It’s been such a difficult year. As it comes to an end, the VCL team wanted to highlight some of the art, writing, and other things that brought us some joy and comfort this year.
Clémence Chouteau, Art Editor
5 Things That Made 2020 Kind Of Okay
1. FUNNY WEATHER: ART IN AN EMERGENCY BY OLIVIA LAING
“YOU LOOK AT THE SUN. THEN YOU RETURN HOME AND YOU CAN’T WORK, YOU’RE IMPREGNATE WITH ALL THAT LIGHT. We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living. Don’t you want it, to be impregnate with all that light? And what will happen if you are?”
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency‘s release was perfectly timed, despite it being an accident. It was published in April this year, as the whole world was facing disaster, and I treated it like a handbook for catastrophe. This book is a collection of essays and articles Olivia Laing wrote during the course of her career. Its main subject matter, as the title indicates, is what artists do when times are hard. Laing tells of the lives of David Wojnarowicz, who created art while living in the streets, of Derek Jarman, who made films and grew a garden while fighting AIDS, and of many others. Laing does not approve giving in to despair and hopelessness, and rejects the rhetoric of fear that characterizes most of our time’s discourse. The core of what she is saying is: This is not the end of the world. Art matters. Do something.
2. NORMAL PEOPLE BY SALLY ROONEY
“All these years, they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.”
I was very late in reading Normal People, which I heard about thanks to the release of its gorgeous TV adaptation in April. Normal People is about a normal relationship, and by that, understand a real relationship. The novel follows Connell and Marianne from ages 18 to 23, as they shift between being lovers, friends, and strangers. Their relationship is intense and fragile, plagued by misunderstandings, bad timing, and social class issues. Rooney’s writing is dispassionate, almost surgical, yet translates this relationship’s warmth and vulnerability perfectly. She writes about what it’s like being young, insecure and in love like no one else. If you’re either of those things, or maybe all three at the same time (we’ve all been there), you should read this. If not, read it anyway.
3. INTIMATIONS BY ZADIE SMITH
“Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance. Which can be a handsome and even a useful, activity – on the page. But, in my experience, turns out to be a pretty hopeless practice for real life. In real life, submission and resistance have no real shape.”
When things are bad, there is nothing more reassuring than seeing someone else go through the same thing. When that person is Zadie Smith, one of the greatest living writers, even better. Smith is famous for being able to write about anything, nothing escapes her. Intimations is a short collection of 6 essays in less than 90 pages. In those essays, she talks about everything : the pandemic of course, but also racism, peonies, death, suffering, Mel Gibson, and nail salons, among other things. Those essays do not pretend to bring any answers. Zadie Smith doesn’t know what the answers are, in fact nobody does, and she is as scared as we all are. But she has some great ideas, as always. She exposes her doubts, her fears, her insecurities, her gratitude for the people she loves, with a rare form of brilliance tinted with humor which will make you feel less alone.
4. KING KONG THEORY BY VIRGINIE DESPENTES
“Of course I want it all, just like a man; and in a man’s world I want to defy the rules. Overtly. Not tangentially or apologetically. I want to obtain more than I was promised to begin with. I don’t want to be silenced. I don’t want to be told what I may do.”
I had wanted to read King Kong Theory for years, so I finally picked it up this summer and read it in one sitting. It seemed fitting to finally read this classic of French feminist literature during a year when women’s humanity was threatened relentlessly, both in France and in the USA. Virginie Despentes explains in two sentences what academic feminist books take hundreds of pages to demonstrate, using that brutal, unleashed language that make people either love her or hate her. As she herself said of her work, “the point is not to be shocking but to change the shape of things”. And she is. King Kong Theory is breathtakingly intelligent, and still seems as groundbreaking as it did when it first came out in 2006. Reading it feels like a relief – a relief to finally read writing that captures female rage so sharply. When you feel powerless in the face of injustice, as we all often do, reading this short book of unpolished anger is the best thing I can recommend.
5. FLEABAG BY PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE
“You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone.”
To finish, something that is not a book! I am very ashamed to admit that I only learned about Phoebe Waller-Bridge a few months ago and she was probably my best discovery this year (I also discovered The Office during France’s first lockdown but it would have been too embarrassing to make it a main item on this list). After the death of her best friend, a young woman who runs a cafe on the verge of bankrupcy in London struggles with her dysfunctional family and even more dysfunctional romantic relationships. I love stories about people who don’t know what they’re doing, probably because I don’t know what I’m doing either. Fleabag‘s main character is flawed, and that’s what makes her so human that anyone can identify with her. The main issue with Fleabag is how little there is of it (only 16 episodes of 20 minutes each!), and I found myself spreading them over time so I could enjoy Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s elegant dark humor for as long as possible.
Clair Dunlap, Poetry Editor and Social Media
Clair’s Favorite Things 2020
This list is really random in a lot of ways: at the beginning of this year I was unemployed and read a lot, taking the bus to the library every week even though it was freezing and checking out tons of books. It seems silly to even mention that then my reading slowed down. I was planning a huge national children’s literature conference, so I did read a lot of picture books. I was also getting a grip on the manuscript I’ve been working on for years, so I read a lot about Georgia O’Keeffe. Mostly my favorite thing this year was adopting a dog and taking her on walks and thinking of nothing the entire time.
- Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
- Okapi Tale by Jacob Kramer and K-Fai Steele
- Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle
- Georgia O’Keeffe by Georgia O’Keeffe
- The Universe Replied: An Oral History of Romance is Boring by Los Campesinos! by Brendan Mattox
Ola Faleti, Nonfiction Editor
Ola’s Favorite Things 2020
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’m not particularly a fan of 19th century British literature and only read this book when it was thrust upon me, after I’d read Wide Sargasso Sea last year and loved it. I never expected to be so thrilled by Jane and Mr. Rochester’s love affair, and so sad to come to the end of this 500+ page novel. It just goes to show that reading beyond what you normally read can take you to surprising places.
