SARAH BUITENDACH: What’s on everyone’s 2020 best books list
Scrolling through The Guardian’s books section a few weeks ago, I happened upon an article reflecting what readers say the best books were that they had read during the lockdown. A casual run through the comments brought me to a pearler by someone who calls herself MadMargaret.
It said: “I re-read Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov and Sons and Lovers. Also read Hilary Mantel’s last Cromwell book, The Mirror & the Light. Oh, and East of Eden by Steinbeck. I am now reading, for the first time, the memoirs of Ulysses S Grant. I’m 200 pages into a book of 1,000 pages (the annotated version that came out last year) and enjoying it immensely.”
What an overachiever.
Perhaps you’re the MadMargaret of your friendship circle and, in 2020, have cut through piles of books like a luxe catamaran cruising around Camps Bay. Or maybe you are one of us average Joes and find yourself comatose the second you pick up a novel. Your concentration levels are at a record low and episodes of The Queen’s Gambit are all you can manage at the moment. Potentially you’ll get a second wind come the December break and find renewed energy for and enjoyment from hitting the books.
I’m living in that hope, so I’ve been paying some attention to the various “Best Books of 2020” lists that have been rolled out across the world in the past week or two. It’s interesting to compare them.
Typically, the lists released by the big global newspaper brands are a good barometer of the fiction and nonfiction that has been well received in a particular year. They cover huge swathes of writing, from whodunnits to long memoirs. But you’ll definitely find something that turns you on. Or slows you down. Whatever is most needed.
The Guardian and New York Times (NYT) lists really are the gold standard for this stuff. The NYT has done a lovely additional compilation of great gifts to give book lovers, arranged by both obvious and unusual themes that include “Hollywood” and “otherworldly” – the latter category is described as rounding up good “books about families — chosen, estranged, broken and healing — shot through with magic and science, dreams and technology”.
If you’ve remortgaged your house to pay for a Financial Times (FT) subscription, you’ll already know that the British paper has a number of focused selections on everything from the best economics books of the year to their classical music counterparts, as well as architecture and design, travel and politics. For those locked out of that paper’s inner sanctum, it has also asked critics and staff to choose their top reads.
The paper’s editor, Roula Khalaf, chose If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. She describes it as “a lovely read that takes you through a history of American politics and campaigning, cold war intrigue and artificial intelligence”.
Writer Ben Okri chose Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, and the FT Weekend’s editor, Alec Russell, selected Maggie O’Farrell’s smash hit novel Hamnet.
Speaking of Hamnet, this historical fiction work about Shakespeare’s son (that was his name), family and life, is also on the The Telegraph’s Top 50 list.
Actually, it’s on most top lists – as are the fiction works Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which has just won the Booker Prize, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the new translated novel from Elena Ferrante called The Lying Life of Adults and the last book in the Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Lights, which MadMargaret was bragging about.
No doubt they’re all excellent and impressive reads. But perhaps you simply want something enjoyable and good to read or to give this season. I asked Kate Rogan, owner of Joburg’s beloved Love Books, to suggest some. Here’s her top 4 list of “read by the pool” international fiction.
1. Just Like You, Nick Hornby
2. Trio, William Boyd
3. The Searcher, Tana French
4. The Other Half of Augusta Hope, Joanna Glen
You can give her a bell for brilliant local equivalents and nonfiction.
To Rogan’s four, I add Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club – a smart, funny murder mystery. Plus look out for David Gorin’s December selection in this week’s FM. It’s a cracker.
Happy attempted reading!
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