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Let’s be real: 2020 has been a nightmare. Between the political unrest and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it’s difficult to look back on the year and find something, anything, that was a potential bright spot in an otherwise turbulent trip around the sun. Luckily, there were a few bright spots: namely, some of the excellent works of military history and analysis, fiction and non-fiction, novels and graphic novels that we’ve absorbed over the last year.
Here’s a brief list of some of the best books we read here at Task & Purpose in the last year. Have a recommendation of your own? Send an email to jared@taskandpurpose.Com and we’ll include it in a future story.
Missionaries by Phil Klay
I loved Phil Klay’s first book, Redeployment (which won the National Book Award), so Missionaries was high on my list of must-reads when it came out in October. It took Klay six years to research and write the book, which follows four characters in Colombia who come together in the shadow of our post-9/11 wars. As Klay’s prophetic novel shows, the machinery of technology, drones, and targeted killings that was built on the Middle East battlefield will continue to grow in far-flung lands that rarely garner headlines. [Buy]
- Paul Szoldra, editor-in-chief
Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli by Max Uriarte
Written by ‘Terminal Lance’ creator Maximilian Uriarte, this full-length graphic novel follows a Marine infantry squad on a bloody odyssey through the mountain reaches of northern Afghanistan. The full-color comic is basically ‘Conan the Barbarian’ in MARPAT. [Buy]
- James Clark, senior reporter
The Liberator by Alex Kershaw
Now a gritty and grim animated World War II miniseries from Netflix, The Liberator follows the 157th Infantry Battalion of the 45th Division from the beaches of Sicily to the mountains of Italy and the Battle of Anzio, then on to France and later still to Bavaria for some of the bloodiest urban battles of the conflict before culminating in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. It’s a harrowing tale, but one worth reading before enjoying the acclaimed Netflix series. [Buy]
- Jared Keller, deputy editor
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett Graff
If you haven’t gotten this must-read account of the September 11th attacks, you need to put The Only Plane In the Sky at the top of your Christmas list. Graff expertly explains the timeline of that day through the re-telling of those who lived it, including the loved ones of those who were lost, the persistently brave first responders who were on the ground in New York, and the service members working in the Pentagon. My only suggestion is to not read it in public — if you’re anything like me, you’ll be consistently left in tears.
- Haley Britzky, Army reporter
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry
Why do we even fight wars? Wouldn’t a massive tennis tournament be a nicer way for nations to settle their differences? This is one of the many questions Harvard professor Elaine Scarry attempts to answer, along with why nuclear war is akin to torture, why the language surrounding war is sterilized in public discourse, and why both war and torture unmake human worlds by destroying access to language. It’s a big lift of a read, but even if you just read chapter two (like I did), you’ll come away thinking about war in new and refreshing ways. [Buy]
- David Roza, Air Force reporter
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942–1943 by Antony Beevor
Stalingrad takes readers all the way from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union to the collapse of the 6th Army at Stalingrad in February 1943. It gives you the perspective of German and Soviet soldiers during the most apocalyptic battle of the 20th century. [Buy]
- Jeff Schogol, Pentagon correspondent
America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew J. Bacevich
I picked up America’s War for the Greater Middle East earlier this year and couldn’t put it down. Published in 2016 by Andrew Bacevich, a historian and retired Army officer who served in Vietnam, the book unravels the long and winding history of how America got so entangled in the Middle East and shows that we’ve been fighting one long war since the 1980s — with errors in judgment from political leaders on both sides of the aisle to blame. “From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. What caused this shift?” the book jacket asks. As Bacevich details in this definitive history, the mission creep of our Vietnam experience has been played out again and again over the past 30 years, with disastrous results. [Buy]
- Paul Szoldra, editor-in-chief
Burn In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution by P.W. Singer and August Cole
