Best books of 2020

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The year 2020 is coming to a close, finally.

And what a year it has been! For weeks on end we stayed confined to our homes, unable to lead normal lives, listening to grim news of the pandemic.

But throughout all this, books have opened a door to other worlds, to other realities.

Judging from the list below, many of you read voraciously during the lockdown. The books  range from stories of mother-daughter relationships to adventures on the high seas, from a history of the British East India Company to insights into nature.

Some of the books are in French—where an English translation exists, the title is in parentheses—and one in Spanish.

There are not many overlaps, although Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and  Karine Tuil’s Les choses humaines made it onto three lists, as did the first two books of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartets.

We have also have the oldest book that ever made it into these lists: Ovid’s The Art of Loving from the second century AD (although the reviewer places Ovid firmly in the 21st century!).

The books are arranged by category, year of publication (for translations, the year of publication in English has been used), and author. In the case of a series of books, I’ve picked the publication date of the most recent book.

Links lead to reviews on this blog. The links for two of the travel books lead to my reviews on Women on the Road. You might need to scroll down the page to find the publications on this list.

And finally, a big thank you for sharing your lists of the best books you read this year! Contributors are: Hervé Compagnion, Isabel Obadiaru, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Kareen Jabre, Kristine Goulding, Leslie Jones, Mariana Duarte Mutzenberg, Marie-Graziella Nguini, Mohan Raj, Nandini Mehta, Naheed Bilgrami, Nneka Edozien, Orsolya Tóth, Paddy Torsney, Petra Marshall, Raisha Conteh, Roberto Rodriguez Valencia, Rogier Huizenga, Sadhana Ramchander, Sally-Anne Sader, Sara Montgomery  Sita Reddy, Sophie M., Suroor Alikhan, Susie Partridge, B.V. Tejah, Thomas Fitzsimons, Usha Raman and an anonymous contributor.

I do hope this list inspires you to continue to discover more new books and writers!

Fiction

General fiction

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: Deepa Anappara (2020)
Three children from a basti (a slum) set out to investigate the disappearances of their friends. The people who live in the basti are too poor to matter much to the outside world, and no one really seems to care about the disappearing children. Deepa Anappara used to be a journalist covering the bastis and in this book, she sets out to tell the story behind the statistics. Funny and heart-breaking.

Girl in White Cotton: Avni Doshi (2019, published in the UK as Burnt Sugar in 2020)
A debut novel that made the Booker shortlist, which draws in searing detail what dealing with Alzheimer’s looks like, when not only memory, but love too, is gone.

Actress: Anne Enright
A woman looks back at her relationship with her mother, a famous Irish actress. Sharply observed and beautifully written, this is about the bonds between a daughter and her mother, and the compromises and pain of celebrity.

Ce qu’il faut de nuit : Laurent Petitmangin (2020)
The first book by Petitmangin, which he published at the age of 55. It is about a widowed father, raising his two boys by himself after the death of his wife. It is also about what differences in political views mean for the very delicate relationships within nuclear families, and for the love the father feels for his boys. The book brings to the level of families what is playing out in the broader political scene in current France.

All the Beautiful Liars: Sylvia Petter (2020)
An Australian woman tries to find the truth behind her German parents’ past. A book about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and how we remember, and the way we blur the line between truth and fiction. 

Rodham: Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)
A very compelling fictional account of what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had not married Bill.

Autumn / Winter / Spring / Summer: Ali Smith (2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020)
Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, which is a set of four books named for…yes, the seasons: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer (in that order). A quirky and deft exploration of our world and the intersecting histories and cultures that make it.

The Testaments: Margaret Atwood (2019)
The Testaments is at once backstory and sequel to Atwood’s dark novel A Handmaid’s Tale, taking us inside the convoluted and oppressively patriarchal structures of Gilead but also envisioning a path out of the darkness.
I was glad to see Atwood deciding what would happen with her characters. I loved how powerful her female characters are even in the hardest of circumstances and even when some are bitches (or seem to be).

