Books I Read in 2020

For many years I’ve been trying to keep track of the books I read and my thoughts on them, because I have a terrible memory about these things.

I didn’t write down thoughts on all of them, but I tried for most!

January:

  1. The Opposite of Spoiled – Ron Lieber: Parents, read this! A great, useful guide to handling money with kids: conversations about how we spend, what to do for allowance, talking about charitable giving, including kids in money decisions in age appropriate ways—a lot of things I’ve thought about and had no clue how to implement, plus a lot of other things I’ve never considered.
  1. An American Marriage – Tamari Jones: Woof. This book. It’s been almost a year since I read it and it has 100% stuck with me. Heartbreaking and incredible writing. The characters were so thoroughly grounded and complex—the story is a love triangle, but you end up being on each person’s side (and sometimes no one’s side) all at the same time. The family at the center of the narrative is ripped apart by a broken criminal justice system and every detail packs a punch. Read in combination with “Just Mercy” and then let’s all dismantle the broken criminal justice system 🙏🏽.
  1. The Moment of Lift – Melinda Gates: Read this, read this, read this! I want to stand on the street corner handing out copies! Seriously, I was expecting a sort of Gatesian “Lean In” and only read it because a friend told me I must. I am so glad I did. Melinda Gates writes with power and precision about the Gates Foundation, the issues they’ve taken on and why and how. Her writing is so enlightening about women’s rights, communicating across cultures, and the things that make a real difference to human lives. I was inspired and I learned a ton—it’s a real paradigm shifter 🙌🏻. READ IT.
  1. My Bright Abyss – Christian Wiman: This book took me forever to read—I loved it, but it needed slow digestion. Wiman is such a deep, wise thinker. In this book, he examines his relationship with faith while in the throes of terminal illness and it is an incredible journey. His perspective is so meditative, clear, rational, personal and poetic; I’d read a bit, then have to stop for a long while to think. A gorgeous little book, and one I highly recommend.
  1. You Do You – Sarah Knight
  1. Capyboppy – Bill Peet
  1. Fleishman is In Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner: After 13 years of marriage, Toby’s wife has left him and he finds himself suddenly surrounded by women and new opportunities—until his wife disappears, leaving him with their two kids and no answers. There are so many sharp and excellent observations here about middle-age, relationships, divorce, parenting, and wealth. Large passages read like separate essays on these topics, and I felt disconnected from the characters because of the unidentified (and oddly prescient) 3rd party narrator. I enjoyed reading it, but it was a little too Jonathan Franzen-ish for me (which I guess means well-realized but annoyingly pretentious.)
  1. How to Do Nothing – Jenny Odell: This is a great book, but it’s not a how to! Odell is a journalist and this book is heavy on the research (but very accessibly written)—how our attention is sucked away by endless news cycles, the effect of fractured thinking on our relationships and connection as a society, how the effort to be productive reduces our worth to our output, and how late-stage capitalism preys on all of this. My favorite parts focused on the idea of usefulness; the sections on bioregionalism were interesting, but didn’t grab me as much.
  1. The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead: Centered on the friendship of two boys in a Florida reform school (based on a real place), this story is a real sucker-punch. Whitehead is a master at drawing up raw emotion with his spare details and beautifully realized characters. A must-read.

February:

  1. How to Be An Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi: The brilliant Kendi begins with the premise that every idea, action and policy is either racist (it contributes to the idea of different races being unequal) or is antiracist (it actively dismantles that inequality.) Ludicly and systematically, he unfolds different forms of racism by taking us through his own history of becoming antiracist. Kendi’s self-awareness and ability to contextualize abstract ideas is extremely powerful. He demonstrates how racism has historically been dismantled by changes to policy that, in turn, shifted individual’s attitudes and the culture at large, rather than the other way around. So this book was not only incredibly enlightening to me, but also gave me a very concrete, actionable task: agitate for policy changes! Public opinion will follow! Read it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
  1. American Spy – Lauren Wilkinson: A Black FBI agent goes undercover to get close to the charismatic president of Burkina Faso and ends up falling in love while combating sexism and racism in her department and wrestling with her childhood. There’s so much here that’s compelling, but it’s told in the form of a letter to her sons and that narrative device robs a lot of the immediacy and suspense. It was a slow burn and I was waiting for some big blast as a pay-off and it just never came. Still worth reading, just too slow-paced to keep it from being great to me.
  1. Trust Exercise – Susan Choi: The first part of this book reads as a totally regular coming-of-age book, then that all gets subverted in part 2, then THAT gets flipped in part 3. Some of the messaging was so subtle that I’m sure I missed a lot; I’d love to read this again with a book club or something, because it’s one that wants to be discussed afterward.
  1. We Have Never Been Middle Class – Hadas Weiss
  1. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo: In vibrant prose, Evaristo writes the stories of 12 women, most of them Black and British, many of them intertwined in one way or other. Some of the stories worked better for me than others and a few of the characters felt a little on-the-nose. All told, though, I thought it was a powerful portrait of contemporary womanhood and intersectionality.
  1. American Manifesto – Bob Garfield
  1. The Call of the Wild + Free – Ainsley Arment: An encouraging primer on homeschooling that covers a bunch of whys and hows. Arment is the founder of the popular homeschool community Wild + Free, which focuses a lot on Charlotte Mason methods, nature study, handicrafts, and read-alouds, all with a sort of muted, farmhouse aesthetic. It’s pretty and I dig it and it might really resonate with you as a homeschooler or potential homeschooler or just as a curious parent.
  1. The Tarantula in My Purse – Jean Craighead George: If your kids love animals, this is a perfect book to read aloud to them! George and her kids have had so many different kinds of pets over the years, from the titular tarantula to crows, turtles, mice and so many more. There’s a lot of super engaging information about each animal and great stories about individual pets.
  1. The Topeka School – Ben Lerner: From the reviews I’ve read, it definitely seems like Lerner’s writing is not for everyone. But I really like it! The plots of his books (I enjoyed 10:06 and Leaving the Atocha Station, too!) are more like frameworks for his jumble of (super interesting) thoughts and are almost ancillary, which I can see being confusing and annoying for some readers. In this semi-autobiographical novel, Lerner examines politics, society, psychology and lots of other topics through a story about a high school debate team. I loved the characters and the writing, and I think Lerner is a brilliant thinker.
  1. Tales From the Odyssey: Part 1 – Mary Pope Osbourne
  2. Tales From the Odyssey: Part 2 – Mary Pope Osbourne: We studied ancient history last year and my kids became OBSESSED with Greek mythology and the story of Odysseus. It surprised me just how much they were into this—like, they played “Odyssey” for months! There’s a lot of violence in these books, so be careful with sensitive kiddos. But it’s definitely “fairy tale” violence, and my easily scared kids were fine with it.
  1. Greek Myths: Three Heroic Tales – Daniel Morden & Hugh Lupton
  1. How to Raise a Reader – Pamela Paul & Maria Russo: Jim Trelease’s “The Read-Aloud Handbook” is the Bible on getting kids to love reading, but this book is a much quicker read that presents research in bites and has lots of practical suggestions and contemporary book recommendations. Highly recommended for all parents.
  1. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles – Julie Andrews Edwards: The kids loved this; I thought it made no sense. But it’s cute. Sort of a less-literary Narnia type of deal.

March:

  1. The Family Under the Bridge – Natalie Savage Carlson: This is a story of a newly homeless French family who befriend a wizened old man and learn how to take care of each other. It’s a classic, and well worth a read.
  1. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong: Ughh this book is beautiful. Written as a letter from a son to his mother (who can’t read), the novel unfolds the story of family who immigrated from Vietnam, and sweeps across so many topics—class, race, belonging, masculinity, the complexity of family relationships, and the importance of telling our stories and having them heard. The prose is seriously exquisite. Deep, honest, riveting, intimate, and at times quite brutal. There’s not a lot of story here and, months after reading it, it hasn’t sat with me in the same way as other books I’ve read this year. I’d still recommend it for the prose alone.
  1. Invisible Women – Caroline Criado-Perez: The most powerful, lingering book I’ve read in a long while. Criado-Perez untangles a web of data to reveal a shocking—REALLY. SHOCKING.—lack of attention to the experiences, bodies, habits, hangups, work patterns and input of half the population of the world. The topic stings, but the writing is so dynamic; I usually get bogged down in a book full of stats, but found this extremely readable. Hard to put down, in fact, unless I was pausing in amazement or to tell my husband something I’d just learned. DEFINITELY READ THIS.
  1. Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders – Michael Townsend
  1. The Woman Warrior – Maxine Hong Kingston: A stunning memoir that examines what it means to be Chinese, an immigrant, a woman—all while playing with concepts of truth and story. This book is so playful in its concept, but also frequently disturbing and, literally, haunting (there are a lot of ghosts.) Maybe a little weird for some, but if you’re into memoir as a genre, this is a must-read.
  1. There, There – Tommy Orange: Traces the interconnected lives of a bunch of Native Americans based in Oakland, culminating with a big-bang ending (that I felt was a bit rushed) at a powwow. I loved reading such a fresh, contemporary take on urban Natives, and though the number of characters gets a bit confusing after a while, braiding together so many perspectives made for a powerful narrative. A really worthwhile read.
  1. Zoey & Sassafras: Dragons and Marshmallows – Asia Citro: We love this series! Zoey is a science-minded kid who helps the magical creatures of her local forest solve their problems. The books make for a great primer on the scientific method, and introduce a ton of science topics in fun, accessible ways. Zoey also has a beautiful relationship with her mom, which I love. Highly recommend.
  1. Sex & the River Styx – Edward Hoagland: Hoagland is a master essayist and this is a fantastic introduction to his work. Covering a wide range of topics—his childhood spent in the woods behind his house, his time in the circus, aging—Hoagland reflects on mother nature and human nature in beautiful prose. Although the essays were written over time and gathered in this collection, the organizing viewpoint is one of looking back over his life, mourning the state of the Earth and offering up the lessons of his life.
  1. Zoey & Sassafras: Monsters and Mold – Asia Citro
  1. Circe – Madeline Miller: This is SO not the kind of book I’m usually into. I very rarely enjoy historical fiction, but I put this on my list after reading lots of glowing reviews last year. It was, indeed, not totally my cup of tea. The story takes a side character from Homer’s “Odyssey” and writes her into a bunch of Greek myths. It sort of reminded me of “Wicked” in the way it took a “misunderstood” character and told the story from her perspective. My problem wasn’t at all with the story, but with the language. I find most historical fiction to be so tedious and precious with language; it felt like Miller was trying too hard to replicate an old, classic style but it just felt forced and annoying to me. I got around that by sort of speed-reading so I could get the story without getting bogged down in the language. (For reference, I felt the exact same way about “The Red Tent” and “The Dovekeepers”, so if you like those, you might like this!)
  1. The First Forty Days – Heng Ou: If you’re having a baby, I very much recommend this! Ou offers up lessons for the postpartum period from Chinese medicine, including lots of recipes and straightforward tips. She’s aware that most women won’t be able to attain an “ideal” first forty days postpartum, and I felt like it was easy to take what I could use and not feel too distraught about missing the rest. The whole focus is on rest, recovery, warmth, treating yourself gently, and easing back into regular activity only after time. David had more paternity leave with our 3rd baby than the previous 2, so I was able to do more of this this time around and it was wonderful. I stayed in bed, ate a ton of soup, slept as much as possible, did lots of skin to skin, stayed very warm—and felt like my energy and happiness rebounded much faster.
  1. Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson: I grabbed this off my local library’s recommended books table with zero expectations. It’s a quick and gorgeous novel and I’m so glad I read it. The writing is gripping and visceral and the story well-crafted. It’s very unadorned, and I like that in a book.
  1. Rethinking School – Susan Wise Bauer: Bauer is one of the patron saints of modern-day homeschooling and her curriculum books have been super useful to me in figuring out what our goals are for our kids’ educations. This book is focused on identifying problems your kid might be experiencing within the traditional school system and finding ways to solve them. It doesn’t present homeschool as the be-all, end-all and gives plenty of practical ideas for working within the public school system to help kids who are accelerated or struggling or in any way not thriving in the classroom. A great book to read if you want more tools for advocating for your kids in their educations. Or if COVID has you considering homeschooling next year, you might appreciate Bauer’s examination of our current school system’s history—I think it’s helpful to know that just because we do things a certain way with public education, it doesn’t mean those ways are The Best and Only—and often they’re actually based on really weird or unrelated-to-learning premises.
  1. Anna Hibiscus – Atinuke: Darling little book about a girl who lives with her big extended family in large, modern African city. 
  1. A Thousand Acres – Jane Smiley: This novel has been on my list forever and I finally got it from the library just before the NYPL closed! This won the Pulitzer in 1992, so maybe you’ve read it or heard of it. I didn’t know anything about it and was completely blown away by the sharp writing, perfectly crafted story, fascinating characters and parallels with “King Lear”. Smiley manages to create a rich sense of drama and mystery in a story that’s actually pretty quiet and pastoral. Loved it so much. Read it.
  1. The Great Cake Mystery – Alexander McCall Smith: Set in modern-day Botswana, little Precious solves the mystery of who is stealing cake from the children at her school. While the book plays into the stereotype of wild animals being everywhere in Africa, Precious is a clever character that my kids really loved.
  1. Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino: This collection of essayistic cultural critiques has been at the top of my list since I read so many glowing reviews of it last year. It is, indeed, fantastic. Tolentino juggles sharp cultural insights, personal history and humor SO well and every piece is a delight to read. I borrowed it from a friend, but it’s one I want to get my own copy of—the potential for revisiting these pieces is high. And maybe if I read them enough, Tolentino’s incisive wisdom and absorbing style will rub off on me!
  1. Zucked – Roger McNamee: The Facebook empire is probably the death of democracy as we know it. This book tells us why (and how we can maybe mitigate its effects), by a Silicon Valley insider.
  1. The Sea, the Sea – Iris Murdoch: I know a girl who is totally obsessed with Murdoch, and this is the book she recommend I read as an intro to the author. With no idea what to expect, this book’s formality and loquaciousness caught me off-guard. The narrator is completely in love with himself, but it’s not immediately clear that he’s not quite a reliable narrator, or that the reader is probably not intended to really like him. Fifty pages in I wanted to stop reading it, but kept going and got more drawn into the story along the way. It’s definitely a more classic style of literature than I’m normally into, but I ended up really liking it.
  1. The Blue Jay’s Dance – Louise Erdrich: The inimitable Erdrich wrote this memoir during the first year of one of her daughters’ lives. Weaving together reflections on motherhood, nature and writing, this book could not be more suited to my interests (or to my timing of reading it, in the first few days after having a baby.) Her writing is beautiful and unfussy, and I love her attention to the natural world. This is a short, lovely book and I highly recommend it.
  1. The Fourth Trimester – Kimberly Ann Johnson: In the past year I’ve read a lot of books about babies and birth and such. This was the most useful. Johnson lays out a bunch of super useful information for preparing for birth and recovering afterward. There are suggestions for helping every part of postpartum life, from your body to your emotions to your relationships, along with exercises, meditations, recipes, and a lot of body information that I was not aware of, even after having 3 kids. If you’ve recently had a baby or are having one soon, and you’re into holistic care, I thought this was really helpful.
  1. The Fourth Trimester – Susan Brink

April: 

  1. To Shake the Sleeping Self – Jedidiah Jenkins: I’ve been following Jed on Instagram for a long time and am a big fan of his insights; I pre-ordered this book before it came out and then . . . it sat in my bedside book stack until a couple months ago 🙈. Jenkins (with almost no prep) rode his bike from Washington to Patagonia, camping and couch-surfing along the way. For some reason I anticipated his memoir of this experience being more lyrical; instead, while it has a lot of deep moments, it’s written very unpretentiously and follows the story in a fairly straightforward, linear way (unlike Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”, which feels more cinematic, with lots of flashbacks and a more wrapped-up growth arc.) One of the things I really liked was that while Jenkins anticipated the trip being transformative, he isn’t intent on tying a bow around his experiences. He admits readily that it often sucked and that he had a hard time locating growth in himself. It felt so true to my own experiences with travel and pursuing big goals, and he hits on so many incisive ideas. It’s a fast and compelling read, and one I highly recommend for curing your cabin fever 😊.
  1. Naked – David Sedaris: I picked this Sedaris collection of our shelves in the early days after giving birth, looking for something that would be fun and easy to read in my state of perpetual exhaustion. Sedaris fits the bill on humor, but I forgot how dark many of his pieces can get! He’s still a blast to read, and this collection has some of my favorite essays of his that I’ve read, including “Chipped Beef”, “Dinah, the Christmas Whore” and the title essay.
  1. Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse: This is my first Wodehouse and IT WAS DELIGHTFUL. Hilariously funny and full of terrific British-isms (and a pretty sharp mockery of the upper classes, too), I absolutely can’t wait to get my hands on more tales of Jeeves and Wooster.
  1. How to Be a Good Creature – Sy Montgomery: A gift from one of my dear friends, this book is a delightful and super-readable set of tales about Montgomery’s relationships with individual animals throughout her life. Each piece is brimming with heart and empathy, and from each animal Montgomery traces the ways she’s learned, as the title says, “how to be a good creature.” There are gorgeous and whimsical little drawings throughout, too. Loved this.
  1. Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury: I read some Bradbury in high school English, but I’m not well-versed in his writing. A dear friend gifted me this and WOW—this man is so exuberant!! His enthusiasm leaps off the page and his writing advice is so encouraging and HELPFUL—if you want to write and you need a boost, this is your book.
  1. Zoologies – Alison Hawthorne Deming: 
  1. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White: Is there anything better than sharing a childhood favorite with your own kids and having them love it just as much as you did? We read Charlotte’s Web all together on the couch, usually while I was nursing the baby, and the kids LOVED it. We laughed, we cried, we cuddled through it, and it was bliss every minute.
  1. Small Fires – Julie Marie Wade: I got this book forever ago at a writing conference, where the person running the Sarabande Books desk recommended it to me. It’s a memoir of Wade’s troubled family and she spares no one her honest, sometimes brutal, gaze—especially herself. The line between fiction and nonfiction gets a bit fuzzy in places, as Wade writes as memories things that she’s only imagined (they’re marked as “parables”). If you’re interested in memoir as a form, this is a good one to check out!
  1. The Problem of Pain – C.S. Lewis: I love all the C.S. Lewis I’ve read, and this book was no exception. He examines the question of how we can believe in God, knowing all the pain that is in the world. It’s very meticulous in its explication, and sometimes a bit tedious to read compared to his other books, but it’s also wise and precise and careful and full of really wonderful little nuggets.

