Reading in 2020: A pandemic year’s bookshelf

Writing about some of the books I’ve read over the past twelve months feels a bit strange, as 2020 has seemed like two different years: the one that began on January 1 and the one that began in mid-March, when the world awoke to the reality of COVID-19 and nothing was the same again. Steeped in isolation by pandemic distancing protocols, we’ve all had much more time to read while pondering so many unsettling questions. For example: why, even in the midst of plague, do such a disturbing number of people place a higher priority on individual freedoms than on social responsibility? How is it that the fact of systemic racism in the year 2020 is still news to so many white people of adult age? Can deep political divides in the American electorate—exposed by the worst president in U.S. history—ever be bridged? And is there anything we can still do to prevent total climate catastrophe without finally putting the brakes on unbridled capitalism?

By the way: four years and a couple of months ago, I wrote that Donald Trump could not be elected U.S. president because he didn’t read books. I know—how quaint, right? In retrospect, my premise was all wrong: it implied that Trump might have been worthy of the job had he been a reader, or that redemption through reading was even possible for someone like him. From an early age, I suspect, he was far too enthralled by the sound of his own voice for the wonders of literature to have moved him. Thanks to a narcissistic personality disorder enabled by a despicably amoral and ethically challenged father, he never developed the curiosity, patience, or self-reflection required for sustained intellectual inquiry or engagement; in adulthood, his tunnel-visioned greed and toddler-like attention span deflected ideas not related to getting rich or “winning.” Now, as the clock moves closer to his much-anticipated departure from our daily news feeds, it is truly cold comfort to know that most people in our lives—big readers or not—are vastly superior human beings to someone who just spent the last four years as leader of the free world.

Forgive me, thou bleeding piece of earth

I bookended 2020, as it were, with non-fiction titles about the planet and our place in it. The first, David Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic but meticulously researched The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books), was an admittedly odd choice for the vacation book bag. I read it, hypocritically, after my spouse and I took our usual carbon-spewing, cross-Pacific flight to Southeast Asia a few days into the New Year. With the air quality in Bangkok noticeably worse than we’d ever experienced, keeping us indoors much of the time, Wallace-Wells became grim company as I allowed his irrefutable evidence of looming disaster to sink in. Among other things, an increase in catastrophic flooding will cause an annual humanitarian crisis in much of Southeast Asia. There’s bad news, too, for the other place we visited in January: the Maldives, a remote archipelagic paradise of breathtaking beauty located in the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean. It’s included among those “disappearing states” that Wallace-Wells notes are succumbing to glacial melt. (We had chosen to go to the Maldives after Bangkok, knowing it might be our last chance to see it before the whole place is under water. I’m glad we made it there, just weeks before the COVID shutdown.) The author’s detailed history of climate science, and his check list of global warming’s impact on humans, animals and plant life, make his prediction scenarios all the more chilling: even if we can limit global warming to between two and three degrees by 2100—and it’s not looking good—we still face a torturous long run of escalating extreme weather events, excruciating heat in far too many places, disappearing coastlines, and mass migration by multiple millions of climate refugees. If there was any reassurance from reading this book, it was knowing that I likely won’t live much beyond 2050 if I happen to make it that far.

The year ended on a more soul-enriching note with Horizon (Knopf), the long-awaited memoir of environmental travel writer Barry Lopez (who I learned, a few hours before posting this book journal, died on Christmas Day at age seventy-five after a long battle with prostate cancer). Published last year, Horizon is a deeply philosophical account of a life-long search for meaning about the planet we share; the magisterial work of a lyrical prose writer many have likened to Thoreau. Horizon revisits some of the 70 countries Lopez travelled to, the cold and hot locations from which he produced his best-known, award-winning titles (Arctic Dreams, Light Action in the Caribbean). There’s much wisdom to be found in its 512 pages as Lopez shifts from his home on the Oregon coast to Ellesmere Island, from the Galapagos to Kenya, from western Australia to Antarctica. Imagining the minds of explorers like James Cook and other, similarly complex historical figures, he takes us on their journeys as well as his own for a closer look at the route maps of colonial and modern industrial enterprise—and their impacts on environments and people. Along the way, he questions his own assumptions about the ethics of travel, the authority of expertise, and claims by scientific research to be value-free. A deep sense of humility, of humanity, shines through as Lopez introduces and offers full credit to many of the people who assisted him in his work over the years, and as he takes full responsibility for his footprints—including his scruples about removing artifacts from sacred ground or trespassing in places where one’s knowledge of local history and culture is superficial at best. As final statements go, this one’s a gem.

