Out of the Ashes of the Dumpster Fire: Don Levy’s Top 10 books of 2020

Let’s face it. 2020 was a shitty year. We had a raging pandemic, the virtual lynching of George Floyd,  the death of the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsberg and so much more. It was a year full of strife and bad mojo. The glimmer of hope for next year is the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden and a vaccine hopefully for Covid-19. On a personal note, I worked from home, turned 60, and ironically had one of the best reading years in a long time.

My life changed in early March when my agency, The NYS Comptroller’s office sent me and other workers home. For about two months I didn’t work but was still on the payroll.  I had to call my supervisor every day and then I had the day to myself.  I spent a lot of my time reading. It was an odd spot to be in. I was paid basically to quarantine myself and read. That’s basically what I did for two and a half months until I started to work from home. I have less free time now to read, but I don’t mind.

According to Goodreads, I read 20 books, which is a lot for me.  Unfortunately, Goodreads considers The Call of the Wild and White Fang to be one book even though they are two novels. Surprisingly, I read all the books I started.  I seem to DNF ( did not finish) at least one or two books in a year, so I’m proud of myself.

So let me announce my 10 favorite books I read in 2020. Let’s not keep anyone waiting.


1. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

After the deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor at the hands of the police, I felt angry and upset that these kinds of things were still going on.  I decided to read Baldwin to regain some clarity.  I always thought that James Baldwin was one of the most eloquent people to write and talk about racism.  I don’t think I had all my questions answered but I got a better understanding of how systematic racism works in our country.  I think that’s all I could ask for.


2. Persuasion by Jane Austen

I’m sure it’s odd to follow a book by James Baldwin with Jane Austen, but I guess that’s indicative of the year 2020. When she was 18, Anne Elliot was engaged to naval captain Fredrick Wentworth but she was persuaded by a family friend to break off the engagement because the Captain was not considered a sound financial prospect.  Years later Anne runs into him because his family rented out the estate Anne grew up in because her father needed money to pay off debts. The novel is about becoming more mature and getting second chances.


3. The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London

I guess because Goodreads considers them one book, who am I to argue? I read White Fang because I wanted to read it before the movie came out then the theaters closed. I’m glad though that I got to be introduced to a great American author I never read before.  Call of the Wild is a story of a dog that is stolen off a great estate and sent up North to help prospectors in Alaska to find gold. White Fang is about a wolf who becomes domesticated by Native Americans and eventually winds up in  San Francisco as a guard dog. Both books, unfortunately, had scenes of animal abuse but in the end, I got a lot out of each book and now I want to read more by Jack London.


4. Beloved by Toni Morrison

What can I say about this book that other people haven’t said about? It’s a powerful story about the aftermath of slavery. Sethe kills her baby daughter so she would never become a slave. Years later, when she and her daughter Denver live freely in Ohio, the angry ghost of Beloved seems to be haunting their house.  This book was written at the height of Morrison’s career.


5. Dune by Frank Herbert

As I said in a previous post, I hadn’t read science fiction in a long time. I wanted to read Dune before the movie with Timothee Chaletmet came out.  To my surprise, I loved the book. It tells a great story but the novel touches on themes of ecology and religion.  Not many books can claim that.


6. Rebecca by Daphne du Mauie

Again, I read this book because I wanted to read it before the new Netflix adaptation.  Rebecca is a  great book. The narrator, who never is called by her name, marries the rich Maxim de Winter in a whirlwind romance. They eventually settle down to live in his family estate called Manderly. Forget the Netflix version and read the book instead.


7. The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos

I was proud of myself for reading and finishing a trilogy. I never read a complete series, so I’m glad I read this one. It’s basically a look at America from the turn of the century to the Great Depression. Dos Passos interweaves the story of a number of characters with sections like “Newsreels”,  using the day’s headlines and song lyrics to tell the reader what the news of the day was, short biographies of historical figures of the time like William Bryant Jennings and Henry Ford and finally using ” The Camera’s Eye” sections, which are a stream of consciousness semi-autobiographical sections from Dos Passos’s life. My big complaint is the racist language that is used throughout the 3 novels. Still, it’s a great achievement that people should try.


8. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This is a semi-autobiographical novel of a teenage girl coming out to her very religious mother. Her mom had high hopes her daughter would be a missionary but the mother kicks her out of the house ( not before having an exorcism) for being a lesbian.  It’s a funny and quirky book that I loved.


9. Chrome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

Young poet Dennis Stone is invited to spend his holiday at Chrome, the estate of Henry and Priscilla Wimbush.  Dennis is in love with Henry’s niece Anne.  It’s a satirical look at the British upper class. It reminds me a little bit of Huxley’s plotless book Point-Counterpoint with some of the ideas Huxley would flesh out later in Brave New World.  I am becoming a huge Huxley fan and want to read more by him.


10. A Year in Provance by Peter Mayles

Luckily I read this charming book in February when lockdown became a reality.  It was fun to escape to the South of France and envision the landscape and the people of the region.  It was a book that made me laugh a lot. It was great to travel, if only through a book.


As always, I have some honorable mentions. These books I also loved but didn’t make the cut: The Naked Civil Servant by Quinton Crisp, Mystery Mile by Marjorie Allingham, Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie,  Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, and my reread of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

I hope 2021 will be a better year.  I have hope that we all can get back to normal, whatever that is. I  hope we go back to eating out,  to library book sales and back to movie theaters.  I hope I go back to the office eventually, but I’m in no hurry.  And I wish all my friends a great reading year in 2021.