When reality fails and appears hopeless to humans it is essential to create worlds through the arts. It can be music, film, the visual arts and in my opinion the most powerful one, is the written word. In most parts of the world, 2020 was a very difficult and at times tiresome year. For me, due to the multiple lockdowns, it transformed into a year of writing and especially reading.
Over Christmas, I sat down and reflected on all the books I read over the year and I picked out twelve I want to recommend to you. As there seems to be no end to this pandemic why not continue reading? I chose these books because they tell stories of hope, some of them resonate and reflect deeply on the problematic world and society we live in, and at the same time, are written in beautiful prose. Others are didactic and contemporary pieces which speak with wisdom about the problems of our shared futures and others, personally my favourite ones, are written to take you away, and with them you can escape reality and enter worlds of magic and wonder, if only for a short time.
Number 12: Men we reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2018)
This memoir is the story of Jesmyn Ward or let’s better say the story of five young Afro- American men who are murdered and die in different circumstances within a couple of years. Their deaths are sudden and unexpected. What connects their deaths is structural racism. Ward paints a haunting picture in beautiful prose. The events of the book take place in the early 2000’s, however they are just as relevant today as they were twenty years ago. While the stories of the five men are deeply emotional and personal, Ward manages to describe structural racism and presents it in a clear way. It’s a must read for 2021!
Number 11: The Deep by Alex Rodgers (2019)
This is a very special one, written by a marine biologist, a scientific book, that reads like a novel. Rodgers has travelled all seven seas in the last forty years and has collected data on the changing seas as global warming continues to affect the oceans. Descriptions which are exciting and mysterious invite you into the world of the deep seas or the colourful coral reefs. Both of which we know less about than we know about the surface of the moon or mars. This book offers a perspective on a blue world most of us will never be able to visit and also should not. The best way to preserve the biodiversity of the oceans is to leave it alone. Global warming, the economic impact, travelling, pollution, plastic and the beauty of the seas and how we can preserve it is all here in one book. Are you ready for the deep sea? Because time is running out!
Number 10: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf (In German: Alexander von Humboldt und die Erfindung der Natur) (2015)
This is another science book or should I say a hybrid of science and history. Andrea Wulf wrote a colourful and deep layered analytical biography of Alexander von Humboldt, biologist, adventurer, writer and simply a man for everything! She digs up fascinating details about Humboldt’s discoveries of nature and how, without him, Darwin and a lot of other scientists of the 19th and 20th century would not have been able to create their breakthroughs. However, Humboldt has never received much credit. With Wulf’s exciting account she draws smart parallels between Humboldt’s discoveries in biology, physics, chemistry and history to our modern times. Humboldt was a man ahead of his time and this biography truly gives him the credit he deserves.
Number 9: Confusions of Feelings by Stefan Zweig (In German: Verwirrung der Gefühle) (1927)
King of German literature, Stefan Zweig, wrote this novella, or a collection of short stories in the first half of the 20th century. He was the most brilliant writer of his time and portrays how exploitative relationships between a man and a woman could be, the class system being one of the main reasons. Others simply tell the tragic stories of hopeless but bright burning loves that could never be fulfilled. One of them, the titular story, Confusion of Feelings, is about gay love and how this form of love is simply impossible at this time period. It is a book for every romantic, a book that epitomises romantic and tragic labels in literature, a masterwork of prose.
Number 8: Out of the Woods by Luke Turner (2019)
The gay theme runs strong in my countdown of books I fell in love with in 2020 and this one goes really deep. It is an autobiographical novel and tells the experiences of Luke Turner in the 90’s and early 2000’s gay and bisexual scene in London. While he comes to terms with his sexuality it is also an ecocritical book and draws parallels between the painful life in the city and a life in the woods, which is an ambiguous one, peaceful but also confusing. In the course of the book, with critical reflections on a heteronormative society, Luke Turner finds his way out of the woods. But whether it is the city jungle or the actual woods he escapes, you, the reader, must find out on your own.
