What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year – not necessarily the 10 best, but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2020. This was, if nothing else, a good year to kick back and read.
They’re listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking. that would be too problematic for books as different as these.
Stephen Brusatte – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (2019). There’s some new science here informing Brusatte’s descriptions of the long-ago beasts and their world, but what grabbed me was the way the material was organized: As a historical narrative, not just of the dinosaurs but also of the world around them, and how and why it changed over time. He walks the reader through the story of the dinosaurs from the beginning to their (mostly: birds excepted) end, with the arrival of a rock from outer space. Instead of the usual circus parade of odd critters, we get here a story of how and why they developed as they did. It’s surprisingly gripping. And you may gain a whole new appreciation for our avian friends in the process.
Andy Greenberg – Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers (2020). From years of reporting – largely out of the magazine Wired – How cyberattacks grew and mutated and spread around the world, with detailed accounts at their best describing massive attacks in Georgia and South Korea, among other places, and burrowing inside two Kremlin-based organizations that seem to have been responsible for much of the worst activity. There’s also a fascinating account of an American cyberattack on Iran (relating to its nuclear program (which spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. A stunning piece of investigative reporting.
Matthew Horace and Ron Harris – The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement (2018). Harris worked from street level to top administration in law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels over 28 years, which is one part of what informs in this book on policing and race. The other part is that he is black. I read seven on eight books on law enforcement this year, and this one stood out for the thoughtfulness and emotional crunching Horace exposed, even if there were layers of cause and solution he didn’t unearth as much as he might have. Horace loves law enforcement, has devoted his life to it, believes powerfully in its mission, but he does not shrink from the problems, which he acknowledges amounts to something much more than just a few “bad apples.”
Fletcher Knebel – Night of Camp David (1971). The paperback cover carried the tag line, “What would happen if the president of the U.S.A. went stark raving mad?”, and the book amply carries through on the premise. The novel, a solid popcorn story I first read back in the 70s, became an unexpectedly hot seller this year. Can’t imagine why. The story is actually somewhat tamer than what we’ve been exposed to in the last few years, and the novel’s ending was more uplifting than anything we in this year have any reason to expect in real life.
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020). All right, it’s here in part because the central story in this book is set about five miles north of where I live. (And from time to time I walk through the location pictured on the front cover.) But there’s also the unusually pragmatic take it sets in a subject area – inequality and our social difficulties – often given to politics, moralism and the dismal side of sociology. Kristof was raised outside Yamhill, Oregon, and the directly-told center story here is about the people there – and why, when some of them (such as Kristof) wound up doing very well, others saw their lives crater, crash and often end far too soon. The why of this, supplemented by other useful stories from around the country, make useful food for thought. It’s not the whole story, but it encompasses a lot of it.
Jill Lepore – These Truths: A History of the United States (2019). Lepore has been an excellent bringer of fresh perspective on American History for years in her New Yorker articles, and a great big, massive slab of her take on American history makes for a real treat all by itself. It is set up in part as a corrective to some other broad-brush American histories, spreading less time and attention on the traditional national heroes, elections and military actions than most such books so, and pouring a lot of space into the marginalized – the American history of slaves and their descendants, and of women, get quite a work through. This isn’t necessarily the only book on American history you’d ever want to read, but it belongs on a short list that you should, partly as a useful balance to almost everything else out there, and partly because of the beauty of the writing and the laying-out of connective tissues that are Lepore’s hallmark.
Henning Mankell, Laurie Thompson (translator) – The White Lioness (2011). Series novels less and less stay in my mind for long – too often the writers seem to stretch out their material, thinning each book, milking the series. Even some of the more interesting-set detective stories in this century have fallen prey to the tendency. On top of that, translated novels often lose some of the original freshness of language. So why is this Kurt Wallender book (the third in the series about that Swedish detective) here? It helps that the translation here seems more artful and lively than most. More important, aside from the neatly complex – as opposed to over-complicated – story which makes a logical if stark juxtaposition of rural Sweden and roiling (and dangerous) parts of South Africa, the locales between which the book is split – and never really unites.
Barack Obama – A Promised Land (2020). The former president’s first memoir, Dreams from my Father, was written long before he launched his political career, and carried a distinctive and sharply honest voice; to read it is to know it wasn’t written with a political campaign in mind, and that it was crafted by someone who really could write well. This first presidential memoir (a second is planned, to follow from the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid) has a good deal of that feel, despite the very different subject matter. More than any other presidential memoir I’ve read, it conveys the sense and feel of what doing the job and living the life of a presidency must actually feel, look and sound like, through the lens of a specific personality.
Chibundu Onuzo – Welcome to Lagos (2017). More often than not, if I’m going to read a novel, then I want to read something novel – something I haven’t read before, that introduces me to new people and places. The Inspector O novels, the first few of them anyway, set in North Korea got my attention a few years ago for that reason. And so did this stand-alone, a tale about a couple of deserters from the Nigerian army – who’d had enough of the murder and abuse of the people in rural villages – and wander off to the megalopolis of Lagos, where the story turns strange and amusing and insightful, meandering between issues of simple survival and governmental corruption. Some reviewers have criticized its wandering nature toward the end, and some readers might be slowed by the distinctive localized language (though I found it worth the effort), but if you read this you’ll get a clearer picture than you otherwise would about life in a very different part of the world.
Stuart Stevens – It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (2020). The preceding parade of books on this post notwithstanding, I read a bunch of books about current politics during the last year. Quite a few were pretty good, but a lot of them overlapped and seemed to run together. Among the many blasts at Trump and the many ruminations by Republicans over the last couple of years, this one by Stevens stuck out to me for the sheer level of personal emotion: The degree to which Steven appears to have exposed his outright agony over where he has been, what he has done and what he contributed to. To those who hurl invective to the never-Trumpers on the lines of, “See what you did?”, Stevens replies, “I know. I know. Now we need to put it all out on the table, and figure out how to fix it.”