As we did in 2019, 2018 and 2017, the team at Obelisk Support have contributed to a 2020 book review to inspire your future reading. This year, lockdown prompted some of us to venture into podcasts, so we’ve included those too. We hope that, as well as giving you some inspiration, this list will help you get to know some of us a little bit better. In our own words, here are our favourite books and podcasts for 2020.
The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State, by Nadia Murad is a harrowing and ultimately inspiring story of survival. Nadia Murad was born and raised in Kocho, a small village of farmers in northern Iraq. She lived a quiet, happy life with her brothers and sisters. On August 15th, 2014, when Nadia was just twenty-one years old, Islamic State militants massacred the people of her village, beginning the events that led to her capture and enslavement. The Last Girl is not just the story of one woman, but a testimony of the entire Yazidi community and everything they have suffered.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy is a beautiful book filled with timeless, uplifting messages about friendship, kindness, self-esteem and cake. The story is very simple but profound and the entire book is a genuinely heartfelt experience.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah is an eye-opening insight into what it was like to grow up during the Apartheid era. Trevor Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was a crime. He describes his life in poverty, the way he is perceived by society and his struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. Despite the seriousness of the subject, Trevor Noah’s humour shines throughout the entire book.
A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) is a novel written at the start of the 201th century and out of print since 1982. It was a revelation. It has so much energy in the writing and it is full of tension as it tracks the journey of a young Aleramo through to motherhood and the challenges that arose within her. Aleramo left her son when he was aged six to write this book “so that my words will reach him”. It was more than 30 years before she would see him again.
People Like Us by Hashi Mohamed. Barrister Hashi Mohamed’s book is about social mobility in the legal profession. He explores the topic also from his own experience, as a child refugee. The book tries to understand how, and why, Britain’s poverty levels are on the rise and why so many leading our institutions and in decision-making roles are privately educated rather than drawn from the majority population (only 7% of people are privately educated yet they dominate the professions, the judiciary, the military and so on). He helps to shed light on why we find ourselves in this shocking situation in a society like Britain, which claims to value fair play and opportunity for all.
A world without work by Daniel Susskind. How and why people work is one of my favourite topics and certainly I have looked into the topic more deeply than any other over the past decade, as I built Obelisk. Susskind looks at the impact of technology and especially AI on the work available for people to do. As more and more jobs are automated, and fewer jobs are available, what role can the governments and institutions play in ensuring work is distributed and the challenges of underemployment start to emerge?
Expert by Roger Kneebone. I first met Roger when he came to give a talk to our clients on much of what this book covers – the time that it takes to become an expert in anything. Roger is a surgeon by training – few jobs have life & death inbuilt into the job description so we can only learn from him on what it takes to be an expert. He looks at many professions and skills and how to reach the level of performance and mastery that is required in them and also what skills to value in the future.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The size of this book allows the author to touch on several subjects and sides of a person’s life; from love to philosophy, to compassion and most predominately self-acceptance. I struggled to put down this partially fictional-autobiography as I found myself immersed in the colourful characters and in the magical India of several years ago.
The New Odyssey – The story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley. This easy to read book is a powerful exploration of the desperate migrants and refugees looking for a better future. As well as focusing on an individual’s journey from Syria to Sweden, I liked that the author also covers the wider crisis in an in-depth account of the desert routes and the perils migrants face on their journey to escape from corruption and religious extremism. A truly eye-opening book!
How to Wow. This is a relatively new podcast recently launched by Virgin Radio Breakfast Show host Chris Evans. Each episode features a celebrity / high achieving individual who, as Evans puts it “are living proof that if you dream big, put in the hours and keep on showing up, amazing things will happen.” I started to listen to podcasts during the first lockdown, when I would often be walking the same route with our dog most days and needed something to keep me company as well as motivated. His guests so far include Rod Stewart, Caitlin Moran and Bryony Gordon and each episode is about 1.5 hours long.
Postcards from Midlife. Lorraine Candy and Trish Halpin host a very funny and informative podcast series that will sit nicely if you find yourself in that situation of balancing work, elderly parents, your own midlife health changes, as well as the challenges of having teenage children at home. The hosts share their own mid-life journeys, from reinvention, to menopause and living with angst-ridden teens. They also consult various experts on these topics and interview many well known celebrities along the way too.
My book of the year is Five: the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Black Swan, 2020). With meticulous research and touching care for her subjects, the author takes us back to Victorian Britain and describes the lives of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. Centring the women’s experiences, even down to the contents of their pockets on the day that they died, it is an incredible and engrossing piece of historical and social documentary that addresses the imbalances and inaccuracies in the Ripper mythology. What I found most impactful is how relevant their stories still feel today. Variously, domestic abuse, grief, inadequate education, addiction and systemic financial want led these women into unsafe and unhealthy choices, while society judged them for their supposed moral failings and left them to fend for themselves.
“A women’s entire function was to support men,” writes Rubenhold, “And if the roles of their male family members were to support the roles and needs of men wealthier than them, then the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands.” With particular resonance in light of the disproportionate impact of the C-19 pandemic on women, especially economically insecure women, this book shows how much the sexist and classist attitudes of the past still exist today.
The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder (1990) is one of those rare long-form series of essays of how human culture and nature intersect. Gleaning pearls of wisdom from across the globe and across the centuries, whether they be fifth-century poet Zhiang-yan or modern day Alaska native languages experts, the essays delve deep into the meaning of wilderness. From Zen Buddhism to industrial logging, Snyder’s rich prose looks at our natural world with erudite eyes. At a time when we are rediscovering a profound need for nature, this book published 30 years ago seems to predict many of the environmental issues of our modern world is suffering from today. It also provides much hope, in how our elders have been on better terms with nature.
War of the Roses by Conn Iggulden is a gripping retelling of the War of the Roses in four volumes. In these books, the Welsh historical fiction author brings to life 15th century England, war, discord and scheming included. Weaving several storylines in parallel to follow the intrigue in different places, Iggulden lends pace and depth to a time period obscure to many. Having started his career as a professor of English, Iggulden knows the power of rich descriptions, tactical storytelling and human tragedy. The books read very well, so well in fact that I slowed down at the end of the fourth book to prevent it from ending but it ended anyway.
My favourite books in 2020 have been the Bosch series by Michael Connelly. I have also watched the TV adaptation on Amazon Prime. No one book stands out, but all are great page-turning crime novels, with good characters and interesting plots.
As this year has been a weird one, I decided to engage in listening to more podcasts. One of my favourites is the ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’. This has been great to have on while working remotely, replacing that ‘buzzing’ noise you hear in the office. While being witty, I enjoy the range of topics discussed.
Another thing that I’ve really enjoyed this year is self-care and self-love. I’ve indulged myself by watching the “Go to bed with me” skincare routines on Harper’s Bazaar YouTube channel. I love how this year we embraced our natural skin, the bare skin trend. It’s refreshing to see that we don’t have to paint ourselves in a beautiful picture-perfect canvas. Being comfortable with our imperfections as humans.