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

Touching Clouds

little things“Fog,” my then three-year-old daughter explained very earnestly to me as we walked along together one day, “is a cloud you can touch.”

It’s one of the many interesting things my younger child has informed me of over the years, but I remember it particularly well because I made a note of it on my iPhone, along with the date she said it.  Every now and then, when I needed to remember to smile, I would look back at that little note and it would lift my spirits.

And if I really needed to feel better, I would listen to a voice recording I had made of her watching the film version of The Gruffalo for the first time. That audio clip captured her little girl giggle, descending into breathlessness as she laughed so hard that no sound came out.

I am feeling rather nostalgic as I write this, because those two things are gone now: my iPhone died unexpectedly last month, and while I had backed up all my photos (thank the Old Gods and the New), I had neglected to include my notes or audio files in that all-important process.

not thingsAnd so, I am left now with just the memory of those things, and of all the times they made me smile.

I am reminded, time and again, that it is these little things…tiny fragments of memory, snippets of conversation, moments in time…that are not the littlest things in our lives at all, but the biggest. And those things, it turns out, are not things at all.

That, my friends, is my little thought for the day.

And my wish is that you, during your travels through life, may also find a cloud you can touch, and know it for what it really is.

 

Mandala People

Mandala 1November, it seems to me, is something of a forgotten month.

Not that it means to be, of course. Here in the Great Southern Land, November kicks off in style and ceremony, with all the pageantry (and absurdity) associated with the Race That Stops the Nation.   But once the Melbourne Cup has been run, all the celebratory elements somehow disperse, disappearing into the seven week slog towards the summer holidays and Christmas.

November, however, is not a month to be underestimated.

I have learned this, the hard way, in years gone by — and that’s why it seemed apt to made Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for November the most challenging I’ve selected all year: INTEGRATE.

Because it’s time, people.

It’s time to put all the pieces together.

At the year’s outset I wished my nearest and dearest (and anyone who happened to stumble across this small patch of cyberspace I call my own) strength and ease. And as time went one, we explored a different theme together each month, focusing on a specific concept. I invited you to connect and reimagine. To set your intention and find momentum. To seek alignment and focus. To know and understand your habits. To appreciate the value of honesty and perseverance.

Now don’t panic…I’m not about to start spouting stuff about “journeys” or “spiritual awakening” or “discovering your destiny”.

And please — feel free to insert an eye roll or three here. Seriously.

Mandala 3If you’ve read any of my posts during the year, you’ll know that’s not really my style.  Life is far too full of unexpected twists and turns (of both the totally awesome and not-so-crash-hot variety) for me to seek refuge in fluff and bunkum.

That said, nothing’s going to stop me from having the temerity to add the Mandala as a Symbol of the Month for November.

The mandala, despite its recent and frequent appearance between the pages of apparently calming colouring books, is an ancient symbol with its roots in Buddhism.  For Buddhists, the mandala represents nothing less than the whole universe — and if you’ve ever seen Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala, you will know how well this symbol fits with the concept of integration. It is incredibly beautiful (not to mention meditative and downright humbling) to watch as the monks use grains of coloured sand to form intricate patterns and pictures, working harmoniously together and producing a single unified whole out of many intricate and interconnected pieces.

Mandala 5If you haven’t had the privilege to see a sand mandala being made, you can watch one being created here. For me, it’s almost like watching a life unfold, which is why I believe it to be such an appropriate symbol for integration: it’s what we do, all our lives.  We take the pieces we have within our reach and we arrange and rearrange them until they fit in a way that looks and feels right for us.

In Jungian psychology, dreaming of a mandala represents the dreamer’s search for completeness and unity — those important, intangible things we are all searching for. We are all familiar with the niggling sensation when the pieces aren’t quite fitting together properly, or that the colours are somehow clashing. But we also know the feeling — the utterly glorious feeling — when they do fit, perfectly, and the colours seem to sing.

We are Mandala People.

All of us.

Anyone who is running a business or raising a family or generally trying to succeed in life is a Mandala Person. We are all trying to bring together — to integrate — all the separate parts of our existence and striving. We are all working on our own internal mandalas, making the picture as whole and complete as we can.

mandala 4It’s worth remembering, at this point, that the word integration comes from the Latin word integrus, meaning renew or restore. Each day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to bring all the pieces together, to restore our faith in the knowledge that every last grain of sand we add to our own internal mandalas counts.

Each day is a new beginning until, of course, we reach the end of our days. And once again, the sand mandala provides us with an exquisite reminder of our own impermanence: in the Buddhist tradition, as soon as the final grains of sand are added to complete the mandala, a lama takes his dorje and runs it through the sand. The bright colours fade into grey, resembling ashes or dust, and the sand is swept into an urn. The sand is then poured into running water, so that the healing powers generated by the mandala’s creation flow on and are extended to the whole world, so that it may be re-energised and healed.

Each grain of sand ultimately becomes part of something much larger, just as we are all small — but important, and individual — parts of a much larger whole.

So this month, and every month, I invite you to embrace the spirit of integration. Know that you, like everyone else, are a work in progress. That the only person who knows how the pieces really fit together for you, is you. That it’s perfectly fine to take your time — indeed, to take a lifetime — with the process of putting it all together. That every day is an opportunity to restore and renew.

We are Mandala People.

Mandala 6

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