Best Of 2020

Best of: May and June

Hello! It’s been a long time since I posted. A lot has happened since then, and at the same time not much has happened. Earlier during the pandemic I found myself entirely unable to concentrate, and unable to read books with challenging content. I remember I picked up an Agatha Christie that was set during WWII but found even it was too close to home. I took a couple of months off and nurtured my brain, and in August I gently began again. I’m reading again, and I’m catching up on work, and it feels good to be in the world again, even if it’s only a small amount. This week I’m looking back at a few books that were bright spots during those earlier months. They’re all fantastic, and I hope you enjoy hearing about them.

Best in Translation: The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal (Sort of Books, 2003) What is there not to love about Tove Jansson? The first of her adult books that I read was Fair Play, but this one is probably more well-known. They’re similar in style – that gentle, simplistic narration that makes you feel like you could be reading a children’s book, except that it’s completely timeless and ageless. Again, a series of linked short stories rather than a straightforward novel, sometimes it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed between each, but that doesn’t really matter. The heart of this book is the relationship between a small girl and her island-dwelling grandmother. I love stories that explore that kind of connection (another good one is The Last Children of Tokyo). In The Summer Book both the girl and the grandmother have limitations because of their respective ages, and this creates a perfectly equal power balance in the relationship, something that is quite rare. This is the kind of book you could read over and over your whole life. If you haven’t yet, then now is a great time to begin.

Best Non-Fiction: The Book of Queer Prophets, curated by Ruth Hunt (William Collins, 2020) I pre-ordered this book as soon as I heard about it, it’s obviously a book that slots in with my reading interests, but I didn’t have really high expectations of it. I’ve read quite a few collections of personal essays recently and often they’re not very deep – the different contributors can tend to repeat each other, and the pieces aren’t long enough to really approach a topic with nuance. This book leapt over and above all of that. The authors are so carefully selected, and such brilliant writers, that each essay is both excellent on its own, and contributes a distinct part of an overall picture.

There’s so much I could talk about here, but I try to keep these reviews short. In brief, stand-out pieces for me were from Erin Clark, who discusses the similarities of ‘passing’ either as straight or as a person without faith, and from Mpho Tutu van Furth, who talks about the conflict she experiences as a priest who supports equal marriage. A recurring theme, as I expected, is the contrast between the dictates of many religious institutions and the teachings of Jesus, or the Quran, but there was so much thoughtful exploration of the topic, rather than treating it as an impossible conflict and turning away. I found this book fascinating, enriching and inspiring, and I urge you to read it.

Best Fiction: Murmur, by Will Eaves (CB Editions, 2018). Oh this book. Stunning and heartbreaking. Heavily inspired by the arrest and chemical castration of Alan Turing, it maps an imagined course of events through conversation, letters and diaries. Turing is one of my fascinations, and I have always felt a sense of horror at what was done to him, and what his genius might have achieved if he were free. Will Eaves is also a bit of a genius, I think, and writes about this brief, horrible unravelling with a superb consciousness that left me shaken in a way that biographies or information boards at Bletchley couldn’t.
My friend Jen, who recommended this book, is a fan of Will Eaves, whose writing I hadn’t come across. But Murmur makes me want to track down everything he wrote. I feel like I could go on about this book forever, except I’m finding it hard to put into words what it’s really like. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to seek it out.

That’s all for, well, May and June. I have a lot of catching up to do, but there’s always time. Look after yourselves, and if you’re reading, let me know what you’ve loved lately. X