[Updating: I am constantly updating this list as a few readers have sent in their favorites after its initial posting. I’m putting an asterisk * adjacent to the names of those whom I’ve added. I hope readers will return to this list throughout the year for possible titles of interest, and some that may not have been here Dec. 31.]
Easily this post is my Favorite (‘Book’) of the year.
Amidst some controversy, I limited contributors to just four titles with the intent of focusing more on what readers were saying about their favorites and less emphasis on how many books were cited multiple times. Whether I achieved that or not, you will no doubt tell me. Some of you have already done so, and I look forward to hearing from others about this year’s format.
To the results:
There are 228 books listed from 68 contributors, 34 female, 34 male. Nonfiction (NF) submissions slightly outweighed Fiction (F), 52%-48%, only the second time that has occurred in the 12 years we’ve been doing this.
Seven titles received three or more citing:
- Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (NF) (7)
- The Splendid & the Vile by Erik Larson (NF) (5)
- A Promised Land by Barack Obama (NF) (3)
- Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (F) (3)
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (F) by Kim Michele Richardson (NF) (3).
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (F) (3)
- Deacon King Kong by James McBride (F) (3)
Seventeen others were cited twice. Had contributors been able to submit more than four favorites, I suspect there would have been a significant increase of these and other titles cited.
I hope you will take the time not only to check out your own submissions and those of people you know but of other contributors too, readers you don’t know. For me, everyone participating is a friend (some of whom I’ve known more than 50 years), and I have interest in what they’re reading and enjoying and think you may also. Some of their choices I can assure you will be unfamiliar to you but certainly are ones worth considering.
If you’re frustrated by not being able to list more than four, you’ll see at the end of the post how you might add more of your own favorites to this year’s post. You’ll also see what others are adding.
Additionally, you’ll find links to the three 2020 mid-year posts, and for those who really have little to do, you can link to any or all of the annual lists starting in 2009.
The list below is alphabetical by first name, and any errors are solely my responsibility. Let me know if I need to make corrections.
The 2020 Favorite Reads from MillersTime Contributors
As for what I’ve been reading, it’s yin and yang. On the one hand I have delved deeply and continuously into Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (NF) and been a part of several discussion groups about it. That woman is a genius writer — how she did all that research and then crafted the information without sounding like a rant is astounding.
On the other hand, I’ve done some lighter reading, prompted by my book group that wanted an escape. I’ve now read a couple of British writer Jojo Moyes books. That woman can write in a page-turner way. I was ready for a “happy ending/bad guys lose/good guys win” book. The two titles I consumed are The Giver of Stars (F) and One Plus One (F).
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (NF). Memoir of ceramicist Edmund de Waal, his family, the Ephrussis Family – which was a Jewish banking family in Paris/Vienna in the 19th Century. The story is told by tracing the history of Japanese netsuke (small carved figures) which were passed down through 5 generations of the family. Can be a little slow at times but the family’s story is very interesting.
Billion Dollar Brand Club by Lawrence Ingrassia (NF). Interesting story about all of the billion dollar internet brands including Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker.
The Warburgs by Ron Chernow (NF). Long but amazing story about an amazing Jewish banking family
The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonthan Kaufman (NF). Maybe my favorite of the year. Gives the reader a great understand about how China developed its relationship with the west today told through the story of two Jewish families that emigrated to China from Iraq.
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (F). I usually read books instead of listening. This book changed my thinking about audio books. Akhtar is a story teller whose compelling voice explores family, identity, relationships, and allegiances. Though fiction, it richly borrows from Akhtar’s experiences growing up in an immigrant family in a frayed America. This is fiction that feels like nonfiction.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (NF). If Homeland Elegies is fiction that reads like nonfiction, this is the opposite: nonfiction that reads like fiction. A portrait of leadership during a most troubled time May 1940 – May 1941, I valued reading about how a great, though flawed, statesman rescued civilization. Stark contrast to the dangerous leadership of this country’s last four years.
The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant (NF). (Thank you Ellen Miller for recommending this book.) It is about Natchez, MS: the eclectic, colorful locals; the city’s culture, social, class and caste systems; the legacies of its slave owner families; its struggles with its past and present racism; its future viability. If you know New Orleans and its idiosyncrasies, Natchez makes NOLA seem rather dull. The book is alternately amusing, poignant, nauseating, and cringe worthy.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle. (NF). An excellent read for anyone who is looking to work on themselves and find their power. It is more geared toward women but also good for anyone going through a divorce.
Any and all books by Anthony Williams, the Medical Medium. I read his books ten years ago and thought he was too extreme, but now I find that I love most of what he says. He is the person behind the celery juice craze. His Liver Cleanse book (NF) is superb, as well as his Life Changing Foods book (NF). I drink celery juice all the time and also drink his detox smoothie almost every day.
I am now reading the book Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump (NF) about DT. She really understands his mental illness issues so well, and I find it all fascinating and disgusting and sad all at the same time.
The Final Four of favorite reads: I have clearly read a lot this year with not much else to do. I prefer the historical books, as you will note below, but I do enjoy sprinkling in the mysteries and novels. So here are my four — a VERY difficult choice
Return to the Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis by Eric Lichtblau (NF). A German Jew escapes Nazi Germany, fleeing to the US, joins the US forces and infiltrates back into Nazi Germany to help win the war.
A Rumored Fortune by Joanna Politano. (HF). Tressa Harlowe and her mother return to an estate in southern England where her father, recently deceased, has buried a fortune . . . but has told no one where it is. In dire financial straits but with the assistance of the vineyard manager, she works to find the treasure . . . does she find it? A fun and well-written mystery which is a good relief in these times.
The Indomitable Florence Finch by Robert Mrazek (NF). A true WWII story, but it takes place in the Phillippines. Finch, a Fillipino, is a go-getter and brave woman who defies the Japanese occupiers, diverts tons of oil which is sold on the black market to provide funds which she uses to buy food and medicine which is secretly diverted to American POWs. She wins the Presidential Medal of Freedom but never tells her family about her heroics for 50 years. This is an amazing story and very much worth the read. And it is a very different take on WWII as it focuses on the war in the Pacific arena.
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (F). If you like mysteries, try Yokomizo; her Japanese mysteries are very good.
I have devoured Ken Follett’s beautifully written trilogy’s. The Evening and the Morning (F) (prequel to Pillars of the Earth), and it does not disappoint. It’s a long and wonderful read.
My favorite novel of all times is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (F). Walter’s latest novel, The Cold Millions (F), is focused two brothers trying to find their way during Wobblie organizing in the Northwest US. I couldn’t put it down.
I picked up Deacon King Kong by James McBride (F) from the Miller Time list and was not disappointed.
I haven’t read as much as I wanted to this year. Been kind of busy, busier than I ever imagined.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman (NF). For many years, my image of humans left to their own devices would resort to mayhem and chaos. Well not totally. I didn’t want to go that route since it seemed so dark and unforgiving. I must admit that the story of schoolboys gone mad in the Lord of the Flies by William Golding (which I used in my classes for years), and the research on the “Zimbardo Effect” at Stanford in 1971, and by Stanley Milgram’s research with a “Shock Machine,” influenced my attitude for a long time. Spending a few days as an inmate in the Colorado State Penitentiary myself in that same year also had an effect on my beliefs.
Bregman poses a different perspective, sparked by the discovery of a moment when some Australian school boys, who were marooned on an island for a little more than a year together, suggested a different view of human kind faced with crisis. The author discloses some fallacies in previous research and provides an argument for his thesis that humans basically believe in the goodness of human kind. I found this refreshing given what we see and hear about today’s world.
Out of this reading sparked a song I wrote with my wife Kay called: “Loving Acts of Kindness”. “The Kindness of Strangers” movie is also complementary (Prime Video 2020).
An American Marriage by Taiyari Jones (F).
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (F). (Ed. This book won many prizes and was award as a ‘Best Book of 2019’ by numerous reviews.)
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (F). A psychological thriller.
It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell (F).
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (F). I got this based on an NPR story. The structure was fascinating, as two different stories starting some 17 years apart gradually merged into a true murder mystery as well a a love story, while on the way you get a picture of live in the wetlands of North Carolina. I found the ending very satisfying although others apparently haven’t
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (F). This one first came to me as an excerpt in the NYT. The book delivered. Totally absorbing story of late 60’s Brooklyn (or was it Queens) where life in a project rubs up against smuggling and organized crime in a decaying waterfront, but faith prevails in the end.
Imperfect Union by Stephen Inskeep (NF). A biography of Stephen Fremont and his wife Jessie. Fremont was a self-aggrandizing explorer who played a surprising role in the “acquisition” of California from Mexico and later as the first Republican presidential candidate, on an anti-slavery platform; Jessie publicized his adventures and provided much needed political support. Fascinating look at a lesser known piece of US history.
Grant by Ron Chernow (NF). Chernow tells us all you would ever want to know about Grant, his family., is early failures, and the less covered western campaigns in the Civil War, as well as the denouement in Virginia in 1865-65. A timely history for a our time – I’m looking forward to finishing it with his presidency and Reconstruction in the new year
Recently, I read three books by the same author because I enjoyed her writing style and because all included some accurate historical elements:
A Race to Splendor by Ciji Ware (HF). Following the 1806 devastating San Francisco fire, two woman architects rebuild two famous hotels.
