Finding an end of the year read can be tricky. Perhaps you’ve escaped through the pages of non-fiction stories from more normal days, and need just a few more tales of the before-times. Or maybe you’re still wishing you could go way back and historical fiction is your safest bet.
Wherever you’ve found comfort in pages this year, you can land somewhere on this list and shore up your 2020 reading target (or just sit and enjoy without the pressure of an end goal).
Compiled by Carina Julig, Staff Writer
Winter Counts | David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Winter Counts, the debut novel by Denver local and Sicangu Lakota nation citizen David Heska Wanbli Weiden, brings a much-needed addition to the canon of Native American literature.
Virgil Wounded Horse lives on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he takes care of his orphaned nephew and serves as the reservation’s dealer of vigilante justice. Virgil initially turns down a job offer to go after a man allegedly dealing heroin on the reservation, but after it reaches his family he has no choice but to get involved. The pursuit gets him entangled in the messy world of tribal politics and the war on drugs, and takes him all the way to Denver, where he takes a break from crime fighting to dine at a certain scenic Mexican restaurant. Along the way he rekindles a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Marie, who is fighting her own battle to improve life on the rez but is torn between family obligation and personal passion. As Virgil and Marie try to chase down the drug dealers, they learn that the true culprits may be closer to home than they were prepared for.
Crime fiction too often relegates Native Americans to the scenery, serving as bits of local color or character studies in tragedy. Winter Counts doesn’t shy away from the problems facing Native Americans today, but it doesn’t indulge in misery either, and it’s refreshing to read a crime novel where Native characters propel their own destinies. Weiden paints a rich portrait of reservation life, and his characters — ranging from hard-headed pragmatists to starry-eyed idealists — push back against the monolithic interpretation of Native identity. Weiden has a law degree, and his incorporation of real-world criminal issues makes the novel come to life and the stakes feel much higher. Hopefully this is just the beginning of his literary career.
Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation | Anne Helen Petersen
In January of 2019, former Buzzfeed culture reporter Anne Helen Petersen’s article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” quickly went viral. Racking up over seven million views, the article touched a nerve with millennial readers, who reached out in droves to tell Petersen she had described exactly what they were going through. She expanded the article into a book about the phenomenon, Can’t Even, which was released this fall. Petersen’s overarching thesis is that rising costs of living and burgeoning student loan debt without an attendant rise in wages are combining to shut millennials out of many of the traditional stepping stones of adulthood, leading to a unique sense of burnout. The older generations, on the other hand, had a much smoother pathway to financial security and are now hoarding opportunities for themselves.
The problems Petersen identifies are real, but her main conceit — that millennials are uniquely challenged — is dubious. It’s true that stagnant wages and rising costs of higher education have disproportionately worked against younger people. However, her attempt to make societal ills into a generational wedge issue repeatedly falls flat. Petersen’s argument that young people are systematically disenfranchised sidesteps the fact that racism and sexism worked to bar many people in older generations from obtaining higher education or owning their own homes. The sense of downward mobility for some millennials is in many ways a product of the postwar boom that opened up doorways to the middle class for white Americans while shutting others out. Meanwhile, many Americans of color have a much better pathway to obtaining the American dream than their parents, and certainly their grandparents, did.
And across all races, older people struggle with financial instability too: the elderly are rapidly becoming a larger share of the homeless population and a 2018 data analysis from ProPublica found that over half of workers over age 50 are pushed out of work before they voluntarily retire and are unlikely to find new jobs that pay as well. Making a generational issue out of something that is so dramatically influenced by race, class and gender mostly seems effective at making young people bitter towards those in the older generations who are facing similar challenges, an antithesis of the coalition-building ethos espoused by the labor movement.
The book was written largely before the coronavirus pandemic hit, which had the unfortunate impact of making it seem dated almost upon arrival. The economic havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked strengthen some of Petersen’s arguments, particularly her writing about how the precariousness of the gig economy and hollowed-out labor protections hurt workers. Her chapter on parenting burnout, which outlines how millennial women were raised to think they could “have it all” but still ended up burdened with a disproportionate share of housework and childrearing duties, is one of the book’s strongest. Its outline of how a lack of affordable childcare and shoddy paid leave disenfranchise mothers is especially timely now that the pandemic is causing women to leave the workforce in droves. But again, the pandemic’s problems aren’t limited to one generation and has been much more deadly for the old than the young.
