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Books of 2020: Year in Review

Okay, this year I read 140 books. Sadly, I was unable to maintain my monthly reviews (2020 got a bit busier than expected) but I hope to return to doing those in 2021. I’m not going to write a review of every book in this post but will, instead, highlight my most and least favourite books in each category as well as my overall favourites this year.

So, let’s start with the best of the best. My favourite reading of 2020 is not a single book but the works of a single author: Robert MacFarlane. I read three of his books this year—The Old Ways, Landmarks, and Underland—and each one was remarkable and filled me with a sense of beauty, wonder, longing, sorrow, acceptance, and comfort. They are difficult books to describe. Are they travelogues? Memoir? Nature writing? Contemplative meditations? Literature? Yes, they are all of those things in different ways and all at once. At one point in Underland, when visiting cracks in the earth and pits in the Dinaric Alps—a breath-taking place, but also a place used by the Nazis to engage in mass executions of civilians during the Second World War—MacFarlane asks, “What is the relationship of beauty and devastation in a landscape such as this?” It is a question that he is constantly circling around in all of his work and, for those of us living through the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, it is a question that we must all confront as we seek to live our very brief lives responsibly, thoughtfully, and, yes, even joyfully.

Speaking of finding our way through our contemporary context, the second work I want to highlight as “the best of the best” out of what I read in 2020 is Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times by Alexis Shotwell. Shotwell is a scholar and a theorist but one who has her boots firmly planted on the ground and in the struggle and she brilliant combines, criticizes, and advances arguments and ideas proposed both in academia and in grassroots communities dedicated to the pursuit of solidarity, resistance, and liberation. I found Against Purity to be profoundly moving, thoughtful, and caring. It is, in my opinion, one of the most creative and significant books I have personally read in quite some time and it was a delight to read. In part, this book speaks to me so much because, over the years, I have found that a quest for personal purity (or the feeling thereof) often ends up becoming one of the biggest barriers to the creation of meaningful change. When kind-hearted people attempt to do so, but are motivated by a desire to act or appear to act in such a way that relives them of feelings related to guilty or shame or complicity, all too often we end up with oppression that just feels nicer to oppressors instead of liberation from or for the oppressed. Instead of pursuing purity, I have often found myself thinking people need to be better equipped to take responsibility and allow themselves to be held accountable. Only then can we collectively get to where we want to go together. Shotwell, however, engages all of this much more thoroughly than I am giving her credit for in this brief blurb. Read her book for yourself and you will see how fantastic it is!

Picking a third favourite book this year now gets really difficult because there are a number of very strong contenders. I am torn between Theodore W. Allen’s two volume, The Invention of the White Race (White people must learn the history of Whiteness if, as I mention above, we are going to learn how to act as responsible people whom others can hold accountable), Robert Nichols’s Theft is Property! (which is an excellent examination of how dispossession is inherent to colonialism and links Marxist notions of property and theft which Indigenous resistance related to different ways of thinking about the land, and which also explains the recursive logic of dispossession—something very closely related to my own thinking about feedback loops and how building life together is all about understanding which feedback loops are overwhelming which other feedback loops and how we then must contribute to some and withdraw from others and, in this way, may new possibilities possible), Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America (which provides a crystal clear history of how colonialism and racism becomes structured into things like zoning by-laws and other seemingly innocuous bureaucratic procedures therefore providing perhaps the best illustration of what we talk about when we talk about “structural racism” that I have encountered),  Carmen Maria Machado’s haunting, brilliant, compelling, and heart-rending novel (In the Dream House) and short stories (Her Body and Other Stories), the Queer and Indigenous poetry of Billy-Ray Belcourt (This Wound is a World and NDN Coping Mechanisms) and Rachel Cusk’s difficult-to-describe, seemingly meandering, but just-as-difficult-to-put-down, trilogy of short novels (Outline, Transit, and Kudos). I will leave it to the reader to pick between these options because I cannot.

I also want to give honourable mentions to the following books (by genre).

In Philosophy: Abnormal by Michel Foucault (I am an unapologetic Foucauldian and still sometimes sing “Foucault mon beau” in the shower to the tune of “Michelle my Belle” by The Beatles).

In Indigenous Studies: No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous by Sheldon Krasowski (spoiler: Indigenous peoples never ceded sovereignty for any land in any numbered treaty made with the Canadians); Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: What Inuit Have Always Known to be True edited by Joe Karetak, Frank Tester, and Shirley Tagalik (a gift to those of us who are looking for other ways of being in relationships of mutual care and mutual responsibility with one another).

