Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Non-Fiction Books That Wowed -2020

Each year I write a blog that addresses books that felt significant to me. It’s an interesting process deciding what goes on the list and ultimately an emotional decision. There are some books I’ve read that win lots of awards, but don’t make it to my list. I may have enjoyed them or felt they had an interesting concept, but when I put them down I didn’t say “Wow.” So, what draws a wow? Well, I know it when I see it and then I figure out the why. 

This year 50% of the books that made it to my list were nonfiction. Half are authors who I had read previously. With one exception they all were published this year.  They covered a wide variety of topics but all were ones that addressed an interest of mine or to my surprise became an interest after I finished the book. The common theme is often history and they expanded my knowledge and understanding. Some of these books bore a clear relationship to today’s events.

Past Informs Present


A book that falls within this category is The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History published in 2005 by John Barry about the 1918 flu epidemic. I read it soon after our pandemic began and was struck by some of the lessons that we failed to learn. One of the big spreaders of the 1918 flu was the movement of soldiers and the downplaying by the government of its seriousness in order to not adversely affect the war effort. Over 100 years later our government also was playing down the impact lest it adversely affect the economy. In 1918, science was in a much earlier stage and they lacked many of the tools we have today. Even given the progress since, we too lacked the tools to respond immediately to today’s virus. We were forced to rely on many of the same mechanisms as they did in 1918, quarantining and masks. The book looks at the pandemic through many lens, exploring the science, the efforts to understand and prevent the spread of this illness, the response of the government, the public and the scientists who led the exploration. Realizing we have been here before and how little we learned was sobering but gave me a framework by which to evaluate the response of our government.

Isabel Wilkerson, a favorite author of mine for her prior  book Warmth of Other Suns, made my list with her newest book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020). In this book she frames racism through the lens of caste, then broadens the lens beyond America to include examples from Nazi Germany and India to show its reach beyond race. In looking at our personal responsibility, she uses the metaphor of an old house which we have inherited with its uneven floors and leaky roof. As owners we take responsibility for rectifying those flaws, just as we must do for the structure of caste. A caste system determines who benefits at the expense of others lower in the structure. It freezes a structure in place and limits movement within it. “Like a cast on a broken arm, like a cast of a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.” Much of the uproar we have observed through this election is due to beneficiaries of that caste system feeling their perch slipping away. Wilkerson has a gift for metaphor and story that makes her concepts accessible and her text engaging. During the same period of time, I was reading the book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee which traces the history of immigration in the United States and the inherent xenophobia that frequently reared its head. It echoed and complemented many of the themes addressed by Wilkerson.


One of my genealogy clients introduced me to The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) by Jonathan Kaufman. I had read his prior book A Hole in the Heart of the World and been wowed. Now I was wowed once again. I especially like the work of journalists as they seem particularly adept at telling a story.  Two Jewish families from Baghdad, the Sassoons and the Kadooris created business dynasties in early China, surviving the Japanese occupation, building relationships with Chiang Kai Shek and losing much of their property when Mao came to power. They succeeded by creating relationships with the Chinese, taking advantage of advances in communications and transportation and focusing on education and training for their workers. 

I was familiar with stories of Jews coming to Shanghai as refugees escaping the Nazis. Often there was a mention of the Sassoons and Kandooris who eased their way, feeding, housing, training and employing them. I had known of their generosity, but I knew nothing of the history of these families and how they came to wield such an outsized influence. 

Of particular interest was the impact their efforts had on modern-day China. While the Sassoons lost much of their fortune in Shanghai when Mao came to power, the Kandooris retreated to Hong Kong. They would later renew political ties when Deng Xiaoping rose to power. In Hong Kong  they built the light and power company, providing electricity to China as well, and played a significant role in turning Hong Kong into a cosmopolitan city.

Presenting a Bigger Picture


I recently read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (2020), which explored the role Winston Churchill played during the war. Churchill is one character, the war and its story yet another. Then Larson adds the British people and their interrelationship with both Churchill and the war. The story lies in the juxtaposition of these three elements. I realized that I had known pieces of the story, but never had knit it together into a comprehensive whole. I had seeds of that story from disparate sources, a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, the historical fiction of Connie Willis during the Blitz, the play Breaking the Code on cracking the German code. All of these captured elements, aspects, each stories within themselves, but it was only after this book that I came away with a fuller sense of the broader story. It captured the experience of those who lived in Britain whose lives were upended and sometimes ended, the challenges of warfare and the creative ways in which they fought back against new technological developments, and the relationship with the US in supporting the British war effort. Churchill oversaw and drove these efforts. Most importantly, he rallied the support of the nation in a war which threatened every person where they lived.

An Unexpected Find


My last non-fiction book Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl (2020) by Jonathan Slaght is a bit of an outlier. I was led there through the artwork of one of my fellow artists in the Jewish Artists Lab. She had created artwork around the environmental challenges for the survival of the Blakistons’ owl. I had never been aware of the fish owl and suddenly there was a one-two punch designed by the universe to draw my attention to this topic. A book had just come out on the owl and The Museum of Russian Art was hosting a talk by the author. I was charmed both by the owl itself which is a rather whimsical-looking creature and the author who had such a passion for this creature and its survival. His story encompasses the story of the owl and its historic habitat, his efforts to learn the key elements that support its existence, the crew of rather colorful Russians with whom he builds relationships to pursue this exploration and the challenges and beauty of the region itself. This seemingly niche book has deservedly attracted a broad range of literary recognition.


Stay tuned for my future blog on the fiction that engaged me in 2020.

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