Journal

BEST BOOKS OF 2020

2020 is finally wrapping up (thank goodness!), which means it’s time to do a quick review of the five best books I read this year. Out of the 42 books I intended to read this year, I got to 24. Of those 24, these were my top five (plus two honorable mentions).

The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony — Roberto Calasso — This is hands-down one of the best books I’ve ever read. A very well-read friend of mine recommended this one to me (GOSH…years ago), and loaned me her copy. I got through a chunk of it, but it’s so meaty that I just took a really long time with it. I eventually got my own copy, though, and gave hers back. For the next THREE YEARS I chunked away at it. I never let it off my currently-reading list because it was so good, but it wasn’t a book I wanted to plow through. I wanted to savor it, like a decadent chocolate mousse. The end bit gets into some pretty weird stuff, but it’s still such a fascinating survey of Greek mythology in a way I had never experienced before, even with the public school system going over it again, and again, year after year. This actually made Greek mythology make sense–the fact that one version of a myth may be totally different from another version of the same myth, so you don’t just get “the story of Perseus” as one concrete thing, but as a multi-variant, complex idea. It’s so good, you guys. It’s a bit like that scene in Matilda where the one poor kid has to eat his way through that giant chocolate cake, but it’s SO WORTH IT. I got dozens upon dozens of ideas out of this book alone, and I will never look at Greek mythology the same flat way ever again.

Meander, Spiral, Explode — Jane Alison — This is my newest favorite book. I picked this one up months ago when I was getting frustrated by the standard Three Act Structure stuff and just wanted to see if there were other ways to plot fiction. AND OH MAN, ARE THERE. This book is an absolute treat. It’s like Cadmus in its ability to generate dozens of ideas, but it’s also short. It also contains a multitude of references to literary works I now REALLY want to read, so I’m excited about that, too. But if you’ve ever wanted to just appreciate and get lost in the methodologies of language, this is a poetic, brilliant book.

A Feast of Sorrows — Angela Slatter — The only fiction work that made the list! (I’m so ashamed–I need to read more fiction…) But that said, it was absolutely fantastic. I made the mistake of reading the stories out of order–because with the wee one underfoot, I didn’t always have the focus to work through a longer story, so I’d pick out the short ones first–but I would recommend reading it cover-to-cover, because the stories all interweave, and I’m certain I missed some really lovely connections by jumping around. This book is just fantastic, though. I adore Slatter’s rich prose and lively characters. I just want to BE in her worlds (and also, NOT, because they’re sometimes pretty scary–in the best of ways!). Everything is rich and feels so real, and it’s a masterclass in excellent, immersive short work. Man, I wish I could write like her!

So You Want to Be a Writer — Allison Tait & Valerie Khoo — Picked this one up after signing up for one of AWC’s courses, and although it covers the early basics of becoming a writer, it has some excellent advice that I hadn’t come across much elsewhere. I really appreciated the tack Tait and Khoo took in looking at how to fit writing into an ordinary schedule, and how that doesn’t necessarily mean writing eight hours a day, every day, or giving up your day job or neglecting your family. That said, they also don’t give anybody a pass for just “being too busy to write,” and I picked up some great tips for being productive even when I honestly can’t get to a computer during the day. Excellent, encouraging, inspiring–if you’ve any interest in writing, do yourself a favor and read this one.

Late Bloomers — Rich Karlgaard — I picked this one up a while ago out of curiosity and–I’ll admit it–a not so recent tendency to obsess about “being successful” by a certain age (which, yes, is toxic thinking, but I think a lot of us do it without realizing it, either). It was an interesting read that really examined our modern cultural obsession with wunderkinds and reaching insane levels of success incredibly early in life. Karlgaard examines this element of our society through the lens of his own late blooming tendencies, and how being a late bloomer is both an undervalued strength and a lot more common than spicy “30 Under 30” list-articles would lead us to believe. Definitely read this one if you’re feeling you’ve somehow fallen behind, or in the teeth of changing careers.

Honorable Mentions

Hound of the Baskervilles — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — This one makes the list because it’s one of my absolute favorite works of fiction in all of history, and on the honorable mentions because I’ve read it probably half-a-dozen times, so it’s not really a “new to me” book. But I just had to emphasize how fantastic this tiny book is, as I recently read it aloud to B-Bug. It’s SO GOOD. It’s so easy to read, it’s perfectly spooky in the best ghost-story kind of way, and it’s dreadfully satisfying. If you’ve never read it and like vaguely spooky things (my 6yo could handle it at bedtime), please, do!

How to Write Funny — Scott Dikkers — This was a short, snappy read, with some really interesting insights into humor writing. I’ve never had much interest in being a stand-up comic–my interest definitely lies more in long-form humor writing–but it laid the groundwork for understanding the mechanics behind what makes things funny. If you’ve ever enjoyed a comedian’s work (Iliza Shlesinger or Key & Peele, anybody?!) this will make you appreciate their skills so much more, while not spoiling the delight of the punchline. I’m really looking forward to Vol. 2 of this series, How to Write Funnier, which gets into longer-form fiction.

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