The Best of 2020 – January to June

Unlike many sites out there, Tony’s Reading List waits until the new year before bestowing its annual awards, but regular readers will know that the contenders have already been decided, with one book being selected each month in the regular wrap-up posts.  Today and tomorrow, then, before the big reveal, I’ll be reminding you all about the excellent works I singled out, as well as briefly pointing you in the direction of one or two others that just missed out on best-in-class honours.  The links, as always, are to my reviews, so if you like the sound of any of these, feel free to take a closer look.

All clear?  Let’s go back in time, then, and reminisce about the most memorable books from January to June.  I wonder if any of these will appeal…

*****
JanuaryMonsters, Animals, and Other Worlds: A Collection of Short Medieval Japanese Tales
(edited by Keller Kimbrough and Haruo Shirane: Columbia University Press)

The pick of the bunch from my annual month of Japanese reading may seem like an odd choice, but Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds was definitely the book I enjoyed the most this January.  I won’t lie to you – I’m not entirely convinced this is one for the casual dabbler, given the collection’s rather esoteric nature.  However, if you like the sound of stories of gods, demons, heroes and wars between animals, this will be a book you’ll enjoy.  The twenty-five stories are divided into a number of different sections, and even if some of the pieces delve a little too deeply into Buddhist teachings for my attention span, whenever it gets a little too serious, there’s always the prospect of a battle with a supernatural being just around the corner.  What more could you ask for?

Honourable Mentions:
Dandelions by Yasunari Kawabata
(tr. Michael Emmerich: Penguin Classics)
Autumn Wind and Other Stories (various authors)
(tr. Lane Dunlop: Tuttle Publishing)

FebruaryBorder Districts by Gerald Murnane
(Giramondo Publishing)

After loving The Plains (which I reread earlier this year), I had long been meaning to try more work by the grumpy recluse who is constantly mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner, but it took until 2020 for me to finally do so.  Here we have Murnane calmly writing down what he sees, feels and experiences while passing time in his small house way out near the South Australian border.  If you’re looking for a plot, you’re definitely in the wrong place, but if measured descriptions of the way light travels through glass in different ways at different times, and the various hues that arise therefrom, are what you’re after in literature, then you may have found your new favourite writer.  This is slow reading, the antidote to fast fiction, and if you’re feeling a little bloated after extended holiday season binges, who better than Uncle Gerald to soothe those pains away?

Honourable Mentions:
Older Brother by Daniel Mella
(tr. Megan McDowell: Charco Press)
Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
(tr. Deborah Smith: Jonathan Cape)

MarchThe Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
(tr. Stephen Snyder: Harvill Secker)

New Yōko Ogawa books in English are always a cause for celebration (see my tongue-in-cheek whinge at her translator here), and The Memory Police doesn’t disappoint.  You’ll come for the quasi-fascist officials of the title, a team of jack-booted thugs charged with removing any item deemed to have been ‘disappeared’, but you’ll stay for the allegorical turn the novel takes, with Ogawa musing on memory, and how the world we create in our minds slowly crumbles as we get older.  There’s even a story within a story, in which the main character turns the plot on its head in her own fiction.  This was my pick of the 2020 International Booker Prize offerings, and even if it didn’t quite take out the official prize, it’s still well worth your time 🙂

Honourable Mention:
The Catcher in the Loft
by Ch’ŏn Un-yŏng
(tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton: Codhill Press)

AprilThe Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse
(tr. Damion Searls: Fitzcarraldo Editions)

And speaking of the IBP, I was also impressed with Jon Fosse’s flowing tale of a painter looking back on his life, and on his namesake, who may or may not be his own alter ego.  Things become (a little) clearer in the second of the three books, I is Another: Septology III-V (which almost made this list in its own right), but, as was the case with Border Districts, The Other Name is far less about the what than about the how, with Fosse’s endless, repetitive sentences gently lulling the reader into a pleasant state of drowsiness as the snow falls outside.  I’d never tried anything by Fosse before, but I was sold from the very first page, happy to sit back and let myself be guided through the story without any real idea of where we were going.  The third part is due out next year – having enjoyed the first two, I’ll be watching closely for the end of Asle’s story.

Honourable Mention:
Hurricane Season
by Fernanda Melchor
(tr. Sophie Hughes: Text Publishing)

MayThe Wisdom of Tea by Noriko Morishita
(tr. Eleanor Goldsmith: Allen & Unwin)

My bias towards all things Japanese may be showing here, but The Wisdom of Tea is a book that many of you out there will enjoy.  Morishita’s work is less an instruction manual showing what the tea ceremony is all about than a series of reflections on her life, and how her lessons help her to understand it more deeply.  As mentioned in my review, part of the charm comes from Morishita’s self-deprecating art and her struggles to grasp just what the ancient Japanese art is really all about, even when her ever-patient sensei Aunt Takeda is there to guide the way.  Personally, I think I’ll stick to a mug, a tea bag and a spoon to stir the resulting brew, but it’s nice to see how the other half lives 😉

Honourable Mention:
Faces on the Tip of My Tongue
by Emmanuelle Pagano
(tr. Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins: Peirene Press)

JuneArturo’s Island by Elsa Morante
(tr. Ann Goldstein: Europa Editions)

For many years, readers of Elena Ferrante’s work will have heard of that writer’s love for Elsa Morante, and this year I finally got to see why she thinks so highly of her.  Arturo’s Island is a wonderful, nostalgic tale of a boy growing up on a sparsely populated island, with just a young step-mother for company.  The boy roams his kingdom, sailing out to sea and romping around the hills, returning only for food, and is overawed by the occasional visits of his father, a man unable to stay for too long in one place.  However, as Arturo grows older, he learns more about the world, and when his horizons expand to beyond the island, his view of both his father and step-mother changes drastically.  This reads like a classic, and it’s great fun, too – if my Italian was better, I’d be tempted to seek out more of Morante’s work…

Honourable Mentions:
Breasts and Eggs
by Mieko Kawakami (Book One: Book Two)
(tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd: Picador Australia)
The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada
(tr. Chris Andrews: Charco Press)

*****
Having summarised the first half of the year, I’ll be moving on tomorrow to look at the second part of 2020, with six more monthly winners introduced and a few ‘highly commended’ stickers handed out.  I wonder if any of my first six choices will take out the big prize this year?  Well, the announcement will come on the first of January, so you don’t have too long to wait to find out 😉

10 thoughts on “The Best of 2020 – January to June

  1. Oh my goodness, I have no idea how I missed your wonderful BTBA entry, but that genuinely made me laugh aloud! Fascinating list as ever, and I await the next entries…

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  2. Of your choices, I thought ‘Arturo’s Island’ and ‘Hurricane Season’ were wonderful. However ‘Border Districts’ did not work for me at all. The others I have not read.

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    1. Tony – Hmm, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I loved ‘Border Districts’, and I’ve got another Murnane lined up for after my January in Japan reading 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve got a few honourable mentions that I’m seeing in a lot of top 10 lists (Hurrican Season, Breasts and Eggs) which makes me more curious about the ones you chose over them!

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