It’s become an annual tradition of mine to write up my five favourite books of each year. Not books that have been published that year, you understand, or even any attempt to summarise the annual highlights (let’s face it, given the sheer volume, that’s ludicrous), but simply what’s crossed my path and impressed. Reading is a big part of my life – I’d esimate I average several hours a week on books alone – and we;ve slowly edged it more and more into family life, too.
We now celebrate ‘book day’, for example, a kind of bastardisation of an Icelandic tradition, on Christmas Eve, which involves buying new books and chocolate and spending an evening in bed consuming both. This year has seen our son’s reading come on from struggling to do more than a page to reading books in a couple of sittings, too, which has been great to watch.
Anyway, rambling narrative aside, here are the books – this time, it turns out, exclusively not released in 2020 – that have lit up this weirdest of years for me. I got through 56 books in total, so this is a kind of top 10%-ish. The common themes seem to be travel and escapism, which I guess makes sense. Want some more? Here’s what I wrote for this very same post in 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016)
Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood on the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu
Yang Erche Namu is a folk singer from a fairly obscure mountain-based minority group in China, and this is her biography, though that slightly dull introduction disguises the surreal genius of this book. Namu comes from a society that’s utterly alien to our day-to-day lives, and seemingly untouched by modernity (though the book does date back to 2003). In a culture very much female-led and rejecting traditional marriage, the book’s early narrative about family life and the steadier women owning and keeping the home while the flitting men respond to symbolic sexual rituals is not as titillating as that might suggest, but so utterly away from my own experience it’s like uncovering a totally different concept for society. Which I guess it is.
As the book progresses, Namu moves on to describing her slow forays into the rest of China, including, eventually, places you’ll have heard of, away from her homeland of Himalayan Moso County, and her first encounters with things like paid performance, hotel rooms, modern transport and business-style exploitation. Namu is a rebel, someone who departed her own society against its implicit rules, leaving behind its conventions, and in doing so she uncovers for us in text an entirely new but distinctly engaging view on humanity itself. One of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro by Joe McGinniss
This is a well-known classic, so stop me if you’ve heard this before. I thought I’d read most of the key sporting reads, but I’d somehow skipped this one over the years, and what a book it is. Joe McGinniss, an American journalist with an unlikely passion for Italian ‘calcio’, finds himself in the right place at the right time, as he spends a season within the slightly surreal camp of Italian Serie B side Castel Di Sangro.
The tiny club are spending their first season in Italian’s second tier (one of, it turns out, what will be only two), and they’ve reached that level under the leadership of a shady local businessman and a team cobbled toegether on a fraction of the budget of everyone else is, indeed, a sporting miracle. This book, though, is made by McGinniss’ startling level of access to the team, who exist in the text as these kind of colourful journeymen who spend half the season without a decent training pitch, and eat most of their meals in a single restaurant that acts as a kind of home base. Over the course of the season, McGinniss varies from insider to persona non-grata, but the story he unveils is one any sports fan would love.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
This book is a slightly dated sci-fi that hits on lots of tropes around alien invasion, saving humanity and so on, but it absolutely sucked me in. Much of the book is played out in a ‘school’ environment, with the lead character rising up the ranks and ultimately becoming key in humanity’s space-bound battle for survival, which – for reasons – must be led by children.
This could arguably fall into the category of young adult fiction, but I liked it for its smart themes and its clever undertones of politics and prejudice that make it feel like a complex, multi-faceted world. I’m not sure I love it enough to go heavily into the follow-up texts, but it’s a seriously engaging piece of sci-fi.
Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux
Another book released back in the 80s, but this one’s probably engaging in part because of its time period. I was put onto Paul Theroux – well-known author father of the documentary man Louis – by a colleague, and he has a seriously engaging way of relating the everyday of long-form travel writing to a wider narrative. This book centres on a serious length of time on trains traveling through China, Russia and Eastern Europe, during which Theroux explores an iron curtain-era landscape that I found unfamiliar, despite having visited a few of the places he stops off in.
Theroux is kind of snide, and particularly irritated by the Chinese concept that you can “always fool a foreigner”, but his bitterness is seriously entertaining, especially when aimed at his bumbling government chaperone. It’s the weirder moments I particularly love, though, from his take on Tibet, to having to collect and then blow his royalties from Poland – which he can’t bring with him – during a short period in the country. He’s a bit of a nutter, a slightly unpleasant one at that (in huge contrast to his son), but his text is nothing if not engaging.
Doggerland by Ben Smith
Doggerland is a former landmass now sat beneath the ocean somewhere to the east of the UK. In ben Smith’s book, set in a climate-hit future, it’s home to a huge field of wind turbines, and our main characters – there are only two of them who feature for more than a handful of pages – scrape by fulfilling a contract that has them living on a rig and servicing those turbines.
The two characters are simply ‘the boy’ and the ‘old man’, and the boy – from whose perspective we read – is trying to work out what happened to his dad alongside working through his repairs. There’s a grim ‘everyday’-ness to the story, which in some senses kind of plods along, as well as a dark undertone to both the world it unveils and the plotline that slowly builds at its heart. A strange, drip-feed of a book that manages to be moving in the mundane, and a surprise hit of the year for me.