A Look Back at 2020’s Reading Projects, Including Rereads

Major bookish initiatives:

  • Coordinated a Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour to celebrate 2019’s health-themed books – in case you missed it, the winner was Sinéad Gleeson for Constellations.
  • Co-hosted Novellas in November with Cathy (746 Books).
  • Hosted Library Checkout each month.

Reading challenges joined:

  • 12 blog tours
  • Six Degrees of Separation: I started participating in February and did nine posts this year
  • Paul Auster Reading Week
  • Reading Ireland month
  • Japanese Literature Challenge
  • 1920 Club
  • 20 Books of Summer
  • Women in Translation Month
  • Robertson Davies Weekend
  • Women’s Prize winners (#ReadingWomen)
  • 1956 Club
  • R.I.P.
  • Nonfiction November
  • Margaret Atwood Reading Month

This works out to one blog tour, one reading project, and one regular meme per month – manageable. I’ll probably cut back on blog tours next year, though; unless for a new release I’m really very excited about, they’re often not worth it.

Buddy reads:

  • Crossing to Safety with Laila (Big Reading Life)
  • 6 Carol Shields novels plus The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, Deerbrook, and How to Be Both with Marcie (Buried in Print)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Idea of Perfection with Laura T.
  • Mother’s Milk with Annabel
  • 666 Charing Cross Road with Liz

Self-set reading challenges:

  • Seasonal reading
  • Classic of the Month (14 in total; it’s only thanks to Novellas in November that I averaged more than one a month)
  • Doorstopper of the Month (just 3; I’d like to try to get closer to monthly in 2021)
  • Wainwright Prize longlist reading
  • Bellwether Prize winners (read 2, DNFed 1)
  • Short stories in September (8 collections)
  • Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist reading
  • Thematic roundups – I’m now calling these “Three on a Theme” and have done 2 so far
  • Journey through the Day with Books (3 new reviews this year):
    • Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
    • Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
    • [Up with the Larks by Tessa Hainsworth – DNF]
    • [Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer – DNF]
    • Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell – existing review
    • The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński – read part of
    • Eventide by Kent Haruf
    • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – existing review
    • Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg – existing review
    • When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
    • Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
    • Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
    • Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – existing review
    • Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
    • The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
    • Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch – read but not reviewed
    • Silence by Shūsaku Endō
    • Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez – read part of
  • The Four in a Row Challenge – I failed miserably with this one. I started an M set but got bogged down in Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (also a bibliotherapy self-prescription for Loneliness from The Novel Cure), which I had as a bedside book for much of the year, so only managed 1.5 out of 4; I also started an H quartet but set both Tinkers and Plainsong aside. Meanwhile, Debbie joined in and completed her own 4 in a Row. Well done! I like how simple this challenge is, so I’m going to use it next year as an excuse to read more from my shelves – but I’ll be more flexible and allow lots of substitutions in case I stall with one of the four books.

Rereading

At the end of 2019, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’d been meaning to reread. I kept adding options over the year, so although I managed a respectable 16 rereads in 2020, the shelf is still overflowing!

Many of my rereads have featured on the blog over the year, but here are two more I didn’t review at the time. Both were book club selections inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. (We held a rally and silent protest in a park in the town centre in June.)

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama: Remember when there was a U.S. president who thought deeply, searched his soul, and wrote eloquently? I first read this memoir in 2006, when Obama was an up-and-coming Democratic politician who’d given a rousing convention speech. I remembered no details, just the general sweep of Hawaii to Chicago to Kenya. On this reread I engaged most with the first third, in which he remembers a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, gives pen portraits of his white mother and absentee Kenyan father, and works out what it means to be black and Christian in America. By age 12, he’d stopped advertising his mother’s race, not wanting to ingratiate himself with white people. By contrast, “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.” The long middle section on community organizing in Chicago nearly did me in; I had to skim past it to get to his trip to Kenya to meet his paternal relatives – “Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land”. then/ now

