For 13 years, the first Book Banter column of the new year always meant taking one last look at the year before and see which books stood out for me over the previous 12 months. This past year, like ever other year, I read an average of 50 books, so that it can be reviewed in the pages of The Montreal Times practically every week (and twice a month on Peter Anthony Holder’s “Stuph File Program” podcast). Choosing a book to review is always done through a personal process of elimination, and that same process is done as I decided which were my favorite books of 2020.
This year’s top-selling books chiefly focused on three categories: race relations, the corona virus and Donald Trump. When it comes to the latter category, I quickly learned that any book that was favorable to the 45th President of the United States, or a memoir written by a loyal aide or staff member, ended up gathering dust on a book store shelf. On the other hand, any book that was strongly critical of the Trump administration ended up selling mass quantities of copies and topping many bestseller lists. And what was the top selling book of the year? A Promised Land, the first book of a two-volume presidential memoir by Barak Obama. Within a week of its November 17 release, it sold nearly two million copies and as of this writing, is still in the #1 spot on the New York Times nonfiction list.
So, without further ado, here are my favourite books of 2020:
Professional Heckler by Terry Mosher. This is my choice for book of the year. Terry “Aislin” Mosher is not only an award-winning, highly respected political cartoonist whose pointed cartoons dominated the pages of The Montreal Gazette for over 50 years, he has also become an expert on the subject of the history of political cartooning and the people who took up the pen to express their opinions on the issues of the day. With that in mind, Mosher’s latest book is an illustrated biography of the man who raised the bar high for political cartoonists in Canada: the late Duncan Macpherson, who made the Toronto Star his canvas, where he poked fun at every prime minister from Diefenbaker to Mulroney and every relevant issue that shaped Canada for five decades. Thanks to unlimited access to Macpherson’s archives and interviews with his family and surviving colleagues and friends, the book is a fitting tribute to the life and art of the legendary cartoonist who became a towering influence, not to mention quite a roguish character who got thrown out of the Toronto Press Club more times than any other individual.
The Answer Is… by Alex Trebek. Many fans – and contestants past and present – of the quiz show Jeopardy were saddened by the death of its host Alex Trebek this past fall after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. Luckily, besides the thousands of Jeopardy broadcasts he hosted since 1984, Trebek has left us his autobiography as living testimonies of his vast contributions to the world of television. From his beginnings in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, to his broadcasting apprenticeship on the CBC, to the many game shows he helmed before Jeopardy, Trebek tells his story with a great deal of humour, warmth and honesty. And fans of the show get a first-hand look at what goes on behind the scenes, his take on some of Jeopardy’s greatest contestants, as well as offering reflections that dealt with his valiant battle with cancer.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. In an address to the British people in 1940, the newly-appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, stated that the effort that the British government and its people were committed themselves towards defeating the Nazis would be its “finest hour”. However, Churchill’s first year as prime minister that led to that “finest hour” was filled with challenges he had to face not only because of an impending Nazi invasion, but also the slings and arrows that he had to deflect, which were fired by the loyal opposition and members of his war cabinet. Erik Larson, who has written best selling historical accounts of the sinking of the Lusitania and the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900, brings Britain’s most fateful year in his latest book. What I liked is how Larson traces every aspect of the events of that year – both known and not-so-known – as Churchill bravely faced what could have been a dire situation for Britain, and prepared himself and his country towards a long-fought victory that many in Berlin and London thought would make him go down in defeat.
Rage by Bob Woodward, Too Much and Not Enough by Mary Trump, Hoax by Brian Stelter, and A Very Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. The reason why these critical books about Donald Trump are grouped together into a single category is that I believe each one played its part collectively towards the downfall of the Trump presidency in a major fashion. Whether it be his outlandish behaviour as commander-in-chief in the White House, his relationship with Fox News that turned the cable news channel into an example of state-run media, or his dysfunctional family roots, these books showed in vivid details some of the aspects that shaped Trump’s character, and how his out-of-the-box approach to the presidency tore out the wires of many long-held government institutions and traditions, and possibly will rank him as THE worst president in American history.
