It’s again time for The Year in Books! (Previous posts: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.) 2020 was challenging in many ways. One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic was the difficulty of getting books, very minor of course compared to many misfortunes both personal and global, but annoying nonetheless. The Eugene Public Library has been closed to visitors since March, putting a long pause in the kids’ and my ritual of visiting almost every Saturday for the past fourteen years. (Libraries in other parts of the country are open, and one could have imagined policies here that would allow browsing without sitting, perhaps for limited numbers of people, especially given that Oregon’s Covid-19 cases are the fourth-lowest per capita of the fifty states. It has become clear to me, though, that I place a much higher value on libraries and schools than most people do. And the downtown library faces challenges common to urban libraries, which I’m sure complicate opening.) The university libraries have been closed as well for most of the time, though they were open for parts of Fall. It’s possible to request books for pickup; we’ve made good use of this, especially from the public library. Still, it’s not the same as browsing the stacks, especially to leaf through possibilities or pick up books at random. There are e-books of course, but they’re not as satisfying as books on paper. Despite all this, the number of books I read this year is about the same as in past years, and many have been excellent.
I think I read more dull books than usual this year — things that I’d rate as 3 stars out of 5, not terrible but not great. Like last year, there are several books that other people like a lot that I don’t, like Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012), which blandly lists events happening to interesting characters, The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford, conversely a stylish book about boring people, Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960), which allows me to cross off John Updike from my list of writers I should read, Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964), which I read two-thirds of before deciding that there are many better ways to spend time, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927), which was wildly popular when published, and which won the Pulitzer Prize.
But it wasn’t all dull! There were some excellent books as well. Two highlights were written recently: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016), about a Russian aristocrat held captive in a hotel when the revolution comes, watching four decades of history and becoming an adoptive father to a young girl, and Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) , a fresh retelling of the Greek myth from the witch’s perspective, managing to be grand but also intimate.
I re-read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which was as great as I remembered, then realized that I hadn’t read the subsequent novels featuring hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. The next in the series, Farewell, My Lovely (1940) is even better — beautifully written, puzzling but not needlessly convoluted, and with insights into corruption and friendship. The next, The High Window isn’t as good.
Two other favorites of the past year are both set in India:
Many years ago I read Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan (1935), but this year I read aloud to my younger son. It’s about a ten year old boy in a small town in Tamil Nadu — his experiences, friends, yearnings, adventures, and misadventures. The first few chapters are a bit dull, but after that it’s wonderful, capturing not only the odd logic of childhood, but the characteristics of school and life in a very different era. It’s often very funny, sometimes shocking, and always warm. It reminds me a lot of Tom Sawyer, both in its spirited but sometimes delusional protagonist, but also in illustrating how different the past is from the present, with childhoods with vastly greater freedom than is now the case, but also with far more violence and cruelty.
Just yesterday, I finished Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) — a remarkable book, exciting, dense, and colorful. It’s the story of teenage Kim, an orphan in end-of-nineteenth-century Lahore, who wanders India with a Tibetan Buddhist lama he befriends, and also becomes a spy enmeshed in the “great game” of colonial powers. The contrast between the worldly tactics of espionage and the ethereal concerns of the lama is striking and often comical. Throughout, the novel has a remarkable warmth towards all its characters and towards India. In this it’s rather like a children’s novel, which this is often classified as, but it’s an excellent read for adults as well; I’m not surprised that it’s on many “best novels” lists. (See for example this, and the others noted in it.) The e-book edition I read has a 30-page glossary at the end, which I didn’t notice until I swiping the last page of the text — another drawback of not having a physical book in hand.
My two non-fiction favorites of the past year are comedian Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (2016), a memoir about growing up in South Africa during the end of Apartheid and the time shortly after. It’s an amazing book — fast-moving, insightful, and a record of a childhood and adolescence packed with far more experiences, good, bad, and bizarre, than a hundred “normal” lives. It’s structured as several short essays, roughly chronological. I’ve never watched or heard Trevor Noah, and I picked this up because my older son was assigned it in high school (Grade 9). (He liked it as well.)
It’s possible to find e-books randomly, too, and from a spy genre list I came across I Was a Spy! by Marthe McKenna (1932). It’s the riveting, fast-paced memoir of a Belgian woman who becomes a spy for the Allies during WWI. It deserves to be better known. Not only does it paint a picture of the hardships of life during occupation by enemy troops, it sketches how an ordinary, though clever and brave, person ends up in espionage. I wouldn’t be so fond of the book if it weren’t true — in several places I would have been incredulous about the plot if it were fiction! The writing is very spare and could benefit from more description of places and people, but it serves its purpose of telling a fascinating story.
I can’t predict what the coming year will bring, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back inside the library. I should avoid dull books, and perhaps be more zealous about leaving dull books unfinished — there are plenty of good ones out there!
I’ve been revising book illustrations and so haven’t painted anything else decent recently. Here’s a quickly painted zebrafish.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, January 1, 2021