In Race and Gender Theory: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad (absolutely critical reading for anyone engaging with feminist thought or praxis; every single criticism is on point and I wish more prominent White feminists were engaging with Hamad’s work and others who have raised similar criticisms).

In the Psy Disciplines: Towards Psychologies of Liberation by Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman (I have returned to this book over and over again as some of us explore how we can actually structure community spaces in a way that invite people into conscientization and action—I starred many, many passages in the margins as I read my way through this book).

In Science and Nature: the work of Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams and Horizon) resembles, and partially inspires, the work of Robert MacFarlane and it too circles around many of the same motifs in honest, beautiful, upsetting, and comforting ways. Also, reading about viruses is such a 2020 thing to do, and both Thinking Like a Phage by Merry Youle and Viruses by Michael G. Cordingley are phenomenally interesting and actually made me feel really grateful that I am lucky enough to share a world with viruses. I really think we will see a revolution in how we think about viruses (similar to the one that occurred in how we think about bacteria) in the coming years.

In Literature: Rebecca West’s sprawling journey through the Balkans in 1937, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, has been sitting on my shelf intimidating me for awhile but I’m so glad I sat down and read it this year. Another hard to classify work of travel, memoir, reflection, but also, in this case, history and politics, written in a critical place at a critical moment in European history. It is a glimpse into a world that was and, in many cases, is no longer. Staying in Eastern Europe, I really enjoyed (and actually laughed out loud in a few places), Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai. He is now entrenched as one of my all-time favourite authors (although is form of writing will definitely not be for everyone it really scratches all the right itches for me). Skipping across the globe to Mexico, Yuri Herrara’s book about the El Bordo mine fire in 1920, A Silent Rage, is a remarkable and intimate mixture of literature, politics, economics, and rage. He, too, is an author I am following so that I can make sure not to miss any of his books. I also really enjoyed Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs and found it super interesting to reading Japanese lit by a woman author focused almost entirely on female characters and their relationships with one another (in this regard, the first half of the book was much better, in my opinion, than the second half). I did, however, get a lot of weird looks from people when I was walking around reading this book (the large print title and what may or may not be part of a boob on the cover raises a lot of eyebrows)…

In Poetry: This was the most hit-and-miss category. Poetry is a strange and very personal creature and so when I read through various poets and poetry collections, we a few notable exceptions (Warsan Shire, Rilke…), I often feel like I’m panning for gold. You spend a lot of time not finding anything, every now and then you find something that you want to keep around, and very, very occasional you hit find the nugget you’re looking for. That said, the collections I most appreciate this year were Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Goran Simić’s From Sarajevo With Sorrow (after reading West I went on a bit of a Balkans kick), Jan Zwicky’s Songs for Relinquishing the Earth (a lot of people are thinking about what it means to find beauty on a planet where life as we know it is being murdered), and Amber Dawn’s My Art is Killing Me (also highly recommended reading for those who want to listen to sex workers talk about sex work—instead of the abundance of non-sex working self-appointed “advocates” who have a lot to say and who eat up a lot of the funding dollars for sex worker-related support).

In Graphic Novels: the books I highlighted in my first quarter reviews remain the strongest. Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green (about a teenage girl with disordered eating and her family), Speak by Laurie Halse and Emily Carroll (an autobiographical story about experiencing and overcoming the experience of sexual violence in highschool), Belonging by Nora Krug (a German struggling with feelings related to longing for a place that feels like home and grappling with what that means post-WWII—which, really, is a reflection that I think applies, mutatis mutandis, to colonizers here on Turtle Island), Park Bench by Chabouté (a beautiful story with no words) and to these three I would also add Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (another autobiography—which, in my own, is the genre where graphic novels are the strongest—about a teenage girl and her mom who move to the USA from Korea and how they, especially the teen, find that whole experience) and Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna (a look at life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge but outside of the killing fields).

