As I write this, I’m wearing a T-shirt that says the first rule of 2021 is don’t talk about 2020. But I have at least one good thing to say about 2020. Because the pandemic keeps me in my house almost exclusively, I’ve had a little more time on my hands than planned.
Which meant I would do more reading than I have in years. And so my annual column about the best books I’ve read in (fill in the year) has a lot to offer from 2020. In the greater scheme of things — pandemic, economic disaster, racial injustice, a 60-game baseball season — it may be a small grace note, but still.
And now that we’ve learned that the Tattered Cover seems to be in good hands — a holiday gift for all of Colorado — I’m ready with my list.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe
If I had to name a favorite book I read this year, this would be it. It’s a true-life murder mystery, which Keefe uses to tell the story of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. One night in 1972, masked militants abduct 38-year-old Jean McConville at her home in Belfast. She is a recently widowed mother of 10 children, who are told she will soon return. That was just the first lie of many, covering decades of violence, of loss, of terror, of unresolved endings. Her body was not found until 2003, five years after the Good Friday Agreement. Though the murder is still officially unsolved, Keefe goes about solving it anyway — the book reads like a novel that you can’t possibly put down — while interviewing the principals on all sides and while reflecting on the decades-long tragedy and the many broken lives. McConville was supposedly an informant. Her killers were certain of their cause. The story Keefe tells reminds us not only how difficult it is, in real life, to separate heroes from villains, but of the cost of believing it’s even possible.
Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry
For a different take on Irish life, we follow novelist Kevin Barry to a dreary ferry terminal on the Spanish coast, where a pair of thuggish anti-heroes, both with serious Irish story-telling chops, await the arrival of a young woman whose relationships with both men are mysteries waiting to be solved. As Barry writes of the terminal, “Oh, and this is as awful a place as you could muster — you’d want the eyes sideways in your head. It reeks of tired bodies, and dread.” The Irish love affair with writing is well known, and this book is one more that brilliantly makes the case. As the pair spend a hilarious, but darkly so, night working through their own lives and mysteries and relationships while wondering whether the young woman will ever show, the easy comparison is to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” And if an author is rightfully compared to Beckett and his work to “Waiting for Godot,” that should be all the encouragement you need.
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A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
I read a bunch of Trump books this year — I think John Bolton’s was the worst and maybe Tim Alberta’s the best — but I wouldn’t recommend any of them now. It is time to begin detaching ourselves from the Trumpian nightmare, even as we stay up nights worried what damage there is left for him to do. As an alternative, I recommend reading one of the best presidential memoirs in memory. I’m trying to even imagine what Trump’s memoir — sure to be penned by a ghostwriter — would read like.
Part one of Obama’s, which will come in two parts, is the work of a real writer. I have to laugh now about the idiots who tried to tell us that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s wonderful first book, “Dreams of My Father.” Obama can write. He has a great eye for detail and an ear for the absurd. He can be, as he concedes, a little wordy. And he is open to the idea — that many on the left share — that he was far too cautious during his presidency. But he takes us through each piece of it and entertains, along with the reader, what choices he faced and why he made the ones he did, from Obamacare to birtherism to the Tea Party to the killing of Osama bin Laden and back.
There’s a great set piece that takes place during the battle for Obamacare, in which an aide, Phil Schiliro, says, in his best Clint Eastwood, “I guess the question for you, Mr. President, is: ‘Do you feel lucky?’” Obama asks Schiliro where they are. Schilio looks around and answers, well, the Oval Office. Obama then asks him what his name is. OK, it’s Barack Obama. And then, moving in for the kill, Obama says, “Barack Hussein Obama. And I’m here with you in the Oval Office. Brother, I always feel lucky.” After reading, I felt lucky that there was not a single sentence written in all caps.
A Burning, by Megha Majumdar
I’ve never been to India, but I feel like I’ve read my way through much of the country, which offers, as I repeatedly marvel, such rich territory for a writer. In “A Burning,” terrorists have firebombed a train, killing more than a hundred people. The explosives light up not only the tragic night sky, but also, in our time, social media. And so we meet Jivan, a bright, young shop assistant who had witnessed the bombing. Afterwards, she is scrolling through Facebook, where the posts about the outrage compete for attention. Jivan tries one, which receives no “likes,” and so she goes for something more provocative: “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” You might guess where this leads. It leads to prison, to a forced confession, to the story, manufactured in the press, of a marginalized young women led into terrorism.
Meanwhile we meet two characters who could possibly save her. One is Lovely, a hijra, as those in the Indian intersex community are called, and would-be actress. The hijra have this strange place in South Asian society, revered and scorned in nearly equal measure. Her life is a provocation. Jivan also tutored Lovely in English, and Lovely holds a secret that could prove Jivan innocent. And then there is PT Sir, a former PE teacher who knew Jivan as a “charity student” he had mentored but who, he felt, had never repaid his kindness. In a strange string of events, he becomes involved in an anti-Muslim political party where his connection to the infamous Jivan turns into political gold, just as Lovely’s relationship with Jivan launches her acting career. The book reads like a thriller, but one written with an eye and ear to a society moving so swiftly that few can keep up.
Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
If you haven’t read Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-winning first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” you should start there. Only book reviewers use words like “magisterial,” but Wilkerson’s account of the great African-American migration out of the South qualifies. In working on that book came the idea, the provocative idea, that is the basis for “Caste,” in which Wilkerson shines a different light onto racism. She takes America’s original sin and removes it, in part, from skin color and replaces it with a power structure — the dominant caste (white) and the subordinate caste (non-white). And where she takes it further is in examining two other infamous caste systems — Nazi Germany and India — and how those systems apply to ours.
If the comparisons aren’t perfect— and I don’t think they are — they can match each other for cruelty and for the monstrous lies upon which they are built. She explains to those who don’t know how Nazi pseudo-science relied on the South’s apartheid system as a model for its treatment of Jews. Where the caste system differs from racism, she writes, is that it doesn’t depend solely on the concept of inferiority of the lower caste but on the empowerment of the dominant caste. In other words, you don’t have to be a racist to enjoy the strange fruits of racism. Wilkerson examines the mind-boggling gradations of the Indian caste system and the particular cruelty toward the Dalits; the Jim Crow South and not just the savage and often well-attended lynchings, but the lynching postcards — yes, postcards — that celebrated them; the fact that Nazis were amazed to see how openly the race laws in the American South were practiced. We are still in the grips of the Lost Cause, as we see a president veto the defense spending bill, in part, because it would require bases named after Confederate officers to be renamed. These officers, we should be reminded, fought in a war to maintain the permanent enslavement of millions. This is not just a very good book, it is an important one to read as racial injustice roils our world.
Midnight in Chernobyl, by Adam Higginbotham
I read the book after I saw the HBO miniseries, which was quite good, but I knew, if I wanted the real story — and I did — it would have to come from the source material, which never disappoints. The book about the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant is more than a book about terrifying incompetence, Soviet-era obsession with secrecy, ill-placed faith in technology that was rushed into place, quotas that were near impossible to meet. The explosion, in many ways, led directly to the end of the Soviet Union, which couldn’t admit to the world its monumental failure and therefore failed to warn nearby counties.
The failure at Chernobyl was the story of the failure of the Soviet Union, with its model atomic city Pripyat, which officials wouldn’t allow to be evacuated for days, the everyday courage of those who, sometimes by hand, attempted to save Reactor No. 4, the slow deaths over years of overmatched scientists and engineers, some of whom bravely fought the system to bring the truth of Chernobyl to light. Be prepared for lessons in nuclear technology, in radionuclides and why it was disastrous to have control rods dipped in graphite rather than boron carbide. But don’t be put off by the science. Higginbotham slowly takes us to the night of April 26, 1986, and the disaster that followed, with a tension that hasn’t dulled in the 30-plus years since the explosion. He tells the stories of those who were there, of bodies racked by gamma radiation, of slow-moving but inevitable deaths. In Higginbotham’s hands, this is a human story and, yes, very much a human tragedy.
