2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

Josephine Tey: Inspector Grant Series

 

Having already read two books from Tey’s Alan Grant series (The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair) as well as her nonseries novel Brat Farrar in past years, and Miss Pym Disposes at the beginning of this year, I took the combined (re)read of The Daughter of Time and the play Dickon during the pandemic buddy reads (see above) as my cue to finally also read the rest of the Inspector Grant mysteries.  And I’m glad I finally did; Tey’s work as a whole is a paean to her much-beloved England — and though she was Scottish by birth, to a somewhat lesser degree also to Scotland –; a love that would eventually cause her to bequeath her entire estate to the National Trust. — Though the books are ostensibly mysteries, the actual “mystery” element almost takes a back seat to the land … and to its people, or rather to people like those who formed Tey’s personal circle of friends and acquaintances.  And it is in creating characters that her writing shines as much as in the description of England’s and Scotland’s natural beauty.

 

Tey’s plots take the reader from London’s West End …


… to the chalk cliffs of Kent and Sussex (images: Dover and Beachy Head)

 … the English Home Counties (images: Bibury, Cotswolds) …

… and finally, the storm-tossed Outer Hebrides (images: Butt of Lewis).
(All photos mine.)

Agatha Christie / Matthew Pritchard (ed.): The Grand Tour

Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

Agatha Christie’s letters, photos and postcards from the expedition to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada in which her first husband, Archibald, and she were invited to participate out of the blue shortly after the birth of their daughter Rosamund.  Lovingly edited by her grandson Matthew Pritchard, and amplified by the corresponding excerpts from her autobiography, the letters in particular shed an interesting sidelight onto the thinking and life experience of the budding future Queen of Crime (her second novel was published while the tour was under way), and to fans, the book is worth the purchase for her photos alone (she had rather a good eye for visual composition, too) … and for her surfing adventures, reproduced here in their full glory, and in both words and images.

Ethel Lina White: The Lady Vanishes (aka The Wheel Spins) & The Spiral Staircase (aka Some Must Watch)

Well, I can see the appeal to movie directors …

… but in written form, this isn’t really my cup of tea.  Which isn’t necessarily the fault of White’s writing is such — she has a fine eye (and ear) for characterization and language — but rather, of her chosen topic.  I’ve never been much of a fan of “women in peril” stories; they tend to be replete with fevered agitation and hyperbole, and however understandable the protagonists’ fear and excitement may be in a given situation, the situation as such is almost invariably so unrealistic as to be the literary equivalent of “B movie” material.


That being said, Hitchcock definitely milked The Lady Vanishes (which was originally published as The Wheel Spins) for all it was worth and then some — in fact, this is one of the rare examples where I decidedly prefer the movie over the book: not only because Hitch gave the story a spin that isn’t present in the literary original at all (even if that doesn’t make the story one iota more realistic — it’s just plainly more fun), but chiefly, because Michael Redgrave’s version of Iris’s (the heroine’s) knight in shining armour is decidedly more likeable than the character from the book, who — even though he’s meant to be likeable — to me just comes across as one hugely condescending a$$hole, hardly any better than the professor in whose company he travels.  Similarly, Iris herself is more likeable as portrayed by Margaret Lockwood in the movie: whereas there, I am genuinely sympathetic to her strange plight, the book mostly elicited my rage at her fellow passengers’ reactions — however not on Iris’s behalf specifically but on behalf of womanhood generally, against a society that automatically disbelieved and put down as hallucinations and figments of an overactive imagination any woman’s assertions that weren’t supported — or that were even directly contradicted — by other witnesses, especially men and / or figures of authority.  (In fact, if I hadn’t read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, biographical background information included, I’d have dismissed the whole premise of The Lady Vanishes as wildly improbable.  Sadly, at the time of its writing, it wasn’t.)


The Spiral Staircase (originally published as Some Must Watch) combines a remote country house setting on the Welsh border with a serial killer story; and if the isolation of the house and the prowling maniac weren’t enough in and of themselves, the whole action takes place over the course of somewhat less than 12 hours, mostly after nightfall.  I haven’t seen any of the several movie adaptations of this story, but I can see how a skilled director would be able to ratchet up the tension quite skillfully here, what with the dwindling down of effective defenses against the maniac and a cast of fairly outlandish (and unlikeable) characters inside the house — if you buy into the premonition that this house is where the serial killer is headed next, and that he is after the book’s heroine, to begin with.

I liked The Spiral Staircase a bit better than The Lady Vanishes — 3 1/2 vs. 2 1/2 stars, respectively, which averages out to 3 stars for both together.

The Spiral Staircase (under its original title Some Must Watch) is mentioned as an example of a country house mystery in Martin Edwards’s The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, so I’ll be counting that towards the corresponding square of my Detection Club bingo card, and both books, in addition, also towards the Women Writers Bingo.

 

 

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Our Traditional New Year’s Eve Dinner: Wieners & Potato Salad

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 16 – New Year’s Eve / St. Sylvester’s Day

Tasks for Hogswatch Night: Make your favourite sausage dish.

As it so happens, wieners and potato salad are my mom’s and my traditional Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve food.  This year we cheated (store-bought instead of homemade potato salad), so no recipe to post, but anyway … here we go!

 

 

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16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 8 – Las Posadas

Tasks for Las Posadas: Which was your favorite / worst / most memorable hotel / inn / vacation home stay ever? Tell us all about it!

I think I am going to divide the honors three ways here — and very fittingly, two of the three hotel stays in question were in Spanish speaking countries.

1.) Hacienda Cocoyoc near Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico
My mom, my BFF, a cousin (of sorts — the brother of my eldest cousin’s husband) and I spent a few weeks in Mexico and Guatemala over Christmas and New Year’s some 20+ years ago.  This was in the days when even fax machines were still a relatively new thing (and home faxes — which I had — were even less common), and the internet wasn’t a household commodity by any stretch of the term, so I organized the whole trip by telephone, fax, and good old mail, based on hotel recommendations from a number of trusted travel guides.  And fortunately, I totally struck gold with the place where I decided we were going to spend New Year’s Eve:

Hacienda Cocoyoc, as the name implies, a converted large, traditionally-built ranch with guest bungalows (new, but also in the traditional style) spread out over the estate near the main building, lush, tropical vegetation all over the place … and the most generous, mouth-watering breakfast buffet I’ve ever come across, featuring everything from authentic Mexican dishes, American and English breakfast, and Continental European breakfast.  (Oh yeah, and we had fun on New Year’s as well).

 

 

2.) Paradores
In the year after that trip to Mexico and Guatemala, my mom and I visited Spain.  Having by that time discovered a great travel agency not far from where I was living, this time around I chose to call on them for advice — and boy, did they ever deliver.  The single greatest suggestion they made was for us to stay at Paradores — hotels belonging to a (then) state-run chain and created in authentic historic buildings, such as medieval and renaissance palaces and monasteries (and even where we didn’t stay at a Parador, they found hotels for us that were similarly converted historic buildings run privately as hotels).

  Parador de Granada, a converted 15th century monastery
(not my own photos — alas, virtually all of my photos from that trip were drowned in a basement flooded by a leaking pipe)

 

3.) Torridon Hotel, Western Ross., Scotland
Some twelve or thirteen years ago, a colleague told me he was planning to spend a few days in November in the western Scottish highlands with his girlfriend.  “Western Scotland — in November?  You’re kidding me, right?” was my response.  Then he showed me the website of the hotel where he was staying … and by the time I made plans to travel to Scotland myself a year later, he’d sung the praises of that hotel so thoroughly that I decided to check it out for myself.  Since then, I’ve made a point of including a stay there (even if only overnight) in pretty much every trip to Scotland taking me at least arguably in that vicinity.  For one thing, this part of the western highlands is among the most dramatic that all of Scotland has to offer, and there’s things aplenty to do and see, and for another thing … talk about getting pampered!

 

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Candlelight Breakfast and a Book

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 3 – St. Martin’s Day – and Square 15 – Newtonmas

Tasks for St. Martin’s Day: Write a Mother Goose-style rhyme or a limerick; the funnier the better. –OR– Take a picture of the book you’re currently reading, next to a glass of wine, or the drink of your choice, with or without a fire in the background.

Tasks for Newtonmas: Take a moment to appreciate gravity and the laws of motion. If there’s snow outside, have a snowball fight with a friend or a member of your family. –OR– Take some time out to enjoy the alchemical goodness of a hot toddy or chocolate or any drink that relies on basic chemistry/alchemy (coffee with cream or sugar / tea with milk or sugar or lemon, etc.). Post a picture of your libations and the recipe if it’s unique and you’re ok with sharing it.

I decided to combine these two into one for a late candlelight breakfast this morning:


The drink is white hot chocolate; a gift from my BFF from our trip to London back in June.  Basically, it just calls for the white chocolate powder to be mixed into hot milk … my mom, however, had the brilliant and very alchemically correct idea of adding a pinch of ground (or instant) coffee.

 

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My Grandma(s)

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 9 – Mōdraniht

Tasks for Mōdraniht: Tell us your favourite memory about your mom, grandma, or the woman who had the greatest impact on your childhood. –OR– Post a picture of you and your mom, or if comfortable, you and your kids.

