What's your favorite book you read in 2020?
By Paul Grondahl, Director NYS Writers Institute
"So many books, so little time" is a slogan that has always resonated with me. Teetering towers of books, magazines, journals and newspapers stare at me from all corners of my home office, in every room of our house, and all across our Writers Institute office. I am awash in great stories bound between covers, beckoning and vying for my time and interest.
This coronavirus pandemic year disrupted everything and wreaked havoc on so many of our routines. I thought I would have more time to read books, but I ended up reading more newspapers and magazines and watching more movies than ever before. I noticed that quarantine and the troubling specter of COVID-19 affected my attention span and ability to focus on reading books.
Still, I did read quite a number of books in 2020 and I will recommend two: one escapist and one a deep educational journey.
I'll begin with the frothy one, Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan. To be honest, I dreaded reading this novel to prepare for my interview with the author for our Albany Book Festival. It is about babysitting, which I have never done, and it is a story about a complicated relationship between two women – a babysitter and the affluent suburban mother who hires her. I thought I would have to slog through it.
Sullivan writes brilliantly from experience as both a babysitter and a mother who has hired babysitters and she captures the tone and the unusual connection between employer and employee. It also bears heightened interest for local readers as Sullivan sets her story on a fictional college campus in upstate New York and a locale that is conjured partly from time she spent in Loudonville. Here was a novel clearly not in my wheelhouse and yet I eagerly turned the pages because of Sullivan’s skills as a storyteller.
I came to understand why she is a bestselling author and why several publications named Friends and Strangers as one of the hottest novels of the summer. It also taught me a valuable lesson, that so-called “chick lit” and “beach read” are pejorative terms and do not represent the broad appeal and high quality of Sullivan’s writing.
On the other end of the spectrum, I took the advice of my friend and colleague, Dr. Leonard A. Slade Jr., emeritus professor of Africana Studies at UAlbany. Len is also an award-winning poet and we talk often about books and writing. He told me I must read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. He said it was the best book analyzing the underpinnings of systemic racism that he had ever read.
Wilkerson’s craft brings to mind a George Orwell quote that stuck with me: “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” Wilkerson examines in extraordinary detail the caste systems of Blacks in the United States; the so-called “untouchables” or lowest-caste Dalits in India; and Hitler’s system of genocide against the Jews during the Holocaust of Nazi Germany.
It is heavy material, but Wilkerson brings a luminous prose to the task and she offers absorbing examples. She describes Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India in 1959 at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. King and his wife, Coretta, visited the places where Mahatma Gandhi developed his philosophy of non-violence that King emulated. During his India trip, King came to realize that he, too, as a Black man in America, was similarly a kind of “untouchable” in American society.
Wilkerson lays out how caste is a much deeper, much more insidious and much more institutionalized system of racism. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Wilkerson in 2011, when she was a visiting writer at the Writers Institute with her just-published book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She also came to the Times Union and spent an afternoon talking with a group of us reporters. I remember her as brilliant, charming and generous. She has taken her talents as a reporter and a writer to remarkable new heights in Caste.
Len Slade was right. It is an astonishingly good book. I recommend that you read it.
It's December 31 and you can't turn a corner without bumping into a list of the best books of 2020. Our friends at LitHub reviewed 41 of these lists and tallied which books got featured the most.
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