Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
It’s becoming a tradition that we can’t fit all we want to write about in our end-year post, and again we had to divide it into two. Before Christmas we wrote about the blog and stats, now we want to share our favourite – and least favourite – books and shows, consumed in this fateful year.
Ola: Well, say what you want, but for me 2020 turned out to be a good time for reading ;). As last year, I decided to divide my best reads into three categories, Fiction, Non-fiction, and Comics. With so many books read, my The Best Of criteria had to be very harsh, so below are the best of the best of the best, which means a very impactful, thought-provoking and delightful read, as well as the even rarer 10/10 rating :).
Ola’s Best of 2020 in Fiction
This was truly one of the very best reads of 2020 and one of the very best SF reads ever. Stephenson’s love letter to Western philosophy and science is pure perfection, and his decision to wrap it into a hero’s journey through a world as like and as unlike our own was a masterstroke, allowing the readers an incredibly immersive experience. The prose is dense, ambitious, unforgiving, but given a chance it shines with amazing clarity and emotion. I owe big thanks to Bart, who recommended Anathem to me; Stepehenson’s Seveneves is good, especially the first part dealing with orbital mechanics, and would’ve been even better if the last part didn’t exist, but Anathem is a masterpiece, clear and simple. If you haven’t yet, read it!
The grand finale of the critically acclaimed Cromwell trilogy doesn’t disappoint. It may be more meandering and more sentimental than the naked blade of Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s to be expected since it deals with the final years of Thomas Cromwell, whose tragic history is inextricably linked with that of Henry VIII. A historical novel with grand ambitions, a deep psychological portrayal of human vices and virtues, of naked ambition, egotism and the pitfalls of power, The Mirror & the Light is astonishingly modern, significant novel; a mark of true classic, its contents equally relevant in times of Henry VIII and our own.
I’ve written all I could about this quirky, thought-provoking read. I loved Lee’s bold, utterly brilliant mashup of Korean mythology and political anti-utopia clad in military SF accoutrements and wrapped up in a stolen identity mystery happening in the middle of a galactic war. Ninefox Gambit is wonderfully ambitious, broad in scope, and lyrical. I’ve read the remaining two books in the trilogy, but sadly, their quality seemed to be deteriorating with each installment, and by the end turned into a political treatise focused on gender issues while what I was expecting was an all-out AI revolution ;).
Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman (2005)
The second installment in the Saxon Stories series, popularized by the Netflix’s TV series Last Kingdom (very good, actually, though I haven’t seen it past season 1 as I want to read the books first ;)) is impeccably written, heart-rending, thoroughly researched, and simply riveting. The first book is good; but only in The Pale Horseman Cornwell achieves the psychological and societal depth to make his work outstanding. Many thanks to Sarah, who recommended this series to me. A review will come one day, I promise 😉
I was really surprised by this little novella; its impact on me was far bigger than I’d expected judging by its length and the misleadingly obfuscating beginning. But this tiny bit of a book is simply amazing, turning midpoint from a slightly generic fantasy into a Kafkian treatise on the nature and limits of power. I absolutely adored every aspect of it, from the stunningly apt use of the second person perspective to the impeccably structured journey – inward and outward – of the protagonist.
Ola’s Best of 2020 in Non-fiction
Orlando Patterson, Ethnic Chauvinism (1977)
I read it back in January, never expecting the book will become so valid and important in 2020. Patterson unflinchingly and penetratingly portrays the various aspects of nationalism, ethnocentrism and other forms of tribal affiliations, focusing on their oft-neglected economical foundations. A groundbreaking work; while parts of it got a bit outdated over the last four decades, the main message is startingly, unfortunately relevant.
Dimitra Papagianni, Michael A. Morse, The Neanderthals Rediscovered. How Modern Science is Rewriting Their History (2013)
A very interesting summary of the current (well, probably not so much anymore, even though I read the revised and updated version ;)) knowledge on Neanderthals. Insigtful, succint, illuminating – especially when it comes to taking the blame for Neanderthal extinction off our Homo sapiens shoulders :).