Bonus task: Post 3 things you love about your mother-in-law (if you have one), otherwise your grandma.

Since I’ve already sung my mom’s praises and posted pictures of her and me here (and another picture here), I’m going to make this one all about my maternal grandma, as well as my “third grandma” (my uncle’s mother, who actually had a much greater role in my life than my paternal grandmother), without both of whom my childhood just wouldn’t have been what it was.

My maternal grandma (left) and my “third grandma” (right), ca. mid-1980s

Since my mom was working full time even when I was in elementary school, after school I didn’t go home but spent the afternoons at my grandparents’ home some 5 minutes from our own home, where I got my lunch, did my homework (or read, or painted pictures) while my grandma was having her afternoon nap, had afternoon tea and biscuits (or, well, tea for the grown-ups, juice for me), and played with the neighborhood children, most of whom were my classmates.  Sometimes when my grandparents were travelling they would take me along, but whenever they didn’t (or whenever my grandma was in hospital), it fell to my “third grandma” to take over taking care of me while my mom was at work.

Age 3 or 4: on the beach in Holland with my grandma

So, many of the values I grew up with were my two caretaking grandmas’ values, either conveyed to me directly by them or indirectly (via my mom).  More than anything, though, I remember both of their sense of humor, kindness and infinite patience — and as I grew up, I also learned to appreciate their enormous broad-mindedness which allowed them to accept the change of social perceptions, and to distinguish changeable perceptions of morality and core personal values.

My maternal grandparents and my uncle’s parents had known each other for decades before my generation came along in our family — they were living in small neighboring towns in Thuringia until the end of WWII, and my uncle and aunt (my mom’s elder sister) were high school sweethearts there — but I think my two grandmas (real and “substituted in”) became even closer friends after their respective families had moved to West Germany after the war, even though my “third grandma” lived in Essen (some 100 kms [60 miles] from Bonn) for the longest time and only moved here when my aunt and uncle did, too.  In many ways, looking back, nothing says “end of youth” (or “end of innocence”) to me quite as much as their deaths, witihin a few years of each other, when I was in my early thirties.

Left: my grandma and my mom shortly after my mom’s birth.  Right: my grandma with her three children (my mom’s the youngest, leaning against her mother), mid- / late 1940s

 

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Family Christmas Traditions

6 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 13 – Christmas

Tasks for Christmas: Post a picture of your stockings hung from the chimney with care, –OR– a picture of Santa’s ‘treat’ waiting for him. –OR– Share with us your family Christmas traditions involving gift-giving, or Santa’s visit. Did you write letters to Santa as a kid (and if so, did he write back, as J.R.R. Tolkien did “as Santa Claus” to his kids)? If so, what did you wish for? A teddy bear or a doll? Other toys – or practical things? And did Santa always bring what you asked for?

I’m afraid I was disabused of the notion that there actually was a Santa Claus even before my mom “officially” did so when one year — I think I may have been four at the time — I found something she hadn’t yet gotten around to hiding really well that later showed up wrapped up under the Christmas tree.  (Of course I didn’t let on I had found it before, or at least I did my best not to.)  Also, I think it was even in kindergarten that I first learned about the historic St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, and where we were told that the “Christ child” (Christkind) who in Germany is said to bring all the presents in addition to / or in competition with Santa Claus is to be understood symbolically, with the gifts we receive “from him” as a tangible manifestation of the good brought into the world by the little boy in the manger some 2000 years ago.

So I didn’t write letters to Santa, but my mom had me write out a wish list nevertheless, and yes, some of the things from the list would usually be part of what I received.

Germans exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, not the morning of Christmas Day, and I think our family tradition is the same, or at least very similar to that of many other German families (with the only significant differences being whether you go to church or not — and if you do, whether it’s in the afternoon / early evening or at midnight — and whether you exchange gifts before or after dinner).  We go to church early in the evening, usually at 6:00 PM — while I was growing up and in the years until I moved away after I’d graduated from university, the church where I was confirmed, which was the closest Protestant church to where my grandparents lived (and where we used to live when I was a kid)

— whereas these days, we go to the Protestant church closest to where we now live, which is a 15-20 minute walk from our home.

In the years up until my graduation from university, our gathering on Christmas Eve consisted of either just my maternal grandparents, my mom and me, or in addition there would be the family of my mom’s sister, with whom we were particularly close, and who lived near Bonn for a few years while I was in elementary school, and then again after my uncle had retired.  “The kids” (actually, all the family except for either my mom or my aunt, depending in whose home we were celebrating) would be banned from the living room until all the lights on the Christmas tree were lit, then a little bell would call us in, and we’d exchange presents, and after that, we’d have dinner.

