It’s been a hell of a year, a year that has in many ways felt like a bad, slowly paced sci-fi novel. One saving grace has been reading. Even this all-consuming pandemic can’t take that away from us. Non-fiction publishing has been particularly strong this year, and now that lockdown has eased and we can once more descend in droves into our well-deserving local bookshops, here is LitVox’s pick of the best of 2020.
A Promised Land – Barack Obama
Yes really. There’s a certain fatigue building in recent years for large, sprawling political memoirs. However, it can be asserted with supreme confidence that none of them will have been this well written. Obama, as anyone who has read his manifesto/biography The Audacity of Hope will know, is a wonderful prose stylist, and he manages in this book to convey several key events as if they were unfolding in a novel.
Indeed, his portrayal of various World leaders is genuinely like reading through a rogue’s gallery of characters in a novel by Chesterton. David Cameron is “urbane and confident” and had “the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life”. Talks with French premier Nicolas Sarkozy were “by turns amusing and exasperating, his hands in perpetual motion, his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s”. Obama’s cool and measured poise has been thrown aside and the gloves are definitely off. This is a fascinating political memoir, wonderfully wrought. The audiobook, read by Obama himself, is particularly brilliant.
The Ratline – Phillippe Sands
From the author of the justly acclaimed East West Street, this is another powerful, life-altering book. Like East West Street, Sands’ latest book shows the interwoven nature of the pre-war years, and the paradox of human kindness and savage cruelty coexisting in one society, even in one person. The Ratline documents the shadowy activities of an SS Brigadesfuhrer in the years leading up to his mysterious demise. Any lover of great history-writing or biography will love this brilliant work.
Why the Germans Do It Better – John Kampfneris
In a world of Trump, Brexit, climate-chaos and a general sense that everything has just gone a wee bit mad, Germany proves time and again that it is the most grown-up country in the world. Mixing personal journey and anecdote with compelling empirical evidence, this is a critical and entertaining exploration of the country many in the West still love to hate. Why the Germans Do It Better is a rich and witty portrait of an eternally fascinating country. This book is a wonderful blend of history, politics and travel writing, and it’s very entertaining and informative.
A Light That Never Goes Out – Keelin Shanley
There’s something quite special about a narrative so full of sadness that can leave the reader with an all-encompassing feeling of hope. The RTE broadcaster’s almost decade-long fight with cancer ended with her passing in February of this year. This memoir was finished by her husband Conor. The book’s main message is a wonderfully simple and easily forgotten appeal to enjoy the small victories in life, and realise that individual moments can reveal glimpses of our true selves is we look. As Hanley sums up herself “thinking of the problems of the world can make us feel hopeless, but at least I managed to chip away at one or two”. It’s a summation that encapsulates much of Shanley’s character, gone from the world far too soon.
Diary of a Young Naturalist – Dara McAnulty
A year like this needed a book like this. Badly. Dara McAnulty wrote this magical piece between his 14th and 15th birthday, and the lyrical sophistication and sombre observations of Northern Ireland’s natural beauty has not been bettered by some nature writers 4 times Dara’s age. Dara is autistic, and a big part of the narrative here is his unwillingness to deal with the change of his family home from Co. Fermanagh to the eastern reaches of Co. Down. The parallels of adjusting to the season’s changing and adjusting to a new way of life in new circumstances is something that holds resonance for all of us after the year that has just passed. Wonderfully though, this book was conceived and written long before the pandemic, and Dara’s outlook and appreciation for nature is certainly something to be treasured in such times.
Gavin Francis – Island Dreams: Mapping An Obsession
This odd and brilliant book is part history, part travel-writing, part philosophy. Francis examines the hold that islands have held over the human imagination, from the myth of Atlantis, to the Peloponnesian War, to Darwin’s expeditions to the Galapagos and the Maori kingdoms of Polynesia. This is a beautifully crafted and wonderfully illustrated book and would make a perfect gift for the history reader at home or someone who needs their wanderlust tended to.
Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack – Richard Ovendon
Broad, sweeping history that still manages to home in on specific instances and capture their essence with really great writing. This wonderful book charts the wilful destruction of human learning and knowledge, from the burning of the Library of Alexandria, right through to the deliberate misinformation spread by modern US News agencies. There’s enough in here to make the reader angry, but it is wonderfully punchy and well-researched.
Champagne Football – Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan
Champagne Football has very much been the sports story of the year in Ireland, if not for confirming what so many already suspected about former FAI chief John Delaney, then for setting a new gold standard in investigative journalism. Tighe and Rowan have painted a vivid picture of a man whose reign has become a byword for corruption, with financial corruption so egregious it ‘s almost comical. Delaney ran Irish football’s governing body like a tin-pot mob boss, keeping loyal colleagues sweet and hiding his irregular dealings from anyone who might cast a suspicious eye. This is a brilliant study not just of the sad-state of Irish football, but of corruption run amok.
More than A Woman – Caitlin Moran
There’s always a danger when a comedian begins releasing books with a bit of regularity. At the higher end of the quality spectrum we may find a David Mitchell, releasing 3 books over a decade with each one taking only a slight dip in quality. At the lower end, we find the Jeremy Clarkson’s of this world, slavishly releasing a book a year, constantly casting his beady eyes around for something new to pour his fake outrage all over. What a joy then, that Caitlin Moran continues to be funny. Very funny. The theme here will be familiar to fans of Moran’s brilliant How To Be A Woman, as Moran casts a much needed sardonic view at the impossible double standards applied to women, particularly as the approach the dreaded realms of middle-age-dom. Still funny, still fresh.
A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This strange, stunning work defies classification but still enthralls every reader who comes across it. We nearly left it off this list for the simple reason that it is so hard to describe exactly what Ní Ghríofa has wrought. There is an element of memoir, of history and poetry. It is vivid. Viscerally so. The author offers parallel glimpses of her own life with that of eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The result is a lyrical rhapsody that makes the reader strangely more aware of their body as they read, somehow, slightly, more alive.