A Bounty of Books in 2020: Part One

This past year I read a lot more than usual: I credit (or blame) in equal parts exasperation with COVID-19 and insomnia. Whatever. I was just happy to indulge my passion for books and thought I’d share some of my favorites. Here’s part one; stay tuned for the follow-up post with the rest.

Most Surprising Book:

Soul of an Octopus: a Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

If you love the ocean and draw inspiration from her magnificent creatures, this book’s for you. Naturalist Sy Montgomery works in tandem with marine biologists as they explore the life of octopuses (the correct way to pluralize, as I learned in the book) in venues near and far – a New England aquarium, in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and in exotic French Polynesia. She allows the reader to get up-close and personal with several octopuses, each of which has a unique personality. These solo creatures are remarkably intelligent; a necessity for survival in an ecosystem that offers little shelter for solitary creatures such as these.

Why most surprising? I picked this book because it was different from what I had been reading. While I expected it to divert my attention, I never thought it would get inside my head like it did. Truly fascinating, the life stories of Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma warmed my heart. If you’re looking for something different and pleasantly surprising, this book overdelivers.

Most Imaginative Story:

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke

I don’t tend to read much science fiction or fantasy, but 2020 has made both genres more appealing to me! This book doesn’t fit easily into either category, but it is a departure from traditional fiction. Clarke has created a universe unlike any other I’ve encountered: planted squarely on Earth, the story unfolds in a decidedly extra-terrestrial place. The story grabs you right away, bringing you into a strange house dominated by oceanic tides. Our protagonist, Piranesi, survives in this place on his own thanks to an unfailing understanding of the timing of these tides: he knows when it’s safe to move about, when he can catch fish, and when he must retreat to high ground to avoid being swept away.

Clarke’s narrative sweeps us away, too, making believers of us as we count the hallways with Piranesi; as we watch him interact with the only other human nearby. I can’t reveal more without spoiling the rest of the story. But, if you appreciate skillful writing and your imagination begs for a wild romp, you’ll really enjoy this book.

The One that Stayed with Me:

Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World It Made by Richard Rhodes

When you travel in Spain it’s impossible to miss the lasting effects of the civil war: every city I’ve visited has a monument to honor the dead. But it’s the way the Spanish people talk about the war that got my attention: as if it’s part of the now, rather than something from the past. I guess that has a lot to do with the fact that Franco, who won the war that broke out just before World War II, stayed in power until 1975. Not that long ago, when you understand what happened to Spain under his rule.

I was curious about this period of Spanish history, realizing I knew so little about it. This book gave me a lot of food for thought: that western powers (including the USA) did so little to help those fighting Franco – in fact, many directly supported him (including some American companies who sold him fuel for his planes.) The rivalry between Hitler and Mussolini for dominance in Europe led to both offering equipment and armed forces to Franco, most famously in the destruction of Guernica, the Basque village (described in detail in the book.)

But there were positive developments that happened as doctors struggled to treat wounded soldiers in the field: a universal blood typing system was invented; scientists learned how to preserve blood and transport it to the front. And then there was the indomitable spirit of the Spanish people who, despite deplorable conditions, never lost hope; never gave up the fight.

There’s also the story of the international brigades comprising volunteers from all over the world, who came in droves to help the cause. Among them were famous writers like George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and André Malraux, all of whom wrote in depth about their experiences.

Not an easy book to read, this is a necessary one for students of history. I’m still pondering the atrocities carried out on civilians, unable to stomach the corruption of the combined forces of the monarchy, the church, and the wealthiest citizens.

After turning the last page, it was easier to understand the lingering effects of this conflict on Spanish society today.

Note: after this book I read Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War, which adds his personal experience, especially his time in Madrid. Even in his understated prose, the horrors of the war are hard to digest. Definitely worth a read, though.

Books with a Sense of Place:

The Seine: The River that Made Paris by Elaine Sciolino

A lovely tribute to the tributary defining the City of Light! Sciolino served as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, spending many years in Paris. Her love of the town and the famous river that runs through it go far beyond the city limits: she begins at the source of the Seine, in eastern Burgundy, and follows it westward to its end at Le Havre, explaining how the unique character of the river shaped Paris – and the people who live there.

You’ll learn about the generations of rivermen (and women) who call the Seine their home; why the buildings of Paris light up the way they do at night; and the latest on efforts to clean up the river and make it more navigable.

Sciolino’s voice is that of the insider sharing a life’s worth of knowledge about the people and places of Paris, all via the story of the Seine. It’s a pleasure trip you won’t want to miss.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

A story of four orphans who flee from a Minnesota group home is at once suspenseful and heartbreaking. As they navigate the often treacherous waters of the Mississippi River in search of freedom and a new start, we readers are along for the ride. Taking place during the Great Depression, the story gives us a glimpse of the midwest and the towns (and characters) that thrived along the river banks. The plot covers such issues as the treatment of Native Americans in society, the challenge of keeping faith in hard times, and the devastation of economic inequality. You will root so hard for these kids that, when it’s over, the story will leave an indelible impression of America at a certain time and place, and the people who made her what she is today.

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl

I came upon this book after reading several of Renkl’s columns in the New York Times. Based in Nashville, she writes about the natural world – birds, plants, animals – as their lives intersect with our own. This book is a memoir of her life in southern Alabama, and is chock-full of family tales as well as adult realizations that will ring true to anyone of a certain age. Beautiful and thoughtful writing is a pleasure I always look forward to, and Late Migrations ticks both boxes.

Raven Black and White Nights, Books 1 and 2 of The Shetland Mysteries by Ann Cleeves

Need to get away from anything resembling your normal life? So did I! Ann Cleeves transports you to the remote beauty of the Shetland Islands, off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea. The mysteries will suck you in, as will the characters and their idiosyncrasies. The star of the show, though, is the rugged, often unforgiving landscape that seems determined to keep outsiders, well, on the outside. Let yourself run to this faraway place, if just for a little while.

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson

Larson is one of my favorite authors; if you haven’t yet read any of his books, I highly recommend them. Pick a book, any book: you really can’t go wrong. This one tells the true story of Isaac Cline, who works for the U.S. Weather Bureau in Galveston, Texas. It’s a historic flashback to the devastation of a once-in-a-lifetime storm that forecasters failed to anticipate. Based entirely on primary source material, the book takes us back to September 1900, giving us a front-row seat to the action – even when we might rather turn our heads. At times it gets rather wonky with scientific details on the formation of storms, the conditions that strengthen them, and how climate change has made them more frequent; but that in no way detracts from its enjoyment. I read this in the middle of hurricane season here in South Florida; it made me wish I were somewhere else.

Stay Tuned . . .

I have more to share, including my overall favorites in fiction and nonfiction. Part two of my books of 2020 appearing in this space soon!

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