It wasn’t all bad…
I read fewer novels than average in 2020, and I suspect I’m not alone. It was not a great year for concentration, although I did manage to glide through a re-read of Jane Austen’s Emma, a reminder that superb writing can take you out of even the darkest of times. Here are a few books I liked:
I quite enjoyed Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (2016), but The Man Who Saw Everything (2019), with its playful title, blew me away. Saul Adler, a British historian, is on his way to a conference in 1988 East Germany when he stops to pose for a photo on famous Abbey Road, a gift to the sister of his German translator. In the process, he is grazed by a passing car. That’s all you need to know. This is one of those novels that is more intriguing the less you come in with. Let it surprise you with its puzzles and loops, its echoes through time, its thoughts on loss, love, choices and the weight of history.
Montreal writer Saleema Nawaz caught my attention with Bone and Bread (2013), a close-up look at the relationship between two sisters, one of whom has an eating disorder. I was not prepared, therefore, for the global scope of Songs for the End of the World, which touches multiple lives and timelines yet loses none of Nawaz’s flare for intimacy. Oh, and it’s about a worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Sounds exploitive, but Nawaz wrote this well before the current pandemic, making its prescience that much more astounding. But it’s the characters and the compassion that carry the book. I judge a novel on how long it stays with me, and this one continues to resonate long after reading.
My New Jersey friend Mark sent along an advance copy of Nick Hornby’s Just Like You, which is an admirable love story between two people of different race, age and, to some degree, politics, with Brexit serving as a background. It sits comfortably in the middle rankings of Hornby’s novels (which are all exceptional, in my opinion), but it’s a reminder of what a compassionate writer he can be. Also: you can tell Hornby has been doing screenplays because the dialogue just snaps!
Much has already been said in the year-end lists about Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher. They both land near the top of my listening list this year as well, the yop and the yang of this time of isolation. One album that didn’t really crack the year-enders, though, was Doves’ first release in 11 years, The Universal Want. It was everything fans wanted from the Manchester band, like a comfortable visit from an old friend. The music and musicianship were also stellar. As my Spotify Wrapped reminded me, it was my most-listened-to album of 2020. Other favourites:
- Grimes: Misantrhopocene
- Nadia Reid: Out of My Province
- X: Alphabetland
- Paul Weller: On Sunset
- Future Islands: As Long As You Are
- Fleet Foxes: Shore
The summer was spent listening to a lot of lost tracks from the 80s. That was comfort music, deep-dish nostalgia. Who can blame me, especially at my age? I still try to listen to new music, though, but there are few tracks that stop me in my, well, tracks. A few that stood out:
“Robber” by The Weather Station: This song starts out recalling Talk Talk’s “Happiness Is Easy” and then builds with squawks and bobbles, jazziness and strings, into the diggingest of groove. Really looking forward to this Canadian band’s full release in February.
“Aries” by Gorillaz (featuring Peter Hook and Georgia): Yes, that Peter Hook, as in Joy Division/New Order Peter Hook. More 80s nostalgia. That bass is distinctive in Damon Albarn’s synthy bop, and it adds up to an endorphin-spurting joyride.
“Letter to You” by Bruce Springsteen: I love that the old guys are continuing to make unapologetic rock. They know what they’re doing. The title track from the somewhat mixed-results album is a celebration of the E-Street Band, pure and simple. The single “Ghosts” is also a stand-out.
Isolation Moments by Krista Wells
I haven’t seen Krista since our days at Mount Allison University but we’ve kept in touch through social media, as many of us do. At the start of the pandemic, Krista began creating beautiful, contemplative, often charming, mostly quiet videos of her artist’s life in her cabin overlooking Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. She shared them with her friends on Facebook, and they became a daily stress reliever. People were wonderfully creative in their consideration of others this year. Krista is also a gifted artist and a good egg. Find her stuff here: http://www.kristawells.ca/
Believe it or not, I’ve come to like Zoom. Now that we’re getting used to how it works, it’s become a tool that will likely live on long after all this is over. It somehow seems better for reaching out than a phone call. This year, I tracked one of my dearest friends from high school, Alka, whom I had completely lost touch with. It was such a joy to see and talk to her along with our mutual friend David (who came to visit me this summer!). I also Zoom-connected for the first time with my favourite blogger Bill, with whom I’ve corresponded and even exchanged music but had never spoken to in person. Isn’t that silly? It was a year of appreciating connections, in whatever form.
Stereogum’s The Number Ones
I wrote about this earlier. The website is reviewing every Billboard Number One song ever. The virtual 80s began just at lockdown and we’re close to the end of 1986 now. The columns are great, and the comment section has become its own community, so much so that other Stereogum commenters have taken to making fun of them. Who cares? The love of music is at its core. And where else would you find a commenter who makes a music video specifically giving shout-outs and Christmas gifts to other commenters?
McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
Continues to be the top humour site on the web and gave us a twisted outlet for political rage and dismay. Did satire change the world? Probably not, but it helped the world.
Bishop’s Gaiters Basketball
My son’s university team just got their season in under the wire, winning the Quebec title at the end of February and then heading to the national tournament in Ottawa in early March, a week before lockdown began. It was such a thrill to be part of that winning season. This fall and winter, there’s been no basketball at all, and it’s the first time in probably 20 years that we haven’t attended one of our children’s games. I miss it. I miss theatre. I miss a lot of things.
Hikes and Outings
My wife and I made it an unspoken goal to get out every weekend to do… something. We climbed local mountains and camped, bought kayaks and walked and walked and walked. It was good mental and marital health.
Favourite Things Seen
“Normal People” was one of the best-acted productions I’ve seen in a while. And, yes, there was a lot of sex in it. I’m okay with that. Also caught up on “Fleabag,” which was stunningly good. Did everyone love “The Good Place”? “Schitt’s Creek”? “The Queen’s Gambit”? Nothing too original here, but boy there was some well-put-together entertainment if you looked for it.
So what did you like? Share below!