The Best Books I Read in 2020

What a horrible year! While I’d like to be optimistic about 2021, I don’t
see things getting any better soon. Before the first week of the new year was
behind us, we had our nation’s capitol attacked by terrorists egged on by the sitting
president. The failing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and the grim fact that America
keeps getting sicker from the pandemic does not bod well for 2021. But enough
of that rot! Like 2019’s list, most of these books in this post were not published last year. Only four came out in 2020 (and two in 2019). One thing about 2020: sheltering in place gave me more time to read. It also led to me exploring subjects I rarely dip my toes
in: erotica and pandemics/epidemics.

So, out of the forty books I read/listened to this year, the following were my favorites. Let me know what you think.

NONFICTION

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, 2004

Why not? It seemed like everyone else read it last year. If you haven’t, check it out. Barry painstakingly sets up the medical/scientific world before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. As the reader would expect, there isn’t a drop of humor or fun in this book. Reading it during what most experts called the “first wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic made for a sobering experience–the initial outbreak of the Spanish Flu was relatively tame compared to the second wave. The name of the Flu is a misnomer. The Flu had been around for a few months–mainly in military installations where there was overpopulation thanks to World War I propaganda. The first known outbreak occurred in an over-populated military base in Kansas. Most Western nations enforced a media blackout except for Spain, where the news of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918.

For me, the book becomes less interesting in the last part, where Barry focused in on the scientists and their lives and challenges–it is way too technical for someone who dodged Algebra in college and spent his days in his high school science class ogling his pretty lab partner. Aside from that caveat, it is a fascinating and timely read.

Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, 2018

I read this book when Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were still in the running as Democratic Presidential hopefuls. (Howard Schultz, thankfully, had unceremoniously bailed out.) It was fortunate that I discovered this gem while listening to Bloomberg and Steyer tell America that they are the remedy to America’s woes. Most US citizens can see right through their crap–they are the problem, not the solution. Giridharadas’ brilliant book lays this all out beautifully.

The idea goes something like this: the Kochs, Bezos, Buffets, Bloombergs, and Zuckerbergs of America make billions of dollars off the backs of regular tax-paying people. They undervalue and–whenever possible–underpay their workers. They avoid taxes by moving corporate addresses to places like Ireland and the Netherlands and moving operations to places like China and Vietnam. All of this offshoring is at the American workers and taxpayers’ expense. Then, after these oligarchs have made all this money, these multimillionaire tax dodgers create foundations to give back in the form of hospital wings, art galleries, theaters, and university libraries. The new hospital wings, etc., are win-wins: the foundation makes it easy on the billionaire’s pocketbook, and Pops gets to use a shiny new dialysis machine to visit three times per week.

The more YouTube videos I see of this author, the more intense my man crush is for Giridharadas. (Now, if I could only consign that impossible last name to my failing memory!) But I’m doing a poor job explaining the idea behind this great book. Check out the author explaining it below. Winner Take All was my favorite read (in both nonfiction and fiction) of 2020.

 

The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by Thomas Frank, 2020

Another winner from the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and Listen Liberal. I like Frank because he–like me–is a Democrat frustrated that his party has sold out to corporate interests. Frank speaks for me when I can’t find the words for my disappointment, criticism, and rage over my party’s corporate takeover. (He’s also a lot more knowledgeable on the subject, which helps!) The awkward title is an homage, of sorts, to Carl Sandburg’s populist poem The People, Yes, which Frank often references in his book.

The author gives the reader a brief history of authentic populism and the short-lived People’s Party (1892 to 1909). It was a party made up mostly of farmers, but it also had many industrial workers. One of the fascinating things about the party is that it was multi-racial less than forty years after the Civil War.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, 2019

For over 300 years, Western society has lived by a Hobbesian way of thinking of human nature. While philosophers have challenged these ideas (most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke), John Hobbes’s theories are still with us today. Rutger Bregman takes up Rousseau’s mantle in this fine book. He supports his ideas with real-life examples of hope and reveals flaws in instances that would have reinforced the Hobbesian view.

Ever since I saw Bregman’s fifteen-minute Ted Talk and read his excellent book Utopia for Realists, I have been a fan. I was not disappointed with his latest effort. In Humankind, Bregman sets out to prove that we are hardwired for kindness instead of violence and geared toward cooperation rather than competition. The Dutch historian provides a new perspective on the past 200,000 years of human history. He refutes the Hobbesian view of the nature of the life of humans as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Instead, Bregman supports the idea of man’s nature as kind, generous, and cooperative.

