The pandemic freed up time, so I read 40 titles in 2020, 14 more than last year. I won’t make too much promises about what I’ll read in the coming months, but I will continue my reread of the Dune series – God Emperor should be the next review I post. I’ll also continue to explore Greg Egan’s work, and the work of Antwerp author J.M.H. Berckmans.
As for art books, I’m still reading on Picasso & Rembrandt – we’ll see if that gets translated into posts. I’ll try to squeeze in some of the Becher, Turrell and Twombly I promised last year, but I also want to read books on Jean Fouquet and Hockney. I’ll continue to read other non-fiction too, I’m currently tackling Contingency and Convergence – Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russel Powell, a joy so far. Should be of interest to any hard SF authors imagining alien life.
A bit of blog stats for those of you who might be interested in such a thing. I’ve had a significant increase of traffic, with 22.971 views in 2020, and 13.032 visitors – about 8.000 and 4.300 more than in 2019.
The most successful post of 2020 was about Dune Messiah, garnering 675 views. Children of Dune comes in second with 501 views. The Ministry for the Future – posted only 2 months ago – closes the top 3 with 363 views.
Most read reviews so far are those for Recursion (2.124 views since published), The Dosadi Experiment (1.212 views) and New York 2140 (1.097 views). Also still going strong (+800 views) are posts on The Wandering Earth, Green Earth, The Algebraist and Uprooted. There are 23 posts with over 500 views in total now, 6 of which are about Frank Herbert books.
A big thank you to everyone who has read, liked, commented or linked. All the best to you and yours for 2021.
As for the actual favorite book list: below are the titles I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2020, 6 in total. If I had to pick one, I’d go for Radiance by Carter Scholz.
Honorable mentions for The Day of the Triffids, Solaris, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again and How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, all more than excellent reads, well worth your time.
Click on the covers for the review.
The Ministry of The Future – Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)
Both Barack Obama and The Economist picked this as one of the best books of 2020. It will not change the fate of the planet, but there is no harm in trying. Robinson feels a strong ethical appeal about what he writes, and the result is a heartfelt & daring book, not some escapist drivel. Somehow KSR managed to finally make info drops entertaining, in what will be his final long form story for the foreseeable future. I’m very curious about what he’ll write next, but I’m also a bit sad this might very well be his last novel – even though his 2 previous ones were let downs.
Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020)
Just as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell disenchantment is one of this story’s pillars. That and other parallels notwithstanding, Piranesi is very much its own thing. A puzzle at first glance, a moving character portrait when examined further.
Elegant and simple, polished and carefully constructed, this short book touches upon a lot, and keeps on surprising throughout. Don’t expect fireworks though, nor grand spectacle – the rococo setting aside, it is a subdued, mature work that takes one long, hard look at innocence.
Radiance – Carter Scholz (2002)
A book that consumed quite a lot of my energy, in very rewarding kind of way. Its mimetic qualities are unparalleled, and as such Radiance is a pinnacle of one kind of art: realism. Trying to capture reality is obviously not just writing down what one hears or sees – any representation is built on tricks and illusions. Scholz has managed to write prose & dialogue that feels as real as it can on paper.
Add to that a similarly realistic account of how big organizations work, how science & politics & the military are interwoven in the real, adult world – none of the baloney one encounters so often when lesser writers try their hand at realism, and usually only end up with a simplified Hollywood mirage of the military or a science lab – as if real people never outgrow the Boy Scouts or G.I. Joe.
The best book I read this year.
Schild’s Ladder – Greg Egan (2002)
I wish I’d discovered the reclusive Greg Egan sooner. What a mind, what an imagination. This book serves hardcore transhumanism, truly alien aliens and a protagonist only a few millimeters high. Hard space opera, so you wish. Not for the fainthearted, Schild’s Ladder is no walk in the park, but at least as invigorating.
The fact that there aren’t any photographs of Egan online says something about his rigorous persona. Based on this book, he can take on any contemporary science fiction writer in style and substance. No bubblegum, no bullshit, great fun.