András Szunyoghy, Drawing the Human Figure: The Artist’s Complete Guide (2015)
Seriously amazing skill and devotion to the subject matter. Not sure if it works equally well as a guide, it’s a bit dry and generally I find learning to do anything from a book quite trying, but I can just look at the stunning pictures and the artist’s knowledge of human anatomy 😀
Ola’s Best Of 2020 in Comics
There can be only one winner in this category this year – unfortunately, I’ve read far more rotten comics than outstanding ones in 2020 😉
A shocking ending right before hiatus, opening up countless possibilities for the remainder of the series. Our review says it all, but let me just write that this was a gut-punch at once expected and unexpected. We as readers always knew that reality will catch up to our fairy-tale protagonists, but to witness it happening is a different matter altogether.
Ola’s Best of 2020 in TV Series
I’ve got only two on the list ;). My movie/series watching this year took a serious hit, what with playing Uncharted 1-4 (or rather watching) and reading all those books in between ;).
Jon Favreau, The Mandalorian S02 (2020)
I’m pretty certain we’ll write a separate post on this, so let me just say the ending is just jaw-dropping. So many possibilities!!! (That’s me fangirling 😉 The series still can be construed as being in the current Disney canon, but there’s an increasingly growing list of elements that are not compatible with Disney’s vision of Star Wars – and I for one am getting happier and happier!
Scott Frank, Alan Scott, The Queen’s Gambit (2020)
Stylish, impeccably written and filmed, absolutely gripping coming-of-age story of chess, ambition, solitude, love, maladjustment, addiction and chess. Who would expect that chess matches (actually portrayed pretty realistically) can be so nail-bitingly thrilling? 😉 I think this series merits a separate review – what do you think, Piotrek?
Piotrek: We share some titles this year, in all categories. There was so much goodness in the culture consumed by me in 2020 that this year can be judged, at least in that regards, as a wonderful one. So much that we won’t have space for the Worst of… so we’ll leave it out of this post, and try to prepare a shorter one next week.
Piotrek ‘s Best of 2020 in Fiction
Well, to begin with, Anathem is also on my list. What could I add after Ola’s praise? It is a masterpiece, for all the reasons she enumerated, a very rich and rewarding book that is not the easiest to read, but most definitely worth it. What I liked the most, and there it seemed to be inspired by Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, is the idea of monasteries of secular intellectuals, deemed in this world to be too dangerous to be allowed to wonder the world openly 😉 (there are more similarities, like the various games played in the concents). This is my favourite novel read for the first time in 2020.
The other new read on this list will be something unlikely to feature on any The Best Of… made by Ola: Inversions by Iain M. Banks. I’m going through the series slowly, as the supply is finite and I don’t want to reach the end quickly. This was a Culture novel with not that much Culture in it, describing a world technologically far behind, with no overt Culture influences – but with some almost-certainly Culture characters present to hasten the progress that seems to have brought this world to the eve of a Renaissance of sorts. There are some echoes of Le Guin’s Hain cycle, but mostly it’s an interesting, melancholic break from hard SF climate of the other Culture novels.
Special mention goes to a short classical masterpiece, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Loads of fun and an insight into the minds of people we can actually understand, deprived of the benefits of modern technology – as the detailed descriptions of their picnic equipment shows us, but modern people in most ways. Also, it’s the inspiration of much longer To Say Nothing of the Dog my favourite of Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel Series. I’ve read Jerome Jerome very long ago, but that technically constitutes a re-read. And when we came to it, revisiting two other books was also the literary highlight of 2020.
First, Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, a sequel to his The Winds of War. This was a novel much loved by my grandfather whose worn out paperbacks I inherited and read twice already, and in 2019 I added both titles to my Audible library. The first I listened to in 2019, the second I finished this year. It offers a simplified but well meant view of the Second World War, the ascending American Empire and the end of European dominance of the world. I myself hold a much more nuanced view on these issues, but I feel nostalgic for the optimism that shines through the cruelties described in detail.
