I never thought I’d find myself quoting Her Majesty, Elizabeth II (even though we do share the same birthday), but 2020 was truly an annus horribilis. However, now that it is behind us, if only barely, it is once again time for my annual post on my 10 favorite books of the year gone by. For those of you who have not read my past “top tens,” these are books that I read during the past year rather than books that were published during the year, although some of the latter are included. For those of you who have read my past top tens, I’m adding a couple of special features – two honorable mentions and one book that is incontestably the worst book I read in 2020 (and for many previous years as well).
So here goes.
Even though I read quite a few more works of fiction than non-fiction in 2020, and even though it was the kind of year that could drive anyone away from reality, more of my favorite books of the year were non-fiction, so it was much harder to narrow down the choices. They included:
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama: One of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read, President Obama’s memoir is fascinating, straightforward, and clearly written by him; it’s a printed version of his voice. I got through its 700 pages in just a few days and can’t wait to read the second volume. Outstanding.
When Time Stopped, by Arianna Neumann: I’ve probably read hundreds of both fiction and non-fiction books about the Holocaust, but this is among the finest; a beautifully written, engrossing, and sympathetic memoir of a woman’s quest to find out more about her father and his family in wartime Czechoslovakia and Germany and postwar Venezuela and the US.
Open Season, by Benjamin Crump: I decided to read this after listening to an interview of Mr. Crump that began with cliches and ended with great passion. The book isn’t perfectly written, and some editing would have eliminated some repetition and perhaps refined his language. But what it may lack in terms of “finesse” is more than made up for by his righteous passion. If you doubt the existence of systemic racism, read this.
The Sacred and the Vile, by Erik Larson: Another great book about Churchill that demonstrates the meaning of leadership in troubled times.
A Very Stable Genius, by Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig: You didn’t expect me to not to read some of the year’s dozens of books about our soon-to-be-former president, did you? One of the best books about Trump, it rigorously avoids sensationalism and sticks to the “Joe Friday” approach – just the facts. Well done.
I read quite a few good novels in 2020 (I don’t like short stories, so novels are about it in the fiction category), but not a lot of great ones. Here are the best of the bunch:
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell: This is one of the greats. It’s a tale of Shakespeare’s family – focused on his wife (Agnes, rather than Anne, in this retelling) and the death of their son, the eponymous Hamnet – and is a book for the ages. It is beautifully written and so evocative of the time that you feel as though you can smell the flowers and all the rest. It is also tragic and uplifting at the same time. Brilliant.
Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger: This was my first experience with Ms. Freudenberger, and it was a good one. The book is written for adults, not in the sense that it’s pornographic, but rather that it is intelligent, engaging, and low-key. It’s a mystery about messages from a woman who has died, but it resonates on many levels.
The Abstainer, by Ian McGuire: This is the second work that I’ve read by the author of the deservedly acclaimed The North Water. It is also dark (though not as dark as the earlier work), but his writing is wonderful – precise, direct, and devastating.
Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar, and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by Laila Lalami: Yes, it’s a tie. Both authors write very well, and both are about the place of immigrants – specifically, Muslim immigrants – in America, pre- and post-Trump.
Here Comes the Sun, by Nicole Dennis-Benn: This book takes place in the sunny Caribbean, but the locale and the title are misleading; it’s a dark book about social morés and corruption and very well done.
Best Re-Read: I rarely re-read books, in large part because I’ve been disappointed that books I once loved often no longer appeal to me. However, I started re-reading some things in 2020, with better results. This year’s best re-read is Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. It’s a brilliant and “strange-but-true” saga about the Theranos scandal. Business journalism at it’s best and a must-read if you haven’t read it already.
Honorable Mentions: In the last year or two, I’ve taken up audiobooks. I cannot recommend Mythos, by Stephen Fry too highly. It’s Fry’s narration of his gorgeous hardcover about the Greek myths, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is brilliant – fascinating, funny, and erudite. The hardcover is a gorgeous book, illustrated and with fascinating footnotes. I went out and bought it as soon as I’d listened to 20 minutes of the audiobook. I can’t wait to listen to and read the “sequel,” Heroes. I also have to give a shout-out to Trumpty-Dumpty Wanted a Crown, by John Lithgow. I can listen to his voice (on the audiobook) forever, and the fact that he’s written all these ridiculously funny rhymes makes me respect him all the more.
Dishonorable Mention: I’ve never done this before, because I respect books and authors, even when I think they’ve failed miserably. But While the Music Played, by Nathaniel Lande is in a class by itself, and it’s not a good class. For starters, I knew I was in trouble when I noted that one of the blurbs on the book jacket referred to the book as “Lande’s gripping debut.” However, the “Books by Nathaniel Lande” at the front of the book lists 12 prior works, including novels. Huh? What’s inside isn’t a whole lot better and proof that I don’t like all Holocaust literature. The plot is preposterous — a 12 year-old boy becomes a spy and a saboteur against the Nazis, falls in love, saves his best friend’s life, and on and on and on. Kind of like an “Andy Hardy Goes to the Third Reich” movie with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney – “let’s trick the Nazis — it’s so crazy it just might work!”
And the final insult is that it’s horribly edited (assuming it was edited at all). The first sentence of the Afterword starts out as follows: “When Israel was awarded statehood by the United Nations in 1967…”. What? Even the most basic edit should have found that error. (Israel was awarded statehood in 1948.)
I hope this is one feature I don’t have to repeat next year. But for now, Happy Reading!