That Autumn in Edinburg by Ciji Ware (HF). A compelling mystical attraction draws an American designer and a visiting Scotsman to work together to save their respective firms.
The Summer in Cornwall by Ciji Ware (HF). An American nurse and dog trainer takes her spoiled ward to her English cousins to help the youngster adjust to her Mother’s sudden death and her father’s abandonment. In Cornwall, the nurse meets a troubled veteran and together they help save the family’s estate.
I was absolutely enthralled this past year by The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish (NF). The novel is long,and I was completely absorbed, transported to another world (two of them, actually) in a way I don’t remember feeling since I was a child known to be a Bookworm. It reminds you of the sheer joy of great fiction, but also of the beauty of scholarship, history, philosophy… I could go on. Strongly recommended!
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (F) is the best thing I’ve read this year. This debut novel consists of two novellas and a coda, all seemingly unrelated, folded into a remarkable whole. The first novella follows a young editor’s affair with a decades older novelist (inspired by the author’s affair with Philip Roth). In the second novella an Iraqi-American, detained by airport customs agents, endures a wait, worthy of Kafka, while he considers the arc of his life and the country his parents left behind. The coda uses an imagined episode of Desert Island Discs (a actual BBC broadcast that explores the music that influenced, and chronicled, the lives of celebrities) to further explore some of the books themes. As a bonus, for this reader, and the Massachusetts born author, the first novella is set in NYC with the 2004 MLB Red Sox-Yankees playoff series playing in the background.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (F) tells the story of young lovers who, separately, leave Nigeria, at the time under military rule, for the West. The tale is told through the eyes of the female protagonist, Ifemelu, who punctuates her story with blog entries on issues facing Black Americans, offered by a non-American Black. My favorite aspect of the book was the author’s success in having the reader feel he was in the hairdresser’s chair, along with Ifemelu, as she had her hair braided over the course of many hours.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (HF). Given the recent infiltration of U.S. intelligence by Russian actors this might seem an anachronistic tale from a simpler time for spying. This account reads like the best spy novels, with twists, turns and near-misses, but is based on fact. If nothing else the description of the qualities the Russians look for in recruiting will stick with me – they sought a promiscuous, greedy and egotistic man.
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance (NF). This family memoir of growing up in Appalachia, dirt poor, without opportunity will stay with the reader long after the book is done. The cultural and family dynamics contributing to the economics and disintegration of the white working class there underscores his struggle. He amazingly manages to find a path out and his success is astonishing. With it comes ambivalence and maturity as life progresses. It is a passionate and personal story about loyalties, family, love and survival. It would be a great Book Club read, as well.
The Girl with Seven Names by Hyoseon Lee (NF). Unbelievable and true story of a woman’s defection from North Korea. Her perilous escape, identity crisis, family, loyalties, and brutality of the Communist regime are very real and keep the reader on edge to travel with her through the uncertainties, real danger and challenges lead to eventual success. Very engaging true story. This too is a good Book Club read.
The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate (HF). An account of three young women searching for family in the post Civil War era in the South to a modern day (1980’s) teacher who learns of their story and its vital connection to her students’ lives in Louisiana. Set in 1875 Louisiana, Hannie (freed slave), Lavinia (pampered heir to a failed plantation), and Juneau Jane (Lavinia’s Creole half sister) set off to find a stolen inheritance, and lost slave family members. Teacher Benedetta Silver gets a job at a poor school in Louisiana and stumbles upon the century old story of the three women, a long ago journey and a hidden book that reveals everything.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (NF). This is her journey after being sexually abused by a Stanford Univ student. I listened on Audible as she reads the narrative. It is extremely poignant and shows how the victim (in 2016) is still viewed as guilty. Chanel does an excellent yet laborious job of sharing her struggle to find her voice, ultimately being able to get the legal system to change. Meaningful to me as it shows how the role of woman in rape is still victimized and subjugated. Miller courageously attempts to dispel this reoccurring issue.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (F). Historical novel. First mobile library in Kentucky thanks to Roosevelt’s Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. These traveling librarians went into the Appalachia’s to dispense books to those who had no other access. Main character is part of a breed whose skin is blue, unlike others. Poignant, courageous, confronting intolerance, overcoming horrific odds…..very moving and inspiring story about the power of books.
The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates (NF). Her work with the Gates Foundation to lift up women worldwide to bring economic and health security. It is not a typical feminist approach but her strength is as an advocate based on her personal awareness from her global travels to aid the needy. Meaningful to me to see how Melinda came into her own voice to influence powerful changes in the world.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (NF). Currently listening to it on Audible. Liking what I hear as it is Obama’s voice doing the reading.
Found “reading” was a mixture of paper and audible. More disturbing was my lack of ability to concentrate. Not sure if that was because I was reading heavy BLM books, like Kendi and Wilkerson, or because it was the sign of my mental stay home state.
David P. Stang:
Biography of Silence by Pablo d’Ors (NF). Pablo d’ Ors is a 57-year-old Spanish Catholic priest, novelist and Zen meditator…whose remarkable Biography of Silence is largely about how disciplined meditation can exponentially expand your consciousness and your quality of life. His book is not meant to be a step-by-step beginner’s manual on how to meditate, but rather it explores the “what” and why” of meditation. Is intended to take you on a journey into your interior mind and demonstrate to you what can happen to your consciousness when you meditate.
The Gift Of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister (NF). The author is a Catholic nun and well known spiritual writer. She encourages us to cherish the blessings of aging and to overcome its challenges, and shows us that this is a special period of life – may be the most special of them all. Older age gives us wisdom, freedom, and prosperity of another kind. Older age enlightens – not simply ourselves but also those around us. To live these years well, we need to look at every one of them head up and alive. Life is not about the length of years we managed to get out of it rather it is about living into the values offered every day about growing older with grace.
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods (NF). Hare is an ethologist and evolutionary anthropologist who founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center. His wife Vanessa Woods is a researcher at that facility…In the past decade, we have learned more about how dogs think than in the last century. Breakthroughs in cognitive science, pioneered by Brian Hare, have proven dogs of a kind of genius for getting along with people that is unique in the animal kingdom. This dog genius revolution is transforming how we live and work with our canine friends, including how we train them. In their book they compare the consciousness of dogs to wolves, foxes, chimpanzees and bonobos and conclude that dogs are able to communicate with humans better than any of these other animals.
The Quest For Hermes Trismegistus From Ancient Egypt To The Modern World by Gary Lachman (NF). The author has published several books regarding the links between consciousness, culture, and the Western esoteric tradition…(this) spiritual adventure story traces the profound influence of Hermes Trismegistus on the Western mind. For centuries his name ranked among the most illustrious of the ancient world. Considered by some a contemporary of Moses and a forerunner of Christ…Trismegistus is one of the most influential fountainheads of spiritual consciousness and human wisdom.
These are my three memorable books. Two were read electronically. Squeeze me was in paper. I read serendipitously, no rhyme or reason. Additionally, I read less than in past years and also looked for well written and well-plotted escapism. My personal preference is for psychological suspense and page turning mysteries, spy thrillers, and police/crime procedurals filled with dramatic characters and complicated twists.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (NF). An in-depth portrait of a family plagued by schizophrenia as well as a critical and insider commentary on psychiatric trends, reflecting profound diagnostic and treatment divisions. Written with compassion and empathy and analytical insight, it is the perfect blend of compelling storytelling and methodical investigation.
Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen (F). Just for escapist fun. Laugh out loud passages. Hiassen knows his colorful south Florida characters well. With his talent for political humor, irreverence and outrageous plots, the former President, the First Lady, political supporters and a cast of quirky players are grist for his caricature and hilarious mill.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (F). It’s all about identity—race and gender. Shades of complexion, how we truly see ourselves, what the world sees, and what we wish the world to see are the themes of this multi-generational family drama. Once the light skin African-American twins, Stella and Desiree, choose separate paths, based on race and the ability to “pass” a lifetime of serious, secret, and complicated consequences are put into motion for them and their progeny.
These are my favorite reads from 2020, a year that I’ve had more time to read than usual because of Covid. Two of these books I also read in the e-book version, downloading them from my public library account (something else I discovered because of the difficulties of browsing the library).
Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose (NF). I read this before my train trip across America last summer, and I’m glad I did, as we followed part of the original transcontinental railroad route from Sacramento to Omaha. Building that railroad, especially through the sierra Nevada mountains, was an engineering marvel, and Ambrose tells the story in a very engaging way.
The Language of God by Francis Collins (NF). I was given this book by my son, and I really enjoyed it. It is written by the Director of the National Institutes of Health (Anthony Fauci’s boss), and he argues for the compatibility of science and faith. Given that much of the US population sees an inherent conflict between science and religion, it is a refreshing reminder that they need not be.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (F). I wanted to read some good fiction, and this was very much a page turner. It’s a novel based on a damaged Vietnam Vet who takes his wife and daughter to the wilds of Alaska to begin a new life.
