Boy, 2020. What a decade, huh?
The coronavirus pandemic sucks. It claimed the life of someone I cared about. It made fools out of countless Americans who turned mask-wearing to prevent the spread of a virus into the Ardennes of the culture wars. I don’t want to talk about my reading year without mentioning the effect it had.
I finished over 200 books, which is probably a record for me. And yet, I wish I had read less. Reading helped pass the time and made me feel somewhat better in my escapism. But it didn’t mask what was lost. Nothing could.
Still, I read a lot of great stuff in 2020 so it’s time for my personal Oscars: My Best Reads of the Year.
The way this works is: I list 10 notable non-fiction books since I’m more of a fiction guy. No order for non-fic; just the books. And then, I cover fiction in reverse order from honorable mention to #1. I only insert random comments on books if I feel I have something to say about my reading experience.
Two notes for this particular list…
I read some absolutely knockout non-fiction this year. Unquestionably, my best personal year for it. Picking ten was incredibly difficult. Without reservation, I can say that all of these reads were excellent and a few were transformational.
I went back-and-forth between #1 and #2 on my list. In a great year for reading, the top 2 were still head-and-shoulders above anything else I read. I only picked #1 by a hair’s breadth.
So, without further adieu…
“Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” Ronan Farrow
“Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Elliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago” Max Alan Collins
“A Promised Land” President Barack Obama
“Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson” Robert Polito
“The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong-Un” Anna Fifield
“Battle Cry of Freedom” James McPherson
“Women, Race, and Class” Dr. Angela Davis
“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” Patrick Radden Keefe
“So You Want to Talk About Race” Ijeoma Oluo
“The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty” Ethan Sherwood Strauss
And now, to fiction…
“The Shameless” Ace Atkins. Along with Kristen Lepionka’s Roxanne Weary series, Atkins’ Quinn Colson one is the other I discovered this year that helped me read through the pandemic.
“Grotesque” Natsuo Kirino
“Damage Control” Denise Hamilton
“Miami Purity” Vicki Hendricks. Contemporary noir at its absolute finest.
“American Spy” Lauren Wilkinson
“Swag” Elmore Leonard. The last great Leonard novel that I finally finished after all these years.
“The Confessions of Al Capone” Loren Estleman
“Cropper’s Cabin” Jim Thompson. The Year of Jim Thompson was mostly a dud but this one along with Polito’s biography almost made it worth it. Thompson’s best ending.
“The Winter of Frankie Machine” Don Winslow. If you liked “The Irishman”, read this. It’s practically “The Irishman” set in SoCal. In fact, Scorsese was set to direct this before De Niro got his hands on “I Heard You Paint Houses.” Between the two, I would have rather him directed Frankie Machine.
“Dare Me” Megan Abbott
“Walkin’ The Dog” Walter Mosley
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” Iain Reid
“Severance” Ling Ma. I read a few books set in New York during a fictional pandemic. This was the best.
“Lush Life” Richard Price
“Your House Will Pay” Steph Cha
“Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” Sara Grann
“Bluebird, Bluebird” Attica Locke
“Daisy Jones and the Six” Taylor Jenkins Reid
“A Dance at the Slaughterhouse” Lawrence Block. The pandemic allowed me to binge the Scudder books and it is to my dismay that this is the case since I have no more to read. This is the best of the lot in my estimation.
“A Place of Execution” Val McDermid. A well-done British countryside mystery.
And now, the top 10…
10. “Long Bright River” Liz Moore
9. “The Terrorists” Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. If you had told me three years ago that the Martin Beck books would some day become my favorite mystery series, I would’ve laughed at you. This is the last book and it ended on a pitch perfect note, revealing all the writers wanted to say about Swedish society. I will miss it. Stieg Larsson can kick rocks in the afterlife.
8. “Blacktop Wasteland” SA Crosby
7. “Burr” Gore Vidal. If you have the patience for Vidal’s high handed prose, this comedy of manners on the founding of our country is the perfect counterpart to the saccharine hits of “Hamilton.”
6. “The Force” Don Winslow. I usually hate cop novels for so many reasons. This is the exception. Turn “The Shield” into a book and stick it in modern day north Manhattan and you have this.
5. “When No One Is Watching” Alyssa Cole
4. “Cogan’s Trade” George V. Higgins
3. “A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself” William Boyle
2. “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” Walter Mosley. Clear the decks because I’m about to dial it up to a 10 with a take so hot, it can only be measured in kelvin.
Down with moralism! Down with antiheroes! I’m so sick of having to examine every single cultural medium through the lens of a character’s supposed morality to decide whether or not that makes the story objectively “good.” Good guys breaking bad. Bad guys doing good things. It’s all so manichaean and Boring with a capital freaking B. It’s also lazy. I don’t need characters to be likable. I need them to be readable. I need a reason to care and that reason doesn’t have to be “likability.”
Here comes Walter Mosley, a well-decorated writing hyphenate known mostly for his mysteries, with a book about a black man who has done truly horrible things but still has to survive in a white supremacist system. There’s no arc, no good, no bad. Just stories. Fourteen stories simple in abstract but textured in examination. All of them telling something different. All of them reaching through the reader to grab their soul.
Walter Mosley once lauded his counterpart LA writer James Ellroy by quoting James Weldon Johnson’s “I’m going to make me a world.” That’s what Mosley does here. The best work of his esteemed career. And what an experience it was to read this on Good Friday, before and after worship. Whew.
And the best read of 2020…
“The Gone World” Tom Sweterlitsch
It was such a tough call between the top two. The edge for Sweterlitsch’s work here is that it literally took my breath away. I don’t like genre mashups but Sweterlitsch walks the fine line between detective story and science fiction. This book gave me feelings that stick.
And in the words of Tony Kornheiser: “That’s it! That’s the list!”