My 10 favorite books of 2020

Poet and World War I veteran Robert Graves gave his famous “I’m done with it!” farewell to horrific trench battles in the title of his classic autobiography, Goodbye to All That. I found a copy of the book at a used/rare bookfair several years ago and almost bought it. It wasn’t an expensive first edition, rather an unremarkable $40 book with photos that attracted me. I returned it to the shelf. Right before leaving for the day, I ran back to the dealer to buy it, but it had been sold. Evidently, it was more remarkable than I’d thought. At home that night, I searched online for the exact same copy and found only one, in England. I bought it. Three days later I received an email from the online bookseller saying he couldn’t find it.

Here’s the worst part of the story. When I hurriedly searched the shelf that second time at the bookfair, eager to make the purchase I’d first doubted, the bookseller recognized me. After he told me he had sold the book, he made a comment that stuck a knife in my booklover’s heart.

I’ve never seen a copy like that in all my years as a bookseller.

I originally intended to write about Graves’ autobiography as it relates to how we’re all feeling, the goodbye to all that sigh of relief with a hopeful embrace of the new year ahead. What pulls on me instead is the feeling all book collectors have about the one that got away, the book that should be sitting on the bookshelf in the house but isn’t, the one you could’ve owned. We lost the year 2020, the one we thought we would have, all of what we had planned and hoped for that couldn’t and didn’t happen, a year taken by a pandemic. For book collectors, the one that got away becomes as much a part of the collecting experience as all the successes. So, too, 2020 will be in our life journeys.

Books kept me going this past year, as I’ve heard was true for many readers. The long hours at home, nowhere to go, opened up the opportunity not only to read more but to finally pick up those books gathering dust on the reading table. After decades of failed starts, for example, I finally read Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.

Typically, end-of-year favorites include only those published in the current year. This year, however, I’m including two that were not published in 2020. Their presence lends authenticity to this pandemic year of reading, and I begin with them.

Tim Pears won my attention with his West Country Trilogy that I read in 2019. Desperate for that same kind of escape, deep into the English countryside following characters I couldn’t stop thinking about, I picked up his first novel published in 1993, In the Place of Fallen Leaves. Once again, I found myself transported and, at the end, surprised and gripped. The Language of Birds by Norbert Scheuer published in 2019 similarly took me out of this world, the story of a German combat medic based in Afghanistan who watches birds. One time, at midnight, I told myself to put the book down and go to bed, but I turned the page and kept reading. Written as a diary, the story’s multilayers of why the medic enlisted in the German army and his family history provide rich, compulsive reading.

My reading selections in recent years have more and more included translated novels, where I’m finding remarkable literature. Fernanda Melchor held a place on the shortlist for the International Man Booker Prize this year for her first novel Hurricane Season, a stunner by all counts — characters, setting, drama, and style — in a story about the death of a witch in a rural Mexican village. The rhythmic prose, written without paragraphs, translated from Spanish, becomes addictive. Prefecture D is a collection of four novellas by Hideo Yokoyama that focus on investigating scandal and suspicious behavior within Japan’s hierarchical police administration. Yokoyama won me with his unputdownable novel Six Four a few years ago, and his new novellas, translated from Japanese, hit the same high mark of impressive storytelling.

When I heard about Stephen Heyman’s new book, The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, I thought it would be a boring, dry, monster of a biography. How wrong I was! In 286 pages, Heyman delivers an engrossing dive into the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Hollywood screenwriter, and famous farmer of Malabar Farm. He’s an engaging writer, delightfully taking us from Bromfield’s literary Paris to the eroded fields in Ohio that Bromfield restored to their nutrient-rich origins. I loved it. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb brings to life Kalb’s undaunted, charming, invincible, unfiltered, loving grandmother Bobby Bell with warmth and hilarity that made me wish Bobby could be here now for all of us. I felt immeasurable thanks for Bobby and the author who made me laugh out loud during the worst of the shut-down.

The pandemic closed bookstores and bookfairs, which are key events for authors to promote their new books. Consequently, literary novels, the stories I seek that richly speak to the human condition, had an even harder time competing with the media’s love affair with bestsellers. L. Annette Binder’s The Vanishing Sky, inspired by her father’s World War II experience, IMHO didn’t get enough national attention, what it deserved. Set in rural Germany in 1945, it’s the moving story of Etta Huber and her two sons, one sent home from the Eastern Front and another in the Hitler Youth. If you missed it, treat yourself these upcoming cold months with its magnetic grace. Another World War II story, also from the German viewpoint, We Germans by Alexander Starritt eloquently captures a soldier’s war experience in letters to the grandson, sharing and explaining his role and thoughts as a Nazi participator.

What I want to tell you about is something quite different. It’s to do with courage. I don’t think anyone who sees real courage ever forgets it, I suppose because it’s so unlike anything else in our characters.

A man and his daughter are the last two surviving humans on earth in Andrew Krivak’s stellar, post-apocalyptic novel, The Bear. There is no desperate, bleak wandering through torched, barren land. No question of where to get food. They live comfortably by the earth’s resources. It’s an inspiring fable that reaches much deeper than a moral lesson by providing a lens of hope with meditative precision and lyric simplicity. In Drifts, Kate Zambreno wrestles with the artistic life in this engrossing work of auto-fiction. It’s written in diaristic fragments that share her daily observations from the trees, neighbors and animals on her street, to the faculty demands, deadlines and self-doubt in a writer’s life working as an adjunct professor. Zambreno’s vulnerability and candor create hypnotic reading.

2 thoughts on “My 10 favorite books of 2020

  1. What a great description — the year that got away — truly captures it. Thank you. And thanks for distilling so many great options into a wonderful list of very best recommendations. They all seem perfectly suited for this transition from a challenging year into the unknown of 2021. Happy Booking New Year!

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  2. Thank you, Laralyn! And you probably remember that bookfair event. I think you also ran back to make a final “oh I have to have it” purchase. We were so happy in our manic collecting. Happy New Year!

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