Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
Like a lot of people, books and movies helped me navigate the discouraging events of 2020. I’ve posted lists of my favorite 2020 movies at my Letterboxd account, but this seems like a good place to cover my ten favorites among the outstanding books I read this year, regardless of when the books were published. The list is in alphabetical order by author’s last name.
The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura Fuentes
The Man Who Loved Dogs is an extraordinary historical novel about the final years of the life of Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramon Mercader. The book explores big themes and intensely personal conflicts from Russia to Spain and from Mexico to Cuba. If the grand sweep of history leans toward tragic endings, we should at least find what comfort we can amongst friends and family.
The Comedians by Graham Greene
My Graham Greene experience is limited, having only read The Quiet American prior to this. (I tried reading Our Man in Havana a few years back but couldn’t connect with it.) The Comedians, as you might guess, is not a comedy. The novel has considerable action and personal drama but never loses its deliberate pacing.
Sleepwalking Through History: American in the Reagan Years by Haynes Johnson
While much of the rest of the world takes Covid-19 seriously, in the U.S. we’re bogged down in an absurd debate over whether a virus that has caused over 1.7 million deaths worldwide (as of December 28, 2020) is even real. The trifecta of religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, and Wall Street robber barons currently ruining our country didn’t rise up over night. America’s problems with “alternative facts” have been brewing for decades, and journalist Haynes Johnson‘s 1991 book rightfully identifies the Reagan era as the beginning of the end.
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord
I first encountered A Giacometti Portrait via the outstanding film adaptation Final Portrait (2017), directed by Stanley Tucci. This is one of those rare occasions when the book and film compliment each other perfectly. Alberto Giacometti‘s extraordinary humility makes him both a sympathetic and tragic figure, yet he never seems to lose his sense of humor. A brilliant insight into the creative process.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
Like A Giacometti Portrait, I first learned about Night Train to Lisbon because of the 2013 film adaptation directed by Bille August. The movie has become one of my favorites, though it does stray from the novel considerably. Pascal Mercier‘s poetic novel is darker than the film but no less powerful. Our protagonist essentially runs away from home to live a life of relative adventure. Or does he?
Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Moss
By the time I made my first trip to New York City in 2005, the city had already undergone considerable gentrification. Jeremiah Moss, creator of the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, does a masterful job of laying out the contemporary history of the city’s development and demonstrates that gentrification is neither accidental nor inevitable, but the result of deliberate decisions by politicians, property owners, and corporations.
The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine Volume Two by Lewis Mumford
If Haynes Johnson showed us history from a perspective of decades, Lewis Mumford gives us the view across many millenia. He also demonstrates, as Johnson and Moss did, that the trends of civilization are both more deliberate and less civilized than we like to believe. Technics and Human Development, Volume One of The Myth of the Machine, described the history of exploration and scientific development. In The Pentagon of Power, Mumford describes the five essential aspects of the military-industrial complex and demonstrates that contemporary power structures are not that different than the early pyramid builders. If Mumford were alive today, I imagine he would be making the same argument about Jeff Bezos and similarly-minded “pyramid-builders” of our own time.
The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith
I loved Dominic Smith‘s previous novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. The subject of The Electric Hotel – the early days of the silent film era – sounded perfect for a film buff like me. A poignant trip through the history of an industry and affairs of the heart, the end only made me sad because I would gladly have spent more time with these characters.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit
I’ve always loved walking, especially as a means to explore cities. I could never verbalize my appreciation for walking – which is exercise, transit, contemplation, all in one – nearly as eloquently as Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust combines Solnit’s personal experience with, as the subtitle indicates, a history of walking, which is far more interesting than one might imagine. Walking itself isn’t always the point as much as how different societies have regarding walking at different points in time.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
I first learned about Women Talking when Miriam Toews was a guest on the Between the Covers podcast. It was a fascinating conversation. By coincidence, I read Women Talking during the days just before, during, and after the U.S. 2020 presidential election. A heartbreaking tale, yet more uplifting than I could have hoped, it was just the ticket to help navigate that stressful time.
As noted last year, this technically makes my list a top 15, but who’s counting… : A Fire Story by Brian Fies; Octopussy: The Last Great Adventures of James Bond 007 by Ian Fleming; In the Distance With You by Carla GuelfenBein; The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz Saved the City of Light by Jean Edward Smith; The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez.
Have a safe and creative 2021!