Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Best Novels I Read in 2020

What follows are the best novels I read in 2020, counting best as those novels which would fit into some ever-expanding canon of literature. The list is in more or less arbitrary order.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Before it was a 90s film or major TV series, The Handmaid's Tale was a novel released in the Thatcherite/Reaganite 80s concerning a future North America where infertile wealthy women scoop up the fertile poor and use them as surrogates to birth babies. Our inroad into this book is Ofred, the narrator, who describes this society. The poor surrogate women dress like nuns in crimson, and they must observe the law of their masters, a male religious order, or face death. Ofred is passive, but it fits the book well.

My Struggle, Books 1-2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The My Struggle series makes up one long autobiographical novel much like Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time is one long autobiographical novel. And as with Proust's novels, the reader can take each volume of the work on its own marries. The first volume of Knausgaard's book is called A Death in the Family and follows Knausgaard's life becoming a father in comparison with the life of his own father who has died. The second volume is called A Man in Love. It's about Knausgaard's marriage and by this point Knausgaard is deep into being a parent. These novels jump around from place to place across different times following one thought out. These books are about a person trying to make sense of his life even when no sense or greater significance seems to emerge.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Many directors have had a stab at trying to bring this novel to either TV or film. Alejandro Jodorowsky was going to make this a film. (It would have been a disaster, by the way, despite how appealing they made it sound in the documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune.) Then symbolist auteur David Lynch made the 1984 film Dune, which he disavowed. Then it was made into a 2000 miniseries, which was actually pretty good story-wise, but a little wonky in terms of special effects. It will soon be released as a 2021 film. And putting aside the many attempts at screen adaptation, it ought to be mentioned that were it not for Dune, there would have been no Star Wars. Frank Herbert's novel helped set the standard for sci-fi, and many viewers will recognize the desert planets of the Star Wars saga to be eerily similar to Dune. But now to the story: Dune follow Duke Leto Atreides, a virtuous man who is about to be put in charge of a planet named Arrakis, nicknamed Dune. Duke Leto's appointment as head of the planet is intergalactically important because Dune produces a mysterious drug/fuel called melange, nicknamed spice, that powers the universe. Control the spice; control the cosmos. Well, there's another royal family, this one evil, called the Harkonnens, and when they attempt to assassinate Duke Leto, his son Paul and his wife Jessica must flee to the desert for society, where they take up with the people who live out on the dunes, these people called the Fremen. Out in the desert, Paul discovers his destiny, which is to unite the Fremen and the known world under his rule.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

Swann's Way is the first volume in Marcel Proust's mammoth autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time. This volume tracks Marcel's earliest childhood, as well as his fascination with the love life of Charles Swann, a wealthy aristocrat with whom Marcel's family has acquaintance, and with whose daughter Gilberte he plays with on occasion. Throughout the bulk of the book, Swann pines for a a woman named Odette de Crecy, who seems even to Swann well below his station, she may even be a sometimes-prostitute, and yet still for all that, Swann is madly in love with her, and willing to risk reputation and sanity for her love.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Why of course not, it's not fun to read it all, unless a person reads it in small morsels. The book follows the lives of the upper crust of Russian society and what happens to them before, during, and after Napoleon's march on Russia. The two leads are Pierre and Prince Andrei, two friends, the former dissolute, prone to drunkenness, passionate, a man of the heart, the latter morose, cynical, rational, heady. Tolstoy, being a Christian mystic, guess who in the end he favors? You don't conquer this novel. This novel conquers you. It is one of the most challenging books to read and yet it is impossible not to want to return to it, to try again to conquer it.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A woman named Keiko starts working at a convenience store when she's 18 years old and, blink, she's 36, still employed there, and her sister is telling her to get a real job and get married. Her coworkers also wonder why she doesn't marry and switch jobs. But she's content because convenience store work is the only thing that gives her a sense of normalcy. Keiko doesn't know how to behave otherwise. Even the way she dresses, how she speaks, it all comes from mimicry of the fashionable and sociable of her coworkers. She doesn't understand social and parental ambitions, she doesn't feel them. She only understands the convenience store.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

You all know the story. A baby named Harry Potter is left on the doorstep of a middle-class British family by wizards. The family who raises him, the Dursleys, treat him poorly. His room is a hole under the stairs. The Dursleys praise their own tubby, intransigent son Dudley and treat Harry like a freak. Then one day, owls appear at the home of the Dursleys inviting Harry to attend a wizard prep school Hogwarts. And so his adventure begins. There have never been better popular books for children nor books so inviting for grownups to share with their children. Oh yeah, and though it's trite to say, the book is better than the movie.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Jesse James is at the end of his life and career, restless, superstitious, a man who believes his own myths and legends but fears his own death. He loves his wife but is neglectful of her. She plays second fiddle to his love of the thrill of crime. He feels destined to rob banks and trains. It's in his blood, in the stars. Though he dotes on his children while with them, what kind of father can he be to them if he gets himself killed? After establishing James in the present, the novel moves back in time to his big train robbery with his brother Frank, the occasion that acquainted Jesse with the man who would become his yellow assassin, Robert Ford. This novel is lyrically written, the most beautiful western you will ever read.

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