It’s the time of year for The New York Times and other media to publish their lists of the best books of 2020. My list is a little different. I read a lot of books this year, but almost none of them were published in 2020. So here a list of the best books I read in 2020, regardless of publication date.
White Houses: A Novel by Amy Bloom. Lorena Hickock was a successful journalist and chief investigator the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a Depression-era government agency created to alleviate unemployment. She was also Eleanor Roosevelt’s girlfriend. White Houses is about their relationship, and it’s the best novel I’ve read in a very long time. Narrated by Hickok, it’s a bittersweet exploration of the experience of loving someone who’s devoted to saving the world, which means you’ll always be second place in her heart and her life.
Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher. Late one April night in 2009, Gettysburg College senior Amy Butcher hugged one of her closest friends good night and went to bed. Just hours later that friend, Kevin Schaeffer, stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death. Psychiatrists who examined Schaeffer determined he had a psychotic break that night, so he was not entirely responsible for his actions. As a result of a plea deal he was sentenced to a minimum of 26 years in prison. Visiting Hours is Butcher’s effort to come to terms with what Kevin did, and what their friendship can still be or mean. But above all the book asks the question, if someone you know as gentle and kind can commit murder can you ever know anyone? Visiting Hours also leaves the reader thinking, if someone can regain awareness after a psychotic episode to discover they’ve committed murder, can we ever really know ourselves?
Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump and an Epic Trail of Destruction by David Enrich. It’s unusual for me to recommend a book on banking, but reading Dark Towers is like watching a horrific explosion in slow motion. For years, Deutsche Bank had been a profitable German institution with a modest international presence. In the 1990s the bank hired new executives (mostly American) who were determined to stay for the long haul and make the company one of the big players on Wall Street. The result of their work? In 2008 Deutsche Bank reported its first annual loss in fifty years. In 2014 its stock stopped paying dividends. In 2016 the company reported losses of over 8 billion dollars. In 2018, Deutsche Bank’s Frankfurt offices were raided by police as part of a money laundering investigation. Dark Towers is the story of how a small group of arrogant men looking for fast profits almost destroyed their own business—a drama replete with vivid personalities, dysfunctional families, shady financial deals and, quite possibly, murder.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: A Novel by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is an independent young woman who’s very good at her job. But she also struggles with social skills, tends to say exactly what she thinks even when it’s a really bad idea, and has a suffocatingly organized personal life. But all that slowly starts to change when she meets Raymond, a rather awkward IT guy at work. And then in one of their first attempts at hanging out they end up saving the life of Sammy, an elderly man who’s collapsed on the sidewalk. The three form an unlikely, transformative friendship that opens Eleanor’s life to new possibilities.
-- Kevin O'Kelly, SPL Reference Department