Crazy stuff is happening in the world of politics today, so what better time to escape into the world of books, which always delivers enrichment and entertainment? I’m really humbled that people ask me about books I’ve enjoyed, so I’ve compiled a list of my favorites from 2020 (in no particular order). I was going to list my top 10, but after I made a first draft and culled it and then culled it again, I could only get down to 12. I’m not willing to strike any of these from my list because they were all fantastic.
This list is 50/50 fiction and nonfiction, but my reading list for the year was not. Of the 77 books I read, 32 were nonfiction and 45 were fiction. Three books got the dubious distinction of being abandoned before I finished them, because I believe life is too short to read for anything but pleasure.
Here are my favorites from 2020:
1. The British are Coming by Rick Atkinson
You will learn more about the military tactics of the Continental Army than you ever wanted to know. The detailed research behind this book is astounding, and you have permission to skim over the really tactical stuff; you’ll still get an appreciation for the long odds faced by our colonial forebearers against the British. Read this, and then go watch Hamilton for dessert.
2. Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino
This is unfamiliar American history for many white people. Post-reconstruction, white politicians used their cultural power to disenfranchise, terrorize, and murder Black citizens and community leaders. Wilmington is one of the places that happened, and everyone should know about it. The legacy of Wilmington lingers in our modern politics like a poison.
3. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
This is the third book in her trilogy about Cromwell during King Henry VIII’s reign. It’s also the best, in my opinion. I’m a sucker for Tudor history, both fiction and nonfiction (this one’s fiction), and Mantel totally masters it.
4, The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Is there any event in history this man CAN’T write about and make it a page-turner? This is nonfiction and chock full of details about Winston Churchill and his larger-than-life leadership during the Blitz. Churchill was the poster boy for work-life balance (the drinking, the entertaining, the defeat of the Luftwaffe – he can do it all and make it look easy!). After I finished this, I wanted more time with Churchill, so I returned to a book I first read long ago: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. There’s no better way to understand the relationship between Churchill and FDR than to read her masterpiece.
5. Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo
If you liked Jaws, consider if it were a true story. Capuzzo’s nonfiction book about great white shark attacks along the Jersey shore in the early 20th century will keep you safely on terra firma. No one understood much about sharks back then (they hadn’t seen Jaws!) and speculation and misinformation abounded. I admire meticulous research, and this book nails it.
6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
How did it take me 50 years to discover this Great American Cowboy Novel? It’s so much more than a western. Even my husband liked it. If I had to pick only one best book of the year, it might be this one.
7. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
O’Brian writes about early 19th century sailing ships like Melville writes about whaling, so buckle in for an intense nautical education. But the British naval battles during the Napoleonic wars are described with such beautiful and witty language, it’s so worth it to skim over pages and pages about the different sails.
8. Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaason
I love everything he writes but Squeeze Me was particularly on point for 2020. The “Florida Man” in this case is the only-partly-fictional president, whose winter dwelling in Palm Beach is called Casa Bellicosa. I read so many passages from this book out loud to whomever was near me; it is laugh-out-loud funny.
9. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
On the bestseller list for good reason, this novel explores what it’s like to be Black but look white, and how two sisters’ paths diverge when one decides to pass.
10. Deacon King Kong by James McBride
I loved, loved, LOVED this book. The literary holy trinity of compelling plot, beloved quirky characters, and spectacular writing make this perhaps my second favorite novel of the year.
11. Pacific Crucible by Ian Toll
From the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway, this history of the early war in the Pacific shows exactly why the age of the battleship gave way to the primacy of aircraft carriers in naval combat. The gruesome description of the sinking of the USS Lexington, after her crew fought so valiantly to save her, gave this former carrier sailor chills.
12. How to be an Antiracist by Ibrim X. Kendi
Just to keep up with the kids at the water cooler, this is required reading. The concepts Kendi presents need to be a part of our future. They sure weren’t a part of our past, and look at the hole we’re trying to dig ourselves out of thanks to centuries of racism. We need to do better and reading this feels like an important first step.
Happy reading in 2021, everyone!