Books of 2020

One of my favorite things to do with my largely unstructured pandemic days and nights is read, then talk with people about books. Online. I’m always looking for new titles, recommendations of someone’s old favorite—and also thumbs-down reviews, especially when they’re about books everyone seems to be reading or praising (lookin’ at you, Bridgertons).

I’ve never been good about choosing my 10 favorite anything as the year turns over. But I did do a lot of intentional reading in 2020 (meaning I had to order library books online and wait three months for them to become available for curbside pickup—or purchase them). While some of these are new titles, some are recommendations from friends that I finally got around to.

It was a good year for fiction. I have been trying to read books around the issue of racism (an earlier review of several of those books here), and found the fiction just as instructive as the non-fiction. Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward). The Night Watchman (Louise Erdrich). The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). All powerful reading. More about fiction, later.

Non-fiction fell into three categories—that big bucket of reading about bias and prejudice, “school stuff” and (unfortunately) books about Donald Trump. The only book I read this year about our Crime Boss President that might have lasting utility was Hiding in Plain Sight: The invention of Donald Trump and the erosion of America (Sarah Kendzior). Kendzior has been absolutely prescient about all of Trump’s behavior. I’m almost scared to re-read it, because she got so much of this right, back when there was still hope that cherished institutions would save the day. On January 6th, she was proved right, yet again.

There were two big, don’t-miss education books on my 2020 list: A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The dismantling of public education and the future of school(Jennifer Berkshire, Jack Schneider) and Slaying Goliath: The passionate resistance to privatization and the fight to save America’s Public Schools(Diane Ravitch). Click the links to see earlier, blogged reviews—but note that the year began and ended with a warning that public education is genuinely imperiled. Even before the pandemic.

My two favorite non-fiction titles around the theme of anti-racism in an earlier review were So You Want to Talk about Race? (Ijeoma Oluo) and Caste: The origins of our discontents (Isabel Wilkerson). Since that review, I’ve read an additional book by each author—and they’re both awesome.

I read Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s great migration, which made me understand my own hometown and why people lived where they lived, in that town—plus so much more.  And I just finished Oluo’s Mediocre: The Dangerous legacy of white male power. While her earlier book is a straightforward invitation to keep talking about race, dense with good ideas but written from a personal vantage point, Mediocre covers more scholarly turf. It’s a broad-ranging collection of evidence that white men don’t like it when you challenge their authority and power. If you’re either a woman or a BIPOC, you’ll find plenty to relate to. Oluo keeps the focus on making her case—but if you read this book, as I did, during the lead-up to the insurrection at the Capitol, she makes a terrible and prescient argument for what just happened. Highly recommended.

Now for the fun part—fiction. I am completely unsnobbish about fiction (as you will note). If it’s a good story, I’m in. Here are nine books and two authors I have enjoyed immensely during the Great Lockdown.

It’s a particular kind of irony that I read A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) during the pandemic year, as the aforementioned gentleman spent a long time (50 years?) in a single hotel, by government decree. I can relate. All the people who recommended the book were right—it’s a classic.

Chances Are (Richard Russo) is a minor novel by a major author, but I loved this one best of all his books. It involves a mystery and a weekend meeting, 50 years later, of three men who were in college together, in the late 1960s. In other words, three characters the same age as me—which is, of course, why I loved this book so much. By the book’s ending, we’ve been dragged through American history, and asked if any of us, given a chance to do it over again, would have made different choices.

 The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) If all fantasy books were like this, I would read nothing else. Imaginative, spooky, colorful, mysterious—with the lingering scent of caramel corn.

The Overstory (Richard Powers) I admit that I had to read this in chunks, with periods for digestion. But every time I went back, there were amazing new things to consider, mostly about my role in the ecology of my home, my world and my life. Truly a transformative book; worth the effort.

The Searcher (Tana French) This one is getting lukewarm reviews, but I am a huge Tana French fan, and if this book stretches beyond her usual Dublin Murder Squad m.o. it’s fun to see what she can do with a more introspective, character-driven mystery. Besides, there’s a wonderful kid in this book—Tana French has nailed a 13-year old better than anyone I’ve read in years.

Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout) With the possible exception of Stewart O’Nan, nobody writes stories about old ladies better than Elizabeth Strout. If you liked Olive the first time, you’ll like this one, too.

Normal People (Sally Rooney) I am actually surprised I liked this book so much. Rooney’s earlier stuff was kind of tedious, mostly millennial relationship angst, in beautiful prose. But this book—although still about relationship building among young people–had an aching poignancy around the two central characters that anyone who was ever 18 and itching to be loved will recognize.

