OPINION | ON BOOKS: Fundamental reading

Books were important last year.

If one reads, it’s likely one reads more in a pandemic. Or reads the same amount of books, and watches more Netflix. Or reads fewer books and doomscrolls more. But you have to take into account covid-19. Because surely it had an impact.

At the very least, it pushed back the publication date on some books. And, for a while, it caused a drought of review copies showing up in critics’ mailboxes. But there were always new books available to read. And, as people have often lamented, only so much time.

What follows is not a listicle of the best books of 2020. It is a listicle of notable books this critic read in 2020, with a few thoughts about most of the titles offered in the spirit of “look at this,” not in the spirit of “you should read this.”

In a couple of weeks, when the biweekly On Books column finds its footing again, I’m planning on sharing some friends’ thoughts on the books of 2020.

Given that there are far more books published each year than anyone can possibly know about, much less read, I will not pretend to suggest that this is any sort of “best of” list. These are books I read and like and remember.


1. From its first sentence, Paul Yoon’s “Run Me to Earth” (Simon & Schuster, $26) announces itself as a quiet book about extreme things, about children who grow up amid normalized violence.

In about 250 pages, Yoon measures out the lives of three teenage orphans, living in war-torn Laos in 1969 as a kind of makeshift family, in a precise and restrained voice that delivers horrors in calm cadences and is all the more effective for avoiding overstatement and hyperbole.

This is not a conventional war novel; if it has a precedent it may be Louis Malle’s autobiographical film “Au revoir les enfants.” Though Yoon was born 11 years after the events he describes in the book’s opening section, his writing has the authority of a literary memoir combined with the scope of a historical epic. It reads like poetry but with a satisfying concreteness to the imagery.

There’s nothing elliptical about the history Yoon traces, and nothing dreamy about the reckonings his characters endure. While “Run Me to Earth” is not sentimental, like life itself, it’s not entirely drained of hope.

2. Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) is a high-profile literary novel, a species which often disappoints. This one doesn’t, in part because it feels rooted in genuine observation (if not actual reportage) and moves away from fashionable dystopian projection (a trend driven in part by the success of Mandel’s last novel, the blockbuster best-seller “Station 11”) toward a recognizable reality.

“The Glass Hotel” feels like a Hollywood auteur following up an audience-pleasing sci-fi horror movie with a more personal independent drama. Mandel follows a number of characters as they experience a modern world much like our own — a world of Ponzi schemes and trophy wives and self-doubting magpie artists — was before a pandemic limited our ability to move through it.

3. Charles Baxter’s “The Sun Collective” (Pantheon, $27) feels destined to become a prestigious HBO mini-series with Richard Jenkins cast in the role of aging engineer Harold Brettigan and Jessica Lange as his wife Alma, who is slowly disengaging from reality.

While Baxter’s narrative gets a little woolly — his story is about the vaguely Scientological title cult and its effects on the Brettigans, who lost their son while acquiring surrogate daughter Christina, whose life choices have been slipping since she’s discovered a pharmaceutical product called “Blue Telephone” which alters her relationship with time — his sentences are shiny, tuned and balanced. This novel chimes like a Pachinko machine with a satisfying payoff.

4. Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain,” (Grove, $27) a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Booker Prize, is a semi-autobiographical debut novel about an effeminate young lad growing up in the poorer precincts of ’80s Glasgow with an alcoholic mother to whom he remains devoted, despite her erratic and self-destructive tendencies. By turns delicate and gritty, bleak and funny, but ultimately as life-affirming as any book I read this year.

5. For pure fun, it’s hard to beat David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue” (Random House, $30), and that’s coming from someone who has always been skeptical of Mitchell’s work. (It was probably the Wachowskis’ film version of “Cloud Atlas” that put me off.) Mitchell fans will appreciate his latest novel in a different and perhaps deeper way than I can.

“Utopia Avenue” is the story of the rise and fall of a rock ‘n’ roll band cast by Brian Epstein-style Canadian Levon Frankland (who, as Mitchell partisans will immediately recognize, is in “The Bone Clocks”) as a superstar group. The story begins in January 1967 (we know this because adventurer Donald Campbell, a name most Americans probably won’t remember but is important to people in the U.K., has just died). A certain specificity is among this novel’s strengths, though sometimes it’s also a weakness, as some of its callouts to real-life rock ‘n’ roll royalty seem a bit on the nose.

6. To mark Martin Amis’ “Inside Story: How to Write” (Knopf, $28.95) down for being self-indulgent would be to miss the point; Amis is engaging in some funny games here with this meta-fiction based on his life and times and specifically with his relationships with Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens and Philip Larkin. I don’t believe a word of it, but as movie critics sometimes have to admit, a man goes to the movies and doesn’t always get to choose how he responds. And the truth is, I devoured this book.

7. Emma Glass’ slim (160-page) novel “Rest and Be Thankful” (Bloomsbury, $18) belongs on this list for its timely evocation of the dread and exhaustion nurses face. Glass, who works as a pediatric nurse, apparently draws from life, showing us the world through the eyes of Laura, a nurse who works with dying children and who has a meager life outside the hospital with her bad boyfriend. Glass generally has a fine touch, and though there are moments when she pushes into pathos, her portrait of a front-line health care worker feels important in this blighted time.

“A Private Cathedral” (Simon & Schuster, $28)

8. James Lee Burke’s “A Private Cathedral” (Simon & Schuster, $28) is where I took refuge after reading Glass’ lacerating novel — after that dose of reality I needed Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell chasing bad guys around the bayou. Yep, a good ol’ story of human trafficking with a supernatural voodoo element tossed in makes for a fine Scooby Doo-for-whiskey-drinkers vibe.

