Thursday, December 31, 2020

Thoughts on my 2020 Reading

Behind the Numbers — 

I read 132 books in 2020. That’s one less than I read in 2019.  I had a slow start with only eight books dispatched in January and seven in February.  The pandemic took hold, and I settled in to a more normal pace of 12-15 books each month.  I have been keeping a book list since 1996. I read 67 books that year.  From ’96 through 2020, I have read 3,404 books.  So many books, so little time. 

Best Fiction — 

In many respects, I dislike the idea of the best of this and the best of that.  Let’s just say that the books I single out — both new and old — are among the books I enjoyed the most, and that I believe others will enjoy as well.  My enjoyment can derive from the author’s skill, the characters (Dickens has no equal here), the narrative or a concept or idea that’s being  put forth.  With that caveat before us, here are the books I most highly recommend:

Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart

The Mirror & The Light, Hilary Mantel

Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles

In the Memory of the Forest, Charles T. Powers.

The Soul of Kindness, Elizabeth Taylor

The Long and Faraway Gone, Lou Berney

The Searcher, Tana French

Redhead by the Side of the Road, Anne Tyler

Slaughterhouse-Five, Ryan North & Albert Monteys based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut

I started praising Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet as soon as I put it down in April. In a word it is superb, and is absolutely the best book that I read this year. O’Farrell is an Irish novelist and not well known in the states. That’s unfortunate, she a superb writer.   Hamnet is an excellent introduction to O’Farrell. I also recommend The Hand That First Held Mine.

Another little known novelist is Paulette Jiles.  Born in Missouri, Jiles was graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She spent many years in Canada before moving to Texas where she now lives on a 36-acre farm west of San Antonio.  The background helps explain Jiles two most recent books — News of the World and Simon the Fiddler — both set in Texas. News of the World was recently made into a movie starring Tom Hanks.  If you liked Lonesome Dove, these books are for you.

Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker Prize, is a stunningly powerful first novel.  

In the Memory of the Forest by Charles Powers was recommend by the novelist Dan Fesperman. Like Jiles, Powers was born in Missouri. He worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, later serving as foreign correspondent for the Los Angles Times.   In the Memory of the Forest, set in Poland, is his first and only novel.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Ryan North and Albert Monteys is an excellent adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s extraordinary novel. If you’re curious about graphic novels, but not sure where to begin, this is a great entry point.  It shows how the addition of “pictures” (art, drawings, whatever you choose to call it) can illuminate and expand on an author’s writings.

Mantel, Taylor, Berney, French and Tyler are not new to my “best of” list.

Best Non-Fiction — 

Perhaps it’s just me, but there seemed to be a broad range of excellent non-fiction books this past year.  Let’s look at those I found especially worthwhile:

Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald

The Big Goodbye, Sam Wasson

His Truth Is Marching On, John Lewis and the Power of Hope,Jon Meacham

No Time Like The Future, Michael J. Fox

Sticky Finger, The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, Joe Hogan

Anything You Can Imagine, Peter Jackson & the Making of Middle-Earth, Ian Nathan

Dirt, Bill Buford

Astral Weeks, A Secret History of 1968, Ryan H. Walsh

Yellow Bird, Sierra Crane Murdoch

Remember H is for Hawk? Yeah, Vesper Flights is by that Helen Macdonald.  Is it going too far to say these essays on nature take flight? The Big Goodbye is an account of the making of one of my favorite films, Chinatown.  As for the rest . . . a tribute to an American hero, the third memoir from Michael J. Fox, Lord of the Rings, French food, misdeeds on the reservation and Van Morrison.  Squarely in my wheelhouse.

I re-read a number of books in 2020, and I want to say more about that. I also want to write about:

falling in love with the works Ursula K. LeGuin, 

books that disappointed me this past year, 

self-published books (which didn’t disappoint), 

the 33 and 1/3 series, 

historical fiction, 


the poverty of the national book awards, 

and the value of a home library containing books you have yet to read. 

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