2020 in Books: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Well, I’ve covered my Top 5’s for 2020 in music and on screen, and now it’s time for my alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, to take centre stage and reveal Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books of 2020.

I don’t normally keep track of how many books I read, but for some bizarre reason utterly unknown to me I did in 2020 – and, despite home schooling and remote working, somehow found time to escape into more than 60 books. They ranged from non-fiction to biography to literary fiction to fantasy, read either on the page or on an iPad using the Libby app (which I think is brilliant).

Along the way I read some stuff I definitely won’t pick up again but which served its purpose during the darker times of the year just gone, but I also uncovered some genuine gems which, without further ado, make up Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books of 2020.

Phosphorescence: on Awe, Wonder and Things that Sustain You when the World Goes Dark by Julia Baird (2019)

I actually kicked off 2020 by reading Julia Baird’s masterful biography of Queen Victoria (which, if that sort of thing is your jam, I highly recommend). But it was this gorgeously ornamented hardback volume, which I will refer to simply as Phosphorescence for short, which took my breath away. In it, Julia Baird has delivered what I view as the best kind of writing: thoughts and ephemera so beautifully expressed and interwoven that you want to start reading the book again as soon as you have finished it.

In preparation for writing this post I was flicking back through Phosphorescence trying to find a specific passage which stuck in my memory – it was a description of sunrise on the East Coast of Australia, which compared (if I recall it correctly) the suddenness of the sun’s appearance over the rim of the Pacific to a lit match being dropped into petrol.

I couldn’t find the precise quote I was looking for…but as I leafed through the pages of this wonderful book, it reminded me of all the amazing things Baird talks about: not only phosphorescence, but storm chasing, and the Overview Effect, and forest bathing, and so many other glorious things. And in the process, I found another, completely different passage, which probably sums up even better what I love about this book:

If we accept flowering by its nature is a fleeting occurrence, then we are more likely to recognise each blossom as a triumph.  And if we accept impermanence, we are far more likely to live in the present, to relish the beauty in front of us, and the almost infinite possibilities contained in every hour, or every single breath.

Enough said, yes?

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

Turning now to fiction, I could not fail to include Bernadine Evaristo’s prize winning Girl, Woman, Other, which deservedly took out the Booker in 2019.  The intersecting stories and perspectives in this book stayed with me for a long time. Reading this novel might be described as the literary equivalent of looking into one of those glass faced clocks you can see the inner workings of – all the wheels and cogs are separate but still necessarily connected, which I loved. I also appreciated the diverse perspectives were overwhelmingly female, and the characters’ experiences – both good and bad – eminently familiar to female readers. Girl, Woman, Other is well worth your time and money, and I highly recommend it.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (2019)

Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne are “fading gangsters from Cork City”, sitting in the port of Algeciras, looking for Maurice’s missing daughter, Dilly. The entire novel takes place over the course of a single day, but because it is packed full of reminiscences of their time drug running in Spain and the various ups and downs of their lives in Ireland, it feels like it takes in decades.

Kevin Barry’s ability to capture the nuances of speech of the various characters in the book –particularly of the two main protagonists – stayed with me for long after I’d finished it. This novel definitely has a streak of darkness at its heart, made lighter by comedic turns and the banter between two old and very battered mates.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)

The Thrifty Fictionista has come late to the Curtis Sittenfeld party, not having read American Wife or Sisterland or any of Sittenfeld’s other novels. And yet, the premise of this book – what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? – had me hooked from the start. By necessity, the first part of the novel deals with Sittenfeld’s imagining of the romance between university students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, but midway through the book they part: and when Hillary refuses Bill’s proposal of marriage, a very different version of “history” ensues.

To date I have resisted the urge to go googling down various rabbit holes on the interwebs in an effort to determine whether the very much still living Hillary Rodham Clinton has read this fictionalised account of her life as it might have been and how she has reacted to it, partly because it reminds me a bit too much of Barack Obama adding Fleabag to his list of favourite television series for the year some time back (which raised at least several eyebrows given what Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character was doing while she watched a video of him making a speech). At least, after American Wife, one can only assume Hillary Clinton can chat to Laura Bush about what must be a truly singular experience.

I’m not going to say any more about this one for fear of spoiling the ending, but I can tell you it is well worth a read.

M Train by Patty Smith (2015)

It’s only fair and fitting, I suspect, that I bookend this Top 5 of 2020 with a biographical meandering far more similar in tone to Phosphorescence than the fiction writing I’ve included as the meat in the sandwich, so to speak.

