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.

We Are All Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf

I just finished reading A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider. Berkshire and Schneider are co-hosts of the podcast Have You Heard, which is the best $2 I spend every month—and, as journalist and historian, both bring interesting perspectives to the ongoing discourse about what used to be called, without a trace of irony or bitterness, education reform.

It’s not a long book—217 pages plus another 40 pages of notes and references—and it’s eminently readable. It would be an excellent choice for anyone who cares about public education—parents and grandparents, policy-makers, teachers and school leaders—to use as concise handbook explaining what the hell happened to public schools over the last couple of decades. There’s a bit of history, a good look at failed-over-time policies, and a clear analysis of the intersecting factors that got us to this point.

Who wants to see public education die, and why? Berkshire and Schneider tell you, but like all interesting and disturbing stories, you have to trace backward first, to the origins and mission of public schooling and the conflicting values America assigned to education, as a start-up nation. This sounds tedious, but it’s not. In short, succinct chapters, the authors spend the first quarter of the book laying the groundwork for the rapid changes—the dismantling of a once-noble idea—we’ve seen in the 21st century.

Ernest Boyer once said that public school is a stage upon which Americans play out their most deep-rooted ethics, and the book deftly illustrates that principle. It takes us through the decline of labor unions, the elevation of the deregulated gig economy and ‘choice,’ and the overwhelming impact of technology on every aspect of American life, school included.

I have lived experience with nearly every theory, concept and action mentioned in the book, from teacher professionalism (or lack thereof) to the DeVos model of privatizing one of the few remaining public goods. Any teacher, at any level, who has been paying attention for the past couple of decades will be familiar with the carefully curated observations and supporting data presented here.

The great benefit of the book is that it connects hundreds of established dots into a flashing arrow: this is the end game, the crushing of once-healthy public schools, monetizing their resources and selling them off for parts. It accurately represents where we are, in the midst of a pandemic and constitutional crisis. The wolf is truly at the door.

Berkshire and Schneider are careful to remind us that the well-heeled will always have school as we know it. Their children will always have creative teachers and challenging curriculum and actual classmates, in a real-life setting, because that is, in the end, the optimum way for students to learn. The question is (and always has been) who’s paying for it, and who gets to share it. The primary goal has never been maximizing each child’s potential, contrary to the thousands of mission statements hanging in front offices everywhere. It’s been ‘What’s in it for my child?’

Although some of the data are optimistic—there is still strong support from parents for their children’s public schools, and for teachers’ demands for adequate funding and resources, even via walk-outs—the authors do not prescribe clearly defined solutions.

I don’t see that as a weakness. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future is utterly unpredictable. In a time when we might be taking a breath, rethinking our values around what matters most in public education, and thanking public school teachers for doing their best under some pretty dire conditions, reformers are busily selling yet more glossy rhetoric (don’t miss the chapter on ‘personalizing’ education) and questionable data analyses.  

So—read this book, whether you’re a veteran educator or a kindergarten parent. It’s accurate and sharp, the best education book I’ve read this year.

Antiracist Reading

Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, openly,  in front of the nation’s eyes, Tre Johnson said this, in the Washington Post:
‘when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.

What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused. Black people live and die every day under the burdens of a racism more insidious than the current virus that’s also disproportionately killing us. And yet white people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress.’

You should read all of what he said. Because it’s important. And while you’re at it, take a look at this, as well:

‘while the crafters of anti-racist reading lists are mostly making an earnest effort to educate people, literature and dialogue cannot supplant restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, and structural redress. When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse.’ 

So—I realize that I am, relative to the antiracist discourse happening right now, at square one or two, and can’t read myself into full partnership. I have to act.

Mentioning things I used to do, in the classroom, would be nothing more than empty virtue signaling. Sharing whatever anti-racist initiatives I’m currently involved in? Ditto. I’m sick of wading through articles from academics analyzing racist and anti-racist literature, in their (white) opinions. I don’t want to be one of those (white) people who are content to take the slow route, because I can.

It’s headache-inducing.

