2020 Books in Review


So, I lowered my standards in 2020 and set my Goodreads reading goal at 45 instead of 50. I read 46 books, though one isn’t listed on Goodreads and therefore my list only shows 45. Eh. Whatevs. As usual, this list won’t include rereads, like The Grapes of Wrath or The Chronicles of Narnia (by the way, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe three times). So, without further ado, here are the highlights and disappointments of my 2020 reading list.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon was one of my favorites. I’ll admit to being a sucker for a good travelogue, and this may well be the best one I’ve read. With his relationship in ruins and his job in question, the author sets off to explore the blue highways on the U.S. roadmap. He meets some extraordinary people along the way and learns a lot about himself. His philosophizing is never egregious despite multiple opportunities where he could have ranted. Yes, I would rate this about Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

Jaws by Peter Benchley was probably the biggest disappointment of the year. After years of watching the movie, I expected greatness, but this is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book. The characters — all of them — are immensely unlikeable, and there’s a subplot with the mafia and the ending is pretty anticlimactic despite a nice allusion to Moby-Dick.

Black Gun, Silver Star by Art T. Burton was another disappointment. My love of Western fiction continued, but I wanted to mix in some real Old West reading, so I looked up this book about Bass Reeves, the most badass marshal in Oklahoma history. Taking nothing away from Marshal Reeves, the book mostly avoided the mythos of the man and focused on documented court cases and newspaper clippings. There were a lot of facts, but I didn’t learn much truth about the man.

One newer author I can’t get enough of is Phaedra Patrick. I read The Secrets of Love Story Bridge the week it was released and loved it, as I did her previous books. I’m sure my love of Patrick’s books have a lot to do with where I am in my own life, but her characters are very real, her plots compelling, and the endings are happy, even if sometimes bittersweet. This was a good, happy, feel-good story.

I had avoided Rick Bragg since my college days because a professor I came to hate was such a fan of All Over but the Shoutin’, which I loved. But when Audible offered his The Most They Ever Had for free, I snagged it and loved it. Bragg’s story about a textile mill in the south and the people who relied on it despite the fact it was killing them was fascinating (and the narrator was excellent).

The Most They Ever Had made me look at Bragg’s over titles and I was surprised to see he’d written a biography of the best boogie woogie piano player ever, so I dove into Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. I loved it. It was one of my 2020 favorites, but you have to keep in mind this is Jerry Lee’s story. Bragg doesn’t go out looking for corroborating or contrary evidence. He tells the story the way Jerry Lee told it to him and pretty much the only contradictions are Bragg’s own description of the things he sees during the long process of collecting the story. If you’re interested in the roots of rock, this is a must-read.

Springfield Confidential by Mike Reiss was a huge disappointment. This book is mainly about the creation of The Simpsons TV show. I guess Reiss is better at writing jokes for cartoon characters. I could see his punchlines coming and they just weren’t funny. There were a few interesting stories about certain episodes and guest stars, but overall, I just wasn’t impressed. But hey, he’s a millionaire and I’m not, so …

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Stories from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty was one of the more unusual reads for me. I remember after the first chapter thinking it wasn’t what I expected, but I can’t remember now what I did expect. It turned out to be a really interesting book that made me think a lot about how we treat death in Western culture.

There were a lot of Western novels by Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, and others. Some were good, but most were just what they were … escapism fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that. None of them really stood out and as I flip from this screen to Goodreads, I can barely remember which plot went with which title.

The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe is something I should have read years ago. I knew the story, but from summaries I picked up elsewhere. This is a children’s book, written in verse and featuring pictures, but the concept is for anyone of any age who has an open mind. The theme of the book has been a cornerstone of my beliefs for a long time.

The last book I’ll go into here is Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. I would not normally go for a book by a modern preacher, but this was sent to me by a friend after we had a discussion of my upbringing and what I was told about Hell. She marked the pages she thought most relevant to that discussion, but I read the whole book and my biggest takeaway was not the part about how Gehenna was the burning garbage dump of Jerusalem, but that you take truth where you find it, and often that isn’t in a book of sacred text. The author found truth in one of those gaudy paintings of Elvis done on black velvet, among other places. This is something I have always believed but never articulated. The truth is out there, in our novels, our music, in the stillness of snow, the sunrise over the forest, the laughter of babies, and the tears at a funeral. We just have to know it when we see it.

I’ve set my goal back to 50 books for 2021. Let’s read!

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