Tag Archives: books

Books for a Crazy Year

Only two of my ten favorite books in 2020 were nonfiction, but all of them helped me make sense of issues we confronted during this crazy year.

For all of you who are fellow book lovers, here are my Top Ten:

James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969, illuminated our country’s history of racial injustice even as it kept me laughing and turning the pages.

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, about an African American woman who passes as white while her twin sister remains in the black community, moved me deeply.

Lawrence Wright’s The End of October anticipated how a worldwide pandemic might upend our lives. I was amazed by Wright’s prescience and riveted by his story. 

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, made me think anew about the #MeToo movement with its unsettling portrayal of a teenage girl who has sex with her teacher yet resists being seen as a victim. 

Far lighter was Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me, a rollicking tale of a giant snake eating a Republican socialite at a resort resembling Mar-a-Lago while a narcissistic president blathers and his foreign-born wife has an affair with a Secret Service agent. I’ll let you draw your own parallels about that one. 

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea is set decades ago in the Spanish Civil War and in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, but its messages about war, loss, family and migration were universal and timely this year.

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River made my list partly because it is set in Kensington, Philadelphia, where my son and his family lived until a few years ago. Simultaneously, it’s a gripping detective story that brings us face to face with drug addiction, police misconduct and other challenges.

Then there was Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which combined autobiography and fiction in a compelling story that ranged improbably from the discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants to the intricacies of financial debt. I couldn’t put it down.

One of the two nonfiction books on my Top Ten list also illuminated the year indirectly but powerfully. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson describes how Winston Churchill led England courageously through the darkest days of World War II, in sharp contrast with the incompetence we’ve seen during our own crisis.

Finally, I just finished reading The Apolcalypse Factory by Steve Olson, a wonderfully talented science writer. He describes how scientists raced to produce atomic bombs at a remote site in Washington State, helping to end World War II while creating a toxic legacy that haunts us today.

Other recent nonfiction books also helped me see the world more clearly this year. Ezra’s Klein’s Why We’re Polarized illuminated our election. On the science front, Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense was the most readable overview I’ve seen about the immune system, and Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep kept me wide awake and fascinated.

A scientist was also a central character in Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black, in which a British researcher helps a young black slave escape by balloon from a sugarcane plantation in Barbados. 

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments revisited and updated the dystopian religious theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale. Jeanine Cummins’ controversial American Dirt dealt with Mexican gangs and migration across the U.S. border. 

I also loved several novels that were simply great stories. Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order took me time traveling with a young woman trying to figure out her life. Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes explored love and redemption through two police families sharing a tragedy. Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House offered a moving story of a brother, a sister, a mansion and life’s unpredictability.

Some of these books were published before 2020, as were Normal People, My Name is Lucy Barton and others that gave me happy reading this year. Other novels I enjoyed included Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

I finally read Samantha Power’s superb autobiography, The Education of an Idealist, and Rachel Maddow’s rich account of the international oil industry (Blowout). Julie Andrews shared delightful memories of Broadway and Hollywood in Home Work

When the news got especially grim in 2020, I sometimes turned to thrillers to distract myself. They included good ones by Harlan Coben, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Daniel Silva and Chris Bohjalian. 

A special treat was Joyce Hooley’s charming Cu Placere, which reminded me why I fell in love with Moldova while serving there in the Peace Corps.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about everything I read in 2020. Some prominent recent books, such as White Fragility and Trick Mirror, underwhelmed me, and I was disappointed by others I’d been meaning to read for years, such as T.C. Boyle’s East is East and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.

Overall, though, I loved reading my way through this challenging year. Thanks to the Durham County Library, through which I downloaded many of these books onto my Kindle.

If you want to share your own suggestions, I invite you to leave a comment.

Finally, I can’t write about this year’s books without mentioning this one, which one reviewer called “a fascinating story about the rewards of doing good while seeing the world” and another described as “the perfect combination of adventure, compassion and love.” Check it out if you haven’t already, and happy reading in 2021.

The Missing Genre

Where are our “coming of older age” novels?

Our society celebrates “coming of age” novels, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye. Newer books fit into this genre, too, from The Fault in Our Stars to blockbuster series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

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But how many novels can you name whose central characters are retired or aging?

You might be able to think of some after awhile if you’re a dedicated reader ike me. But they are not so obvious and, as best I can tell, not recognized as a genre even though more than 46 million Americans are now over the age of 65, a total projected to more than double by 2060. I looked online and found lists here, here, here and here, all filled with examples of great books with older characters, but they still don’t feel like a “thing” to me.

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The recent death of Philip Roth got me thinking about this. (Another great writer, Tom Wolfe, also died. It was a bad week.) Roth famously explored the challenges of older age. When I learned of his passing, I had just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a powerful story about an African American teenager who sees her friend killed by police. I loved her book but it’s worth noting its central character was a young person, just as in The Goldfinch and some of the other books I’ve read while serving in the Peace Corps.

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My list just topped 100 and, out of curiousity, I went back to see how many of the novels had older protagonists. There were a few, such as Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But most of the books dealing with older age were nonfiction, such as two good ones I read recently: Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginnner’s Guide, about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, and Marc Freedman’s Prime Time, about people creating new careers and identities after leaving the conventional work force. Many nonfiction books for older readers focus on financial planning and other practical questions. Those books are often suggested even when you search online for fiction about older people, as shown below.

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The percentage of American adults who read books has remained relatively unchanged in the past few years, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The median American reads four books a year. Print books continue to be more popular than audiobooks or e-books, which are more popular among younger readers, who read slightly more books than older Americans.

