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Best Books of 2020

2020 felt strange. It was by turns too busy and too erratic, and my reading reflected that.

January: 8 books                                July: 8 books

February: 9 books                              August: 9 books

March: 6 books                                   Sept.: 7 books

April: 5 books                                      Oct.: 11 books

May: 8 books                                       Nov.: 5 books

June: 6 books                                      Dec.: 10 books

As you can see, it seems like when the pandemic first hit here and kids were sent home from school for virtual learning in March, my reading fell off. That is not unexpected. I’m not sure what was going on in June that dropped my reading, but at the end of the year, November was the most stressful at work in terms of workload. December was still stressful for other reasons at work, but I had more days off that month to read and just relax.

Here are some other reading stats I compiled because I was curious in this year of COVID-19 and political unease.

# of Books Read: 95

# of Books Reviewed: 91 (some will be reviewed in 2021)

# of Audiobooks: 17

# of Kids books: 34 (this is where I spent a lot of time with my reluctant reader)

# of Nonfiction: 11

# of Adult Fiction: 23

# of Memoir: 7

# of Poetry: 24

Some of these numbers will include books that crossover into another genre or category. For instance, some memoir were also poetry, while others were audio as well as fiction.

Now, for what you’re all probably curious about — My favorite books from 2020.

Not all were published last year.

I picked my top 2-3 in each category (but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have other books that I considered top books)

Top Kids Reads in 2020:

Katt vs. Dogg by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein was my daughter’s favorite book last year, and she wanted this to be a series, but when we checked there was no book 2. Our review is here. We call this one a “page turner.”

Nancy Clancy, Super Sleuth by Jane O’Connor, which we both wanted to continue reading past her bed time to solve the mystery. Our review is here. “What I love about this series is the harder words that she has to sound out.”

Top Nonfiction:

America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs, published by National Geographic. Our review is here. I said that this “is a love story for our nation.”

 

 

 

Top Memoir:

Memorial Drive by Natasha Tretheway is a riveting “tale of healing and reconciling the past. Trethewey relies not only on her memory but on her mother’s own writing, testimony, and recorded phone conversations. I was emotionally wrecked by this memoir.” My review is here.

Who’s Your Daddy by Arisa White, which actually will be published in 2021, but my pre-ordered book came quickly and I couldn’t wait to read it. This is a “journey into the poet’s past as she reconciles the abandonment of her father and her struggles with connecting to others. The poetic memoir is beautiful and the landscapes within it (emotional and physical) are tumultuous and heartbreaking.” My review is here.

 

Top Fiction:

Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Buchanan is a book that surprised me this year. It started off slowly, and I typically don’t read this time period, but as Buchanan built the world of the Druids in Britannia, I became more captivated. It’s like the book wove a spell over me. The book depicts a “struggle for survival amid a world of secrets and lies, political gains and losses, and magic.” My review is here.

The Deep by Alma Katsu is a gothic tale aboard the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic. This novel is atmospheric and has ghosts. How can you go wrong with this tale? “Katsu has a wide cast of characters in this novel, but she balances them very well against the historical details, and the suspense is palpable.” I also loved that the ocean played a major role in this tale and became a character all its own. My review is here.

My final pick in this category is actually a tie:

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, which surprised me because it “pays homage to Austen in a way that many other variations don’t. She understands the Austen characters and their motivations, but in creating her characters and their motivations they are not talking to us as Austen’s characters but fans of Austen’s words, her thoughts, her dream.” It also doesn’t hurt that Richard Armitage narrated this audiobook. My review is here.

Elizabeth: Obstinate, Headstrong Girl edited by Christina Boyd is a collection of short stories that skillfully depict the inner thoughts and character of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet in a variety of modern and historical periods and situations. These stories hit it “out of the park with a range of angst, love, prejudice, and pride.” My review is here.

 

Top Poetry:

Raising King by Joseph Ross demonstrates the strength of compassion and empathy as a way forward in building a community that will no longer tear at its own foundations and rise up. My review is here.

Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen explores female identity, speaking to the harmful tropes and labels of society. It is a “map in the darkness …” on a road to healing. My review is here.

My Name is Immigrant by Wang Ping is ripe with ghosts who haunt these pages. The collection “haunts, sings, rages, and breathes.” My review is here.

 

The poetry selections were tough for me this year, because I originally had 8 collections on my list. I pared it down to these three.

What were your favorite reads from 2020? I can always use recommendations (or can I?)

