some favorites: books I read in 2020

At the beginning of 2020, I thought I might start writing in this blog again.

And then – globalpandemic studentteachingcancelled stayathomeorders policecontinuingtomurderinnocentblackpeopleinthestreets localandglobalprotests localbusinessesgoneforever moremurdering peoplelosingtheirlivesandlivelihoods firstyearteacher devastatingwildfires apresidentwhoisanembarrasmentandadanger aninsaneelection vaccineconspiracies

There was so much to say that I didn’t write anything at all, here. It was all too big or too small, and I was too overwhelmed and anxious about the world, most days – if not that, working, or in the streets, or attempting to distract myself.

Books were an occasional excellent distraction, although I’m a little bummed to say that my ratio of TV watching to book reading went up this year. For awhile, the libraries were closed; then our local library was damaged in the uprisings and closed and I had to sort out a new one. But more than that, TV shows were often just easier to lose myself in. I’ve spent a lot of time since March craving escape, and this is reflected both in the shows I often watched and the books I often read.

With that said, here are some of the things I read this year that I’d recommend to others for one reason or another. They are presented in no particular order.

The bookcases in the apartment Niko and I moved into a year ago.

We Want to Do More Than Survive, by Bettina Love (NF) | Important introduction to abolitionist, anti-racist, anti-colonial teaching for any educators out there. I also highly recommend watching Love speak – check out some of her presentations online.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson (NF) | Ok disclaimer – I haven’t finished this one yet, even though I was technically supposed to for book club months ago. But I have read half so far, which is enough to know that it is very, very worth your time. Like her book The Great Migration, Wilkerson somehow tells a crucial, complex, devastating story like she’s weaving a story around a campfire. And she makes gold out of intricately wrought extended metaphors.

The Searcher, by Tana French (F) | I just love some Tana French, what can I say. “Tana French has drawn such a devoted following that it borders on cultish,” says the New York Times, and I would have to admit that perhaps I’m one of the people they’re talking about. (Somewhat literary, Irish/English detective stories with great characters. This one is a stand-alone novel with an American narrator, although it’s still set in Ireland.)

Chemistry, by Weike Wang (F) | SURPRISE HIT! I don’t even remember why I requested this wee book at the library, but loved it so much. Wang’s writing is just…so good. So charming. So funny and sad and enlightening and SO GOOD GO READ THIS BOOK. (It’s a novel about…chemistry, how much PhD programs suck, love, friendship, tutoring? The New York Times called it “an anti-coming-of-age story.”)

The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans (F, stories) | Smart, sometimes funny, character-driven short stories (and a novella) about race and racism in the US; being a young woman in the US; relationships. My biggest issue is that I kept wanting all of the short stories to just be a whole book.

South Pole Station, by Ashley Shelby (F) | What a weird little novel but I was totally into it. It’s about…climate change, climate change deniers, science, art, polar exploration, sexism? There’s an exciting plot, I promise. NPR calls it “unusual” and “entertaining.”

La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth, by Phillip Pullman (F) | The Golden Compass prequels. I remember reading The Golden Compass as a kid; more accurately, I remember my dad reading it aloud to us on the beach. I think many people would love these even if you weren’t already a Lyra Belacqua fan.

Normal People, by Sally Rooney (F) | Rooney is a great writer; she has a spare, very effective style. This is the story of a true love and a complicated friendship between two young Irish people as they’re kids, go to school, grow up. I haven’t watched the recent TV adaptation yet because the story is so emotional that I’m almost kind of scared to watch it play out on a screen, but it’s a great book.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel (F) | I’m realizing that most of these novels have really hard-to-describe plots. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. A long-term scheme; an isolated hotel; a disaster on a shipping line. Characters that weave into one another’s lives. This book is very well-written and utterly gripping and made for one of our best book club discussions yet.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (F) | Bennett, along with the above three authors, is another one with previous works I also loved – hers being The Mothers. When I started reading Vanishing Half I thought it wasn’t quite measuring up to The Mothers, but by the end, I’d decided that maybe it’d surpassed it. Anyway, if you haven’t read either yet, get on it. (The Vanishing Half is about two twin sisters – one vanishes when they’re young adults, and they end up living completely different lives. NPR says, “a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling. It’s also a great read.”)

Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiever (NF) | I stole this from Caulay on a little island in the Boundary Waters and read it in my tent over a couple nights. Weird, to read about the tech world of Silicon Valley while in the midst of nothing but pines and blue water and canoes. I knew nothing about start-up culture really, before this book, and the memoir kind of blew my mind. It’s quick and fascinating.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (F) | I think you have to have the version of this book with a thick, green and shiny gold cover to get the proper effect whilst reading it. This is one that’s gotten very mixed reviews from the folks I know who have read it, so who knows, you might hate it. The good people at the New Yorker, who are much smarter than I am, were not big fans. But I really liked it – it’s this winding, exciting fairy tale complete with armored knights and magical boatmen, that asks how important it really is to remember the past, and asks one to weigh peace and bliss against pulling back the wool from one’s eyes.

Another Country, by James Baldwin (F) | I read this whole book while thru-hiking the Border Route Trail with Heather, tracing the border of the US and Canada through mosquito-thick boreal forest, in a setting nearly as different from the book’s setting, New York City, as one could get. It was early July, a little over a month after Chauvin and the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. I kept reading bits out loud or saying things like, “shit things are no better now.” It’s a hell of a story, and there’s some extreme violence against women that was awfully hard to read, but obviously Baldwin is an incredible writer, and I’d recommend this one just as I would anything else he’s written.

Honorable Mentions:

Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer (NF) | An oddly and nicely written memoir about a very very long horse race in Mongolia.

End of the Rope, by Jan Redford (NF) | A less well-written memoir, but with some very gripping stories about rock climbing adventures and mishaps, along with an exploration of sexism in climbing and a young climber mom’s relationship to her body, her kids, and her abusive husband.

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson (F) | A weird little story that got a little too sentimental and pat, but was the perfect book for me on an otherwise anxiety-ridden week. It’s about a scientist who runs a long-term experiment in a kind of commune, where many parents raise their children completely collectively – the kids don’t even know who their biological parents are.

Like a Mother, by Angela Garbes (NF) and Expecting Better, by Emily Oster | Data-driven, feminist, un-mushy. I learned so many fun new placenta facts from both of these books.

Wow, No Thank You, Samantha Irby (NF essays) | During the course of reading this collection of essays, I went from “meh” to “wow, yes please.” (HA see what I did there??) Irby is very smart, very sarcastic, very funny.

Previous Lists:


5 thoughts on “some favorites: books I read in 2020

  1. Isabel Wilkerson is one of my absolute favorites. So glad you recommended her books here for other readers. I will have to try “Chemistry” as it sounds like a gem especially in this time of anti-intellectualism.

      1. Not the newest book but quite a read just like “The Warmth of Other Suns, The Great Migration” is “The Defender.” I believe it is mentioned in Isabelle’s book as well. It is lengthy but filled with so much history about Pullman Porters and the Chicago newspaper, “The Defender,” the books namesake.

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