The Silence of the Girls: Pat Barker (2019)
A brilliant and heart-breaking counterpoint to Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.

Une bête au paradis : Cécile Coulon (2019)
Emilienne, a woman in her 80s, lives at a big farm and raises her two grandchildren who lost their parents in a car accident. As a teenager, Blanche falls in love with Alexandre, who eventually leaves the village and the farm, to pursue his ambitions in the city. He returns ten years later as a real estate agent, and turns everyone’s life upside down. It is about the importance of roots, but also about the way places can oppress people. Excellent writing from a very young author.

Vernon Subutex Book 1: Virginie Despantes (published in French 2015, English translation 2019)
While VS is a trilogy, I think the first book is the best. It is about the journey of a former record-seller turned hobo turned prophet. This is the punk and trashy story on how love, hope and charity are begotten by chaos.

Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon : Jean-Paul Dubois (2019)
A superintendent at the residence L’Excelsior winds up in jail in Montreal, sharing his cell with a Hell’s Angel, imprisoned for murder. This is the story of how he got there.

This Tilting World: Colette Fellous (2019)
This is part of a trilogy about the Jewish community of Tunisia. A woman writes a love letter to her homeland after a terrorist attack about the personal tragedies in her life.

Bienevenue en 2084 : Irénée Pache (2019)
This book helps one think that probably changing our way of thinking and being less materialistic can make the world a better place to live in the years to come. It asks a lot of relevant questions.

Les Choses humaines : Karine Tuil  (2019)
A seemingly impartial account of the notion of sexual consent in real life—very truthful and realistic. It’s also an amazing chronicle of a criminal trial in a situation where there seem to be two irreconcilable truths. A must-read!

No Place to Call Home—Love, Loss, Belonging: J.J. Bola (2018)
A refugee family leaves the Democratic Republic of Congo, looking for a better—and safer—life in the UK. Narrated by the son, this is a powerful story about people who carry deep scars deep within them.

Everything Here is Beautiful: Mira T. Lee (2018)
This book follows two sisters, with the themes of mental illness, family, the sacrifices we make for loved ones, and loyalty to ourselves.

Killing Commendatore: Haruki Murakami (2018)
Murakami, what can I say, I love his books! This is definitely one of my favourites and one that I shall return to with much pleasure in years to come.

Warlight: Michael Ondaatje (2018)
A man looks back on an adolescence during which he was seemingly abandoned by his parents to the care of an ambiguous guardian. Set in London in the years following the Second World War, it is richly peopled by the shadowy characters that weave in and out of the lives of the young boy and his sister.

Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens (2018)
It was not an easy read, the subjects it touched upon were painful at all so many levels, but the sheer artistry of the author in conjuring up the marshlands, the birds and other wildlife, not to mention the prejudice of the townsfolk, was simply wonderful.

The Overstory: Richard Powers (2018)
An extraordinary novel about trees, their canopies, their interconnections, their linked “overstories”—as told through nine trees’ point of view, each animating a different tree, a different encounter with the human world. Together, they read like a forest come to life. This is a book that will rewrite fiction in the Anthropocene.

Autumn / Winter: Ali Smith (2017 / 2018)
I am half-way through Ali Smith’s season-themed quartet. Her singular voice takes a little getting used to—especially her references to obscure artists; Google is your friend, and the deep dives are worth it—but is always beautiful and thought-provoking. These novels are for our times, distilling the inertia and angst around Brexit, climate change, activism. But Smith also brings in solitary—lonely—individuals in search of beauty, justice, meaning and companionship. And then she lets the sparks fly.
The quartet has been described as the UK’s first post-Brexit novels. Magnificent in sweep, scope, and attention to language, art, and culture, Autumn and Winter are dazzling. I don’t think I’ve read anything like them—contemporary literature that is at once ethnographic and imaginative, speaking to the political moment as well as to the recent past and the distant future.

The Shape of the Ruins: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2018)
A complex political novel from Colombia. Vásquez’s novel is a mix of fact and fiction, pulling together two political assassinations 30 years apart into a story about obsession and conspiracies.

Uncommon Type: Tom Hanks (2017)
Seventeen amazing and detailed short stories by the great actor Tom Hanks with a typewriter playing an important role in each story.

Everything I Never Told You / Little Fires Everywhere: Celeste Ng (2014 / 2017)
Two books by Celeste Ng, both were quick reads, good prose in parts, with interesting twists in the tales.

Vegetarians Only—Stories of Telugu Muslims: SkyBaaba (Shaikh Yusuf Baba) (2015)
Twelve intense short stories about the lives of middle class and poor Telugu Muslims, their hopes and struggles, friendship and love, and the discrimination they face and their isolation within and outside their community. Originally written in “Telugurdu” and based on real life.

Jasmine Days: Benyamin (2014)
This book is the story of Sameera Parvin, a Pakistani RJ living in an unnamed middle Eastern country. Her happy life crumbles when there is a revolution in the country.

Gilead / Home / Lila: Marylinne Robinson (2004 / 2008 / 2014)
This set of three books tells of interconnected lives. Set in the small Iowan town of Gilead, those novels present the same characters in different voices and highlight incidents that never overlap and yet become poignantly intertwined. Essentially, these novels are about families, friendships and inevitable fractured relationships. I loved the storyline in each novel but the voices of characters and the sheer depth of Robinson’s humanity make these works memorable. I just found out that the fourth in this set is just out and I am most certain to read it soon.

Americanah: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014)
I love this book because It talks about the situation of the Nigerian youth, traveling abroad to study and experiencing first-time racism as an African (especially as an African woman), which I can relate to.

Strange Weather in Tokyo: Hiromi Kawakami (published in Japanese 2001, English translation 2014)
Tsukiko is a single woman in her 30s, when she meets one of her teachers from high school in a bar. Despite the significant age difference, the two develop a peculiar friendship and delicate love. Sensei is in his 70s, and very quirky, while she is a lonely office worker. It is melancholic and beautiful, with amazing food descriptions and loads of drinking.

Une femme fuyant l’annonce (To the End of the Land): David Grossman (published in Hebrew 2008, English translation 2010, French translation 2011)
This is the book that moved me most this year. Written several years ago, it is the story of a mother whose son is in the Israeli army on mission. She fears for his life and decides to take off on a sort of road trip so that if there is any bad news, she will not be there to receive it. Very moving and a discovery of Israel as well. David Grossman’s son was killed during a mission in Lebanon, while he was writing the book.

The Housekeeper and the Professor: Yoko Ogawa (published in Japanese 2003, English translation 2009)
This is a quietly beautiful book about a brilliant mathematics professor, the housekeeper and her son. The professor’s memory only lasts 80 minutes due to a head injury, so they have to start each day with a blank page. Every day he asks numerical questions of the housekeeper, who turns out to be excellent in maths. When he learns that the housekeeper is a single mom and has a 10-year-old son, he starts inviting him over too. The three bond over baseball cards, mathematics and develop a beautiful relationship.

Home: Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The middle novel of a trilogy by this Pulitzer-winning American writer, it introduces us to at least one unforgettable character belonging to a dysfunctional family, headed by an upright, very formal father figure.

Larry’s Party: Carol Shields (1997)
I discovered Carol Shields in Larry’s Party, a book that takes us through the (late) coming of age of an ordinary man who creates hedges.

Blindness: Jose Saramago (1995; English translation 1997)
Story of an unexplained epidemic of blindness from the Nobel-winning Portuguese writer, it made for gripping reading during the early days of the Covid pandemic. You cannot erase it from your memory once you have read it, however hard you may try.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont: Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
An old classic about life in a home for genteel old people in London, but really timeless in its sharp, poignant and perceptive insights into the human heart, and the frailties, vanities and vulnerabilities of people as they age.

