Best Books of 2020
Yes, this year is (finally) coming to a close and it’s time to share my favorite books of 2020! And I’m happy to report that with more than 30 days left in the year I am proud to report I just broke my all-time reading record of 120 books in a year. Barack Obama’s memoir was #121, and I have four weeks left to up the ante.
So 2020 taketh but 2020 also giveth!
Everyone has different tastes but I try to include a cross-section of the books that I read. I love character-driven modern fiction, books-in-translation (see my Read the World entry for my favorites there), historical fiction, memoirs, and social justice. I threw in a work book or two as well just to keep things interesting.
It’s tricky to pick favorites (unless Pride and Prejudice is in the running and then it’s easy) but I hope there is something in this list that suits your fancy! And a friendly reminder — support an independent bookstore this holiday season! Say no to Amazon and say yes to your favorite neighborhood bookstore.
The Midnight Library (Matt Haig): If you’re not a Matt Haig fan you should check out his writing (as well as his Instagram). This book follows a woman who, between life and death, is able to examine all of the paths her life might have taken. This book was truly a delight! As someone who has struggled mightily with her mental health and with regrets about my life, this book is a reminder that there are infinite paths our lives could have taken, but that there is joy in finding what you appreciate in each of them. If you are looking for a book that will stir up all of the feels and help you connect to your own hopes and dreams, you could not pick a better book to read.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton): I love a good mystery and based on a quick scan of the back cover I knew this would either be one of my favorites of the year or a huge disappointment.
OH MY WORD. It turned out to be one of the best books I have read in 2020, hands-down. It really is Agatha Christie + Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Tea Party + Groundhog Day rolled into one as it was a mystery that played with the genre in very creative ways.
As with all mysteries the review needs to be a little sparse so I am not going to reveal much here other than to say you (along with Aiden) are to inhabit the bodies of multiple people in this mystery in an attempt to solve who killed the victim. There is very little information from the outset about who you are, how you got here, and what is actually going on. I appreciated that there was a semi-clear ruleset that stays the same but throughout the book you understand the complications and complexities of it all.
HIGHLY RECOMMEND, mystery lovers.
Girl, Woman, Other (Bernadine Evaristo): Speaking of books that might produce a strong reaction, I present Girl, Woman, Other. There were a few things about it that made me unsure how much I’d like it, given that it was written from the perspective of 12 different characters and has some of those writing quirks that confuse me (like not capitalizing sentences — WHY?). But this book continued to surprise me. It’s organized in sections of three stories from women who relate to one another, and I loved seeing overlaps and differences in their perspectives. It also expanded my perspective on the Black experience as the book is primarily set in the UK and includes Afro Caribbean, African, English, and American perspective. Evaristo’s writing of her characters is so detailed and interesting, and through their stories we get a very interesting perspective on who they are and what matters to them. Again I was pleasantly surprised but I hope you too will be surprised by this wonderful book!
Such a Fun Age (Kiley Reid): Sometimes I resist reading buzzy books because I find many of them to be such a disappointment. However, even though it was challenging and made me slightly uncomfortable, I really enjoyed this book! The story centers around Alix and Emira, her part-time babysitter, their shared knowledge of Alix’s former and Emira’s current boyfriend, and race (Alix is white and Emria is black). What made this book that much more enjoyable was the complexity of the characters (who is good? who is bad? it’s a big mixture) and the sharpness of the prose. Highly, highly recommend.
The House on Prague Street (Hana Demetz): This is actually a Read the World book (Czech Republic) but it missed the previous blog entry and I loved it enough to put it here. I thought some of the reviews claiming it to be akin to Anne Frank were big shoes to fill, but this book completely hit the mark. It follows a Czech girl, Helenka, who is coming of age during WWII in rural Czechoslovakia. As her childhood (and her innocence) end, she notices her mother’s family, who is Jewish, start to “go on trips;” she bemoans the loss of her favorite ski boots to a cousin who needs them to stay warm. Forced to relocate to Prague, she straddles two difficult worlds — that of her Jewish mother and her German father, both cursed by half the people around them. Demtez’s writing is sublime. What a touching story.
Ask Again, Yes (Mary Beth Keane): As soon as I saw that two of my book twins (Jenn and Sheela) loved this book I was hopeful that I would love it too, and I wasn’t disappointed!
This book follows two families that meet in NYC and move to the suburbs and how neighbors and friends Peter and Kate make choices that impact the outcome of their families.
Am I being a bit obtuse? Why yes, I am. But the beauty of this book is the writing style and the language, the complexity of the characters, and the underlying message and themes.
If you are a fan of modern family epic writers like Celeste Ng or Jonathan Tropper or John Boyne this is a great pick for you!
The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead): This was my favorite fiction book that I’ve read in 2020. The story, though fiction, is based on a real story about a Florida reform school for boys (and the punishments they endured there). Whitehead follows Elwood Curtis, a “nice boy” who lives with his grandma in a Florida suburb, and one unfortunate misstep (and the following misinterpretation) leads to his sentence to Nickel Academy, a residential facility for delinquent boys. This is the 1960s America South, so you can probably guess what sort of experience awaited this Black teenager. The book also jumps ahead to more modern times (1970s, 80s, and then the early 00s) to put the story into greater context. Whitehead’s writing is phenomenal — descriptive, lovely pacing, rich characters.
The Giver of Stars (Jojo Moyes): Okay, I try to put at least one “beachy read” on the list, and this is as close as I got this year. I’m unabashedly a Jojo Moyes fan, and I actually think I prefer her historical fiction to her modern fiction. The Giver of Stars did not disappoint! It follows new English bride Alice who has married an American and moved to Kentucky sight unseen. Without much to do Alice begins to volunteer with a local library group that takes books to people in rural areas on horseback. Not deemed a good activity for women, there is resistance within the town (this is 1930s Kentucky, after all). As resentment builds towards the librarians, Alice watches her marriage fall apart before her eyes. It goes without saying that things go downhill from there. I appreciate that Moyes writes fast-paced novels but they are literary enough that they’re not just poppy fiction. I can’t wait to see what she writes next!