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This Wellcome Book Prize winner about the use of a poor African-American woman’s cells in medical research was one of the first books to turn me onto health-themed reads. I devoured it in a few days in 2010. Once again, I was impressed at the balance between popular science and social history. Skloot conveys the basics of cell biology in a way accessible to laypeople, and uses recreated scenes and dialogue very effectively. I had forgotten the sobering details of the Lacks family experience, including incest, abuse, and STDs. Henrietta had a rural Virginia upbringing and had a child by her first cousin at age 14. At 31 she would be dead of cervical cancer, but the tissue taken from her at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital became an immortal cell line. HeLa is still commonly used in medical experimentation. Consent was a major talking point at our book club Zoom meeting. Cells, once outside a body, cannot be owned, but it looks like exploitation that Henrietta’s descendants are so limited by their race and poverty. I had forgotten how Skloot’s relationship and travels with Henrietta’s unstable daughter, Deborah, takes over the book (as in the film). While I felt a little uncomfortable with how various family members are portrayed as unhinged, I still thought this was a great read. then / now


I had some surprising rereading DNFs. These were once favorites of mine, but for some reason I wasn’t able to recapture the magic: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I attempted a second read of John Fowles’s postmodern Victorian pastiche, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, on a mini-break in Lyme Regis, happily reading the first third on location, but I couldn’t make myself finish once we were back home. And A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was very disappointing a second time; it hasn’t aged well. Lastly, I’ve been stalled in Watership Down for a long time, but do intend to finish my reread.

In general, voice- and style-heavy fiction did not work so well for me on rereading. Autobiographical essays by Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas worked best, but I also succeeded at rereading some straightforward novels and short stories. Next year, I’d like to aim for a similar number of rereads, with a mixture of memoirs and fiction, including at least one novel by David Lodge. I’d also be interested in rereading earlier books by Ned Beauman and Curtis Sittenfeld if I can find them cheap secondhand.

What reading projects did you participate in this year?

Done much rereading lately?

25 responses

  1. Wow, you are the hardest-working blogger-reader-reviewer I know! Well done on a great year. I always love to get your take!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha ha, thanks! Debbie (linked above) once did nearly 50 reading challenges in a year. There’s so much inspiration out there for those who need that accountability or want to tailor their reading in that way. My paid reviewing work was way down this year, so I guess I made up for it with self-set assignments.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great reading year Rebecca! I rarely reread but always think I should.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so hard to make the time when there’s all these shiny new books about … but I’ve found it (mostly) very rewarding.

      Like

  3. I’m in awe not only at the sheer number of books that you’ve read, but the diversity, and the re-reads, and the fact that you can keep so many different books in your head at once. Wait till you get old and decrepit like me ;). I’m enjoying That Book that arrived yesterday by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great to hear!

      I take notes on the books I’m going to review, and mark out notable passages with Post-it flags. It helps with switching back and forth.

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  4. I think it’s quite all right in the Four in a Row challenge to DNF. At least it’s removing a book from your shelf, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that would be fair, yes. All of my selections were novels I do intend to finish someday; I just got distracted by other reads.

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  5. What a great blogging year! I tend to avoid blog tours (not that I’m asked to do many!) because I don’t like the pressure to be positive about the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an issue, yes. If I can’t give at least a somewhat good review, I resort to hosting an extract, but even for, e.g. Hamnet I managed to pull out positives as well as negatives. It was worthwhile doing the blog tour for Rodham to get early access to the e-book, which otherwise seemed impossible.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hosting an extract is a good way out of it!

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    2. I think so — it gives people a flavour of the book so they can decide whether they want to read it, even if I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve also had to employ this option a couple of times when my review copy didn’t arrive before the tour!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. An impressive list of achievements as always. I haven’t even started to pull together my year end stuff yet, I’m really behind!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t finalized my best-of lists yet, but it’s a task for the next day or two so I can get them scheduled before Christmas. I break it into so many parts that I’ll have nearly a post a day for the rest of the year.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ive been in the mood for a reread, I often want to do one at the end of the year. I ended last year by rereading Mansfield Park, and am contemplating another Austen, but I’m not sure… some of your unsuccessful rereads are also favourites of mine, and I wouldn’t want to “ruin” them so I will probably stick to the classics.

