It was a good year to read a book: Steve Pfarrer’s favorite reads of 2020

Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2020

I jumped on that “Best of” bandwagon a few years ago when I started compiling my 10 favorite books of the year. But in 2020, the list has grown: With the pandemic shutting down many other entertainment options, I ended up reading more than usual.

And with regional libraries — my primary source of new books — shuttered a good chunk of the year, I also turned to my own collection to investigate titles I’d never gotten to. So this list, which is in no particular order, includes books from 2020, a few from more recent years, and others from a good bit further back.

Yellow Earth by John Sayles — Before I knew Sayles was a filmmaker, I read his first two novels, “Pride of the Bimbos” and “Union Dues,” from the mid/late 1970s, and thought they were great; “Union Dues” was a National Book Award finalist. The dialogue in both novels was vivid, funny, and sometimes painful, and in retrospect I could see how Sayles was already framing scenes like a screenwriter.

He brings all that and more to his newest novel, “Yellow Earth,” a complex portrait of an oil-boom town in North Dakota that could be a stand-in for Williston, ND. Money, drugs and endless lines of tanker trucks collide with small-town dynamics, and a host of characters fill the scenes: energy barons and scammers, Native Americans, roughnecks and strippers, an awkward wildlife biologist, underemployed locals. The dialogue crackles and various mini-plots — some tragic, some droll — play out just as they do in the best of Sayles’ films.

Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino — One of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read, “Wilmington’s Lie” details a planned attack launched by White supremacists in November 1898 against African Americans in Wilmington, North Carolina. Whites were incensed that Blacks held positions in local government, and armed militia members descended on the city to prevent them from voting — then turned their rifles on Blacks, killing at least 60 and driving hundreds of others from the city forever.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — OK, this came out in 2009 but, much as I like historical fiction, I’d never gotten to it. It was worth the wait: “Wolf Hall,” about Thomas Cromwell’s rise from commoner to right-hand man of King Henry VIII in Tudor England, was as good as the critics had said. A vivid imagining of history, filled with sparkling writing; I liked it so much I quickly picked up and consumed “Bring Up the Bodies,” the second book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson — It’s been interesting to see narrative history writer Larson move from the more obscure topics of his earlier books to writing about well-trodden subjects like World War II. Here he offers an almost cinematic account of how Britain, facing possible invasion and a rain of Nazi bombs in 1940-41, rallied behind the leadership of Winston Churchill. Drawing on letters and diaries, Larson also offers a portrait of Churchill’s family and the eccentricities of the famous statesman himself, such as his habit of dictating memos to his secretaries while taking his daily bath.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng — I hadn’t heard of this novel, which came out in 2017, until seeing a trailer earlier this year for a Hulu TV series based on it. An engrossing read that’s part mystery, part character study, and part satire of suburbia. Ng also examines issues of class, motherhood, family bonds and the power of art, and she does it all in a compulsively readable way.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson — “Chinatown” has long been one of my favorite movies, and it featured what I think was Jack Nicholson’s finest performance. In “The Big Goodbye,” Sam Wasson gives us a great behind-the-scenes look at how the film was made and offers memorable portraits of its main architects: Nicholson, director Roman Polanski, screenwriter Robert Townes, and producer Robert Evans. The book also chronicles the end of an era in Hollywood when producers worked closely with actors, directors and screenwriters; corporations would soon be taking over the studios and choosing blockbusters over art.

There There by Tommy Orange — This 2018 novel had been on my radar for awhile. Orange’s searing narrative is built around 12 Native Americans living in and around Oakland, California and explores complicated issues of identity, including for younger Indians long cut off from tribal traditions. The tough-minded, vernacular prose moves the story along at a brisk clip: As the New York Times wrote, the novel “has so much jangling energy and brings so much news from a distinct corner of American life that it’s a revelation.”

Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Joseph McCarthy by Larry Tye — I interviewed Tye, who lives in eastern Massachusetts, for the Bulletin earlier this year. This compelling biography offers new details on the infamous U.S. senator from Wisconsin, as Tye got access to previously unseen personal papers from the McCarthy estate. Reading the book also made me want to learn more about that era, so I turned to ...

The Fifties by David Halberstam — Published in 1994, Halberstam’s broad social, political, and cultural history of the 1950s is a highly readable account of the era of suburban expansion, conformity and the Cold War, with profiles of people as diverse as McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower, Elvis Presley, Ray Kroc (who gave us McDonald’s), and Kemmons Wilson, who created the Holiday Inn chain.

Halberstam’s theme is that bubbling beneath the seemingly placid surface of the decade were developments, such as the invention of the birth control pill and the beginning of the civil rights movement, that would shake the 1960s to their core. Revisiting the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. then led me to ...

Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch — These two tomes, the first two books in Branch’s award-winning, three-part history of the civil rights movement, had been sitting in my home for years (they were published in 1988 and 1998, respectively). I don’t even remember how I acquired them — a book club, maybe? — but I’d always been intimidated by their combined 1,500 pages, not including the voluminous footnotes.

But in the pandemic, these books made for immersive reading, offering a sobering reminder of the scale of violence African Americans faced in the South as they tried to register to vote and end segregation. Branch dissects the complex politics of the era, showing, as one example, how John Kennedy kept King mostly at arms length throughout his presidency, ever fearful of losing white voters. Not exactly a profile in courage.

Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley — The author of “Thank You for Smoking” has written the best satire of the Trump years, which, given Donald Trump’s profound unfunniness, is a considerable accomplishment. The story is narrated by a former Trump chief of staff, Herb Nutterman, now in prison for his role in trying to cover up a scandal involving Trump’s adventures at a Miss Universe contest in Moscow. Herb had previously been an executive for the Trump organization before the president demanded he come work in the White House: “I need someone I can trust. I need my favorite Jew.”

Buckley has great fun skewering the last four years of insanity in Washington — and the people who made it crazy. There’s an especially servile Republican senator from South Carolina, for instance, named Squigg Lee Biskitt, and a ferociously combative White House spokeswoman, Katie Borgia-O’Reilly, who the president fondly calls “my blond tarantula.” And let’s not forget the bellicose secretary of state who “looked like the progeny of Tony Soprano and Humpty-Dumpty.” A most entertaining read.

I’d also like to give a nod to four excellent reads by Valley-based writers I interviewed this year: Unrigged: How Americans are Battling back to Save Democracy by David Daley; You Again by Debra Jo Immergut; The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War by Michael Gorra; and Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime by Jennifer Taub.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.