Becoming Human: A Theory of Human Ontogeny – Michael Tomasello (2019)
In my original review I wrote: “Truly a tour de force, and the first theory I’ve come across that convincingly brings cognition, evolution and ethics together – not in a normative way, but by describing the pathways of how these things arise, starting with newborn babies.” This is a very thorough book, and important to linguists and educationalists and primatologists and psychologists too.
Tomasello shows shared and collective intentionality play a key role in the development of a uniquely human form of self-control in order to adhere to cultural norms.
Hans Werner Holzwarth – Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Art of Storytelling (2020)
For only 20 euros this might very well be the art book with the most bang for your buck. 500+ pages filled to the brim with Basquiat’s genius. There’s an important political angle in lots of his works, and as such this is a timely publication in the year of BLM.
There’s also an XXL version available for 150 euros. The often intricate detail of Basquiat’s paintings will shine all the more in that edition, but they are powerful enough to convey awe and wonder in this regular sized book too. Great production value all around: informative text, excellent printing, sturdy binding. An absolute no-brainer for any serious lover of contemporary painting.
Most disappointing read this year was Greg Bear’s Eon: weak characterization, unrealistic behavior, a bloated concept, lackluster prose, bullshit science with a serious veneer and NO jokes. I really need my big canvas sci fi itch scratched from time to time, but it seems I’ll have to turn to that other Greg instead.
2020 was also the year I’ve written my 2 longest posts yet: 7.200 words on Lord of the Rings, amongst other things on the conflict between Tolkien’s ideas about free will and what is written in the story itself, and 10.600 words of analysis of Children of Dune. I’ve made an index of my longer texts, with a short description for each.
To end the book section, a shot of most of my current TBR – art books are not pictured. There are 132 titles in the photo, that’s 7 more than last year – mainly due to a Herbert & Egan buying spree. The increase is not that bad considering the effect of two lockdowns on my psychology & late night online shopping. Next year I hope to present you a picture with less than 130 titles. If you click on this, you’ll get a high resolution image.
albums of the year
I hardly bought new music in 2020. Not that I didn’t check things out, but it seems that most new stuff can’t hold my interest. Maybe I’ve reached a saturation point for reiterations of reiterations. Maybe I don’t give things an honest chance anymore? Anyhow, this year Erstwhile put out three albums, all prime stuff. Not groundbreaking either, but fresh and engaging – I have to go back 2 or 3 years to find experimental albums I enjoyed so much.
Dean Roberts – Not Fire (ErstPop)
In the way this record sounds I hear echoes of Smog, Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but that might just be me. I also don’t feel this album is “harrowing” or “ugly” or “bleak”, like Joshua Minsoo Kim of Tone Glow lovingly wrote for Pitchfork. I also don’t hear “self-destructive nihilism” – rather warmth & confidence.
This just goes to show how rich this quiet, well-considered record is, not easily pigeonholed. There’s some experimentation and wee bits of dissonance, sure, but nothing any fan of Mark Hollis’ solo record can’t handle. Click here to hear two songs, and check for yourself.
Choi Joonyong & Jin Sangtae – Hole In My Head (Erstwhile Records)
This will be a whole lot more difficult for the average reader of this blog. On the other hand, if you just leave all you preconceptions about what music should be aside – and that shouldn’t be too hard for the lover of imaginative science fiction – you will find a fresh, sparkling, playful ride through sound, filled with detail, yet breathing and open. If you’re interested how musique concrète might sound in the 21st century, look no further. You can again sample two tracks here. The better your speakers, the better your result.
Toshiya Tsunoda & Taku Unami – Wovenland 2 (Erstwhile Records)
More of the philosophical bent, this double album’s concept has to do with the nature of perception. “What we see and hear in this world is not transmitted to the brain as an optical or acoustic image. Signals that enter the sensory organs are deconstructed into peripheral units in the nervous system, which are then combined in the nervous system into a series of events. There is no ‘reality’ in there.” I was pleased to read that in the liner notes, as I enjoyed Alex Rosenberg’s book on representation in the brain so much: the already mentioned How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, a book that confirms Tsunoda & Unami’s conceptual starting point.
