November was a great month for reading. I’ve discovered a love for audiobooks—I used to listen to them all the time when I was younger, but stopped for years despite how much I enjoy podcasts, but I’ve found out once more how wonderful they are. I particularly love nonfiction podcasts, and especially memoirs read by the author. In addition, I read a number of truly excellent books this month. I think 2020 is probably one of my best reading years ever. Obviously the sheer number of books I’ve read accounts for that in part (I’m up to 101 as of writing!!) but I feel like there have just been so many absolutely fantastic books on this year’s reading list. I won’t do my end of year list until January because I’m usually reading right up until New Year’s Eve, but for now, here’s what I read in November:
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
This is the second book I’ve read during the pandemic without first reading a synopsis and realising that it is set during a pandemic (the first was Severence by Ling Ma). Unlike Severence, The Pull of the Stars is set during the real 1918 pandemic, in an Irish hospital. The prose itself is fantastic; Donoghue is so talented on that front. But unlike her other historical nurse novel, The Wonder, I couldn’t get a strong sense of the protagonist. There seemed to be more focus on detailed scenes of medical processes than on character development.
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker (audiobook, read by Sean Pratt)
This book has received a lot of hype and it’s easy to see why. It’s a fascinating look at a family that on the surface appears to be as stereotypically all-American as you can get, but in reality faces a situation in which half of the 12 children are diagnosed with schizophrenia at a time when so little was known about the condition. Their experience has a strong effect on the study of the illness, and the book chronicles this from both a scientific/medical perspective and from the journey of the family itself. It’s an in-depth and slightly surreal read.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (audiobook, read by the author)
Bryan Stevenson is an incredible person. A lawyer fighting against unjust incarceration and racial inequality in the justice system, this book chronicles his work and the Equal Justice Initiative, the organisation he founded to defend those who are unjustly incarcerated and in many cases facing the death penalty. It’s a powerful, sobering book and also definitely well worth listening to on audiobook as read by Stevenson himself, for the strength and passion in his voice and his telling of it.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Although not as epic as her absolutely stunning debut, Homegoing, Transcendent Kingdom is continuing to prove that Yaa Gyasi is one of the most exciting newer voices in contemporary fiction. Her protagonists are so rich and authentic, and the way she weaves science, religion, family, loss, and personal discovery —all subjects immensely complex in themselves but even moreso when considered together—into one tapestry of a story is just fantastic.
Harvest Home by Thomas Tyron
There are some things I really enjoyed about this book. It had a really timeless feeling to it, in that it captured the essence of things that have always and probably will always frighten people through their unheimlich-ness. The descriptions were vivid, if overlong. But I felt like the pacing was very slow to the extent that the tension was so built up that it ebbed before I reached the payoff. And I felt that some of the most potentially disturbing elements of the book weren’t well captured because of the author’s choice of narrator. An interesting but ultimately disappointing read.
War of the Foxes by Richard Siken
Richard Siken’s Crush is one of my favourite poetry collections of all time, but although this book has been out for a few years I’d never gotten around to reading it. I picked it up a few weeks ago and stretched it out of several days, reading only one or two poems at a time, savouring them. Although it is mainly about grief, it is not quite as devastating or as impactful as Crush, but it is still a solid collection. Siken’s imagery is unparalleled, quiet and poignant, and the use of painting as a metaphor works beautifully throughout.
To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss has been one of my favourite writers for over a decade (as evidenced by the number of people I’ve loaned or given copies of The History of Love) and I was eagerly awaiting this short story collection for months. It entirely lived up to expectations. Krauss has such an ability to connect both emotionally and intellectually, and these stories are almost all about characters reaching crossroads in their lives that really resonated with me. I found every one of the ten stories to be so moving that I’m sure I’ll be thinking about them for a long time.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of this Will Matter by Scaatchi Koul (audiobook, read by the author)
I love Scaatchi Koul’s writing on Buzzfeed. I didn’t think that the essays in this book measure up to her work online, but it was still an enjoyable read. Funny and heartfelt, she uses both lighthearted and humorous subjects, covering issues of cultural difference, race, womanhood, and belonging in a charming and witty way. I also listened to this one on audiobook, read by the author, and I enjoyed it although I’d say it might be better listening to or reading single essays at a time rather than all in one go.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (audiobook, read by the author)
Okay, while I thought Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father was excellent, I wasn’t super psyched to read (or in this case, listen to) a 700+ page memoir about his presidency, but I know it’s going to be a hot topic of discussion for a while so when I saw I could snag it via my library’s Libby app with hardly any waitlist, I figured I may as well go for it. And honestly, it is very good. I’ll admit, I listened on 1.5x speed (and laughed when he talked about his daughter saying how slowly he speaks), it didn’t feel like 20+ hours of listening.