Top Books of 2020 That Struck a Literary or Musical Chord
A writer's fictional joyride, a rock & roll memoir, and jazz fairy tales are books that sang this year
What a year, huh? At least the lockdown gave me time to enjoy a few classics on my lengthy to-read list: Toni Morrison's exquisite BELOVED, John Steinbeck's heartbreaking THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and George Orwell's frighteningly relevant 1984.
Pre-lockdown, I wrestled with Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán's THE DREAMED PART (Open Letter Press, translated by Will Vanderhyden), the second in a trilogy. Like its predecessor, The Invented Part, this massive, challenging, nonlinear tome about an unnamed writer takes you on a freewheeling, literary joyride.
Probably not surprisingly, much of my year's reading concerned music. An utter delight was Austin native Kathy Valentine's heartfelt ALL I EVER WANTED: A ROCK 'N' ROLL MEMOIR (UT Press), which traces her life growing up locally, playing in Austin punk bands, and following her dreams to L.A. to find R&R stardom with the Go-Go's. She really makes you feel it all: the ups, the downs, the parties, the drugs, the heartbreaks, the thrill of being family in a groundbreaking, hugely successful band.
The debut of jazz maven Mark Ruffin, BEBOP FAIRY TALES: AN HISTORICAL FICTION TRILOGY ON JAZZ, INTOLERANCE, AND BASEBALL (Rough in Creative Works) is a trio of long short stories, based on true events, that address, as the title implies, an array of American ideals. I just love the way Ruffin deftly incorporates Louis Jordan's "Saturday Night Fish Fry," Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," and a thinly disguised James Baldwin into his uplifting tales.
SITTIN’ IN: JAZZ CLUBS OF THE 1940S AND 1950s by Jeff Gold (Harper Design) would make a treasured gift for any jazz enthusiast. This amazing collection of rare B&W photographs of jazz fans, club memorabilia, and musicians, in that order, with interviews of Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, and Jason Moran, serves as a fascinating time capsule from jazz’s Golden Age.
I’m ending this crazy, stressful year with a wonderfully escapist balm of a novel, David Mitchell’s UTOPIA AVENUE (Random House). It’s the hilarious story, set in 1967 London, of a four-piece bar band as it falteringly navigates its way to pop stardom. The unruly cast of characters, spot-on cameos, and hip cultural references help make for a thoroughly enjoyable read.