Number 7: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (2019)
Honestly, I have no idea how to describe this wonder of a fantasy book other than if you want to escape reality this is the one! An underground world of a library, a sea of honey, a starless sea is the setting for a quest of multiple characters whose paths are crossed but not all of them find their ways back to each other. This one too tells a gay tragic love story of two lovers, who lose each other and, who knows, if they find each other again in this starless sea. At the same time Morgenstern creates layers upon layers of narratives, the reader loses time and sense and is swept away into a fantasy world which is different than any other I have ever read about.
Number 6: Ponti by Sharlene Teo (2018)
This is also a very different kind of book when it comes to plot because it is not really there and at the same time it is. Ponti is a character driven novel and tells the story of three Singaporean women at different time periods. The 70’s and 80’s, the early 2000’s and the characters meet again twenty years later. The book explores beauty standards of Asian women and how the West imposes their culture upon them, how Asian women struggle to find a place in society and at the same time try to find their dreams, or simply, lives. There is also a flesh eating, man devouring swamp monster in the form a beautiful seducing woman. However, it is not an actual monster but rather a brilliant metaphor which serves as how a patriarchal society sees women. It is an exciting story and might change your perspective on many things you might not know or think to believe about Asia and Singapore.
Number 5: The Centre of my World by Andreas Steinhöfel (In German Die Mitte der Welt) (1998)
This book takes you back into a teenage world, including all the teenager narratives one can think of. The first love, the first heartbreak, best friends, and family drama. However, once you read the first pages you find out it is a very different one. Set in a little town somewhere in Germany, tradition clashes with modern life. A single mum, a lesbian couple, the main character, a teenage boy, falling in love with the new boy at school, this book takes you on a complicated journey, a quest, on how to find yourself, your home, so to say. It asks you where the centre of your world might be. It is a story with many different sides unfolding with many different plot twists. It is a book to escape into a teenage world which tackles many problems of our constantly changing society.
Number 4: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (2020)
Minor Feelings is another autobiographical book and is really one of the strongest I have read in 2020. Written by Asian- American Cathy Park Hong, she exposes America’s racism and invisible racism, as it is called, faced by Asians and Asian- Americans, primarily in the US but also within the West. Presenting historical examples and the terror of the US, Hong paints a very clear picture of how racism evolved and how it is as closely connected to all American ideals, if not even horrifically, might actually serve as one of the ideals of the US. Here are two samples of her text:
I bring up Korea to collapse the proximity between here and there. Or as activists used to say, ‘I am here because you where there.’
I am here because you vivisected my ancestral country in two. In 1945, two fumbling mid- ranking American officers who knew nothing about the country used a National Geographic map as reference to arbitrarily cut a border to make North and South Korea, a division that eventually separated millions of families, including my own grandmother from her family. Later, under the flag of liberation, the United States dropped more bombs and napalm in our tiny country than during the entire Pacific campaign against Japan during World War II. A fascinating little- known fact about the Korean War is that an American surgeon, David Ralph Millard, stationed there to treat burn victims, invented a double- eyelid surgical procedure to make Asian eyes look Western, which he ended up testing on Korean sex workers so they could be more attractive to GIs. Now, it’s the most popular surgical procedure for women in South Korea. My ancestral country is just one small example of the millions of lives and resources you have sucked from the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, El Salvador, and many, many other nations through your forever wars and transnational capitalism that have mostly enriched shareholders in the States. Don’t talk to me about gratitude. (Page 195)
Our respective racial containment isolates us from each other, enforcing our thoughts that our struggles are too specialized, unrelatable to anyone else except others in our group, which is why making myself, and by proxy other Asian Americans, more human is not enough for me. I want to destroy the universal. I want to rip it down. It is not whiteness but our contained condition that is universal, because we are the global majority. By we I mean nonwhites, the formerly colonized; survivors, such as Native Americans, whose ancestors have already lived through end times; migrants and refugees living through end times currently, fleeing the droughts and floods and gang violence reaped by climate change that’s been brought on by Western empire.