Sourdough (Robin Sloan) This was just a delightful read, a story with a moral as well as great characters, twisty plotting and a magic sourdough starter. The idea that a colony of micro-organisms could change your life was utterly believable in 2020.

One series I will always pick up is John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport books, which are reliably 4-star reads, with the occasional 5-star designation. Masked Prey, the latest, makes that cut. The plot centers around keeping a senator’s teenage daughter safe from a right-wing looney whom she has attracted by becoming an ‘influencer.’ The parallels—intended and unintended—between the storyline and the actual news were eerie.

New Authors:

 Liz  Moore, who wrote  Long Bright River and  The Unseen World,  deserves to be added to anyone’s list of authors to try. The two books are both delicious, even though they’re completely different. River is a cop story unlike other cop stories, and World is hard to describe—a mix of science fiction and a tender story about unusual people and families. Both are excellent.

And, finally, Donna Leon. Early on—last March—I was having trouble reading. It was difficult to muster up an attention span. Complaining about this on-line yielded a whole bunch of ‘what to read that will take your mind off the prospect of being locked up for months’ suggestions.

A guy I went to high school with suggested Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (thanks, Doug), noting that it was set in Venice. Bingo. I read eight this year—again, reliably good, with a couple of them outstanding. The first book in the series is pretty good, but jumping ahead reveals that Leon has really honed her character and made her work richer. Feel free not to read in order.

Sticking to My Guns

God, I hate that phrase—stick to your guns! —because it represents everything that triggered the Capitol breach on Wednesday: Intransigence. The false glory of never yielding, even when your case is weak or based on falsehoods. Violence as means of accruing power.

In the past two days, as conversations sprang up and grew heated on social media, our new town square, a friend (a moderate Republican I’ve known for 15 years, through education channels) posted this:

Heartbreaking to see violent crowds breaking into US capitol. Reminds me of Vietnam protests and Kent State.

More than enough people immediately countered this—the two are nowhere close to comparable—but there were also several commenters who noted that the vast majority of Republicans are good people, appalled by low-rent protestors, who don’t represent the modern Republican party. This isn’t the party my father taught me to love, back in the day. Tsk, tsk.

I pushed back: The time for Republicans to redeem themselves was years ago. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney — who is hardly centrist— the entire party has been complicit. Feckless. They have incented domestic terrorism and protected liars.

I don’t know how you could have watched as nearly half of Congressional Republicans, hours after their very lives and the processes of American democracy were endangered, continue to promote the fallacy that the election was not free and fair, and come to any other conclusion. It is no longer OK to support the Republican party.

Republicans have utterly failed to come and get their boy. We’re seeing editorial columns and think pieces say the same thing, all over the country. It’s on them. From the NY Times, yesterday:

The modern Republican Party, in its systematic efforts to suppress voting, and its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of elections that it loses, is similarly seeking to maintain its political power on the basis of disenfranchisement. Wednesday’s insurrection is evidence of an alarming willingness to pursue that goal with violence.

My friend’s response: This is not true. I hate it when you say Republicans. I am a Republican and I don’t think it’s right to lump everyone into one category because of extremists. It does no good to be just as accusatory as those you don’t agree with. Please stop saying this. It is hurtful and certainly not applicable in my case.

So—here’s where the rubber meets the road. Do you go ahead and destroy a friendship by sticking to your principles? Depends, I think, on how deeply you believe in what you’re defending.

I unfriended a woman who revealed herself as an anti-vaxxer a few months ago. I’ve cut ties to any number of folks who are apologists for ‘polite’ racism—the ‘all lives matter’ folks. I’ve blocked people in my social circle who trashed our governor because they wanted to go out to eat. I’ve sent out the same credible link about what Antifa is and isn’t to dozens of ill-informed folks.

I also have acquaintances who have publicly experienced a come-to-Jesus moment and relinquished their ties to the Republican party. That’s not to say they won’t be lured back, in the next election cycle, when (fingers crossed) Joe Biden gets the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed, or their taxes go up—but I give all kinds of credit to people who publicly stand up against a party gone so far off the rails, even if they once voted reliably R.

As I said, Facebook is the new town square. It’s where people forge relationships, where minds and hearts are changed. The rise of Parler, Gab and TheDonald when FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc. started aggressively fact-checking and suspending accounts are proof of that.

 It’s also a dangerous minefield, full of misinformation and opportunity for bitter conflict. As Tristan Harris said, in The Social Dilemma, maybe the only cure for the treacherous spread of lies and propaganda on social media is the opportunity to immediately counter them, on social media. The cause is the cure.

