Posted by Beck
2020 - what a year... A silver lining, for me was the luxury of having more free time at home.
I am ashamed to admit that, like many people, I have become a little bit addicted to that dastardly little screen we are all permanently joined to - the smartphone. I blame this device and the insidious apps contained on it for my sidestep into the category of “doesn’t read books” over my twenties. The first iPhone came out while I was at uni, so after 3 years of having time only for reading course material, with the smartphone joining me along the way and capturing any unoccupied sliver of my attention it could, I simply forgot how important and wonderful reading for pleasure was.
(I would like to note that I absolutely do not judge anyone negatively who doesn’t read books or who uses social media a lot - this is just me discussing my needs and shortcomings in the context of my own life and personality)
Having a lot of time at home this year, finding little satisfaction in my usual hobbies and the constant social media and news feed of either global doom or ridiculously inconsequential rubbish, I found myself staring at our bookshelf... searching for something. Looking at all the books I had bought and never got around to reading, I felt a tweak of shame that I had let my brain become so slack yet unable to sit still. My partner Micah noticed me assessing and rejecting blurbs by the second and said to me, “Read this. It’s my favourite book.” handing me his copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. Out of duty to the noble pursuit of “knowing one’s partner inside and out” rather than any sense that “reading is good for you” I took it to bed that night and within ten minutes I was hooked. That is what a good partner does - sees you struggling and knows exactly how to help you grow. Thanks to that simple recommendation I’ve read more books in the last year than I did in the 10 years prior, and I am well and truly in love with reading again.
Below are some of my favourite books I read last year in both fiction and non-fiction, and yes I am very late to the fan-party with most of them but better late than never! Hopefully there are a few you haven’t read…
Feel free to comment below with your thoughts on any of these that you’ve read - or with your favourite book(s) of the year, I am always on the hunt for recommendations!
- Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The one that got me back on track…
I enjoyed everything about this book. The descriptions of the South American settings are so evocative you feel you are there, the horror of recent war and the cholera epidemic is juxtaposed with the beautifully described landscapes and architecture. The way this book looks at love - at unrequited love, at the obsessive frenetic love of adolescence, at the steady love of a marriage based on security, at mature, enduring love and the love of family - describes heartbreakingly and at the same time heartwarmingly the complexity of our concepts of Love and grief and how they evolve over a lifetime. This is far from the "perfect" Hollywood love story, but that’s why it’s so compelling.
- The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris
This was a touching story about Lale, a Jewish Slovakian who was on the first transport to Auschwitz, who is given the job of “Tatowier” (the tattooist who is tasked with marking prisoners with their identification number) thanks to his multi-lingual skills and Gita - a young girl he comforted in the tattoo queue, and how the love they found for each other in Auschwitz helped them survive. The story is based on true events (though there is some embellishment, apparently it’s not 100% historically accurate), from information gathered from interviews the author conducted with Lale before he passed away in Australia in 2006. The writing is plain, but the story is so important and compelling I still rate it as worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in the holocaust but need some light in the story to balance the horror.
- Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton
I realise this book was well hyped and a best seller in 2018/19, so my recommendation of it is a bit like me asking if you’ve heard of this amazing new technology called the “computer”… but you’re going to get it anyway!
I almost gave up on this book, I will admit it - it took me quite a few chapters to get used to the style of writing, but once I found my groove with it I was enthralled.
Trent Dalton has somehow managed to spin a yarn about a Brisbane boy growing up amidst poverty, violence and crime while infusing it with love, joy and humour, and a touch of suspended reality in such a fresh and vibrant way. The story is well constructed, layered, with moments of banality, tenderness, horror, love, loss, teenage infatuation, and a blockbuster action ending that is crying to be made into a film or tv series.
- Veronika Decides to Die - Paolo Coelho
This is the story of Veronika, a 24 year old Slovenian who has decided she has experienced everything life has to offer and decides to kill herself.