Ca. age 4, with my mom and my grandpa (I think I’ve shared this one before)

Christmas dinner table at my aunt and uncle’s house, ca. 1996 or 1997

These days, it’s just my mom and me on Christmas Eve (though we may get together with other parts of the family on Christmas Day or on Boxing Day), and we still follow essentially the same routine.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Santa Claus / Saint Nick actually comes twice in Germany, once in his incarnation as St. Nicholas, on the evening of that saint’s official holiday (December 6), and then in his incarnation as Father Christmas / Santa on Christmas Eve.  While his Christmas visit is said to be a secret one, his visit on St. Nicholas”s Day is one equally dreaded and anticipated by children, because it’s then that they get to account for their misdeeds throughout the year … or get presents — nothing major, mostly chocolates, cookies, tangerines, nuts and the like — for being able to prove they’ve been good kids.  Of course they always end up being loaded with sweets, but if “St. Nick” is sufficiently convincing — or is actually accompanied by his scary servant, Knecht Ruprecht, whose job it is to administer the punishment to bad children –, there’s a moment of a certain frisson at the beginning, with St. Nick, typically a member of the family and thus excellently informed, going through their “record of behavior” for the year.  I have only vague memories of this (and no photos at all) from my own childhood, both at home and at my kindergarten, but here’s my uncle dressed up as St. Nicholas for my cousin’s kids:

 

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16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 7 – International Human Rights Day

Tasks for International Human Rights Day: Post a picture of yourself next to a war memorial or other memorial to an event pertaining to Human Rights. (Pictures of just the memorial are ok too.)

 

Anógia village, Crete: the Andartis (resistance fighter) monument near the museum to the village’s destruction in WWII.

 

Crete was occupied by the German military in the 1940s, fierce resistance by the local population notwithstanding. During one particularly memorable episode (later the subject of a book and a movie both titled Ill Met by Moonlight), a joint group of Cretan resistance fighters and British intelligence operatives, led by Major (and writer-to-be) Patrick Leigh Fermor — in the movie, portrayed by Dirk Bogarde — and Captain W. Stanley Moss (author of the book Ill Met by Moonlight), abducted German Major General Heinrich Kreipe near his home in Heraklion and marched him all the way across the Psiloritis mountains to the south coast of Crete, from where he was eventually shipped off to Egypt. He spent the rest of WWII in a British POW camp.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s evocative account of their struggle across the slopes of Mount Ida has come to particular fame for its “Horace Moment” — his trademark poetic description of the moment when he and the German general realized that they had both enjoyed the same sort of profoundly formative, classical humanistic education and, as a result, had come to share the same values. Here it is, as taken from a Report written for the Imperial War Museum in 1969 and as published in Words of Mercury (2010):

“Everything ahead was a looming wilderness of peaks and canyons, and in the rougher bits it would be impossible for a large party to keep formation, or even contact, except at a slow crawl wich could be heard and seen for miles. The whole massif was riddled with clefts and grottoes to hide in. We must all vanish into thin air and let the enemy draw a total blank. […]

We woke up among the rocks, just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were all three [i.e., Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor, and their captive] lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said:

‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte …’ **

I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart (Ad Thaliarchum, LIX). I went on reciting where he had broken off:

‘… Nec iam sustineant onus
Silvae laborentes, geluque,
Flumina constiterint acuto’ **

and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end.

The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’*** It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

** You see how high Soracte stands, bright with
snow, and no longer do the straining forests
support the burden, and the rivers have
frozen with sharp frost.

*** “Well, Well, Major,” or, “Oh, I see, Major!”

 

 

Leigh Fermor unfortunately doesn’t mention, however — at least, in the published version of his account — that inter alia by way of retribution for Kreipe’s abduction, as well as in retribution for a number of other acts of resistance, the German military, later in 1944, annihilated the entire village of Anógia (from where the group had embarked on their climb across the mountains), killing every single one of its several 100 souls and reducing the whole village to ashes. It was only in 2009 (65 years later), after having lived there for a number of years and slowly gained the population’s trust, that German artist Karina Raeck was able to take a major step towards reconciliation by opening a museum commemorating the village’s destruction and by creating, together with the village population, a large artistic display in memory of its resistance fighters on the Nida Plain above the village; likewise entitled “Andartis.”

 


Anógia after its 1944 destruction by the German military.

The “Andartis” monument on the Nida Plain, created by artist Karina Raeck and the villagers of Anógia in 2009.

 

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