Books I read in 2020

  1. Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. I loved the first six chapters, which provided a detailed construction of the life of Ghengis Khan as far as the author can tell. After that, the book talks about the fall of the Mongol empire, namely due to the fact that the self-made Khan never took the time to teach anything to his sons and grandsons, so they inevitably squandered and lost it all. Most of all I appreciate a different perspective of East Asian history, and a better insertion of the role that region played in the world. The author is clearly a huge fan of the Khan and takes every opportunity to explain motives for his actions, and also the positive outcomes of Mongol culture that European schools do not teach.
  2. The Andromeda Evolution by Daniel H. Wilson. This sci-fi sequel to Michael Crighton’s blockbuster kept me gripped all the way through. I had never read The Andromeda Strain, but Wilson introduces all he needs to. Let me rave about Wilson’s exceptionally excellent writing. Despite talking about concepts I had barely heard of, he never lost me technically, and never lost my hunger for the story, and never distracted me with some aspect of his style. He tells of a world 50 years after the first book when by an almost predictable human accident, the Andromeda Strain comes back to Earth, and this time mutated in new ways. It is up to a small team of scientists to find out what’s going on and to save the planet. They plunge into the depths of the Brazilian rainforest and are confronted with isolated indigenous tribes. As a Cherokee, and knowing Wilson is a Cherokee, I was particularly pleased with his handling of indigenous peoples, and glad he took the opportunity to portray them as modern people with modern intelligence.
  3. The Christmas Pact by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward. I read this one because I was in the mood for a light, silly love story, and this one delivered. It was a little predictable, but the plot directions were never wrong – I was ready and (maybe due to my mindset) sometimes happily surprised with the next twist. Riley Kennedy and Kennedy Riley work for the same company and every so often their emails get sent to the wrong person. These two people who behave superficially actually have some depth and after being forced to spend time together on their best behavior over the Christmas holiday, they end up seeing each other in new ways.
  4. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I saw the author interviewed a couple of times and became curious about this book. After reading it I’ll say yes, it is all that. Coates uses a couple of strategies to make it easier to be a light-skinned American and read about enslaved people. He calls them people who are tasked, for one thing, and never calls out something directly, but explains it from the perspective you need to be standing in to finally see it. His strategies allowed me to sink deeply into the environment. Each character is nuanced, and there is no way to lump people into clear sides, because each human in this book has their own monumental history and desire. Nobody is a caricature. Hiram escapes the task and joins the underground machine and finds his calling. I hesitate to say Coates uses the “device” of magic, because it so perfectly fits into the story and makes sense for the main character who uses it. Hiram’s ability to find and use that power is tied to his ability to open up his heart and see and understand the hardest truths of his life. The reader can go there with him, slowly, angrily, confusedly, forgivingly, lovingly.
  5. There There by Tommy Orange. As a Cherokee, this one hit me hard. I didn’t grow up in the Nation; My skin is not brown (until the sun bakes it); My dad did not pass any Indian knowledge to me even though his mother was so proud to be Cherokee; for most of my life I knew no stories, no language, no traditions. So am I really an Indian? Yeah, says Orange. The problem is that I’m stuck with the current outdated understanding of Indians as this mythical Earth-people who used to roam the continent, which is not the reality. In his book, all his characters are Indians and they are all modern and living in cities – primarily Oakland, CA. News flash: we’re still here. It’s written raw with the language and fractured families and unconventional families and obstacles and hope and passion and grief with which I am intimately familiar. I felt like it was my family in some way on every page and each chapter was nearly a blow to the chest. I had to read it in bursts, allowing myself to process in between. It’s one of the most healing books I’ve ever read. I’m not saying it will be for you. I just needed to see myself somewhere, and in this book I did, and it was intense.
  6. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess. Not really, but jeezums crow I needed a break after the last two books.
