Books of 2020 Part 2: My Favorite Fiction and Nonfiction, Best Character, and a Few Wild Rides

In case you missed the first post, here’s a link.

This post gives you a few more recommendations, including my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles; a few flights of fancy bound by neither time nor space; and the most exciting character I’ve met through a book – who, by the way, is 100% real.

Book of the Year (Fiction):

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

The author of A Man Called Ove returns with this quick read that manages to cram a lot of thought and feeling into its 349 pages. A random group of people cross paths at a real estate open house, and what ensues is funny, tragic, and strangely familiar. To say much more would be to spoil the joy of this book. In short: we’re all anxious and we’re all annoying; we are all connected and what we say and do matters. Atonement and forgiveness feature prominently, as does the importance of self-awareness (however late in life that may come.)

This book, while serious at times, made me laugh and gave me hope. You’re sure to recognize a few of the characters (perhaps even in the mirror) and you will think twice about seemingly unimportant meetings and occurrences. It’s the perfect antidote to 2020.

Book of the Year (Nonfiction):

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

I’ve had this book on my agenda for a couple of years. I finally got into it this summer, after months of insomnia and anxiety had exhausted every other book in my queue. In short, it’s a marvelously told tale of the social and economic devastation wrought on the High Plains during the Great Depression. You may think you understand what happened, based on reading the Grapes of Wrath; trust me, you don’t.

Egan interviewed the relatives of several families who fought to survive the impossible conditions, weaving their stories in with background on agricultural policies (including the eradication of Native American communities and the bison that thrived there, so that wheat could be planted.)

One family traces its lineage to German Jews who migrated to the steppes of Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great: later they left Europe for the U.S., landing in the Dust Bowl, which turned out to be remarkably similar to the barren, wind-swept lands they left.

A few pages in, I was hooked on the story. There’s so much to recommend this book, it’s hard to give a synopsis in just a few paragraphs. It’s nonfiction, based on personal interviews and primary source information but it reads like the most engaging novel. Dive in; you won’t be disappointed.

Best Character:

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

Amazing and inspiring biography of Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who became a pivotal figure in the French resistance during WWII. Coming of age at a time when women were encouraged to marry young and hone their housewife skills, Virginia fought for her place in the U.S. intelligence service. Encountering prejudice on multiple levels – as a woman and an amputee – she never gave up. Among her achievements were driving a French army ambulance as the German air force dropped bombs all around her; coordinating a vast resistance network based in Lyon; and outperforming the privileged men of means who filled the ranks of the American intelligence operations. One of Hall’s greatest accomplishments was establishing an escape route through the Pyrénées that allowed political prisoners and downed RAF pilots to evade capture by the Nazis. Rarely have I been as inspired by a story as I was by this one. And it actually happened!

Flights of Fancy:

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

The story of an artist who has been abandoned by his wife, this book is about so much more. I’ve never seen or heard the pain of divorce described as perfectly as Murakami does here; also the path to rediscovering who you are as a solo person in the world. Our protagonist starts his journey by relocating to a remote, mountain-top cottage owned by a friend; this friend is the son of a famous Japanese artist with his own turbulent history.

The tale that unfolds includes dramas unlikely to occupy space in the same narrative: death by murder hornets; a mysterious wealthy patron who requests his portrait be painted – in an unorthodox way; and the discovery of an oddly lifelike painting in a corner of the attic. Let your brain run wild with this one; it’s a rollercoaster ride for the imagination.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

After reading this book, you’ll never look at a door the same way again! Equal parts Harry Potter, The Secret Garden, and The Little Princess, this tale follows January Scaller on her adventures through time and space. When she stumbles across a magical book in the mansion where she lives as a ward of the mysterious Mr. Locke, January begins to discover who she really is and the limits of her innate special abilities. If 2020 has you yearning for a vivid and heartwarming escape, this is your ticket. All aboard!

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Another magical realm defying time or space, the backdrop for this story is a circus that appears in the darkness, without fanfare, and vanishes just as quickly. Behind the psychedelic scenery and mind-blowing circus acts drawing crowds from near and far, a battle is waged between two skillful magicians, each trained by masters who are thousands of years old. Unbeknownst to the competitors, only one of them will survive the contest. This is a fun trip to a fantasy land, with a bit of suspense thrown into the mix.

Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I loved reading mythology as a kid, and these two books appealed to me right away. Circe tells the tale of the famous goddess-witch, daughter of the god Helios and a beautiful nymph. When her powers draw unwanted attention, she is banished by Zeus to an island where her craft only gets stronger, leading to showdowns with Medea, Odysseus, and Athena, one of the most powerful gods of all.

The Song of Achilles presents the Trojan War from the point of view of Patroclus, best friend of Achilles and rumored to have been his lover.  A new take on The Iliad, this is at once a story of friendship, true love, and the vagaries and atrocities of war. Having never read the original, I didn’t have strong feelings about the liberties Miller has taken with the story; all I know is that I enjoyed it immensely.

Thrills and Chills:

I’m always up for a story that keeps me guessing, whether it’s a modern detective novel or a supernatural tale. Here’s one of each:

Cemetery Road by Greg Iles

Set in Mississippi, this story stretches from the small town of Bienville on the banks of the river, to the capital of Jackson, and then on to the hallowed halls of Washington, DC.  Marshall McEwan returns to his hometown to help save the family newspaper. What follows includes an unexpected romance with his high school flame; an investigation into the town’s new, Chinese manufacturing plant; and a coming to terms with the death of his brother. Midway through, you might think you have the mystery sorted out; you would be wrong. A page-turner, for sure!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

We start in 1950s Mexico City, with Noemí, a decidely modern young woman who strains against her parents’ conservative rules and longs for independence. She is sent to a remote mountain village called High Place, to check on her cousin who recently married into an old mining family and who has sent a message of distress to Noemí’s family. What comes next is deliciously bone-chilling and a bit bizarre. If I describe too much I’ll spoil the fun. The end is a little out there but, on the whole, I relished the ride. Moreno-Garcia paints an indelible image of High Place that will stick with you.

World War II

I seemed to gravitate toward this topic in 2020, in both fiction and nonfiction. Here are two more books in that vein:

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

I’ve already gone on record with my praise for Larson’s work: his most recent, featuring Winston Churchill, is another reason to applaud. Much has been written about Churchill but Larson finds ways to add to the compilation. We see “Winnie” walking fearlessly through neighborhoods bombed by the Germans, greeting the locals and praising their courage; watching from his rooftop as incendiaries drift slowly to the ground and set houses ablaze; and dictating wartime memos to staff from his bathtub, large cigar in hand.

Larson also shows us the genius of Churchill, as he put civilian business leaders into key positions of the national defense (much to the chagrin of the military), and tried desperately to convince America to enter the war. As with all Larson’s books, this one reads like a novel, peppered as it is with personal anecdotes from those closest to Churchill and first-hand accounts from people who endured the Blitz. Well worth a read.

The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard

A quick read at just 144 pages, this account of the Anschluss, when Germany annexed Austria into the Third Reich is both fascinating and disturbing. It’s not a military operation but almost the opposite: Hitler pressures the Austrian government to put people friendly to the Reich into key positions. What happens next is unsurprising. Vuillard, a writer and filmmaker, gives us a visual account of how fascism arises and how a little enabling and turning of blind eyes goes a long way. A cautionary tale for Europe, as nationalism creeps back into public discourse, and for us in the United States, as we wrestle with “fake news” and the landscape of multiple realities that have little in common.

What’s Up Next?

I just finished Wolf Hall, the first of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and their battle with the Catholic Church. Its unique perspective, from the viewpoint of wily Thomas Cromwell, is deliciously drawn, hooking you from the very first paragraph.

Afterward, I watched the first few episodes of the PBS series based on Mantel’s books. While I enjoyed watching the show, it made me more appreciative of the rich detail and lingering pace of the novels. Can’t wait to read the next one!

Cheers to the end of 2020! Here’s hoping for a better year ahead – one filled with books.

2 comments

  1. What a gorgeous list! I will look for the Murakami and then set it aside for when I know that I am in the right place (mentally) to read it. I love his work but I always have to buck-up my mental stamina to read him. He is deep and dark. The other books all sound fascinating, I like your taste in reading! Thank you for sharing this. I hope to take some time from writing to do more reading (reading only makes writing better!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Robin. I hope you get a chance to dive into Commendatore; there is some darkness and it’s definitely intense but there’s a bit of fantasy about it too. Here’s to a new year full of good books and great wine. Cheers, my friend! 🥂😊

      Like

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