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.
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.
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.
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.