Top Picks of 2020

The pandemic ravaged my attention span and choked off my main source of books (the library) for months. I turned to a project I’ve wanted to tackle for years, reading everything Virginia Woolf wrote (including essays, letters, diaries, novels, non-fiction) in chronological order. That project gave this weird amorphous year a backbone for me to fling myself onto and limp toward the finish line. I’m currently up to October 1938.

Another project I took up and made progress with was something I’ve always wanted to do: read the goddamn Bible, the book of Books. Holy shit, it’s a bananas ride. I got through the Book of Job and took a break in August, never took it back up. The Old Testament is hilarious and fierce. I need to get back in there next year.

And I finally read Montaigne’s complete essays!

Read 140 books; 62% women writers; 38% men. Non-fiction (61%) edged out fiction (39%) for the fifth year in a row, pretty surprising since I thought I went hard for escapist fiction this year. Guess not! The overall book count was down 45% from last year but I feel like I read deeper, ruthlessly discarding books that were wastes of time.

Some worth mentioning:

Non-fiction

Fiction

On Writing

Memoir/Essays

Poetry/Plays

Books I’m too lazy to write about that I read in 2020

I’m not investing any effort into writing about books that I don’t want to, but I do still want to keep a list of what I’ve read so I know not to dip into them again.

January

  • The hard tomorrow by Eleanor Davis;
  • Tony Greene Era by Kevin Killian;
  • sharks in the rivers by Ada Limón;
  • Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation by Gabriele Oettingen (WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan);
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana;
  • Calling a wolf a wolf: poems by Kaveh Akbar;
  • Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) by Whitman;
  • I lost my girlish laughter by Jane Allen (Silvia Schulman and Jane Shore)

February

  • Tin man by Sarah Winman;
  • The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy;
  • How we fight for our lives : a memoir by Saeed Jones (that last line killed me, “Our mothers are why we are here.”);
  • Topics of conversation by Miranda Popkey;
  • The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives by Diane Johnson;
  • A life discarded : 148 diaries found in the trash by Alexander Masters (“A nice day in general; just enjoying myself. No particular thoughts, except perhaps I’d like to change my life.”);
  • All this could be yours by Jami Attenberg;
  • Drinking : a love story  by Caroline Knapp;
  • Astronomy : a self-teaching guide by Dinah L. Moché;
  • A first year in Canterbury Settlement by Samuel Butler

March

  • Sanditon by Jane Austen

April

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (re-read);
  • Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (re-read)

May

  • The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge;
  • The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World

June

  • Hidden San Francisco by Chris Carlsson;
  • Harry Potter Book 1;
  • Harry Potter Book 2;
  • The Sherwoood Anderson Reader (sections 1-5)

July

  • Harry Potter Book 3;
  • Harry Potter Book 4;
  • My Fault: Poems by Leora Fridman;
  • The Roar of Silence by Don Campbell

August

  • Harry Potter Book 5;
  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine

September

  • The office : the untold story of the greatest sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene;
  • Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney;
  • Harry Potter Book 6;
  • Alta California : from San Diego to San Francisco, a journey on foot to rediscover the Golden State by Nick Neely;
  • The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

October

  • Labor of love : the invention of dating by Moira Weigel (I loved her on The Feminist Present podcast);
  • Book of numbers by Joshua Cohen (I liked his Kafka preface but not this fiction);
  • Harry Potter Book 7 (finally finished this horrendous series);
  • How we keep spinning: selected writings from SF Chronicle columns by Kevin Fisher-Paulson;
  • So far, so good by Charles Towne (pub: 1945);
  • 101 essays that will change the way you think by Brianna Wiest;
  • Americana by Luke Healy;
  • Julia, a portrait of Julia Strachey by herself & Frances Partridge;
  • This brilliant darkness : a book of strangers by Jeff Sharlet.

November

  • Shapes that pass: memories of old days by Julian Hawthorne;
  • Autobiography of a Chinese woman, Buwei Yang Chao put into English by her husband Yuenren Chao;
  • Screwball!: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey;
  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell;
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell;
  • One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry;
  • Journey around my room : the autobiography of Louise Bogan : a mosaic by Ruth Limmer.

December

    • A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki;
    • Alice James, a biography by Jean Strouse;
    • William James: in the maelstrom of American modernism, a biography by Robert D. Richardson;
    • The craving mind by Judson Brewer;
    • I knew a phoenix : sketches for an autobiography by May Sarton (includes recollection of meeting Woolf in 1937);
    • Females by Andrea Long Chu (homage to Valerie Solanas);
    • A libertarian walks into a bear : the utopian plot to liberate an American town (and some bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (this was a terrible book);
    • Sontag : her life and work by Benjamin Moser;
    • Essays of the 1960s and 70s by Susan Sontag (the Uncollected Essays where she focused on feminist issues);
    • Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel about the Brontës);
    • The 99% invisible city : a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design (ugh, incredibly boring execution of what could have been great, had to force myself to skim through);
    • The movie brats : how the film generation took over Hollywood by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles;
    • Reeling by Pauline Kael (I took another romp through this book since I’ve watched several of these 1970s films since last I peeked into it; love her spicy take on the major films of the decade).

F: 35; M: 28; Fict: 25; Non: 40

Three Guineas

I have to agree with Leonard that this was not her best work. I gushed over this six years ago when I read it for the first time, so not much more to add except how interesting it was to read in the chronology, having read the drumbeats of war leading up to it, including their drive through Nazi Germany in 1935.

Her take down of religion’s keeping women out of paying positions was particularly delicious and she backs up her arguments with Biblical quotes. I agree with her assessment that “those who have not been forced from childhood to hear it thus dismembered weekly assert that the Bible is a work of the greatest interest, much beauty, and deep meaning.”

Open: An Autobiography

Normally I would have thrown this on my list of books I’m too lazy to write about (post soon to come with this year’s list) but I enjoyed reading it too much and when I reached the Acknowledgements I realized why… this was shaped and edited by J.R. Moehringer, of The Tender Bar memoir fame. It has Agassi’s voice and I’m sure he’s a good writer in his own right, but everything from the title to the pacing and structure benefited from J.R.’s input, I bet. Definitely recommend, even for non-tennis fans.

The Years

Oddly, I can’t find a previous entry for this book although I have vivid memories of reading it in New York on one of my summer sabbaticals. The image of the final party was the one that stuck with me, and it becomes vivid again upon rereading. I read this one slowly, carefully, knowing exactly what a toll it took on Woolf to write, slogging through drafts and cutting and rewrites for years. Perhaps the title can also be a nod to the length of time it took her to complete this work.

The book follows the Pargiter family across the years, from 1880s through “present day” which would have been the 1930s. Eleanor is the oldest girl, caring for their aging father into her spinsterhood. Rose fights for suffrage rights. Delia marries an Irish gentleman. Edward teaches classics at Cambridge. One of their nephews, North, is back from farming in Africa. Sally/Sara befriends the Polish “Mr Brown” and her sister Maggie marries a Frenchman, Rene/Renny. Peggy becomes a doctor, tired from her work and wondering what it all means.

Perhaps Woolf sums it up best in a letter to Stephen Spender:

But what I meant I think was to give a picture of society as a whole; give characters from every side; turn them towards society, not private life; exhibit the effect of ceremonies; Keep one toe on the ground by means of dates, facts: envelop the whole in a changing temporal atmosphere; Compose into one vast many-sided group at the end; and then shift the stress from present to future; and show the old fabric insensibly changing without death or violence into the future—suggesting that there is no break, but a continuous development, possibly a recurrence of some pattern; of which of course we actors are ignorant. And the future was gradually to dawn.