So it crept here, December. In the absence of the usual weeks-long social drinking that usually marks the beginning of the advent, this year the first of December was rather marked with an exasperated, exhausted cry. Shall this, too, finally pass?
I fondly remember the April lockdown comments about “how lucky we are that this is not happening during the darkest time of the year.” Well, the scriptwriter of 2020 does absolutely have a mean sense of humour, so here we are.
Then again, I still have my health and a roof over my head, so I guess that already counts as winning this year. Basically the only thing the new year needs to deliver in order to meet everybody’s expectations is to keep the world from ending completely – a very healthy alternative to all of the “dream big” and “reach for the stars” -nonsense.
The fact that we can luxuriate in daylight for exactly 20 minutes each day gives a wonderful excuse to peruse the cultural offerings currently available ie. watch TV or read a book, unless you are too exhausted for either, which everybody is. (Pandemic or not, the world must be ready by the 24th December, and no, we will never learn.)
I had paid attention to the extensive media brouhaha around The Queen’s Gambit (on Netflix) but was convinced it’s nothing for me as I have no understanding and/or interest in chess. Then, no explanation needed, I started watching it and binged it almost in one go. It is dramatic but upbeat, beautiful yet somehow realistic, and overall perfect pandemic entertainment. No prior knowledge of chess is required to appreciate the miniseries, but I fully see why the sales of chess-kits have shot up exponentially following The Queen’s Gambit’s success. (Also because chess is a perfect lockdown activity.)
Shuggie Bain still hasn’t quite left me, and I’ve found many novels since a bit meh. So it’s been mainly non-fiction, which is not terribly exciting given the season, but we make do. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror is a great collection of essays about all sorts of societal issues, seen from the point of view of an extremely intelligent millennial. The essays form a kind of a coming of age narrative with ubiquitous elements of reality TV and the social media. I liked Tolentino’s critical thinking and self-reflection.
Another interesting, new book is We Keep the Dead Close by American journalist and writer Becky Cooper. While at Harvard, she discovers a decades-old, never solved murder mystery at the university, and herself embarks on an obsessive decade long quest to solve who killed Jane Britton. The book is basically high-octane investigative reporting and true crime mixed together, complete with photographs and other material used as evidence in the actual investigation in the 60s.
I truly loved the book, as it includes Cooper’s own biographical reflections as well. We Keep the Dead Close is also a study about violence, the stories we tell and pass on, and the role a deeply-rooted misogyny plays in the narrations. Ever the sucker for campus novels, this was a true gem. Much recommended.
Then, obviously, there’s A Promised Land by Obama. Everybody is going to read it anyway, so there’s not much point in singing its praise. Handily, many newspapers and magazines were allowed to publish passages ahead of publication, so a sly reader like myself had already almost read the most important bits before the memoir became available.
It is of course very good and beautifully written, and an absolute must-read for any politics-junkie. It manages to be a good combination of personal and presidential, and its decency was heart-warming throughout. The Obamas are nothing short of rockstars these days. While many political analysts and fellow politicians do not give full endorsement to Obama’s presidency from the policy point of view, few can contest that the family scores full points in how they handled being the First Family. So, do spend your Christmas with this one, which I’m sure you were planning on doing anyway.
This year has not been too bad for new books as the pandemic barely affected most publishing schedules, so luckily there has been a lot to choose from. I’ve realised the calming effect reading has on me, even though at times my attention span has been absolutely pathetic. I suspect this to have been the case with many of us, given the constant stream of worrying and mainly negative news and overall turmoil.
In normal circumstances this would be the time I start re-reading my holiday favourites, from Shelley’s Frankestein to Tartt’s Secret History, which I have the habit of revisiting every Christmas. This year has been different, so my holiday reading list will look a bit different, too (with the exception of Secret History – a decades long tradition I dare not break).
I shall return with holiday reads and other necessary distractions in the coming days.