Posts Tagged ‘Erik Larson’

The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson – The Battle of Britain and the Blitz


‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson (2020) – 503 pages


I generally don’t read a work of non-fiction like I do a novel. For non-fiction, I usually skip around looking for interesting parts. However, for the non-fiction works of Erik Larson, I read them straight through from beginning to end.

Erik Larson is a popularizer of history, not an original source. His works are not original or rigorous or deep. Larson writes for enthusiastic novices like me.

It helps that in ‘The Splendid and the Vile’, he is writing about one of my own personal heroes, Winston Churchill, during the time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz when England was under severe attack by Nazi Germany’s air force. Larson does write about all the major players, but the emphasis always returns to Winston Churchill.

Here, as in other speeches , Churchill demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all more courageous.”

Besides the war coverage, the book covers many personal scenes of Churchill and his family and his friends such as Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, and Frederick Lindemann, Churchill’s scientific advisor. Larson captures the vivid personalities of the major players.

Embarrassed officials would often encounter Winston, robed like a Roman emperor in his bath towel, proceeding dripping from his bathroom across the main highway to his bedroom…Churchill strutting about in his gold-dragon nightclothes and jabbing the air with a dead cigar, savoring the sound and feel of words. ”

We have the horrific results of the German bombing raids in London and other places in England juxtaposed with idyllic garden scenes of “sunny loveliness and perfect peace”.

Midst the havoc, life goes on. We get party scenes, one where Churchill’s daughter Mary dances with a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Montaigne.

I felt incredibly gay – I waltzed with Jean Pierre incovertly, wildly and very fast – great fun. I missed only a few dances.”

It helps to capture the spirit that quite a few individuals kept personal diaries during that time.

So much for the splendid; Larson also captures the vile, the Nazi leaders such as Herman Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, and Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer.

But we always come back to Winston Churchill, “his vast knowledge of history, his power of expression, and his huge energy”.

Somehow, through it all, Churchill had taught them the art of being fearless.”


Grade:    A


‘Dead Wake’ by Erik Larson – The Sinking of the Lusitania

‘Dead Wake’ by Erik Larson (2015) – 359 pages      Grade: B



The sinking of the Lusitania was no accident. The giant passenger cruise ship was torpedoed by a German submarine U-boat on May 7, 1915 during World War I leaving 1198 passengers and crew dead. Germany had just issued an advisory against ship travel through the war zone, but the warning was paid little attention.

“The idea that Germany would dare attempt to sink a fully loaded civilian passenger ship seemed beyond rational consideration.”

At that point there were still rules about not killing civilians in wars, but those rules were rapidly disappearing. The United States consul in Queenstown, Ireland said, “The reference to the Lusitania was obvious enough, but personally it never entered my mind for a moment that the Germans would perpetrate an attack upon her. The culpability of such an act seemed too blatant and raw for an intelligent people to take upon themselves.”

However the German U-boat commander had no misgivings about torpedoing a liner full of civilians. His performance was measured in the amount of ship tonnage he sank.

The non-fiction ‘Dead Wake’ covers the sinking of the Lusitania in a very traditional fashion. The ship name ‘Lusitania’ was the country name that the ancient Romans had given to Portugal. We get the stories of a number of the passengers on the boat and all the details about what was on the boat, its route, and what happened on deck. After the ship was torpedoed, it listed so badly that only 6 of the 22 lifeboats could be launched, and soon the ship tipped over completely and sank. Some of the passengers mistakenly thought that they would be safer on the huge ship than on the tiny lifeboats.

A mass wail rose from all it engulfed.  “All the despair, terror and anguish of hundreds of souls passing into eternity composed that awful cry.”

There is some speculation that England did not adequately guard the huge cruise ship through dangerous waters because there were many Americans on board, and England wanted to force the United States into World War I. 128 Americans were among the dead. There were also war munitions on board the Lusitania.

The only other Erik Larson I read was ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ which was about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in the years leading up to World War II. This was new and highly compelling material, a story I did not know before about this entire American family dealing with the Nazis. I may be different from most of Larson’s audience, but this ship disaster did not hold my interest to that extent. Tragedies happen nearly every day, and each one has its compelling details which we get in the newspapers. Reading the Wikipedia article about the Lusitania probably would have been sufficient for me. I really don’t want or need all the minutia about the Lusitania’s final voyage. With his talent for exposition, Erik Larson should be finding more original striking story lines.

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