I’m not sure that’s true—but I don’t believe that taking oneself out of the game, permanently, by shutting down your account and pretending to be above the fray does much good. Breaks are good, but for genuine internal peace or supporting causes that mean the most in shaping our lives, refusing to be part of the conversation just means you have no say in the solutions. Also, the only people who can safely take themselves out of the political discussion right now are those with privilege and resources.

What happens in the voting booth is and always should be private. But nobody is born Republican—it’s a deliberate choice to declare allegiance to the party and what it represents, right now. Jonathon Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, ponders these questions:

Why do ideas such as ‘fairness’ and ‘freedom’ mean such different things to different people? Why do we come to blows over politics and religion? We often find it hard to get along because our minds are hardwired to be moralistic, judgmental and self-righteous. Haidt explores how morality evolved to enable us to form communities, and how moral values are not just about justice and equality–for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty matter more. 

This makes sense to me. I admit to being moralistic and self-righteous (not good things). I do evaluate justice, fairness and equality as far more important than respect for authority, purity or loyalty. Haidt offers a window into why someone would still claim that Republicans, as a group, are a worthy organization: when deep loyalty and respect for authority are the reason for forming a community, modern-day Republicans are indeed way ahead of any political party in history.

And you can see an echo of this in online conversations everywhere: People who change the subject, tilting it away from contentious talk about justice. People who soothe inflamed tempers, who reinforce relationships in spite of sharp political disagreement, who leap to defend someone whose feelings may have been hurt. These are people who should be incensed by what Republicans have done to their jobs as public school teachers, the health of their friends and families, our fragile democratic republic—but they’re avoiding active conflict in the name of civility and loyalty.

Well, folks. What’s at stake right now is truth. That’s not a rhetorical flourish. It’s about what happened on Wednesday, when millions were disenfranchised by people who lied for political gain, then lied again after the most sacred stage of the American experiment had been desecrated.

Republicans, do you believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election? Your party says it doesn’t. And your party isn’t your grandma, someone you have to love in spite of idiosyncrasies or misunderstandings. It’s not your church, where you overlook the rules about birth control because going to church connects you to your family heritage. Your party is controlling the lives and fortunes of millions of Americans who have not had a choice. And it’s spent four years covering up for an evil, destructive demagogue.  Fish or cut bait.

This was my second response (after 24 hours of thinking it over) to the original post:

Sorry–but at this moment in American History, declaring that you are one of the ‘good’ Republicans does nothing to alleviate the danger and damage that Republicans have fomented.

Saying there are some good Republicans is like saying there are some good racists. Or some good anti-vaxxers. Or some good Nazis. Think about all those quiet villagers who lived near Dachau, who claimed to believe they were living near a work camp. That’s where we are–this is Trump’s Reichstag moment.

I might have been willing to agree with your statement–and feel that I was merely disagreeing, politically, with the Republican party–until a year ago, when not even 15 or 20 Republican senators, from all over the country, were willing to convict and remove Donald Trump in the impeachment hearings, after he extorted Ukrainian officials for personal political gain.  

I might have had some sympathy for hardcore conservatives if they hadn’t forced people into life-threatening situations, refusing to give them enough to survive on during the pandemic, at the direction of Mitch McConnell. I might feel differently if a majority of Republicans in Congress hadn’t signed on to a patently false statement about the election results, triggering yesterday’s coup. Yes, coup.

Of course, all three of the Republicans who represent me in the MI legislature and Congress signed, knowing full well that MI changed its mind about Trump in 2020. I’ve seen long guns in my own statehouse, and my Democratic governor the target of kidnapping and execution. Organized by the hands of Republicans. Not extremists—Republicans.

Where are these ‘good’ Republicans? I can tell you where they are right now: on TV, blaming all of this on the Capitol Police, and on Mayor Bowser for not being ‘prepared.’ Declaring that the 25th amendment is too cumbersome. Resigning, to avoid taking a stance. In the meantime, for the past two months, genuine preparedness for the next administration, a competent one that will serve both Democrats and Republicans, has been blocked. Costing us tens of thousands of lives. Threatening national security.

I’m not saying that there isn’t room for a party with conservative beliefs and practices–I’m saying that Republicans, the citizens who still call themselves centrists and moderates and those who embrace the party of their fathers, all look like Susan Collins today: Enablers. Weak. Supporters (by omission) of insurrection. Shame on all of them.

I probably lost a friend today—and that’s too bad. She’s smart and feisty– I’ve learned a great deal from her about issues in education that matter to both of us. But what matters even more is truth.

So be it.



Mi Senate Majority leader Mike Shirkey (R- Clarklake) meets with protestors in the gallery of the Michigan Capitol.