2020 Media Roundup: Books, Poetry, Music, TV
What a strange, surreal year 2020 was. Like many people I know, I found my attention span shot to pieces, and there was a period of time when books (normally my most beloved and trusted refuge) failed me utterly. I simply didn’t have the concentration to read them. 2020 was a year that other forms of media and art stepped in for me. It was a year that found me listening to music again, when I hadn’t really. . . in years. It was a year that found me falling into the rabbit hole of Chinese historical fantasy dramas (I may never come out). And while my mind was too scattered to focus on long fiction, it found comfort in poetry. I read a lot of poetry.
I still managed to read some short fiction. And eventually, I found my way back to the long form as well.
Here are some of the books and art that got me through 2020.
As I said above, I read embarrassingly few novels this year. I would start, and my mind would often skid right off the page. But these are the ones that I finished, and that stayed with me.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
A “campus novel” from a perspective that has been little seen in literature: that of a gay Black man from the rural South, doing his Ph.D. in biochemistry at a major university in the Midwest. It’s a story about academia, and the fiercely competitive world of science; it’s a story about being an outsider in that insular world, about culture clash and displacement. It’s also a story about intimacy, love, longing—the desire for connection and the terror of it. It’s about the complexities of relationships, and the subtle degradations the protagonist experiences as a Black man in science, and how white friends and colleagues look away when other white people commit those degradations. It’s a story about the color of light over a Midwestern lake in the summer, and about dinner parties, and the memory of thunderstorms in the South. This is a deeply immersive novel, told in clear yet evocative and poetic prose. I admit that the detailed scenes of life in a biomedical research lab were so evocative and spot-on that they were nearly triggering for me, a former cell biologist who fled academia seven years ago (the opening descriptions of that most common of nightmares—bacterial contamination of lab cultures, and the explanation of how it meant months of work down the drain—was so vivid I had to put the book down for a moment). This is also a book about childhood trauma, and what stems from that trauma. Wallace, the protagonist, is a fully-realized character: enormously sympathetic, yet so guarded, so self-destructively intent on keeping up his walls, that there were times I wanted to shake him. Real Life is the story of a weekend where everything seems to spiral down and implode for Wallace, both professionally and personally. It’s a beautiful book, sharply observed, tender and brutal, where affection and love alternates with violence. It’s not a perfect book. But it’s a hell of a debut novel, and a hell of an achievement. I very much look forward to Taylor’s future work.
Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
I read the first in this planned trilogy, Gideon the Ninth, back in March. It’s one of the most delightful and wildly original books I’ve ever read, a high-stakes escape room puzzle/tournament set in a crumbling Gormenghast-in-space with necromancers and sword fighters (longer review here). I read the follow-up, Harrow the Ninth, in the waning days of 2020. And while Gideon started with fun and banter and descended into darkness, Harrow is a full-on howl from that darkness. “. . . a labyrinth haunted by loss and sacrifice” says a blurb (by writer Alix E. Harrow) on the book’s back cover, and it’s an apt description. Yet amid the loss and grief there remains razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud banter; there’s rollicking skeleton battles and amazing set pieces; there’s a scene where Harrow makes and serves everyone soup and it is the best dinner party scene I have ever read—I wanted to stand up and cheer. Also, I fell in love with sad-sack Ortus Nigenad and his love for epic poetry; his moment, too, made me want to stand and cheer.
What’s that? you may be saying now. Didn’t the minor character Ortus Nigenad die in the first book? Well, yes. Harrow the Ninth rewrites everything you thought you knew from the first book. . . or does it? Gideon the Ninth was a puzzle-box with a mind-bending plot. Harrow is an even twistier puzzle, a labyrinth indeed. If Gideon the Ninth was mind-bending, its sequel bends and ties the reader’s mind in knots.
And the plot structure and book’s format is a fitting description of Harrow’s own state of mind, of how it has shattered in the wake of great trauma. The use of second-person in this novel is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen; it perfectly reflects Harrow’s dissociative state (and later also makes sense for in-universe plot reasons). Though a bit rushed near the end, Harrow the Ninth is endlessly inventive, a brilliant, moving, and ultimately cathartic read.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The last book I read in 2020. A strange, delicate book, told in diary form by a man who lives (nearly? Possibly?) alone in a house that contains a sea and clouds. There’s a hushed feeling to the book as the mystery of the house and man slowly unravels; like the Gideon the Ninth books, this is a puzzle-piece that plays with memory, format, and voice. And having read Harrow the Ninth and Piranesi back to back, I’m struck by how both novels are so much about dissociation after trauma. How they illustrate the ways in which a mind can split to protect itself. But while Harrow the Ninth is a raging storm of grief and pain, Piranesi is, on the surface, much quieter. Delicate and restrained. Yet it’s this very restraint that gives the book such power. When I finally understood the enormity of what had been done to the protagonist—how he was wronged, what he’s suffered and lost—I was nearly in tears. Piranesi is a gorgeous, quiet story of arresting images: endless halls of marble statues, lapped by waves; doorways that frame stars; birds swooping through the halls. The more I think about it, the more questions this book raises: questions about what a happy life truly is, about evil, about the acceptance of evil and the price and worth of innocence. About the search for belonging and home. A haunting, lovely, deeply thought-provoking and moving book.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Originally published in Japan in 1994 but only recently available in English translation.