While Burke’s always ambitious (occasionally over-ambitious) prose can turn downright risible (the first chapter here is a purple wonder), he remains our among our finest producers of top-flight pulp (Michael Connelly, Lee Child and every third John Grisham are also contenders) and not a bad writer to turn to when you need to get out of the real world for a while.

9. I didn’t write about Jenny Offill’s “Weather” (Knopf, $23) last year, in part because my wife, Karen, did. In one of her Sunday columns she wrote: “Don’t be fooled by this novel’s compact size and noncommittal cover. It’s a fascinating incremental journey by a seemingly ordinary librarian/wife/dog owner/mother in New York who, in a series of abrupt yet related paragraph-length descriptions, starts to lose her grip on practicality as she slides into a tantalizing, fearful, funny, and weird world heading toward apocalypse. I couldn’t put it down.”

10. Nick Hornby’s ninth novel “Just Like You” (Riverhead Books, $27) is no big deal. It’s all sparkling dialogue, generous assumptions about human motives, warm and cozy as a crackling fireplace. Its purposefully human scale, a plausible love story about unlikely lovers (what lovers are ever likely?) muddling along in London in the weeks preceding and the months after the Brexit vote.

Other notables: “The Vanishing Sky,” L. Annette Binder, Bloomsbury, $27; “The Occultists,” Polly Schattel, JournalStone, $19.95; “Radio Eldorado,” Tyrone Jaeger, Braddock Avenue Books, $19.95; “Mannequin and Wife,” Jen Fawkes (LSU Press, $24.95); “Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night” (Southeast Missouri State University, $18) by Jeffrey Condran; “The Silver Pigeons,” Jeff Howe (Cameron & Greys, $14.99).


1. Zadie Smith’s “Intimations: Six Essays” (Penguin, $10.95) is a collection (the book is only 100 pages) that picks at knotty problems of our moment: race and class and police brutality and economic injustice. Smith is better known as a novelist but her best — and most vital — work reminds us of our complicity in and responsibilities to wider world.

2. Jon David Cash’s “Boom and Bust in St. Louis: A Cardinals History, 1885 to the Present” (McFarland, $29.95) is a straightforward specialty reference that will be of much interest to a lot of local readers. It is, as the title suggests, a detailed history of the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball club, judiciously and even-handedly compiled by a fine writer who knows and respects the game.


“The Man in the Red Coat” (Knopf, $26.95)

3. Like the aforementioned Smith, Julian Barnes is a novelist whose highest and best use may be as a writer of non-fiction. His “The Man in the Red Coat” (Knopf, $26.95) is a fascinating tour of Belle Époque Paris, with the remarkable life story of surgeon Samuel Pozzi serving as the needle piercing through the tapestry. Pozzi knew everyone worth knowing, and Barnes sews up wonderfully arcane facts and brilliantly diverting connections while puncturing some easy assumptions about the period

4. Speaking of easy assumptions, Heather Clark’s “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath” (Knopf, $40) goes a long way to rescuing the poet from the “crackle and drag” clichés that have come to define her. Clark’s book is exhaustive, but if you’re planning to submerge yourself in Plath you might also want to take a look at Carl Rollyson’s “The Last Days of Sylvia Plath” (University Press of Mississippi, $25), largely based on newly discovered letters the poet wrote in the last seven months of her life.

5. In the midst of sports withdrawal this summer, Tom Callahan’s “Gods at Play” (Norton, $26.95) showed up. It’s tempting to say that Callahan, who as a young man hung out with Red Smith, is the last of a breed, a sportswriter for whom the writing is more important than broadcast media hits and probably even the games themselves, but there might be someone I’m forgetting. (One at least: Thomas Boswell, Callahan’s old colleague at The Washington Post.)

Anyway, Callahan isn’t exactly humble about the extent to which he knew (and sometimes advised) greats from Earl Monroe and Bill Walsh to Tiger Woods. But he’s got the credentials and the talent to make this sort of memoir — most if not all of this material has appeared in Callahan’s columns — an exceptionally satisfying read by one of the best.

6. “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” by Robert Kolker (Doubleday, $29.95) is one of the year’s biggest books, making most of the year-end best of lists. The story of the Galvin family, who between 1945 and 1965 had 12 children, 10 of them boys, 6 of whom were eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, is hallowing and heart-wrenching, and Kolker tells it with precision and compassion.


“The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28)

7. I didn’t write about David Hill’s “The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28) and history of Hot Springs’ gambling years entwined with some personal family history because almost everyone else at this newspaper wanted a crack at it. Nevertheless, it is my favorite nonfiction read of the year. And maybe my favorite read of the year.

8. I have been planning for months to write something about Matt Sandler’s “The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery” (Verso, $26.95) and haven’t quite screwed it together. When I do I’ll also write about the Library of America’s recently published “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song” ($45), edited by New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young.

9. I was delighted when George Gruel, photographer, raconteur and the late Warren Zevon’s aide-de-camp, alerted me to the existence of his ebook “Lawyers, Guns and Photographs,” available via Apple Books for $19.99 and as a physical book from Big Gorilla Books (biggorillabooks.com) for $39. I highly recommend the ebook for anyone with any interest in Zevon or the Los Angeles pop scene Gruel documents. I’m excited about the possibilities of this format; the 135 audio tracks he scatters throughout this photographic memoir of his time with Zevon make it seem like a cinematic experience.

10. Carl Safina, an ecologist who has written many books about animal behavior, delves into the world of chimpanzees, sperm whales and macaws to argue that animals learn from one another and pass down to their offspring something very much like culture in “Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace” (Henry Holt, $29.99).

To save newsprint and editorial sanity, I’ll save poetry for a column down the road. And if you’ve got a recently published book to recommend, let me know at the address below.

Email: [email protected] | blooddirtangels.com

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