Une tempête : Aimé Césaire (1969)
The rewriting of Shakespeare’s Tempest, which had me reread Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant, the rewriting of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Stoner: John William (1965)
This near-perfectly formed conventional novel traces the life of a first-generation college student from a dirt-poor Missouri farming family, who goes to college at the turn of the 20th century and later becomes an English professor at his alma mater. I read it because it came with a strong recommendation from a friend, who is a highly regarded writer himself.

Giovanni’s Room: James Baldwin (1956)
Rich and captivating. I found myself sucked into Giovanni’s world. Brilliant!

The Pearl: John Steinbeck (1947)
It is a very short story but intense and rich in symbolism.

Crime

The Devil and the Dark Sea: Stuart Turton (2020)
Another page-turner from Stuart Turton, this time set in 1634 on a Dutch East India Company ship headed from Batavia to Amsterdam. However, a dead leper stalks the ship, mutiny is brewing and the devil seems to have come on board. Then there is an impossible murder. The only person who is capable of working out the solution to the mystery is a prisoner on the ship, confined to a tiny cell. A rollicking read that has a lovely twist in the tale, and a spirited woman protagonist who refuses to play the role that society has written for her.

L’Île du diable: Nicolas Beuglet (2019)
I’m hooked on Nordic authors in general and their dark thrillers. And this is a French author that does it just as well. This is the last novel of his trilogy. A protagonist with weaknesses, a very Nordic ambiance and a true thriller. Reading this enables me to travel without leaving the house.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: Olga Tokarczuk (published in Polish 2009, English translation 2019)
This is apparently a whodunit but describes the life of a lone woman with a passion for animals and an uncertain attitude to humanity.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton (2018)
This page-turner of a novel is not only a murder story, but also a literary maze. The narrator, in order to escape a tragic fate (think of Sisyphus’ punishment), will be given eight chances to solve a murder which is about to happen, all the while waking up in a different body every morning. An immensely satisfying read.

Fantasy

Piranesi: Susanna Clark (2020)
One of the most unusual books I’ve read, Piranesi takes you into another world. A man lives in the House, a vast labyrinth of halls filled with statues, with an ocean in the basement and clouds in the top storey. He is quite content, foraging for food, but messages for him start to appear in the halls, leading him to question everything he took for granted.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (2020)
The book tells a tale of an underground labyrinth that serves as a sanctuary for stories and storytellers: the Starless Sea. A young man called Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a book of nested stories, including one that’s about him. With Mirabel, a fierce protector of the place, and Dorian, the love interest with shifting alliances, Zachary travels through this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life. The descriptions and interlocking characters did not disappoint. However, at some point the plot gets consumed by its own conceit, and the characters get lost in the process. Morgenstern writes beautiful descriptions of fantastical places, but overall, I found that instead of being whimsical and adventurous, there’s a tediousness to the whole exercise. But it was certainly worth the read.

The Memory Police: Yoko Ogawa (published in Japanese 1994, English translation 2019)
A strange, haunting story about a Japanese island where things disappear: emeralds, ribbons, bells, stamps, birds, photographs. Soon the people forget they even existed, except for a few who are unable to forget and try to salvage the disappeared things. These people are hunted down by the Memory Police, whose job it is to ensure that no memories remain of what has been lost.

Artemis: Andy Weir (2018)
An action-adventure murder mystery set in space! A compelling female protagonist who devises scientific solutions to escalating dangers and solves all the dangers just in time! What more could you ask for? Jazz, the narrator, is a brilliant, obstinate, wise-cracking, rebellious underachiever who smuggles goodies from Earth to the moon. She takes a high-stakes job that will make her rich. But after her employer gets murdered and her actions put the entire city in peril, she’s trapped between two dangerous forces: a killer and interstellar law enforcement. While not a deep read, it’s fun and quite compelling— a breezy, propulsive read that is a welcome break from the troubles of Earth.

Historical fiction

The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel (2020)
The last book from Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary trilogy detailing the rise and fall of an intelligent, patriotic and devout courtier in Tudor England. This book, coming after an interminable wait, details the fall. A must.

