Vaclav Smil is the super nerd of energy and technology, writer of highly analytical but comprehensible tomes on the real numbers behind our world. “Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World” distils a column he ran for general readers and it is a cornucopia of analytical assertions on topics grand and small. Population, tech progress, vaccination, megacities, happiness, Brexit, electric motors, data, gas turbines, batteries, inflatable tires, ammonia, Anthropocene, windows … you get the picture, or rather, it’s difficult to sum his vast interest set. Despite the book’s title, Smil can be opinionated to the point of attracting controversy, but at least his facts are numbers-based and reference-based. He is a vibrant storyteller, in his own way, and rewards rereading. Numbers Don’t Lie is a perfect book for 2020, this year of swirling misinformation.
“Business” is a semi-dark, semi-comic, semi-serious coming-of-age odyssey that reminded me, perhaps inaccurately, of Thomas Pynchon. This debut novel’s malleable hero ditches a no-hope writing job for apprenticeship with a flamboyant wheeler and dealer running “the Business.” Their outrageous edge-of-capitalism projects slide into chaos, and our hero finds himself driving across America on a surreal (but strangely normalised) road trip that brings together a captivating immigrant, fearsome gangsters, and PTSD cultists. What began as a satire on voracious capitalism morphs into a tale of existential yearning and learning. The author’s style is sharp and mordant, the world is drawn starkly, and the dialogue crackles. Business is a dislocating yet brisk journey across one fractured tangent of modern life, and much can be expected of J.P. Meyboom’s future novels.
Netflix knows how to market the heck out of movies. Its trailers work. “Enola Holmes,” being the conceit of Sherlock Holmes’s perky young sister at loose in a scary world, is portrayed as a fresh addition to the Holmes canon, another example of deductive thinking in operation in nineteenth century England. But I should have checked before watching. The underlying novel is YA and from the opening frame, it is clear that this is a dumbed-down kids’ flick. Millie Boobie Brown does a serviceable job in the title role but her character is an excessively disarming lightweight whose few attempts at Holmesian deduction are nonsensically silly. Enola’s brothers Mycroft and Sherlock are portrayed as enemy and reluctant ally, but are played by actors with no flair or depth. The storyline is puerile and without sensible progression or surprise. I can say that the English cinematography is suitably lush. All in all, Enola Holmes is a waste of time.
An exquisite, understated gem that speaks to the ongoing oppression of women, “Puzzle” tells of a loyal, hardworking wife of a car mechanic in a whitebread burb of America, who accidentally discovers she is a whiz at crossword puzzles. Seeking to pursue this revelatory interest, she finds herself partnering a sophisticated New York puzzle competitor, and vying in competitions, even as her newfound individuality rams up against the small-mindedness of her town and family. Kelly Macdonald is flawless in the key role, the late Irrfan Khan plays the New Yorker with wonderful individuality and assuredness, and the supporting actors are all strong. The narrative evolves softly, with few huge climaxes, but the net effect is powerful, and I saw the film as both a cry for our heroine’s freedom but also as an existential examination of meaning. One scene, in which the small-town intruder asks the intellectual why he puzzles, was especially profound. Overall, Puzzle fizzes with deep, lustrous energy.
Richard Powers strides across our literary scene with his own gait, tackling modern-day material with a lyrical yet cerebral immersive style that could be no one else’s. With “The Overstory,” he has at last achieved his due recognition, the Pulitzer Prize being well-deserved for this elegy for the trees of Earth. Told through nine disparate tales of individuals who owe something to trees, or who become affected by trees, or who unite to save trees, The Overstory dives deep again and again. Grand migration tales told over generations interweave with scientific discovery narratives and modern hard luck stories. The bulk of the nine end up as radical protestors willing to cross boundaries in order to save forests. And everywhere throughout the novel are trees, trees, and more trees, beautifully alive and sensate and connected. Trees must survive or we shall not, that’s how I read the message, a message that is never didactic, always rooted in the lives of his absorbing creations. The Overstory is a heady, ideas-rich, yet inventive and sparkling read. Brilliant.
Richard Flanagan writes with rare lyricism and power, and “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams,” a shift in direction back towards his early semi magical realism, flows with standout scenes and paragraphs. Grand themes of loss and disappearance and death are tackled. Three siblings assemble around a dying old woman, bickering over whether to keep her alive or not, and at the same time the daughter notices her limbs are slowly vanishing, all amidst a near-future world of raging fires. As all three developments accelerate, Flanagan riffs and ponders about the modern world of people within the ancient world of nature. I have to say I enjoyed the read chiefly for the power of the prose, but the characters, with the notable exception of the humbler of the two sons, establish themselves as ciphers for the ideas and language, and none of them engaged me. All in all, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is overburdened by its grand ideas and expressions, but remains an intriguing book within Flanagan’s impressive bibliography.
In 2020, as in 2019, I struggled to source a vibrant, eclectic roster of albums; struggled to find listening time; and struggled to interpret my emotions and thoughts. Nonetheless I experienced the joy of these ace albums (three rated 9/10. four at 8/10, and three at 7/10):
Ghosteen is another sublime treasure from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Unflinching in dealing with grief and love, the musical mood is keening sparseness.
Perfume Genius is Mike Hadreas, and on Set My Heart on Fire, his floating tremulous falsetto, which can thicken into semi-menace, is set off beautifully by sumptuous production.
The stories of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on Reunions are reason enough to listen with pleasure. The melodies, the musical power, and Isbell’s emotional voice, make this a special work.
My favorite for the year, rarely off my turntable, is Angel Olsen’s rough yet triumphant set of basement tapes to last year’s most upbeat marvel, All Mirrors. Trying to single out the highlights of Whole New Mess is a waste of time.
Doves are back and they sound the same and that sound is superb and their songs on The Universal Want drag you back to listen and listen. Stadium rock designed for a lockdown room.
Sharp lyrics, triumphant singing, and excellent musicianship lift Walking Like We Do by The Big Moon out of the U.K. indie ruck.
British bands star in any year’s Best Of, and Every Bad by Porridge Radio, is a raucous yet melodic delight, a gorgeous romp.
Another return to our ears after absence is the latest from Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst offers his usual introspective, hip lyrics on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, but it’s the inspired band writing and musicianship that sheet the ornate songs home.
On Giants of All Sizes, Elbow is brooding and rumbling, quite pissed off. Another splendid creation.
Only Magic, the wistful, unforgettable indie pop-folk magic of Teleman frontman, Tom Sanders.
The golden age of streaming-funded movies and series continues uninterrupted. My sampling of the deluge was significant but not complete (who can afford all the platforms?). These ten treasures stand out (one them rated, believe it or not, at 10/10, the rest rated 9/10):
I Am Greta was documentary perfection that called out to me (my current focus is clear – four on this list tackle the climate emergency), Both humanizing and humbly lauding Greta Thunberg by traveling with her over recent years, Nathan Grossman has created a compelling classic.
What grips the viewer throughout Season 5 of Shetland is the galvanic intensity of Douglas Henshall in the role of DI Jimmy Perez. The final season of a wonderful murder mystery series.
Stunning performances by Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, and Toni Collette also propel Unbelievable, a nitty-gritty police procedural about hunting a serial rapist, from ordinariness to greatness.
Aaron Sorkin employs brilliant, focused storytelling and a stellar cast in portraying the aftermath of a Chicago riot during the 1968 U.S. presidential election. The Trial of the Chicago 7 mesmerizes and is so pertinent.
Witness statement about the climate emergency, distilled from David Attenborough’s decades of nature reporting … action message … A Life on Our Planet is essential viewing today, not tomorrow.
Juice, made by Tyson Culver and narrated by author Robert Bryce, extols electricity in the here and now, but also for the future. I can argue with some of their prescriptions, but the sparkling narrative of electric power is an exemplar of storytelling.
Season 4 of Cardinal is the grimmest one yet, so it’s just as well that it is the finale. A fraught tale underpinned by unforgettable acting.
Alice Winocour’s Proxima is “realistic” sci-fi, a movie about astronauts, but more than that, Eva Green’s stunning star role shines a light on motherhood.
Utterly unexpected and beguiling was the violent yet lyrical Giri/Haji, a unique tale of the Yakuza in London.
