One of my highlights of 2020 was being asked to join some of the world’s greatest living writers in contributing an essay to a new anthology called The Gifts of Reading. Inspired by an essay of the same name by Robert Macfarlane, our long-time Room to Read volunteer Jennie Orchard asked over 20 writers to contribute short essays on the joy and power of giving, reading and receiving books. The impressive line-up of contributors includes Roddy Doyle, Chigozie Obioma, Markus Zusak, William Boyd, Pico Iyer, Jackie Morris, Jancis Robinson, Max Porter, Madeleine Thien, Michael Ondaatje and many more. All of us have signed over our royalties so that all profits can be donated to Room to Read as a tribute to our 20-year anniversary. Here is a brief and very positive review from The Guardian.
Perhaps in this year more than any other, reading has been a true gift, one that helps our mind to escape from COVID, politics, and the world’s numerous problems. And since books make a great holiday gift, I am publishing early my annual Holiday Book Guide. Hope this will help you to find some awesome reads to put under the tree for the special people in your life.
The Gifts of Reading John Wood’s Holiday Book Gift Guide 2020
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah – Powerful and fast-moving short stories from a Nigerian author you may not have heard of, but should. I’m already excited for her next book.
There, There, Tommy Orange – Various members of the Native American community in Oakland, California are brought together in eager anticipation of the annual Pow Wow, some of whom plan to enjoy the celebration of their culture while others plan to commit armed robbery. Deservedly named by the NY Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2018.
Night Boat to Tangier, Kevin Barry – Two aging Irishmen, whose lives have been best defined by petty crimes, occasional betrayal and hard struggle, go in search of a missing daughter. Barry writes brilliant dialogue, and through the old friends’ conversations he brings alive feelings of nostalgia, love, friendship and the approach of one’s twilight years.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes – Barnes could teach a master class in how to write a tight novella. This is all muscle, no fat. Amy and I tore through it in one day each while poolside in Bali (remember those glorious days of travel?).
The Topeka School, Ben Lerner – Amy and I both chose this as the best novel of 2020. It presages the last four unique years of the American experience and is a fitting bookend as we prepare for a change in administrations.
Disappearing Earth, Julia Philipps: Silver medal for best novel of 2020. Two young girls go missing on a warm spring day in a seaside town on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and as the search ensues, we meet an interesting and sometimes-overlapping cast of characters. Gary Shteyngart commented: “A genuine masterpiece, but one that is easily consumed in a feverish stay-up-all-night bout of reading pleasure. It’s as much a portrait of humanity as of a small Kamchatka community”.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: I cried in the middle, I cried even more at the end, and I only wish that I could read this book again for the first time. The closing paragraphs are amongst the most beautiful and elegiac I’ve ever read. This was Saunders’ first novel after decades of short story success, and I hope he writes another one soon.
One Clear Ice Cold Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century, Roland Schimmelpfennig – The first novel by one of German’s most-renowned playwrights opens with a mysterious and threatening photo of a wolf, framed by a snowstorm and a highway sign that reads Berlin: 60 KM. The photo goes viral, the wolf moves towards the city, and in cinematic prose our author introduces us to disparate characters who become connected by the wolf’s journey.
Any Human Heart, William Boyd: Probably the best novel I have ever read, and the one book I have recommended to friends more than any other. My essay in The Gifts of Reading told the story of how the book played a seminal moment in Amy’s and my early relationship.
Memoir / Biography Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick – The New York Times named this the best memoir of the last 50 years. This is a sometime-searing and always witty reflection on mother-daughter relationships, most of which is revealed through dialogue during long strolls through the streets of Manhattan. The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Lawson – What was it like to be Winston Churchill – and those aides and family who surrounded him -- during the opening year of World War II? Lawson tells the story so brilliantly that I could not put this book down and for four nights went to bed early to be reunited with it. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre – The subtitle doth not lie or exaggerate. You don’t have to be a huge fan of this genre to love this book. The perfect afternoon read on a bad weather day. Conundrum, Jan Morris: One of the world’s greatest living writers died this week. I thoroughly enjoyed her candid memories and reflections on one of the biggest and riskiest decisions anyone could face. The New York Times said this was “one of the earliest books to discuss transsexuality with honesty and without prurience; [it] tells the story of James Morris's hidden life and how he decided to bring it into the open”.
The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European, Stephan Zweig: Zweig was one of the most famous writers of his day, but was forced to flee his comfortable life in Austria as the dark storm clouds of anti-Semitism massed on the western border. Zweig and his second wife escaped, first to London and later to Brazil. He postmarked his final book to his publisher the day before they committed joint suicide, admitting that they did not have the energy to embark on building a new life. The memoir is gloriously evocative as it looks back on the life of a true gentleman and scholar during a golden age for the European elite. Sports and Recreation The Old Ways, Robert McFarlane: One of the first books Amy ever bought me, and I loved her even more as I traveled – slowly and meditatively – with McFarlane on his walking adventures. His prose is a thing of beauty and his knowledge makes him a great guide. If you could have one friend you’d want around your campfire after a long day’s hike, it’s Rob! Levels of the Game, John McPhee: A single tennis match at the US Open – a semi-final between then 25-year old amateur Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner – is the only thing that happens in this book. This precision is typical of McPhee, and as usual there is not a superfluous word. Robert Lipsyte wrote in his NY Times that it "may be the high point of American sports journalism". A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee: One of McPhee’s first and seminal works, profiling a young Bill Bradley during his basketball-playing years at Princeton. You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting: What can you learn about this history, culture, mores and people of Japan through the prism of baseball? Quite a bit, it turns out! Wa stands for group harmony, and in Japan besuboru is a way of life. I first read this classic book after my first trip to Japan in 1989 and recommend it to anyone I know traveling or doing business in Japan, and to every baseball fan who enjoys armchair travel.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi – A biography, in comic book form, of a young woman’s coming of age in Tehran pre-revolution, and later in Vienna after her family is forced into exile. Satrapi is as good of an artist as she is a story-teller, and her energy leaps off the page like a Keith Haring figure.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusack -- Narrated by Death, a male voice who over the course of the book proves to be morose yet caring, the plot follows Liesel Meminger as she comes of age in Nazi Germany. After losing her family and being raised by foster parents, she is taught to read by a Jewish refugee hiding in the family’s cellar. She becomes obsessed with books, and begins stealing them to save them from the increasingly-prevalent book burnings, and later begins to write her own.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson -- From the author of one of the most unforgettable short stories ever written (The Lottery) Shirley Jackson's last novel of her life grapples with the everyday terror people can inflict on each other. Merricat, the book's unreliable narrator, is the voice of a young woman, distinct and defiant, that will sear into your memory like the best of all ghost stories, spooky and entertaining with nothing more paranormal than human nature.
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All the best,