After finishing Horizon I picked up Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World (Penguin), a collection of environmentally-conscious writings edited by John Freeman and dedicated to Lopez. The book, composed of essays, poems, stories and reportage by 43 contributors from around the world, demonstrates how climate change has increased inequality, making things worse for vulnerable populations and ecosystems everywhere. I’m just getting into it, but early standouts include Iceland’s Andri Snær Magnason’s account of revisiting a glacier he recalls from childhood (and his adjustment to growing awareness that a piece of ice once thought to have been permanent now has a life expectancy equal to his grandmother’s), and Thailand’s Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s scathing commentary on Bangkok’s aforementioned poor air quality (and how the Thai real estate industry, reinforcing the city’s skyscraper fetish as part of a cultural tradition of reaching for the skies, promotes penthouse living by claiming the air is cleaner up high—thus turning breathable air into the ultimate privilege).

Racism: A look in the mirror

During the aftermath of the racist murder of George Floyd by police officers on May 25, amid the resulting consciousness-raising about the long, sad legacy of anti-Black violence and systemic racism in the United States (and similar reflections on anti-Indigenous, anti-Asian and anti-Black racism in Canada), it occurred to me that my personal library wasn’t exactly bursting with Black authors. For last year’s book journal I raved about Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Feel Free. I’m also a big fan of New York Review of Books contributors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Darryl Pinckney, and have Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland, which wasn’t bad, on my bookshelf. But another novel by a Black writer remained unread on that shelf: Tony Morrison’s Jazz (Plume), which a friend had gifted me on my thirtieth birthday a few days after its author won the Nobel Prize. Back then, I couldn’t get past its first couple of pages because it was hard to relate to the world Morrison described. But I kept the book and, during the height of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, pulled it off the shelf and devoured it in a few sittings. The story, which traces the origins of a love triangle in mid-1920s Harlem that ends with tragic death, is compelling; the characters are well drawn. It’s an all-Black world, from a woman’s point of view, that I had no trouble relating to in 2020. So why wasn’t that the case in 1993? What does it mean that it took mass media exposure of brutal injustices, nearly twenty-seven years later, before I grew interested? Was I, at age thirty, just too preoccupied with other issues and writers? Was I less open to other worlds and perspectives than I may have thought? Or am I overthinking this and, indeed, Toni Morrison’s work is an acquired taste?

Another Black American writer I ought to have read long ago is one many believe should have won the Nobel: James Baldwin (all titles Vintage). During the Thailand/Maldives trip I finally read Giovanni’s Room, first recommended decades ago after I came out of the closet. It’s generally regarded as Baldwin’s “gay novel,” though his fiction is said to defy easy pigeonholing: his themes are universal, and an ironic queer sensibility runs through all of his works. Younger readers might feel that the theme of suppressed desire and the violent deaths of gay characters date the story. But for a novel published in 1956, GR’s rendering of the conflict between passion and conventional morality still resonates, as do the humanity of the characters and the pulse of night life in Paris that Baldwin so nicely captures. During the spring, I came back to Baldwin with Another Country, his masterwork and one of the best novels I’ve read. Here’s a work of fiction, published in 1960 and set in New York City, in which a gay Black writer convincingly occupies worlds not his own (there are white characters, female characters, and straight characters as well as Black and gay), and builds a story that strips off social masks to expose the dehumanizing myths of the American Dream. The revelation that people aren’t who we think they are is still powerful literary subject matter, and Another Country delivers it with devastating impact. During the BLM protests I read The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s two-part polemical essay on race relations published in 1963, the year of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. The failure of religious faith or acts of vengeance to solve the racial divide in America, and the fact that white people bear the burden of their racism in ways that are self-destructive over time, are truths that still cry out to be heard today. I wish I’d read Baldwin in my twenties.

Speaking of racism, I once mistook the term “white fragility” for a sarcastic, virtue-signalling catcall by the Woke Left at its favourite fish-in-a-barrel target, the Racist Right. But Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility (Beacon Press) makes clear that—with the Racist Right a lost cause for enlightenment—the phrase is actually directed at self-congratulatory white progressives and liberals. In looking at some of the many ways that well-meaning white people deny racism in themselves (“I have Black friends. How can I be racist?”), Diangelo does a real service. As a white workplace diversity trainer she has come under fire for presuming expertise, but she is convincingly self-critical here. My favourite anecdote is her recollection of suggesting to an African-American friend that they spend a weekend together at Coeur d’Alene in Idaho: Diangelo had to apologize for her obtuseness when the Black friend gently reminded her that Coeur d’Alene was a hotbed of white supremacy near Hayden Lake, where the Aryan Nation was building a compound. Oops!

The limits of tribalism

Much of my non-fiction reading this year was focussed on issues of race, gender, nationalism and colonialism. During the summer I blogged about Thant Myint U’s The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the Twenty-first Century (Norton), a thoughtful assessment of Burma/Myanmar’s painful transition from military dictatorship, including the origins of Bamar Buddhist nationalism that led to anti-Rohingya genocide in Rakhine State. Another significant recent title is Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Doubleday). This marvelous account of the birth of modern anthropology explores the impact of the academe not only on the human subjects under study but on the ground-breaking researchers who examined their lives. In this highly readable, often entertaining narrative history, key players are revealed to have had overlapping professional and romantic relationships as their intuitions led them to reimagine our understanding of human diversity. King presents the pioneering work of Franz Boas and his circle—a cast of characters that includes Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Reo Fortune, Gregory Bateson and Zora Neale Hurston—as one of the most radical academic movements of the twentieth century, the conflict between essentialism and relativism regarded as a defining moment in the struggle to determine the meaning of culture.

For those who follow Indian politics, it will hardly come as news that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as the Mahatma, or “great soul,” was somewhat less holy than mainstream historians and hagiographers—not to mention a $230-billion Indian tourism industry—would have us believe. I was familiar with tales of Gandhi’s political opportunism, of his distasteful geriatric fumblings with young girls, and of his rumoured prejudices. But I had never seen a denunciation of him for reactionary politics, and one of such authority, until a friend directed me to Annihilation of Caste, a 1936 speech by Indian scholar B.R. Ambedkar. In the speech, which was never delivered to its caste-privileged audience because its Dalit Buddhist author refused all requests to soften its content, Ambedkar called for an end to India’s caste system and to social discrimination against “untouchables” while denouncing the Hindu majority for its legacy of oppression. In 2014, Verso reprinted the speech, in revised form, beside an exchange with Gandhi, who objected to its premise and teased the author with condescending sarcasm. That text is preceded by a book-length introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and The Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi (published on its own in 2017 by Haymarket Books), which does for the Mahatma what Christopher Hitchens once did for Mother Teresa. Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things and a prominent human rights activist, builds a strong case to indict the martyred champion of Indian self-rule as a two-faced Hindu of privilege who was hell bent on preserving an oppressive social hierarchy that exists to this day. Gandhi, she reveals with exhaustive documentation, was a classist racist who defended caste as a matter of hereditary entitlement; for all his public opposition to “untouchability,” he also retained a shocking personal bigotry toward people of lower caste. If you are one of those people who still worships Gandhi, read Roy’s essay and you’ll come away with a significantly altered view of his legacy.

I’m not sure how this classic 1983 text eluded me during my undergrad years (alas, too many things did), but Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso) is a worthwhile probe into the concept of “community” as it relates to larger narratives around geography, culture, and national identity. In some parts of the book, Anderson’s facility with linguistics takes him a little deeper into the origins of language itself than I was interested in going. But his knowledge of Southeast Asian and Latin American traditions in particular is impressive, and his take on nationalism—as he traces its development in culture and politics through print, literature, maps and museums—first rate.

A hundred years ago, the world was still reeling from the Spanish flu and had yet to recover from the ravages of World War I. For a close look at three white male Western imperialists under whose royal watch the latter unfolded, one could do worse than Miranda Carter’s George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I (Vintage). This late Victorian/Edwardian saga of the three related monarchs is tragic in so many ways: they had too many bad qualities in common, not least their belief in hereditary rule as God-given. Through their interweaving stories of personal, political and military failure, Carter does an admirable job charting the collapse of an old world order coming apart at the seams.

Tales of love, war, and pestilence

If you’re going to choose a pandemic novel during the Year of COVID and have already read Camus’s The Plague (and Kevin Chong’s nicely Vancouverized, contemporary version), Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars (Harper Avenue) is an excellent choice. Completed early in 2020 and rushed to publication when the pandemic was declared (taking full advantage of historic good timing), TPOTS is set in the understaffed maternity ward of a Dublin hospital in 1918, the height of the Spanish flu and the final year of World War I. It takes place almost entirely within a single room, so the reader can’t help but feel the claustrophobia experienced by the story’s main character. Nurse Julia Power, putting aside her own fears of contagion, can barely keep up as she selflessly attends to expectant mothers who have caught the mysterious killer flu and are fighting like hell to save their babies and themselves. Into this world step two outsiders who help Julia make sense of what’s happening: Bridie Sweeney, the young volunteer she patiently tutors who becomes surprisingly indispensable, and Doctor Kathleen Lynn, whose progressive views of medicine are a breath of fresh air in a regimented ward but whose influence may only be temporary due to her status as a rumoured Rebel on the run from police. Donoghue’s knowledge of obstetrics (and of medical practice’s clinical avoidance of emotion) serves her well in her attention to detail. She has a poet’s eye, too: there are beautifully drawn passages in which patients give birth and die within minutes of each other and the simplest act of compassion—an offered glass of water or a clean, dry cloth—make all the difference in the world.

