My Top 3 Reads of 2020
When it comes to books, last year was a departure for me. I took the Goodreads challenge for the first time and actually tracked what I read. In the past I read helter-skelter and couldn’t have told anyone what books I had gotten through during the past 12 months, never mind come up with a number.
So going back to choose my top three reads for 2020 was easier than it would have been in other years. Last year was also the year I got an e-library card, the year I started doing some hard core reading on my Kindle, and the year I began listening to audiobooks.
Add in a pandemic that reduced my work hours and you get 76 books. Even with my practical Goodreads chart, it was still hard to narrow the list down to three from so many choices. But I whittled it to 10 titles and then, finally, to three.
Here they are:
1. Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
This was a Choice Read for a Goodreads book group and I confess I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. I’m glad I did.
At least I think so…because Higginbotham’s depiction of the events surrounding the world’s worst nuclear disaster is deeply disturbing. His narrative about just how easy it is to make an apocalyptic mistake was scarier than any thriller I read last year.
If you exist in this world in 2021 that fact should scare the hell out of you.
“The entire building shuddered as Reactor Number Four was torn apart by a catastrophic explosion, equivalent to as much as sixty tonnes of TNT. The blast caromed off the walls of the reactor vessel . . . and smashed open the concrete roof, revealing the night sky beyond.”
Higginbotham’s account is detailed, vivid and accurate. He based his book on decades of research, new archival material and countless firsthand interviews. For better or worse, he recreates every step in the chain of events that led to the explosion. He goes on to document the attempts to minimize the damage that only aggravated the situation, as well as the long-term devastation the event caused.
But it’s the human stories that resonate. The firefighter who believed he escaped the worst of the radiation effects because he was drunk on champagne. The young wife who searched desperately to find the secret facility where her husband was being treated. The workers at a European nuclear power plant who couldn’t figure out why they were setting off the radiation detector — because on the morning after the explosion, Soviet authorities still had not warned the rest of the world.
At a time when politicians are abandoning our nuclear treaties and tensions are worse than ever, this is a chilling, important read.
2. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
Chamberlain’s break-out novel is also based on a real-life tragedy, albeit much more loosely. Before I read Necessary Lies I associated the term “eugenics” with the Nazis. I had no idea state eugenics programs were sanctioned by law in the United States from 1927 to 1974.
North Carolina, like other states, based its own program on the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling, which upheld a forced sterilization law for the supposed good of society. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority:
“It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
Does that boggle your mind? Freak you out? Because that was my reaction.
Like Midnight in Chernobyl, Chamberlain’s novel brings the tragedy into sharp, heart-wrenching focus. Set in small-town North Carolina when its eugenics program was still legal, the book alternates between two POVs: 15-year-old Ivy Hart and newlywed Jane Forrester, the social worker assigned to her family.
Ivy’s sister is considered mentally ill, her grandmother is losing her memory, and Ivy’s I.Q. score is low enough for her to “qualify” for mandatory sterilization. Despite Ivy’s lack of formal education and Jane’s conviction that the score is not accurate, those in power have no qualms about making decisions that may change her life forever.
Ivy’s family is starving and dirt poor, forced to eke out a living on a failing tobacco farm they pay to work on. As Jane gets to know the them, she begins to question the values not only of the state, but also of the people closest to her.
3. The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer
Stephen Kinzer was a correspondent at The New York Times for more than 20 years and is currently a senior fellow at Brown University. He writes about the so-called Deep State and he does it ruthlessly well, in part because he lived through some of the events he chronicles in his books.
His most recent effort, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, is on my TBR list for 2021. It chronicles the previously undocumented life of the man who ran the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind control project for years. As the agency’s chief chemist, Gottlieb also made untraceable poisons designed to assassinate world leaders America didn’t like. Included on the list were Cuban head-of-state Fidel Castro and African independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Published in 2013, The Brothers is just as brilliant, just as damning. The meticulously researched book tells the story of how Allen and John Foster Dulles ushered the world into the Cold War. Allen ran the CIA while John headed the State Department in the post-WWII years and their immense power shaped the world we live in today — not for the better.
Allen, in particular, comes across as a Machiavellian figure who protected American interests abroad — especially American corporate interests — and was willing to do almost anything to maintain U.S. hegemony.
The book makes for fascinating, albeit unsettling, reading. Kinzer’s description of Allen’s departure from the CIA during the Kennedy years was by far my favorite part of the book. Though the two men shared a fondness for Ian Fleming’s spy novels, their visions of the world were ultimately irreconcilable.
None of my top three reads are light fare, but I highly recommend them. To rephrase Toni Morrison: these are stories to pass on.
Much thanks to John Ross for his prompt. Want to participate? You can read about it here:
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