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The Top Ten Books (I've Read) of 2020

Some books I read last year should be calculated not by page count but by poundage. There were a few hefty ones – Stephen King’s Under the Dome; John D. Rateliff’s The History of ‘The Hobbit’; and American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.


Others were longish: Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky, and The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings.


One interesting pattern for the year is that a book sometimes led me to reading others, such as the Jane Austen thread. I started with Pride and Prejudice before reading Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which focuses on the servants of the Bennett household, and finished up with Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder mystery by P.D. James.


Likewise, after reading The Man Who Invented Christmas, which relates how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, I had no choice but to re-read his The Christmas Books (charming, as always), and I’m currently reading David Copperfield (my favorite Dickens).


As a white, middle-class male, it is high time for me to learn more about systemic racism and how it is perpetuated. James Baldwin, Ijeoma Oluo, and Robin DiAngelo were excellent guides, and their work is leading me to other writers.


Overall, I read 74 books this year (see the bottom of this post for the complete list). So, here are the Top Ten and a few honorable mentions:



TOP TEN BOOK


The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings

Laurence Buell, ed.

American Transcendentalism (1820s-1840s) is a blend of philosophy, theology, social movement, and literary genre. At its core, it encourages people to cultivate the inherent goodness in themselves as a means to redress societal problems. As a movement, it is forever linked to the writers in Concord, MA – Emerson and Thoreau, in particular, but also Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, and Margaret Fuller. This collection of essential writings provides an excellent overview to a brief but influential literary period.




Dawn

Octavia E. Butler

Some of the best science fiction reveals our essential humanness, often by contrasting it with the “otherness” of non-Earth cultures. Butler’s book is not only one of the finest SF novels I have ever read, it is an excellent novel, regardless of genre. Lilith, one of the few survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear war, awakens from suspended animation on a space vessel. At first, Lilith is wary of her rescuers, the Oankali, whose physical differences and behaviors she finds unsettling. Butler doesn’t give us bug-eyed monsters, but rather sophisticated beings who have rescued the humans for a distinct purpose. I was fascinated by how Lilith learns about her captors, how she overcomes her prejudice, and how her relationship with them evolves. There are two more books in the series – Adulthood Rites and Imago – which are on my 2021 To-Read list.



Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

I watched the movie then I read the book. The movie, while fun, didn’t come close to the creativity of the novel. Cline’s novel is a Valentine to 1980’s era arcade games. In a dystopian future, people spend all their time in the Oasis, a thrilling virtual reality created by James Donovan Halliday. On his death, Halliday reveals that there is an Easter egg hidden somewhere in the vast virtual universe, and whoever solves the puzzle will gain control over the Oasis. Thus begins a world-wide quest by Wade Wilson and his avatar, Parzival. If Cline had kept the story as merely a quest, it still would have been fun, but he uses the set-up to explore our need for human connection. A fun read.



Imaginary Friend

Stephen Chbosky

Chbosky’s debut novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was like reading about my high school years. Imaginary Friendis a radically different story about seven-year-old Christopher Reese and his mother, Kate, who move to a small town. Christopher disappears for a week into the woods. He returns, seemingly unharmed, but now he hears a friendly voice telling him he must build a treehouse in the woods or else everyone in the town will die by Christmas. What unfolds is part fantasy, part horror, and while the ending becomes a bit protracted, the conclusion is a remarkable piece of storytelling.



Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Given the increasingly divisive political climate in recent years, I turned to Chomsky for his analysis. Published in 2002, Understanding Power collects together public talks and forums that Chomsky conducted from the late 1980s to the 1990s. While the events he covers are now more than twenty years past, he provides a useful template for understanding how politics, business, and media continue to mold and influence people’s daily lives. This is a harsh critique on the abuses of US power, but Chomsky has some broad advice on how grassroots movements are crucial for tackling systemic problems such as racism, sexism, and economic class. The further I got in the book, the more engrossing I found it.



American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Bill McKibben, ed.

According to editor Bill McKibben, environmental writing “takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world, and asks searching questions about that collision: Is it necessary? What are its effects? Might there be a better way?” This anthology, spanning work from the 1840s to the mid-2000s, addresses issues of wilderness, climate change, and human interference in the natural world. The writing, always lively and engaging, reveals the deep passion of authors, such as Rachel Carson, Alice Walker, Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, and Henry David Thoreau. Very compelling.



Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

Christopher Moore

There should be a category of novels called “Irreverent Versions of the Gospels.” It would include Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Each of these novels skews the traditional view of the gospel story of Jesus, but none of them do it with the comedic flare as Christopher Moore’s Lamb. Yes, Jesus has a pal named Biff. Yes, you learn about the “lost years” of Jesus, in which (in Moore’s telling) he goes in search of the three magi and learns about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. You also learn why Jews eat Chinese on Christmas Day. It’s a fun book, playful and thoughtful at the same time. I was sad when it was over.



Map: Collected and Last Poems

Wislawa Szymborska

Poetry doesn’t have to be intimidating. It can be weightless and profound; it can seem effortless and beautifully crafted. One of my favorite poets is Szymborska, for her ability to question our perspectives. She often asks the purpose of our day-to-day activities. Why is there such a thing as status quo? Why aren’t things different? Her poetry unveils the miraculous in the seemingly mundane, and she often inverts the expectation by poking fun at the seemingly miraculous as nothing special. She peeks into corners, under leaves, inside molecules, and into the sky. For all her whimsy, there is much to contemplate.