When Edmund White refers to a book as one of the best he’s ever read, I can’t help but take note. Spanish author Andres Barba’s ninth book, A Luminous Republic (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), published this year in English and set for translation into twenty languages, gets such a nod. It is hard to present satire and dystopian horror simultaneously (“I suppose a Hollywood hack pitching this novel would say: Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness,” muses White, in his introduction), but Barba somehow pulls it off, and much more, in this 192-page novel. The fictional San Cristóbal is a newly prosperous provincial city, contained by river and rainforest, where not much happens until 32 anonymous children emerge from the jungle and begin wreaking havoc on its residents. Initially compassionate toward these homeless kids from the wild (who speak an unknown language as they scavenge, steal food and mug pedestrians before disappearing back into the trees), the citizens turn against them when their own children defect to join their scruffy, anarchic ranks. The resulting hunt to locate the city’s missing children as well as the 32, narrated by the social worker assigned to the case, is at turns somber and comic, heavy and beautiful. A Luminous Republic is a startling commentary on adult perception of child behaviour, and our intolerance of anything that deviates from our own precious stereotypes of childhood.

Michel Houellebecq has become something of a guilty pleasure. The 2019 winner of France’s Legion d’Honneur is, after all, a cranky right-wing nationalist who thinks Donald Trump was a good president, so I blush to admit that I have five of his novels. Fortunately, I read Serotonin (William Heinemann) before I was aware of the author’s silly defense of you-know-who, or I might have been too sickened to bother. The problem is that Houellebecq is such a damned good writer. One of the best in contemporary fiction at sniffing out pretense and artifice, the oppressive grip of religious tyranny, and—oh, wait, this is a left-wing stance—the false promises of capitalism and globalization. Houellebecq’s protagonists are always sad-sack losers, which makes their stories funny and tender all at once: having nothing left to lose, they lack inhibition in condemning a world that’s defeated them and have much to say on their way down. In Seratonin, our loser is Florent-Claude Labrouste, an agricultural engineer whose career promoting regional cheeses is threatened by EU policy. Labrouste’s antidepressant of choice, designed to alter the brain’s release of serotonin, is no match for the young girlfriend who hates him. Nor, despite multiple doses, can it maintain the false sense of nostalgia he clings to in escaping from Paris to seek a long-lost golden age in the countryside.

Last year I raved about The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning World War II novel. Earlier this fall I was rummaging through a bargain bin when I found a hardcover edition of the Australian author’s 2018 follow-up, First Person (Knopf). It might just be the best bang for eight bucks I’ve ever spent on a read. After the sweeping historical narrative arc and ambitiously complex plotline of Narrow Road, which must have been an enormous labour for its author, perhaps Flanagan just wanted to sit back and have some fun with his next novel: thanks to a basic storyline and stripped-down prose with heaps of dialogue, First Person bears no resemblance whatsoever to its award-winning predecessor. Maybe it ended up in the bargain bin because fiction readers in general don’t much like reading novels about writers complaining about writing. But if you’re a writer, and such a book is well done, it can be an absolute romp—almost like therapy, as this one was for me.

First Person is narrated by a struggling young scribe, Kif Kehlmann, who has yet to publish his first novel and—with a wife and daughter at home to support, and twins on the way—decides to swallow his pride by taking on a ghostwriting project. His contract: to pen the memoir of a hopelessly corrupt businessman, Siegfried Heidl, who’s about to go on trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million. Everything about this story—from the impossible six-week deadline (and the desperate tricks Kif uses to meet it while enduring one sleepless night after another filled with self-loathing), to the accommodating publisher who adjusts his expectations and the unpredictable subject who grates with bizarre, problematic behaviour—will be instantly recognizable to any writer who has ever dealt with high-maintenance personalities or struggled with self-doubt while completing a book. The big star here is not Kif but the larger-than-life Heidl, a chancer and a charmer whose inability to tell the truth—or even to keep an appointment with his ghost writer—threatens to derail the project. As deadline looms, Kif begins to fear that Heidl might be succeeding in trying to corrupt him. The plot twist near the end, and the consequences for Kif, are most satisfying indeed.

And with that, dear reader, I had better get back to work on my own novel. Here’s to a much happier, healthier, and saner New Year, and may you have many good reads in 2021.