The last thing I did before Covid-19 closed down the world was go to the library. I picked up a stack of books, thinking this would hold me for a few weeks until things got back to normal.
Here are brief descriptions of the books I read in 2020. I hope you will find some good choices here.
10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
A murdered woman spends her last few minutes of consciousness remembering her life, from her comfortable childhood to the family trauma that drove her to find survival as a prostitute, to the loving new family she created among Istanbul’s rebels and rejects.
Abigail by Magda Szabo
When a Hungarian girl is sent by her father, an Army general, to an ultra-strict and isolated boarding school, it seems the end of her world. It’s 1943 and Gina is 14, in love (she thinks) with a young soldier she now will never see again. The school has many rigid traditions and one magical one: a statue the students have named Abigail seems able to grant the wishes of desperate students. As Gina learns to navigate the spoken and unspoken rules of this flinty place, she slowly realizes that larger forces are in play, a conflict between the ruling Nazis and the town’s anti-Nazi underground that reaches into the school and into the lives of its students and staff. Part of this novel’s power is that it is told through the limited viewpoint of Gina, yet allows the adult reader to see all the layers of menace and meaning that are invisible to the teenager.
After the Party by Cressida Connolly
Fascinating novel about a facet of WWII I’ve rarely read about: the British citizens, in this case an upper-class woman and her family, who belong to the British fascist and anti-Semitic organization led by Oswald Mosely, which actively supported Hitler. If you read Kate Atkinson’s 2018 novel Transcription, the British spies in that book are trying to root out people like Phyllis, the protagonist in After the Party, who narrates her own story with a sense of grievance about how terribly she’s been punished for doing, in her opinion, not very much wrong.
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
In 1977, five women from Montevideo take a holiday together in a rustic, remote seaside town to breathe freely and briefly escape the stress of the junta, which monitors and controls every aspect of Uruguayans’ lives and freely jails, tortures and murders resisters, activists, and lesbians like themselves. The novel follows these women over decades, as political and personal pressures mold their lives into new shapes, and the bonds among them prove essential to their lives. While the novel uses overblown imagery that didn’t appeal to me, I appreciated the focus on lesbians’ lives, the examination of life under dictatorship, and the portrayals of long-term activists and how their risks and work ultimately changed society.
The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz
The syndicated columnist presents us with an old-fashioned, generational saga of working-class women in an Ohio town, who must build the best lives they can for themselves and their children despite the constant struggles of work, family responsibilities, the restraints of custom and law that prevent women from living freely, and the allure as well as the danger of men.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
The premise of this novel sounds unpromising: years after their mother leaves, a teenage boy and his barely-adult sister are exiled from their family’s quirky mansion after their father dies and their step-mother washes her hands of them. Their wealthy father left them nothing but a guarantee of funds for the boy’s education, which he uses to go to medical school. The siblings grow into adulthood and middle age still obsessed by the house, the people who lived and worked there, and the lives they could have had. But Patchett turns this meager stuff into a robust tale peopled with rich, rounded characters that you wish you could know in real life.
The End of October by Lawrence Wright
A page turner about a mysterious new virus that burns through the world, upending civilization, and a brilliant, white male scientist with something to atone for, who risks everything to find a vaccine. The novel offers a fast-moving plot and interesting scientific insights into our own situation, but is in other ways ridiculous.
The German House by Annette Hess
In the early 1960s, a young German woman named Eva who works as a Polish-to-German translator is called to serve as translator for a set of trials to be held in Frankfurt, her hometown. Translating her first witness statement, she stumbles over words not found in the business documents she usually works on, terms having to do with torture and killing. The trials, she realizes, are of the Nazis who ran Auschwitz, now comfortable and respected businessmen and professionals, and the Polish witnesses are Jews who survived. As she continues to translate the witnesses’ horrifying testimony, despite pressure from her family and fiancé to quit, Eva begins to discover disquieting memories from her own childhood, and chilling family secrets long hidden under a façade of normalcy. An excellent read.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
This exhilarating whirlwind of a novel introduces us to Amma, a Black lesbian playwright in England whose career has finally, in middle age, achieved commercial success. We then meet Amma’s circle of women friends and ex-lovers and her college-age daughter, and an expanding network of their friends and family members, crossing generations and lines of class, race, and gender. The novel portrays with wit and brilliance a vibrant network of women of color, throwing a roving spotlight on each of them—their lives, the times they live in, and the surprising connections that link them. Highly recommended.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Loved this novel about the choices, fates, and puzzlements of a variety of people involved in one way or another a Bernie Madoff-type Ponzi scheme, particularly the young woman who poses for years as the trophy wife of the immensely wealthy man responsible for the fraud. They met when she was a bartender at a fancy hotel he owned; when his swindle collapses, she reverts to working as a cook on a ship. The book constructs a delicate jigsaw puzzle of plot, reveals character in bright bursts of detail, and continually raises questions about why humans do what we do, and what we owe each other.