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
I’m a sucker for Shakespeare books. The life of the world’s most famous author is sufficiently obscure that writers routinely take turns filling in the blanks. In this case, we get the story of Shakespeare’s wife and the death of their son Hamnet, which is, as you might know, a variation on Hamlet, which was written four years after his son’s death. The romance here is told differently than in most cases. This is not the story of the older woman, Anne (or is it Agnes?) Hathaway, who traps the young Will into what becomes a loveless marriage. In this telling, Anne is a gifted young woman, with otherworldly intuition, who beguiles young Will, whose father, once an important man in Stratford-Upon-Avon, is now a disgraced debtor and a not-insignificant burden for his son. At the time Hamnet grows ill, Shakespeare is already Shakespeare, a famous playwright who spends much of his time in London, but who also well provides for his family. But that doesn’t make up for the absences, particularly at the time of the death of his son, of which history tells us little, except for the great grief that it clearly caused. O’Farrell posits that it might be the plague and tells the story of how the plague might have landed at her front door. This is a novelist’s novel, and O’Farrell’s alternative take is beautifully told.
OK, I’m running out of space, my editor tells me. But other books to consider.
James McBride’s “Deacon King Kong,” with its memorable lead character Sportcoat, tells the story of a 71-year-old Harlem resident whose death is foretold but whose life, now absent his dead wife who still talks to him, is described as “a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle and the greatest baseball umpire that the Cause Houses had ever seen.” It is a romp, just as McBride’s earlier book, “The Good Lord Bird,” is an improbable romp through the life, and death, of John Brown.
“Mirror & the Light” is the third and final book in Hilary Mantel’s much-praised, and deservedly so, life of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s VIII’s aide and power behind the throne. We enter as Anne Boleyn is about to be executed, a death Cromwell has made possible. If you haven’t read the first two books, start with “Wolf Hall” and then let it take you as far as you can go.
Another of my weaknesses is books on World War II, and “The Splendid and the Vile,” written by Erik Larson, is a great addition. This is a book of the year 1940 and Churchill’s ability to keep the British united as France falls and the blitz unfolds. Larson, a great reporter, finds unrevealed diaries that tell us not only of Churchill in that critical year but also of the people’s lives he helped to save by way of his soaring rhetoric. I would read this book on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets.
“The Topeka School,” by Ben Lerner, is a story of the 1980s, but which is very much really about the 2010s. The protagonist is Adam Gordon, a high school debate champion whose specialty is “the spread,” in which one debater overwhelms the opposition by using as many facts and theories as quickly as possible because the rival debater is obligated to address them all. Lerner, a poet who is known as an intellectual novelist, is more accessible in this one, but just as smart. Hell, if you watched a TV series about chess — The Queen’s Gambit — why not a novel about a debater.
Edi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” is the story of a child born in slavery on a savage Barbados plantation, who, through a series of improbable events, becomes a world traveler and a free man whose journey eventually is one of self-discovery. I can’t recommend this book too highly. As I write this, I realize I should have done a full review.
“Weather,” by Jenny Offill, is a short, quick, hilarious book of a kind I had never read before until I read her earlier novel, “Dept. of Speculation.” “Weather” is not about weather, but about climate change. Offill’s protagonist cares for an addicted brother, works as a librarian and also answers email for a former professor’s end-times podcast on the coming disaster. In the meantime, she writes a series of one liners, such as how a brief flirtation is “like a wartime romance. Minus the war. Minus the sex.” Or how “One thing good about being addicted to sleeping pills is that they don’t call it addicted they call it habituated.”
That’s it. Let’s do this again in 2021, which has no choice but to be a better year than the one we won’t mention.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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