Educated by Tara Westover (NF). An awe-inspiring memoir about the author’s upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho. The author received no formal education growing up, but eventually got into the Brigham Young University and later earned a PhD from Cambridge. A great story of grit and determination and succeeding against all odds.
As to my reading, it is one of the things that occupy much of my time. After having been so pleased with The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkinson I read her new work, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (NF). In spite of being very well documented, it reads almost like a novel. Amazing.
I am now reading Obama’s latest, A Promised Land (NF). He could have had a great career primarily as a writer; he is so talented. No ghost writer for him. What a mind!!!! His insight into what it takes to mount a campaign was overwhelming.
I didn’t read that much this year but here are a few notables. I read ZERO non-fiction this year. I guess the whole point of any limited reading I did was to escape and turn my brain off. My book club has been on hiatus since we haven’t been able to meet outside. Samantha and Brooke’s [Ed. Elizabeth’s daughters] favorites are below mine!
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (F). We read this for my Kansas City Book Club, and while I did not particularly “enjoy” reading it, it was one of the most thought provoking books I read all year. I say I didn’t enjoy it because I felt it was very hard to read and was almost painful at points, and I had to put it down. It made me feel so uncomfortable, but it was extremely gripping and made for an interesting conversation. I definitely recommend reading it, with that caveat that it’s not going to be a fun/light read. It’s sort of like how “Six Feet Under” was one of my favorite TV shows, despite how depressing, raw, and unsettling the entire series was, just because it made you feel so much.
All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth (F). Pick a book with an eerie mystery and throw in a boarding school and there’s probably a good shot that it’s going to be one of my favorite books of the year. No exception here; it was an enjoyable read that I couldn’t put down that helped me escape!
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (F). Suggested by many other MillersTime readers, it was a great psychological thriller. I did not see the twist at the end. A good thriller will always make a reader second-guess himself/herself, right?
The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (F). According to Goodreads, I didn’t give any books five stars in 2020 (maybe I was grumpy for some reason), but I would have given this one 4.5. It tells the story of two tragedies that happen in the summer of 1986 in Oklahoma and what happens twenty-five years later when those people attempting to solve the cases come together.
Brooklyn Tilis, 3+
The Monster at the End of This Book, part of the Sesame Street Books
The Ten Thank You Letters by Daniel Kirk
Should I Share My Ice-Cream by Mo Willems
The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems
Samantha Tilis, 4 3/4
Dragons Love Tacos and Dragons Love Tacos 2 by Adam Rubin
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems
Mix It Up, Press Here, Let’s Play (3 separate books) by Herve Tullet
There were many good books this year to choose from – and so, so much time. In addition to the best-sellers and prize-winners that I read and that truly deserved high praise (ones the ‘Editor’ of this blog refused to let me include here, but ones I will list AFTER this post is published…see Footnotes in the Comment section under my name). I also thought very highly of a number of books by authors whose work received less attention.
Here are the four outstanding ones that I want to recommend this year.
If you’re from the South, The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant (NF) was an outstanding glimpse of a modern day city still coping with its past. A story of a southern town and how it reconciled (or not) time-worn traditions and racial justice. The book is full of wonderful characters and stories.
If you’re interested in new authors, especially with a gift for slightly off-beat story-telling, you want to get to know Ottessa Moshfegh. This year she released Death in Her Hands (F). It’s a fascinating book about aging and reality, art and imagination and as a bonus it starts with a murder “mystery.” Stylistically, it reminded me of one of my previous favorites — Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones.
I loved the book Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (F). It fictionalizes an account of the real-life relationship between Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula) and the two stars of Victorian theatre Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. It takes place in Victorian London in the late 1800’s and is a clever story of friendship, love and loyalty, and a whole lot more. Besides the story, the characters and the gifted writing, my admiration for this book was likely increased by my lack of ability to attend live theater in 2020.
And one other to add to the list: Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia by Chris Hamby (NF). I just finished this book before this writing deadline and moved it to the top of my “don’t miss” list. It tells a story of the miners who since the 1960s have fought for their rights to benefits for their illnesses and the attorneys, doctors, judges, and mining companies who fought them (and some who fought with them). You may know of the general outline of this story, but it’s the details that grab you all along the way. The work leading up to the book earned the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting.
I have been reading much more than usual during the last 9 months with my preference being for fiction, especially historical fiction, mostly read on a Kindle. Being very visual, I get too distracted listening to audio books. Also I like not having the clutter of books hanging around and I like being able to hold my kindle comfortably with one hand while lying on my back or sitting in a recliner! I prefer newly published novels and discovering new authors, but I also enjoy reading highly claimed novels that are decades old.
I have already talked about my two most favorite books of the Covid months in previous posts, here and here. Since that last book list, I have read a few more books I have liked, three of them on similar themes dealing with racial and family conflict in the south set in the first half of the 20th century. I have been drawn to exploring issues of the origins of our country’s racial inequity.
Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera (F). It’s set in 1920’s South Carolina and focuses on three women, one black, two white whose stories intertwine. Their family dramas are set against the cotton decline in the South due to a boll weevil infestation. The characters are richly depicted and the mother daughter relationships are compelling.
The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate (F) has two major story lines, alternating between a contemporary new teacher trying to motivate her impoverished students and a story of their ancestors. The most interesting story was the one set in Louisiana in the years right after the Civil War focusing on three young women, black, white and biracial who are searching for family and identity in the years right after the Civil War.
The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau (F) is a beautifully written Pulitzer Prize winning novel from the early 1960’s about prejudice and family secrets over several generations. Again themes of strong southern women and racial prejudice dominate.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (F), author of Room, is probably my favorite book of the last few months. Set in Ireland in 1918, the book tells the story of a nurse/midwife working in a maternity ward of a hospital caring for several pregnant women, all with Spanish Flu. Not only was it fascinating to learn more about that pandemic and early 20the century obstetrics, but the character relationships were richly described and developed. Themes around War World I, Irish Independence, feminism, sexual identity, love and death made this a very satisfying read.
Emily Nichols Grossi:
Thank god you limited us to four. I have hardly been able to read or focus this year so was feeling sheepish about what would have been a minimalist list. And now that’s the goal! :)
I really, really struggled to read this year. My overarching stresses were the pandemic and having everyone home + the election. Those left me with little ability to sleep, focus, or read beyond brief works, and although I missed reading, I will bid farewell to 2020 with some wonderful books in memory and on my shelf of favorites.
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, (F). I’m still on my Irish literature tear and have been meaning to read O’Brien. Recently, I heard that The Country Girls, three novels (written: 1960, 1962, 1964) and an epilogue in one book, was an inspiration for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. While I have not been able to get into My Brilliant Friend, I was nonetheless intrigued by The Country Girls being even more of a seminal work than I’d thought. So, I jumped in and, thirty pages later, was hooked.
The story follows two “country” girls from Western Ireland through child- and adulthood and all the associated angst and joy and reality. The characters are flawed but real, and I often disliked them even when I wanted to hug and help them. I really, really enjoyed this compilation. Irish writers so often have phenomenal character development and can really tell a story, with depth, empathy, candor, and fun.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (NF) was absolutely excellent and terrifyingly relevant. A must-read about the American ambassador to Germany, stationed in Berlin, during Hitler’s ascent prior to WWII, I was riveted and both marginally comforted and significantly freaked out by the ways in which history seems to repeat itself because of human fallibility, thirst for power, unwillingness to face reality, ignorance, and hope.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (F). This novel, about a Mexican woman and her son escaping cartel violence in Acapulco by attempting to get to el norte, is riveting, horrific, gorgeous, educational, and unforgettable. It’s nearly 400 pages long, and I read it in maybe two days; I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, put it down. You may have heard about the backlash against American Dirt, based on Cummins’ being only partly Latina: who gets to tell whose stories? I found the book magnificent and moving and think it’s absolutely worth reading.
Every book by Tana French, (F). Her mysteries are utterly transportive, well-written tales with terrific characters and terrific senses of place.
Absolutely American by David Lipsky (NF).
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (F).
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (F).
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (F).
I did not read to escape from this strange year. I read to understand better the challenges confronting us. I picked three challenges — the pandemic, institutional racism, and the environment (see here) — and the books that brought me a deeper understanding.
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (NF). The information about the so-called Spanish Flu was fascinating. But Barry’s “side trips” into the history of medicine in the US, the founding of Johns Hopkins University, the role of the media, Woodrow Wilson’s leadership (or lack thereof) and the Versailles Peace Conference were all fascinating and relevant to our time.
For a deeper understanding of institutional racism, in and outside America, against African-Americans and other races and ethnic groups:
The Yield by Tara June Winch (F) showed institutional racism in Australia and won that country’s top literary award. Written by an Aboriginal woman, it described centuries of racism, colonial violence, oppression and environmental destruction. But it also offered hope through a new generation and a celebration of the Wiradjuri people through their language.
The Hemingses of Monticello, An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed (NF). In this meticulously researched work, Gordon-Reed tells the Jefferson/Hemings story by focusing on the Hemings family, the enslaved women and men who worked in Jefferson’s house and lived there as servants to their father and siblings. An important read for me in the time of Black Lives Matter as I try to understand systemic racism more deeply.