Can’t Even also offers a frustrating lack of potential solutions other than a vague call to unite in solidarity with others who are suffering the deleterious effects of our stress-inducing culture. It’s not bad advice, but it comes in the last few pages of the book after 250 pages of soft generational warfare. That’s ultimately the problem: the book’s insights about our modern culture are often incisive, but it doesn’t make a strong enough argument for its own premise.
Hamnet | Maggie O’Farrell
The Bard has long been a source of fodder for historical fiction, but his family has received less attention. This novel focuses on Shakespeare’s wife and children, who lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon while he charmed audiences in London. Not much is known about Shakespeare’s family besides brief historical details, including the fact that his only son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at only 11 years old. Several years later Shakespeare would go on to write the tragic play Hamlet, one of his most enduring works.
The novel follows Hamnet in the final days before his death of the bubonic plague (a speculation of O’Farrell’s, the cause of his death was not recorded) and Shakespeare’s wife Agnes (also known as Anne) through the course of her marriage to Will. The novel is a tender interrogation of how the death of a child strains the bonds of marriage, and a look at the possible ways his son’s death may have influenced Shakespeare’s work. Modern medicine and sanitation have largely taken us away from the time when every ache or chill could be a sign of impending disaster, so the book’s release into a world where we are once again much more aware of our own mortality makes it all the more profound. Despite England regularly being ravaged by the Black Death during his lifetime, the illness is never mentioned in any of Shakespeare’s works. O’Farrell said her novel grew out of speculation about the significance of that absence. An interesting theory, and also one that leads to curiosity about how we will — or won’t — use art to make sense of our current moment.
The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State | Declan Walsh
Journalist Declan Walsh spent nine years reporting from Pakistan for the Guardian and the New York Times before Pakistan’s security agency abruptly forced him to leave the country in 2013. Subsequent attempts to return or to figure out why he had been expelled were fruitless, until years later he received a message from an erstwhile intelligence agent bearing answers. Walsh’s book, which synthesizes his nine years of reporting and reveals what finally landed him in hot water, is a fascinating and deeply nuanced portrait of a country most Americans know only for the terrorist organizations it harbors or its long-simmering conflict with neighboring India. Walsh touches on both of those topics but goes much further as well, using the stories of nine Pakistanis to paint a broad picture of the country’s history, politics and culture that’s accessible to readers with little prior knowledge of the region. The Nine Lives of Pakistan will transport you if you’re looking for something to tear yourself away from the U.S.’s own political and social turmoil — but the lessons it tells about how corruption, sectarianism and a lack of faith in the political process can hijack democracy won’t be lost on anyone.
Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life | Katherine E. Standefer
Three years after the surgery that implanted it in her chest, Katherine E. Standefer is shocked three times in a row by her defibrillator in the middle of a soccer game. Lying on the ground stunned by the impact of 2,000 volts, she has a sudden revelation: was the cost of saving her life worth it? That’s the question that propels Lightning Flowers, which goes back and forth between the story of Standefer’s own medical journey and reporting on how defibrillators are produced, including how the precious metals that go into them are mined. Standefer and her sister both discover that they have Long QT syndrome, a heart defect that can cause arrhythmia and death. At the time she finds out about her condition in her early 20s, Standefer is living in Jackson Hole with her boyfriend, training to be a ski instructor and going on long, outdoor adventures in the Wyoming wilderness.
The diagnosis throws her whole life into turmoil. Doctors place her on medication that keeps her heart rate below a certain level, limiting the amount of exercise she can do, and recommend that she get a defibrillator. Uninsured in the pre-Affordable Care Act era, Standefer moves to Boulder to take advantage of the Colorado Indigent Care Program, which provides discounted healthcare services to low-income people. She gets the surgery, but suffers from a series of ongoing health problems related to the device, including a displaced wire in her chest and a near-deadly bout of infection. Her struggles are made harder by the labyrinthine process of getting insurance to cover the treatments she wants to access, even after the ACA is passed, and the condescending way some doctors approach her case, behaving as if her opinions about her own treatment are irrelevant.
Ultimately, Standefer becomes disillusioned with her ICD, questioning whether it was ever medically necessary in the first place or if she could have found another way to manage her condition if she had access to a broader range of options. Standefer’s personal journey is interspersed with her reporting on how ICDs are created, which take her to mining camps in Rwanda and Madagascar where forests are cut down and villagers are exposed to toxic chemicals in the search for the cobalt, gold, tin and other metals that make the life-saving devices. Standefer’s curiosity brings to light the kind of ethical quandaries we all live with but prefer not to think about. As she writes: “What can save us, I would learn, never comes without a cost.”