If you look back at 2020 as a total loss, you just didn’t spend enough time reading. For me, at least, books were the saving grace of a year of living fearfully. Books were a refuge and an escape, so much so that the CE and I actually ended up ritualizing our reading. Every day at 5 pm we meet in what was a previously dis-used living room and now must be called the reading room for a somewhat civilized cocktail hour, books in hand. Cats and dog variously add or detract from the level of civility, depending on the day, but I can think of worse reading companions.
There, as the months wore on, we slogged through dozens of books, The CE (annoyingly!) reads 100 books a year and I usually read 60, although worry and distraction cut me a bit shy of my goal last year. I’m not apologizing, however: according to GoodReads, I polished off 21,523 pages in 2020 and since I accomplished not one other thing, I’m calling that good.
The top ten reads of the year stand out for various reasons. They are the cream that rose to the top of all the year’s reading; they represent serendipity as much as excellence. Some I knew going in were winners, some came from behind to lead the pack and at least one simply took so much effort that it sits on a pedestal all its own. All of them come with my highest recommendation. I hope you can find at least one that appeals to you. Here they are, from tenth favorite to first:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
by C. A. Fletcher
Audiobook, 384 pages (10 hours 49 minutes) narrated by the author
Absolutely nothing about this book should have appealed to me. I loathe the term “Young Adult” fiction, and I have a general if peculiar aversion to science fiction and fantasy. But I kept seeing stellar reviews for this book, and, after all, the word “dog” is in the title, so that softened me up.
I read it before the plague hit, so the fact that it takes place in a dystopian post-pandemic civilization (or what’s left of it) in the British Isles was not of particular concern although I certainly have thought back on it through the COVID journey. Griz is a young teen whose family is bravely subsisting in the isolation of a de-populated world. Griz’ dog, Jip, is stolen and thus an odyssey begins with many coming-of-age lessons and some very surprising plot twists along the way. The book is always engaging and never cloying and thus should not be limited to a YA shelf, although it would indeed be a sensational read for teens. 4 stars
The Temporary Gentleman: A Novel
by Sebastian Barry
Audiobook, 320 pages (7 hours 22 minutes) narrated by Gerard Doyle
Sebastian Barry has been one of my greatest finds in recent years. He spins language into pure gold with an Irish accent. Some reviewers of this book gave it fewer stars because they found it “just too sad”. And oh, how sad it is. Jack McNulty met Mai in 1922 and was instantly transfixed by the “undertow of kindness in her voice”. What a grand love story this could be – but ah, remember – they are Irish. Mai suffers from depression and then from alcoholism. Jack is a profligate gambler and spender. And also a drinker. “How is it that for some people drinking is a short term loan on the spirit but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul?” It is a deeply sad story with, for me, an unsatisfying ending, but otherwise stays true to itself even as the story moves from Ireland to Ghana and also remains true to the question it poses: “What is it that starts to bind one soul to another?” 4 stars
Commentary by Dr. Bill Creasy
Audiobook, 16 hours 41 minutes, lecture format
We were in that brief window between lockdowns and I had gone to dinner with a few friends, one of whom remarked that listening to James Earl Jones read the Bible had been a source of great consolation to her in the previous months. What a great idea, I thought, and went in search of it on Audible. I didn’t end up finding James Earl Jones because the Logos Bible Study series caught my eye. Dr. Bill Creasy is a retired UCLA professor and former U.S. Marine who now, to the best of my understanding, leads a seven-year-study of the entire Bible, which has been made available via Audible. I think it can also be accessed on YouTube. Creasy introduces the study as one based in literature rather than theology, although he is clearly a believer.
I’ve read through the Psalms in the past and, having memorized a few, thought I could claim a familiarity with them. I now realize I’d been driving on back roads without a map as far as the Psalms went. I can say that I have never been as enthusiastically engaged in The Word as I was listening this presentation. Dr. Creasy reads through the Psalms with an explanation of what they mean in terms of Hebrew poetry, where they occur in history and geography, and what they tell us about the nature of God. This was an absolute highlight of my reading year. 5 stars.
The Wars of the Jews: Or, the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem
by Flavius Josephus
Written A.D. 75
Kindle, 312 pages
As long as we’re delving into ancient history, here’s a colossus of the genre. We were supposed to go on a tour to Israel last fall and I had asked around about what I should read to be prepared for a journey to the Holy Land. This was the undisputed No. 1 recommendation. Josephus was a Jew who was captured by and defected to the Romans during the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66. His historical chronicle of the events leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple parallels Biblical history and narrative but is independent of it. King Herod, the Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, a number of Roman commanders and a legion of warring Jews endlessly smiting one another all have a role culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple as prophesied by Jesus in the Book of Mark “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down”
This was the longest 312 pages I think I have ever read. Only recently did I discover that the Kindle edition I read is a nineteenth century translation that has been made much more readable in an updated Penguin Classics edition pictured above translated by G. A. Williamson. I give it 5 stars, both for the significance of the work of history that it is – and the fact that I actually made it all the way through!