Raising King by Joseph Ross

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 144 pgs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

As in stated in the introduction to Raising King by Joseph Ross, Dr. King “knew racism disfigured the white people who used it. Thus, he focused his life in such a way, built on compassion, that his work might free both those who suffer from racism and those who inflict the suffering.” Throughout this collection, Dr. King’s compassion infuses each line, even though “the boat [the slaves were on] is dust./The whip//survives.” (“Martin Luther King, Jr. — Prologue,” pg. 9)

The backbone of these poems are Dr. King’s own words in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go From Here. Through Dr. King’s words and teachings, Ross has recreated a compassionate look at a man frustrated with a system of oppression, but determined to save his oppressors and the oppressed. “a lunch counter/become[s] an altar,” but only after significant training in nonviolence. (“Be Broken,” pg. 32-3) This compassion stems from the realization that many whites who oppress have inherited their hate (it’s what they know, all they know, how they were taught). In “Inheritance,” Dr. King’s voice rings true: “I will not/destroy him just because/someone taught him//to destroy me.//” (pg. 37-8)

Compassion is often seen as a weakness, but in reality it is the strongest weapon we have against barbarity.

Bomb (pg.40)

War is like this: two women,
a baby, a man gone, a man lost.

I was lost like this: a baby
in the back bedroom.

a wife shaking, unable to be
still. A friend, calm but about

to break.

A crowd gathered. I ran home
to see what was left of me.

The crowd was angry.
I wanted their anger 

to love my own. But my wife's
shaking stopped, keeping me

from breaking.

Keeping me from becoming
the bomb I feared.

It is compassion and empathy that strengthen our character and our ability to rise above the baseness of our human nature.”We have not been victorious//over anyone. We want to ride/beside everyone.” (“We Prepared,” pg. 49) The collection also includes commandments as Dr. King’s movement becomes more urgent, almost as though he knows that the opportunity for real change is fleeting.

Ross’s poems are still relevant to the struggles we continue to face, with “Sheet, Cross, and Flame” calling to mind some recent reactions by parties who have lost and continue to rage against those losses. But Dr. King reminds us in Ross’s poems “Manners and decency/reach down and pat us//on the head. This is/about me grabbing//your hand demanding/you ask my permission//before you touch me.//” (“Decency,” pg. 108) With Ross’s words and poems, Dr. King rises again and leads by teaching.

I’m so glad that my last book of 2020 was Raising King by Joseph Ross. It was a comfort to read these words and remember why I treat others with compassion when I can, especially when it is hard to do so. While we must “choose//never to throw them [stones]//at one another” (“Chaos or Community,” pg. 136-7), we also need to “Let the/bones//rest.” (“The Bones,” pg. 119)

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Joseph Ross is the author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020), Ache (2017), Gospel of Dust (2013), and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martin Espada. His poems also appear in Collective Brightness, Poetic Voices without Borders 1 and 2, Full Moon on K Street, and Come Together; Imagine Peace. He served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, just outside Washington, D.C. He is a seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee, most recently for “The Mountain Top,” from Raising King. His poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. As a teacher and writer, Ross was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s Reinhold Niebuhr Award in 1997 and the William A. Toohey, C.S.C. Award in 1993. In 2006, he was awarded Teacher of the Year by the senior class at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. In 2020, he delivered the Robert L. Giron Global Humanities Lecture for Montgomery College, Takoma Park, Maryland. The lecture was titled: “Literature Consoles and Confronts: When Poetry Is a Tool for Justice.”

Mailbox Monday #612

It now has it’s own blog where book bloggers can link up their own mailbox posts and share which books they bought or which they received for review from publishers, authors, and more.

Leslie, Martha, and I also will share our picks from everyone’s links in the new feature Books that Caught Our Eye. We hope you’ll join us.

Here’s what we received:

Carpe F*cking Diem, a gift from Anna at Diary of an Eccentric. (She seems to know me too well!)

A journal to stop the bullsh*t and seize the f*cking day―the perfect undated journal for every thought, list, note, or entry!

Packed with profanity and the IDGAF spirit, this is the perfect journal to say it like it is and get back to what matters. Finally ditch the anxiety, shake off the stress, and take a moment each day to focus on the number one f*cking person in your life―you! Based on the bestselling Carpe F*cking Diem Planner, this is the perfect undated journal to replace your tired old notebook and up your stationery game.

With journal pages, space for list-making, and laugh-out-loud swears, this is the journal that encourages you to embrace the c’est la f*cking vie attitude and focus on your happiness.

Hilarious and with a self-care attitude that tells you to take a damn nap and eat that f*cking ice cream, this is the perfect gift for the sweary person in your life and the ideal journal to carry with you all damn day.

Out of No Way: Madam C.J. Walker & A’Lelia Walker, a poetic drama by Roje Augustin, which I purchased.

Author, producer, and emerging poet Rojé Augustin has written a groundbreaking debut collection of dramatic poems about hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia. Rojé’s singular and accomplished work is presented through the intimate lens of the mother-daughter relationship via different poetic forms — from lyric to haiku, blackout to narrative. (One poem takes its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.) Written in tribute to Walker, Out of No Way deftly and beautifully explores themes of race, motherhood, sacrifice, beauty, and the meaning of success in Jim Crow America.