Sasha Snow’s incendiary, stately doco on Roger Hallam, The Troublemaker, is divisive but compelling. An invitation, really, one not to be ignored, to join Extinction Rebellion. So well made!
Take a look also at these honorable mentions (one rated at 9/10, the rest at 8/10): the “nature docos” of Chasing Coral and My Octopus Teacher; Staged, a lockdown meta film; wacky comedy in Medical Police; three thrillers/mysteries: Bosch Season 6, Killing Eve Season 3, and The Gentlemen; two superb dramas: Sorry We Missed You and Years and Years; and Call My Agent Season 3.
Two lockdowns meant that my reading oscillated wildly between serious existential material and escapism. So much enjoyment and illumination! At the top of the apex were these (nine of them rated 9/10, one being the best out of the numerous 8/10s):
Mark Jaccard’s The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success is an expert’s guide to climate change policies that work, written in an inspiring, sparkling style. The more I read about the climate emergency, the more holes in my knowledge became plain, so this year has seen a major focus on such books. Plenty of my reads were well worthwhile but two stood out and this is one of them.
The Reversing Tide by Frank Kennedy is swashbuckling yet complex space opera at its best. Perfect for iso and beyond.
The Man Who Solved the Market by Greg Zuckerman: an intelligent, revelatory look at one of the giants of the “quant” movement in managing money.
Richard Smyth’s flowing prose could render a calendar interesting. An Indifference of Birds offers revelations about avian species amongst the human species. Not to be missed.
Two of the books on this list might seem to have a limited readership but that judgment would be wrong. Twyla Tharp’s Keep It Moving tilts at us older humans but there is so much in it about garnering bodily energy … and it’s characteristically a feisty read that delights.
In the same vein, Baseless by Nicholson Baker is not just for research nerds but also addresses a darkness at the heart of the United States and chronicles a restless mind and heart. Baker is effortlessly stylish.
The unforgettable Isaiah Quintabe, or IQ, is the Sherlock of the L.A. ganglands, and Hi Five by Joe Ide is the customary revved-up ride and stylistic treasure. The mystery at its heart is stunning.
A sci-fi treasure, a dystopian tale of a young boy setting out on an epic journey with unlikely allies … in The Book of Koli (the first instalment in a trilogy). M. R. Carey brilliantly settles into a unique voice.
The other standout climate emergency book of 2020 is Mark Lynas’s Our Final Warning. Is the Earth likely to warm 1 degree or 6 degrees or somewhere in between? What is the evidence? For each degree of warming, what are the human and planetary consequences? Brilliant reporting narrated in an intelligent, passionate voice.
Jenny Offill’s minimalist, acerbic prose splits readers into two camps. I adore her writing and Weather, a story of an idealistic woman coping with her world and the era of Trump, is a triumph.
Honorable mentions go out to: Agency by William Gibson; Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart; Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens; Garry Disher’s Peace; Andrew Lowe’s Pray for Rain; The Strange Book of Jacob Bryce by Tom Gillespie; J M Dalgliesh’s Hear No Evil; The Power of Daily Practice by Eric Maisel; Helen McDonald’s Vesper Flights; and The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric.
I abhor royalty (doesn’t everyone?) but, inexplicably, have been gripped by “The Crown,” created by Peter Morgan, who must retain a strong grip on the series’ writers and directors, because its hallmark is a stunning combination of narrative smarts and filmic atmospherics. The first two seasons were especially engrossing, anchored as they were be Claire Foy’s powerful performances as Queen Elizabeth II, and by a backdrop of England’s geopolitical decline amidst a new Cold War. Those two seasons, embracing the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, exuded the drama of a new monarch amidst vast externalities. In Season 3, the narrative lens turns inwards, to an expanding Royal family (Josh O’Connor is hypnotic as young Prince Charles) that, frankly (in my opinion), reveals the family in a truer, dysfunctional light. After the initial visual and aural shock of Claire Foy being replaced by Olivia Coleman (who is excellent), and other replacements, we settle into a foggy world of pettiness and stupidity, a world that should repel me but the series’ storytelling magic remains strong. In conclusion, if you missed the first two seasons, they should be preferred, but Season 3 of The Crown maintains a steady record of engaging viewing.