I read this book first among the list here, but I want to discuss it in conjunction with Piranesi. Like the other books on this list (hmmm, I guess I’m sensing a theme) this is a book about trauma. And like Piranesi, it’s a novel that depicts trauma and loss with a quiet restraint, a delicacy, which makes the story all the more powerful. In The Memory Police, the central loss is that of memory itself. Words—not just their sounds and written forms, but the very concepts behind them—are disappearing from the world. Perfume, birds, music, roses—one by one these concepts are lost, all memory of these objects and things gone. The narrator is a novelist whose very career and passion is words, but she cannot stop losing the words she once knew. In this mysterious island-world, there are a few people who are immune to memory loss; these people are rounded up and “disappeared” by the memory police. The narrator’s editor is one of those who does not forget, and so to protect him from the police she hides him in a secret room in her house. She struggles to write, to keep her friends safe, to continue living—all while huge parts of her world keep slipping away. There is a profound sense of helplessness to this book, a quiet resignation that seems more terrible to me than any bloody fight. Immediately after reading it, I wasn’t sure what I thought; I wasn’t sure that I was happy to have read it at all. But it’s a book that has stayed with me throughout these months. In this strange year of loss, when so much has seemed out of control and so much has seemed surreal, Yoko Ogawa’s book from the 1990s has resonances that I don’t quite understand, but which I feel.
I read some good anthologies of speculative fiction, and you should read them, too.
Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald. Full review here.
Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn. Stories of Asian horror centered on Asian women, and by Asian writers. Full review here.
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
This is cheating a bit, since I haven’t actually finished the book yet (I’m about two-thirds through). But from the first story I knew this was an amazing collection, and the second story, “Maxwell’s Demon,” is a stunning piece that ranks with Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” in its complicated, ambitious and, yes, brave look at the horrors of war and the humans behind it.
This was the year of poetry for me. It soothed me when no other written words would.
Crush by Richard Siken
The first collection by this contemporary American poet. Here are the first lines from the first poem, "Scheherazade."
Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
And dress them in warm clothes again.
Hafez: Translations and Interpretations of the Ghazals, edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires
Rumi: Poems from the Divan-e Shams, edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires
Jenny Hamilton introduced me to the medieval Persian poetry of Hafez and Rumi (and these specific translations) via her blog post here. Gorgeous, ecstatic poems of love and longing.
The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, the Full 3000-Year Tradition. Edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
Of all the books I read this year, this single volume gave me the most joy. To try to survey any poetic tradition over 3000 years seems impossibly ambitious, and as someone mostly ignorant of Chinese poetry I have no sense of what’s been left out. . . but I can say I loved this. I loved the more recent works by contemporary poets like Bei Dao, intense and surreal; I love the simplicity and feeling in the earliest works from The Book of Songs and the anonymous Han Dynasty Nineteen Ancient Poems. I loved the greatest hits from famous ancient poets such as Tao Qian, and the Tang Dynasty stars Li Bai, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi. I loved almost all of it, though of course some poems and poets hit me stronger than others. Most of all, I loved the older poems from the Tang dynasty and before, for it seems that they call to us across vast gulfs of time and distance to say: People have always loved, people have always suffered, the world has always been terrible and unjust, and beautiful still.
I’d never paid much attention to K-pop before, but I fell in love this year (like so many Americans) with BTS. Their latest album, “Be,” is indeed a gift to us all in this year of pandemic, and their song “Blue and Grey” is utterly perfect: an exquisite, ethereal, expression of melancholy, somehow sad and comforting in its sadness at the same time. Official streaming link here. English lyric translation here.
This was the year I feel headlong, heedlessly, in love with a Chinese fantasy drama known in English as The Untamed (also known Chen Qing or cql). I’ve yelled about this drama on my blog before, and I’ve yelled about it all over Twitter. I may never stop; I’ll simply yell silently in my heart. You can see my earlier review of this drama near the bottom of my blog post here
You can read this great explainer/review about the Untamed on Vox here.
You can read Jenny Hamilton’s thorough primer on the Untamed here
The Untamed is a rapturous drama that starts out fun and fluffy (once you get past the confusing first two episodes); then it breaks your heart into a million pieces and puts it back together again. It’s an epic slow-burn love story; it’s a war story; it’s a tale of complicated family dynamics and morality and power. There are also zombies and necromancers. Jenny Hamilton made this Twitter thread pairing love poems from Hafez and Rumi with scenes from The Untamed and I followed suit with my own thread. Yes, the pairings work, and The Untamed is the kind of series that inspires a passionate fandom. Thanks to this show, I’ve also started following the larger careers of the talented cast; I am overly invested in the careers of the lead actors, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo; I’ve started listening to c-pop (the lead actors are also singers); I’m watching other c-dramas, and I’ve even started trying to learn Mandarin. Goddamnit.
I read a lot of short fiction in the waning days of 2020, and I know I still barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. There is so much good short fiction being published in the speculative genre now, and that’s one of the blessings we’ve had in a terrifying and strange time. I’ll be posting my round-up of short fiction recs from November and December shortly.
2020 was quite a year, and I don’t have anything more to say about it than, well, everyone else. So far, 2021 looks to be a fasten-your-seatbelt-and-hold-tight ride, too. Here’s hoping that we all find some good art and media to sustain us through the times ahead.