So, okay, those are the highlights. What about the low points? Apart from a whole bunch of poetry that didn’t connect with me at all (the standout work in that regard probably being The Dysgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin), the books I found most disappointing these year were: Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway (originally, I was very moved by this poetry collection but I was extremely disappointed to learn that Benaway faked her status as an Indigenous person and, in fact, is a settler—so basically another Joseph Boyden; fuck that shit, it has to stop and I firmly believe we cannot support artists who do this), Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (Lacanians are frequently less interesting than Lacan and Seshedri-Crooks vision of a post-racial society doesn’t really connect with anything that is coming up from anti-racist struggle), Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump (spare me your rich-prick pearl-clutching—off with the head of every Trump!), Boys and Sex by Peggy Orenstein (basic… just too basic), and Fanged Noumena by Nick Land (it starts out amazingly strong with his reflections on Kant, nationalism, capitalism, and fascism, but then the amphetamines, psychosis, and, um, what appears to be just a really strong dislike of people, take over and a whole lot of garbage fills up the second half of the book—not only that but then, to my horror, I discovered Land went on to become one of the guiding lights of the alt-right and, while I feel that those threads are not necessarily present in his early work, I don’t want to bother with his later stuff). However, my all-time least favourite book of 2020 was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Welcome to the epitome of trauma porn. This is Twilight quality literature with a Gaspar Noé level of sensationalization and exploitation. Think Irreversible but now connect that with childhood trauma and self-harm. Imagine a fifteen-year-old romanticizing all of that and then writing hundreds of pages about it because they can’t stop circling around their fantasy (or their own trauma or, more likely, some combination of both) and you basically have this book. Not at all recommended.

Books (140)

Philosophy & Theory (7)

  1. Foucault, Michel. Abnormal.
  2. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007.
  3. Leduc, Amanda. Disfigured: On Fairy tales, Disability, and Making Space.
  4. Oliver, Kelly. Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention.
  5. Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, and Forgetting.
  6. Shaviro, Steven. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics.
  7. Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times.

Indigenous Studies (7)

  1. Belcourt, Billy-Ray. NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes From the Field.
  2. ________. This Wound is a World.
  3. Karetak, Joe, Frank Tester and Shirley Tagalik (eds.). Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: What Inuit Have Always Known to Be True.
  4. Knott, Helen. In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience.
  5. Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous.
  6. Nichols, Robert. Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory.
  7. Starblanket, Gina and Dallas Hunt. Storying Violence: Unravelling Colonial Narratives in the Stanley Trial.

Race (6)

  1. Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race (2 vols.).
  2. Hamad, Ruby. White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color.
  3. Sakai, J. Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern.
  4. Jones-Rogers, Stephanie. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.
  5. Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana. Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian analysis of race .

Politics (7)

  1. Bevins, Vincent. The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World.
  2. Johnson, Walter. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.
  3. Mann, Michael. Fascists.
  4. Meckfessel, Shon. Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance.
  5. Stangneth, Bettina. Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer.
  6. Trump, Mary L. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.
  7. Vitale, Alex. The End of Policing.

Sex and Gender (4)

  1. Dawn, Amber. My Art is Killing Me: And Other Poems.
  2. Federici, Silvia. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism.
  3. Kassirer, Kay (ed.). A Whore’s Manifesto: An Anthology of Writing and Artwork by Sex Workers.
  4. Orenstein, Peggy. Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity.

Psy Disciplines (11)

  1. Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness.
  2. Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie.
  3. Földényi , László F. Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears.
  4. Gibson, Lindsay C. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents.
  5. Martín-Baró, Ignacio. Writings for a Liberation Psychology.
  6. Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings.
  7. Potter, Shawna. Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harrassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather.
  8. Samaran, Nora. Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture.
  9. Simmons, Aishah Shahidah (ed.). Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse.
  10. Watkins, Mary and Helene Shulman. Towards Psychologies of Liberation.
  11. Zartman, I. William and Maureen R. Berman. The Practical Negotiator.

Science & Nature (13)

  1. Bosch, Thomas C. G. and David J. Miller. The Holobiont Imperative: Perspectives from Early Emerging Animals.
  2. Cordingley, Michael G. Viruses: Agents of Evolutionary Invention.
  3. Demas, Gregory E. and Randy J. Nelson (eds.). Ecoimmunology.
  4. Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams.
  5. ________. Horizon.
  6. MacFarlane, Robert. The Old Ways.
  7. ________. Landmarks.
  8. ________. Underland: A Deep Time Journey.
  9. Margulis, Lynn and Lorraine Olendzenski (eds.). Environmental Evolution: Effects of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Planet Earth.
  10. Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard.
  11. Passarello, Elena. Animals Strike Curious Poses.
  12. Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain.
  13. Youle, Merry (illustrations by Leah Pantéa). Thinking Like a Phage: The Genius of the Viruses That Infect Bacteria and Archaea.