    I’m on the lookout for 2021 events, I’ll just follow you closely! I admire your drive and love your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I did feel the rereading attempt ruined some favourites from my 20s, which was a shame. I’ve kept the Eugenides, Foer, Fowles and Robinson on the shelf for some unspecified future time. My book club did a couple of Austens this year, but I failed to get more than a few chapters into Persuasion so let the splinter group do Northanger Abbey without me 🙂

      I’ll probably do most of the above challenges again next year. I know you’re hoping to focus on backlist reads, which can be fit into most of them. Also, Liz is running an Anne Tyler readalong (2/month) and Cathy is doing one for Brian Moore (1/month) if those authors appeal.

      Like

  8. I often plan re-reads but rarely actually do it! The exception is when there is a movie coming out and I need a refresh on the story (because the book is always better than the movie!). Which is why I really need to get around to rereading Rebecca so that I can watch the new(ish) Netflix version.

    Well done on your reading achievements this year – seems you kept pace with your usual activity. I didn’t do well with reading challenges this year, and read almost 20% less than I normally do in a year.

    A big thank you for hosting the Not the Wellcome Prize – I very much enjoyed taking part.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciated you taking part in the Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour. It was wonderful to see this tiny idea I had turn into a real-live thing with lots of attention.

      Uh oh … I have heard that the new Rebecca adaptation is awful! But I’m sure a du Maurier reread will be worthwhile. We’ve discussed doing My Cousin Rachel, a new one for me, in book club.

      It will be interesting to do my final stats on the 31st and see how this year turned out, but yes, my impression is that it’s been about on par with previous years. I feel lucky that I didn’t have a reading slump like so many did in 2020 (which is entirely understandable!).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Quite a list of bookish accomplishments this year! Gosh, it feels like YEARS ago that we read Crossing to Safety, LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really does! I missed it out on my draft post but then remembered that when we were chatting about Stegner we were also comparing notes on the early days of COVID and wondering what it all meant…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Reading this post has left me faint and exhausted. I think I need to go and lie down ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Soon it’s on to 2021 challenges 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Your rereading shelf made me LOL. Of course mine would probably look just as hilarious if I were to group them that way. Which is why, even though I do love booklists, there are distinct times when I choose to NOT make a list or arrange things like that.

    Look at all those books we read together. I know for sure that I wouldn’t have finished Deerbrook if we’d not agreed to read it together (which is kinda funny, given how that turned out).

    I absolutely LOVE how your Journey through the Day challenge worked out. I definitely don’t have the right books for that on my shelf, but I think it’s amazing and inspiring. Despite my resolve to try the four-in-a-row, I got distracted by other reading projects. Maybe that will work better for me this year, but I have been jumbling up the bookshelves quite a bit…or maybe that would be a good thing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I would have managed so many rereads this year if I hadn’t had them staring me in the face from a dedicated shelf (or arranged some buddy reads), so it has had the desired effect. However, I might feel more of a sense of accomplishment if I reduced the shelf by 2/3 and then actually read everything on it in 2021!

      I feel guilty about Deerbrook! I’m going to try to pass it Ali’s way next year, maybe via Liz.

      Journey through the Day is ongoing; I need to finish Plainsong before I can start Eventide, and then I’ll be on a roll again. If you think of anything that fits the bill, e.g. Anne Tyler’s first, which could also be towards the readalong, join in!

      I thought 4 in a Row would be really easy and I’d get through lots of sets, but instead I found that I tend to prefer reading around themes rather than picking four at random. Oh well! I might engineer a few quartets next year…

      Like

  12. […] further ahead, I plan to continue and/or participate in many of 2020’s reading challenges again, as well as join in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for the novels I own and haven’t read yet. […]

    Like

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