Delta Wedding: A Novel
by Eudora Welty
Kindle, 338 pages
Nine-year-old Laura McRaven, grieving the recent death of her mother, takes the “Yellow Dog” train up from Jackson to the Mississippi Delta plantation of her mother’s people, the Fairchilds, to attend the wedding of her cousin. I made a note about this book after I finished it: “Nothing happens but there is so much going on.” There is something about good Southern literature that elevates the small lives of ordinary people to high drama. As Welty muses of the characters she has created “It is because people are mostly layers of violence and tenderness – wrapped like bulbs, she thought soberly; I don’t know what makes them onions or hyacinths”. The time period is generations past the Civil War, yet the relationships between the whites and blacks in this book seem oddly suspended in an Antebellum frame of mind and way of life. But at least one character looks beyond life in the Delta, as Shelley writes in her journal: “Why are you thinking your line of trees the indelible thing in the world?” 4 stars
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
by Patrick Radden Keefe
Kindle, 455 pages
I don’t know much about the author Patrick Radden Keefe beyond the fact that he is Irish and that he writes for The New Yorker magazine. I suspect he has more than a slight sympathy for the revolutionary and is thus the ideal person to write what is the first comprehendible explanation I have ever seen of “The Troubles” that turned Northern Ireland into a war zone for three decades from the late 1960’s through the 1990’s. It was an unrelenting low-level war pitting Catholics against Protestants in a conflict of religion, economic class and nationality that dated back to the 17th century when “Protestant emigrants from Scotland and the North of England filtered into Ireland and established a plantation system in which the Gaelic-speaking natives became tenants and vassals on land that had previously been their own”. Doulors Price, Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams are among the IRA figures viewed, depending on point of view, as terrorists or heroes. It’s easy to see why this lucidly written book was long-listed for the National Book Award for Non Fiction. Keefe takes an extremely serpentine and complicated period of history and sorts it out brilliantly. 4 stars.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Published 1966 (censored)
Audiobook, 384 pages (16 hours 52 minutes) read by Julian Rhind-Tutt
“Cowardice is the greatest sin” says the brave author in this book, which was considered so dangerous in its allusions to life under Communist rule in Russia that it could not be published in full until 1973, although it was written between 1928 and 1940. It is brilliant and more than a little fantastic, with characters like Behemoth, a demonic cat and Satan himself slumming in Moscow. (In fact, this book was the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”.) There is a book within the book that brings the character of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Christ so vividly to life that they seem to be occurring in the present rather than the past. I know, it sounds complicated – because it is. But it’s right up there with the greats of Russian literature and an important read, especially in a culture where political differences currently get books banned and people canceled. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
Song of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
Audiobook, 384 pages (15 hours 28 minutes), narrated by the author
Well, better late than never, right? This was a book perpetually on my “to-read” list. Now it is on my “to re-read” list because I wanted to start right over again at the beginning as soon as I finished it. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece of literature. Of black literature, of course, but truly also of American literature. It is too good to be pigeonholed. “Milkman” is a young black man living in Pennsylvania whose life is shaped, for better and for worse by his ambitious father Macon, his mystical aunt Pilate and his vengeful former friend, Guitar. The story is beautifully crafted and deeply felt. I loved this book. 5 stars
by Charles Dickens
Hardcover (Penguin clothbound classic) 882 pages
I’m on a Dickens of a mission: trying to read one of his books each year. I started with Great Expectations, then on to Bleak House – both fabulous, by the way – and this was next in line. David Copperfield is said to have been Dickens’ favorite of all his works and it is unquestionably the most autobiographical. Young David must find his own way in the world much as did young Charles Dickens. The character Mr. Micawber languishes in debtor’s prison as did Charles Dickens’ own father. Many of the locales are places where Dickens lived and worked. As always, the characters are masterfully developed and this book is worth reading just to meet the inimitable Aunt Betsy and the despicable Uriah Heap. It is an absolute classic. 5 and a half stars!
by Barry Lopez
Paperback, 415 pages
A book to be read slowly and savored, one page at a time and then to grieve when you have come to the last page and there is no more. It won the 1986 National Book Award and while it is actually listed in the genre of “travel” it is about so very much more. Natural history, human history, geography, art, science, exploration and the cold, cold Arctic. Lopez writes from remote locations in the furthest reaches of Alaska and Canada and Greenland. I learned words like quviannikumut which is an Eskimo term for “to feel deeply happy” and which is exactly how I felt while I was reading this magnificent book. How he loves the land: “I wish the order of my life to be arranged in the same way I find the light, the slight movement of the wind, the voice of a bird, the heading of a seed pod I see before me. This impeccable and indisputable integrity I want in myself.” 5 and a half stars and how I wish I could read this book again for the first time!
I hope at least one of these recommendations makes it to your bookshelf. Happy reading in 2021!
“I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts – the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.”
-Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites