Gems of 2020

January 2020 feels like it took place more than a year ago, but by the calendar of ordinary time, it’s just been twelve months. And thus it’s time to choose my “Gems of 2020,” which will be my last list of favorites here at the Emerald City Book Review. For my reading and blogging plans for next year, join me on January 1 over at Entering the Enchanted Castle.

In reading terms, I did not manage to read as many books as usual, but many of them were excellent. I was thrilled that Susanna Clarke finally released another book and that it was one of my favorites of the year. I journeyed through Maya Angelou’s seven memoirs, sharing in her life of pain and joy, and through other people’s lives including a brilliant, disturbing memoir of postpartum psychosis, and a fictionalized account of the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

I learned from scientists about neurological differences and the world of bacteria, unseen and misunderstood realms that lie all around us in plain sight. I also learned from the voices of people with so-called disabilities; I was humbled by their persistence and courage, and motivated to use my own senses more fully.

There were lighter reads marketed for younger readers that also brought important moral and spiritual issues to ponder, and romantic comedies that lifted my mood and reminded me that life and love are still worth striving for.

These books, and many others, kept me going through this dark and disturbing year. What have been your own favorites? What do you recommend?




2020 Releases
Fiction: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Nonfiction: Inferno by Catherine Cho

More favorites I read in 2020:

Historical Fiction: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Memoir Series: Maya Angelou’s memoirs
Book Everyone Should Read: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Science: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Suspsense: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
Romance: Jill the Reckless by P.G. Wodehouse
Spirituality: The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
Sensory Differences: An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks; The World I Live In by Helen Keller; Eavesdropping by Stephen Kuusisto
Reread (and read-along): The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Series Finish: Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Around the World: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Classics: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Linked in the Sunday Post at Caffeinated Book Reviewer

Fourteen books about freedom

This is a list I came up with during the first two weeks of semi-quarantine, posting a book a day on my personal Facebook page. I found it an uplifting exercise, and I hope you enjoy it as well!

Day #1: The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
This is a small book full of big ideas, starting with one that doesn’t seem so fantastic these days: what if the world is a game being played by powerful entities who keep themselves invisible? And how can we free ourselves from this manipulation, and take back reality for ourselves?

The storyteller is Jamie, a boy who chanced on the game-players (known only as Them) and was cursed to “walk the bounds,” moving from world to world through the multiverse without ever entering play. He’s given the hope that he may return home, though, and hope is an anchor … for what, exactly, only comes clear at the end.

Day #2: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
As he was growing up in the final years of apartheid in South Africa, child of a black mother and a white father, Trevor Noah’s existence was literally illegal. His perceptive and funny look back at his experiences provides an incredible education for the reader — in large part due to the mom who insisted he had a right to live. “She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.”

Day #3: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
My favorite SF novel is this fable about a spartan planet settled by idealistic separatists and the scientist who believes the future lies in reconnection. It’s full of profound thoughts, and some amazing quotes that keep reverberating in my head right now. “You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

Day #4: Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif
Out of one woman’s simple wish to be able to drive herself in a car comes this powerful account of the human misery and needless suffering created by a misogynistic society. What struck me most of all is how afraid most Saudi men are of women, terrified of their agency and empowerment. And this is a picture of every human’s fear of the vulnerable parts of ourselves, which we repress and imprison lest they take over and drive us into places we don’t want to go. When will we become strong enough, courageous enough, to let go of those fears, and go in a new direction?

Day #5: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
As I said in my recent post about the musical, this is essentially a story about how love and forgiveness are the most powerful forces in the world, and about the emergence of a prisoner into freedom thereby. The book is loaded with extra material (Waterloo, convents, French politics, sewers, etymology, etc.) but that’s the gist of it.

Day #6: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Frankl found freedom in the deadly depths of a concentration camp, through an inner vision of the bond of love that cannot be destroyed. He went on to help others to choose life over death, to find the meaning that can sustain us whatever our outer circumstances.

Day #7: Watership Down by Richard Adams
A group of rabbits undertake a perilous journey to find a new home when their own is destroyed by selfish, greedy humans. Along the way, they must escape and overthrow a totalitarian leader whose ideas about disease control have gotten out of hand. Hmmm….

Day #8: The Philosophy of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner
“Is the human being spiritually free, or subject to the iron necessity of purely natural law?” Or as biographer Gary Lachman puts it, does what we refer to as the human “I” really exist? Using pure, unprejudiced thought and perception, following this question becomes a path toward discovering in what way human beings can indeed become inwardly free and spiritually active — a discovery that has the greatest possible significance for our embattled world today.

Day #9: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Exiled by Queen Mary from her sister Elizabeth’s court, Kate Sutton encounters imprisonment of a darker kind in this YA historical retelling of the Tam Lin legend. The pitting of human moral strength against the lure of unholy power is subtly and effectively portrayed.

Day #10: The Book of Joy
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have known some of the most horrendous experiences human beings can inflict upon one another: exile, oppression, physical aggression, discrimination, and more. They are also two of the most joyful people on the planet. In conversation with author Douglas Abrams they share their wisdom about how to live more joyfully, with clear and practical guidelines that can be applied by anyone in any circumstances.

Day #11: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” It’s a startling statement for a woman to make in Victorian society, which saw female virtue as completely bound up in submission to others. But as she negotiates a world full of lies and hypocrisy, Jane seeks true human connection while maintaining a fierce commitment to her own integrity.

Day #12: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
I usually hesitate to say “this is a book everyone should read,” but for Just Mercy I make an exception. It’s a deeply moving account of the staggering travesties of justice that occur in the not-so-United States, and of the humanity that nevertheless struggles to survive within the system. A beautiful work of literature as well as an unforgettable story.

Day #13: Momo by Michael Ende
This was the subject of the eighth grade play that we got to see just before school closed. It’s a fantasy about sinister grey men who live off of the time they steal from people by persuading them to focus on delusory goals like fame, money, and glamour. The child Momo, who always has time to listen to her friends and knows what is really important, must defeat the grey men through the power of the heart.

Day #14: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
In her own words, blind and deaf Helen Keller tells of her dramatic transition from helpless anger and frustration into peace, joy, and love through the gift of the word. It is a powerful example of how freedom does not reside in physical liberty, but in our connection to the world of meaning, the Logos.

During this period of physical restriction I’ve enjoyed thinking about of some of my favorite books. It’s made me realize to what extent they have been lights in the darkness for me. I would love to know what you think of any of them and what would be your own choices.