When it comes to my reading, this crazy year has been both a bit of a blur and yet, at times, incredibly normal and memorable. I’ve had a harder time getting into books (perhaps my tastes are changing?), and yet I’ve read roughly the same number of books that I always do. No matter the tumult happening in the world at large, life does indeed go on. (That’s a theme Erik Larson presciently touches on in his new WWII-focused The Splendid and the Vile.)
As I do every year, I went through my reading log and picked a couple handfuls of favorites. It’s not necessarily about the very best writing or the very best storylines, but often a combination of those things, along with the all-important factor of memorability. All the books featured here have stuck with me in profound, life-giving ways, while also providing some escape and entertainment. Don’t overlook those last two when it comes to your reading—escape and entertainment can be vital to your well-being.
Moving on—here’s my picks from the last couple years:
And a few links before we dig in:
Check out my new-ish AoM article: Best (Non-Religous) Books to Get Into the Devotional Reading Habit
A new podcast I’m enjoying: Evan Axelbanks Reports History and Today; he’s a presidential history nerd like me, and every episode is right up my alley
North and South Trilogy by John Jakes
The first book I finished in 2020, on New Year’s Day in fact, was Charles Frazier very good Varina. It got me in the mood for Civil War historical fiction and I then dove right into John Jakes massive North and South trilogy. Over the course of about 3,000 pages, the reader gets into the hearts and minds of characters from the North and the South, primarily from the fictional Hazard and Main families.
There’s plenty of cheesiness and eye-rolling to go around (it’s ‘80s historical fic, after all), but it’s also heartfelt and revealing in terms of what daily life was like in the America of the Civil War era. The trilogy was engrossing, time consuming (in a good way!), and historically accurate enough to educate but also escapist enough to not be intellectually straining. If you’re looking for a big historical fiction series to lose yourself in, this is a great choice.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
This was a re-read of one of my favorite high school assignments. I had long wanted to re-read it and figured Black History Month was a great time to do so. This time around, I came away even more impressed with Butler’s writing and storytelling. In the form of a time-traveling white husband and black wife, the author captures the reality of not only being a slave—both physically and mentally—but also the experience of being made into a slave after only having known a free existence. I’m glad it was required reading for me in high school; it’s as appropriate for that category as any book I’ve ever read.
King Lear by Shakespeare
This one didn’t appear on my first half of 2020 best reads list, but has really stuck with me. The final lines pop up in my memory from time to time, haunting me with its relevance to 2020. It’s certainly a bit of a bleak story, but the themes of mental health, difficult family dynamics, legacy, and jealousy, to name just a few, are among the most elemental of the human experience. This guy is obviously popular for a reason. Whether it’s King Lear or something else, give the Bard of Avon a read in 2021.
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie
The Romanovs of Russia have provided one of world history’s most compelling and intensely dramatic story arcs. From Peter the Great to Catherine the Great to the final Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, Massie has expertly re-told these stories for the reading masses.
This is truly one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. With the style of a novelist and storyteller, Massie expertly combined his personal interest in the subject with gripping prose to forge an unforgettable story of a marriage, a family, and a nation in the midst of revolution. This book made me excited to read Massie’s other big bios (I’m hoping to get in at least one of ‘em in 2021).
Dark Matter and Recursion by Blake Crouch
I’m giving you a two for one deal here because these books move so fast. Thrillers, by their very definition, take the reader through quick turns and twists that keep the pages flying. But in most thrillers you don’t get characters with as much depth and heart as Crouch delivers. The balance he strikes between empathy, character development, and insanely fast plot movement is remarkable, and is why his books have gotten so much attention the last few years. He puts so much soul into these novels that there were times where I forgot they were time-bending, alternate timeline traveling sci-fi stories.
Furious Hours by Casey Cep
An easy choice for this list. The story of Harper Lee — and more specifically why she was a literary one-hit wonder — has long interested readers, historians, and even Lee’s friends and family. There were a number of fits and starts in the decades after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and though she never stopped writing, Lee could never pull together a story she was happy with.
In Furious Hours, debut author Casey Cep tackles that head-scratching narrative with a book that is a deft combination of true crime, biography, and literary mystery. This a book that anyone can enjoy and that everyone should have on their reading list.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know this already: Tolstoy’s epic of 19th century Russia entranced me so much that I decided to make my second reading of it a year-long 2021 group project. Napoleon’s army is marching towards Moscow, high society both continues its glittering parties and also sends its men to war, and everyone tries to figure out how to live in the midst of upheaval. You’ve heard me gush enough about Tolstoy, so I’ll leave it at that.
Hamilton by Ron Chernow
I spent much of June reading Hamilton so that I could have the founder’s full life story in my back pocket once the Broadway version dropped on Disney+ on July 4th. It’s easy to see why Lin-Manuel Miranda turned his shortened life into a worldwide phenomenon. Hamilton’s story was so full of dramatic turns and twists that seemingly only a playwright in the mold of Shakespeare could have dreamt it up.
The opening line of the show’s opening song encapsulates it perfectly: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Chernow answers those big questions. As a biographer, he’s not always easy to read, and it’s admittedly slow-going, but the payoff is worth it.
I also read Grant this year, which was perhaps equally good, but, at least partially owing to the musical, Hamilton was a little more memorable.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
Long after finishing Tremblay’s newest thriller, the characters—Rams and Nats—have stuck with me. In the midst of a terrifying rabies pandemic, which manifests in a distinctly zombie-like way, pregnant Nats becomes infected and needs her friend Rams’ help in order to get inoculated before it reaches her brain. Much like Crouch does, Tremblay writes with an astounding amount of empathy. There’s a soul-stirring element that inserts a far more meaningful quality into the story than what’s often found in zombie tales. I get that this sort of story isn’t for everyone, but if it seems up your alley at all, don’t delay in picking it up. (I also had the chance to interview Paul; check it out.)
The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I read about 20 presidential bios/histories this year. Though I can’t definitively say this one was the best, Taft was among the most lovable, and the lasting lessons of his life impacted me more than the others. Doris has her fair share of detractors, but I love her writing and her deep dives into not only her primary characters but the eras that defined them. The Bully Pulpit is about Theodore Roosevelt, Will Taft, and the inspiring journalists of the early 20th century. This is a big and heavy book, but it was a tour de force that proved well worth the effort required. Remarkable.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
This was a year in which a lot of people did a lot of reading about racism. Non-fiction books and memoirs earned the lion’s share of attention, but I found Kiley Reid’s subtly powerful novel to be just as deserving, if not more so. Though it was up for a couple awards, even in the fiction realm Reid was overshadowed by The Vanishing Half. Though I enjoyed Brit Bennet’s novel well enough, Such a Fun Age was smarter and more fun.
The ramifications of main character Elmira’s racist grocery story encounter spin out far and wide and even what seems to be the best of intentions are laid bare for what they really are.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John Farrell
I’ve bemoaned the number of presidents who seem to lack well-written and lively accounts of their life; Richard Nixon is not among those. The unique nature of his presidency has ensured a close examination by a number of very talented historians and journalists. John Farrell’s incredibly readable account is, no doubt, among the very best Nixon studies out there.
Truthfully, I had a hard time putting this one down and devoured all 550+ pages in about a week. When I closed the back cover I wished it had been longer, while also feeling like I had a good sense of the man’s life. That’s about as tall a task as there is in the world of biography.
The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett Graff
Every year in early September I read a book about 9/11. Last year, Fall and Rise made my list of top books and this year, Graff added to that small but growing list of indispensable books about 9/11 and the era it ushered in.
Oral histories are hard to pull off. They aren’t just a collection of interviews; they’re meticulously edited and arranged in a way that creates a flowing narrative while not changing the meaning or intent of the interviews. I’ve read some very good ones and some poorly executed ones. Graff’s work is masterful, period. You’ll be moved, you’ll be riveted; you’ll end up with tears in your eyes but also hope in the power of humanity to come together and just help.
Misery by Stephen King
I’ve read probably a dozen or so of King’s 60+ novels. Most are good, some are weird and/or lackluster, and some are transcendently great. Misery easily falls into that last category. Annie Wilkes is a perfectly conceived villain. Paul Sheldon is a tortured writer (figuratively and literally!). And King wraps these two characters in a setting and plotline that impressed me as much as any novel in the genre. Plus, he sneaks in a number of insights on the writing and creative life, which I loved. Bits of advice and philosophy couched in horror! Marvelous.
Last year’s list featured the works of Sherlock Holmes and this year I can’t help but think about how much I’ve enjoyed reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries. I guess I have to admit to myself that I really enjoy mysteries! Miss Marple said it best: “No one can fail to be interested in a murder.” The coziness of her stories and likability of her characters helps offset the handful of eye-rolling scenes and plot twists she inevitably offers. Her books are just plain fun. I read a number of them; my favorites so far were Peril at End House and Five Little Pigs.
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
I haven’t yet covered this one in the newsletter (that’s coming next week), but Kolker’s book is receiving well-deserved praise far and wide, earning a place on most “Best of 2020” lists that I’ve seen. In this journalistic history, Kolker writes about the Galvin family of Colorado Springs. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, six of the family’s twelve(!) children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvins became a neuroscientist’s dream, and indeed contributed greatly to the medical community’s understanding of the disease.
Underneath that, of course, is the heartbreak of a mother, father, and siblings whose entire lives were defined by this particularly insidious and varied collection of mental health problems. The writing is jaw-droppingly good at times and the empathy Kolker writes with is unmatched in non-fiction. As much as this book is about schizophrenia, it’s also about family, and the powerful bonds that inevitably shape us and bond us together, for better and for worse. So so good.
That’s all for me this week. Buy a couple of these from your local bookstore and get ‘em under the tree for your loved ones. Thanks for the time and inbox space.