Tag Archives: Steve Olson

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.