He criticizes others like Nobel Prize laureate William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies. Through the author’s own words, Golding was an abusive, alcoholic person who had a miserable childhood and was critical of the 1960s and reflected on World War II and the Holocaust and his tragic childhood. Bregman also provides real-life evidence that children marooned on an island would work together to create a benevolent society rather than the one in Golding’s Best Seller. He also debunks Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, and he revisits the tragic 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York would later be called the “bystander effect.” The book’s centerpiece is the inspiring story of twin brothers (one a general in the right-wing Afrikaner People’s Front) and the other (who worked for the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa) together and worked with Nelson Mandela to create peace in South Africa. An inspiring read during a time when President Trump was failing to address the deadly pandemic.

The Americans by Robert Frank, 1958

I’ve flipped through The Americans many times in various libraries since my college years, but not until now have I studied it. I wanted to review the book again thanks to an article in The Daily, a weekday podcast I religiously listen to by the New York Times. The podcast re-released a 2015 article by Nicholas Dawidoff called The Man Who Saw America. I also finally read the Forward, which is written by Jack Kerouac.

The book is a collection of photographs taken during the 1950s as the Swiss photographer traveled around America, capturing the diversity of what made this country. The project didn’t start as a critique of America, but once Frank began looking at the effects of urbanization and Jim Crow, Frank’s lens couldn’t lie. It also didn’t help to spend an evening in jail simply because he had photographic equipment on him, and he had the accent of a “commie.”

Ultimately, The Americans is an unsettling work that peels the veneer from idyllic Americana to reveal the country’s problematic contradictions. No wonder the book was unappreciated when first released in the US. No one had ever taken pictures like that before. It was an honest depiction of America–warts and all. Frank told Dawidoff, “I photographed people who were held back, who never could step over a certain line,” and “my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.” The author captured these images years before Selma, Vietnam, and Stonewall.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out by reading the Times’ piece that Bruce Springsteen is a huge fan of the book, using it for songwriting inspiration. “The photographs are still shocking,” Springsteen told Dawidoff. “Making it created an entire American identity–that single book. To me, it’s Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited–the visual equivalent of that record. It’s an 83-picture book that has 27,000 pictures in it. That’s why Highway 61 Revisited is powerful. It’s nine songs with 12,000 songs in them.”

People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent by Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2019

In the past, I have steered clear of reading books by intellectuals like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz. Still, I braved reading this book thanks to the title and positive book reviews from writers I trusted. Stiglitz is a former economist for the World Bank and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the John Bates Clark Medal. Despite his serious creds, he has written and relatively easy book for someone like me to read and understand.

I read People, Power, and Profits when the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up steam. It became depressingly appropriate as I continued reading it as unemployment skyrocketed and the economy tanked. The absence of a robust social safety net can be seen by anyone not living in a gated community, but during a time when unemployment jumps to 12 percent and the people most affected are the ones who weren’t doing all that well before the novel coronavirus hit. I got overwhelmed by Stiglitz’s research at times, but People, Power, and Profits are worth soldiering through the dense parts for all the other inspirational segments.

Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports by Dave Zirin, 2007

If you believe in social justice and enjoy sports, you’ll love Dave Zirin’s writing, the sports editor for The Nation Magazine, and the host of the podcast Edge of Sports. Like his previous book, What’s My Name, Fool?, Welcome to the Terrordome is about politics, racism, and justice in college, Olympic, and professional sports. The book covers subjects like Major League Baseball’s colonial view of players from the Caribbean in general and the Dominican Republic, specifically. His piece on the great Roberto Clemente is excellent. Zirin wrote a story of the memorial at San Jose State University honoring Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. His rebuttal to performance-enhancing drugs is very interesting and changed my opinions of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Lance Armstrong, and others. For the uninitiated, like me: The book’s title comes from a song by the hip-hop group Public Enemy. The group’s leader, Chuck D, wrote the Foreword to this book.

Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Ann Thompson, 2001

The author of the brilliant and bloody Blood in the Water, about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, has written a detailed account of post-World War II Detroit: white flight, police brutality, civic unrest, and shop floor rebellion, labor decline, the African American struggles for full equality and equal justice under the law, and the frustration with entrenched discrimination and the lack of meaningful remedies to achieve equal justice even after President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society liberal policies were implemented. Thompson’s book is the retelling of events and individuals, including James Johnson, Jr. (pictured on the cover of the edition I read). In 1971, he murdered two foremen and another worker at a Chrysler plant after years of racial discrimination in Detroit’s auto industry.