2020 was a good year for building routines. I got very into smoothies this year and now I have one for breakfast everyday. 10/10, would recommend. Astonishing how three simple ingredients like bananas, mango, and greek yogurt blend so deliciously.
- Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom
Tressie McMillan Cottom is brilliant and I love her brain. It’s hard for me to synthesize her essay collection but it covers a breadth of topics: race, class, body size, womanhood, academia, and other things I’m surely leaving out. Mid-read, I promptly paused to write my own essay on body image and femininity. Thick is gold.
- Insecure (TV series)
I’m an unabashed Issa Rae fan and have watched Insecure since the beginning. Season 4 hit different. We all needed something to escape to this spring, stuck in our homes and watching the world fall apart. Character and plot development for this season was A+. But mostly, it was a treat to watch beautiful people living their aesthetically pleasing (yet complicated) L.A. lives without a face mask in sight.
- Ungodly Hour by Chloe x Halle (album)
Chloe x Halle have been slept on by me, but this album woke me up. Singing, songwriting, dancing, producing, playing a million instruments…I’m convinced there’s nothing these sisters can’t do. The title track is one of my favorite songs of the year. The way their voices swirl together creates a sonic heaven worth indulging in.
Jefferson Lee, Book Reviewer
Five Stories Jefferson Kept Returning to in 2020
My attention (and subsequently, reading habits) were incredibly erratic throughout the chaos of this year. Sometimes I’d want nothing more to escape deep into an epic, doorstopping saga – other times, I could hardly make it through a page without turning back to my phone, wondering what fresh horrors might have been unveiled in the minute I was offline. Short stories became a good sort of compromise, consumable as individual units but also bingeable in the form of a collection. Here are five stories that not only struck me on my initial read, but that I returned to again and again throughout the year:
“Boys Go To Jupiter” by Danielle Evans, published in her collection The Office of Historical Corrections
A story about a white college student who achieves notoriety after a picture of her in a confederate flag bikini is posted to social media. Aside from the sharp racial commentary, the story is an absolute emotional gut-punch, and a masterclass in how to structure a narrative.
“The Feminist” by Tony Tulathimutte, published in n+1’s 35th issue
A story about a “feminist” incel. At once a brutal skewering of a certain type of “allyship” and an examination of the many failures of empathy and communication that plague our attempts to know and be known.
“Pleiades” by Anjali Sachdeva, published in her collection All the Names They Used For God
A story about a set of genetically engineered septuplets. It was honestly difficult to pick just one story from this collection: each of them is as carefully crafted and evocative as the last. But something about the arc of this story, the ending like one out of a Shakespearean tragedy, made the whole piece continue to resonate long after it was finished.
“Save Yourself” by Abbey Mei Otis, published in McSweeney’s 58th issue
A story about two women of different classes living in 2040 in a drought-ridden Ohio. The entire 58th issue of McSweeney’s was made in partnership with the NRDC and dedicated to stories about climate change. Aside from the gripping dystopian backdrop and a great narrative twist, Otis also provides insightful commentary on how class interacts with the climate crisis. Questions of ideology vs. practicality, as well as how we continue to rationalize our current lifestyles, felt incredibly relevant.
“Secret Identity” by Kelly Link, published in her collection Get In Trouble
A story about a young girl going to meet a man she met through her older sister’s account on an MMORPG. It also takes place at a hotel where there are two simultaneous conventions, ones for superheroes and one for dentists. At one point there are also life-size butter sculptures. If you still aren’t quite sold, know that this was a story that I had actually read years ago and chose to revisit; I had found myself spending a lot of time reflecting on my past, and Link captures as well as anyone the pains of being young, in love, and hopelessly clueless.
Bethany Mary, Book Reviewer
Bethany’s Top Five Comfort Reads of 2020
In times when I’m particularly stressed or anxious – aka, all of 2020 – I gravitate towards nonfiction books about wildlife and plants, and travel writing. I just like to read some interesting, indisputable facts about the world to make me appreciate living in it more. I also don’t like to read anything super exciting or dramatic that keeps me in suspense, because I feel enough on edge already. Whenever it’s safe to gather again, I’ll be ready with some nerdy nature party trivia.
- Orchid Fever – Eric Hansen
- The Soul of an Octopus – Sy Montgomery
- The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – Elisabeth Tova Bailey
- Restless Creatures – Matt Wilkinson
- Sisters of the Earth – Lorraine Anderson
Bob Sykora, Editor-in-Chief
Bob’s Favorite Things 2020
In general, reading, like so many things, was hard this year. I found myself reading in waves. Some months I couldn’t stop. Others, just picking up a book felt impossible. And for whatever reason I found myself reading more nonfiction and hybrid works (mostly written by poets though). I found myself thrilled and challenged by each of these books in really wonderful ways:
- The Undying by Anne Boyer
- Children of the Land by Marcello Hernandez Castillo
- The Crying Book by Heather Christle
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
- Sound Machine by Rachel Zucker
And I know this was a really difficult year for poets publishing their first collections. I can’t help myself from highlighting some of my favorite poetry debuts of the year:
- Strip by Jessica Abughattas
- All Heathens by Marianne Chan
- Catrachos by Roy Guzmán
- Capable Monsters by Marlin M. Jenkins
- rushes from the river disappointment by stephanie roberts