Best books of 2020
In 2020 reading nonfiction felt, to me, like an anchor to normalcy: reading about the big ideas and intimate dramas that were the stuff of our lives and the centre of our concerns before the pandemic reshaped our imaginations and our everyday, for month upon month upon month. Anne Boyer’s The Undying (Penguin Press, 320pp, $19.99) was among my favourites of these books – it’s an urgent and often angry account in essays of the author’s diagnosis and treatment of an aggressive form of breast cancer, and one for which the prognosis is generally poor. The essays are often poem-like, dense and allusive, and structured by resonance, image and idea, which makes them exhilarating to read; and it’s a book that interrogates our thinking about illness, treatment and health, as well as gender, work, family and love.
I loved Rebecca Giggs’s Fathoms (Scribe, 368pp, $35), a much-anticipated book about whales and the space they hold in our imaginations – and how our relationships with the natural and built worlds, as well as our changing climate, can be accounted for in their huge and mysterious bodies. Giggs, too, is a remarkably poetic writer, and the sheer beauty of this book is often staggering, as is her ability to describe complex science and ecological processes in a manner that’s vivid and engaging, and easy for a layperson to understand. It’s a book full of awe and mystery, as well as meticulous research and deep thinking, and it is wildly exciting for the possibilities it opens up for writing about climate, science and the natural world.
Finally, I read Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had (Text, 336pp, $34.99) towards the very end of this year, just after I had moved into a house, bigger and emptier than any other I’d inhabited, and with my girlfriend, rather than a ragtag group of friends and strangers, as I’d always done before. It was one of those incredibly rare and profound moments of a book finding you, as a reader, at exactly the right time. Having and Being Had is instigated by Biss’s discomfort, especially as a person long accustomed to precarity, in being able to pay for a home and its furnishings from her and her partner’s academic salaries – and it opens out from this point into a fragmentary, often emotionally contradictory examination of capitalism and consumerism (the “having” of the title), as well as drudgey, exploitative employment (the “being had”), and how all this might be reconciled to Biss’s work as an artist and a writer, something separate from these spheres, if also implicated in them. It’s heartfelt and smart, fiery and furious, and a thoroughly invigorating read.
An honorable mention here too for Ellena Savage’s Blueberries, which is thrilling for its zest and energy, the cheek and playfulness it brings to the essay form – it was one of those books that made me want to sit down and write.
Best new talents
Katerina Bryant, Hysteria
Kylie Maslen, Show Me Where It Hurts
These essayists both debuted collections this year that discuss the experience of chronic illness and the way it can reshape a life, writing with great intelligence, heart and humour.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures; more accurately, I refuse to feel guilty for any of my pleasures. That said, by far the strangest of my pleasures this year was reading piles of pandemic fiction – and as such I recommend Sigrid Nunez’s Salvation City, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, Meg Mundell’s The Trespassers and Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country.
Mangoes are overrated. Books are not.
Craig Silvey, Honeybee
I have a lot of time for Silvey as a writer, but was so disheartened to see him using a trans character’s identity as a plot point in his new novel, and by the disingenuous way his publisher and publicity team handled the difficult conversations they knew that this would cause.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 19, 2020 as "Best books of 2020 #1".
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