Looking forward to some downtime over the holiday season? Why not spend it with a good book! Here are our pick of books to lose yourself in this year. The selection includes new works from Zadie Smith and Kate Grenville, a guide to user-friendly design, the horrible history of Hannibal’s romp through ancient Europe and more.
Delia Owens (Corsair, 2018)
“When man is threatened, many times we resort to behaviours we aren’t necessarily proud of,” Where the Crawdads Sing author Delia Owens said in a recent interview.
Owens wasn’t talking about herself, of course. With Where the Crawdads Sing selling over 4.5 million copies in the first year of its release, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company quickly snapping up the film rights, the debut novelist has plenty to be proud of. But for her protagonist, Kya, a young girl abandoned by her family in the marshlands of North Carolina, it’s a very different story.
From beginning to end, Kya is subjected to such a never-ending torrent of disasters that the reader shouldn’t be surprised by what happens when she’s pushed to breaking point. But thanks to Owens’s clever plotting, we are anyway.
The story opens in the 1950s, where Kya is the youngest child in a family dominated by an alcoholic father and characterised by the steady departure of those she loves: first her mother and then, one by one, all her siblings.
With no choice but to survive, Kya soon learns to fend for herself on the marsh, immersing herself into the environment and ultimately becoming an amateur scientist. By the time she’s a teenager, she has learned everything there is to know about the flora and fauna that surrounds her. But despite the richness of her self-fashioned life, she never learns to stop craving love. And that’s where the story really begins.
From predatory young men to unsafe boats to thunderous waves, Kya’s isolated existence in the marsh is far from happy. But it is vivid, and that’s where Owens’s magic lies. She conjures the story’s natural environment with such care and reverence that even the most mud-shy of readers will come to appreciate the strange beauty of Kya’s swamp.
Whether that beauty is enough to offset the increasingly tragic storyline, however, is a different question – and one I’ll leave you to answer for yourself.
By Greer Gamble
Zadie Smith (Penguin General UK, 2020)
This is a quick read, but a deep one, bound to dredge up some feelings about 2020 you might have consciously or subconsciously buried, perhaps in a conscious or subconscious effort to avoid 2020 itself.
The essays in this pocket-sized book speak of items and ideas that carry so much more weight now than the words themselves: face masks, banana bread, essential workers, lockdown, lies, healthcare inequality, the no-boundaries reality of working from home, unreachable tulips in a gated public garden, the expected burden of having to pass time, the emptiness of New York’s Broadway in Spring, a policeman’s foot on a black man’s neck.
You could read Intimations from cover to cover in an hour, but it takes significantly longer to escape the undertow of Smith’s anxiety, her prose perfectly encapsulating the global sense of unanchored unease – the fierce currents and inescapable doldrums of this unprecedented year. And yet, there is some catharsis in reading something that so keenly reveals just how much has happened, even as the world has seemed to tread water, adrift in a motionless sea of time.
Perhaps it’s the astonishingly rapid publishing turnaround – after all, we are still living in the paused, pandemic-ridden world Smith writes about – but at times reading Intimations feels like reading about something that happened ages ago, even though its circumstances remain our present. Those feelings, like Smith’s Intimations, are about as 2020 as it gets.
By Olivia McDowell
André Leon Talley (4th Estate, 2020)
In a year that has been sadly lacking in red carpet events, André Leon Talley’s candid account of life in the fashion ‘trenches’ offers some much-needed glamour.
Starting his career as an assistant to Andy Warhol at Interview magazine in the 1970s, Talley quickly became a fixture in New York’s fashion scene. He became close friends with designers (and bitter rivals) Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, and danced with Diana Ross at Studio 54 nightclub. He visited gay clubs with legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and tiptoed past a sleeping Mick Jagger to choose clothes from Bianca Jagger’s wardrobe.
Later, as style editor of Vanity Fair, Talley presided over one of the most iconic fashion shoots of all time – recasting Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara in a shoot inspired by Gone with the Wind (a movie that was temporarily removed from HBO Max earlier this year because of its ‘racist depictions’).