Henry & June: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-1932 by Anaïs Nin, 1986

Reading erotic literature was a product of shelter in place, a heatwave, and just being old. I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, the first three books of Red Phoenix’s Dominant/submissive series Brie’s Submission, and re-read The Story of O (which I originally read back in the 1980s). Of the remaining few titles in my erotic to-read list were my favorite: two short books by Anaïs Nin: Delta of Venus (see below) this memoir and a couple of other titles I just may read in 2021.

Henry & June is about the year-long love affair Nin had with the American author Henry Miller and a dalliance she had with his wife, June. The stories of Miller’s sexual conquests are legendary. Here, Nin makes him out as a sexual animal with a voracious appetite. There is no judgment in Nin’s prose–she loved and desired him. It has been years since I read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, so I might be wrong when I say I am surprised how loving and passionate Miller treated Nin. Perhaps it’s only in his writing that he becomes crude. Maybe I will take a chance and read Tropic of Capricorn this year. Regardless, Henry & June is a beautifully written, intimate account of one woman’s sexual awakening and the pain that comes with it.

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain by David Shenk, 2006

I re-discovered this book while going through my stacks, looking for the few remaining books on chess I might have. I had just finished the brilliant Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit and wanted to get back into the game. I was glad I didn’t donate this one when I quit chess the last time and started thinning my collection. There are other more thorough books on the game, but David Shenk’s is a concise little gem.

The book’s title comes from a specific friendly game between two masters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, on June 21, 1851, in London, during a break of the first international tournament. Shenk interweaves the chess game with significant chess evolution from India’s origins, its development in Arabia, and its rebirth in the West to the modern game we play today. A must-read for all chess players, even a patzer like me.

The Vespa: Style and Passion by Valerio Boni, Stefano Cordara, 2020

The Vespa: Style and Passion is another big coffee table book on one of my favorite subjects. I’ve got two already taking up a lot of shelf space. The Vespa: Style and Passion is about the history of the Vespa. It features all the models rolled out of Piaggio from the 1946 98 to the 2018 electric Elettrica and Elettrica X, all of them beautifully photographed. Besides the gorgeous scooter pix, there are chapters on how Piaggio got started, how the Vespa came about, and marketing, rallies and racing, and Vespa in the film industry (most notably how Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn got around in Roman Holiday). The book is too big and clumsy to curl up with, but that’s part of the point–the size (9.95 x 1.15 x 11.95 inches!) allows the viewer to see the beauty with more detail of the Vespa.

FICTION

Circe by Madeline Miller, 2018

I’ve had this book in my library for nearly two years and finally got around to reading it last year. I was not aware that the Greek goddess Circe is in Homer’s epic poem is the same character in this book, or if I did, I completely forgot about it. It was fortunate that I decided to read this beautifully written novel right after I finished Homer’s epic poem. Madeline Miller had won a half-dozen awards for this work and a good reason. Circe is at once thrilling, touching, and evocative.

The book spans hundreds of years, so the reader gets a short, subjective mythology lesson. Time slows down halfway through the novel when Odysseus lands on the island of Aeaea, where Circe’s father, Helios, has banished her for practicing witchcraft.

Miller’s beautiful prose makes Circe one of those books you don’t want to end. I think Odd Billy Todd, Sharp Objects, Normal People, and Circe were the four best novels I read in 2020, but Miller’s gem was by far the best written. Perhaps I might read her other award-winning novel, The Song of Achilles, soon.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2005

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, disappeared. While the family believes she either accidentally drowned in the nearby river or ran away, her aged uncle is certain his niece was murdered but wants proof. He hires Mikael Blomkvist; an investigative journalist recently sued for libel. Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old, pierced and tattooed research expert and hacker. As they drill down into the Vanger family history, they discover iniquity after iniquity running through the Vanger family and in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo enough to read Larsson’s sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007). The subsequent efforts did not hold me in rapt attention, as did the first one. Larsson planned a ten-novel series with the characters antihero Lisbeth Salander and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist but died before publishing any of them. The finished books were all published posthumously.

Odd Billy Todd by N. C. Reed, 2014

In the spirit of these pandemic times, I wanted to read a post-apocalyptic novel that didn’t feature zombies. Something that could happen if a virus like the current novel coronavirus or the Spanish Flu broke out, but was far deadlier than anything the modern world has experienced. Odd Billy Todd turned out to be the ticket. The author focuses on a small rural area–the farms and small towns in and around Cedar Bend, Tennessee, wiped out by a pandemic. Our protagonist is a young man in his 20s who is developmentally disabled. His parents died in the plague, along with most people in the area. Because of his father’s vigilance (bordering on paranoia), Billy is left with plenty of handguns, long guns, ammo, a library of survival books, and how-to manuals (complete with copious notes in the margins helping Billy understand the texts better). Living on a farm, he has chickens and cows to sustain him. Billy thrives and begins to reach out to other survivors offering his assistance and surplus. He becomes the unlikely Alpha of a new community borne from the ashes of a terrible plague the has wiped out 95 percent of the world’s population.