  7. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. Trying to adjust to life in rural Kentucky, newlywed Alice is glad to leave her oppressed life in England. But it turns out her new life is equally as restrictive, though in different ways. Friendless and a little desperate, she volunteers for a new lending library that requires book delivery by mule and pony, since most citizens aren’t near good roads, and none of the roads are passable in winter anyway. Five women join the library, each for their own reasons, and each an outcast in some way. Obviously they bond to each other while raising the literacy in the county. It’s an interesting story based on a real life program promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt.
  8. Ready Player One and Shantaram again, because I needed some fun and inspiration. Shantaram remains my FAVOURITE book. If you haven’t read it, you must. At the beginning of the pandemic I had queued up The Stand to read it again for fun. But now that we’re deeper into the situation my heart isn’t light enough to read The Stand. Instead I turned to The Stormlight Archives again. Apparently, re-reading favourites is what I want to do right now. I read the Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Then another black man was killed by police and I felt irresponsible reading stuff for enjoyment. I began immersing myself in news and articles and videos, aiming for better education and awareness. I also found a fabulous podcast. Having my true privilege revealed to me requires more self care. I’m going to mix it up: reality and fiction, for a while.
  9. In Search of Black History with Bonnie Greer. This is an eight part audible series, like a podcast. A great walk through history that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn because the black parts of the story were erased over and over. It begins in archaeology and excavations, and moves through time, to Greek philosophers and then the Renaissance intellectuals and artists, and to Kings and Queens and enslavement and revolts, and on up to the present day. Thus I heard about black people in stories that have never held black people for me before. Like the book of Genghis Khan I read at the beginning of the year, Greer’s work fills in blanks and helps me understand REAL history that has not been shushed by colonization. It’s a proud work, often joyful, often sad, and packed with experts who are eager to teach.
  10. Sea Wall/ A Life by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne. Performances of two one-act plays by extraordinary actors. I assume these work best performed, rather than read. Each is a monologue by a young man who tells a story. Both devastating.
  11. Edgedancer by Brandon Sanderson. A novella that Sanderson recommends reading in the first pages of the third book of the Stormlight series. This follows Lift, a character we were introduced to in Words of Radiance. I’m glad to see a follow up of one of these side characters and find out more of what’s going on in that world. Sanderson’s Archives are generously fleshed out with multiple story lines and periodically there are chapters with characters never seen again and I assumed with confidence that those disconnected stories are there intentionally. Lift is often annoying, as a 12-year-old might be, but usually tolerable and I liked having a child character to follow. Her spren is Wyndle, a mature scholarly character who finds himself shocked, if not often horrified, by Lift’s actions. We learn more about Darkness, and I followed with deep interest the journey of Szeth as he came to terms with his wretched reality.
  12. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. Ok, so Edgedancer aside, I got back to this realm that I had been missing. Everyone’s been living in Urithiru since Shallan Devar found the oathgate. When the Parshendi summoned the Everstorm, it woke the Parshmen, and their plight reminded me of that of enslaved black people, and their descendants in the U.S. The Parshmen begin mobilizing and overtake a city as their own. Kaladin allows himself to be captured and joins a group of traveling Parshmen and that opens more of their story to the reader. Kaladin agonizes over his insecurities and Sylphrena almost gets lost again. Belatedly, we get a lot of back story in this one, with Dalinar’s flashbacks. And as the magic of the oracle wears off, Dalinar remembers how much death and destruction he caused in the past. The king, Elhokar, starts to grow into his title and decides to go home to Althekar to figure out what’s going on with his queen and his son because communication has ceased. They quickly find out there’s another unmade there, and take a few days to make a plan. Shallan lies and lies in layers that seem about to tear her apart. It super annoys me that Jasnah Kholin is living – it just doesn’t make any sense and is not helpful. A group of them spend a really long, weird time in Shadesmar. Shallan finds and defeats some crazy demons that don’t make any sense. This story was… less than satisfying. sooooo long and so many stories and twists and just so many details it was hard to get passionate about anything. The writing is outstanding. The characters are great (so many characters), but I’m a mortal.