But it is arguably Talley’s intimate friendship with Anna Wintour, the long-time editor-in-chief of US Vogue, that is most fascinating. For 30 years, Talley was by the notoriously difficult editor’s side as she rose to the top of Vogue’s masthead. He accompanied her to everything from the Paris fashion shows to her own dress fittings and her mother’s funeral. Now, having been unceremoniously dropped by Vogue and no longer speaking with Wintour, it’s clear that Talley is deeply conflicted by his feelings for her.
Sadly, there is another underlying thread to this tale: how Talley had to overcome ingrained racism, malicious rumour-mongering and the sad legacy of his own childhood to not only survive in the fashion industry but thrive. The hope is that by becoming one of the industry’s most recognisable figures, it will be easier for others to follow in his footsteps.
By Ylla Watkins
Kevin Kwan (Hutchinson, 2020)
If you’d normally be looking forward to jetting off to a tropical island about now, then Kevin Kwan’s Sex and Vanity may be the tonic required to distract you from this year’s staycation.
It would be easy to dismiss this sumptuously over-the-top novel as chick lit – there’s a jewel-like island location surrounded by azure blue seas! Glamorous villas reached by speedboat! Decadent meals prepared by private chefs! Wildly attractive, wealthy men in white Speedos! But, as in Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, there’s more going on in this book.
A homage to E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, Kwan uses satire to address issues surrounding class, privilege and wealth. His characters also face problems that are far more serious than those suggested by the book’s title. Chinese American character Lucie Churchill, for instance, has unconsciously internalised the subtle racism of her blue-blood New Yorker father’s side of the family. This leads to a spiral of confusion and self-doubt she struggles to escape from.
While I’m not convinced this story will have the staying power of A Room with a View, this is a highly enjoyable read for a lazy summer afternoon.
By Ylla Watkins
Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant (WH Allen, 2019)
If you’re a fan of 99% Invisible and Stuff You Should Know, this book will scratch that ‘deeper than trivia’ itch to know more about how the world works. If you’re a user interface or user experience professional, it might also make you better at your job, which is a handy windfall gain. Either way, it provides a highly polished lens through which to view the designed world we encounter every day. Why does your smartphone give physical and audio feedback when you ‘press’ a ‘button’? Why do we ‘toggle switches’ and what’s with that elastic ‘bounce’ when we ‘swipe to refresh’? Why is it so deeply irritating when a website menu isn’t where you expect it to be, and why do you expect it to be there – and nowhere else but there – in the first place? (The short answer is that we’re all human; the long answer is ‘read the book’.)
If there’s one key message in User Friendly, it’s that design is power and the people designing our world have great power (and therefore great responsibility – you know the drill). They also examine how user-friendly design can be so effective that it becomes second nature and helps redefine the standards of good design (tech giants Apple and Amazon feature heavily here).
Destroying the idea that user-friendliness is a ‘nice to have’, Kuang and Fabricant investigate the worst that can happen when designers fail to prioritise it (key examples: a nuclear near-meltdown and death by autonomous vehicle). From the author’s perspective, the dopamine-hit feedback loop of the Facebook ‘like’ function really did change the way the world works. When machines are designed with user-friendliness in mind, there are far fewer injuries and deaths caused by operator error. When we click a button or speak to our digital assistant and nothing seems to happen, we go a little crazy – even if something did happen in the background. It’s all powerful, subliminal stuff.
As an afterword, Kuang and Fabricant present a detailed checklist (or a brief masterclass, depending how you view it) of how to design in a user-friendly way. This might feel a bit irrelevant if you’re not a designer, but their advice could be applied to countless different fields of work. After all, ‘Step 1. Start with the user’ is essentially the same as a writer or editor’s first step (who is the audience?) or a doctor’s (who is my patient?) or a teacher’s (who are my students?).