Billy helps his neighbors, and together, they try to help others. Soon, Billy and his neighbors have run-ins with packs of wild dogs, an African lion released from a zoo, and both rag-tag and highly-organized bands of raiders, stripping towns of supplies, killing men, raping women, and capturing children.

Billy’s growing community saves women and children and is discriminate in adding men who can benefit their community. The book has moments of violence and tenderness. At times, it reminded me of the TV series The Walking Dead, sans the zombies. This story would make an excellent limited TV series.

Normal People by Sally Rooney, 2018

Usually, I don’t particularly appreciate reading the source material of a beloved film or television series: I’ve already defined the characters in my head. Exceptions to this personal rule are the movies High Fidelity and The World According to Garp. In 2020 I added two more to this rule, The Queen’s Gambit (see below) and this novel.

The story is about Connell, a high school soccer star, and Marianne, a lonely outcast. Connell takes a liking to Marianne, and they begin a secret relationship, initially based exclusively on sex. It develops into a more prosperous, more complex relationship over the years as they graduate from high school and are both accepted to the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin.

Not to take anything away from Sally Rooney’s beautiful novel about class, first love, and friendship, but perhaps I loved this book so much because I was already drawn to the principal characters in the superlative TV series. Either way, this was a great read. I liked the ended of the book a little more than the TV series.

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin, 2015

Black-Eyed Susans is the story of Tessa, the only surviving victim of a serial killer. The sixteen-year-old was left for dead in a ditch with a strangled college student and a scattering of unidentified bones and covered in Black-eyed Susan flowers. Now 34, with a daughter, Tessa has to face the consequences of the sketchy testimony she gave at her accused killer’s trial. And this being Texas—America’s capital for capital punishment, she does not have much time until the convicted killer will be executed. Still, Tessa remembers nothing about the attack, her assailant, or how Tessa came to be in the ditch. She now works with a group of Texas lawyers dedicated to turning over unjust verdicts that believe the man on death row for the Black-eyed Susans murders is innocent.

The lawyers and her psychiatrist don’t know that Tessa is hiding a secret. For years, she’s stumbled across Black-eyed Susans planted in unique places. Is the real killer still out there, taunting her? Black-Eyed Susans is an excellent suspense mystery novel that kept me listening to this audiobook during the morning, on my afternoon walks, and into the late evenings.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, 2018

Where the Crawdads Sing is a tale about Kya, a young girl abandoned by her mother and father, and growing up alone in North Carolina’s marshes. Kya dodging social workers, Census Bureau workers, and anyone else that threatened to pull her from the rundown shack in the marshland that she calls home. In her solitude, she becomes one with her marsh surroundings and finds beauty in what most locals consider ugly swamplands. There’s a murder and a love story. The story sucked me in and held me to the end, which has an exciting twist. Full disclosure, my wife, who reads a lot more fiction than I, read it and saw the ending coming a mile away. I still liked the book and am excited that Daisy Edgar-Jones from the Normal People limited series is slated to play Kya.

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson; 8th Century BCE, trans. 2017

I attempted to read The Iliad and The Odyssey last year. That wasn’t the first time I tried to read The Iliad, but when I failed yet again to finish it, I decided to hang it up. Instead, I listened to CliffsNotes on the classic and watched Netflix’s Season 1 of Troy: Fall of a City and called it a day. That’s the best I could muster. I did, however, read The Odyssey. It must have been the fact that The Odyssey is an action epic poem: Odysseus struggling for ten years to make it home after the sack of Troy.

The Odyssey delivers. There’s sex: The goddess Calypso makes Odysseus her boy toy for a year on her island. Similarly, the warrior spends a year on the island where the nymph Circe was banished. (See my entry of Madeline Miller’s novel for a modern take on that affair.) And there’s our hero, who overcomes divine and natural forces, battling storms and near-death encounters with a cyclops, a cannibal, sirens, and a six-headed beast. Great stuff! I hope to read Virgil’s The Aeneid this year to keep with my at least one classic piece of literature a year.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, 1990

As a student of Journalism and History in college in the ’80s, I read a lot of nonfiction books on the Vietnam War: Bloods, Dear America, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (chief source for the Ken Burns PBS series), and my favorite, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And there were all those films on the subject. So, for years, I was tired of the subject matter. If it weren’t for the multiple bumps the thirty-year-old book received from a few disparate sources last year, I might not have read the book.