The other – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. During the lockdown I started a series of ZOOM meetings with my nieces, and I read them a few books I thought both they and I will enjoy. It was so much fun to revisit this one, and to experience that with two young, eager minds (the youngest one wondered around and listened a bit, but it’s too early for her to listen to concentrate for longer periods of time). Now we’re reading Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles and the fun continues 🙂
Piotrek ‘s Best of 2020 in Non-fiction
I’ve probably read more non-fiction than in any year since my university days, although most of that is uniquely Polish and unlikely to ever be translated. Marcin Napiórkowski, a Polish semiotician with a gift of writing popular, understandable books featured here already last year. That doesn’t mean I can neglect his Contemporary Mythology this year. It’s a great mix of scientific analysis and good writing that shows how myths work in the modern world in a way quite similar to how they used to in the eras we usually think of when we here the word myth. How much did I like it? Well, see how many post-its I used to mark favourite quotes:
That was in Polish, but covered quite universal topics. This was a very political year in our little country, and no wonder my lectures reflect that. Careful readers of the blog might have realized I’m no fan of the Catholic Church, and especially its Polish variation. Not having anything against the faith itself, I don’t like the political influence of the hierarchy, their support of our increasingly authoritarian regime, and the effect it has on individual rights of our people. I’ve read several books on that topic this year, and countless articles approaching the subject from various perspectives. The young generation started to look behind the curtain and the stats are encouraging, but that’s something for another time, and another place. My favourite book in the Organized Religion section was The Church System by Tomasz Polak, a renowned Catholic theologian of the 1990-ties that later left the Church.
This is a very serious books describing author’s view on the mechanism that ruled the self image, doctrine and social influence of the Church throughout the ages. Its ability to survive by condemning and expelling some wannabe reformers while incorporating others’ ideas to stay relevant. Polak came to conclusion there’s actually not much alive or relevant under all the decorations and behind all the closed doors. I agree.
But enough about local troubles. The best escapist non fiction of the year had undoubtedly been The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. A monumental work published first in 1980 and in Poland in 2019. While I usually go for English versions, Polish translators added some very interesting entries and also the book looks really beautiful:
A thousand pages I browsed through for several months, probably reading most entries – and some several times. Working from home, I needed a short break from time to time, and this was ideal. 2020 revived my interest in lexicons! Chris of Calmgrove reviewed the English version, and his praise convinced me to finally buy this expensive tome after long deliberations 🙂
Piotrek ‘s Best of 2020 in Comics
I haven’t read that many comics, actually. Something to improve next year! Saga was definitely the best one, and I’ve read it all this year. It was epic, and reading it all at once – powerful. I think I’m going to wait until the second half is ready before diving back in, to repeat that experience. And to collect the deluxe editions 😉 That means I’m likely to wait a long, long time…
But there was another graphic novel, much less known, and still excellent. Orwell by Pierre Christin and Sébastien Verdier.
A great graphic biography, giving us its hero, but also his times, his class, his political and artistic choices on the wide and convincing background. I’m sure there are great scholarly biographies of Orwell, but this is a great one, and probably more entertaining. Nicely drawn, smartly written.
Piotrek ‘s Best of 2020 in TV Series
See Ola’s list 😉 Seriously, both the Mandalorian and Queen’s Gambit open my list as well. I hear good things about the final season of Homeland, but I’ve yet to see it. But, for me, there’s more.
After Life is a black comedy from Ricky Gervais that shows us small town journalist dealing (badly) with the death of his wife. Season first premiered in 2019, 2020 gave us the second one – but I watched both this year. Not an easy topic, but I believe Gervais managed brilliantly, giving us laughs and feels alike.
His Dark Materials had a strong second season. The characters progress, acting and production values are great (beautiful Cittàgazze!), adaptation of Pullman prose is done brilliantly. If you liked the books, watch it. If not – read the books first, being here means you are a genre lover. My fiancée isn’t, and is unlikely to ever read the books, but it is something we watch together and she loves it!
I liked the final season of Dark more than most people I discussed it with. I liked how the Lovecraft Country began, enough that I stopped watching to read the book – I’ll get back to the show some time next year. Mrs America was great, a deeply political show about the beginning of American politics we all know and most of us have strong opinions about… Babylon Berlin was great, now at three seasons of the decline ow Weimar Germany. The New Pope shined, Sorrentino’s stylistic gem, even better then previous Young Pope and with some genre elements!
My favourite animation was probably The Liberator, a Netflix war drama miniseries, telling a story of one American Army officer on the Western front. He fought his way from Africa, through Italy and France, to Dachau – and it all happened, more or less how depicted. Solid writing, very good animation, this is not an experiment in form but a very good story about a, well, real hero.
This is way too long and I realise some sort of conclusion should happen about now… what can I say, we both consumed some pretty good media this year, and it was probably one of the things that allowed us to survive 2020. Here’s to even better books & shows & movies (seen in cinema!!) in 2021, may we all be healthy, and happy, and meet people and go to places – but also find time to read & watch great stuff.