“Reality is like an ephemeral window through which we face the world”, and Wovenland 2 manages to summon something of that with this remarkable album. Tsunoda & Unami take field recordings as a starting point, and processes those with all of the above in mind. That results into something that might seem simple or dry or monotonous, but it is evoking and extremely powerful. It is not unlike what I wrote about Radiance above: obviously artificial and yet uncannily realistic.
I also have to mention GF SUC by Keith Rowe, a 9-minute meditation on what happened to George Floyd by means of Shostakovitch and audio collage. It was part of AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine, a massive online festival of experimental music that released more than 230 pieces of music during the pandemic. It can be explored for free here or here.
older music discovered this year: highlights
This year I discovered a few artists of who I was very much aware or even possessed albums, but only in 2020 their true genius sank in. I’ll name Albert Ayler (especially Live in Greenwich Village – The Complete Impulse Recordings, but also all the reissues on Hat Hut, some of them very recently), The Wu-Tang Clan and affiliates (let me mention Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s debut, and Wu-Tang Forever), Leonard Cohen (somehow his debut Songs of Leonard Cohen had escaped me, but while dining at Chambre Séparée in Ghent, Kobe Desramaults was so kind to put that record on, while the sun was setting and the kitchen fires smoking – maybe the best, most happy 41 minutes of the year), Polish metal band Graveland (Thunderbolts of the Gods, Thousand Swords, Following the Voice of Blood) and Van Morrison’s stellar Astral Weeks.
Newly discovered this year is Masahiko Togashi, who recorded the best solo drum record I own, 1976’s Rings. It popped up in the AMPLIFY Facebook group.
I’ve also delved a bit deeper in the Ocora back catalogue – a French label specializing in ethnic music. These are the brightest gems I found: An Anthology of South Indian Classical Music by L. Subramaniam, a diverse 4-cd set, essential I’d dare say; The Art of the Qin by Li Xiangting – a kind of Chinese Pablo Cassals playing music that’s way older than Bach; and Kinshi Tsuruta‘s Satsuma – Biwa, a star of the Japanse lute, accompanying herself with a dramatic, harrowing voice. In the same vein is a release by Kineya Ensemble, Nagauta Kabuki: sparse but dramatic Japanese theater music dating back to the 17th century.
On a similar label, World Music Library, I found two treasures thanks to Brian Olewnick’s pointer to the first. One with hypnotic Javanese music: Court Music of Kraton Surakarta, and the other the sparsely titled Chinese Music of The Han People.
To end, I need to mention Brussels’ Zwangere Guy‘s 2019 album Wie is Guy? Much hyped in Belgium last year, but I was late to the party. It has been on constant rotation the last 2 months. There’s something to the sparse groove and restrained aggression that works really well. His 2020 upgrade of his other 2019 album – BrutXXL – is very much worth it too. Check out an 18 minute YouTube video of him live in the studio if hiphop is your thing – but as it is such a text based genre, I have no idea how this sounds to anybody who doesn’t speak Dutch.
Most watched on YouTube last year was Danny Carey of Tool drumming in a video made by Vic Firth – wait for about 7 minutes for his skill to fully sink in.
I haven’t seen that much this year, but both Bojack Horseman and of Rick and Morty continued to be excellent, among the best shows of the century, both rich and layered. Season 5 of Better Call Saul also continued doing what it does well – slow tragedy – although I’d love more black & white segments on Jimmy in hiding. Season 2 of Ricky Gervais’ After Life deserves a mention as well. Most important discovery this year were the first 2 seasons of HBO’s much lauded satirical dark comedy drama Succession, from 2018 and 2019.
I was absolutely blown away by CONVERSATIONS (at the end of the world) by Kris Verdonck, A Two Dogs Company & Het Zuidelijk Toneel. I saw it on the 14th of January in De Warande in Turnhout, only a few weeks before the pandemic hit. It’s based on texts by Daniil Kharms, an early 20th century Russian avant-garde absurdist.
A few shots from the play seem to be fitting at the end of this post about 2020.