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Sarah Bannan, Head of Literature at the Arts Council, is a prolific reader and took the time to share her top 10 books of the year ...

Sarah Bannan's top 10 reads of 2020

I read a lot under “normal” circumstances. My job requires a huge amount of reading and reading is what I do in every spare second I can find. I’m sure a lot of people found their reading habits changed this year - I usually have a rhythm of reading a novel or two a week, and I always have a few books of poetry or collections of stories on the go as well.

In mid-March of 2020, however, I found it almost impossible to concentrate on what I was reading, and instead of spending time in my favourite chair with a mug of tea and my book, I was sitting in bed, saucer eyed, doom scrolling.

As we trudged on, though, I got to grips with Zoom calls and home schooling and, you know, 2020. I began to immerse myself even further in the world of books. I found that my eyes were tired at the end of a work day, and just resting my eyes on the printed page was a relief. I listened to audio books and author interviews while I went out for long runs, and as I taxied the children to and from childcare and school. I gave myself a half hour window to follow the news, and then I devoted myself to reading.

I read for comfort, or to understand, or to see the world with new eyes. I read to revel in language and the life on the page, and to remind myself that there is no joy greater than an escape into the written world. (I still doom scroll, alas.)

I’ve picked ten books that I loved this year, but I have loved a lot more than the ones on the list. Ghost in the Throat, Leonard and Hungry Paul, Here is the Beehive, Such a Fun Age, Why the Moon Travels, Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame, The Wild Laughter - seek these books out!

But, after all that, here are 10 of my (many) favourite books this year!

Sarah Bannan, Head of Literature, The Arts Council

Sarah's top 10 reads of 2020


The Painter on His Bike by Enda Wyley

I love Enda Wyley’s honest and crisp poetry, and I’m all the time sending her poems on to friends. She has a poem for every day of the year, I find. This is a super collection, full of encounters with artists across all disciplines, on themes that are both personal and universal. Her poem On Friendship for Jacinta Wright, ends with the stanza, “Where and when we live is not important - but how.” And how.

Tatty by Chrstine Dwyer Hickey

So I would put a book by Christine Dwyer Hickey on every book list of every year - I think she is one of our finest writers. The Narrow Land is simply a masterpiece, an immersive and mind opening read, about childhood, marriage and, of course, Jo and Edward Hopper. But this entry isn’t about that fabulous Christine Dwyer Hickey novel! It’s about her other masterpiece, Tatty, which was Dublin’s 2020 One City One Book. I read this book when it was published, in 2004. That was before I had children, the year I was married: reader, I was young. Reading it again in 2020, I was again taken in by the story and the voice, but the technical achievement and artistry and the emotional depth - this time the book just took my breath away. When in doubt about what to give a person in your life for Christmas or a birthday? Give them the gift of Christine Dwyer Hickey.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

I bought this book at a library sale in the States a couple of years ago, and only got round to reading it this year. Reading an Anne Tyler novel is like stepping into a perfect warm bath. From page one she has wrapped her effortless style around you and you are one thousand percent in the world of her characters. There are parts of this that have probably dated, but I don’t care. It’s a story about second chances, about redemption, and about the many many ways that people make families.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

This is a remarkable novel from the remarkable Laureate for Irish Fiction, Sebastian Barry. A sort of follow up to his exquisite Days Without End, A Thousand Moons is voiced by ‘Winona’, the Lakota child of the previous novel, now older and more complex. Like all of Barry’s work, the prose is evocative and rich and both earthly and celestial. I love his books because he always takes huge historical moments but then focuses in on these very personal stories of people who are, in some way, on the margins. He’s such a humane and empathetic writer, and even though it’s set in the 19th century, the novel chronicles events that make it feel remarkably current and relevant.

Oona by Alice Lyons

I read this right after Sarah Crossan’s Here is the Beehive (a truly WONDERFUL book, in verse) and Sarah’s was the first book I could actually concentrate on after we entered into the world of Covid-19. I had heard about the technical achievement of Oona (the work is written without the letter ‘o’) and I was worried I wouldn’t have the head space to immerse myself in the work. I was so wrong, as the prose is marvellous, and immediately draws you in. It’s a shimmering bildungsroman. I knew Alice Lyons previously from her poetry and her work in the visual arts, but I was just blown away by how much I connected with the narrator of this deeply propulsive novel.

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

This is a great debut from Frances Macken. Another coming of age story, it centres around a female friendship from childhood through to early adulthood. In many ways it feels like the plot is centred around a mystery, but the thing that keeps you turning the pages is the strength of the characters and the 100 percent honesty of their relationships. It’s fresh, and it’s funny, and I felt I was in the hands of a seasoned novelist. Can’t wait to read what she does next.

Actress by Anne Enright

I love everything Anne Enright puts on the page. From her essays to her short stories to every single one of her novels, she is a genius on a sentence level, on a story level, on the level of character. This is an ambitious and gripping novel, following the story of the life of fictional actress Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter Norah. It’s a story about how the world can eat women up, how marriages work and don’t work, and how mother and daughter relationships are just the richest in the world. I gobbled this book up in the first reading, so had to go back again, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. (I did. And I’m sure I did again!)

Modern Times by Cathy Sweeney

There is no one like Cathy Sweeney. Published by the wonderful Stinging Fly Press, these stories are original and quirky and knock you off balance. They are also very short, and very funny, and sometimes very sad. I read this with my work book club, and we were all equally enchanted by her dark and twisted (in the best way) storytelling. She’s great on women, and marriage, and power, and modern life full stop. A must read.

OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea by Patrick Freyne

This is a superb collection of essays from everyone’s favourite Dermot Bannon commentator, Patrick Freyne. While I think everybody knows that Freyne is funny, these essays are just very fine writing. He’s honest, and kind, and vulnerable. He writes about struggling with depression, and the realisation that he and his wife wouldn’t have children. He writes about singing in a folk choir. He writes about jumping out of an airplane. He writes with wit and ease and precision. And, if you get the audio, he reads them himself. Brilliantly.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

“But now out of the winter-grey sky the soft magic again descended and he knew that the extent of his feeling was beyond the ordinary realm.” - The Coast of Leitrim.

Kevin Barry is a national treasure, and this is his third collection of short stories. This is the collection to give to anyone who says they don’t like short stories, as they will convert even the most stubborn reader. The language, the humour, the richness of the characters, and the laser precision of his eye: Kevin Barry brings an originality and modernity to the form while still weaving in the old and even ancient traditions. I loved these to bits.

Bio

Sarah Bannan was born in 1978 in upstate New York. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2000 and then moved to Ireland, where she has lived ever since. She is the Head of Literature at the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon and lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.

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