And that would have been a pity. The Things They Carried is an excellent work of historical fiction that contains semi-autobiographical elements. (O’Brien served in the Army and was in Vietnam 1969-70.) The Things They Carried reads like a memoir, and the book’s voice and the other characters are vibrant and clear that I forgot early on that I was reading a work of fiction.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, 2006

I’m so glad my friend Mathieu turned me on to Gillian Flynn. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Gone Girl (my favorite Flynn novel). I also liked Dark Places. Sharp Objects is about a troubled reporter given the assignment to return to her hometown, Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the unsolved murder of a girl and another’s disappearance. She moves into her childhood home with her neurotic, hypochondriac mother, disengaged stepfather, and vicious teenage half-sister and begins her investigation. The deeper she digs, the darker the story becomes.

You (Book 1) by Caroline Kepnes, 2018

I am usually turned off by book series; whenever I see “Book 1,” that’s usually my queue to keep scrolling, but the Netflix series looks compelling, so I decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. You is driven by the delusional internal dialogue of Joe Goldberg, an employee of a modest bookstore in the East Village who becomes obsessed with Beck, a pretty blonde who walks into the store one afternoon. The novel gets creepier as Joe finds ways to possess the unassuming young woman.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, 2003

Along with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, The Queen’s Gambit is another novel that made a brilliant TV series. By now, the title is nearly a household name among streaming TV viewers. But for those who do not have Netflix or who haven’t read Tevis’ excellent novel. The Queen’s Gambit is the story about a brilliant orphan named Beth Harmon who learns chess from the orphanage’s janitor, who spots genius in the introverted girl. Along with her prodigious skills, she develops a severe substance abuse problem. The drama pivots between her genius and her addition. It’s a remarkable novel by the writer who brought us some excellent books: The Hustler and The Color of Money.

 

Honorable Mentions

Richard D. Wolff’s The Sickness is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself (2020) is a compilation of transcripts from his podcasts and essays published mostly during the pandemic. Whether you are watching Wolff on YouTube, listening to his podcasts, or reading his published works, Wolff is one of the most clear-headed critics of capitalism. In The Sickness is the System, he shows us how our for-profit health care system was doomed to fail us during a pandemic, with our without Donald Trump’s bumbling.

I was excited to start The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon by William M. Adler, 1994, about Joseph Hillström, the Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. The book is heavy on the details of Hill’s unjust arrest, trial, and execution and too light on the rest of his story, but I praise the author’s research.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1968) is the first book by Hunter S. Thompson that I have read since I graduated from college back in 1987 when I read his legendary Fear & Loathing in Los Vegas. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson follows the famous outlaw motorcycle club based in the Bay Area for two years. He participated in their exploits. The arrangement was tenuous, at best, and ultimately lead to the author being beaten up by some of the “one-percenters.” Thompson was an extraordinary writer with remarkable insight.

Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan, 2020. The famous food author tells us the history of caffeine–mostly by way of the two most popular delivery systems: coffee and tea. He explains how caffeine has changed the course of human history. The stimulant contributed to the winning and losing of the American Civil War (the US Army had plenty of coffee, the Confederacy didn’t). And caffeine greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. (With the advent of indoor lighting and the minute hand, labor moved indoors; swing and night shifts were created. The coffee (and tea in the British Empire) break was born to combat the body’s natural circadian rhythms.

Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (1969) is a collection of fifteen short stories of passion, sensual self-discovery, seduction, and liberation in pre-World War II Paris. Despite living in a country that looks down on erotica as sinful, Nin writes about the subject with such beauty, innocence, and fun that this American reader can’t help but blush from time to time.

The Best Books I Read in 2019

I listen to most books these days, but some of the books to the right of Frosty I actually read.

I eagerly anticipate this time of the year when the year’s best reads are published. I don’t compare the books I read with the writers/editors choices since most of the books I read (or listen to) in a calendar year are published in other years, I use these lists as books to consider reading next year or later.

With that said, here are my favorite reads of 2019, with only four of the titles published in the last twelve months (and one of them originally released about 1000 years ago). The list is in no specific order except for separating nonfiction from fiction; however, the first three or four titles in Nonfiction are my top reads of the year.

NONFICTION

Most books I read/listen to in a given year are nonfiction and of these titles, my favorite are political. It is a hangup of mine that I wish I could shake, but to repeat a popular term, I am a political junkie.

We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement by Ryan Grim, 2019

This should be essential reading for all progressives. The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim tells the 30-year story of a popular movement that started with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Collision and has culminated in the rise of Bernie Sanders into the national conscience and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise into American politics (who may have coined the name of the book: “We’ve got people. They’ve got money”). Grim expertly shows how Ocasio-Cortez did not grow out of a vacuum but is part of a movement that’s time may have come. If I had to pick my favorite read of the year (regardless of when it was published), it would be this one! Note to audio book listeners: Chapter 16 is a mess, but after I contacted the author via Twitter, he sent me a clean recording of the problem chapter. For audio book enthusiasts, note that reader, Sean W. Stewart must have recorded the book on his back porch—you can hear birds tweeting in the background!

Ryan Grim talks about the genesis his book.

Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, 2017

If Grim’s book is my favorite read of 2019, “Utopia for Realists” comes in a close second. The same goes for the authors: Grim is as gracious as he is knowledgeable. Equally, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, journalist, and author is a brilliant thinker who is not afraid to tell it like it is, even when surrounded by multimillionaires and billionaires. If you haven’t seen him dressing down of the elite during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, click here. It is a thing to behold! He has become one of the champions of universal basic income or UBI. Check out his 2017 Ted Talk. His book–that came out the same year–tackles that idea in detail as well as the 15-hour workweek, and open borders. He wasn’t convincing about the 15-hour workweek. I vaguely remember him writing about how John Maynard Keynes brought it up in the depths of the Great Depression, but reducing the workweek (without reducing pay) in America is an idea which time has come.

On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, 2019

Naomi Klein is quite possibly the most significant thinker of our times. I once read someone saying Klein is the next Noam Chomsky. An absurd statement. Chomsky is Chomsky, and Klein is Klein. Still, the idea that the Canadian author, journalist, and activist has risen to the heights of a Chomsky is an achievement. She is absolutely essential.

“On Fire” is a continuation of one of her masterpieces, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.” It reports from the front lines of the people and ideas that are looking for solutions like The Green New Deal. It is not as thorough and as in-depth as “This Changes Everything,” but I think it is meant to be a companion piece to it. Worth a read!

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by William Pollan, 2008

Pollan’s manifesto is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, when he says “food,” he is not referring to Twinkies, Snickers, all processed foods. There are 64 Food Rules in the book. Each rule is simple, and its explanation is only about a page long. For being a tiny book, it is deceptively dense in wisdom. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and this book has helped, though “Food Rules” is not, by definition a diet book, but rather a guide on how to eat right.

What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin, 2005

For some time now, my son has been trying to get my wife and me to read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” written by someone named “Check D,” a wrapper my son apparently likes. He hasn’t been successful, but on a long car trip, he had me cornered. I finally looked up the title and found out the book is actually written by The Nation Magazine‘s sports editor Dave Zirin. (Chuck D, turned out to write the Forward.) As a long-time reader of The Nation and a one-time listener to Zirin’s podcast, “The Edge of Sports,” I knew and appreciated Zirin. So I ended up ordering the book, and in the meantime, Zirin’s previous book, “What’s My Name, Fool?” was available in audio, so I started listening to that. I was not disappointed.

“What’s My Name, Fool?” (a refrain Muhammad Ali asked his competitors who insisted on calling him by his “slave” name, Cassius Clay) is about the confluence of sports and politics. The book’s main topics are Ali and his fight for dignity against a white establishment, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power and racism 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and how the two continued to fight after the blowback. Zirin also compassionately expressed the other side of when George Foreman waved a small U.S. flag after winning his gold medal in boxing during those same Olympic Games. Zirin covers Jackie Robinson and the racism he had to face every day when playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the long-term effect that had on the ballplayer’s life. Other topics include the plantation mentality of the multi-billion-dollar NCAA, the Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match, and other issues. I’m glad my son, indirectly pointed me to this book. Perhaps n 2020, I’ll read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which, if the critics are correct, is a sequel to “What’s My Name, Fool?”

Lightly: How to Live a Simple, Sceren, Stress-Free Life by Francine Jay, 2019

I don’t read very many self-help books, but I have read a couple of books on minimalism: the elegant “Goodbye Things” by Fumio Sasaki, and my first book on the subject, “Everything That Remains” by Joshua Fields Millburn, but “Lightly” is the first book that doubles as a field guide. That is, it is part theory, part “how-to” manual that someone like Marie Kondo might appreciate. It has been a while since reading the Sasaki and Millburn books, but I believe what I really love about Jay’s beautiful book is how she addresses global issues. While the other authors focus mostly on personal issues, Jay also talks about the importance of reducing your carbon footprint.