Changing on the Job (Jennifer Garvey Berger): This book completely blew my mind. I am familiar with Garvey Berger’s other work as well as Kegan’s seminal work on this subject, but Changing on the Job makes vertical development so much more applicable and accessible. I particularly appreciated how she addresses the theory but also how to apply it to yourself and others. There are practical suggestions but there is much left to ponder and think about for yourself — I imagine that is part of the point. If you are interested in your frames of mind or how others see the world, I cannot recommend this book enough, and it will be integral (ha ha!) to my coaching practice moving forward.
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Beverly Daniel Tatum): Thanks to a review from a friend (thanks Julie!) I picked up this book and I was not disappointed. Though originally written in 1997, Dr. Tatum updated the book in 2017, giving both a historical and current-day perspective to what she writes. Even though the name might suggest this book is about Black identity, she also looks at White, Asian-American, Latinx, American Indian, and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) identity in America. I appreciated that she included child, adolescent, and adult racial development as well. This book is a fantastic overview of race identity in the United States and I felt much more grounded in experiences other than my own.
Hidden Valley (Robert Kolker): Wow, I couldn’t stop reading this book! It tells the story of the Galvin family — father Don, mother Mimi, and their 12 children (10 boys, 2 girls), half of whom are diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kolker weaves together the history of schizophrenia with the stories of the family members, both those who struggle with schizophrenia and those who carry the fear that they, or their children, will develop the disease. This book was interesting because of the complexity of the family’s story and how the author helps you understand that there are no bad people, just complex people.
White Awake (Daniel Hill): I would not at all have predicted how interesting and useful this book actually was. If you are familiar with White Fragility, this feels like the softer, gentler, Christian version. Hill, a white man, is writing to other white people to encourage them to embrace the teachings of Jesus rather than some of the modern expressions of the faith. Hill’s book is well-researched, with citations from social science, political science, theology, and the Bible itself. It also has a very sizable chapter about what to do — different ways one can engage to make things better. Like White Fragility it is certainly worth more than one read so that one can continue to absorb and learn and apply the practices.
For the Love of Europe (Rick Steves): I’m obviously a HUGE fan of Rick Steves (we jokingly call him Saint Rick in our house) and this book of his favorite travel stories was a balm for the stuck traveler’s soul (thanks, global pandemic!). Some of the stories are familiar because I have watched most of his travel shows, but many were new to me, and I found myself jotting down the names of lesser-known places I’d want to visit (a rural part of Denmark, Mostar, and Northern Italy, to name just a few). Rick’s writing style is very engaging and the book is chock-full of colorful photographs to bring the stories to life. If you need a travel pick-me-up in the time of COVID, travel to Europe with Rick in this book!
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Maxwell King): What a wonderful biography of Mister Rogers — though I can’t imagine a non-wonderful story about Fred Rogers. I have such fond memories of watching his show as a child, but this book goes so much deeper to paint a picture of a multi-faceted, complex man. Rogers led a life of service, but he did that with deep conviction, centered upon his faith and his desire to help children. I really enjoyed learning about the science behind his approach to child development. Though the book can be a bit thick at times, the story was so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop reading!
Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet): I really appreciated this book because it helped me understand a very different human experience, that of Tammet, who sees numbers in color and can learn languages in a week (yes, really). His voice is so strong in the book that I feel like I’m sitting across from him and he’s telling his story. What was most enjoyable about the book was his journey of understanding who he is and accepting himself as he is while pushing himself to learn and grow and try new things.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (David Simon): This book was very interesting, as well as a bit of a beast (more than 600 dense pages!). It follows three squads of detectives in Baltimore in 1989, which at the time had one of the highest murder rates in the country. While some of the aspects of the book are a bit dated, this being written more than 30 years ago, most of it felt highly resonant. Once I got into it it was quite an enjoyable read, so stick with it for the first hundred pages or so until you get into the rhythm (it will be worth it!).
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime (Val McDermid): I really, really enjoyed this book. I’ve been a big fan of crime dramas from CSI to Criminal Minds, and this book covers so many different aspects of forensics, from the history of those domains to how they are applied in modern courts and investigations. I also appreciated that this was not written by an American because it gave a broader perspective and introduced me to procedures, crimes, etc. that I was unfamiliar with because of my American-centric view. The book is very intriguing and chock-full of examples, but is also well-sourced so one can dig more deeply if you’d like.
A Promised Land (Barack Obama): Did I possibly push out this blog for a week so I could read this book and see if it made the list? Why yes I did!
This book was a big one, a substitute for a step-stool, and this is only the first of two volumes of President Obama’s memoirs! Volume One primarily covers Obama’s time in public service from the early 2000s to 2011 (midway through his first term), though he includes parts of his childhood to provide context for the story. This book is not for the faint of heart — it is trademark Obama, going deep into details and policy. You can hear his voice so clearly in the pages — measured, thoughtful, balanced. It is fascinating to see his take on the events from a decade ago and how he approached them. It was also fascinating to be reminded that he truly is a moderate, and that by today’s standards he might not be “woke” enough. It amazed me to see how he was able to balance so many different perspectives, and it’s a good reminder that the US Federal Government does *not* behave as private industry does.
I look forward to Volume 2!
Looking for more? Let me again plug my blog detailing my favorite reads from around the world, from Germany to Ghana and from Bangladesh to Antigua and Barbuda — there’s something there for everyone.
Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay home and read!