When my aunt lent me her copy of M Train it took me a while to get into it – I suspect I was on a massive fiction bender (no doubt plowing through a massive fantasy series by Sarah J Maas or someone similar), and after reading a chapter or two I found Patti Smith wasn’t what I was after at the time.  When I picked it up again later, however, I devoured the remainder in a single sitting and absolutely loved it. Smith, who is perhaps better known as a singer-songwriter and poet, has – unsurprisingly – a lyrical ability to express emotion and to bring her interior life into the light…such as this passage when Patti visits a friend in Morocco who is close to the end of his life:

Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds. The spirits rose like an ether that spun an arabesque and touched down as gently as a benevolent mask.

—Paul, I have to go. I will come back and see you.

He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine.

Ahhh….I don’t think there’s a better way to end the main part of this post than with such beautiful, poignant words.

The Thrifty Fictionista’s Highly Commended Books of 2020 are, as ever, a mixed bag of goodies:

  • All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton (2020) – how I love anything this man writes! A truly unique Australian voice with an abundance of humanity;
  • The Erratics by Vicky Laveau-Harvie (2017) – a tyrannical mother, a traumatised father, an extraordinary memoir;
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (2020) – a mystery, some giggles and a few keenly observed words of wisdom;
  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (2011) – short stories that pack a real punch;
  • Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty (2020) – a self-help book, but notable because it’s the first I’ve read based on a Vedic perspective;
  • Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (2019) – a fascinating autobiography from Barack Obama’s UN Ambassador to the United Nations; and
  • Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (2015) – one of the most engrossing and interesting memoirs I have ever read.

Thanks so much for checking out my Top 5s for 2020!

Here’s to 2021 being a very different year, in only good ways.  I am looking forward to delving into a whole trove of excting new volumes and engrossing experiences, all between the pages of books.

Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve read something awesome, or subscribe to receive new posts directly to your inbox using the Follow button.

Until next time, mind yourselves.

BJx

Return of the Thrifty Fictionista

Folks, it’s been a veritable age since the Thrifty Fictionista had the urge to raise her head from whatever book she has currently fallen into and poke her nose into cyberspace.  Not surprisingly, it has taken a truly momentous event to encourage her return, and that fabled occurrence happened to be the delivery of a huge box of books (twenty, to be exact) for a truly bargain price (precisely $100, including shipping).

A treasure trove of volumes! Heaven in a box!

As an aside, and before I go any further, please allow me categorically state that this post is in no way sponsored by the suppliers of said heaven-filled box, but it must also be stated that the unfathomable joy of having that many books delivered for such a bargain price has stayed with the Thrifty Fictionista for several months now (given she received it in September).

Every time I want something to read, my now burgeoning bookshelves have something for every occasion. The box included a beautiful hardcover cookbook, a couple of political biographies, an actress’ memoirs, a book on girls and the outdoors (immediately nabbed by Marvel Girl and never seen since), a gorgeous volume of short stories with an invitingly textured dust jacket, several volumes of historical non-fiction, and even a couple of books about women in business.

In all honesty, there were only a couple of books in the box that failed to interest me, but at the ridiculously low price point I was not worried by that at all. I was able to review the contents prior to ordering, and my bargain-loving nature has been well satisfied by the vast majority of the contents. I am set for a summer of reading all sorts of things I would not normally have picked up under ordinary circumstances (which may or may not entail wandering with a slightly glazed expression around bookshops while mentally calculating my current level of credit card debt).

And now, on this Black Friday (which Australian retailers appear to have embraced with perplexing alacrity, despite the notable absence of pilgrims in the First Fleet and – more troublingly – of any concept of collaborating with this country’s original inhabitants that would warrant us celebrating Thanksgiving), the same book seller from which I procured my magical carton is offering not twenty, but FORTY books for $100.

Be still, my beating heart!

Or, perhaps more accurately: gird yourself, my slightly melted-around-the-edges-from-overuse credit card...

Oh yes, folks.  The Thrify Ficitionista has definitely returned…will she be able to resist?

2019 in Books

At last…the third and final instalment in my Top Five’s for 2019 has arrived — books, beautiful books!

2019 was always going to be a tough year in books for me, because 2018 was the year when Boy Swallows Universe usurped Dirt Music as my favourite book of all time.

So this year, instead of seeking out works of fiction that might make me change my mind yet again (because — as we now know Patrick Melrose would say — that’s what a mind is for, after all), I opted for to throw some non-fiction in with my usual reading escapes…and was more than pleasantly surprised.

I also read a few classics of English literature, one of which begins this, my humble list:

1. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Mrs DMrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

It’s one the great opening lines in literature, and somehow evokes the quiet control Virginia Woolf exercises over each and every character in this slim and beautiful novel. I’ve long been interested in Woolf, and am so pleased I found time to read this novel this year.

