Books of the Year 2020: Part Two

Cover imageSpring saw several uncharacteristic reads hitting the spot for me, quite possibly as the result of seeking more distraction than usual. April got off to an excellent start with C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, set in a reimagined American West in the grips of the Gold Rush. Zhang’s novel is told largely from the perspective of two orphans, travelling through a land almost mythical in its beauty, searching for the perfect burial place for their father’s body. Exploring themes of family, home – or the lack of – and otherness through the stories of a Chinese family, three of whom are American but rarely accepted as such, Zhang’s starkly beautiful debut is both thought provoking and original.

April’s next two novels made me laugh out loud, a blurb phrase that usually sets my teeth on edge. The first was Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier which explores similar territory to Zhang’s novel but couldn’t be more different. It’s the story of the eponymous Not Sidney whose prescient mother invested in Ted Turner’s broadcasting company, leaving him already rich at the age of seven when she dies. The grateful Turner takes him in, setting him up with his own staff in a wing of the Turner mansion. Aged fifteen, Not Sidney decides to drive to Los Angeles, the first in a series of episodes which sees his name and race landing him in constant trouble. There’s a great deal of slapstick fun to be had with Not Sidney’s name. He’s an engaging narrator, sharp yet naïve, intelligent and cultivated in stark contrast with the ignorant bigots he encounters, convinced of their own superiority despite all evidence to the contrary. A very funny novel with serious points entertainingly made.Cover image

Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter is entirely different but also very funny, including a few pleasingly slapstick moments. The titular character sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, proud of his work at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of grand Viennese cafes. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. The appearance of a young woman he dubs the Child Lady throws a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, one regular becomes disconcertingly familiar, another orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, some of them worryingly deliberate.

My last April choice is Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers, one of those books I very nearly didn’t read thanks to my own squeamishness and an off-putting blurb. It begins with the photograph of a naked man hung upside down from a meat hook in an Irish cold store taken in 1996 at the height of the BSE crisis. Gilligan tells the story of eight men who travel the country, slaughtering cattle following the old ways, through the twelve-year-old daughter of one of them, framing her novel with that dramatic opening scene and its consequences. It’s a striking exploration of the old Ireland, with its rich tradition Cover imageof folklore, and the struggle towards the new, through two families who are more entangled than they realise. Such an enjoyable book, and I could so easily have missed it were it not for fellow blogger Kim Forrester’s tweet. You can read her review here.

There was a time when May’s first book wouldn’t have been read let alone appear in a post like this one but these days I’m a bona fide short story fan. It was its title that attracted me to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife, a collection of stories about immigrants and refugees, cleverly exemplifying the many idiosyncratic challenges English throws at those for whom it’s a second language. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Laotian writer Thammavongsa is a poet whose own facility for language is demonstrated throughout this fine collection. Characters are hard-pressed, often engaged in work far below their capabilities, struggling to give their sons and daughters what they see others enjoying while their children are both protective and embarrassed by them. Many of the stories are infused with a quiet sadness sometimes undercut with gentle humour, all are remarkable in their eloquent economy. I was delighted when I saw that Thammavongsa’s collection had won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, always one worth keeping an eye on.

This blog tends to be all about the shiny and new but several titles reviewed on Ali’s HeavenAli blog from Handheld Press caught my eye, including Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford’s Business as Usual, first published in 1933, which turned out to be a glorious piece of escapism. In this hugely entertaining novel, Hilary Cover image of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Cliffordleaves her Edinburgh home and heads for London finding herself a job in the book department at Everyman’s, a smart Oxford Street department store, writing letters to her fiancé, Basil, telling him all about her new life. Hilary is funny and bright, her letters full of gentle fun-poking often illustrated with amusing line drawings. Her ripostes to the clearly priggish Basil are smart and to the point. Everyman’s is based on Selfridges, apparently, and Handheld have included a quote from its founder on the back of the book who clearly loved it as much as I did.

Spring’s favourites end with the kind of comfort read that many of us were looking for at this point in the year although some brave souls were reaching for dystopian fiction. The summer quarter saw a loosening of pandemic restrictions, a broken wrist for me and seven more excellent books – a couple from favourite authors and one a prize-wining debut.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. If you missed the first quarter and would like to catch up it’s here.

20 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2020: Part Two”

  1. Yay for How To Pronounce Knife! I love it when we can share favourite books. 🙂
    The two “laugh out loud” books appeal to me – I love a book that can make me laugh because it’s rare to find one that can. Recommended books are a good place to start!

    1. So delighted it won the Scotiabank Giller Prize! I wonder if the more humourous books would have made it on to my list in a different year, although I’ve long been a keen Everett fan.

  2. I’m super keen to try the Zhang and you already know that–like Naomi–I loved Thammavongsa’s collection, too.

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