Friday, December 18, 2020

2020 Best Reads


I read a bunch of books this year. Mostly new stuff, about equally divided between fiction and non-fiction. Since I rely primarily on the library for my reading materials, the pandemic shut down in March caused a bit of disruption. I had fortunately picked up three books just before the doors closed. When those ran out I fell back on the books that I had saved from triage to keep me occupied until the library re-opened for picking up holds at the front-door and more recently, allowing pickup inside the library, which I am sure the staff appreciates on these chilly, wet late fall days. I've managed to build up a reserve of books I've read about in various sources and using the hold suspension feature can wait for my turn to come around so that I can usually make my hold request for an item where I am first in the queue. So I no longer have to browse the shelves looking for something I might like to read. Even so, I miss being able to spend time in the library.

So much for introductions. Here are my favorites from 2020.



Hunter’s Moon: A Novel in Stories, Philip Caputo (2019)

Seven short stories, all but one set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, offer glimpses of characters coming to terms with past and present.  As a former Marine, Caputo portrays the varied nature of the post-Vietnam veteran experience that ranges from success to traumatic re-engagement. But Vietnam is only part of the story—the dynamics of life in a remote, rural area and human nature are also well represented. As much as any of the individuals, the UP is a constant presence in all of the stories, it’s rugged and wild spaces provide a sometimes somber, sometimes dramatic setting for the human struggles of the stories.

The King at the Edge of the World, Arthur Phillips (2020)

Set in the transition from 16th to 17thcenturies, this story follows Mahmoud Ezzedine, physician to the Ottoman sultan, as he is exiled by a rival to England and Scotland following his service on a diplomatic mission to the Court of Queen Elizabeth.  All of this comes into play during Elizabeth’s final years as English Protestants look for clarity about the religious preferences of the most likely successor, King James VI of Scotland. Arthur Phillips tells the tale well. He sets a good scene and contrasts Ottoman and English societies with the former usually coming off looking better.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich (2020)

Based on the author’s grandfather’s experience fighting the Congressional attempt in 1953 to terminate the treaty between the US government and the Chippewa tribe, this novel encompasses the entire range of Native American life in the early 50s, from the politics of federal-tribal relations, cultural adaptation to reservation life, human sex-slave trafficking and the interpersonal, intertwined relations among a close-knit community struggling in a challenging economic climate and harsh environment.

Squeeze Me, Carl Hiassen (2020)

Hiassen writes crazy, funny stories. In Squeeze Me former wildlife officer Angie Armstrong, who lost her job when she was convicted of feeding a poacher’s hand to an alligator, works as a “discreet wildlife remover" in the Palm Beach area which includes a famous resort owned and often frequented by the President of the United States. The plot involves the disappearance of a local socialite, a growing number of large pythons, the presidential tanning bed, the First Lady’s affair with her Secret Service escort, a scapegoated immigrant, shady rich people and their not-too-bright minions in a series of wildly improbable, sometimes laugh out loud, events.


Dad’s Maybe Book, Tim O’Brien (2019)

O’Brien, author of some of the best Vietnam War fiction, became a first-time father at age 58 followed by another child two years later. Knowing that he may well not live long enough for his sons to know him and that his participation in their lives would be limited, he began writing notes to them, speaking to them as if they were adults. Over the next 15 years the project recorded a wide range parental experiences and hopes, exploration of the author’s relationship with his own father and some reflections on military service and Vietnam. The book also thoughtfully explores the relationship between the author and his two children, the craft and challenges of writing, literature and the reality of aging and death.

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, Pekka Hamalainen (2019)

This history follows the Lakota migration from living as a marginal band in the Great Lakes area to their expansion and domination of the Missouri River drainage and farther west into the plains. Along the way Lakotas manage their way against French and British colonialism and later American expansion. The Lakotas come across as shrewd diplomats and fierce warriors whose growing numbers, ability to to master the horse and modern firearms, and clever adaptability created an empire that stymied US plans to settle the west, yielding only when starved into submission by the US military and the corrupt system of Indian agencies. Although the detailed history ends shortly after the Wounded Knee massacre, Lakota America shows that Lakota identity and culture has survived and adapted into the 21st century.

All My Rivers Are Gone: A Journey of Discovery Through Glen Canyon, Katie Lee (1998)

Katie Lee discovered the Colorado River and Glen Canyon in particular during rafting trips during rafting trips in the mid-1950s. Finding and exploring the exquisite beauty of Glen Canyon, the Colorado River that carved it and the many side canyons, Lee became forever married to it all. That experience, followed almost immediately by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam which drowned its namesake under the waters of Lake Powell, made Lee the canyon’s archivist, balladeer and defender. All My Canyons Are Gone lyrically tells the story of how she came to love Glen Canyon. Lee’s words evoke a loving relationship that fed her soul and her mind. By the end of the book, the reader knows how and why Katie Lee became one of the river’s most articulate and determined advocates.

Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood, Colin Woodard (2020)

As a nation formed from scattered outposts of early European exploration of North America and peopled by immigrants (some by choice, others by force) the United States appeared in the world without a strong national identity or longstanding connection to the land. Colin Woodard traces the development of America’s story through the lives and writings of key 19th and early 20th century figures who articulated competing narratives that culminated in the white ethnonationalism that characterized American society without challenge until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continues to reverberate to this day. Union is a fascinating discussion of the competing ideas of American nationhood which remains a work in progress in the 21st century.

The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, Fred Kaplan (2020)

An in-depth look at how America’s leaders have wrestled with the dilemmas of nuclear weapons. Beginning with the firebombing of Japan and General Curtis LeMay’s philosophy of “bomb” everything, America’s policy for using nuclear weapons has lurched from launching total Armageddon to looking for ways to fine tune strategies to use these weapons to some advantage without risking wholesale destruction. The great secret of nuclear history was that despite all of these policy changes beginning in the 1960s, the US had only one real option: Massive Overall Attack. Also secret but not at all surprising is the revelation that attack plans were highly redundant with multiple weapons aimed at individual targets which were often located within the destruction radius of each other. Kaplan concludes that the presidents of the nuclear age managed to keep the weapons locked up for over seven decades during some exceptionally dangerous times, ...not through ignorance or innocence but rather by immersing themselves in the bomb’s logic, scoping out full depths of the rabbit hole, and comprehending, with calm urgency, the need to find a way out.”

Different Ways: Revealing the Feminine, Cile (2020)

And a shout out to my good friend, Cile, who wrote this honest, insightful memoir of her life and struggle to find a place in the world where the odds are stacked against you and you stumble along, at risk from others and your own unfortunate choices. Looking at your own life can be daunting.  Writing about your life for others to read even more so.  Cile casts a cold eye on her past and tells her story with insight.