Literature (26)

  1. Almada, Selva. The Wind That Lays Waste.
  2. Carver, Raymond. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?.
  3. ________. Where I’m Calling From.
  4. Cercas, Javier. Lord of All the Dead.
  5. Cusk, Rachel. Outline.
  6. ________. Transit.
  7. ________. Kudos.
  8. Esterházy, Péter. Helping Verbs of the Heart.
  9. Gurba, Maryam. Mean.
  10. Herrara, Yuri. A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire.
  11. Indiana, Rita. Tentacle.
  12. Kapil, Bhanu. Humanimals: A Project for Future Children.
  13. Kawakami, Mieko. Breasts and Eggs.
  14. Kluge, Alexander. The Devil’s Blindspot: Tales from the New Century.
  15. Krasznahorkai, László. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.
  16. Machado, Carmen Maria. In the Dream House.
  17. ________. Her Body and Other Stories.
  18. Matthiessen, Peter. On the River Styx and other stories.
  19. Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
  20. Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories and the City.
  21. Rivera-Garza, Cristina. No One Will See Me Cry.
  22. Shibli, Adania. Minor Details.
  23. Singh, Julietta. No Archive Will Restore You.
  24. Tokarczuk, Olga. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
  25. West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia.
  26. Yanagihara, Hanna. A Little Life.

Poetry (37)

  1. Bashō. Back Roads to Far Towns.
  2. Beckett, Samuel. The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett.
  3. Benaway, Gwen. Holy Wild.
  4. Bidart, Frank. Half-Light: Collected Poems, 1965-2016.
  5. Bolaño, Robert. Romantic Dogs.
  6. Brown, Jericho. The Tradition.
  7. Carson, Anne. The Beauty of the Husband.
  8. Carver, Raymond. All of Us: Collected Poems.
  9. Derricotte, Toi. “i”: new and selected poems.
  10. Dillard, Annie. Found Poems.
  11. Dynes, Rhonda. Dissections.
  12. Erlichman, Shira. Odes to Lithium: Poems.
  13. Forché, Carolyn. In the Lateness of the World.
  14. Heaney, Seamus. Human Chain.
  15. Houseman, A. E. The Collected Poems.
  16. Humphries, Helen. The Perils of Geography.
  17. Kaminsky, Ilya. Deaf Republic.
  18. Le Guin, Ursula K. Sixty Odd: new poems.
  19. Lubrin, Canisia. The Dysgraphxst.
  20. Mandelstam, Osip. Voronezh Notebook.
  21. Minnis,Chelsey. Baby I Don’t Care.
  22. Naga, Noor. Washes, Prays.
  23. Nurse, Thiahera. Some Girls Survive on their Sorcery Alone.
  24. Plath, Sylvia. Ariel.
  25. Rasmussen, Knud. Eskimo [sic] Poems From Canada and Greenland.
  26. Reed, Phillip. Indecency.
  27. Seidel, Frederick. Poems: 1959-2009.
  28. Simić, Goran. From Sarajevo with Sorrow.
  29. Smith, Carmen Giménez. Be Recorder: Poems.
  30. Smith, Danez. Homie.
  31. Sze, Arthur. Sight Lines.
  32. Szybist, Mary. Incarnadine.
  33. Thomas, Edward. Collected Poems.
  34. Whyte, David. The House of Belonging: Poems.
  35. Xie, Jenny. Eye Level.
  36. Zamora, Javier. Unaccompanied.
  37. Zwicky, Jan. Songs for Relinquishing the Earth.

Graphic Novels (23)

  1. Anderson, Laurie Halse and Emily Carroll. Speak: the graphic novel.
  2. Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
  3. Compton, Wayde and April Dela Noche Milne. The Blue Road: a fable of migration.
  4. Delporte, Julie. This Woman’s Work.
  5. Chabouté. Park Bench.
  6. Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl.
  7. Harari, Lucas. Swimming in Darkness.
  8. Green, Katie. Lighter than My Shadow.
  9. Krug, Nora. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home.
  10. Lemire, Jeff. Frogcatchers.
  11. ________. The Underwater Welder.
  12. ________. Gideon Falls (5 Vols.).
  13. Mutch, Kevin. The Rough Pearl.
  14. Shraya, Vivek and Ness Lee. Death Threat.
  15. Small, David. Home After Dark.
  16. Tomine, Adrian. Killing and Dying.
  17. ________. Shortcomings.
  18. Vaughn-James, Martin. The Cage.
  19. Veasna, Tian. Year of the Rabbit.

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