Le pays des autres : Leila Slimani (2020)
This semi-autobiographical novel is about a woman from Alsace, France, who falls in love with a handsome Moroccan colonel at the end of the war. She moves back to Morocco with him expecting to become the Karen Blixen of Morocco and to live a life of adventure and glamour. However, the reality is different as the couple end up trying to raise a bi-cultural family on barren farmland with the backdrop of the Moroccan fight for independence from France.

The Night Tiger: Yangsze Choo (2019)
Set in Malaysia in the 1930s, this is the story of a dancehall girl who wanted to be a doctor and an orphan boy. The descriptions are so atmospheric, you really feel like you are there in British colonial Malaya in the monsoon season. It explores many issues, such as colonialism and independence, the role of women and their aspirations, superstition and sibling rivalry.

The Gallows Pole: Benjamin Myers (2019)
The story of a group of organized forgers in 18th century Yorkshire. The book explores wealth, abuse of power and corruption.

Homegoing: Yaa Gayasi (2016)
This is historical fiction by a young Ghanaian author that discusses many relevant topics like slavery and segregation, explored through the storylines of three Asante women and their descendants.

The Burial Rites: Hannah Kent (2013)
In 1828 Iceland, Agnes is sentenced to death for the murder of two men, one of them being her lover. As there are no prisons in the whole country, she will spend her last winter at a farm, under the care of a very reluctant family of four. The tale of Agnes is a story that still lingers in my mind, and is my very best novel of 2020.

The Kite Runner: Khaled Hosseini (2004)
The Kite Runner is one of those books that wakes up all your senses with Khaled Hosseini’s vivid story-telling and rich characters. It’s the story of the friendship between a wealthy Kabul kid and his servant best friend. Starting on the eve of the momentous events that shook Afghanistan in the 1970s, the novel spans several decades of the country’s troubled history.

Moi, Tituba, sorcière (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem): Maryse Condé (published in French in 1986, English translation 1992)
Fiction and history combine at last to tell Tituba’s story, she who was accused of witchcraft in the notoriously (in)famous Massachusetts Witch Trials, and whose name, entire life and origins were erased in historical documents.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
An early American classic by a black woman, written in dialect. Best read out loud to yourself until the rhythm and the wonderfully lyrical, descriptive writing feel familiar.

The Oppermans: Lion Feuchtwanger (published in German 1933 and later published in English)
The book tells of the troubles that befall a quiet, well-to-do, Jewish business family in a country where Nationalism is metamorphosing into fascism and how fragile democracy becomes under the onslaught of deliberate untruths, perpetrated by both the uneducated and those who seek unfettered power. Chillingly, in view of what came after 1933, it ends on a positive note. The translation was republished this year for the first time by Persephone Books as a warning.

Non-Fiction

Art

The World is My Temple: Michael Dresser (2017)
Dresser is a Scottish artist, and this a book of his poems and drawings.

Current affairs

Les impatientes : Djaîli Amadou Amal (2020)
By a Cameroonian writer, who talks about forced marriage by following three women and girls during this journey. It was nominated for the Prix Goncourt this year.

Adults In The Room—My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment: Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
I found this absolutely fascinating. The insight into the ways some European politicians knowingly struck deals that they knew were going to plunge Greece into terrible poverty, on points of economic principle was shocking but absolutely convincing. 

Essays

Lost Lives—Exploring Rama’s Anguish: Arshia Sattar (2011)
An imaginative inquiry into the inner lives and feelings of Rama, Sita and characters in the Ramayana, this book of essays moved me to tears and made me think. Quiet, contemplative and powerful, it’s an epic take on one of our most familiar and beloved epics. Sattar is also an acclaimed translator of Valmiki’s Ramayana

History

Natives, Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire: Akala (2019)
Interesting and enlightening. I am trying, as so many, to learn more about these subjects especially in Britain where I now live. Still plodding through it as it has a massive amount of history and information.

Last Witnesses—Unchildlike Stories: Svetlana Alexievitch (2019)
This is a collection of Soviet children’s memories of The Great Patriotic War or the Second World War, as we know it. The skilled writing permitted me to enter other worlds, learning and viewing situations from a new perspective.

The Anarchy—The Relentless Rise of the East India Company: William Dalrymple (2019)
The East India Company was a devious innovation that managed to wedge itself into various cracks in the Indian subcontinent’s political patchwork and plunder unimaginable wealth. William Dalrymple is at the top of his game, drawing parallels to modern-day policy choices and tells a crackling story.

Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind / Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrow: Yuval Noah Harari (2015 / 2017)
What a feat to present human history in such a condensed and compelling way and to lay out the stark choices we face as a species. I liked the sarcastic undertones, showing strong doubts about sapiens’ ability to get it right, which, however—if taken to its logical conclusion—offers a bleak future for all of us.

Memoirs

A Respectable Woman: Esterine Kire (2019)
Esterine Kire is Nagaland’s[1] first English novelist. She writes about the lives of the Nagas during and after the Battle of Kohima in 1944. Narrated by the author’s mother 40 years after the war, the story is lucidly told to her daughter, who then understands the legacy of her parents and her land.

How I Became a Tree: Sumana Roy (2017)
What does it mean to be human in a nonhuman world? The author takes on this question in this unusual, lyrical, poetic beautifully written book. Part memoir, part fable, and wholly engrossing.

My Life in Middlemarch: Rebecca Mead (2015)
Not a new book but one published about six years ago. It’s a really beautiful memoir, written as a rediscovery of the great novel Middlemarch, and the parallels the author finds with her own life and her dilemmas, with those of both George Eliot and the characters in the book. After reading this, you will go back and reread Middlemarch with new eyes.

Education: Tara Westover (2018)
A memoir of growing up in a survivalist family in the Mormon heartland.

Persepolis: Marjan Satrapi (published in French 2000, English translation 2003)
A graphic memoir about the life of a young girl growing up in Teheran around the time of the Islamic Revolution and Iran’s war with Iraq.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Maya Angelou (1969)
A classic and the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. A powerful story, poignant, funny at times and well-observed. Angelou writes beautifully, whether she is describing pain or just the beauty of a perfect moment.

Nature

Vesper Flights: Helen McDonald (2020)
An extraordinary book, especially for all of us waking up to the delicate complexity of tree and animal life around us—and our fraught language describing it and our relationship with it. Helen McDonald puts together a set of essays that brings together her writing on the natural world, ranging from eclipses, Mars-like climates on Earth (and the scientists who study them), to her lifelong engagement with birds and animals. A must-read.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World: Peter Wohlleben (2016)
A fascinating glimpse into the lives of trees—you will never look at them in the same way again (or carve your initials into their trunks). They are amazing, taking care of a weak tree by feeding it through a network of roots or fungi, fighting off predators and learning from their mistakes.

Science and medicine

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed: Lori Gottlieb (2019)
This one was a McGill University book club pick and I found it fascinating—a curious mix of biography, and an important reminder that everyone can go through a period of needing support outside their usual system.  It’s fascinating to read about other people’s lives and their challenges, and the “fronts” that they present to others. 

Good Morning, Monster: Five Heroic Journeys To Recovery: Catherine Gildiner (2019)
Cathy is a fabulous writer. Her personal biographies Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls are really great. This one focuses on some of her toughest patients and how bloody hard the world is for some people, given the incredible abuse they suffered early, perpetrated by their parents and care givers. It’s not all dark though! It’s somehow very uplifting to see how hard these people work to recover and how amazing a good therapist can be to a person’s recovery. Reading it at the beginning of lockdown and knowing many kids were in a worse situation given that they didn’t have the relief of school or interaction with other adults who could see them, was a big reminder to pay attention to others and show kindness and patience with others. We don’t know what anyone else is really going through and how much a kind word could be important to them.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh—The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity: Carl Zimmer (2018)
Carl Zimmer is The New York Times’ Science columnist and this engaging book encompasses the troubled history and fraught politics of Genomics and genetics research in America. A door-stopper (and so, ideal for an e-reader).

Thinking, Fast and Slow: Daniel Kahneman (2011)
If you think you are mostly rational, think again. Kahneman explains beautifully, through tons of interesting experiments, how we are all continuously biased, without knowing it, in how we see and interact with the world.

The Emperor of All Maladies—A Biography of Cancer: Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
The book details humanity’s struggle to come to terms with cancer, interspersing history with personal anecdotes, biographies of key researchers and patients. Beginning with one of his patients and her coming to terms with the disruption cancer wrecks in her life, the book steps into the past and propels forward listing through the many breakthroughs and dead-ends that litter our search for a cancer cure.

Travel

To the Lake—A Balkan Journey of War and Peace: Kapka Kassabova (2020)
This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. Kapka Kassabova is the fourth generation of women in her family to migrate. The women in her family seem to be plagued by The Pain—illness, depression or anxiety—which is passed down from generation to generation. She travels back to Lake Ohrid in the Balkans, where her family came from, to try and understand why this happens and maybe find some healing. Lake Ohrid and its twin Lake Prespa straddle North Macedonia, Albania and Greece and are said to be 3 million years old. Kapka drives around the lakes, through a region whose history of war, bloodshed and repression still throws shadows. The writing is extremely powerful and lyrical. I plan to reread this just to savour the writing.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Pico Iyer (2019)
Pico Iyer compiles a list of thoughts and brief descriptions of Japan that adds up to a wonderful and contradictory portrait of an old and interesting culture. Its cities are home to ancient altars and contemporary culture—the story of most Asian countries. And yet, Japan is interesting with its particular take on balancing these contradictions.

Looking for Transwonderland—Travels in Nigeria: Noo Saro-Wiwa (2018)
Noo Saro-Wiwa is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the poet and environmental activist who was executed in the 1990s. I enjoyed this because it is a sort of a travel book that talks about two journeys: the actual journey, and another one through Saro-Wiwa’s memories.

Cuba en la encrucijada—12 perspectivas sobre la continuidad y el cambio en La Habana y en todo el país: Edited by Leila Guerriero (2017)
This book is a perfect testimony of the complexity of Cuban society and history. Several Cubans as well as foreigners who know the country very well share their perspectives on the fascinating and contradictory Cuban reality. The book is proof that the island is standing at a crossroads, frozen in the past while in permanent evolution. In 2017, when it was published, Cuba was still dreaming of new horizons after the historic rapprochement between the governments of Raul Castro and Barack Obama, and one can feel this new hope of change throughout its pages. Even if things have changed since (or not…), with new Presidents in Cuba and in the US, this book gives you the opportunity to discover the country from a different angle. ¡Buen viaje!

Poetry

The Poetry Pharmacy: Compiled by William Sieghart (2018)
A wee jewel. “Tried and true prescriptions for the heart, mind and soul” is a gorgeous example of how poetry is a healing remedy.

Until the Lions: Karthika Naïr (2015)
Karthika Naïr’s wrenching book of poems from the perspective of Mahabharata’s many women. The book explores the pain and anger of the underdogs in the epic and wrests some agency back to them. What is interesting is also the experiments with form—text fades when ghostly characters speak; verses—curses, jeremiads—take the shape of stars, columns and arrows.

An Ode Less Travelled—Unlocking the Poet Within: Stephen Fry (2006)
This book is more than a how-to: it’s a why-to write poetry for pleasure. And it gives aspiring modern poets the tools and rules behind classical forms—sonnets, odes, villanelles, much much more—so that they can be brought into the 21st century. It’s a little gem. Funny, packed with tips, but doesn’t feel heavy or pedantic at all. Quite delightful.

L’Art d’aimer (The Art of Love): Ovid (2 AD)
If Ovid was alive in 2020, he would certainly be an influential YouTube guru or a best-selling author, and would have had Donald Trump as his best friend. L’Art d’aimer is a very modern yet disturbing book, in which Ovid has been giving lessons in rhetoric (i.e manipulation) for two thousand years.


[1] Nagaland is a state in eastern India.

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