• josephinedejean

Books of 2020 - A Year in Review

Guys. Guys, guys. We have made it!

2020 is over (praise the Lord!) and we are now entering a new year. A year of vaccines and newfound hopes, a year in which I promised myself to actually make this blog into something fun rather than a chore I never get to. In honour of this commitment, I've decided to start the year by going through the books I did read in 2020 - the good, the bad, the ugly - and talk a bit about resetting reading expectations (and being okay with it!)

TL;DR: must-reads include Permanent Record and Educated. You may give The Noise of Time a pass.

What my reading year was like, generally:

2020, for me, was the first year in my life where I decided to set a reading goal for myself. This was because a), I wanted to feel encouraged to actually keep track of what I was reading (this definitely worked - I have a list of books I read, now, yay!) and b), because just like a lot of us, I wanted to read more. At the time, I opted for what I thought would be an easy enough goal to reach (one book a month, twelve books a year), thinking that I was probably going to blast through that, considering my usual reading regimen.

Fast forward to: the worst year in History. In the end, while I did complete the reading goal (I read thirteen books in total), four of those books were re-reads that I've now re-read so much that I hardly think they count. This, I think, was due to multiple issues, chiefly that I read one book in March and then nothing until the end of June. The early lockdowns really wore me down, and with everything that happened in my work and personal life, I must admit I just couldn't focus. This was amplified by the fact that I used to do most of my reading while traveling. With all that time gone, it was a bit hard to fit reading back into my life. All in all, I've decided to be quite honest with myself, but also forgiving. It was a crap year all around, and I suppose expectations in all areas had to be reviewed. I hope that I'll be better in 2021, but we shall see.

All of this is not to say that I am unhappy about the books I did read, quite the opposite. This was, overall, a very good year, reading-wise. It was also, strangely, the year of non-fiction for me.

I must admit that I've never been much of a non-fiction reader in the past but found myself really diving into the genre this year. Out of the thirteen books I read, five were non-fiction. If I take out the re-reads (which I'll talk about in a minute), that actually means that over half the books that I read, this year, were non-fiction. For me, this is absolutely unheard of. Additionally, out of all the books I read, not only was my favourite book of the year a non-fiction book, but so was the runner up. I guess this was just a really odd year all around, so I'll embrace the weirdness.

Now, moving on to the nitty gritty of this year in review:

In January, I read Screwed by Ronnie Thompson, Educated by Tara Westover and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I adored Americanah as much as the next person (obviously, everyone was talking about this book at some point, weren't they?) although I must admit I did find it a bit long towards the end. I loved it, but looking back, I'm just not sure it deserved to be 477 pages.

On Screwed, I will say that a) I found the subject matter quite interesting (although I did disagree with the author on a number of occasions) and b) contrary - it seems - to most people online, I actually loved the writing style in this. It's definitely very crude and a write-like-you-talk kind of book but honestly, I quite liked it. I felt that yes, it had a lot of cursing and harsh words and situations in it, but you could see that a lot of work had actually gone into the prose and sound of the book. I don't think this was as thoughtlessly written as some people seem to think.

This being said, for me, the major problem with this book remained the fact that the narrator is just an unbearable prick. It's non-fiction so I appreciate I probably shouldn't be passing judgment but dear lord, the sheer number of times I wanted to throw the book across the room and shout: 'for the love of god, go take care of your kid, stop blaming everyone else for your problems, stop going on the piss every other night and get your life in order!' While the subject matter was interesting, the personal life of the narrator just drove me mad.

Lastly, in January (notice how good a reader I was, pre-pandemic!), I also read Educated. On that, I will say that it is so, so hard for me to put into words how much Ioved this book. It is not only my second favourite book of the year but it is also without a doubt, on my top ten list of favourite books of all time. I genuinely just tear up thinking about it.

I picked it up, I will admit, because I was told it was a book about escaping mormon fundamentalists. I always have had a strong interest in cults and group dynamics so I knew I would be interested. This being said, this story is so much more than that. It's a book about family, growth, isolation, violence and the very harsh reality of life in rural America. Everything, for every member of this family, is a constant battle for survival. The sheer amount of courage displayed in this story is absolutely incredible. It really highlights the reasons why people living in these conditions feel disenfranchised and turn to either religious fundamentalism or populist political movements. It is such a strong story and I have so much love and admiration for the things that Tara has accomplished. I really struggled on what to pick for my book of the year and the only reason why I didn't pick this is that I think the other book had, comparatively, the same gorgeous quality of writing but also a subject matter that was perhaps a bit more current and "worldly" than Educated. Obviously, while Tara's story did resonate with me on many levels, it is a very US-centric story.

Next up, in February, I read The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I gave this a one star because I don't give zero stars. I just did not get this book. At all. I have no idea what it was trying to say, or why. I skimmed through half of it and have already forgotten the plot. It happens in communist Russia. I remember that the main character spends quite a bit of time playing music and waiting for the lift. Make of that what you may.

In March, I read Une Joie Féroce by Sorj Chalandon. I won't go into this too much as it's a French book and I'm not sure it's been translated, but Sorj is and will always be one of my favourite writers in the world, ever, period. His writing is simply incredible and I will gladly read anything he writes, down to his grocery list. I really loved this book (although it is not my favourite of his - if you only had to read one, I would definitely say go for Retour à Killybegs) and would highly, highly recommend it to anyone who reads French.

As I said earlier, I read nothing until the end of June, when I decided it was finally time for me to get back into the groove. In order to do so, I must admit, once and for all, without any shame because well, it was a crap year, after all: I went back to basics. To what is and always will be my happy place: pointed hats, castles with moving staircases, noseless villains and a series of seven books that truly shaped my childhood. So, yes, I re-read Harry Potter. Not going to apologise for it, it made me happy. I was finally able to open a book again. I went right back down memory lane, got obsessed again like it was 2005, went trawling forums and read fanfiction until the wee hours of the morning after finishing Deathly Hallows. It was 2020, so it was allowed. I devoured Goblet of Fire all the way through to Deathly Hallows and it was lovely. It made me cry, and laugh, and feel fuzzy inside, and I don't regret a thing.

In August, hopping back onto the reading bandwagon, I read The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry. It was alright, I suppose, but didn't leave me in awe either. I also read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee which, to be honest, felt a bit similar. Both books were fine, I enjoyed them, but after studying law for six years and hearing everyone I know tell me what a classic Mockingbird was, I was a bit underwhelmed.

Finally, in September, I read my book of the year: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden. I won't go into too much detail about it (see this post for a complete review) but lord, did I love it. It was well written, important and just an all round fantastic read. As I said, it was really a tie with Educated for book of the year, but I decided this was it because I thought the topic felt like it had more of a global reach.

And, lastly, in December, I read The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton (again, full review here). Generally, it was fine but as I said, it left me feeling like it could have done with a much better editor.


So, now, onwards and forwards, what's in store for 2021? Well, a never-ending TBR, if I'm honest. I'm going to set the reading goal at 14 books, slightly better than last year but without being too ambitious either. I still really struggle to find time to read without spending as much time as I used to in airports or on planes, so I suppose I'd rather set realistic expectations rather than feel crap about not reaching my goals. This is all for fun, after all.

Currently reading: Calypso by David Sedaris which I'm really loving so far, and Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith/Joanne Rowling. The latter because I went to law school and am chronically unable to express an opinion on something I haven't read. I will thus read it, in spite of the controversy. For now, I'm only 150 pages into it, so I can't really report on the trans killer issue, yet. All I can say, for the moment, is that it's bloody long. When will this finish, I'm not sure.