In Hollywood, whites have churned out dystopian fantasies by imagining themselves as slaves and refugees in the future. In Blade Runner 2049, the sequel, neon billboards flicker interchangeably in Japanese and Korean, villains wear deconstructed kimonos, but with the exception of a manicurist, there is no Asian soul in sight. We have finally vanished. The slaves, like Ryan Gosling, are all beautiful white replicants. The orphanage is full of young white boys who dismantle junked circuit boards, a scene taken straight out of present- day Delhi, where Indian child laborers break down mountains of electronic waste while being poisoned by mercury toxins. Blade Runner 2049 is an example of science fiction as magical thinking: whites fear that all the sins they committed against black and brown people will come back to them tenfold, so they fantasize their own fall as a preventative measure to ensure that the white race will never fall. (Pages 197 and 198)
Number 3: Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)
Sally Rooney, the Queen of Prose, never disappoints and her second novel, Normal People, or how I like to call it, Fucking Crazy People is another masterwork. It is a crazy love story about two young, insecure people at school and later at university they find themselves in very different lives than they expected. Normal People deals with everything that is not normal, or how to long for a normal life which is far away and out of reach. It is an on-point portrait of my generation, the millennials, how life online has changed us, how this generation breaks the norms, tries to break out of stereotypes, especially when it comes to how the minds of men and women are branded. All that and much more is to be found in a roller coaster of emotions in Normal People, who are not so normal.
Number 2: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (2016)
Everyone knows the story of Chernobyl, but no one really knows what it means. The more you read of Chernobyl Prayer, the more you will realise that not even Sveltlana Alexievich managed to make sense of it, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for the very same work. Only a shadow of an understanding creeps into the reader’s mind. Alexievich shows and presents what has happened. It is a collaborative work of writing. Alexievich collected all different kinds of voices throughout the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe, voices of people who were part of Chernobyl, who had a role to play or were victims of the nuclear fallout. From simple farmers to physicists, every voice tells a different story, coming to the same conclusion that we cannot understand the end of time. The written words try to make sense of what has happened, however, they are not able to, because humans cannot understand Chernobyl, otherwise, since then, we would have decided, chosen, to turn away from nuclear energy and find alternative ways. I don’t think it could really be someone’s favourite book but if I would have to choose a book that should be read by everyone then it is this Chernobyl Prayer.
Here are three writing samples by the Nobel Prize Winner Alexievich to make it clearer what I mean:
‘More than once- and this is something to think about- I have heard people say that the behaviour of the firemen extinguishing the fire at the power station on the first night, and the behaviour of the clean- up workers later, resembled suicide. Collective suicide. The clean- up workers often did the job without protective clothing, unquestioningly heading into places where even the robots were malfunctioning. The truth about the high doses they were receiving was concealed from them, yet they were compliant, and later even delighted with the government certificates and medals awarded to them just before they died. Many did not survive that long. So what are they: heroes or suicides? Victims of Soviet ideology and upbringing? For some reason, as the years go by, it is being forgotten that they saved their country. They saved Europe. Just imagine for a moment the scene if the other three reactors had exploded.’ (Page 29)
‘In the land of Chernobyl, man’s plight makes you sad, but the plight of the animals is even more pitiful. I’ll explain. After the humans had gone, what was left in the dead zone? The old graveyards and the so- called bio- burial sites: the cemeteries for animals. Man saved only himself: everything else he betrayed. Once the villages were evacuated, units of armed soldiers and hunters came in and shot the animals. The dogs ran over the sound of humans. So did the cats. They were in no way to blame- neither the beasts nor the birds, yet they died silently, which was even worse. There was a time when the Mexican Indians, and indeed our own Slav ancestors in pre- Christian Rus, would ask for forgiveness from the animals and birds they killed for food. In ancient Egypt, animals had the right of complaint against humans. In a papyrus preserved in a pyramid, it is written that no complaint by any bull has been found against N. Before departing for the Kingdom of the Dead, the Egyptians would recite a prayer containing the statement: I hurt no creature, deprived no animal of grain or grass.