Younger adults are more likely to read for work or school while adults of all ages are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events. In other words, the readers are still there, even as independent bookstores struggle to survive. So why aren’t more novelists focusing on “the coming of older age” — and why aren’t these books treasured as a genre in the same way we celebrate stories about people at the other end of the age span?

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Sure, there are classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and more recent characters such as Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But their ubiquity or cultural impact are small compared to, say, Harry Potter. (I don’t think Disney World is considering a thrill ride yet about Medicare, with parts A, B, C and D.)

I wish more great novels featured characters my age. I don’t understand why they don’t. Obviously, the books assigned in our high schools are more likely to feature characters and stories of interest to younger readers. But how about for the majority of readers who are older than that — people like me? Why don’t our bookstores have shelves devoted to these audiences on topics other than how to apply for Social Security or deal with dementia?

Maybe it has to do with the economics of the book industry, but books don’t sell advertising like television shows, which want younger viewers to buy their beer and cars. Maybe older characters are harder to fit into genre fiction, like mysteries or romance novels. Maybe they’re not taken seriously by younger Americans, a thought that occurred to me this past week while reading Dan Lyon’s Disrupted, his hilarious but unsettling account of working at a startup company in his mid-50s.

Maybe it’s something else. I guess I’m too old to figure it out myself.

My Favorite Books

‘Tis the season for year-end lists of favorite books. Here’s mine from Moldova. I downloaded almost all of these books onto my Kindle for free through the online OverDrive system which, as I’ve written previously, is the best thing that ever happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer who likes to read.

 

I could fill my Top Ten list just with recent novels I read this year. My three favorites were Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant depiction of two refugees from a war-torn Arab country; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which captures the brutal insanity of North Korea; and The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s chilling exploration of slavery in antebellum America. All three novels haunted me for weeks.

I also loved Manhattan Beach, which Jennifer Egan sets on the waterfront of New York, showing us a different side of the city while telling a harrowing yet moving family saga. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool are gentler but wonderfully written, with compelling protagonists struggling to make sense of their aging years. Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Sympathizer and Karan Mahajan in Association of Small Bombs both took me to communities I barely knew before. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher was funny and wise. Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl was even funnier. All ten of these novels were a pleasure.

 

I also loved three older novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, whose depiction of a man’s life upturned by accusations of sexual misconduct seemed especially timely now; Redeployment by Phil Klay, rightly hailed as one of the best novels about the Iraq war; and Smiley’s People by the great John LeCarre, who published an acclaimed autobiography this year.

I’ll give a partial thumbs-up to three other novels: Moonglow by Michael Chabon; The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Bohjalian’s book is about the Armenian genocide, and I read it shortly before we visited Armenia. Like the others, I thought it was good, not great. I was even less enthusiastic about Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which was snarkily funny in places but somehow didn’t click for me.

 

I also read some great nonfiction this year. My favorite book was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I know it’s come in for criticism for its depiction of dysfunctional white families in Appalachia, but I found it insightful following our election last year. Arlie Russell Hochschild covered some of the same issues in Louisiana in Strangers in Their Own Land, which I enjoyed but found less compelling. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, was a treat from cover to cover. So was reporter Katy Tur’s recent Unbelievable, about covering the Trump campaign, although its uneven text reflected the haste with which it presumably was written. (Sorry, always an editor.)

I’m in a science book club back home, so I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite science book of the year: Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It wove geology, politics, history and personal stories into a narrative I would have found engaging even if Steve weren’t a good friend.

I’m also a history fan. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis offered a fresh look at how early military defeats under George Washington nearly ended the American Revolution in its early days. In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough showed how the two aviation pioneers were nothing less than admirable, illustrating what’s best in the American character at a time when I needed to be reminded.

 

I’ll also give a hat tip to two novels I read just for fun. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan poked fun at the super-rich families of Singapore and Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version when it comes out next year. Another comedy of manners featuring people with too much money was Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Once again: well-done fluff that kept me turning the pages.

Detective and mystery novels are great page-turners, too, and I read several good ones this year, including books by John Grisham (The Litigators), David Baldacci (The Guilty), Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train) and Jonathan Kellerman (The Murderer’s Daughter). My favorite was Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, which dealt with neo-Nazis emerging from the shadows, in this case in Norway, yet another case of novels unexpectedly touching on today’s news.

Then there were travel and adventure books. I’d missed The Old Patagonian Express by one of my favorite travel writers (and former Peace Corps Volunteer), Paul Theroux. It described his trip across Latin America. Eric Weiner’s entertaining The Geography of Bliss explored why some countries are happier than others, with Moldova featured at the opposite end of the happiness scale. In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker described her adventures as a foreign war correspondent, a tale recently adapted by Tina Fey in the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. David and Veronica James in Going Gypsy and Kristin Newman in What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding described extended trips they made after leaving the workplace. All gave me new perspective on my own recent adventures.

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Among the books I expected to like better but never finished were The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Still Here by Laura Vapnyar; Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The biggest clunker for me was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which extolled the virtues of simplicity and decluttering while bloating a 10-page idea into an entire book.

Finally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, 2017 was the year when I finally got around to reading some of the Harry Potter books. I blasted through both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and am looking forward to reading the others in the year ahead. That is, if I can find time after we get home and start binge-watching all of the movies we’ve missed.

Thanks to the Durham County Library and the Duke University Libraries, together with the OverDrive system, for providing these great books for free. Which others did I miss? I welcome your suggestions and will look forward to reading some of them in the year ahead. If you’re a reader, too, I hope you’ll try some of the books I’ve recommended here. Happy reading in 2018!