However, her attempted suicide fails and she ends up waking, after a week in coma, in Villette, a local hospital and institution for psychiatric patients where Dr. Igor tells her that her suicide attempt has left her with a very weak heart and she has only a few days left to live, so she should rejoice and just wait for her death as it was what she had wanted in the first place. While waiting for her death, Veronika meets the other 'mental' patients, learns their stories and during this time she begins to question her beliefs and ideas about life and what 'living each moment of our life fully' actually means....even if it entails going against the norms of what society deems as a proper and correct way of living and existing. This is a really thought provoking look at the concept of mental illness, a curious love story and a beautiful reminder of what’s important in life.
- Normal People by Sally Rooney
On the surface, this book seems like just another Young Adult novel about a high school romance between the popular boy and the nerdy girl and the predictable social ramifications of this pairing, with a bit of sex and angst thrown in.
That would be a very shallow interpretation of this novel, (one I have heard a few times from others) because the prose is simple so I believe people mistake it for average writing, yet the investigation of the psychology of these characters is deep. The story is not the main event, it is more of a character driven study of two people who are deeply connected, and allow each other room to grow and to fail and to be human, but can’t quite manage to be at the same place emotionally at the same time. It’s a very realistic depiction of the emotional rollercoaster of youth and young adulthood including one of the better renderings of how depression feels that I’ve read or seen, the nuances and psychological dynamics of sexuality, class and social pressures, and the tiny miscommunications and things left unsaid that can undo a relationship. I couldn’t put this one down.
- A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki
I couldn’t solidify all my thoughts on this book without rambling, so I found a review by someone else that beautifully sums up how I feel:
“I wish I could have read this wonderful novel of ideas in one sitting because it requires you to slow down and let its story and themes open up like a flower that takes a long time to bloom. The characters are full-blooded and enticing, their struggles across time and geography deeply moving. A beautiful and poetic book about the invisible life lines that intersect and miss each other everyday, about how the past constantly lives and trembles inside us, how we should honour and remember our elders, how the acts of writing and reading both create and undo who we are, how technology brings us closer and further apart in a single breath. A philosophical novel, a coming-of-age novel, a mystery novel sprinkled with a dash of magic realism. A novel generous and bold enough to let us connect the dots or simply gaze in awe at its infinite possibilities.”
User Melanie Frances
- Dance Dance Dance & Killing Commendatore - Haruki Murakami
These are two separate novels but I’m putting them together as the reasons I love them are the same.
Murakami’s novels tend to follow a central protagonist, usually (if not always) male, who is a bachelor or just recently split up with someone, and goes on some sort of journey where inexplicable things happen, strange fantastical characters weave in and out distorting reality and there is some sort of metaphorical, spiritual journey alongside the real one. I may not “get it” at the end of the book, but I don’t mind because the journey was the point, not the destination.
I think what I love most about Murakami is the way he sets a scene, he has a distinctly Japanese sensibility and describes something as simple as clouds floating over a hillside with the most delicate, whimsical beauty and his characters are often infused with dry humour. Whatever he writes, it’s a joy to read.
(If you are new to Murakami, start with Dance Dance Dance, it’s one of his best).
- Quiet : The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking - Susan Cain
Susan Cain is an ex attorney who is now an author and lecturer. She is also an Introvert. In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that western society dramatically undervalues introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture.
As a very introverted person myself, I found this book quite soothing, and also revelatory. I did not realise that it is not necessarily nurture but nature that determines our level of introversion / extroversion. There is a fascinating chapter on the biology of “sensitivity” citing research that shows people who are introverted are generally born with extra sensitivity to loud noise, crowds, body language, even intense flavours. We’re not just “being shy” we are born that way. I recommend this for introverts of course but also parents / colleages of introverts to help you understand their ways.
- Breath : The New Science of a Lost Art - James Nestor
“Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. None of this should be possible, and yet it is.
Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry, and human physiology, Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. You will never breathe the same again.”
This book was incredibly interesting, and really got me thinking about my own breath and what I can do to adjust it for my mood and physical health. I was shocked by the revelation that our soft processed food in the modern world is apparently withering the chewing muscles that support the pulmonary system inside the head and throat, causing all sorts of breathing difficulties that our ancient ancestors seemingly did not have. The author suffered from these issues, due to a poor diet in childhood, and found a specialist dentist that corrected it, which he describes in the book. Knowledge is power, and this book also offers solutions in the form of practical breathing exercises.
Here are some more I enjoyed but don’t have the time or stamina to review right now!