But I’m still reading. Because I read a lot. It’s my greatest pleasure, and lifelong habit, and it’s currently safe, unlike going downtown to protest, something I’ve promised my children I won’t do.

Last year, and this year—because of the dark cloud of white supremacy manifesting itself everywhere—I decided to read as many books as I could, over both summers, around themes of discrimination. For myself—and perhaps to share with other people who are looking for really powerful things to read. Fiction and non-fiction. How-to books and memoirs. While I understand that reading is not action—it won’t lead to change or redress—sharing what I’m reading might have value.

Because, in the particular place where I live, racism most often manifests as callous and clueless disregard of the history of the land we live on, I looked for books by indigenous writers and people who came here initially as migrant farmworkers. If you have suggestions, I’ll add them to my list.

And because I’m a teacher, I looked for books around discrimination and inequity in education. If there’s a window for important themes and transformative ideas right now, it’s here. We shouldn’t be pointing to Jonathon Kozol and Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—or even Diane Ravitch—all of whom wrote seminal books on inequities in education. What we need now is new volumes, authors of color who don’t simply rehash the deceptive and racist policies that built our imperfect public education structures; we should, instead be gutting rigid curricula, experimenting with new instructional forms, re-examining the damage done to students by high-stakes tests, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into demanding equitable access to devices and broadband for the kids who don’t have it.

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Since February of 2019, I’ve read 26 books on how racism and discrimination manifest in the United States, through multiple lenses.  Some thumbnails:

Two Books that Absolutely Blew My Mind:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson) This book is phenomenal. And it’s pointedly not about race, per se. It’s about caste–the societal decision to place its members in a constructed hierarchy, then arrange policies and habits to support that hierarchy over time, defining it as ‘natural’ or God-given. It’s a stunningly good book, and makes a great leap over skin color and the fact that race is a human construct (something that many other authors begin with)–to actual behaviors and policies and how they impact both dominant castes and suppressed castes. The experience of reading now, as the country suffers under a pandemic and its worst leader ever has been almost surreal. Wilkerson gets it–sees why we have failed, perceives what happened. Donald Trump, she tells us (and this is one of those places where she uses data effectively) is the logical endgame for a country that traditionally values and rewards its citizens in a rigid hierarchy–a deeply rooted caste system.

The last chapter, an epilogue, stands alone as the case for recognizing and rooting out caste. Other countries have done so–to their great benefit. Americans would similarly benefit, were we to see how our clinging to our bad habits and self-delusions have held us back from developing a just and democratic society.

So You Want to Talk about Race  (Ijeoma Olou) This book hit me right in the solar plexus. It was like Ijeoma Olou was sitting across the table, answering questions—some embarrassing–and responding to ideas I’ve heard for most of my life, but never had the courage to ask or bring up. She’s not pandering to you, trying to make you feel virtuous or even well-meaning. Some of the things she says are painful. But she offers hope that things can get better if we keep trying to listen with an open heart. If you haven’t done much reading, this is the place to start.

Best Books by Scholars

How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi) This book is thick with ideas and intellectual challenges. It’s neither an easy nor quick read. I found myself re-reading paragraphs, to squeeze out the core ideas, which are not intuitive. At first, some ideas–racism is rooted in bad policy, not inborn hate and ignorance–don’t make sense. But read on. If racism is rooted in bad policies, those policies can be changed. Ah. And then better policies will change minds. It’s a hopeful idea. We can change.

How the South Won the Civil War (Heather Cox Richardson) In our history books, we are taught that it was a stunning idea to overthrow the idea of a rigid class structure, the divine right to rule, and the pre-eminence of property (including human beings). When America won its independence, it settled on an extreme and fundamental change in the way it chose to be governed. But the founders were not 100% certain that all men were created equal. More like all white, male property owners. As for men in the rural South, dependent on slavery to retain their ‘natural, God-given’ right to manage the affairs of their women and enslaved workers, the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was not only wrong, but loathsome. Richardson takes us through the Civil War, westward expansion and shifting political loyalties, and finds that, with Donald Trump, we have come full circle, fighting once again against the core principle of democracy, in favor of old, rich, white men and the rights of the individual over that of the community.

