Top 5 Books of 2020

Merry Christmas!! It’s that time of the year again when I share my absolute favorite reads. The books are, as always, in order. Number 1 is my favorite book of 2020.

1. L’Amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade] by Assia Djebar

l'amour la fantasia

Assia Djebar is considered one of the greatest Algerian writers of the 20th century. Her novel, L’Amour, la fantasia explores the stories of women living during two pivotal events in Algerian history: the 1840s conquest and the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962). Like a musical fantasia, this novel is a mixture of voices, cultures, and languages. It powerfully reclaims history for Algerian women. If you are interested in a more through introduction, you might find my video helpful.

2. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to the Native Land] by Aimé Césaire

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal

Aimé Césaire’s prose poem is considered to be the founding text of the Négritude movement – a literary movement for Black liberation. Césaire wrote this work upon returning to Martinique from mainland France. The landscape of Martinique is the backdrop against which Césaire explores colonialism.

Here’s my favorite passage in the Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith translation:

I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and
I would say to this land whose loam is part of my flesh:
“I have wandered for a long time and I am coming back
to the deserted hideousness of your sores.”
I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it:
“Embrace me without fear … And if all I can do is speak,
it is for you I shall speak.”

And again I would say:
“My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth,
my voice the freedom of those who break down
in the prison holes of despair.”
And on the way I would say to myself:
“And above all, my body as well as my soul,
beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator,
for life is not a spectacle,
a sea of miseries is not a proscenium,
a man screaming is not a dancing bear …”

3. La Belle et la bête [The Beauty and the Beast] by Madame de Villeneuve

La belle et la bete

Madame de Villeneuve is the author of the oldest written version of the story of the Beauty and the Beast. For a fairytale, this is quite a long work (150 pages). The overarching plot is made up of several subplots, and fairies play a pretty large role. The second half of the novella is almost entirely about the land of fairies. Mme de Villeneuve’s story touches on a theme that is less emphasized in the Disney version: social class. If you want a fun read for the holidays, I highly recommend La Belle et la bête .

4. Notre-Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris is another story that has been made famous by Disney. However, Victor Hugo’s novel is just as much about the architecture of Paris as it is about Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Claude Frollo. My favorite character was Pierre Gringoire, a fictionalized version of the 16th century playwright Pierre Gringore. His journey into the carnivalesque Court of Miracles is a commentary on the late medieval French justice system. Gringoire is also quite a fool. I also liked that Quasimodo is more morally-gray than in the movie.

5. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme [The Bourgeois Gentleman] by Molière

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

This year, I hosted Molière in May – a read-along of 5 of Molière’s most famous plays. Although I read Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in high school, I have never before included it on a favorites list. When I read it almost 15 years ago, I could barely understand the French. This time, however, I was able to appreciate the humor and the social commentary. Our protagonist, Monsieur Jourdain, is a middle-class man who wants to pass as an aristocrat. Unfortunately, he can’t dance or sing. He makes a fool of himself at every turn. Yet, the aristocrats are not without their flaws. Although Dom Juan will always be my favorite Molière play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is so much fun and equally thought-provoking.

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