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (F). In this searing work of auto-fiction an American-Pakistani Muslim man describes America today, the promise and the reality; what it means to be treated as an outsider and to want to belong without losing your identity.
During the quarantine lock down, (which still goes on; I’m an introvert but this is ridiculous), I decided to read four long poems in English about which I had heard but never read. So I read one by Wordsworth, one by Melville, and one by Lord Byron. The final one of the four leads my list for 2020. (Note from the Editor: These final two sentences have been edited to keep Garland within the prescribed four submissions.)
The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning (Poem). This long dramatic poem, of 21,000 lines, was Robert Browning’s best work and was a bestseller in the 1800s. It tells the story, in 12 books of a murder trial in Rome in 1698. Each book is narrated by a different person involved with the trial, thus giving a Roshomon effect way before Roshomon the short story and the film. Browning focuses on human nature and the meaning of truth in human affairs. Browning also tells how he found the description of the trial in a used bookstore in Rome.
The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester (F). Tom Hanks wandered into a used book store in New York and found this novel, first published in 1955. Hanks liked the novel so much, he made a film, Greyhound, based on it. Unfortunately the Covid epidemic prevented the film from being released. The longest battle of World War II was the battle against U-boats in the Atlantic, and one of the hardest tasks was to shepherd convoys across the Atlantic. The splendid novel puts us inside the head of Ernie Krause, the captain of the Keeling, a destroyer and the lead ship of a convoy of 37 boats traveling across the North Atlantic in 1942. The reader is never permitted a moment’s escape from Krause’s brain. The Good Shepherd takes place over 48 sleepless hours as Krause’s convoy comes under attack from the Nazi submarines—the U-boats that sank nearly 4,000 Allied vessels over five years and caused the loss of more than 70,000 men in what came to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic.
Norwood by Charles Portis (F). This road trip novel of the 1960s is my favorite novel. I am not saying that it’s a great novel, but it is either a minor great novel, or a great minor novel. It certainly is not a minor novel. Like Charles Portis, I am from Arkansas, and like Charles Portis, I worked at the New York Herald Tribune. Portis died in February at the age of 86 and was one of the great American chroniclers of the 20th-century bizarre, erasing the distinctions between normal and abnormal. This novel like his others is characterized by dry ice witty dialog and a vivid sense of the absurd.
Out of the American Neon Desert of Roller Dromes, chili parlors, The Grand Ole Opry, and girls who want “to live in a trailer and play records all night” comes ex-marine and troubadour Norwood Pratt. Sent on a mission to New York by Grady Fring, the Kredit King, Norwood has visions of “speeding across the country in a late model car, seeing all the sights.” Instead, he gets involved in a wild journey that takes him in and out of stolen cars, freight trains, and buses. By the time he returns home, Norwood has met his true love, Rita Lee, on a Trailways bus; befriended Edmund B. Ratner, the second shortest midget in show business and “the world’s smallest perfect fat man”; and helped Joann, “the chicken with a college education, ” realize her true potential in life.” — goodreads.com
Actually it is a great novel.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (NF). For book lovers, this book is a snare and an enchantment, or entrapment. The author, who is British, gives brief vignettes of 99 authors who have been successful but are now largely forgotten. He concentrates primarily on British authors, but the book is endlessly fascinating. Each reader will think of authors he should have included and will learn of authors of whom had no knowledge. Many of the authors were monstrously productive. Fowler, the author of this book has also been monstrously productive, and it is perhaps ironic that I had never heard of him. It is also ironic, perhaps deliberately, that one of the authors he discusses is Brigid Brophy who in 1967 published Fifty Works of British and American Literature We Could Do Without.
Way Back in 1989 I read a book called, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I have always had a taste for historical novels, and this one caught my eye. It was the beginning of four novels set in medieval twelfth century England. Pillars of the Earth follows the careers of Tom, a master builder and an ambitious monk dreaming of building the world’s largest Cathedral.
Volume two: World Without End is set two hundred years after Pillars of the Earth. Like our own time, the history, science, and politics are overshadowed by the single most destructive disaster to affect humanity until that time, The Black Death.
Volume Three, Kingsbridge continues the story. Kingsbridge Cathedral watched the 15th century unfold with religious, civil and wars tearing their culture apart.
Which brings me to the book I just read.
The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett (F). This is a prequel to the other three novels. Set in 997 CE, the participants are on the footnote of a new historical time, The Middle Ages. The Characters are rich and colorful. Like the first Robin Hood movie I ever saw.
Edgar, a boat builder whose natural talents inspire him to go build buildings, bridges and ultimately establish the first footprints of the town that one day will be called “Knightsbridge.” I found the book to be a page turner.
My 98-year-old Aunt and I share Kindles. So, we read a lot of books at the same time. I thought I would ask her for a review. She had a little trouble remembering the whole story, but when I pressed her, she said, “Since when do history books have so much sex in them?”
Maybe a new Netflix movie.
The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart by Alice Walker (F). A quote from the back cover says, “Alice Walker gives us stories based on the rich wisdom of her own experience.” In the Reader’s Guide which follows she says, “I started thinking that it would be interesting to write fiction as a mature adult and know exactly where the characters and themes came from.”
The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters by Wes Moore (NF). A memoir by a talented and high achieving young man looking deeply into his life, and with a lot of gas still left in his tank.
Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo (NF). The daughter of immigrants goes to the Mississippi Delta “to teach American History” and has her life changed.
The Hidden Garden by Kate Morton (F). A mystery with several related characters written with their several points of view, moving back and forth in time and place from 2005 to 1905, all in search of the identity of a grandmother, who at the age of four, had been put on ocean going boat. The novel’s structure is unique and important to the telling in a way that contributes to the unraveling of her life.
Giovanni’s Room (F) and The Fire Next Time (NF) by James Baldwin. I just discovered him. He’s a brilliant author.
In the past year I’ve started reading books that gave me a clearer view into history. I read Uncommon Arrangments: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1919-1939 by Katie Roiphe (NF), a book discussing the unique relationships of many couples in the literary world.
Female Husbands: A Trans History by Jen Manion (NF), an historical account of women who posed as men and married women. It’s important to understand that LGBTQA+ and trans issues aren’t modern, and they aren’t new. It’s even more important to understand how they aren’t ‘white’ problems. Too often people of color get left behind when people demand recognition of their gender identity. We saw this with the woman’s movement, with suffragism. This is why I loved reading Baldwin’s work; he spoke clearly of his pain of being both black & gay.
This is the time when people’s stories of not fitting in, of being different, of hiding, need to come out.
I do have one recommendation…though not a book.
Heather Cox Richardson writes a daily post. called Letters from an American (NF). She is a BC history professor and author, and Louise and I read her column daily and know that one day she will turn her postings into a book…so call this an advanced review. Her columns are thoughtful, often historical in nature, helping us understand the progression of America to its present place on the world stage.
Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu (F).
State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang (F). Winner of the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction.
The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (NF), authors of Why Nations Fail.
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich (NF). A New York Times Notable Book of 2020.
I narrowed 56 down to 10, then 8; then had a tough time winnowing to 4. Strange year for books – and read a lot of Atlantic and New Yorker articles instead.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (F). A moving story about a Ghanaian family living in Alabama, from the author of Homegoing, which was on my list of favorites in 2018. Yaa Gyasi’s characters are unforgettable.
Memorial Drive – A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Tretheway (NF). Like Transcendent Kingdom, this book also tells a moving mother-daughter story, but as a gripping memoir of life in the segregated South.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF). This book was especially timely for the summer of 2020, giving us another perspective on racial injustice. Her earlier book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was on my list of favorites in 2014.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson (NF). Though I’ve read several books about Churchill (and especially liked Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham), I learned even more in this fascinating history. A great diversion from current events.
Always an end-of-year highlight!
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser (NF). The book focuses on Baker’s staff work, which included running five presidential campaigns, serving as White House Chief of Staff, and Baker’s work on the Bush v. Gore lawsuit and the Iraq Study Group. That gives the book a different emphasis and content from standard political biographies, though the descriptions of Baker’s terms as Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of State are interesting, too. Baker and Glasser are terrific writers and researchers.
Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space by Kevin Peter Hand (NF). While earth-like planets are very rare, it appears that a surprisingly large number of planets and moons have underground bodies of water that could feasibly support life. The book is fascinating in two ways. First, you learn a lot about how astronomers and physicists draw inferences about objects in the universe. Second, the book makes a surprisingly strong case that we might find other forms of life in our solar system within the next few decades.
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich (NF). The book explains how people living in the West have psychological profiles that are distinct from people living in other parts of the world. Henrich traces that psychological divergence to the Catholic church’s unique regulation of marriage. Then he argues that those restrictions reshaped social relations in ways that laid the foundations for modern economic development. This gives the reader a ton of interesting knowledge about the “deep histories” of psychology, culture, and economics.
The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr (NF). A fascinating assessment of what it takes to make supermarkets function. My favorite chapters involved a deep-dive into the strategic concept behind Trader Joe’s, a discussion of how supermarkets negotiate with producers, and an investigation of labor practices in Thailand’s shrimping industry. All of the essays are beautifully written and well researched.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (NF).
