20 of ’20: #3. My Favorite Books

This is my second annual “Best Of” series of year-end posts. Some, I assume, will be brief. Some longer. All, varying degrees of serious. I’ll try my best not to use the words or phrases “unprecedented,” “new normal,” or “unpresidented”, but I can’t make any promises.

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I set a goal to read 52 books this year, one a week. I’ve read 21, which is 16 more than I read in 2019, so aim for the stars and you’ll reach the moon, and all that jazz. I didn’t finish a single book I didn’t like. (Unlike the occasional television show or movie, I’ll never “push through” past 50 pages of a book if I’m not feeling it.) They all met me where I needed to be met. Here are the top ten. The only rules are that I had to have read it in 2020, not that it was new in 2020, and I only included one book per author…

#10. Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid

I purchased the English translation of this Estonian novel on my way back home in early January, and read almost all of it in the Helsinki airport on an overnight layover. It paints a picture of Soviet life in Tartu in the 1950’s and 60’s, which is marked less by the violence and persecution of the postwar years, than by a dark, shadowy sense of adult dread. I loved it most, though, because of the specificity of place. With every turn down every street, my ears would perk up at the thought of knowing a place so beautiful and mysterious.

#9. Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond took a deep journalistic dive into the housing crisis in our country that was revealed during the “great recession” from a decade ago. Planting himself into several neighborhoods around Milwaukee, he wrote of economic injustice faced by both poor whites and poor people of color, and how the forces of the system work to keep people landless and continually digging their way out of debt and despair. It is as prescient now as when it was first researched and written several years ago.

#8. Calypso by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is the Mark Twain of our generation. Send tweet.

#7. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

There are people toiling away at thankless jobs in dreary, nondescript federal buildings all across this country. The work they do produces discoveries, tools, and plans for keeping us alive, and our communities safe and healthy. Their presence helps save billions of dollars every year, but they are often accused of being “government waste” or “fat.” Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, researched several federal departments and shows how necessary a coordinated government system is for occurrences such as storms, compromised energy grids, and even pandemics. After reading this, I celebrated the “Deep State.”

#6. Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump

By the end of this book I was able to extend more grace to Donald Trump. Don’t get me wrong– I still believe he needs to be held accountable for the wreckage he’s both revealed and unleashed on the country and the world. But reading this intriguing book by his niece, which never feels vindictive or vitriolic, as I expected it might, I was able to see what Mary Trump sees– A man who is incapable of being anything other than what he is.

#5. One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle

This summer an old friend who I haven’t heard from in years messaged me with this recommendation. Each short essay is like a wardrobe that leads to Narnia– What seems to be so spare and small contains aisles upon aisles of bread for the soul.

#4. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

It’s taken me, a white person, far too long to seek to understand just how different it is to walk through this world than it is for a person of color. When I do seek to understand, I often seek the “comfortable” voices, the ones who will go easy on me. I tried this year to listen to and to embrace those voices that refuse to let me off the hook, that refuse to allow me to raise my fingers with a patronizing “Yeah, but.” Austin Channing Brown uses this arresting memoir to teach us that the “systems” we have heard so much about in previous years aren’t broken. They are working exactly as they were intended to work, which is to say, for white people.

#3. Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey

I have an arms-length relationship with the supernatural aspects of God. I respect it, but from a distance. I’ve rarely met a Christian who regularly experiences and sees the miraculous who feels safe to me. Which is to say, who respects my skepticism and doesn’t believe it casts aspersion on my faith. Sarah Bessey feels different. She’s knee deep in it, but isn’t pushing it as her agenda. This is one of the most beautifully written Christian books I’ve read in a long time. It lacks both certainty and cynicism, which is rare.

#2. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity with Racism by Jemar Tisby

Like #4, Jemar Tisby refuses to let us “good white people” off the hook. White Christians have never been bystanders in either the physical subjugation of black people or in the systems that sill conspire to leave them out of the bounties of this country. This book tells the story of how White Churches have benefitted from the status quo, but also offers bold and promising ways out of the desert and into a world that is just and equitable. He doesn’t let us off the hook, but he doesn’t leave us hopeless either. This should be required reading for white pastors.

#1. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This was a difficult choice at #1. Not because I had any doubt that Jesmyn Ward would be at #1, but because I had a hard time picking which of her three books that I read was most deserving. In all honesty, this slot could also go to her novel Sing, Unburied Sing, or to her memoir Men We Reaped. I could say so much about each book, but I’ll limit it to just one thing: In our political and social discourse, we often conflate the terms “rural” with “white.” Ward’s writings tell the story of rural blacks, and of black people in cities whose roots are in the country. It’s an untold and unmined subject. I had never heard of her before 2020. She’s now in my pantheon of great, contemporary writers.

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