The High Places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane
A collection of striking, memorable, and often discomfiting short stories by an Australian writer. While some of the stories share themes—for instance, what does it cost, and what is it worth, to shake ourselves out of the flatness of our daily lives—they illuminate multiple landscapes, eras, and characters.
The Huntress: A Novel by Kate Quinn
Enjoyable page-turner about a plucky group of misfits (naturally) who hail from England, the USSR and the U.S. (Brooklyn, naturally), and who shortly after WWII band together to track down a notorious Nazi known as The Huntress. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of one of the characters, a Russian woman who served as a pilot in the fierce, real-life Night Bomber Regiment, who bombed and terrorized German forces in the dark and were known as Night Witches by the Germans. A great read, if not great literature.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
A literary tour de force about President Lincoln, who repeatedly visited the grave of his son in the days after the boy died at age 11, and particularly about the very active afterlife the boy experiences with other denizens of the cemetery, most of whom do not realize they are dead.
Marilou is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith
In a small town, a teenage girl goes missing. Everyone is alarmed except the girl’s mother who, between her drinking and dementia, can’t hold on to the fact that her daughter is gone. That lets another teenager, the deeply observant narrator, take her place and stand in as the daughter in a home that, while chaotic, offers much more material comfort than her own, equally chaotic home. A piercing portrait of rural poverty and familial neglect.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
On an unnamed island, a fascist force called the Memory Police has the power to “disappear” things: not only make the residents dispose of these items, but forget that they ever existed. The disappearances began in the childhood of a young woman who narrates that story, erasing things like postage stamps and perfume. The Memory Police also disappeared people who had the rare ability to retain their memories, including the narrator’s mother, a sculptor. As the disappearances escalate, the narrator—a novelist, until the Memory Police disappear novels—decides to hide her editor in her house since he, like her mother, still remembers. The narrator unfolds the story in a strangely serene manner, much as the islanders accept the ravages of the Memory Police, whose reasons for disappearing things are never explained and rarely questioned. Although written in 1994, this is a good novel to ponder in these days of encroaching authoritarianism and disinformation.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
This is the final book in Mantel’s magnificent trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII in 16th century England. The fact that I’ve read now read thousands of pages about a period in history that holds no intrinsic interest for me is testament to Mantel’s research and story-telling skills. Read this and/or the other two novels to be immersed into a different yet humanly familiar world.
More News Tomorrow by Susan Richards Shreve
A 70-year-old woman seeking answers from her past takes her grown children and grandchildren on a sketchily-planned canoe trip to the campsite where, when she was 4 years old, her mother was murdered, ostensibly by her father, who spent the rest of his life in prison. A deft exploration of family dynamics, with familiar DC locales an added pleasure.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Reading anything by Louise Erdrich is a delight, but I particularly loved this beautifully told story of how the U.S. government, in the 1950s, tried to “emancipate”—erase the Indian identity and all tribal rights—of the small Turtle Mountain clan in North Dakota, and how a tribal leader who worked as a night watchman led the resistance of his baffled and embattled community to this injustice. The novel is crowded with portraits of warm and dimensional characters I hated to leave when the book ended.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
The further adventures of Olive Kitteridge, the acerbic yet strangely retired schoolteacher who has lived all her life in Crosby, Maine. Long a widower, she finds caring, solitude, and unexpected revelations in old age.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Emotionally powerful story of three women—a nurse, a doctor, and an aide—who spend a few intense days and nights together trying to save women’s lives in the makeshift maternity ward of a poverty-stricken Dublin hospital in the height of the 1918 flu epidemic. Highly recommended (if you don’t mind very realistic writing about illness and childbirth).
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
A beautifully written and resonant braided narrative about two Black women connected by family but generations apart: one modern-day single mom trying to raise her teenaged son to safety and find some security for them both; one woman born enslaved who later owned a thriving farm that was the envy of her white neighbors. She knows safety and security are not options, and makes her mission survival and planting seeds for the future.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
What would have happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton? Would he still have become president? Would she? How would our world be different? In this thoroughly enjoyable book, Sittenfeld imagines Hillary’s inner life and our nation’s alternate history.
Salt the Snow by Carrie Callaghan
Novel about a left-leaning woman journalist who goes to Moscow in the 1930s to learn about the new world of socialism they’re building and stays for several years before moving on to Spain to cover the Civil War. I loved all the detail about life in Moscow and among the Americans and British anti-fascists who fought in Spain, but unfortunately I found the main character irritating.