The book finishes with a summary timeline of user-friendly design and theory – a kind (i.e. user-friendly) feature considering the book itself flows according to logic rather than chronology. I can imagine a revised edition five years from now – and another every five years thereafter, as the technology of our designed world evolves – but the book as it stands is a great snapshot of where we are now, and the quite timeless explanation of how we got here.
By Olivia McDowell
Kate Grenville (The Text Publishing Company, 2020)
If you loved Kate Grenville’s colonial trilogy that started with the best-selling The Secret River, you’re pretty much guaranteed to want to hide away with her new novel. Blending fact and fiction, A Room Made of Leaves is set in the same early days of Sydney, but this time readers walk in the imaginary shoes of Elizabeth Macarthur. She was married to John Macarthur, the Australian wool pioneer who is famous as the founder of the Australian wool industry (for those who can remember it, the green $2 bill featured his portrait and a merino sheep). But he was also renowned for being ambitious, cruel, volatile and vindictive. So much so that he was a leader of the so-called Rum Rebellion that overthrew Governor William Bligh, who tried to clean up the rum trade that had been so profitable for Macarthur.
But this novel isn’t so much about John as Elizabeth. “It’s a book that breaks all the rules. It’s a pretend memoir about a real person,” says Grenville. During her research, she read Elizabeth’s letters to friends and family in England. Grenville quotes from these bland affairs, self-censored to guard against accidental discovery by John. “Oh, how I loved to find a two-faced form of words. That private pleasure never staled,” Elizabeth says in her pretend memoir. She thought one way and acted another. She was clever (but couldn’t show it), resourceful (she built the successful wool business, but allowed her husband to claim the credit), passionate (but behaved with restraint) and romantic (but very unhappily married). “Her [Elizabeth’s] memoir is a way of honouring all those women of the past who were silenced by the world they lived in,” Grenville says.
Some of the territory, such as the harsh conditions for early arrivals, isn’t new. But Grenville’s beautiful, descriptive writing makes it feel fresh. Elizabeth’s vivid internal dialogue and recounting of life in the early colony are entertaining and fascinating.
John Macarthur built a farm in Parramatta and named it Elizabeth Farm in her honour. It’s still there today and is managed by Sydney Living Museums. Friends and I enjoyed A Room Made of Leaves so much that we decided to visit the farm to see if it offered any more clues about Elizabeth. While booking our visit, a guide offered to take us on a tour of the farm. She said she was happy to talk about the book, warning that she had strong views. Turned out she thought Grenville had done John Macarthur a huge injustice, twisting a happy marriage to a loving husband into something else altogether. None of us will ever know the truth, but I loved the journey into the past.
By Kim Irving
Robert L. O’Connell (Random House, 2011)
If you think 2020 has been tumultuous, thank your lucky stars you weren’t a Roman solider in 200 B.C. In The Ghosts of Cannae, the American military historian Robert L. O’Connell provides an easy-to-read and detailed account of how the Carthaginian general Hannibal went on his extraordinary – and extraordinarily destructive – decades-long trip around the ancient Mediterranean. The jaunt included traversing the Italian alps with a large army in tow and slaughtering almost 50,000 Romans on a single day in his most famous victory at Cannae.
While a somewhat bloody read, it does provide a fascinating insight into the people and politics of the period, and a good understanding of a figure many have heard of but may not know much about. There’s also plenty of points that can be used in business, such as the importance of your position on the battlefield (market); how size doesn’t always win and can even become a liability; the value of visibility (data); and the importance of ensuring your team always has a good breakfast before a vigorous day of fighting (meetings and emails).
By Grant Butler
Colin O’Brien (Pursuit Books, 2017)
If you’d rather struggle through Italian alps on a bike rather than as a Carthaginian foot soldier (see previous review), then this history of the world’s second most famous cycling race could be just for you.
A tight, beautifully written book, Giro d’Italia tracks the race since it started as a newspaper promotion in 1909 through to its 100th running in 2017. While probably most of interest to middle aged men in Lycra, there’s a lot for any reader to enjoy.