Taking place over the course of a single day, Woolf takes the reader back and forward in time, from one character’s perspective to another, making us privy to their innermost thoughts about that day and its events, and of the other characters. Only in books do we have this power: to know the internal dialogue and register the emotional barometer of another (albeit fictional) person.

It is staggering to me that Woolf managed to deal with themes such as religion and secularism, mental health, sexuality and feminism in the space of so few pages. This is stream of consciousness writing at its finest, and is as relevant today as it would have been on the June day in 1923 it describes.

2. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

TCThe subtitle of this brilliant piece of non-fiction is “One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster”, but not even these words begin to sum up Sandra Pankhurst and her astonishing progression from abused child, to husband and father, to drag queen and sex reassignment patient, to sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife…the list goes on.

I had heard rumours and rumblings about this book for a couple of years. Not surprisingly, given the quality of Krasnostein’s writing, it has won a whole swag of awards, but I was honestly unprepared for the impact it would have on me. It was not that I was reading about someone who cleans up crime scenes, horders’ houses, and squalor so sordid it is almost possible to smell it coming off the page, it was the emotional wallop of Pankhurst’s own life story, interleaved with chapters about her clients and the tenderness — yes, tenderness — with which she deals with them.

Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.

SARAH KRASNOSTEIN

Krasonstein’s treatment of the slippery nature of memory and truth is masterful, and her frank admissions about the issues and memories her interactions with Pankhurst and her clients raise for her are, to my mind, courageous. It is impossible to read this book — and I could not put it down once I began — without having your breath taken away.

This is also a book that will  leave you thinking, hard, about things you never expected to, for a very long time.

3. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)

DJ6Whoa…we need to head back to Fictionland after that one, hey?

Well, what better way to do that than with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six? Weirdly, upon reflection, this book also deals with memory and truth as much as The Trauma Cleaner does, though in a fictional setting. Set in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, the book poses as an oral history trying to get to the bottom of a rock’n’roll puzzle — what made Daisy Jones and the Six, one of the decade’s most successful bands, split up straight after playing the final concert of their tour in 1979?

The writing style reminded me of Lizzy Goodman’s brilliant non-fiction work Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, a huge tome chronicling the rise of bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem and The National. Being fiction, however, Daisy Jones and the Six lets you invest yourself in the characters, allows the reader to take sides without fear of any recrimination, and to enjoy the twist that comes towards the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

4. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

CofGI was not expecting to include this book in my Top Five for the year, but have done so because it proved to be a rollicking good read and, in my opinion, the best piece of fiction Elizabeth Gilbert has produced in years. Unlike The Signature of All Things, which I found to be overwhelmingly populated by caricatures, City of Girls bursts at the seams with the colourful characters encountered by Vivian Morris from the time she moves to Manhattan as a nineteen year old after being kicked out of college.

Gilbert vividly recreates the theare and showgirl scene in New York City in the 1940s, and the novel is as much a love story to the city as it is the story of Vivian navigating her way through life and love, to recount it as a ninety-five year old narrator. This book is a great escape, not to mention a fascinating examination of how important it is to be free to be yourself.

5. How To Raise Successful People by Esther Wojcicki (2019)

SPI bought this book after hearing Esther Wojcicki interviewed on a podcast and read it cover to cover in an afternoon. Wojcicki draws on her experiences raising three highly successful children (all women who have risen to the top of typically male-dominated professions) and teaching generations of Media Arts students at Palo Alto High School, and also reflects on how her childhood informed the choices she made as a parent.

It’s partly a parenting manifesto, partly a practical advice manual, and a lot of what Wojcicki has to say makes a great deal of sense to me. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this was definitely a book that gave me much to think about — not to mention implement in my life — this year.

Honourable Mentions this year go two other non-fiction titles, Drusilla Modjeska’s beautiful and evocative memoir Second Half First and to Melinda Gates’ highly thought-provoking book about empowering women, The Moment of Lift.

On the fiction front, Max Porter’s novella Grief is a Thing With Feathers very nearly made my Top Five for its emotional bravery and poetic brilliance. I am yet to read Lanny but hope to get my hands on a copy in 2020. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and will admit to spending a week devouring the entire Cormoran Strike series, penned by Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling), with something akin to glee. I was a late-comer to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and loved it, and am looking forward to reading her next book, The Starless Sea, this year.

So that’s all folks! I read a whole lot of other books during the year that were also noteworthy and interesting, but these were the ones that made the cut for 2019.

That said, I have just trawled my local library for a substantial summer reading stash and have kicked off with the Julia Baird’s so-far brilliant biography of Queen Victoria…it may well make my 2020 list!

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