White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Carol Anderson) Anderson writes lucidly and persuasively about a 400-year old criminal enterprise, taking us through eras in American history–Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the ongoing battle for equity in education, the role of the courts and Congress in shutting off civil rights, the trashing of free and fair elections. The text is data-rich and, while very readable, scholarly. These are not Anderson’s opinions–they are documented facts. And they’re damning. She’s right–it’s white rage that matters as we ask who is to blame for rebellion in our streets.

White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) This book has recently taken a beating in the book-reading press. And it shouldn’t be the only book you read, if you’re choosing to read about bigotry and intolerance—you need multiple perspectives. But DiAngelo made sense to me, laying out a clear sociological framework for white fragility. It’s not easy to read her deconstruction of why all white people are, inherently, racist–and how that manifests in our behaviors and words, even as we think we’re trying to be open and affirming. She uses examples from her work as a diversity trainer, the things white people say and do that reveal their deeply held biases. She teaches readers who want to learn to recognize those defensive and reflexive responses, and deal with them, even learn from them. There’s value in that, even if it’s an imperfect primer.

Best Books for YA and Student Readers

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You (Jason Reynolds) What a wonderful, energizing, lively book–not descriptors you generally find describing a book about racism. Reynolds uses casual, breezy language in explicitly laying out the 400-year old roots of racism in America–without losing the no-shit seriousness of the topic. I would love to be in the classroom (any classroom) right now; this book could supplement a history text. Let me re-state that: this book would slyly correct, then poke at any American history text. Here’s what The Man (and all the books you ever read in school) say–but let’s examine it from another viewpoint. Reynolds rolls in media, from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Planet of the Apes’ to ‘The Cosby Show’, illustrating how white racists, time and again, marshal all their resources to push black people and black culture down.

Me and Carlos (Tom Perotta) This is a 50-page novella, but Perrotta packs a lot of teenaged confusion and rationalizing into a well-told story. Digger is the perennial second-stringer, who can’t quite rise above some petty resentments. Told in his voice, you can see what’s coming, the point at which male jostling and a re-arranged pecking order will lead to something really bad. Perrotta, always a good writer, adopts Digger’s voice and makes the reader uneasy. The novella feels breezy—a young adult-ish story. But I found myself thinking about all the layers—unearned privilege, the blithe male entitlement that high school jocks seem to adopt, jealousy, ethnic discrimination and how the country we live in supports these.

Red at the Bone  (Jacqueline Woodson) The book has a YA feel to it, in spite of the ‘adult’ subject matter (which isn’t really adult, at all). There’s no padding–it’s all raw feeling, five different perspectives on a teenage pregnancy, and how family is at the center of both survival and happiness. Woodson’s language is evocative, and all the characters feel very real.

Richest, Most Illuminating Fiction

Salvage the Bones (Jesamyn West) broke my heart. You don’t know it’s going to break your heart, at the beginning of the book. Life in Bois Savage, at Esch’s home, feels chaotic and half-assed. There are four children, and Daddy–Mama died, giving birth to the youngest–so everything, from eating to washing sheets to taking care of Junior, is disorganized and unpredictable. And Esch, 15, and believing she’s in love with one of her brother’s friends, has a terrible secret. Right from the beginning, however, the language used to tell the story is almost poetry. There is beauty in everything, for Esch–the simple curve of her little brother’s skull, her older brother’s jumpshot, and her brother Skeetah’s dedication to his pit bull, China. Gradually, we see how tight this family is, how bonded they are, how forgiving of each others’ sins and failings. How they hold each other up, through unimaginable horror. How brave they are. How faithful. The book will break your heart, too.

The Night Watchman  (Louise Erdrich) This book grew on me, as I read it, and the stories of the people, and how life had treated them, began to weave together, powerfully and even tragically. Erdrich always speaks plainly and truthfully, and the story here is greatly enhanced by knowing that she’s writing about her grandfather and his quest to keep the Turtle Mountain Tribe from being ’emancipated’–cut free–from the government that has already taken the best of their land (and, not coincidentally, their people).

Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) A rambling adventure, populated by a young, enslaved man (George Washington Black) and his master’s brother, an abolitionist and world-class eccentric. And many other unique characters, in a world–the 19th century–where slavery is both dying out and accepted as natural. Edugyan makes this world come alive, slipping into the mind of an 11-year old boy who has never lived outside the cruel confines of a sugar plantation in the British West Indies. How to understand the odd words and actions of the plantation owner’s brother? How to understand what real freedom is?

Jubilee (Margaret Walker) Written in 1966, Jubilee presents story of the Civil War from the eyes of one of the enslaved people. Walker goes far deeper in the minds and motivations of all the people in the typical plantation story, covering things like slave owners’ predilection for sexually abusing and impregnating the people they enslaved, the biblical and ‘moral’ rationales they employed, how slaves were terrorized into submission, the lack of information about the real world given to enslaved people–and an introduction to the evils of Reconstruction.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead) Outstanding, on many levels. The writing is perfectly styled for the story–the shorthand sentences and the plain thinking of the Nickel boys and their captors, reflecting both the times and the rotten values of the criminal justice system. And the characters are carefully drawn, by an unsympathetic narrator, who lets Elwood and Turner speak for themselves, instead of explaining what makes them tick. The plot is heart-tugging, driven by the boys who found themselves, by hook or crook, living in a version of Hell. And the epilogue is wonderful–it made me cry.

There, There (Tommy Orange) There’s almost too much in the book–the entire history of the Urban Indian, back to the 16th century, the myths and dreams, the horror, compacted in a few pages. There’s so much in it, history and backstory and rationale, that at times, it’s hard to find the story–the intriguing tale that keeps you reading to find out what happens. The book is rich with characters (none of whom feels much joy or hope), and very cleverly structured. You can see what’s coming a mile off, and feel powerless to stop it. And just when you want to know the specific outcomes, Orange pulls the plug. It’s easy to see why he did this–American ‘civilization’ has been doing this for 400 years. It’s a lesson to the reader.

Memoir and Essays

Becoming (Michelle Obama) The book is a festival of little, very human moments: Running to the corner store to get her mother a pack of Newports. Piano lessons. Her teenage boyfriends. Excruciating moments from the campaign. And, of course, what it’s like to love a man with Obama’s fierce intelligence and ambition. The tone is casual, a conversation with a friend—the book reads almost like a novel. A masterpiece of political biography.

All You Can Ever Know  (Nicole Chung) As a (white) adoptive parent of a Korean son, the book rang my chimes on many levels. Chung notes, deep in her narrative, that some transracial adoptees do not experience the feelings of being an outsider or the persistent search for identity that she did, and I think that’s true. Each adoptee’s emotional journey is unique. Nonetheless, I think the issues Chung raises are vital, well worth reflection on the part of all parties, including adoptive parents. I learned from her story, which gave me many insights to chew on.

Thick and Other Essays  (Tressie McMillan Cottom) Cottom’s essay on being considered ‘incompetent’ in the birth and subsequent loss of her infant daughter will rip your heart out. Her essay on why David Brooks gets to be a full-time writer while producing columns about deli meats, and the NYT and WaPo don’t (or didn’t, at the time) have a full-time black woman op-ed writer is hilarious and spot-on.

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) The first half of the book is little stories about growing up in South Africa, small examples of cultural differences from a vastly different world. Taken together, they present a picture of what it was like to be Trevor Noah–and what it’s like to live in a world with alternate boundaries and beliefs. It’s a good memoir, easy to read. It gets better, as Noah looks at apartheid, crime, gender dynamics, and so much more. The chapter entitled ‘Cheese Boys’ is brilliant-and his explanation of why South American families call their sons ‘Hitler” was a revelation. The book would make a worthy addition to any course on cultural perspectives.

Other Titles of Interest; Your Mileage May Vary

The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett)

Such a Fun Age (Kiley Reid)

An American Marriage (Tayari Jones)

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories (Lucia Berlin)

The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait (Gray and Barbara Villet)

Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Debby Irving)

The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide (Zerlina Maxwell)

What essential books am I missing? Discuss.