Back in 2018 I started keeping a log of all the books I read over the course of a year (the old fashioned way, with a notebook and pen, naturally!) It came about partly out of a desire to count how many books I actually got through in 12 months – not as many, incidentally, as I would have guessed before I started keeping score – but also because when you’re on a continuous reading cycle I find it can be really hard to recall what you were reading even a few weeks earlier, so absorbed do you become in the latest book pile. With current events playing havoc with perceptions of time (I barely even know what day of the week it is anymore) I suddenly felt the urge to get my notebook out this morning, in the hope that looking back over this year’s reading would drag me back into some kind of meaningful mental timeframe. Not entirely sure the strategy worked, but what it did make me realise was how many great books I’ve already enjoyed this year; of course, because I only returned to my blog a couple of weeks ago after quite a long time away, that means a whole host of fantastic recommends I haven’t yet shared! So I thought it would be fun to do a run down of my top 5 reads of 2020 so far, and here they are – in no particular order (that was too hard!)
Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy
I found this book via quite a surprising recommendation, from someone I would never have imagined enjoying a book on this topic. I have to admit I’d looked at it previously and assumed (with little reason and completely unfairly it turns out) that it would be quite dry, but following my friend’s enthusiasm decided to give it a go. And I have to say, it absolutely blew me away. Its analysis of the tragic event and the politics surrounding it was absolutely forensic in its detail, yet it remained constantly gripping right to the end, when the disaster itself was receding into the past but the political machinations were far from over. Be warned, it will make you furious, and also incredulous that any state could disregard the lives of its citizens so rashly in order to maintain a political advantage; but I do believe it needs to be read, if only in order to understand what corruption and deceit institutions are capable of.
Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez
Another book that will leave you absolutely enraged (I realised while writing this there’s a definite theme emerging!), this time about how women have not only been short-changed by societies across the world, but actively put at risk and in the most extreme cases, effectively killed by assumptions that normality = masculinity. The book hinges on the idea that since pretty much the dawn of civilisation, a male-dominated society has equated humankind with mankind, leading to a blank space where women’s data should be, with horrendously discriminatory results. From crash test dummies that are based exclusively on the male physique to pharmaceutical companies that run all-male tests leading to drugs that are less effective – or even harmful – to the female body, the pervasive nature of this absence of women will shock and horrify you. Read it, then get all your friends of all genders to read it – I honestly believe this is one of the most important messages I’ve come across in any book over recent years.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk
Laced with a merciless dose of pitch-black humour, this novel bares its teeth and goes for the throat of Polish society. Patriarchal authority figures, blood sports enthusiasts, the institutions of law and order that ostensibly work for the greater good of society while marginalising those who fall outside the “boys’ club” of politics and business – none are safe from this stinging literary attack. This superb novel has minutely realised characters, and follows a series of macabre events that will leave you caught somewhere between laughter and revulsion; it’s memorable, stylish and completely different. Apparently it caused an uproar in Poland when it was published, which possibly shows how acutely on-point the satire was….
The Five – Hallie Rubenhold
For decades our ghoulish obsession with Jack the Ripper, in particular the titillating spin that’s been attached repeatedly to his crimes by the accepted mythology around his victims being prostitutes, has completely overshadowed one crucial fact: those he killed were all real people who had a story of their own before they came to be notable in history merely as dead bodies. In this book, Hallie Rubenhold gives these women back their voices, and in doing so dismantles many of the lurid assumptions that have surrounded them for so long. In keeping with the theme of my favourite books of 2020, yes, it will make you a little angry – every single one of these women were let down by a society that left no room for a woman to survive and make a life for herself without a man by her side on which to depend. But it will also make you extremely sad, and yet grateful to the author for putting these victims back into the spotlight as living people, rather than corpses on a street corner.
Austerlitz – W G Sebald
Since I read this back in February I’ve been recommending it to tons of people; it’s one of those novels that’s so unique it sticks in your mind long after the last page. It’s unusual in that it masquerades as a true story, even to the point where it includes photographs that purport to be of places and people connected to the main characters. It’s so convincing that while you’re reading part of you starts to wonder if indeed these people are in fact real and this truly is a biography. That’s not the case, but it is a thoroughly authentic exploration of suffering and loss, and what that does to the psyche over many decades. The background to Austerlitz’s story is the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews around the time of the Second World War; however, the inevitable fate of his family and the horrific situation from which he managed to escape are only hinted at. The sadness is somehow more powerful for being so opaque; it’s a truly affecting novel, mighty in its quietude and subtlety.
Which have been your favourite books of 2020 so far? Do comment and let me know!