Creature Feature by Steven Paul Leiva. In a dazzling tribute to baby boomer era pop culture, Steven Paul Leiva’s latest novel reads like a typical episode of The Twilight Zone. It focuses on Kathy Anderson, who in 1962 has gained fame hosting a popular monster movie show on a Chicago TV station. Tired of the daily grind of local TV, she decides to leave the Windy City for the Great White Way of Broadway. During her long drive, she makes a pit stop at her home town of Placidville, which she quickly realizes that the town and its people are somehow not the same when she left years before. Rod Serling would be proud of the way Leiva tells this baby boomer era story gone horribly wrong, which would have made him wish he wrote it himself. Definitely a retro treat for those who grew up watching their own locally-produced “Creature Feature” TV shows and read stacks of science fiction pulp magazines and copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
The Butcher of Park Ex by Andreas Kessaris. No matter when or where you spent your formative years, you will always have a soft spot for the suburb or neighbourhood where you grew up. For Montreal book reviewer Andres Kessaris, he spent his younger years in the northeast Montreal district of Park Extension (aka Park Ex). His memories of life in this culturally-diverse area is fondly recalled in his literary debut, a collection of personal stories called The Butcher of Park Ex. Whether it be family matters, observing cultural traditions, high school high jinx or first jobs, Kessaris recounts such incidents of his life with a great deal of humour and heartbreak, as many of the stories end up not the way he hoped it would. You may think that Kessaris was like a sad sack during his younger years, but his excellent storytelling talents is a great way to face and conquer that sad sack feeling.
Montreal Recorder’s Court 1906 by Robert N. Wilkins. Montreal historian Robert N. Wilkins has this knack of excavating many lesser known facts and incidents that make up the hidden history of this city. And he has done it again with flying colours with his latest book. This time, Wilkins focuses on a year in the life of the Montreal Recorder’s Court to find out the type of petty crimes that constantly filled its docket, whether they be health violations, truancy, prostitution, theft and even the first recorded automobile fatality in Montreal. How does he do it? By doing a great deal of diligent research the old fashioned way, by manually digging through reams of documentation and files to see which cases would make it to the book. It’s a fascinating, gritty and somewhat sad portrait of the seamy side of Montreal, and how justice was meted out on a daily basis during the Edwardian Era.
Fight the Fear by Jeffrey Gurian. This is the first book that I have reviewed that is available as downloadable e-book. And I am glad it was from remarkable individual and longtime friend Jeffrey Gurian, who is quite the renaissance man; not only is he a veteran comedy blogger and vlogger, he is also a comedy writer, a stand-up comedian, a licensed dentist and lecturer on holistic healing. His latest book deals with how one can realistically confront their fears and what can be done to fight them so that they do not rule your life. Instead of using complicated medical and psychological jargon, Gurian uses reader-friendly principles towards accomplishing this goal, as well as personal anecdotes on how he conquered his own fears (the chapters on his time at dental school and when he travelled by himself to Japan and Italy are alone worth the price of the book, which is also available in paperback).
Always Remembered by Danny Gallagher. It’s been 17 years since the Montreal Expos pulled up stakes to move south to Washington, D.C. and transform into the Washington Nationals; yet the team that we have referred to as “Nos Amours” from 1969 to 2004 have always remained in the hearts and minds of its multitude of fans ever since. Author Danny Gallagher has a deep love for the Expos, which has transcended to several books about the team. Always Remembered is his latest tome, in which he collects his cherished memories about the Expos and its colorful players. There are familiar stories and stories that are being told for the first time, including how a University of Michigan prospect was drafted by the Expos, but preferred the football route towards a successful athletic career; his name: Tom Brady. This book once again reinforces how much we miss our Expos.
Toe Blake by Paul Logothetis. When Montreal sports fans think of the late Hector “Toe” Blake, three things come to mind: his popular tavern on St. Catherine Street, as one-third of the Canadiens’ “Punch Line” of the 1940s, and as the driven coach who led the Habs to eight Stanley Cup championships during his 13 years behind the bench. After that, there is nothing much. Thankfully, Paul Logothetis’ biography, the first full-length book about Blake, fills in all the blanks quite effectively. We get to see the private Toe Blake, whose drive to make the Montreal Canadiens a powerful force in the NHL almost wrecked his health, and how he handled his post-coaching years when the cheering stopped for him. A must-read for hockey fans everywhere.
The Eighth Wonder of the World by Bertrand Hebert and Pat Laprade. Andre Roussimoff grew up in a farm in rural France, the son of Polish immigrants. He was taller and bigger than his siblings thanks to a hormonal disorder called acromegaly. But he didn’t let that stop him from becoming a literal giant of the pro wrestling world, changing his name first to Giant Jean Ferre and then Andre the Giant, and becoming a superstar of the mat in Japan, England, Montreal and the United States. Hebert and Laprade, who have become authorities on the world of pro wrestling, has produced a gargantuan biography that tells the real story behind this wrestling legend. Two things that you take away from this book are that wrestling was Andre’s life (until health problems forced him to retire from the ring in the late 80s) and that he was a man who appreciated good friends, good times and a good party. This book is the type of book that is fitting for a person who was a true giant of a man in more ways than one.
And that takes care of 2020. Have a great page-turning 2021.