So You Want to Talk About Race

Ijeoma Oluo

Each chapter of Oluo’s book asks a question about race, then addresses how individuals can discuss the topic without resorting to defensiveness. The challenge she raises is that people are fully capable of discussing a difficult topic, but they also must recognize their own biases and prejudices. Not an easy task, but her recommendations are solid. Definitely worth reading.






White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Robin DiAngelo

Systemic racism has become so normalized that white people won’t see it. It’s not that they don’t acknowledge that racism is evident, but rather they often divert the conversation away from meaningful resolutions. Defensiveness plays a key part in stopping crucial dialogue. DiAngelo recommends strategies for white people to look beyond their prejudices and to see the perspectives of BlPOC. It may not be easy, but systemic racism won’t be dismantled until whites acknowledge their limitations. An important book.




HONORABLE MENTIONS


I Am Not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells

John Wayne Cleaver, a fifteen-year-old high school student, recognizes that he has sociopathic tendencies, so he works very deliberately to suppress his tendency toward violence. However, his fascination for serial killers only puzzles his family and classmates. When a series of unexplained murders happen in town, Cleaver suspects it’s the work of a serial killer. And using all his research on the subject, he sets out to track the murderer down. There’s a unique twist to the killings that I had mixed feelings about, but overall it was an enjoyable book.


Dead Land, Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s tough and resourceful VI Warshawski tackles a complex case of murder and white-collar crime. Ruthless land developers, a homeless singer-songwriter, and a sniper at an outdoor concert send VI from Chicago to Kansas in search of answers. Paretsky’s stories are always compelling, but this one particularly touched me with the sensitivity of the writing. The prose is lean and driven. And it’s always fun to read about Chicago locations that I’m familiar with.


Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup

Born a free person, Solomon Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and as the title suggests, after twelve years he regains his freedom. The narrative, written in 1853, is compelling and disturbing. He does not shy from telling the truth about slave-owners and the brutality against enslaved people. Even after Northup has returned to the northern states, he is embroiled in a civil trial against his kidnappers, who try to lay the blame on everyone other than themselves. Written with dignity and honesty, this is an essential read.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation but goes to school in a wealthy community. Straddling the pressures of living in two different worlds, Junior struggles with his sense of identity. When he is home, he is ostracized for leaving the reservation for a white school, and at school, he is treated as an outsider because he comes from the reservation. Throughout, the author explores adolescence with wit and pathos.


Longbourn, Jo Baker

I doubt I will ever be able to read Pride and Prejudice without thinking of Baker’s novel about the Bennett’s servants. The story is reminiscent of Downton Abbey, in that you get glimpses of the upstairs world of Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, but the focus is primarily on the lives of the maid Sarah, the housekeeper Mrs Hill, and James, the new footman. There is a lot of marvelous detail of the quantity of work that servants were required to perform. The fact that they have any personal life is a testament to human fortitude in the face of challenging day-to-day life. Poignantly written, though the ending feels a bit rushed.



The Complete List of Books

Watership Down, Richard Adams

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Proof, David Auburn

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Longbourn, Jo Baker

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum

The Marvelous Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum

Hesitation Kills: A Female Marine Officer’s Combat Experience in Iraq, Jane Blair

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, Laurence Buell, ed.

Wolf Almanac; A Celebration of Wolves and Their World, Robert H. Busch

Dawn, Octavia E. Butler

The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain

Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky

It’s Like This, Cat, Emily Cheney Neville

Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, Noam Chomsky

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

The Giver: A Play, Eric Coble

Behind the Scenes, Judi Dench

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo

The Christmas Books, Charles Dickens

Romola, George Eliot

The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flag

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Ian Fleming

Fight Like a Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines Are Trained, Kate Germano

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

The Grip of It, Jac Jemc

Codename Villanelle, Luke Jennings

The Shining, Stephen King

Under the Dome, Stephen King

King Javan’s Year, Katherine Kurtz

The Bastard Prince, Katherine Kurtz

Deryni Rising, Katherine Kurtz

Deryni Checkmate, Katherine Kurtz

High Deryni, Katherine Kurtz

The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena

The Call of the Wild, Jack London

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, Charlie Mackesy

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, Bill McKibben, ed.

Corpus Christi, Terence McNally

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

Elements of Fiction, Walter Mosley

Little Fires Everywhere, Celest Ng

Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo

1984, George Orwell

1984 (play), George Orwell, Duncan Macmillan (Adaptor), Robert Icke (Adaptor)

Brush Back, Sara Paretsky

Dead Land, Sara Paretsky

The Murder House, James Patterson

Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls

The History of the Hobbit, John D. Rateliff I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner and Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

Fools, Neil Simon

The World’s Religions, Huston Smith

Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves and Ghosts: 25 Classic Stories of the Supernatural, Barbara H. Solomon, ed.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, Les Standford

Map: Collected and Last Poems, Wislawa Szymborska

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk

The Father Christmas Letters, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Treason of Isengard: The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Two, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.)

Cane, Jean Toomer

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton

I Am Not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells


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