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang, 2018

I like Yang, even if he is against minimum wage (a deal-breaker if he wants my vote). He has some good ideas: his “Freedom Dividend” (read: UBI. No better yet, read Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists,” mentioned above). His idea on how to pay for the $1k a month to every adult American is refreshing, but I prefer Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s better. Yang doesn’t seem to want to ruffle the elite’s feathers—he believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming like a runaway train, and there’s nothing we can do about it, but take the $1k and deal with it. He does a great job here explaining how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (automation and artificial intelligence (AI)) is going to make a lot of blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs obsolete, but, as I recall, he offers few solutions besides a monthly check to remove some of the sting and the way he will pay for his “Freedom Dividend”—implementing a European-style Value Added Tax. (A tax that is placed on all products whenever value is added at each stage of the supply chain.)

Since I’m a socialist, I don’t think we should just roll over and let Big Tech and corporations steal all these jobs. AI and automation should be for the benefit of labor, not for the board of directors and shareholders. AI and automation should work to reduce the workweek, not the paycheck. Still, there are a lot of great ideas in this book. It’s worth a read.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, 2017

Just when I thought how the radical right took control of America, my friend at work handed me this hardbound bomb. I was ignorant enough to think the attack on the liberal gains of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society started with the Powell Memorandum in 1972. The Powell Memo was indeed destructive, but that was only one volley and Powell played a minor roll in the rise of neoliberalism in America. There was a far bigger player in this successful dismantling of the social programs and institutions that even Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon accepted as established. His name was James McGill Buchanan Jr.

“Democracy in Chains” is an explosive expose of the radical right’s most successful attempt at destroying labor unions replacing them with Right to Work laws, privatizing public education, privatizing the prison systems, hobbling health care, replacing pensions with 401k plans, launching multiple attempts to privatize Social Security, keeping as many of us as possible out of the voting booth, and, in general, disenfranchising the middle class. MacLean does an excellent job of revealing the hidden political establishment behind far-right foundations thought to be started by billionaires like the Koch Brothers. Buchanan stands head and shoulders above highly visible thinkers like Milton Friedman, Richard Fink, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.

The most fascinating thing I found about this book is Buchanan, and his like-minded thinkers attack “democracy” in favor of “freedom.” I’ve never heard of democracy referred to as a dirty word in America until reading this book. Too, the term “freedom” has the convenient definition as something that benefits wealthy white men–a greater opportunity for the rich to get richer and for everyone else (especially poor people of color) to remain disenfranchised. The Nation awarded “Democracy in Chains” Most Valuable Book of 2017. It deserves the accolade.

Nancy MacLean talks about how she came up with “Democracy in Chains.”

Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn, 2019

I should take it easy on the political books and podcasts. I didn’t know who to kill after reading “Democracy in Chains”–maybe start with me? I always feel better reading/listening to works like “Revolution of the Soul.” Seane Corn is a singular yoga teacher and this is an excellent read for being her first–part memoir, part the kind of instruction Corn’s followers have come to expect from her.

Her publisher, Sounds True writes, “Seane’s real purpose is to guide us into a deep, gut-level understanding of our highest Self through yoga philosophy and other tools for emotional healing – not just as abstract ideas but as embodied, fully felt wisdom. Why? To spark a ‘revolution of the soul’ in each of us so we can awaken to our purpose and become true agents of change. Seane writes, ‘When we heal the fractured parts of ourselves and learn to love who we are and the journey we’ve embarked upon we will see that same tender humanity in all souls. This is the revolution of the soul.'”

Each chapter of this memoir includes practical tools from the author: instructions on the chakra system, pranayamas, healing, forgiveness, the subtle body, and more. Not into yoga? Perhaps this book isn’t for you. What can I say? It’s my blog.

Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg, 2016

The author traces the steps of an embattled mountain lion from the Black Hills of North Dakota, across the Great Plains, through the Midwest to Connecticut’s Gold Coast–a two-year odyssey. It’s a fascinating and, at least for me, tragic tale of how we are slowing killing off some of our most majestic mammals due to human encroachment and misunderstanding. Goodreads.com calls it “a testament to the resilience of nature, and a test of humanity’s willingness to live again beside the ultimate symbol of wildness.” I couldn’t have said it better.

The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2013 and The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2018

This was the first year I ever started reading about wild cats and dogs. First, I read “Heart of a Lion” then I read “The Hidden Life of Wolves” followed by the he beautiful pictorial “The Wisdom of Wolves.” I came away with a similar feeling had had when a read books on sharks after seeing the film “Jaws”: how misunderstood these predators are.

