Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 - The year in (good) books

This is the regularly scheduled end-of-the-year list of the most interesting books I read this year.

In 2020 I finished a total of 124 books, amounting to about 29000 pages. It is fewer books than last year, but more pages, which I guess means I read heftier volumes this year (and fewer comics). Out of these, 41 belonged to the "Following folktales around the world" reading challenge; I finished Africa, went through the Middle East and Central and South Asia, and I am 3 books away from the finish line! 
(There will be a sequel challenge, obviously.)

This year's top favorites

Space Opera (Catherynne M. Valente)
- My absolute favorite this year. I have always loved the author, but now that she's snorted the ashes of Douglas Adams she is writing even better. I loved the whole concept of the Intergalactic Eurovision Song Contest, and I loved every crazy sentence of this book.

Biological exuberance (Bruce Bagemihl) - An amazing, brick-sized, appropriately sourced scientific book on homo- and bisexuality in the animal world (limited to mammals and birds, for brevity; it's still 800 pages long). It is not only filed with amazing tidbits of information (e.g. how hummingbirds masturbate with leaves stuck in spiderwebs), but also re-frames how we think about what is "natural" - for example, the fact that sex among animals has never been only about procreation. It also includes intimacy, fun, and caring.

Complete stories (Dorothy Parker) - My first encounter with Dorothy Parker, in the shape of her short stories, and I am totally sold. Funny, witty, with deep emotions and laser-accurate social commentary. She doesn't make mistakes.

Twenty years after (Alexandre Dumas) - As a child, I loved The three musketeers and I read it many times, but I never got around to the sequel. Now, appropriately twenty years later, I thought it was time. I really enjoyed this book; I'd venture it is an even better novel than the first one. It was good to return to Dumas' world.

The Dreaming (Simon Spurrier) - I caught up on all volumes of this one at the end of the year, and I think this should be mandatory reading for all storytellers. The visual elements are surrel, and humor is great and dark, and the plot revolves around the nature of stories and dreams.

Harleen (Stjepan Šejić)
- A Harley Quinn origin story, with amazing art and a good plot. Definitely one of the best of the genre this year. 

Favorite non-fiction

The Last Battle (Stephen Harding) - A book on one of the last, and most interesting, battles of World War II, where American and German soldiers together defended a medieval castle full of French prisoners of war. Micro-history, parallel lives, and an actual siege. A really well written, detailed book, and a story that should have been a movie a long time ago.

The story of life in 25 fossils (Donald R. Prothero)
- I wanted to read about paleontology, and I came across this book. I really enjoyed how it used 25 famous finds (and the scientists who found and argued about them) to trace the history of life on Earth from the first microbes to humans. It was a fun read, and I learned a lot from it.

The disappearing spoon (Sam Keane) - Since I hated Chemistry as a teenager, I thought it would only be fair to give it a second try. This book traces the history of the periodic table, and the uses and most interesting features of the elements. There are a lot of anecdotes about scientific discovery, and easy-to-follow descriptions of how atoms work. 

Favorite storytelling books

Finn & the Fianna, Scottish Myths and Legends (Daniel Allison)
- Two great books from a Scottish professinal storyteller. Both reflect the liveliness of oral storytelling, and both are based on a lot of background research. I especially loved the Fianna book, which is hish praise, because I am very picky about Fianna stories. Lovely reads, I recommend both books to storytellers and story-lovers.

Woman writers and women's history

My story (Marilyn Monroe)
- I was never really interested in Marilyn before, but I came across her (unfinished) autobiography and I got curious. The person behind the words is likable and kind, and treated awfully by the age and the Hollywood she lived in.

Lieutenant Nun (Catalina de Erauso) - A nun in the early 1600s decided to leave the convent, dress as a man, and run away to South America to become a conquistador. And then years later wrote his autobiography, and handed it to the king. And asked for a pension. Noting that he was still an untouched virgin. Which, by the era's standards, was probably true, because he only had sex with (lots of) women... "I'm the devil", he says about herself, and he is not a likable or easily understood person (especially when it comes to colonial warfare), but his life is endlessly fascinating.
(Pronouns note: In the Spanish original "Lieutenant Nun" refers to himself in the masculine, with a few well-placed exceptions. So, technically this book is not by a woman author, but I included it here anyway.)

Wonderful adventures or Mrs. Seacole in many lands (Mary Seacole) - The autobiography of a woman who could have been as famous as Florence Nightingale. Free born in Jamaica, Mrs. Seacole's mother already ran a hospital, and yet she was not accepted by the British when she wanted to be a nurse in the Crimean war. Instead, Mother Seacole traveled to the Crimea on her own money, put up an inn and restaurant, and fed hearty home-cooked meals to "her boys." The book is witty, enjoyable, and fascinating.

The fossil hunter (Shelley Emling) - A well-written biography of Mary Anning, one of the first paleontologists in history from before "dinosaur" was even a word. It is a great read, although it made me endlessly sad that she got almost no credit for any of her work in her lifetime. 

Born to rebel (Mary Allsebrook)
- Biography of Harriet Boyd Hawes, archaeologist and nurse and jane-of-all-trades, written by her granddaughter using a lot of quotes from letters and diaries. She excavated Minoan palaces in Crete, and also established a hospital in World War I, among other adventures. The book is almost impossible to find, and she is not very well known, which is a shame, because she became one of my favorite historical women.

Wishful drinking, The princess diaries (Carrie Fisher) - I was missing Space Mom, so I read her books. What an amazing, witty lady.

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