The Searcher by Tana French
Although I rarely read mysteries, I read and love everything by Tana French. In this novel, a retired Chicago cop, weary of crime and its entanglements, moves to a tiny rural town in Ireland. There he is pulled into investigating the disappearance of a young man, even though he knows that in this village he cannot read the people or understand the unsaid as he was able to do in Chicago.
Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk
This is one of those deceptively quiet, beautifully written novels whose depth and impact sneak up on the reader. In the 1980s, two young women—one from a wealthy local family and one from a working-class Iowa family—meet in their freshman year at a university much like Northwestern, just outside Chicago. Their friendship deepens swiftly, and they live together for much of their college life, swept along by the tides of the class and power dynamics between them. All of this takes place under the shadow of the (real-life) Tylenol murders in Chicago, when a series of random people dropped dead after taking Tylenol that had been poisoned. With the creation of the unnamed narrator, the author gives a master class in narrative voice.
Still Life by Louise Penny
A pleasant mystery set in a charming small town in Canada. The book is illuminated occasionally by little firefly flashes of wit and character. The first in a series, but it didn’t inspire me to read further.
The Talented Miss Farwell by Emily Gray Tedrowe
A deft and entertaining novel about Becky Farwell, a diligent financial manager for her small hometown in Illinois. Becky has a talent for numbers, finding unused funds hidden in the town’s budget to meet its emerging needs. But she also discovers a new-found passion, indeed craving, for modern art. “Borrowing” some funds from the town budget, she buys her first painting, ultimately ending up juggling two separate lives: as a big-time modern art collector based in Chicago but traveling the world, and as a government official, desperately shifting public funds to hide the millions she has stolen from her increasingly bankrupt town.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
This excellent novel takes us deep into the parched world of Odessa, Texas in the 1970s, when a young Mexican girl is brutalized by a white man from a “good” family, and the community—particularly a handful of strongly-drawn women characters—must decide which side they’re on.
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
This gorgeous novel is about twin sisters from a tiny all-Black town in Louisiana in which everyone takes pride in their light skin, although they suffer the violence and poverty of racism just the same. As teenagers, the girls run away to New Orleans, and suddenly their lives are severed from one another: one sister decides to pass as white, leaving behind her twin and everyone she has ever known. The other sister marries a dark-skinned man who turns out to be violent; to escape him, she returns to her hometown with her daughter. Powerful novel about family, identity, race, and the allure and anguish of reinvention.
The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir by Michele Harper
A Black woman who grew up in an affluent but violent home in Washington, DC reflects on her experiences as an ER doctor, the ways racism and sexism have undercut her career and our health care system, and how caregivers can find ways to survive the grueling toll of their work and the griefs we all face.
Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice by Pam Fessler
I read this book because it was written by a journalist I’ve long followed and admired. While the history she examined was new to me, the pattern of injustice it revealed was all too familiar. Deep in the swamps of Louisiana, a decrepit plantation was designated in 1900 as a leprosarium—a place to incarcerate, isolate, and treat people who had a disease known as leprosy, but more accurately called Hansen’s disease, which was considered wildly contagious and deadly. Until shamefully late in the 20th century, such patients were torn from their communities and shipped to Carville, the only leprosarium in the continental U.S., and then held against their will for, in most cases, the rest of their lives. So feared and disdained was leprosy that patients were denied any contact with spouses and children and even stripped of their voting rights. Back home, their families often moved or changed their names to evade the stigma. All this for a disease that was only mildly contagious, and to which 95% of the population was immune. The status of Hansen’s disease patients improved only because of unceasing activism and public education by the patients themselves, over decades. All of these lessons, as Fessler remarks, were forgotten by the time of AIDS.
Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief by Doris Payne with Zelda Lockhart
Doris Payne, a working-class African American woman born in West Virginia, chose her career path early: jewel thief. This enjoyable book tells the story of how she prepared, trained, and triumphed in that career, aided in part by the fact that many white people assumed any glamorous and elegant Black woman must be a movie star. The narrative mixes the pleasures of a “caper” movie with a deeper analysis of the costs of the jewel trade to Africans and the price of Payne’s criminal career to her own family. (Co-author Zelda Lockhart is a friend of mine.)
Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag by Monika Sgustova
Oral histories of women who endured and survived years in the USSR’s Gulag. Despite how varied and interesting the women’s stories are, the telling is somewhat flat and monotonous, as if someone, perhaps in translation, homogenized all their voices.
Five Days Gone: The Mystery of my Mother’s Disappearance as a Child by Laura Cummings
The author’s mother vanished from a beach in an English town in 1929, when she was three years old. A few days later she was found, unharmed and serene, and soon forgot all about the incident. Not so her daughter, who decades later decided to solve the mystery and uncover the family secrets it hinted at. This was the rare book that I listened to as an audiobook but should have read in hard copy instead; the narrative is filled with lyrical descriptions of paintings and photographs, and I later learned that photos of these artworks are included in the physical book.