  13. How to Defeat a Demon King In Ten Easy Steps by Andrew Rowe. I got a kick out of this one. Written for maybe a YA audience, it was about young people and the story was pretty much like being inside a video game. It was fun, funny, and held some surprizes.
  14. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition by Stephen King. This version makes more sense to me than earlier reads of the story. I guess I needed those extra 500 pages to get total buy in. I’ve loved this story for years, even loved the made-for-TV show. From the beginning of the pandemic I wanted to read it, but thought it might be too real, so put it off. That was a good call. The early chapters of the book that talk about the virus and how it spreads and the symptoms it causes, and obviously the government cover up…oh boy those all hit really close to home. King’s storytelling makes things real anyway, but reading about a pandemic IN a pandemic amplified his talents. I was deliciously frightened. I do love this story, all the character development, the way each person plays such a great role leading to the conclusion. I love how each person is so believable, and their motivations seem obvious. And in the end, it’s a really hopeful, uplifting story while reminding us that the terror only fades while it’s preparing it’s next assault.
  15. Andrea Vernon and the Corporation for Ultrahuman Protection by Alexander C. Kane. It starts off fantastically, with two separate CUP agents break into Andrea Vernon’s room, one by lazer-blasting a hole in the wall, the other by opening the door. “I should have tried the door,” says the first. They kidnap her into employment, and she has no choice but to replace the last secretary, who was killed in the line of duty. She worked for CUP, one of multiple agencies that manage superheroes to save people and property in their legally defined and contractually obligated areas of responsibility. Andrea is ok with forced employment because she’s newly unemployed and had to move back in with her parents who are none to pleased. It was about this time I realized I was reading a comic book. I approved, and then sat back and enjoyed the ride.
  16. The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow. I read reviews of this prior to buying, and many of them stated how awful the content of this book is. It was described as next level childhood abuse and trauma, which made me not want to read it. But other reviews said it was beautifully done. The people who liked the book compelled me, and the author talked about his Cherokee father, and I’m Cherokee and want more of the Cherokee experience, wherever it comes from. I’m glad I read it. I could hardly stop reading it, and stayed up waaaay too late at night, unable to turn it off, which is something I rarely do anymore. No, I am not a voyeur who wants to witness this awful stuff. Instead, the book spoke to me. And while I can never know what it would be like to grow up with that kind of abuse, horror and desperation, I was familiar with a lot of the relationships. I was reminded of my own narcissistic, angry father over and over. My father who was threatened by any of my successes, so when I did something good, he was quick to knock me down with verbal and emotional abuse. My father pounded on his first three wives and I was always terrified that I would be next – but I wasn’t. I was reminded of my helpless mother challenged with undiagnosed mental health illness who couldn’t protect me and instead was angry at me, her oldest, for not making her life better. So many similarities it was chilling. I cannot fathom how (or why) the author maintained a relationship with his parents to their dying days. The one Big Lie revealed late in the book surprised me as much as the author at the time. But yeah, it was consistent with every other lie those poor kids grew up with.
  17. Life Ever After by Carla Grauls. Interesting Sci-Fi short story. Set in the future, in a world easy to imagine, where all of humanity is organized around increasing productivity (hello VA). Technological advances have allowed neurological enhancements to get a steady stream of endorphins, and any unproductive recollections erased, so that with each new expensive upgrade, people can wipe out the pesky memories and get even more accomplished. The two protagonists have their own reasons for upgrading. They seem different, but connect on a foundational level. We follow their lives, their love, and their final decision about their own upgrades.
  18. The Space Race by Colin Brake, Patrick Chapman, Richard Hollingham, Richard Kurti, Sue Nelson, Helen Quigley, and Andrew Mark Sewell. Narrated by Kate Mulgrew. It begins without telling you that you are listening to a fantasy reenactment of a possible future in space, as inspired by the Space Race of the past. Maybe? No explanation. Then we are plopped into a documentary with interviews and some archive audio from the origins of the U.S. space program which is interesting (and to be honest, what I was expecting from this book), then some gushing praise of modern inventions championed by Elon Musk for example, then more 1960s audio clips, then some more future sci-fi acting without any warning. I was so confused. I only got through a few chapters and gave up.
  19. History of Bourbon by Ken Albala, The Great Courses. Regardless of my drinking preferences, I think I would have liked this one. It was an added bonus to sip some while listening. Albala talks fast but clearly, and is obviously excited about his topic. The lectures come to you in ten parts, divided by themes, and take you from the predecessors of American bourbon, namely the origins of beer and wine, right on up to the craft distilleries of today. I learned why and how whiskey was so cheap at one point in U.S. history that it was considered a drink of the commoner, and men, women, and children drank it all day long. I learned when it was first called bourbon and what makes a whiskey a bourbon. Lots of fun but so much information I’ll have to go through it again.
  20. {in progress} How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. Along with reading books by Black authors, I’m also trying to continue to actively educate myself about my white privilege. This book hit best sellers lists like !blam! after the murder of George Floyd, and I bought it at that time. I began reading it right after I finished The Stand. It is really hard for me to get through. Worst of all, I believe, is Kendi’s reading voice – the author is also the narrator. Now I’ve seen him on talk shows and his speaking voice is great. His narration has a cadence like a preacher that reminds me of bad poetry readers, who focus on the rhythm and forget the words. He drones on and on and I can go into a trance for 20 minutes and realize I didn’t hear a word he said. So, I took a break and started reading Andrea Vernon, and when I finished it I went back to Anti-Racism. And I just couldn’t bear it for long, and read Pale-Faced Lie. Etcetera. I’m still not done with this thing. It is grueling. Repetitive, so repetitive. Seriously, if you love a Baptist preacher, you will love Kendi’s work. The content is also disappointing. I think all of it is important, and definitely relevant. But dude, it could have been said in 1/3 the words. And Kendi’s perspective of his journey as he matured, did allow me some perspective that will make me a better person. It’s good to know how much all of us are racists, and to know it’s corrected by vigilance. It’s good to have his definitions of terms, so that I can start thinking about those terms. Am I allowed to not like this book? My god it is tedious, but I aim to finish it someday.
  21. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Performed by Laurence Fishburne. This newly released audiobook is of the original book written in 1965. Fishburne is outstanding and makes the personality of Malcolm X come alive for me. This book is wonderful! It is packed with well-written stories of the life of Malcolm X from his childhood through later in life, and I am locked in to every chapter. Now this one I wish I had read in middle school. All the lessons that Ibram X. Kendi painstakingly chants over and over at me in arduous attempts at education, are revealed by Malcolm X in a series of stories, seemingly effortlessly told. Without realizing I have just been taught, the light bulb keeps coming on in my head, each time I grasp a single point that I had not been grasping in the book I read previously, like: “Aha, black people perpetuate racist ideas that whites invent, and reinforce whites’ inclination to believe them. So THAT’s what Kendi was trying to say.” The first part of the book explains the journey of his life from poverty and a very large family, and tragically the killing of both of his parents, and his life in multiple foster homes. He manages to get to the city with the help of an older sister and falls in love with the action, the night life, the dancing, the Zoot suits, and starts running multiple scams, bigger and bigger, to keep bringing in the amount of money he requires. He eventually gets caught. In prison he hears about Islam from his brothers, and after he gets out, he converts. Malcolm X buys the story of Elijah Muhammed, the supposed Messenger of Islam, living in Chicago. He becomes devout, and a right hand man of The Messenger, traveling and starting churches and then preaching. Malcolm X’s proselytizing is annoying, especially at the beginning where he says in a hundred ways “The White Man is the Devil,” which I find unhelpful. After traveling to the Hajj, he is educated that the “real” black Muslims don’t hate all white people, so Malcolm X decides he doesn’t have to either, he can just hate racism. In any case, I’m now an admirer of the man and I think his contributions to America’s discussion of race is undeniable. He made my point for me (about why I am atheist) when his world nearly crashed to smithereens when it turned out that Elijah was a bad man all along, and set him up to be killed. While I can’t fathom his dedication to his faith despite being an intelligent man, I wish every single child in America learned his story.
