books of 2020

I’m sure I’ve written here before that I’ve long thought the new year should begin on the first day of spring, as has been done by the Persian culture for centuries. It’s a celestial event, measurable by everyone in every culture. It’s not arbitrary the way January 1 is. But January 1 is what we’re stuck with for the most part, so that’s what I’ll use for my beginning/end date.

This is the time of year when I see people’s lists of what they read in the last year. I’ve done that before, too, though not consistently. Sometimes I’ve listed all of the books I read in the past year. Other times I list only the highlights. Some years, nothing at all.* Well, this year I’m just going to touch on the books that I thought were worthy to me and leave out the stinkers and those that left little to no impression. And so, from the back pages of my journals where I keep my list of books read, here we go:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout – I loved the characterization of Olive Kitteridge, so when I learned a sequel was coming, I grabbed up the first copy I came across (which happened to be in a bookstore when I was traveling in Kentucky — remember traveling?). Godfrey, what a good book. The story continues, and Olive begins to see beyond herself.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jumpha Lahiri – I read this because I had read her novel The Namesake and really enjoyed it. While I thought it was well done, and it gave me a glimpse into a different world view, I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Namesake.

Nat Tate by William Boyd – The biography of an utterly forgotten New York painter, which turned out to be a novel because the painter never existed. It was part of an elaborate hoax on the New York art set and people like Gore Vidal and David Bowie were in on.

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner – It took me two tries to finish this monster of a novel, purported to have the longest sentence in the English language (1,288 words!). Faulkner’s typical esoteric style was at its peak here.

Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – This is one of those quiet looks at the deceptively simple life of a woman over a long time. I came to it when the novel was more than 25 years old, and I regret having lost all of the time not having known it.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles – Another novel I regret not having taken up sooner. I had read a good deal of Fowles in my callow youth, so I was surprised that I had neglected this one, especially after I enjoyed it so much. (Metafiction, folks!)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – We’ve had this on our shelves pretty much since my daughter moved to Brooklyn more than a decade ago. With the pandemic, I was prowling the house, looking for things to read (so I didn’t have to go to the bookstore with the unwashed masses). I enjoyed it, and I suppose it can be taken at face value, and the Brooklyn she describes is long past. Notable: Smith did not adhere to the sad dictum that only the word “said” could be used as a dialog tag.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – I was given this book by the man who sold me the 80 acres where my Ozark cabin now lies. He even inscribed it to me. Westerns were never my thing, but again, I was taking up many novels I had left untouched around the house (or in this case, at the cabin), and was engrossed from the first page. (It helped that I’d just watched the miniseries.) I think McMurtry got a little tired of writing it near the end (my copy is 900+ pages).

Upstate by James Wood – He is better known for his literary criticism, but I saw this on the shelf (at one of my rare bookstore visits) and bought it. Not much happens plotwise, but the look into the character’s lives and the development of Thomas Nagel’s philosophy in the story captivated me. I intend to read this one again, and soon.

Passing by Nella Larsen – A forgotten novel in the huge literary sub-genre about the movement of light-skinned African Americans into white culture in the U.S. This was a gift from a friend. A worthy read.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – I mentioned this novel in a recent post. Her retelling of King Lear in the Iowa farmland left me cold, but it is well done and won the Pulitzer.

Because I am not haunting the used bookstores as much as in years past, I’ve also read a few books in the public domain I can find online. Two notable works I read last year were The Story of a Bad Boy by Matthew Bailey Aldrich, which is said to have influenced Twain when he wrote Tom Sawyer, and The Unpublishable Memoirs by A.S. Rosenbach. Not a memoir at all but a series of stories about rare book collectors and rare book thieves. A bit of fun. If you’re familiar with the Raffles stories, you might like this book.

There were other books I read last year, including a smattering of nonfiction, but many were just things I got through on my way to the next work to read.

*I’m trying to be less quantitative about many aspects of my life. I think over-measuring and comparing my performance was one of the reasons I lost my love of running. I’m cautious about tabulating my creative life too much as well.

Explore posts in the same categories: Rants and ruminations

2 Comments on “books of 2020”


  1. I agree that measuring so many things makes life seem laborious…and with creative things, it can definitely kill a love for things.

    I might jump in on the occasional “1000 words a day for a week” writing challenge, but only if I’m at a point in what I’m doing that it isn’t forcing anything. And if I don’t hit the numbers, it’s not the end of the world.

    I hope to do more with my fiction podcast this year, and in looking at things I might want to do, I see how so many people complicate what should be an enjoyable thing. And it’s no surprise those people often bail on projects when they don’t reach targets.

    (I cannot imagine writing a novel–or a cycle of novels–I want to write more than anything and quit because it things didn’t perform as planned. If something more happens with what you write, that’s great…but to quantify it before sitting down seems strange to me. But then…I’ve been working on weird tasks at work because a massively planned project fell apart because numbers weren’t properly hit. And…in the months of new planning–despite promises the new plan would work–the same people are just making up numbers for people to hit that are based on no realities most of us experience.)

    And perhaps that’s my big issue with trying to measure everything: aside from the time involved in tracking every little thing (that could go toward the thing you’re doing), targets are often random.

    I could say I want to quadruple listeners for my fiction podcast, and even develop steps to get there, but…it would just be a number. Worse: it would attach a sense of potential built-in failure to a thing I enjoy doing when I’m able to do it.

    I know a couple writers who are always coming up with new projects and hoping to get people interested in them. But…the pattern they’ve established is never finishing things because they put those targets before just doing a thing they tell people they love. If they start into a novel or series that doesn’t reach numbers they made up, they stop everything, go away, and later come back fired up for the next thing they are supposedly all about.

    But at a point, people know, “Why would I invest any of my time in a thing I know you’re likely to never complete…again.”

    At least if they just did the things they claim to love, the fans they do have would appreciate their efforts.


  2. […] Also, this entry was inspired by the last paragraph of this Paul Lamb blog entry… […]


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