John Wood’s Top Ten Books of 2020
Dear Friends: I’ve had more difficulty than usual putting together this year’s Top Ten list. I read more books than I ever have in a single year (thanks to COVID lockdowns), and the quality seemed higher than usual. So I’m going to resort to three little hacks to help me out: --If you’ve already read my annual Holiday Book Gifting Guide or follow me on social media, you already know that I was over-the-moon crazy about two novels: The Topeka School and Disappearing Earth. So I am leaving those off the list. --Not many people want to read over 4,000 pages of biography on Lyndon Baines Johnson, so I’m not including Robert Caro’s 3rd volume, Master of the Senate, even though it was a totally awesome one month battle that I ultimately won! --In addition to the Top Ten, I’m allowing myself to list a few honorable mentions.
So with that, let’s get on with it! J I hope a few of these books find their way onto your shelves!
10. The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma – In the opening chapter of this fast-moving novel, four brothers from a close-knit family have their lives changed overnight by two developments. First, their father announces that his bank is posting him to a distant village and that the family will not be joining him. Later that day while fishing and discussing the implications, the brothers meet a madman who lives alongside the river and makes a dramatic prophecy that will shake the family’s foundation like a magnitude 8 earthquake. Obioma is a skilled storyteller who keeps things moving through the voice of Benjamin, at 9 years old the youngest of the brothers.
9. There, There, Tommy Orange – Various members of the Native American community in Oakland, California are brought together in eager anticipation of the annual Pow Wow, some of whom plan to enjoy the celebration of their culture while others plan to commit armed robbery. Deservedly named by the NY Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2018. 8. Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsberg on Life, Love, Liberty and Law, Jeffrey Rosen – America lost not only an intellectual giant last year, but also a role model whose life path should inspire us all to be better people. Rosen, a veteran legal journalist, scholar, and president of the National Constitution Center, was fortunate enough to interview RBG several dozen times over twenty years. This included private conversations (that she allowed to be taped), on-stage interviews and written correspondence. Rosen skilfully distills it all down into very readable chapters covering her career choices, her favorite dissents, the cases she would most like to see overruled, the #MeToo movement, how to be a good listener, how to lead a productive and compassionate life, her inspiring marriage to Martin, and her reminiscences on those who have mentored her along her storied path. RIP, RBG. 7. Man v. Nature, Diane Cook – One of the most stunning and memorable short story collections I’ve read in a long time. Ever the optimist, I usually avoid books that are overly dark in tone. But after Amy raved about Cook’s characters and staging, I abandoned my resistance and am so glad I did. Each story shows man’s battles against both capital-N Nature and human nature, and sometimes both simultaneously. Of the 12 short stories, only 2 are mediocre, which I find to be a very high ratio for a short story collection. Several are instant classics. The vast majority could become screenplays, even though the average story length is blissfully short.
6. A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor – During a year when I could not travel, I craved armchair adventures. So, when one of my favorite authors, Robert Macfarlane, mentioned that this is the book he gives away most-often, and that it was a compelling narrative of what might be “the longest gap year in history”, I had to know more. In 1933, a precocious 18-year old Fermor decided that life in England bored him, and that the best possible antidote would be to walk all the way to Constantinople, a journey of several thousand kilometers that would take him through a dozen countries. He’d rely heavily on the kindness of strangers, sleeping in barns along the way to save money. Much of the tramp-like existence he imagines is negated by the “gifts” mentioned in the title, including stays in castles, great wines and long meals hosted by those who can’t resist helping an idealistic young student taking on such a challenging adventure. Often slow and meditative (but in a good way), this memoir will transport you across time and borders.
5. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah – Powerful and very creative short stories from a Nigerian author you may not have heard of but who’s likely to be a literary superstar over the coming decades. Arimah writes in a style that sucks you immediately into the story. It’s the kind of tight prose I find most compelling -- fast-moving, never meandering, and with each story short enough that you can knock off half the book in an afternoon. I’m already excited for whatever she publishes next. 4. Goodbye to a River, John Graves – In 1957, Graves learned of newly-approved plans to build a series of 13 dams along the Brazos River in North Central Texas. The Brazos had played a prominent role in his childhood, with many happy days spent canoeing, fishing and just generally letting his boy’s imagination run wild. He immediately drops everything he’s doing to embark on a three-week farewell tour by canoe. Accompanied only by a lovable and mischievous Dachshund puppy, his pipe, some good whiskey and his considerable wit, Graves wrote a classic travelogue, replete with memorable characters and the history of the region. Published in 1960, the book had such an effect on public opinion that work was permanently halted on the ten dams that had yet to be built.
3. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre – The subtitle doth not lie or exaggerate. I could not put this book down as the story moved between Cold War-era Moscow, Copenhagen and London. I’ve never been a fan of spy stories but could not put this book down and constantly found myself looking for excuses to go ignore the world for a few hours. We’ve gifted this book more than any other in 2020; the perfect afternoon read on a bad weather day. 2. Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick – The New York Times named this the best memoir of the last 50 years. Gornick’s reflections on mother-daughter relationships are always perceptive, often witty and sometimes searing. Most everything is revealed through dialogue during their long strolls through the streets of Manhattan, and as a reader we feel privileged to listen in, often laughing as the two trade barbs, relive memories and (as is perhaps inevitable) her mother offers hours of unasked-for advice.
1. The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European, Stephan Zweig: Zweig was one of the most famous writers of the post WWI era, but was forced to flee his comfortable life in Austria as the dark storm clouds of anti-Semitism massed on its western border. Zweig and his second wife escaped, first to London and later to Brazil. He postmarked this memoir - destined to be his final book - to his publisher the day before they committed joint suicide, admitting that they did not have the energy to embark on building a new life. The memoir is gloriously evocative as it looks back on the life of a true gentleman and scholar during a golden age for the European elite between the major wars.
Conundrum, Jan Morris
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, Marie Arana Little Eyes, Samantha Schweblin The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson