2020 won't soon be forgotten. Neither will the books that Kiran Dass loved most.
Aroha: Māori Wisdom for a Contented Life Lived in Harmony with Our Planet
by Hinemoa Elder (Penguin Random House, $30)
Proverb books can be trite and cheesy but psychiatrist Dr Hinemoa Elder's exquisitely produced Aroha is an elegant and well-timed balm that offers an open door to the healing world of Māori wisdom. Exploring traditional Māori philosophy through 52 whakatauki, Aroha presents one pithy life lesson for each week of the year. Elder places a strong focus on manaakitanga (hospitality and love for each other), kaitiakitanga (guardianship of and respect for our planet), and whanaungatanga (community and connectivity). If one word has reverberated through 2020, it is "kindness" and more than ever, people are attuned to "collective kindness". The word "aroha" encompasses more than just love - it extends to compassion and empathy. I've seen multiple bookshop punters scoop up and buy copies of this book by the fistful - you need one for yourself and one for somebody you love.
Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency
by Olivia Laing (Picador, $50)
Ironically published in the middle of the emergency (hello, pandemic), this superb collection of essays, criticism, book reviews, artist profiles and love letters to her favourite artists by cultural critic Olivia Laing is a tonic for the turbulent times we find ourselves living in. She asks if art can do anything, particularly in times of chaos. And she argues that yes, it can. Art doesn't have a duty to be beautiful or uplifting but it does humanise us and it gets us to exercise our critical and moral faculties. Focusing mostly on women and queer artists who made work in hostile environments under circumstances of hardship, Laing writes that art is a nourishing lifeline that accompanies us and allows us to feel our feelings. "Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It's work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it's up to you," she writes. A rallying cry for hope, this soothing book is about resistance and repair.
Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
by Mark O'Connell (Granta, $33)
I started reading this book right at that nervy moment when New Zealand went into alert level 4, which added a piercingly uncomfortable prescience. The title may sound doom-laden and, while this book is terrifying, it is also thrillingly hilarious because O'Connell is such a keen observer of the absurd and comic. When he found himself questioning the moral implications of bringing children into a world that seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse amid capitalism, climate change and inequality, he decided to find and talk to "preppers" - a subculture of people prepping for the end of the world. In this engaging travelogue, he explores the apocalypse from cultural, political, scientific and personal angles, reporting from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, South Dakota, the Scottish Highlands and New Zealand - where he travels to Lake Wānaka in search of tech billionaire Peter Thiel's bolthole. You couldn't make up any of this bonkers stuff and the result is a page-turning riot.
Humankind: A Hopeful History
by Rutger Bregman (Bloomsbury, $35)
We may all feel rinsed-out and jaded after being pummelled by 2020's spin cycle of doom, but historian and philosopher Rutger Bregman's Humankind has a galvanising optimism that sets out to convince us that human nature is fundamentally good and that we are actually better people than we give ourselves credit for. Rigorously researched, this radical book debunks popular philosophical theory that humans by nature are selfish and destructive, and I'm thrilled that along the way, Bregman has the guts to critique those sometimes phony "popular science" commentators Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond. An added bonus is his response to the toxic and preposterous Jordan B. Peterson's 12 Rules for Life. Rather than barking "clean your room", Bregman offers more sensible nuggets of advice such as temper your empathy and train your compassion. If you liked Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, read Bregman's book - because it is actually better.
by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $34)
Ali Smith's searing seasonal quartet is a sequence of novels which have each been rapidly published practically in real time, documenting the tumultuous last few years and tapping into the heavy news cycle. Smith weaves into her narrative reportage of the Australian wildfires, the climate crisis and NHS unrest. And she started writing this novel at the end of January this year, as people began suffering from a strange and scary respiratory disease that was making the news and the Black Lives Matter protests exploded. Summer is an utterly satisfying conclusion to this quartet of novels but with the world still in tumult, one can't help but wonder and feel excited about what she will write next.
Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World
by Layla F. Saad (Quercus, $38)
British writer Layla F. Saad isn't mucking around. She writes, "White supremacy is a violent system of oppression that harms Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. And if you are a person who holds white privilege, then you are complicit in upholding that harm, whether you realise it or not. And if you are a person who holds white privilege, the question you should be asking isn't whether or not this is true, but rather, what are you going to do about it?" The Black Lives Matter movement saw a global craving for better understanding of racism and what to do about it. Bookshops couldn't keep up with the demand for books about race; other important anti-racist books to consider are How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi; White Fragility: Why it's so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo; So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo (published in 2018 but updated after the killing in America of George Floyd) and Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Read the books, then do the work.
Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand
edited by Michelle Elvy, Paula Morris & James Norcliffe
art editor David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $40)
This collection was compiled in response to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's words after the devastating Christchurch terror attacks in 2019: "We are all New Zealanders." But who are New Zealanders and what is New Zealand now in all its diversity? Bringing together a dizzying near one hundred contributors ranging from the well-known (Selina Tusitala Marsh, Apirana Taylor and Tusiata Avia) to high school students and fresh literary voices, this carefully and lovingly edited anthology spans poetry, nonfiction, essays, fiction and art, all examining national diversity and identity. This book glows with aroha and kindness. He waka eke noa - we are all in this together.
Burn it Down: Women Writing About Anger
edited by Lilly Dancyger (Seal Press, $45)
This incendiary collection brings together essays from 22 women writers and is genuinely diverse - an important reminder that feminism does not have to look or think in one particular way. Trans women, cis women, queer women, actors, journalists and poets, women with mental illness and physical disabilities, Black, Xicana, Pakistani and white women, poor and middle class women writers all grace these pages and probe the idea of female rage and where it comes from. And while it is American in focus, the themes are staunchly universal - why are women angry and how can that anger be used for positive outcomes? Cathartic and affirming with a punk spirit, this fired-up collection shares its name with another potent collection of essays also published this year, Burn it Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution, edited by Breanne Fahs.
by Sarah Moss (Picador, $35)
Summerwater may be set over the longest day during summer on a modest Scottish holiday park by a loch but the atmosphere perfectly evokes the hemmed-in claustrophobic feeling of lockdown anywhere. There are 12 people at the holiday park, and so much for a summer holiday - the weather is dreich - it's relentlessly tipping over with rain. The claustrophobia is palpable as everyone is holed up and can't do anything. The only people who are having a good time are a boisterous Ukrainian family who attract the scorn from the other nationalistic holidaymakers. And in classic Sarah Moss territory, we are dealing with themes of the natural world in crisis, patriarchy, and menacingly, nationalism and the darkness of Brexit. But it is all very subtle and dexterously handled, like a dark undertow. The writing is very exacting and an atmospheric pleasure to read.