Raising King by Joseph Ross, which I purchased.

Poetry. RAISING KING urges readers to walk beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Montgomery to Memphis, past police dogs, mobs, and fire hoses. Listen to his thoughts, hopes, and fears. You’ll also hear from heroes including Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and Coretta Scott King.-Joseph Ross

In his beautiful collection of poems evoking the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, Joseph Ross offers his readers hope and inspiration for our own difficult times. These poems call us to revive our courage, moral convictions, and belief in the ultimate redemption of humanity.-Susannah Heschel

Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 by Yusef Komunyakaa for review from the publisher.

New and selected poems from the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet

These songs run along dirt roads
& highways, crisscross lonely seas
& scale mountains, traverse skies
& underworlds of neon honkytonk,
Wherever blues dare to travel.

Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth brings together selected poems from the past twenty years of Yusef Komunyakaa’s work, as well as new poems from the Pulitzer Prize winner. Komunyakaa’s masterful, concise verse conjures arresting images of peace and war, the natural power of the earth and of love, his childhood in the American South and his service in Vietnam, the ugly violence of racism in America, and the meaning of power and morality.

The new poems in this collection add a new refrain to the jazz-inflected rhythms of one of our “most significant and individual voices” (David Wojahn, Poetry). Komunyakaa writes of a young man fashioning a slingshot, workers who “honor the Earth by opening shine / inside the soil,” and the sounds of a saxophone filling a dim lounge in New Jersey. As April Bernard wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “He refuses to be trivial; and he even dares beauty.”

The Gospel according to H.L. Hix for review.

Literary Nonfiction. Religion. First we have to talk about the elephant in the room–though that might not be the most polite term for Jesus! For many millions of people around the world, Jesus is the Son of God, the divine source of their salvation, his story told in the familiar four gospels of the Bible, and any tampering with that story understandably will be met with suspicion, distrust, even hostility. So let’s begin with what this book isn’t. H. L. Hix covers this in detail in his Introduction to “The Gospel,” but for now it’s enough to say that this isn’t Jesus Christ, Superstar, or The Last Temptation of Christ. Nothing in this Gospel secularizes or desacralizes Jesus Christ. You don’t get less of the divine Jesus here, you get more. That’s because Hix has gone back to the original source materials, both the canonical and noncanonical gospels and histories and stories of the life of Jesus, and created out of them a single, more comprehensive and nuanced narrative. A good analogy is to film editing. Most movie directors shoot more film than ever makes it into the version we see on the screen, film that ends up on the editing room floor, the result of commercial decisions often far removed from the director’s vision of the film. Occasionally the director gets the chance to re-edit the film to restore that lost material, producing a “Director’s Cut” that may be very different from the commercial film release. So we can think of “The Gospel” as an ultimate “Director’s Cut” of the story of Jesus, with all of those bits that didn’t make the official version (edited by early church leaders to serve a specific agenda) at last restored. Something for those enthusiasts who want to dig deeper, to know more. But that’s not all he’s done. Among other virtues of his “Gospel,” Hix has restored the meanings of essential words as they would have been understood by contemporary audiences when the source materials were first written, overcoming what he calls “translation inertia”, the tendency to retain a translation over time even after the sense of the word has changed for current readers. Thus “Lord” becomes “Boss”, and the apostles “apprentices”, changes that allow for a novel understanding of the role of Jesus and of believers’ relationship to him. Also of crucial importance, Hix has eliminated gendered language wherever possible, in the process inventing new terms that decouple our understanding of Jesus and divinity from the limitations of gendered human bodies and relationships. Thus “Son” becomes “Xon”, for example, a form of literary transubstantiation that renders the divine even more transcendent, in the process opening the Gospel and its promise of salvation to greater inclusivity. Gospel, of course, means “good news.” And the very good news of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO H. L. HIX  for believers and for non-believers alike, is that what has been called “the greatest story ever told,” the life of Jesus, just got greater.

Incandescent Visions by Lee Hudspeth for review.

Having written numerous works of nonfiction, this is Lee Hudspeth’s debut book of poetry. Incandescent Visions explores the meaning of the human experience, as the author encourages his readers to ponder the universe and their place within it and to catalyze their own creative potential. From the sublime shores of the Mediterranean to the majestic expansiveness of deep space, this book contemplates nostalgia, perspective and the gift of love. Through five short yet powerful, thought-provoking chapters of contemporary poems—and a dash of elegant, evocative haiku—Hudspeth takes his readers on a journey across the inner landscape of struggle, triumph, self-realization, and imagination.

Made of Air by Naomi Thiers for review.