In Burn In, Singer and Cole take readers on a journey at an unknown date in the future, in which an FBI agent searches for a high-tech terrorist in Washington, D.C. Set after what the authors called the “real robotic revolution,” Agent Lara Keegan is teamed up with a robot that is less Terminator and far more of a useful, and highly intelligent, law enforcement tool. Perhaps the most interesting part: Just about everything that happens in the story can be traced back to technologies that are being researched today. You can read Task & Purpose’s interview with the authors here. [Buy]
- James Clark, senior reporter
SAS: Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre
Like WWII? Like a band of eccentric daredevils wreaking havoc on fascists? Then you’ll love SAS: Rogue Heroes, which re-tells some truly insane heists performed by one of the first modern special forces units. Best of all, Ben MacIntyre grounds his history in a compassionate, balanced tone that displays both the best and worst of the SAS men, who are, like anyone else, only human after all. [Buy]
- David Roza, Air Force reporter
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
The Alice Network is a gripping novel which follows two courageous women through different time periods — one living in the aftermath of World War II, determined to find out what has happened to someone she loves, and the other working in a secret network of spies behind enemy lines during World War I. This gripping historical fiction is based on the true story of a network that infiltrated German lines in France during The Great War and weaves a tale so packed full of drama, suspense, and tragedy that you won’t be able to put it down. [Buy]
Katherine Rondina, Anchor Books
“Because I published a new book this year, I’ve been answering questions about my inspirations. This means I’ve been thinking about and so thankful for The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender. I can’t credit it with making me want to be a writer — that desire was already there — but it inspired me to write stories where the fantastical complicates the ordinary, and the impossible becomes possible. A girl in a nice dress with no one to appreciate it. An unremarkable boy with a remarkable knack for finding things. The stories in this book taught me that the everydayness of my world could become magical and strange, and in that strangeness I could find a new kind of truth.”
Diane Cook is the author of the novel The New Wilderness, which was long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize, and the story collection Man V. Nature, which was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. Read an excerpt from The New Wilderness.
Bill Johnston, University of California Press
“I’ve revisited a lot of old favorites in this grim year of fear and isolation, and have been most thankful of all for The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Witty, reflexive, intimate, queer, disarmingly occasional and monumentally serious all at once, they’ve been a constant balm and inspiration. ‘The only thing to do is simply continue,’ he wrote, in ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul’; ‘is that simple/yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do/can you do it/yes, you can because it is the only thing to do.’”
Helen Macdonald is a nature essayist with a semiregular column in the New York Times Magazine. Her latest novel, Vesper Flights, is a collection of her best-loved essays, and her debut book, H Is for Hawk, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction and the Costa Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.
Andrea Scher, Scholastic Press
“This year, I’m so grateful for You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson. Reading — like everything else — has been a struggle for me in 2020. It’s been tough to let go of all of my anxieties about the state of the world and our country and get swept away by a story. But You Should See Me in a Crown pulled me in right away; for the blissful time that I was reading it, it made me think about a world outside of 2020 and it made me smile from ear to ear. Joy has been hard to come by this year, and I’m so thankful for this book for the joy it brought me.”
Jasmine Guillory is the New York Times bestselling author of five romance novels, including this year’s Party of Two. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Real Simple, and Time.
Nelson Fitch, Random House
“Last year, stuck in a prolonged reading rut that left me wondering if I even liked books anymore, I stumbled across Tenth of December by George Saunders, a collection of stories Saunders wrote between 1995 and 2012 that are at turns funny, moving, startling, weird, profound, and often all of those things at the same time. As a writer, what I crave most from books is to find one so excellent it makes me feel like I’d be better off quitting — and so wonderful that it reminds me what it is to be purely a reader again, encountering new worlds and revelations every time I turn a page. Tenth of December is that, and I’m so grateful that it fell off a high shelf and into my life.” Veronica Roth is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent series and the Carve the Mark duology. Her latest novel, Chosen Ones, is her first novel for adults. Read an excerpt from Chosen Ones.
Ian Byers-Gamber, Blazevox Books
“Waking up today to the prospect of some hours spent reading away part of another day of this disastrous, delirious pandemic year, I’m most grateful for the book in my hands, one itself full of gratitude for a life spent reading: Gloria Frym’s How Proust Ruined My Life. Frym’s essays — on Marcel Proust, yes, and Walt Whitman, and Lucia Berlin, but also peppermint-stick candy and Allen Ginsburg’s knees, among other Proustian memory-prompts — restore me to my sense of my eerie luck at a life spent rushing to the next book, the next page, the next word.”
Jonathan Lethem is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, including The Fortress of Solitude and the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Motherless Brooklyn. His latest novel, The Arrest, is a postapocalyptic tale about two siblings, the man that came between them, and a nuclear-powered super car.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Riverhead
“I’m incredibly grateful for the magnificent The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer. This book — a mélange of history, memoir, and reportage — is the reconceptualization of Native life that’s been urgently needed since the last great indigenous history, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s at once a counternarrative and a replacement for Brown’s book, and it rejects the standard tale of Native victimization, conquest, and defeat. Even though I teach Native American studies to college students, I found new insights and revelations in almost every chapter. Not only a great read, the book is a tremendous contribution to Native American — and American — intellectual and cultural history.”
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is author of the novel Winter Counts, which is BuzzFeed Book Club’s November pick. He is also the author of the children’s book Spotted Tail, which won the 2020 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. Read an excerpt from Winter Counts.
Valerie Mosley, Tordotcom
“In 2020, I’ve been lucky to finish a single book within 30 days, but I burned through this 507-page brick in the span of a weekend. Harrow the Ninth reminded me that even when absolutely everything is terrible, it’s still possible to feel deep, gratifying, brain-buzzing admiration for brilliant art. Thank you, Harrow, for being one of the brightest spots in a dark year and for keeping the home fires burning.” Casey McQuiston is the New York Times bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue, and her next book, One Last Stop, comes out in 2021.
“I’m grateful for V.S. Naipaul’s troubling masterpiece, A Bend in the River — which not only made me see the world anew, but made me see what literature could do. It’s a book that’s lucid enough to reveal the brutality of the forces shaping our world and its politics; yet soulful enough to penetrate the most recondite secrets of human interiority. A book of great beauty without a moment of mercy. A marriage of opposites that continues to shape my own deeper sense of just how much a writer can actually accomplish.”
Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright, and his latest novel, Homeland Elegies, is about an American son and his immigrant father searching for belonging in a post-9/11 country. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Vanessa German, Feminist Press
“I’m most thankful for Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether. It’s a YA book set in 1930s Harlem, and it was the first Black-girl-coming-of-age book I ever read, the first time I ever saw myself in a book. I appreciate how it expanded my world and my understanding that books can speak to you right where you are and take you on a journey, at the same time.”
Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. She is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. Read a story from The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.
Philippa Gedge, W. W. Norton & Company
“As both a writer and a reader I am hugely grateful for Patricia Highsmith’s plotting and writing suspense fiction. As a writer I’m thankful for Highsmith’s generosity with her wisdom and experience: She talks us through how to tease out the narrative strands and develop character, how to know when things are going awry, even how to decide to give things up as a bad job. She’s unabashed about sharing her own ‘failures,’ and in my experience, there’s nothing more encouraging for a writer than learning that our literary gods are mortal! As a reader, it provides a fascinating insight into the genesis of one of my favorite novels of all time — The Talented Mr. Ripley, as well as the rest of her brilliant oeuvre. And because it’s Highsmith, it’s so much more than just a how-to guide: It’s hugely engaging and, while accessible, also provides a glimpse into the mind of a genius. I’ve read it twice — while working on each of my thrillers, The Hunting Party and The Guest List — and I know I’ll be returning to the well-thumbed copy on my shelf again soon!”