What has the Chernobyl experience taught us? Has it turned us towards this silent and mysterious world of those other beings? Once I saw the soldiers go into an abandoned village and begin shooting.
The helpless cries of the animals. They were shrieking in all their different languages. This was written about in the New Testament. Jesus Christ comes to the temple of Jerusalem and sees animals prepared for ritual sacrifice: with throats slit, dripping blood. Jesus cries out: my house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.
He might have added: Ye have made it a place of carnage.
To my mind the hundreds of bio- burial sites left in the zone are like pagan temples. Only, to which gods were these sacrifices being offered? The God of Science and Knowledge, or the God of Fire? In this sense, Chernobyl has surpassed the camps of Auschwitz and Kolyma. It has gone beyond the Holocaust. It proposes finitude. It leads to a dead- end.’ (Page 30 and 31)
‘Here is an example. We’re still using the old concepts of ‘near and far’, ‘them and us’. But what do ‘near’ and ‘far’ actually mean after Chernobyl, when, by day four, the fallout clouds were drifting above Africa and China? The earth suddenly became so small, no longer the land of Columbus’s age. That world was infinite. Now we have a different sense of space. We are living in a space that is bankrupt. What is more, over the last hundred years people have begun to live longer, yet our lifespan is still tiny compared to the life of the radionuclides that have settled on our land. Many of them will live for thousands of years. We can’t dream of even a glimpse of such a distant future! In their presence, you experience a new sense of time. And this is all Chernobyl, its imprint. The same thing is happening to our relationship with the past, science fiction, knowledge. The past has proven impotent, and all that is left of knowledge is an awareness of how little we know. We are going through an emotional returning. Instead of the usual words of comfort, a doctor tells a woman whose husband is dying, No going near him! No kissing! No cuddling! This is no longer the man you love, it’s a contaminated object.
Here, even Shakespeare bows out, even Dante. The question is whether to go near or not. To kiss or not. One of the heroines of my book went near and kissed and remained by her husband’s side until his death. She paid for it with her health and the life of their baby. But how can you choose between love and death? Between the past and the unfamiliar present? Who could presume to judge the wives and the mothers who did not sit with their dying husbands and sons? Next to those radioactive objects. In their world, love has changed. And death too. Everything has changed except us.
It takes at least fifty years for an event to become history, but here we have to follow the trail while it is still fresh.
The Zone. It is a world of its own. First it was invented by science- fiction authors, then literature gave way to reality. We cannot go on believing, like characters in a Chekov play, that in a hundred years’ time mankind will be thriving. Life will be beautiful! We have lost that future. A hundred years on, we have had Stalin’s Gulags and Auschwitz. Chernobyl. And September 11 in New York. It is hard to comprehend how all this could happen within one generation, within the lifetime of my father, for example, who is now eighty- three years old. Yet he survived it!
What lingers most in my memory of Chernobyl is life afterwards: the possessions without owners, the landscapes without people. The roads going nowhere, the cables leading nowhere. You find yourself wondering just what this is: the past or the future. It sometimes felt to me as if I was recording the future. (Pages 32 and 33)
Number 1: The Binding by Bridget Collins (2019)
After this very dark second place I wanted to end this book countdown with a more uplifting story. It is another one to escape into a different world. The Binding by Bridget Collins takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of perspectives of characters and how their point of view changes everything as the plot unfolds. Gripping up until the last page, this gothic fantasy story narrates one of the most beautiful and original love stories I have ever read. It is my favourite book I have read in 2020 and one of my favourite stories of all time!
I hope there were some books in this countdown you might enjoy and want to read. And finally, I ‘d like to say, although ordering books on amazon is very easy and especially during a pandemic more comfortable try not to do it. Look up the online shop of your local bookseller or ring them if you can order books and pick them up. Because as Gandalf the Grey once said, It is the little things in life that make the biggest differences in this world, and if you can’t trust in the wise words of Gandalf the Grey, who can you trust.