His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham (NF) .
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (F). Occasionally you pick up the right book at the right time: with all the seriousness of 2020, I needed a book about septuagenarians who solve crime.
Stalin Waiting for Hitler 1929-1940 by Stephen Kotkin (NF).
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (NF).
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer (NF).
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF). Like her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson has written a scholarly yet passionate, dense but highly readable book explaining the origins of the racial divide. Though thoroughly researched, her points are mostly supported by stories — wonderful, memorable stories. Each chapter gave me a new idea to think about, and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of this subject. Only once we understand it can we resolve it. Don’t miss this one.
Off the Radar by Cyrus Copeland (NF). My favorite reads are well-written books about real people doing amazing things, and this book, recommended by the national Chautauqua reading group, fits that description (as do the next two books). Copeland grew up in Iran, son of an Iranian mother and an American father. Years after his father’s death, he feels the need to learn more about his father, who was not one of the American hostages in the 1970s but who was imprisoned in Iran during the exact same time. Was his father a spy? That question hangs over much of the book, so we have an international suspense story and an autobiography as well as a biography of both his parents. It was hard to put down.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (F). I reviewed this book a few years ago, re-read it this year, and it holds as one of the best fiction books I’ve ever read. World War II, love story between a blind French girl and a German soldier, but much more. Each chapter is very short, and at first they seem disconnected; one of the treats of reading it is seeing how they all converge. It spares none of the horrors of the war in Europe but balances that with much beauty of spirit.
Another repeat read during Covid, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (NF). Like Seabiscuit, another book I loved, this is about a subject I had no interest in: competitive rowing. But the best writers can tell a tale about almost anything and draw the reader in. This one held up to a second reading well. Real people, real life can be as amazing as any fiction.
This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger (F). This was a favorite from the first half of the year but remains high on my list. It is about four orphans who flee from the Lincoln Indian Training School and travel by canoe down the northern Mississippi River during the summer of 1932. Their journey is full of the people they meet along the way and the life changing experiences they have. Each of the kids struggles with their own tragedies and demons and find peace as the book unfolds.
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (F). This is a multi generational book set on the island of Jeu in Korea between the 1930s and present time that chronicles the lives of two female friends and the twists and turns that their lives take them and the ensuing impact on their friendship. The book is focused on the traditional custom of women divers who are the primary income earners for their families. I did not know about this custom and family dynamic in this secluded area of Korea and was fascinated to learn about it as well as how a small island in Korea weathered the world’s events of the 20th Century, including Japanese Colonialism, WWII, and the Korean War.
The Gilded Years by Karen Tanabe (F). This book is about a young African American women from Boston who attends Vassar College in the late 1890s passing as a white girl. The book takes place during her senior year when she becomes friends with a most influential group of white girls. She knows that pursuing this high life including, a wealthy white suitor from Harvard, is putting her secret at risk. This was an interesting read this summer as the topics of continuing prejudices and social injustices were so heightened.
Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie (F). This book is set in Japan post WWII and is about a young girl abandoned by her birth mom with her imperial grandparents. The grandparents are worried that she will put a blemish on the family name and banish her to the attic. Fortunately her half-brother comes into her life and through him she is able to find her own way as she navigates her childhood, teen years, and young adult life. This read is not dissimilar to other Asian family stories but a nice read.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Mitchell Richardson (F). There is some interesting history behind the story and the author and an excellent read.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano (F) which is based on a true story of a young Dutch boy who like Edward was the sole survivor of a plane crash.
Cannot possibly limit it to four, but here’s my favorites:
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (F).- Booker winner and deserved it .
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (F). Well written saga of a failing marriage and our failing all children at the border.
Read lots of good old stuff—D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Wolf
Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk (NF).
Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 by Peter Schjeldah (NF). Brilliant essays from the soon to be deceased New Yorker art critic.
Going to try to read The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart by Alicia Garza. Our university is coordinating a sort of reading group/book club over the winter break. Garza founded the Black Lives Matter movement.
My reads below:
Misplaced by Gabriell Struble (F). This is a novel written by one of my graduate students in our Mental Health Counseling program at Alfred University. It concerns a young person living in a residential treatment setting who struggles with mental illness. Struble originally developed it as a screenplay for her undergraduate theater class. The book follows the main character’s recovery as he is “forced to relive his past and prepare himself for a future in a society that makes him feel so out of place.”
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (F). Cannot believe it took me this long to read a Bukowski book – glad I started with this one, a real shit-show (in a good way) and what has been hailed as his best novel. My son was reading it for a college class and recommended it. This one is the first of a trilogy that details the character’s childhood and adolescence experiences, which are rough, even cruel at times, and yet Bukowski manages to provide humor throughout. Sadly during his adolescence he learns to cope through alcohol use (too much), but at the same time discovers his gift for poetry.
Not Without Peril: 150 Years Of Misadventure On The Presidential Range Of New Hampshire by Nicholas Howe (NF).
This past summer I completed my 46th High Peak (Mount Skylight) in the Adirondack Mountains, so I was intrigued to read up on a different mountain range that was somewhat close by. This book is a collection of several different true-to-life stories, beginning in the late 19th century up through the present day, in which the author investigates the many tragedies of hikers attempting various ascents in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Mindful Running by Mackenzie Havey (NF): Mindful Running is an area of interest to me, both personally and professionally. This book is a guide for how individuals can incorporate mindfulness into their running routine in order to improve overall well-being. What I most liked about this book is that it is written from a foundation of scientific research, offers anecdotal contributions from professional runners, and has a number of practical strategies that can be applied during runs.
China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism by Rana Mitter (NF). This Oxford Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China writes well and very deeply about the changing ways that China’s war with Japan from 1931 to 1945 has been viewed, and used, by Chinese scholars and the government to shape China’s perception about its rightful place in the history of the world and of Asia in particular. If you want to have any possibility of understand what China is trying to do on many fronts, the way it sees its role during this period is crucial.
Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise by Scott Roselle and Natale Hell (NF). The focus is on the huge educational divide between the (relatively few) students in Chinese urban areas (who are being educated to high standards) and the majority of the country’s students who live in rural areas (70% of the country) who are hopelessly not prepared to participate in China’s future economy. Based on REAPs work in China for the past two decades, as China’s economy changes to embrace computers and technology and sophisticated manufacturing and as it engages in direct competition with the economies of the growing countries in Asia, this lack of basic education of 2/3 of its population will gravely affect China’s efforts to raise its economy into the top rank. A failure would have a major international impact. China is aware of the problem but is uncertain how to deal with it.
The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century by Jonathan E. Hillman (NF). China has undertaken an enormous program of expanding its trade routes into Europe, the Middle East and Africa by high speed train and very large container-carrying freighters, and they are doing this in ways that are clearly designed to give them control of this trade, its ports and rail-lines and, by extension, the economies of its “partners”. A careful study of the many ways this is playing out and the many reasons that it is a very difficult stumbling gamble for China.
Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany by Dwight Garner (Ref.), former Senior Editor of the NYT’s Book Review and a person in love with writers and their skill at putting words together to generate memorable lines or phrases. He collected them for years and one day decided to shake the bag, dump everything out, and found that it was filled with gorgeous nuggets of wisdom, wit, sorrow, wonder, scorn, humor, and all of the other reasons for writing. A book of quotations for the perceptive reader who enjoys one-sentence perfect summaries of many, many topics. Pleasant to open to any page and get lost.
The Perfect Weapon by David Sanger (NF). Fascinating survey of the development, usage, and future of cyber warfare, by the NY Times’ top national security reporter. Even beyond today’s headlines, the future is frightening.
Facebook by Steven Levy (NF). The inside story of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. If you haven’t already dumped Facebook, you probably will after reading this.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (F). Lovely story about an elderly Polish woman who loves animals more than humans. Extremely so.
Miss Iceland by Audur Ava Olafsdottir (F). A delightful little book about a young Icelandic woman in the early 1960s who wants to be a novelist, and her unconventional relationships with a gay man and a poet. Straightforward and charming – an excellent literary sorbet to offset a terrible year.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively (F). A wry, wise story about the surprising ways lives intersect. An easy, but thoughtful, read.
The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani (F). Nothing prepares Jaya, a New York journalist, for the heartbreak of her third miscarriage and the slow unraveling of her marriage in its wake. Desperate to assuage her deep anguish, she decides to go to India to uncover answers to her family’s past.
Dutch House by Ann Patchett (F). The story explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go. “‘Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?’ Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
American Prison by Shane Bauer (NF). In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an expose about his experiences and the history of American prisons.
Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattis (NF).
The New York Times book review said it was “fascinating. A sweeping and authoritative history,” and named it one of its notable books of 2020.
Ghattis seamlessly weaves together history, geopolitics and culture to deliver a gripping read of the largely unexplored story of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, born from the sparks of the 1979 Iranian revolution and fueled by American policy. She explores how Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shea Iran, once allies and twin pillars of US strategy in the region, became mortal enemies after 1979. Ghattis dispels accepted truths about a region she calls home.
