on the title (although it is memorable) because I think it’s greatest value is actually in preventing stress from turning into burnout. The writers get real with the physiology behind stress, and offer practical strategies for completing the stress cycle so that we can cope well in our lives. I imagine we all could use a little more of that.
4. The Doomsday Book – And now for something completely different. I read a lot of pandemic and disaster books. This one, which is a time-travel book whose time-traveling historians venture from the mid-21st century to the 14th century, has interconnected pandemic plots. It has rollicking good humour and inventive plot devices not unlike Jasper Fforde, but it also was more deeply moving than probably any other pandemic book I read. The book was written back in 1992 when it won the Nebula Award for science fiction.
3. Songs for the End of the World – I felt for Montreal author Saleema Nawaz who had been working on this novel since 2013, a novel in which a coronavirus in 2020 began spreading from New York City around the world. The book was scheduled to come out in August, but the publisher decided to release an ebook of it in the spring, which was when I read it. It was extremely compelling. I loved the deep interconnections between the characters, and the ways Nawaz uses this in the service of the whole overarching story. Perhaps most crucially, the story is told with hope and human kindness. Really well written and highly recommended.
2. Moon of the Crusted Snow – If I read Songs for the End of the World on my phone, I read this book in an even more unconventional way. This summer, my husband and I ventured up north to spend a week on the shores of Lake Superior. We decided to listen to this book on tape during our drive as it is set in northern Ontario in an Indigenous community where suddenly all power and connection to the outside world is cut off, and the community is must figure out how to live in response to something clearly big and widespread having happened in the world. We reached Lake Superior toward sunset and the views were stunning but we were at the climax of this book at that point, and there was no way we were going to turn the book off. This book by Waubgeshig Rice is an affirming view of Indigenous culture and it’s also a thriller.
1. Greenwood – This is a stunning book. It’s the book The Overstory wanted to be. It deals with big big themes of climate change, but does so in the most human and accessible way. It is structured beautifully. The world Canadian author Michael Christie writes about begins in the near future when trees have become critically endangered, but he traces the roots of a family whose lives have been connected with trees for generations. I don’t want to say a lot about this book other than to say: read it, put it on English curriculum, let it change your appreciation for the beauty of our forests. I was enchanted and moved by it. In a year where any one of my top 10 books could have been higher on the list, this was a clear #1.
PS While I’ve given you Amazon links to these books, I would highly recommend you visit your local independent bookstore or your local library. Both need your support now more than ever.
PS #2 My movie/tv list presented without comment
20 And The Birds Rained Down
18. North by Northwest
17. Knives Out
16. What we do in the dark
15. Lawrence of Arabia
14. Rear Window
13. The French Doctor
12. Song of the Sea
11. Schindlers List
10 Frankenstein (National Theatre broadcast)
9. Apocalypse Now
7. It’s a Wonderful Life
6. Citizen Kane
5. Pulp Fiction
4. Vikings (seasons 1-4 only)
2. Schitts Creek
1. Spirited Away