So far I’ve read 115 books this year. Eight days to go. This is the first time in several years that I’ve kept track of how many books I’ve read, and it’s far less than I used to read. Back in I think 2011, in the full swing of the Great Headache Crisis, I read over 400 books in a single year. Now I have other hobbies and so don’t read as much as I used to, something I feel vaguely guilty about, though I know I still read far more than most people do.
Some of the best books I read in 2020, in no particular order:
- The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin. Started reading this in the spring, as the coronavirus pandemic was getting itself comfortable for a long stay. It was a fascinating story about the perfect storm of events that created the AIDS pandemic. I wrote a little about it on this blog in May.
- Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography–The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane. Before I read this I had no idea how awful life for black people was under Apartheid; I didn’t know much about it at all. I learned a lot.
- A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres. A comprehensive look on the events leading to the massacre at Jonestown, the killings themselves, and the aftermath. Very sad. I could identify with the people at Jonestown, who seem to have been very good folks, idealistic, hoping to make a better world. They trusted the wrong person and most of them came to realize it after arriving in Guyana, but they were unable to leave–Jonestown was basically a concentration camp.
- A Book of the Blockade, by Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin. This book took a long time to read; I actually started it in 2019 but didn’t finish till 2020. It was about the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, and includes numerous accounts from people who were there, including a detailed diary by a teenage Leningrader who probably starved to death (although they’re not 100% sure on that; the evidence is inconclusive).
- 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam. The transport consisted of young, unmarried Slovak girls, in their teens and twenties I believe, who were under the impression they were going to a labor camp and would return home in a few months. Of course very few of those women survived. It was a fascinating story.
- “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945 by Florian Huber. The book explores not only the mass suicides themselves (these were mostly people who were rightly terrified of being raped and tortured by the invading Soviet soldiers) but also what led the German public at large to make Adolf Hitler their leader and do, well, all the stuff they did. I actually found myself more interested in the backstory part than I was in the suicides.
- Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. A detailed biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
- Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton. This was a detailed memoir by an ordinary woman who’d started out life in I think Arkansas in the mid-nineteenth century and lived in various places in the Mississippi Delta area. It was a pretty hard life, but pretty typical for someone of that time and place. The Kindle version of this book is only $2.99 right now, if you want it.
- The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth by Stefan Maechler. Bruno Grosjean aka Binyomin Wilkomirski is a Swiss man who wrote a book which he said was his memoir of surviving the Holocaust in early childhood. (He was adopted by his Swiss parents at age four.) The book won some awards and much critical acclaim, then was proved to be fictional. However, Grosjean is not your typical fraudster, and seems to genuinely believe he was a Holocaust survivor. In this book, Maechler examines Grosjean’s life, and the available evidence, and tries to determine what on earth happened in this case. It reads like a great mystery story, and in a sense it is.