Home Work: A Memoir of my Hollywood Years by Julie Andrews
Baby boomers in particular might enjoy this reminiscence of Andrews’ life—much rougher than her public persona would suggest—as she was making some of her most famous movies.
The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future by Jon Gertner
Everything we need to know about climate change and the fate of the earth has been written in the Greenland ice sheet if only we care to read it, this book argues. Gertner tells the stories of generations of scientists and explorers from Scandinavia, Europe and the U.S. who have journeyed to Greenland to study the ice, in some cases to dominate the local Inuit people and in some cases to learn from them.
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
In 1900, at the dawn of the science of meteorology, a monster hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. It destroyed the city and killed more than 4,000 people. Focusing in particular on Isaac Cline, head of the Texas branch of the U. S. Weather service, Larson tells the story of the hurricane—why the city did not prepare for it (alarmed Cuban meteorologists warned a ferocious storm was coming, but white scientists gave no credence to their forecast), what it was like for individual people and families to be caught in the hurricane, and what the storm demonstrated about nature’s power and Americans’ ability to mitigate or accommodate it.
The Lady’s Handbook for her Mysterious Illness by Sarah Ramey
Like many women, the author suffered for years, and is still suffering, from an excruciating and isolating chronic condition that no doctor could diagnose (or at least no two doctors could diagnose it the same way), and from constant pain that no doctor could relieve and far too many doctors dismissed. She spent years researching the growing world of women (almost exclusively) with undefined autoimmune diseases that disrupt and shrink their lives, and discovered, among other things, that there is a robust body of rigorous, scientific literature on the causes and treatments of such diseases, but that mainstream doctors, like both the author’s parents, disdain this data because it comes from the “alternative” or “functional” wing of medicine. Yet in the traditional, patriarchal wing of medicine, women’s mysterious illnesses have received almost no research at all. Ramey’s book is written in a humorous, arch tone that makes it more accessible.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
A thoughtful overview of Barack Obama’s life and an examination of his first few years in the White House, told from his point of view (and in his voice, since I listed to the audiobook). The book offers fascinating, behind-the-scenes glimpses of national events and experiences, and a reminder of what was so exhilarating and so exasperating about his presidency.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living by Karen Auvinen
An avid reader, writer, and hiker who craves nothing more than solitude and mountains gets more than she bargained for when her remote Colorado cabin burns down, leaving her with almost nothing except her dog. How she rebuilds her life over the following years, and how she figures out what a good life must contain, forms the heart of this memoir.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Riveting book that uncovers truths and depths behind “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Beginning with the disappearance of an Irish mother of 10, the story expands to encompass the IRA’s fighters, radicals, and politicians, the strategies and cruelties of both sides, and the legacy of that decades-long simmering war.
Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner
An exploration of the persistence and heritability of trauma, written by a woman whose parents’ experiences in the Holocaust shaped her own life. She describes some of the structures and traditions of Holocaust commemoration, such as repeated trip to visit Buchenwald with her father and other survivors, but also explores the heritage of trauma carried and passed on by survivors of other atrocities, including the Cambodian killing fields, the atomic bombs that Americans dropped on Japanese cities, and the Rwandan genocide.
Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe – A Memoir, A History, A Warning by Géraldine Schwarz, translated by Laura Marris
In this sobering examination of the mechanics of nationalism, a journalist chronicles her family’s lives during and following WWII. Her father’s family is German; her grandfather was a Nazi party member who bought a business for a criminally low price from a Jewish man desperate for money to enable his family to escape. (They didn’t.) And although her grandparents claimed they didn’t know at the time what was happening to their Jewish neighbors, they bought several pieces of furniture in “yard sales” the Nazis conducted inside the homes of vanished Jews—something the author surmises they could not have done unless they knew the homeowners were never going to return. The book considers how, over generations, the Germans evolved from having no remorse about the Holocaust to atoning for it, but are now devolving with the rise of neo-Nazi movements. In France, where the author’s mother is from, officials cooperated enthusiastically with the Nazis to round up French Jews—especially children—for concentration camps. Yet France has done none of what she calls the “memory work” that Germany has. A cogent warning of how fascism flourishes thanks to the tools we are all too familiar with: erasure of history, the creation of alternative realities, and the dominance of a loud right-wing media untethered by facts.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, 2020.
You may wonder why so many Holocaust books appear on this list. It’s because I was indulging in a kind of literary scavenger hunt: I read a novel about people who tracked Nazis in order to bring them to trial. Curious, I read another novel about a German woman who worked at such a trial. I followed up by reading two memoirs about the legacy of the Holocaust: one by the daughter of Jewish survivors, and one by the granddaughter of Nazis. In this way I gained a multi-faceted glimpse of an enormous subject.
I’m looking forward to good reading in 2021. Any suggestions?