Lionel Shriver is one of those novelists you follow because she tackles substantive, present-day issues with literary skill. After recent books tackling financial collapse and obesity, “The Motion of the Body Through Space” examines the modern world of fitness, and Shriver sets up an ingenious tableau to embed her tale within. 60-year-old fitness fanatic Serenata has exercised for decades, always alone, and now is grounded, ready for a knee operation, when do-nothing husband Remington discovers marathoning and plunges into the world of fitness and running clubs. The author’s stage allows her to explore the history of American obsessive exercising and its current manifestations, with Serenata and Remington, and their families and friends, grappling with love, mania, and betrayal. Shriver pens wonderful, busy scenes full of intelligent dialogue, and her rapier-sharp wit is always present. The immersion into the milieu of long-distance running is fascinating for a long-time runner like me. As with all her recent novels, “The Motion of the Body Through Space” felt a trifle issue-bound, and the characters, while easily pictured and inhabited for the duration of the tale, are freighted with earnest thoughts and words that prevented reader empathy, overall this novel is a thoughtful, if slightly light, diversion well suited for lockdown times.
“Greenery: Journeys in Springtime” is a hugely vigorous and lyrical exploration of bird migration and the season of Spring. Tim Dee, radio producer and broadcaster, and acclaimed nature writer, follows the season with the migration of swallows, from South Africa to the Arctic Circle, from December to June. I loved his besotted description of birds on his journeys; he describes a Wallcreeper, a bird I’ve tried to see but never with success, as “the most marvelous fluttering mouse.” If his naturalistic reveries sometimes left me nonplussed, I take that as a black mark against my character, and I heartily recommend “Greenery” to readers yearning to experience the wider world from a different perspective.
The daughter of revered astronomer Carl Sagan and the equally wise Ann Druyan, Sasha Sagan is fascinated by faith, rituals, and celebrations. “For Small Creatures Such As We: Rituals and Reflections for Finding Wonder” weaves her explorations into tales of learning from such deep-thinking parents, and her own life. If you are fascinated by different religions, for example, this book should sate you, for Sasha Sagan dives into many faiths, teasing out what best to take from them, even though she, like her parents, is an atheist. She muses about the seasons of the year, about key events in life, about the underpinnings of traditional celebrations. Writing in a deft, personal style, she is a guide for those of us searching for … for what? When I closed the final page, I felt regret that I took nothing away from “For Such Small Creatures Such As We,” perhaps because my atheism is more corrosive than hers, but your reading experience may well be richer. Recommended for those fishing for meaning.
“Agent Running in the Field” sees maestro Le Carre firmly back in the spy ring, spooling out a tale of a middle-aged, mid-level British agent runner put in charge of a ragtag operative group that stumbles upon a Ukraine-linked plot. Throw in a mysterious baleful young squash-playing friend, an idealistic female spy, and the agent runner’s very British wife, and the story careens along with seemingly erratic twists, all told in a virtuoso Le Carre character-centric style that is a delight to read. To me, “Agent Running in the Field” marries the pell-mell plots of recent Le Carre novels to the subterranean storylines and themes of the Smiley days. If our hero morphs into an over-acting old star, and thus slightly shallow, the intensity of the plot and the bitterness of modern reality underlying it more than compensate. A rush of a read.
As I found last year, a field of excellent books was in general surpassed by an exemplary array of streaming seasons and films. A half year of lockdown viewing (some of it diving back into late 2019) yields seven TV seasons and three movies, of which only one is a documentary, four are thriller/mystery, three are sci-fi/fantasy, and two are contemporary dramas. I rated Succession Season 2 as a flawless 10/10, six films as 9/10, and four as 8/10. In no particular order (where one or two creators “created” the end product, I’ve listed them as authors, but often movie/seasons involve too many creators to cite):
Undone by Raphael Bob-Waksberg & Kate Purdy—who would have thought an animated sci-fi head trip movie would be one of 2019’s stronger offerings?
Unbelievable—a fine team of writers, excellent direction, and stellar acting make this excellent series, a mix of nitty-gritty whodunnit and victim drama, a must-see.
Succession Season 2—every one of the ten episodes of this Shakespearian corporate drama had me transfixed … flawless execution.
Bosch Season 6—as dependable as ever but exhibiting no drop in quality, with justice-driven Harry Bosch only one of the compelling characters.
Juice by Tyson Culver & Robert Bryce—a scintillating and captivating documentary about a seemingly dreary topic, electricity … an exemplar of story and film-making.
Killing Eve Season 3—even as the dramas of Eve and Villanelle shift towards the slightly cartoonish, the visual and narrative content, and the acting, remain vibrant.
Giri/Haji—Yakuza in London … an intoxicating pleasure of plot, acting, cinematography, and even music.
Parasite by Bong Joon-ho—a weird upstairs/downstairs drama in Seoul, compelling viewing from the first frame to the coda, that justly won this year’s Oscar
Proxima by Alice Winocour—the science fiction storyline following a female astronaut training to go to Mars is in reality a prop for one of the most moving parent-child dramas I’ve ever seen.
Good Omens—Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s beloved fantasy extravaganza about an angel and a demon in the last days is crowned by stunning acting performances.
Reading has been vital during the first half of 2020, over three months of which was spent in full or partial lockdown. Seven novels and three nonfiction books (a handful of which were actually published late in 2019) made my Top 10. Of the ten stellar books, seven were rated 9/10 and three (Where the Crawdads Sing, Peace, and Our Final Warning) hit 8/10. In no particular order:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens—echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, a robust tale, and singing descriptions of nature.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty—a remarkable thriller premise, a ferocious pace that will consume a night, and deep character connections.
Joe Ide’s Hi Five—number 4 in a Sherlock-Holmes-esque private eye series set in gangland LA … gorgeous writing.
Mark Jaccard’s The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success—superbly written and life-changing and mandatory. Hear that: mandatory.
Jenny Offill’s Weather—brilliant, muscular, experimental fiction that distills our climate emergency era.
The Reversing Tide by Frank Kennedy—third in a vast space opera series, a rocketing, stylish treat.
The Man Who Solved the Market by Greg Zuckerman—business histories rarely compel but this tour de force telling of a finance quant’s career is a superb exception.
Garry Disher’s Peace—the second in a murder mystery series set in the dry farming land of South Australia … richly rewarding and not a word wasted.
Our Final Warning by Mark Lynas—where will our one-degree world end up and how fast … wonderfully framed and written … if you read one global warming book in 2020, make it this one.
The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey—a post-apocalyptic novel, superbly plotted with an immersive hero … first in a trilogy that could become a classic.
“Scrubland,” the debut by Australian author Chris Hammer featuring his investigative hero, journalist Martin Scarsden, was a poised triumph of plot and character and evocative setting. Hammer’s sophomore novel, “Silver,” again features Scarsden, transplanted now to a tucked-away seaside town, Port Silver. This was where Scarsden grew up and his beau, Mandalay, has bought a house there, and within pages Martin is embroiled in a terrible murder. As in the debut, the mystery is a labyrinthine puzzler, the kind us mystery fans love, and Hammer orchestrates the unfolding with consummate skill. In contrast to the drought-blighted setting of “Scrubland,” this novel brings out the seaside vibe in an engrossing manner. If I found Scarsden to be less deeply portrayed this time round, especially in his plot-centric relationship with Mandalay, I was once more swept up by the rocketing plot and smooth writing. Not quite the sensation the first novel was, “Silver” is nonetheless a splendid, big-and-complex-plot mystery that reads like a dream.