The poems in Made of Air argue for a deeper, more woman-centric definition of courage, a courage borne of the long haul. There are poems on the deaths of loved ones and mothering a teenager. One remarkable sonnet relates how a mother makes a U-turn off a ramp just before a bridge collapses in an earthquake. These poems celebrate the lives of women and girls and commemorate the daily ways they navigate through potential disaster—and come through dancing.

Kim Roberts, editor of By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital and author of five poetry collections, including The Scientific Method

Naomi Thiers shows women and girls who hold things together. From the “cliff-high condo where we eat” to those sheltering in “a concrete pocket of unremarkable hidden things,” her characters emerge, vulnerable as a flame in a dry season. Like Thiers’ previous collections, her new work transfigures ordinary, “silenced people,” as Tillie Olsen called them, “consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life.” Can we bear to look at who we are now? Thiers’ poetry says yes—and we must, to help each other hold together.

Rose Marie Berger, Senior Editor, Sojourners magazine and author of Bending the Arch: Poems

Naomi Thiers’ Made of Air is a story of courage—or, more to the point, many such stories. It is a chronicle of endurance: the “ordinary women” in the book’s first section endure homelessness, illness, abuse, the murder of their children, and in doing so, become extraordinary. Thiers’ compassion and insight shine through in language that is vivid and luminous. The ending of her poem “Old People Waking” sums up the theme of the entire book: “And if everything hurts, it means / the current is flowing; we hiss inside: / Live. Live.

Miles David Moore, author of The Bears of Paris and founder of the IOTA Poetry Series

Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett, which I purchased.

In this follow-up to his earlier chapbook, Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father (FLP, 2015), Luther Jett confronts the ephemeral nature of our lives, the process of grief, and the endurance of memory. Jett draws upon recollections of family, as well as historical events and forces to weave a tapestry of image and reflection. Loss “… comes with the ticking of clocks …” the author reminds us in his title poem, “… and that is why the ocean tastes of tears.” Jett writes of ghostly grandfather clocks that walk in the night, of forgotten toys scattered in an unmown lawn, of the importance and the hidden dangers of holding on to memory. “What can I sing to tell your feast?” Jett asks in the poem “Seamus”, adding in his later poem, “One by One”, “I chant the names of things long after they have gone.”

Maryland’s Poet Laureate, Grace Cavalieri says of Jett’s work: “[N]ever have the dead been more alive …. Subtle and intelligent stories, realized through the power of Jett’s voice, make life appear on every page.” In this time of world-wide pandemic and upheaval, “Everyone Disappears” may take on additional resonance as we grope for understanding in the face of tragedy and uncertainty.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama, which I received as a gift.

In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office.

Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorizes Operation Neptune’s Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden.

A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective—the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of “hope and change,” and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.

This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama’s conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.

What did you receive?

Mailbox Monday #608

It now has it’s own blog where book bloggers can link up their own mailbox posts and share which books they bought or which they received for review from publishers, authors, and more.

Leslie, Martha, and I also will share our picks from everyone’s links in the new feature Books that Caught Our Eye. We hope you’ll join us.

Here’s what we received:

Man on Terrace with Wine by Miles David Moore.

Miles Moore’s poems sing and think at the same time. Theme, vision, and form coalesce into fluid work never far from humor, always seeking the truth. Man on Terrace with Wine teaches us how to survive in this trying world. It is a magnificent collection.

Pablo Medina, author of The Cuban Comedy

Miles David Moore is back with his best book of poetry yet. Man on Terrace with Wine is a dark but always hopeful carnival that juggles both sonnet and emoticon with the ease of a poet who has been at it for a long time. This is life in the center ring, with all the tenderness and sting that comes along with it, from Godzilla in 3D to a lonely ride on an intercity bus, from Elvis in heaven to Hitler in hell. You may not know whether to laugh or cry, but that’s precisely the point. Miles Moore is a master, and Man on Terrace will stay with you long after the show is over.

James C. Hopkins, author of Ex-Violinist in Kathmandu

Miles David Moore is one of the hardest-working poets I know. Each of his poems is carefully crafted with a keen eye on a lucidity of language enriched with a deep diversity of emotions ranging from the commonplace to haunting, deeply personal recollections of times past. These poems read like a map of a tireless soul’s celebration of moments, places, and people we clearly recognize in our own lives. I recommend Man on Terrace with Wine without reservation.

Steven B. Rogers, Ph.D., historian, and editor of A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines

Raising King by Joseph Ross.

Poetry. RAISING KING urges readers to walk beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Montgomery to Memphis, past police dogs, mobs, and fire hoses. Listen to his thoughts, hopes, and fears. You’ll also hear from heroes including Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and Coretta Scott King.-Joseph Ross

In his beautiful collection of poems evoking the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, Joseph Ross offers his readers hope and inspiration for our own difficult times. These poems call us to revive our courage, moral convictions, and belief in the ultimate redemption of humanity.-Susannah Heschel

What did you receive?