These are my favourite books I read in 2020, in order:
1. The Eternal City, Kathleen Graber
This book is an absolute wonder; a succinct poetic masterpiece. The Eternal City contemplates faith, the physical and metaphysical life, lessons learnt and lost, and hope—and the little reminders that it arises always, in spite of the worst and best in us.
My favourite poems: “Book Five”, “Book Six”, “Book Eight”, “Book Twelve” and “Another Poem about Trains”
My favourite quote: “It is a shame to be surprised if it has been, after all, a good thing to have been born” (“Book Eight”)
2. Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle
Madness, Rack and Honey is a collection of lectures on poetry. Ruefle writes of the necessity of poetry to our world and our understanding of it, while maintaining a deep respect for what Mary Kinzie calls “the invisibility [;] the perfected impermanence” of poetry— its mysterious and ungraspable beauty and essence.
The text moves at times pensively, at times musically and playfully, between various objects and ideas that have suffused human poetry through the centuries: the moon, theme, memory.
Favourite quote: “… [poetry] is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve— if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. ‘Fret not after knowledge, I have none,’ is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive”. (“Introduction”)
3. The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates
A sprawling and chaotic postmodern novel, The Accursed is equal parts political and social satire, romance, dark academia, magical realism, historical fiction and horror.
Set in Princeton, New Jersey at the turn of the 20th century, the book features famous historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain and the Burrs. These rich families living in the university town battle with a demon incarnate in their midst who whisks women away into an alternate, parallel dimension, beginning with Annabel Slade, the quintessential fair-skinned, rosy-cheeked virgin bride. Before long, Princeton is overrun with ghoulish visions, vampires and people gone mad and muttering with the fever of the “curse”. The demonic without ultimately holds up a mirror to the horrors that lie within the human soul, a terrifying revelation that no one, not even the most wealthy or supposedly pure and virtuous, is spared.
4. Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
Favourite poem: “Aubade with Burning City”
Favourite quote: “In the square below: a nun on fire/ runs silently toward her god—/ Open, he says./ She opens.” (“Aubade with Burning City”)
5. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
Favourite poem: “I Don’t Remember the Whole Summer when ‘Do the Right Thing’ Dropped”
Favourite quote: “I look up and ask myself again why the stars have so long tolerated the audacity of clouds.” (“At the House Party Where We Found Out that Whitney Houston Was Dead”)
6. Poor, Caleb Femi
Poor is a gritty yet tender ode to the North Peckham estate in south London and the residents in it. Femi’s poems are a stark portrayal of pain and injustice, but also of the white-knuckled human will to survive despite it all— a will woven from the fabric of a resilient people and community.
Favourite poem: “Because of the Times”
Favourite quote: “When Edvin took a blade to the gut—/ bled out like a stream running back to its brook—/ concrete held him soft as a meadow might a lamb/ so his death looked like a birthing” (“Concrete (III)”)
7. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac takes his signature, dreamy poetry to Dharmic spirituality and the natural world—the mountains, trees, rocks and stars. The result is a bright, illuminated treasure of a book, humming and aching with incandescence and wonder.
1. “… with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilisation.” (32)
2. “Now comes the sadness of coming back to cities… there’s all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love, all upsidedown in the void God bless them” (205)
8. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is the most poetically written book on science I have ever read— an elegy to the false dichotomy between literature and the sciences.
Rovelli explains in strikingly clear and lyrical prose seven key pillars of modern physics, ranging from the gentle arc of general relativity to the jittering atom dissected like an allegory for a universe unravelled by discovery.