Lydia Hill Slaby:
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (F) and The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss (F), both of which I talked about in one of your previous posts, still haunt.)
The Story of B by Daniel Quinn (F). Daniel Quinn has a recipe for his books, starting with Ishmael, that generally involves a teacher and a student, teaching and learning about a different perspective on the evolution of humanity, why we are so convinced of our own superiority, and how that perspective is driving us to extinction. The wonderful thing about B is that the teachings are all summarized in a series of “speeches” in the back of the book, so the reader doesn’t need to be dragged through the Socratic aspects of Ishmael to get the point. And quite a point it is.
The Woods by Tana French (F). The entire series of crime novels set in and about Dublin by Tana French are extraordinary. (The Woods is simply the first — reading them in order is not necessary.) Beautifully written with a wry perspective on humanity, they are complex, well-plotted, and entirely consuming.
The Paris Hours by Alex George (F). Set in 1927, this short novel feels like taking a walking tour through Paris. One encounters familiar residents of the time along with a cast of very different characters who tell engaging stories. I couldn’t put it down.
I did not read much this year…but I did read and really enjoyed:
The Captured by Scott Zesche (NF), a rather obscure book as it is an example of a slice of US History that I knew nothing about. It is a true story of abduction by the Indians on the Texas frontier. It was fascinating on several levels: the life of those settles in N Texas after the Civil War, the inside view of the life of the Indians during that time period, and the experience the white kids who were abducted had and what happened to them when they were returned to their families.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (F). It is based on history in 1936 in the hollers of Kentucky and illustrates the plight of coal miners, poverty, and the Blue People. It is well written, well researched, and gave me an insight into that area and Blue People with just the right amount of intrigue.
I only read books. However, because DC Public Schools is only on-line, and I had to read The Other Wes Moore and The Narrative of the Life of a Slave to help the students @ McKinley Tech, I read them on my computer. Hated every minute of that, though the books were good.
The four best books I’ve read in 2020:
The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison (F) I’ve read a couple of her later books, but I’d never read this one. The DC Schools kids who I tutor read it in maybe 9th grade. I work w/ 10-12, but it helps if I’ve read what they’ve read. NOBODY does what Morrison does—emotional & cerebral at the same time.
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (F). I read it because I’m going to read “all of Dickens.” By 1855, when publication started, he had serialization nailed, so the book is longer than it ought to be (b/c that’s good for sales—he kept it going for two years—he would’ve loved writing for TV). What’s interesting is watching his female characters evolve and become more three-dimensional as his career moved forward.
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (NF). It’s just a slender collection of her speeches. She repeats herself in them (fortunately), but that is not a negative. It’s exciting that a young lady on the spectrum has such a voice and now reaches such a wide audience. Our planet depends on people like her.
A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris (NF). I’ve been on a Wales kick since visiting there in 2018. When I read this, she wasn’t yet The Late Jan Morris. She writes about place the way Simon Schama writes about the intersections of culture and the way Mark Helprin writes about people and the way Lewis Thomas writes about biology and the way Annie Dillard writes about, um, everything. Jan Morris was a “travel writer,” but she was also a poet.
White Too Long by Robert P Jones (NF). This short book documents the link between White Christianity and White Supremacy in the US. The author grew up in Georgia, Texas and Mississippi, and was fully involved as a child in church activities. At a seminar at age 20 he become aware of the white supremacist roots of his family’s Christianity. He now is the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute that focuses on religion, culture and politics.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (F). Marina works in a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. The company learned from Dr. Swenson that Marina’s research partner died in a fever in remote Brazil where he was working. Marina was sent to Brazil to find out why he died, and to understand the status of Dr. Swenson’s project. Dr. Swenson is trying to develop a drug to simulate the ability of the women of the Lakashi tribe who are able to have children even when they are quite old. Ironically, Dr. Swenson was a medical school professor of Marina’s who was so cruel and demanding to her that Marina left medical school. The story develops in the remote Amazon, with multiple complex personal interactions. I found it a great read. Each step opens new exciting hypotheses.
Here are a few books. All of these were nonfiction, three were hardbacks, and one was on an iPad.
Herbert Hoover: A Life by Glen Jeansone (NF). During his life span from 1874 to 1964, Hoover saw and was intimately involved in a broad spectrum of changes in the world and the US. Perhaps the most qualified person ever to be involved in government, the range of his accomplishments reveal insights that have long been obscured.
The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathan Kaufman (NF). A fascinating history of two competitive Jewish families who helped shape modern China with influence extending to this day.
The Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen (NF). Who knew about the deep involvement of Jewish Americans in the Civil War? This book explains in great detail who they were and what roles they played from Senior members of the Confederate Government to soldiers on the front line.
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser (NF). A look at how our Federal Government actually runs and how policy is developed and implemented through the maze of government bureaucracy. Over several decades, James Baker held many senior roles from Chief of Staff to several presidents to cabinet positions, all the while affecting major domestic and international initiatives.
I have had a hard time focusing on reading since this horrible plague started but nonetheless have read several recommendable books. I’ve found fiction easier to get into these days which is what I’m reporting on. Hard to choose only four.
Sula by Toni Morrison (F). Morrison’s second novel, short and brilliant, about black women, sexuality and resistance. Morrison was such a gifted writer, and I hope to work my way back through reading and rereading all of her writing. Sula tells the story of two black girls, and then women, living in a small, segregated Ohio town just after WW I, who choose different paths. Sula escapes, goes to college, rejects a future as a mother and wife and lives 10 years in a series of mysterious tristes. She returns to the Ohio hometown, and is seen as rakish and a profligate. Morrison writes: “Outlaw women are fascinating – not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men.” I loved this book! Much more to say, but Richard requested only a few sentences. Toni Morrison was a genius writer.
(Walking around the bookshelves, trying to decide what’s next…)
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (F). Everisto shared the Booker with Margaret Atwood, which I thought was the Booker folks not quite ready to award what is arguably the most prestigious literary award to a little-known black author’s first novel Sigh … This energetic novel follows the adventures of 12 people, mostly women, all Black and British, many artists and performers, as they work their way through the late 20th Century. The characters are fabulous and hilarious. The novel gives the reader a terrific picture of the dynamic theater and arts scene in London and the emerging role of Black artists. It was a bit challenging to move from one character to another because I wanted to read more about each, but worth the effort.
(And now… what’s next … hmmm)
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (F).
It’s the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Bulgakov’s radical novel, although it should be the 70th anniversary because it was unpublishable during the Stalin regime when Bulgakov wrote it. This is a tough book to get into until you realize that it’s satire about Stalin and the Soviet Union and fantastic along the lines of magical realism. It retells the stories of Faust and Pontius Pilate in order to present a ferocious accounting of the Stalin period. The Devil is a hilarious character who appears here and there, often with his enormous black cat, screwing things up and making things right. Bulgakov demonstrates the deep intellectual underground resistance culture in the Soviet Union. I didn’t read the Burgin-O’Connor translation that is recommended, but I thought my translation (Pevear and Volokhonsky) was very good. My description here doesn’t do this novel justice. It’s a complicated and surreal novel. Also very funny.
(Hmmm … only one to go …. Dang …)
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (F). (Because Ann Patchett newest doesn’t need promotion although I loved it – such fun to read – how’s that for introducing a 5th recommendation?)
Crawdads is a riveting novel about a ‘swamp girl’ who (unbelievably) raises herself from age six when her father abandons her, after her mother has also left the shabby South Carolina coastal cabin. Nonetheless, unlikely as it is, this novel weaves a compelling story about her life living by her wits, ostracized by the established community but in sync with nature and the giving and taking ocean. There’s lots of South Carolina nature, drama, and a surprise ending. Great distracting read during a pandemic.
This Tender Land by Willam Kent Krueger (F).
The Searcher by Tana French (F).
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (F)
Pretty Things by Janelle Brown (F).
Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward (NF).
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (F). 2009.
Numerous Books by Tony Hillerman (F) about Navajo Indian Reservation (Four Corners area).
Agency by William Gibson (F). The sequel to The Peripheral, though it stands alone as well. Gibson’s vision of an alternative to “the Jackpot”—his term for the accelerating cascade of societal failures that may be in our future—is daring and fun to imagine. Gibson, who has a knack for coining words and phrases—“cyberspace” is his, as is the saying “the future is here but it is unevenly distributed”—says the Jackpot is what survivors of the coming collapse say to each other: I guess I hit the Jackpot. But expecting a benevolent artificial intelligence to save us from that outcome because it also wants to save itself is perhaps just too much of a technological solution to expect.
Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (F). This can almost be read as Robinson’s answer to Gibson, for in his version of the near future, humankind starts to experience the accelerating effects of climate change, but that prompts radical action. I enjoyed how Robinson set his story in motion (with the world reeling from the effects of a massive heatwave that strikes India, killing tens of millions in a few days), but after a while his story-telling turned into didactic policy promotion, and I found myself skimming the latter half of the book. Still, Ezra Klein said this was the most important book he had read this year, and I can see why it hit home with him. Robinson has a plausible vision for how we can avert disaster. In part, we may shift away from the carbon-based global economy because the people who are most victimized by it will turn to targeted violence to put a stop to whole industries (like oil and gas, air travel, and cattle farming). But, as Robinson suggests, the world’s central bankers could also remake the global economy by creating a new currency, the “carbon coin,” that will reward people who choose to keep carbon assets in the ground or sequester it successfully.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (NF). After four years of the most impulsive and dangerous president of our lifetimes, it’s a tonic to read Obama on his own presidency. But as I said in my review in The American Prospect, I was surprised that his memoir doesn’t wrestle at all with one of his cardinal political failures—his abandonment of his grassroots base after it got him elected in 2008. That said, if you’re a serious politics junkie, Obama’s retelling of most of his first term is required reading. But then you should also make sure to read several other books on his presidency, including Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, Reed Hundt’s A Crisis Wasted, Ryan Grim’s We Got People, and Michael Grunwald’s New New Deal. The first three are quite critical; the last is more sympathetic. But we still don’t have the full measure of this very talented but also flawed politician.
A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (NF). A tour de force. Connects many dots between seemingly disparate crises and shows how fundamentally cooperative humans are when circumstances require them to be, and they can break free of capitalist labor assumptions. Also very relevant to the Covid-19 crisis. As I read her description of the phenomenon of “elite panic,” when elected officials and other authorities hold back on warning the public of an impending disaster because they (stupidly) assume the masses will panic, or clamp down over harshly after a disaster strikes because they believe false reports of mayhem and rioting (such as post Katrina), I couldn’t help but think how here in NY where I live, our leadership class hesitated to take swifter action back in early March because, in part, they feared public panic. Hollywood has fed us too many stories of dystopia after disaster, when in fact, as this book shows, sometimes there is utopia instead.
My Seditious Heart by Arundahti Roy (NF). Best known for fiction, especially The God of Small Things, Roy is a poet and activist of exceptional power. Her nonfiction writing is every bit as poetic and beautiful and has a moral clarity that I found incredibly edifying this year and helped clarify my own thinking about how democracy and capitalism can be re-imagined.
What Money Can’t Buy AND The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel (NF). One of the great liberal thinkers since Rawls. Sandel has a beautiful communitarian worldview and really thoughtful critique of both American capitalism and politics — both very needed to refresh our debate about the kind of country we want and want to be.
I was also going to do Story of B by Daniel Quinn (F), but Lydia beat me to it.
It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump by Stuart Stevens (NF). The author’s career was to help the party get Republicans elected, up to the Presidential level. He has moved from being a staunch Republican to being unable to support the party. Eye-opening and food for thought, especially considering what Trump is doing now.
Ancestral Passions by Virginia Morrell (NF). Extensive, fascinating history of the Leakey family of Kenya and their archaeological work.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF). Every American should read this book as the first step to finally resolving our racial issues. Long but very readable.
On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides (NF). Excellent history of a little known part of the Korean conflict. I’ve liked everything I’ve read by this author.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson (NF). It covers the first year of Winston Churchill’s WW II tenure as prime minister of England, when the threat of a German invasion of England loomed large and Luftwaffe bombing raids were a nightly reality across that nation. The book details Churchill’s leadership and family life during that period (who knew he fancied pink PJ’s), with compelling storytelling that easily pulled me through its 500 pages, night after night. It’s an example of charismatic leadership that put country first at a time of existential crisis.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (NF). After reading Larson’s Churchill book, I thought I’d try his look at the flipside – life in Berlin as Hitler was consolidating his power, told through his experiences of the American ambassador and his daughter (and her many boyfriends). The ambassador and his family are far less compelling than Churchill’s entourage, but it is worth reading because of the parallels one sees with our own recent experience – the establishment accommodated Hitler, viewing him as inept as weak politically, and most likely to fail. Remarkably, the book was written prior to Trump’s ascension, but it should be seen as a warning.
How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson (NF). A lot has been written the past few years about the way slavery, racism, and the Civil War reverberate through our current politics. Richardson, who writes an excellent current events daily newsletter, does the history well and homes in on the way conservative politics within the American West intertwine with the better-known southern aspect of the story. Net of footnotes, it is just over 200 pages, a quick read that fills out our understanding of the current times.
Serena by Ron Rash (F). Crime fiction is my escape reading, with Appalachian Noir the subgenre I’ve embraced most recently. Serena is the story of the ruthless co-owner of logging land in the Great Smokies during the Great Depression. Serena masters the wild, the loggers, her husband, and almost everyone else in her path. Blood is shed. It’s a gripping allegory for the bare knuckled version of capitalism, written both lushly and sparely.
Peter Heng Yan Soon:
The Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference by Timothy Keller & John Inazu (NF), a collaborative book, practical and insightful on how faith-based organizations can lead and facilitate the healing process in USA.
I started reading Timothy Keller’s books about five years ago with Every Good Endeavour. It resonated with me as I had just left a job that gave me the opportunity to discover my ability to forge the common ground among conflicting parties and to work towards the common good.
So when my daughter alerted me in early 2020 that a new book, Uncommon Ground (UG), was in the works, I got in touch with my bookshop to reserve a copy. It came in May, when Singapore, like the rest of the world, was locked-down to tame the Covid-19 virus.
UG is the first book written by Timothy Keller and John Inazu with contributions from ten collaborators. With Tim and John’s first-hand narratives and masterful synthesis of each collaborator’s invaluable perspectives, UG offers rare insights and practical lessons on how to overcome the deep divides in the USA which also transcend geography and culture.
Personally, UG is a timely reminder of how my work to forge the common ground and common good is compromised when I over-identify with any political party/leader or platform as I could be living in a silo with its reinforcing echo chambers. The biggest takeaway is that “culture is a garden to be cultivated rather than a war to be won or lost” – an endeavor that requires one to reach out to others with patience, tolerance, and humility.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (F). Rollicking fun and suffused with issues of race, religion, and identity.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (F). A dramatic story that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (F). A beautiful coming of age narrative and celebration of nature.
The Good Guy List by Russ Vanderboom (F). A beautifully written story about the Joyce twins, polar opposites, coming of age during the 1960’s mid-America.
Group by Christie Tate (NF). Christie Tate enters group therapy, but she’s skeptical it can help. But the group ultimately transforms Christie, breaking down her guard, helping her process grief, and then building her back up. For fans of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Good Morning Monster, He Came In With It, or Modern Madness: An Owners Manuel.
Sway by Mathew John Bocchi (NF). Bocchi’s obsessive quest to find out exactly how his dad died on 9/11. As he searches, he is abused by an uncle, and spirals in drug abuse. Ultimately, this book is about overcoming heartbreak and shame.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb (NF). This memoir brings her grandma Bobby’s voice back to life, a force full of stories and wit. (The author saved every voicemail from her grandma). We learn about her great-grandma who escaped the pogroms, her grandmother, her mother, and herself. A celebration between a grandmother and granddaughter & a tribute to fierce and funny Jewish women.
Filthy Beasts: A Memoir by Kirkland Hamill (NF). For fans of difficult family novels – the author struggles and comes to terms with his mother’s alcoholism. A riches to rag story. Good for fans of A Wild Game, Inheritance, Long Way Home, or Running with Scissors.
In retrospect, I mostly read tragicomic memoirs in 2020 – a good reminder for me of life’s big ups and downs – and ultimately getting through it on the other side….here’s to 2021, and a brighter future.
Our Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (NF). Starting over 400 years ago, Harvard Professor of History and New Yorker essayist, Dr. Lepore describes threads in our tangled history that have led to the soon-to-depart president and the political culture that spawned him. Deeply-researched, brilliantly constructed, powerfully-expressed, Lepore gives us the history that was left out of our civics and history courses. Written in relatively short sections, allowing easy digestion, she often builds up with specific details and ends a section with a punch that reveals a ‘truth’ we hadn’t quite seen before…and connects it to our current turmoil. A friend who is a retired college professor of history, an author, and now a State Department manager, said, “This is brilliant. I am going to read it again.” Given that it’s 800 pages, that says it all.
We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century by Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of the Berkeley School of Law (NF). Mr. Chemerinsky shows there is no value-neutral judging, debunking faux ‘originalism’, he shows our charter’s purpose is democratic and effective governance, justice, liberty, and equality. As a non-lawyer this was clearly written, and not mired in the arcane details of cases. This relatively brief book makes evident the foundational values of our charter and country. Given that one party has been packing the Supreme Court, which gave the presidency to one candidate in 2000, and just decided not to take the presidency away from the candidate who won in 2020, this book is a good way to look at the Court going forward
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF). Cindy and I are listening to this breathtaking book as we drive out and back from West Virginia visiting our daughter, son-in-law, and their little dude, Kai, 7 months old. This book is arguably the most insightful book on American history and culture written in our lifetimes. There are times when it is so painful to listen to we have to stop listening to absorb and discuss it. Wilkerson, a NYTimes journalist, has done unusual research into American, Indian, and Nazi caste systems. Reading this book one will have difficulty seeing our country again as they had before. An example, did you know that the Nazis based the anti-Jewish Nuremburg laws of 1934 on American laws?
Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution by Stephen Breyer (NF). In 135 pages our brilliant and arguably most intellectually articulate jurist establishes that liberty is not just about keeping government from intruding on our freedom. Liberty means freedom to actively govern ourselves. He grounds his understanding in history, and illuminates its meaning, as interpreted by the Court, in key cases. While some of his sentences are tightly and extensively expressed, requiring a rereading to grasp their subtle and complex meaning, he is always satisfying, artful, and ingenious. This voyage is still under sail.
What could I have been thinking when I restricted the submissions to four? Hopefully some of you will click to the links below for the other ones I (and others) submitted in the three earlier Favorite Reads posts this year.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward (NF). As good as a memoir gets…about her life in Mississippi and the five men, boys, who died, how and why they died. Also about the women in her life, particularly her mother, who taught her about family and survival, about her grief, and what it means to be black in Mississippi, in the South, and in much of America. She won the National Book Award twice for Fiction – Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward is more than a gifted writer. She is a treasure and a voice and a mind that deserves to be ‘heard’.
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (F). Presented as fiction but clearly very much ‘informed’ by the author’s life and life experiences. I listened to it – which I highly recommend as Akhtar’s reading contributes immeasurably to the power of what he is imparting. Not only is he a Pulitzer award winning playwright, he is also an actor. And now he’s a novelist/memoirist as well. You feel he is telling his life story, tho he insists, in interviews, etc., that he never considered a nonfiction telling of his life because that would have been boring compared to the freedom to use the characters and circumstances to tell a story he wanted to tell. It’s a work worth your time, whether through reading or listening. Definitely one of my favorite books of the year.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (NF). Fascinating and heart-wrenching account of a family where six of the 12 children had some form of schizophrenia. Kolker was somehow able to get most of the family to participate in his research on the details of their life. The result of his balanced and thorough reporting has much to teach us, not only about what we know and don’t know about this disease, but also about parenting and family life. A chilling, true story told with great compassion, and a worthy read you will not forget.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (NF) A new way of seeing who we are, our history, and against what we are struggling…a caste society…that continues to trap us all.
As I did the Trans Siberian Express trip in September/October 2019 my reading list is heavily weighted towards Russia and its people. However, I have allowed my self to select two out of the four books from that genre.
Midnight In Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene (NF). A wonderful in depth description of the people of Russia. The mood, the fears, and the attitudes are all communicated in an easy to read manner giving the reader the opportunity to understand the dilemma of Russians today.
The New Tzar. The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers (NF). A chilling account of the rise of Putin to political power and how a spy became the leader of the Russian people, hated by many but revered by more.
Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump by Michael Cohen (NF). Fascinated by Donald Trump led me to reading most of the recent books published about him and his behaviour. I found the account by his lawyer to be perhaps the most interesting and revealing.
The Land Wars: The Dispossession of the Khoisan and AmaXhosa in the Cape Colony by John Laband (NF). The issue of land redistribution is a hot topic in South Africa today. Laband uses his knowledge of history to describe in detail the nine frontier wars between colonists (Dutch and then English) which drove the Xhosa nation out of tribal land.
All four are by Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist and an engrossing writer.
The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda by Thor Hanson (NF). Hanson spent two Peace Corps years in the early 1990’s charged with habituating gorilla groups to increase tourism for the local economy (and save gorillas).
Feathers, Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson (NF).
The Triumph of Seeds; How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson (NF).
Buzz, The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson. (NF).
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (F) (but based on a true story). The plot of the book covers the travails of a traveling library service carried out by women on horseback in rural Kentucky. I love the language of the characters and the imagery of the countryside. The author does not ignore social and political issues affecting the rural communities such as coal mining, worker exploitation, racism, oppression against women and inequality in marriage.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (F). I really enjoyed this audiobook based on a quirky set of characters with a strong will for survival in a small town in Alaska. The characters are fiercely independent, and they look out for each other. The book sheds light on domestic abuse and why women tend to stay in abusive relationships.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (F), Audiobook. This was the perfect audiobook. The chapters were based on letters to and from a prisoner from different family members. There’s a lot to unpack about marriage, love, sex, race, commitment, fatherhood, motherhood, and family.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (F). This is the type of book that is better at being remembered than read. It’s hard to watch the characters degenerate as they start to take care of the elderly patriarch of the family and start looking for ways to take short-cuts and shirk off responsibilities, setting off a series of decisions that cross moral and ethical lines.
Books I enjoyed most – the top three:
Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry (NF). In the 2011 tsunami one and only one school in all of Japan experienced the deaths of several score children and faculty. What did the surviving faculty say happened? What really happened? What was the effect on the children’s families? What transpired in the years afterward? What were the emotional effects of the tsunami on people elsewhere in northern Japan? Gifted and sensitive observation and reporting. Beautiful, luminous. By a British journalist resident in Japan for several decades and I thought it might have been the best book I read this year.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (NF). Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. A history of al-Qaeda to 9/11. Among many high points, the book recounts the uses of religion to justify mass murder, mass attacks on civilians of all faiths, and genocide. Of the Taliban, Wright posits that the “movement never had a clear idea of governing, or even much interest in it … Purification was the goal; and whenever purity is paramount, terror is close at hand.” (This warning, however, goes beyond the Taliban; al-Qaeda was not part of the Taliban.) Wright documents the uncountable times that one part of the U.S. executive branch had important evidence of the plot and refused, even when asked, to share it with another. A gripping narrative; indispensable.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (NF). The story of Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes (who grew up in D.C.) and her unicorn wunder-startup Theranos — instant complex blood analysis from a finger prick — until the company crashed and burned. Stunning and enthralling. A triumph of investigative journalism by the Wall Street Journal; the genesis and publication of this book included exemplary courage, ethics, and integrity. It may make you want to stay up all night reading.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (F). This book gives thirteen different viewpoints with sometimes only most tenuous of links between characters to achieve a darkly funny, often traumatic and wholly rewarding novel. I loved how it bounced around.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (F). It’s great stuff. Gutsy, direct writing that asks you to get caught up in its violent sweep all taking place in a single day. Like the book of revelations in the way it moves you back and forth. The structure alone is worth the effort of reading this book.
The most enjoyable book I read all year is Essays on Ethics by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (NF). Rabbi Sacks, unfortunately passed away recently. He was a scholar extraordinary. In this book, he took a weekly reading of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, and gave it the ethical meaning. As the editor describes,”Torah means teaching or instruction…The moral life is about learning and growing….calling for humility about ourselves, generosity honesty and integrity towards all.” This book gave me an understanding of our heritage , a contribution to civilization, and how I have tried to live my life…Without being didactic.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (F). Powers, who is now our neighbor in the Great Smoky Mountains, won the Pulitzer Prize for this masterpiece. Since everybody is talking about this book, you might as well go ahead and read it. I guarantee you will never look at trees, the forest, or your fellow humans exactly the same again.
Two by Richard Russo: Straight Man (F) and Everybody’s Fool (F). Russo just never lets me down. Although some of his books are quite dark, these two comedies are exquisite. For anyone who has ever worked in Academe, attended college, or been curious about what goes on behind the ivy walls, you just gotta read Straight Man.
Tanya Chernov Smith:
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (NF). Never before have the woes and privileges of aging been so warmly and hilariously captured. Irby has a wry style: smart without being overly intellectual. If you need a book that can be read in small bites that keep you satiated for hours or days, this is your book.
Educated by Tara Westover (NF). Likely a favorite for lots of people, this memoir had me staying up way too late because I just had to keep turning the pages. It’s a story of discovery, of determination, and the power of the will to learn at all costs.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (NF). Bryson is a delight and a national treasure (though he’s lived in England for decades, we can still claim him as one of our own, methinks). His latest work is perhaps a bit dry in a few places, but so overflowing with interesting tidbits about human physiology that you forgive the author any mild digressions or arterial topics. For those who are fascinated by medicine and the miracle that is the human body, this is a must-read.
All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Heriot (NF). I’m still reading him every night before bed. Those tales are chicken soup for the soul.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (F). The last book I read was from your list actually. I liked the writer’s style, although I confess that I wasn’t sure why I should care about the mysterious Julian Carax. Also, I felt the device of the Library of Forgotten Books should have been the central point of the book. Weird that it played but a bit part. I did enjoy it! I guess I just didn’t really care for the story, if that makes sense.
A Gentleman in Paris by Amor Towles (F). This was a wonderfully understated book where not a lot “happens” and yet a lot happens, leading to a wonderfully suspenseful and clever climax. I so enjoyed this book.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (F). A total classic and I understand why. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after finishing it. It’s completely engrossing, and even as I write about it, I’m thinking all over again about it. :)
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (F). This book caught a lot of flak when it was published as a non-Mexican author wrote a book about Mexican migrants. Annnnnyway, that’s too bad because the book was a page turner and completely engrossing and totally worth a read.
The Color of Water by James McBride (NF). A Black man writes about growing up with a white, Jewish mother and a house full of siblings. This book is now taught in classrooms, and I see why. It’s an interesting read, for sure.
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- To add to you own list above, click on the Comments Section at the top of this post and list as many more as you’d like.
- To see any of the three 2020 mid-year posts, click on the links below: