Bob on Books Best Books of 2020

This has been a weird year in the book world as the pandemic has affected our reading habits (for better or worse), bookselling, publishing schedules and authors’ efforts to promote their books. Yet books have been there to inspire, to comfort, and divert. Many of the books here were published in 2020, but a few were such outstanding reads from earlier years I needed to include them. One difference this year is the inclusion of Ohio authors, not only in their own category, but in a few others.

Best of the Year:

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020. I delayed this post to finish this book. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, the disciplined and flowing prose offers insight not only into the events of his rise and presidency but his thought processes, his conception of and respect for the office, his vision for the nation, as well as insights into his family life. Review

Best Memoirs:

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. I wrote about this book: “This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.” Review

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016. Nathaniel R. Jones was a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and former general counsel of the NAACP. His memoir reflects a single vision to answer the call to use the law to fight for equal rights for Blacks. Jones was not only an Ohio author but from my home town of Youngstown. He died this year. Review

Best Biography:

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of HopeJon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020. Meacham gives us an account not only of the events of the late Congressman John Lewis’s life but also the faith that sustained his efforts and the non-violent methods of his resistance. Review

Best History:

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020. Van Engen traces the history of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon that included the phrase “city on a hill” and how this became a metaphor for American exceptionalism. Review

To Think ChristianlyCharles E. Cotherman (Foreword by Kenneth G. Elzinga).  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. This is a well-researched and written account of the Christian study center movement beginning with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. I wrote: “It also reminds me of the great debt of gratitude I owe to the places and people Cotherman chronicles–from Francis Schaeffer and how he first helped me think Christianly, to Jim Houston and the influence he and Regent had on a close ministry colleague, to the vision of the doctrine and life that I acquired through Ligonier, and the vision of campus engagement Ken Elzinga and the Center for Christian Study has given so many of us.” Review

Best Graphic non-fiction:

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020. Backderf is an Ohio native and in this graphic novel, he traces the last days of the four students who died at Kent State on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings. He captures the setting, the swirl of events and the tragic moments on May 4, 1970, as well as any I’ve seen. Review

Best Ohio Authors: (In addition to those elsewhere in this list)

Goshen RoadBonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020. Bonnie Proudfoot is a first time author from southeast Ohio whose lean yet descriptive prose narrates the lives of two sisters, their husbands and families making a go at life in rural Appalachia. Review

Barnstorming Ohio To Understand AmericaDavid Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020. Akron native spent a year traveling around Ohio, which he describes as “an All-American buffet.” He proposes that Ohio is a political microcosm of the U.S. political landscape, with which I would agree. His rendering of Ohio is one I recognized as ringing true. Review

Best Books on Race:

The Cross and the Lynching TreeJames H. Cone. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013. Black theologian James Cone’s reflection on the parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, the perplexing reality that this has been missed within the white community, and how an understanding of this connection and the meaning of the cross has offered hope for the long struggle of the African-American community. Probably one of the most powerful books I read in 2020. Review

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants. The author refutes the idea that the Latina/o church was an instrument of oppression, but rather sustained the resistance to oppression of the Latina/o community. An interview I did back in June with the author was one of the highlights of this year. Review

Best Essays:

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. These are exquisitely written essays on both nature and literary figures by poet Mary Oliver. Oliver is another Ohio-born author, growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, where we also lived for nine years. Review

Make A ListMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. McEntyre explores the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists we might create. Review

Best Theology:

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of CreationGavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Ortlund discusses how Augustine approached the Genesis accounts of beginnings and suggests his approach may be helpful in our present day origins controversies. Review

Best Books on Existential Issues:

Companions in the DarknessDiana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle. The author skillfully interweaves her own experience with depression with those of whom she writes.

The Lost Art of DyingL. S. Dugdale. New York: Harper One, 2020. Dugdale is a physician on the front line of treating COVID patients. She challenges our over-medicalized treatment of the dying, advocating a recovery of the “art of dying,” which also makes it possible to live well. She draws on ancient texts known as the Ars Moriendi and recovers their wisdom at a time when it is greatly needed. Review

Best Fiction:

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin. Hannah evokes the terrible splendor of the Alaskan wilderness and the fine line between love and peril in this troubled family. Review

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943). A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn. I finally got around to reading a classic which was among the most popular books among soldiers in World War II. Smith draws us into a Brooklyn setting of the past to tell an ageless story. Review

I realize this is a bit different list than some years. More books that touch in some way on the experiences of people of color. It has been that kind of year. Books on serious questions like depression and death. I have less fiction than usual. I did read other fiction, more in the diverting rather than great category. The exception perhaps is that I began reading the Chief Inspector Gamache books by author Louise Penny. I’m only three books in but am taken with Gamache and the people of Three Pines and the deeply insightful writing of Penny on the human condition. I’ve begun reading some Octavia Butler and Georges Simenon. All have been quite good but somehow didn’t fit this list. At any rate I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my choices, and feel free to let me know your “best books” choices as well. So many good books!

4 thoughts on “Bob on Books Best Books of 2020

  1. Bob, thanks so much for this kind mention. I usually catch your blog first thing in the morning, but today I raced to Columbus early in the day and did not see this until this evening. Thanks so much for your kind words. I am grateful for your sensibility as a reader, and your blog is a daily joy.

  2. My favourite books of this year include the following: The Good Shepherd by Kenneth Bailey, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Philip Keller, Claws of the Panda by Jonathan Manthorpe (examines how China has infiltrated Canada in so many ways), God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel by Costi Hinn, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Caroline by Sarah Miller, Thirty Years that Changed the World by Michael Green. The last title was originally published in 1992 but expressed many of the things I’ve heard my pastor say since Covid has invaded our world that I recommended he read the book. This is the first year in quite some time I’ve actually devoted more attention to fiction titles. Ishiguro and Miller’s books were well worth the time.
    I very much enjoy your blog and regularly find new titles to check out. Thank you for the time you devote to this task.
    Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year to you and your family from Canada

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