What was especially fascinating about the Dutcher books is how the couple and Manfill were able to become accepted in the Sawtooth Pack in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. (At one point Jamie Dutcher is allowed into a she-wolf’s den after after she has given birth to pups!) The products of this kind of acceptance is an excellent study on how wolves live and some absolutely stunning photography.

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis, 2016

“Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wallis writes, “America’s problem with race has deep roots, with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation’s original sin. It’s time we right this unacceptable wrong.” I have read Wallis’ books and editorials for years in his Sojourners Magazine–a Christian progressive monthly.

In “America’s Original Sin,” Wallis tells of how he was driven away from his faith by a church that didn’t want to address the problems of racism in the 1960’s. He turned to working with civil rights groups. He returned to the church when he found a faith that commands racial justice. “Yet as recent tragedies confirm” he writes, “we continue to suffer from the legacy of racism. The old patterns of white privilege are colliding with the changing demographics of a diverse nation.”

Jim Wallis on his 2016 book.

FICTION

I probably read one book of fiction for every three nonfiction books, but after reading each of these books I felt I was missing out.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, 1987

Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this masterful work of loss and distrust recounted by a family friend during a high school reunion and spans about fifty years, starting in the early 20th century where Seymour “Swede” Levov’s father starts a profitable glove manufacturing business and continues through the idyllic 50’s when the son, All-American college star, Swede Levov, and his trophy wife, Dawn, watch their seemingly perfect life, with their daughter, slowly unravel through the tumultuous ’60s. For me, it is one of the most heartbreaking yet compelling books I have ever read, and the first book I have read by the lauded Philip Roth.

Ohio by Stephen Markley, 2018

Shortly after Philip Roth, one of the most significant figures in American letters died, Stephen Markley publishes his first novel. I’m not trying to claim Markley has taken Roth’s mantle, I’m only saying “Ohio” is worthy of a master’s offspring. “Ohio” is a brutally vivid story of a community in the rust belt where the American Dream is all but dead, and the opioid epidemic is in full swing. Told from the perspective of four former classmates who return home after the untimely death of a friend in Iraq. The four return on the same night, with different motives and none of their homecomings, go as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.

Vox by Christina Dalcher, 2018

Something like a fundamental Christian theocracy takes over the U.S. government and begins to roll back liberties–especially for women and young girls. On the day, the government decrees that women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words a day. At first, Dr. Jean McClellan thinks this will pass, but it doesn’t. She, her daughter, and all females have a counter fascinated to their wrists to monitor and govern their speech. Soon, women lose their jobs, girls are no longer taught to read or write in school. A moment comes when McClellan can step up and do something about this injustice. This is no “Handmaiden’s Tale,” one reader commented, but “Vox” is clearly not trying to be that story. It is more subtle and, in a way, that makes “Vox” more terrifying.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 2014

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.…”

Nope, that wasn’t a spoiler, that’s how the book starts, and it is because of this setup that everything that follows so tragic. Lydia is torn between the demands of her mother and the different expectations of her father while her own desires ans aspirations are ignored. Thus paving the way to the established climax.

The structure, while not completely novel, is executed expertly. “Everything I Never Told You” is a moving story of a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970’s Ohio. It is a moving story about a family divided by cultures, gender, and generations.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen, 2015

Pip (Purity) Tyler, a young woman, straddled with college debt and a burning question: who is her father. Her eccentric mother knows but won’t tell her. She fled from him before Pip was born, changed her name, and retired to live in anonymity in the woods of Northern California. Pip begins an internship with the Sunlight Project, the organization founded by the famous and charismatic German leaker, Andreas Wolf (fashioned after Julian Assange). Pip moves to Bolivia, where the Sunlight Project is based, with the hope of being able to use hacker technology to discover her father’s identity.

I enjoyed the odd sexual tension between Pip and Andreas, the dark secrets revealed in intimacy, and the betrail. Like Franzen’s previous book, “Freedom,” the pacing might be slow at first, but the story picks up momentum and is well worth sticking with it.

Jonathan Franzen talks about his latest novel “Purity.”

Beowulf by Unknown, between the 8th and the early 11th century (Okay, the version I read was transcribed by Francis Barton Gummere and translated by Seamus Heaney)

I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime I have seen the The Lord of the Rings, based on J.R.R. I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime, I have seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading Beowulf, I see where he got his inspiration. It is one of the most essential works in old English literature and can take credit for a lot of European works from Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” operas to “Game of Thrones.”

The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel, and much gallantry is displayed. After reading the epic poem, I bought and enjoyed Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s large-format graphic novel version of the seminal piece of Old English lit. It was a nice encore.