What is there to say about 2020? No matter your position on masks or vaccines, I think we can all agree that 2020 is #theworstyearever. From being cooped up with antsy kids for months on end (or conversely, if you live alone, in complete isolation for months on end) to curtailed travel plans to lost jobs to unprecedented civil rights protests and much more, it’s been pretty terrible for everyone.
Between getting my kids used to online school and not being able to see their friends to constantly checking the ever-evolving health news to supervising the creation of a much-needed dedicated home office to – absolutely worst of all – my mother dying somewhat unexpectedly from cancer-related complications (very luckily I was able to be with her at her peaceful end, plan and attend her funeral, and help to Zoom it to others), suffice it to say I’ve had little to no concentration over the last six months. I luckily finished the rough draft of my manuscript right before Covid-19 hit but have not been able to do a stitch of work since early March.
Practically the only thing I’ve been able to concentrate on is reading novels, dozens of them. Here are the ones that really stuck with me.
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross – this book absolutely blew my mind. For some reason, I went into it thinking it was about Joan of Arc, but was I wrong. Set in the 9th century, a time period I’ve never read about or really know much beyond it being the Dark Ages, it was fascinating to see Rome in a transitional state after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance. Meticulously researched, based in history, and well written, Pope Joan will not leave you once you finish with her. Be sure to read the Author’s Notes at the end.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan – I’m not the biggest CanLit fan as I often find it plotless at the expense of character development (heresy, I realize). Not so with Washington Black, a young slave who is able to get away from his Barbadian sugar plantation in an unorthodox and unexpected way, makes his way to the Canadian Arctic, and eventually to becoming a young man in Europe and North Africa, all in the mid-19th century. While definitely difficult and serious, this coming-of-age story has plot galore as we see Wash grow up and discover himself, which makes for a very satisfying read.
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George – I just adored this book, though it’s a bit of a cheat. Not historical fiction, more like travel fiction, something I sorely needed during this circumscribed summer when I was dreaming of past trips to Paris and Arles. A middle-aged Parisian who owns a barge bookshop and prescribes specific books for various afflictions of the heart and soul (he calls himself a literary apothecary) finally realizes that he must face his past to move forward with his future. And so he unties his barge and sets sail on the Seine toward the south of France, healing his own soul as well as others’ along the way. A gorgeous book; kudos especially to the translator, Simon Pare for keeping the language so beautifully poetic.
Moloka’i by Alan Brennert – a timely book to read during Covid-19, Moloka’i takes place in the late 19th and early 20th century on the Hawaiian island that housed lepers forced to quarantine there for the duration of their lives or until they were (rarely) cured. So little was known about leprosy at the time that those afflicted with the disease endured forced removal from their families (often as children), stigma, and relentless persecution, though also fashioned new families and communities with others in the same situation. The story follows in particular Rachel Kalama, a little girl forced to move to Moloka’i and live in an orphanage run by nuns as she grows up, finds friendship and love, and endures heartbreaking loss. A beautiful book.
March by Geraldine Brooks – did you ever wonder about the father in Little Women and what happened to him while serving during the Civil War as a chaplain? This book imagines that iconic story through the eyes of Mr. March, what he endures during and after battle, his impressions of Marmee and his little women, his existential struggles with slavery and systemic racism, and how he reconciles them as an abolitionist and man of God.
The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton – nothing like a good weather book! This novel is about the 1935 Hurricane that devastated the Florida Keys. Taking into account both Florida and Cuban history as well as the events of the Depression, including the forgotten WWI veterans working in the railroad camps, Cleeton deftly weaves together the story of three young women trying to make their way in the world. Great suspense and a fascinating era of history of which I knew nothing.
I hope you enjoy these selections, especially as the weather turns chilly. It’s the perfect time to make a cup of tea, curl up with your kitty, and crack open a good book. If we can’t physically go anywhere, at least we can help our minds traverse to new places.
As for me this autumn, I’ll be cracking open my laptop, ready to start revising my manuscript.
I probably won’t be posting much about Raphael anymore, as my attention shifts to Venice’s 1600th birthday in 2021, but I wanted to leave you with this wonderful video, which gives a sense of the big Scuderie show in Rome which famously closed days after opening due to Covid and then reopened a few months later with strict health measures in place. Apparently, the show was a smashing success.