Reading the year-end lists of best books in newspapers and online during the past few weeks has inspired me to think about the books I read in 2020. Some of them are almost forgotten, but a few I remember well and think of often. Today I want to share some thoughts about three of the most memorable books of the year for me. I wonder whether any of them have caught your attention through the long months of this strange year.
I’ve read very little fiction this year except for escapist mysteries that took me away from thoughts of shutdowns and pandemics but disappeared from mind soon after I turned the final page. There was one remarkable exception—Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara—a book that starts with a mystery but opens up a new view of the world we live in.
The book is set in a poor neighborhood in India. and the story is told by ten-year-old boy, Jai, who decides to become a detective after one of the children in the neighborhood disappears. As he and his friends search for clues, several other children also disappear. The scenes of parents grieving for their children and struggling to provide some security for them are heartbreaking. Policemen routinely mistreat everyone from their poor neighborhood despite expecting bribes for the slightest service. The kids continue to be upbeat and energetic during their pursuit, but while the reader watches, the mystery grows deeper and more threatening. This book is gripping, and I am sure I will remember it long after 2020 is gone.
In an afterword, Anappara, a former journalist, tells us she wrote the book because she wanted a chance to focus on the common story of child-disappearances in India. While one book cannot begin to solve such a serious problem, it can at least make more people aware of what life is like in a part of the world that most of us seldom visit.
Every year brings new books about Shakespeare’s plays, but this year’s big Shakespeare book is different. Instead of focusing on the plays, James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America, looks at American history through the prism of those plays.
Shapiro describes how the productions of Shakespeare’s plays in this country have changed over the years. One of the first chapters describes how Othello was receivedin the early 1800s. The play roused great emotions about miscegenation and led to arguments about whether or not Othello was Black. Many years later, productions of The Tempest influenced the anti-immigration furor of the early 1900s. And then came arguments about the staging of Taming of the Shrew revealing different attitudes toward women and their place in the world. Each generation has found a Shakespearean play that speaks to its current preoccupations. And through all those generations, Shakespeare’s plays have been more influential in the United States than in any other country in the world.
I’ve admired Samantha Power ever since I read her startling book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide in 2013. After reading that, I followed her career as a journalist and her work as U.S. representative to the United Nations. But it wasn’t until I read her most recent book, The Education of an Idealist, that I learned much about her private life and development. This book is a straightforward memoir recounting her childhood in Ireland and covering the years up until 2016 when she left public life.
Power was born in 1970 and grew up in Ireland but moved to the United States with her mother and brother in 1979. She attended high school in Atlanta and then went to Yale University. After graduating from Yale, she decided to go to Bosnia where she began writing articles for prestigious newspapers and magazines. When she returned to the U.S., she went to Harvard Law School and continued her career as a writer and government official during the Obama administration. Her focus was on foreign policy and what the U.S. should do to fight genocide throughout the world. Her memoir gives the reader an account of the wins and losses she had to deal with in trying to hang onto her ideals and to influence government policy during those tumultuous years.
One of the things I liked best about this book is that Power gives us a glimpse of the day-to-day issues that arise for a woman combining marriage and motherhood with a demanding professional life. She avoids the trap of the “disappearing child” syndrome which causes many public figures to mention the births of their children but never to admit the overwhelming influence childrearing has on careers and lives. Power, in contrast, writes about her pregnancies, childcare, breast feeding and other aspects of motherhood which are usually ignored. I enjoyed the frank discussion of some of the decisions parents face as they combine family life with an active career.
Anappara, Deepa. 2020. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (NY: Random House).Power,
Power, Samantha. 2019. The Education of an Idealist; A Memoir (NY: Dey St William Morrow).
Shapiro, James. 2020. Shakespeare in a Divided America (NY: Penguin)
Despite all the bad things 2020 has brought, it has at least given many of us more time to read. And authors have kept us supplied with fascinating books. Let’s hope that 2021 continues to supply us with even more books to keep us reading.