Lucy Foley is the New York Times bestselling author of the thrillers The Guest List and The Hunting Party. She has also written two historical fiction novels and previously worked in the publishing industry as a fiction editor. “The books I’m most thankful for this year are a three-book series titled Tales from the Gas Station by Jack Townsend. Walking a fine line between comedy and horror (which is much harder than people think), the books follow Jack, an employee at a gas station in a nameless town where all manner of horrifyingly fantastical things happen. And while the monsters are scary and more than a little ridiculous, it’s Jack’s bone-dry narration, along with his best friend/emotional support human, Jerry, that elevates the books into something that are as lovely as they are absurd.” T.J. Klune is a Lambda Literary Award–winning author and an ex-claims examiner for an insurance company. His novels include The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Extraordinaries.
Sylvernus Darku (Team Black Image Studio), Ayebia Clarke Publishing
“Nervous Conditions is a book that I have read several times over the years, including this year. The novel covers the themes of gender and race and has at its heart Tambu, a young girl in 1960s Rhodesia determined to get an education and to create a better life for herself. Dangarembga’s prose is evocative and witty, and the story is thought-provoking. I’ve been inspired anew by Tambu each time I’ve read this book.”
Peace Adzo Medie is Senior Lecturer in Gender and International Politics at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence against Women in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2020). His Only Wife is her debut novel.
Jenna Maurice, HarperCollins
“The book I’m most thankful for? Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. My mother and father would read me poems from it before bed — I’m convinced it infused me not only with a sense of poetic cadence, but also a wry sense of humor.”
Victoria “V.E.” Schwab is the bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and This Savage Song. Her latest novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, is BuzzFeed Book Club’s December pick. Read an excerpt from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
Meg Vázquez, Square Fish
“My childhood best friend gave me Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle for Hanukkah when I was 11 years old, and it’s still my favorite book of all time. I love the way it defies genre (it’s a political thriller/YA romance that includes a lot of scientific research and also poetry??), and the way it values smartness, gutsiness, vulnerability, kindness, and a sense of adventure. The book follows 16-year-old Vicky Austin’s life-altering trip to Antarctica; her trip changed my life, too. In a year when safe travel is almost impossible, I’m so grateful to be able to return to her story again and again.”
Kate Stayman-London’s debut novel, One to Watch, is about a plus-size blogger who’s been asked to star on a Bachelorette-like reality show. Stayman-London served as lead digital writer for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and has written for notable figures, from former president Obama and Malala Yousafzai to Anna Wintour and Cher.
Katharine McGee is grateful for the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Chris Bailey Photography, Firebird
“I’m thankful for the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. I discovered the series in elementary school, and it sparked a love of big, epic stories that has never left me. (If you read my books, you know I can’t resist a broad cast of characters!) I used to read the books aloud to my younger sister, using funny voices for all the narrators. Now that I have a little boy of my own, I can’t wait to someday share Redwall with him.”
Katharine McGee is the New York Times bestselling author of American Royals and its sequel, Majesty. She is also the author of the Thousandth Floor trilogy.
Beth Gwinn, Time-Life Books
“I am thankful most for books that carry me out of the world and back again, and while I find it painful to choose among them, here’s one early and one late: Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, which comes out in 2021 but I devoured just two days ago, and the long out-of-print Wizards and Witches volume of the Time-Life Enchanted World series, which is where I first read about the legend of the Scholomance.”
Naomi Novik is the New York Times bestselling author of the Nebula Award–winning novel Uprooted, Spinning Silver, and the nine-volume Temeraire series. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is the first of the Scholomance trilogy.
Christina Lauren are grateful for the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Christina Lauren, Little, Brown and Company
“We are thankful for the Twilight series for about a million reasons, not the least of which it’s what brought the two of us together. Writing fanfic in a space where we could be silly and messy together taught us that we don’t have to be perfect, but there’s no harm in trying to get better with every attempt. It also cemented for us that the best relationships are the ones in which you can be your real, authentic self, even when you’re struggling to do things you never thought you’d be brave enough to attempt. Twilight brought millions of readers back into the fold and inspired hundreds of romance authors. We really do thank Stephenie Meyer every day for the gift of Twilight and the fandom it created.”