  22. The Man Upstairs and Other Stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Again, I pulled up something easy to digest from the queue. Wodehouse is an excellent go-to for nice tidy stories and not a few laughs.
  23. The Original by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal. My favourite thing about this story: one of the characters is neutral gender and is referred to as they/them, and one of the characters is a man who wears skirts and makeup sometimes. These details are not relevant to the story, and never commented upon as divergent. Bravo to the authors. This is a longish short story, at only 3 1/2 hours; only available in audio. It’s a scifi thriller set in the future on Earth, when people can pretty much live forever and 99% of the population is unemployed and survives on an Andrew Yang-like universal basic income and has free access to nanite technology at refreshing stations where they lie down as though giving blood, and get a recharge and overhaul of the body. Nobody gets old and no one is sick. All of this in exchange for total government control and surveillance. The main character Holly wakes up in a hospital bed, realizes she’s a government-created clone for the purpose of murdering a criminal. Called “the original,” it’s actually not very original, ha ha. It reminded me of Gemini Man, in that the government has cloned a woman as the best possible hitman to go kill the original version of herself. Hence the title: The Original. It reminded me of one half of Gone Girl – a mystery murder told of an intimate relationship from a single perspective. It’s sort of delicious, but not new. It reminded me of Minority Report in that the government was using its technology to address a murder, and also that it is possible for people to remove themselves from Big Brother. If they stop using their universal basic income and stop using the refreshing stations, the govt can no longer track them, but also…they have to figure out other ways to survive while they age. It reminded me of Sanderson’s Snapshot, where people occupy a fake, created version of the world. I did enjoy the completely new idea of “themes,” which are an individually-controlled kind of filter applied to your entire life. You can live in Gotham City, or in Toontown. Want to camp in a beautiful forest with a majestic waterfall and make love in a meadow with your husband in total solitude? There’s a filter for that: even though in reality the place is a giant open parking lot, packed with people who can’t see what you’re doing because their filters are also set for solitude. The novella is ok. I’m disappointed in Sanderson for this project because he’s capable of so much better, but who knows what’s going on behind the collaboration? Julia Whelan’s narration is outstanding.
  24. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. Recommend. The author’s powerful storytelling not only pulled me in to the lives of a Dominican family, but also provided me a lot of education about the Dominican Republic, and the diaspora, the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, and the terrible lives lived under his regime. The main character is Oscar, who is somehow loveable, even though he’s not attractive and is the most uncomfortably nerdy guy you’ve ever known. He’s fully aware of his extreme dorkiness, and yet cannot compel himself to stop even though it’s preventing him from having the only thing in life he’s ever wanted, aside from writing, and that is to be able to love a woman. I enjoyed all the references to Tolkien’s worlds, Dune, Star Trek, Dr. Who and more. Diaz does fully track through the complicated and traumatic life stories of the family Cabral, but not chronologically. This may have been to keep the pace of action, which stayed high, but it left me lost sometimes. The author leaves it up to you to decide if the family really did suffer under a curse, or if this is just the story of how complicated life actually is. The book is brilliant and beautiful and sad.
  25. Drown by Junot Díaz. A collection of short stories illuminating more of what life is like for Dominican-Americans. All revealing and educational for me, because they illuminate a world I’ve never known. Many of the stories were nonetheless relatable. The author has a good grasp on how to use a short story.