First is a better understanding of the event, which plays second fiddle to the Tour de France each year. Second is to marvel at the stamina that people must have had in the early 1900s. Competitors in the 1924 event, for instance, clocked up 3,613 kilometres in less than three weeks on primitive bikes. They also included a woman, Alfonsina Strada, and a first day’s course that went for more than 300 kilometres. In fact, the stages were so long competitors often started hours before dawn. Third is to let the wonderful names of Italy’s most famous cyclists like Fausto Coppi, Alfredo Binda and Marco Pantani, and brands like Bianchi and Colnago, roll around your mind. Fourth are the mysteries, frauds and compromises that have accompanied the race over time, including a murder many believe was ordered by Mussolini as sport and politics collided. For a lighter read that literally covers much of the same ground through the eyes of a modern-day English eccentric who decides to relive the 1914 Giro, you might also look up Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy by Tim Moore. I preferred O’Brien’s history, but Gironimo is funny.
By Grant Butler
Edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Ethos Books, 2020)
Singapore might seem an unlikely subject for an anthology of essays on environmental conservation. After all, this is one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, with only 0.28 per cent of primary forest cover still intact. But as the essays in this book argue, that’s precisely the point. Singapore’s rapid drive towards urbanisation is what makes it so rich in stories about the hidden costs of modern development.
The writers – students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale-NUS College – have delved deep into local culture to find those tales. In the title story, for instance, contributor Neo Xiaoyun digs into the classic dish of crab stir-fried in a tomato gravy while musing on the role food plays in building national heritage and the ecological impact of overfishing. An essay on the island’s beloved otter community turns into an examination of environmental refugees.
The anthropocene is a term some thinkers use to describe our current geological age, one marked by climate change and other catastrophes such as deforestation and plastic pollution.
I was struck by the clear-sighted way in which these young critics and environmental thinkers challenge one of Singapore’s most cherished narratives: that the city-state’s success as a business hub is the result of a visionary, against-all-odds journey from “primitiveness” to affluence and power. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, habitually described the island as having been a “mud-flat swamp” before the colonisers came.
As contributor Fu Xiyao points out, much of that narrative is based on disparaging the past. In fact, indigenous nomadic communities, the Orang Laut, lived around Singapore’s waters for centuries. Then in the 1990s, their main settlement, Pulau Semakau, was redeveloped as a petrochemical complex and the last Orang Laut communities were relocated from their homes. Fu’s view is that climate activists must understand how Singapore has benefited from indigenous displacement and erasure if they are to build compelling movements for change.
The book also delves into alternative models, with its final essay mapping out a systematic degrowth plan for a post-carbon Singapore. It’s thought-provoking stuff, raising important questions about the way that global forces and challenges apply to the Little Red Dot’s developmental story.
By Melissa de Villiers
Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin, 2019)
Although I bought Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist when it came out in late 2019, it took me another year to actually pick it up. As well as the book’s obviously confronting subject matter, I worried that Kendi’s prose would be academic and inaccessible. After all, as head of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, Kendi is a distinguished professor.
But on reading the first page I was hooked. In this exploration of racism in everyday life, Kendi tempers philosophy and political science with engaging snippets of personal memoir. In each chapter, vignettes from Kendi’s childhood, education and family history merge seamlessly into broad and bold arguments about subjects from the war on crime to standardised testing in schools.
One central point unites Kendi’s expansive musings: we inhabit a fundamentally racist world. And because racism is so deeply embedded in our everyday lives, being not racist isn’t enough. To create a better world, he argues, we all need to become actively antiracist, swapping passive disapproval for action against racism wherever we find it – even if that happens to be in our own hearts and heads.
While Kendi is making a political point, his reliance on personal illustrations and interesting anecdotes means I never felt like I was being preached to. Instead, I found myself nodding more and more vigorously with every word.
By Greer Gamble
Want to buy these books? You can find them here.