In the next week, the “Best” lists will descend upon us. Best movies, music, books, tv shows, whatever. Every year, these lists come out. I always enjoy reading the various lists, if for no other reason than to see how much I’ve missed. You don’t realize how many movies you haven’t seen until you don’t have a film theater in your city. You don’t realize how little television you watch until you have kids.
Should there be a “Best” list in 2020? Honestly, the best thing about 2020 will be January 1, 2021. It’s damn hard to put “Best” and “2020” in the same breath, but one positive thing about a global pandemic is its ability to lend itself to catching up on reading. A check of my Amazon account would reveal I read a lot. A whole lot. I read just about every imaginable genre as my mother and father taught me to have varied interests. I’m rapidly running out of shelf space at my house for all of my books and I’m already spilling over to my office. (No, I’m not moving to the Kindle or Nook yet. To me, reading is still holding a book and straining my 46 year old eyes.)
Without further adieu, here’s my list. Since it’s 2020, I didn’t stop at the usual top 10. I went ahead and threw in another one to make my list as odd as this year has been. Note not all of these books were released in 2020. A couple were released in earlier years, but I just read them for the first time this year. I write this list knowing Jason Isbell probably had it right when he said, “No one gives a damn about the things you give a damn about,” but what the hell, it’s 2020. Let’s do it.
11. Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien. What happens when a man who thought he would never have children has two sons later in life? Will he be around long enough to teach them all of the things he’s learned? How will they remember their dad if he passes away before they are grown? You write letters to them, of course. O’Brien’s memoir is poignant and laugh out loud funny at times, and so well-done. As a 46 year old father of a son under two myself, I have had many of the same thoughts as O’Brien. I just wish I could put my thoughts on paper as well as he does.
10. His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham. Jon Meacham speaks my language when it comes to history so I snap up everything he writes. His biography of the late John Lewis is an engrossing tale of bravery, courage, and the virtues of causing “good trouble.” We are a better America because of men like John Lewis.
9. Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End by Kevin Alexander. My son Walker made fun of my love of good food writing a couple days ago. Released in 2019, I was turned on to Alexander’s book right about the time the world told us we couldn’t eat in restaurants anymore. If you like food, and you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, then you will love this book.
8. The Last Trial by Scott Turow. I don’t usually read legal fiction because I find it unrealistic and quite honestly, it makes me anxious. But Scott Turow is a wonderful novelist, and I read anything he writes. Sandy Stern is a character unlike any other, and he will be missed.
7. 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America by Harlan Lebo. Here’s another 2019 release. In 100 days in 1969, America saw a moon walk, Woodstock, the Manson family murders, and the invention of the internet. As historical events go, that’s a summer like Ted Williams in 1946. By contrast, we’ve been in a pandemic for over twice that long, and we really only have the third season of Cobra Kai on Netflix and a President who won’t accept defeat as our highlights.
6. Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz. I think a film of the action behind the scenes might have been more entertaining than the movie itself. Such a fun read.
5. Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein’s entire series on the conservative movement in the United States is so good, and he deftly blends political history with pop culture to take the reader through American history. This last book of the series was exhaustively researched, and brings to life my earliest memories of politics.
4. The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice by David Hill. Let’s see—you want me to read a book about the Mafia, gambling, family and the 20th century South?? Yes, please. This book is absolutely fascinating, and reveals that Hot Springs, Arkansas was straight-up crazy at one point in its past.
3. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Sweet Jesus, what an intense read. Natasha’s former stepfather murdered her mother, and Natasha has told the story in haunting detail. I can’t shake the mental image of a high school Tretheway waving to her former stepfather sitting alone in the crowd at a football game after she and her mother snuck out of his house. He told the police later that he planned to kill her, too. Harrowing is not a strong enough adjective to describe this story.
2. Members Only by Sameer Pandya. A story about race and the dangers of the cancel culture told through the prism of an elite tennis club. I heard an interview with the author on a tennis podcast, and I loved every page of his book. It will definitely make you think. And laugh. Then think while you’re laughing.
1. (tie) Pappyland by Wright Thompson. I love bourbon and I love the South, so I knew I would like this book. Wright is a native of my Mississippi Delta, and his writing skills are as rare as Pappy Van Winkle itself. Wright spins out a story more about family and finding purpose than about sweet tasting bourbon. I don’t care if you don’t know Pappy from Popeye, grab a copy of this book.
1. (tie) The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife by Brad Balukjian. Growing up in the Eighties, I watched the Superstation religiously for my baseball fix. I collected baseball cards and knew every player in the big leagues. Even dudes like Rance Mullinks and Gary Pettis. But what happens to these guys when they’re no longer on my television at 6:35? I grew up. Where did they go? How cool would it be to take a road trip to find out the answer to that question? The author did. I wish I could write the sequel. Great book.