What were the best books of 2020? 3 Berkeleyside contributors share their favorites

President Barack Obama’s memoir made the cut but so did a quiet novel, ‘Looking for Eliza’ by Leaf Arbuthnot.

Books on display at Books, Inc. on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Every year, Berkeleyside presents its favorite books of the year. Sometimes we ask our contributors or community members for their favorites as well. This year, Mal Warwick, an avid reader who writes Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books, offers up his top five books; as does Berkeleyside co-founder Lance Knobel, now CEO of Cityside, the nonprofit parent company of Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside; and Frances Dinkelspiel, executive editor of Berkeleyside and Cityside co-founder, as well as the author of two non-fiction books: Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California and Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the  Vineyards of California.

Mal Warwick’s top five books for 2020

No reader of the New York Times Book Review, or for that matter anyone who stares in the windows of shuttered bookstores, will be surprised by my selection of the five best books I’ve read this year.

Topping the list are three novels. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (reviewed atA brilliant novel dramatizes life under Jim Crow) garnered the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Deacon King Kong by James McBride (Unforgettable characters in this delightful new novel) was an Oprah’s Book Club Pick and one of The New York Times’ Top Ten Books of the Year. And Megha Majumdar’s brilliant literary debut, A Burning (Terrorism, corruption, and Hindu nationalism in India today), seemed to crop up on every book reviewer’s list of the best novels of the year.

Rounding out my top five are two extraordinary works of nonfiction that take us behind the scenes where world-shaping decisions were made. A Promised Land by Barack Obama (Barack Obama’s memoir is a literary tour de force) broke all the rules of political memoirs, eschewing the usual self-justification and score-settling to serve up instead a thoughtful self-portrait of a man thrust into global leadership. And Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (An intimate view of Winston Churchill in WW2) offers an intimate view of the legendary war leader through the eyes of his family and friends.


Hmmm. Now that I look back at this list, I see they’re all political. Oh, well. So it goes.

Frances Dinkelspiel’s top five books for 2020

Narrowing all the books I read this year down to my favorite five was a difficult task. I couldn’t include Chanel Miller’s incredible memoir, Know My Name, about the aftermath of her rape by a Stanford swimmer, or Sue Miller’s novel, Monogamy, on life after a spouse dies. Or A Burning by Megha Majumdar (also picked by Mal Warwick, above). They were the runner-ups.

The book that I gobbled up this year and sent out to friends was Ariana Neumann’s When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. It is the story of her father who was born in Czechoslovakia, saw the Nazis murder 25 members of his family, hid in plain sight in Berlin during WWII and emigrated to Venezuela where he became a successful businessman. He rarely mentioned his past but when he died he left his daughter a box of family letters. Neumann follows the clues she finds in the correspondence to uncover her father’s hidden history and comes to better understand why he raised her the way he did. I love history told through family sagas.

I was also floored by Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us about her childhood in Mexico and the story of how her family came to the U.S. (without papers) for a new life. I had not heard of Grande before the new bookclub of Alta magazine selected her memoir, which was published in 2014. The book, while a family story, explains why so many people leave Mexico for the U.S., despite the hardships and dangers.

As a journalist, I have a soft spot for tales of journalistic heroism, especially since President Trump has undermined the public’s confidence in reporting with his Chicken Little calls of fake news. Lesley M. Blume’s book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who revealed It To the World reveals the importance of reporters in debunking official government explanations. Her book tells the story of how the New Yorker writer John Hershey peeled back the lie told by the U.S. government that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was just like every other bomb, only bigger. The impact of his work was profound, both in exposing the destructive nature of the bomb and in using the story of six individuals to show how radiation sickened and killed so many people.

Scott James, Trial By Fire: A Devastating Tragedy, 100 Lives Lost, and the 15-year Search For Truth, is another example of how investigative reporting can upend official truths. Scott is a friend of mine and I got the book in galley form and couldn’t put it down. It is the story of a fire that broke out in a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. in 2003 and killed 100 people in just 90 seconds. The fire was sparked by pyrotechnics set off by a band. Scott had been a television producer in Rhode Island before the inferno and never could forget the tragedy or stop wondering who was really responsible. That drove him to write the book. Scott explores the rush to blame the two brothers who owned the club and the over-reach of the Providence newspaper, eager to win a prize for its reporting. He follows the trajectory of a few of the people injured in the fire. It took years of digging, but Scott provides the first explanation of how and why the fire started.

Last but not least, I also loved Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy by Daniel Newman, the founder of Berkeley-based Maplight, which tracks money in politics. It’s a graphic nonfiction book that discusses the corrupting power of money in politics. The book, illustrated by George O’Connor, also explains Newman’s journey to expose the impact of dark money and to present solutions. Maplight and Newman were the forces behind Berkeley’s public campaign financing law which has allowed people who might never have run for office to step up as candidates. The book shows how early attempts to pass the law failed and what Newman had to do to create a successful coalition. This is a great gift for older teenagers and young adults.

Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

Lance Knobel’s top five books for 2020

When I read books this year, I generally wanted to get far, far away from the intense political issues that filled my doom-scrolling hours on Twitter. The one exception was Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. Reaganland is the fourth and apparently final volume in Perlstein’s compelling, magisterial history of the rise of the radical right from the Goldwater fringe to effective control of political power in the US. Essential reading if you want to know how we got to our current, sorry pass.

Leaf Arbuthnot’s Oxford-based first novel Looking for Eliza gave me a lot of reading pleasure. It’s the story of the relationship between a lonely, recently widowed poet and an equally lonely literature graduate student. You won’t find anything profound, but you’d be a hard-hearted reader not to get involved with these characters.

Money for Nothing by Thomas Levenson is a new history of the 1720 South Sea Bubble (obligatory, lengthy subtitle: The Scientists, Fraudsters, and Corrupt Politicians Who Reinvented Money, Panicked a Nation, and Made the World Rich). Levenson explains how the scientific revolution led to what we now call financial innovation. (Neatly, Isaac Newton got caught in the South Sea Bubble.) The twist, which Levenson is absolutely convincing about, is that Britain’s financial ingenuity to get out of the crash directly enabled the comparatively small island nation to fight on an equal footing with massive France. Think Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo? Liquid financial markets in London had a lot to do with that, too.

2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. In my pandemic bubble, that occasion went largely uncelebrated. Fortunately, I found Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces before the anniversary year was finished. Tunbridge digs into nine works to reveal aspects of Beethoven’s life, work and approach to music. She provides insight into the musical culture of Beethoven’s Vienna, Beethoven’s troubled personal life, the economics of music publishing in the period and much more. Best of all, with each chapter Tunbridge made me eager to put my headphones on to listen again to Beethoven’s music. A great way to restore personal humanity if you’ve been overly immersed in today’s politics.

For a fifth, I’d recommend Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. It’s a fascinating economic history of the devastating impact of western traders/slavers on what were thriving, sophisticated, globally connected societies. A side of the global tragedy of slavery that I knew very little about.

Selected books:

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Deacon King Kong by
 James McBride
A Burning
by Megha Majumdar
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains
by Ariana Neumann
The Distance Between Us
by Reyna Grande
Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who revealed It To the World
by Lesley M. Blume
Trial By Fire: A Devastating Tragedy, 100 Lives Lost, and the 15-year Search For Truth
by Scott James
Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy
by Daniel Newman, illustrated by George O’Connor
Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980
by Rick Perlstein
Looking for Eliza
by Leaf Arbuthnot
Money for Nothing: The Scientists, Fraudsters, and Corrupt Politicians Who Reinvented Money, Panicked a Nation, and Made the World Rich
by Thomas Levenson
Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge
A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green