May:

  1. Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust: This was my first Proust and it was just as brilliant as I expected and way more enjoyable. It’s a weird reading experience because the sentences are SO. DANG. LONG. So I really had to get into a flow with it and wasn’t able to jump in and out the way I normally have to, since I’m usually reading while parenting. As much as I liked it, I also wasn’t super motivated to pick up the next part of In Search of Lost Time—maybe I’ll do one volume per year 😆.
  1. A Whole New Mind – Daniel H. Pink
  1. Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder
  1. Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
  1. A Place to Belong – Hollie Rhees Fluhman & Camille Fronk Olson: I loved this book. It’s a compilation of essays by women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it contains such a broad variety of perspectives and wise, kind, whole-hearted thinking—what a gift to have these womens’ stories of faith and feminism gathered in one volume.
  1. White Teeth – Zadie Smith: Is there a sharper writer than Zadie Smith? Anyone as incisive, funny, fluent? This is only my third book of hers, but every time I read her, no matter the subject, I’m awed by her brilliance on seemingly every topic, her ability to capture every kind of voice. This book is wide and wise and clever. Loved it.
  1. Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder

June:

  1. Simply Clean – Becky Rapinchuk
  1. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum: A great resource for learning about racial identity development. I learned SO MUCH. This book seems especially important for educators and parents, but I’d recommend it to anyone. A large section of the book deals with racial identities other than Black, and the specific issues those groups face. There’s so much research distilled here, and an enormously helpful explanation of affirmative action. If you’ve enjoyed other books that look at issues through a sociological lens, definitely check this one out.
  1. White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo: I really loved the beginning of this book, but cooled on it just a smidge by the end. I chalk that up to reading some critical responses to this book being the #1 best seller during our current fervor of antiracist reading—and agreeing with those responses. DiAngelo works as a race educator, so she’s practiced at examining White people’s responses to learning about racism. The book is super helpful at pointing out our discomfort and/or rage when our personal racism is called out. DiAngelo relates many experiences where conversations about racism centered White feelings at the expense of the Black people in the group—but I found myself wanting to hear about this from the Black point of view rather than from an arbiter. And I really wanted specifics on the actions and microaggressions that caused the upset, rather than vague allusions (even if the purpose of the book is to discuss racial responses and not racist actions, because to me it would be helpful for that discussion to be grounded in context.) I think this is a really helpful book overall, but if you only have time for one or two antiracist reads, I’d prioritize something like “So You Want to Talk About Race”, which also discusses the concept of white fragility, and then read this one down the line. But I would still highly recommend it if you have the space for ALL the antiracism books!
  1. Body Love Every Day – Kelly LeVeque
  1. Juana and Lucas – Juana Medina
  1. So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo: So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo: This is one of my favorite books I’ve read on anti-racism. With compassion and precision, Oluo covers topics from intersectionality to affirmative action, police brutality to the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation to microaggressions. She gives so many tools for both understanding and talking about racism, and then gives next steps, too—what we can actually DO with this new knowledge. I’ve been trying to find the one book I’d most recommend to friends and family who are just learning about anti-racism, or who are unsure about this whole movement. I think this is the one 🙌🏻. I learned so much from it and I highly recommend getting a copy!
  1. Me and White Supremacy – Layla Saad: This book operates as an antiracist program, leading you through 28 days of antiracist information and prompts to journal about so you can apply the info to your own internalized racism. I’ll admit that I didn’t do the journaling—I only had the book out of the library for a week and was mostly reading it while nursing a baby. So I didn’t get the full experience. However, I want to revisit it and actually answer the prompts, because I think the value in this book is in its push for self-reflection. Just reading it through, I appreciated how well Saad breaks down the daily impacts of racism and guides the reader into the work of antiracism.
  1. Untamed – Glennon Doyle: I had very mixed feelings while reading this! I know so many friends who have loved it and I would absolutely recommend it if it sounds up your alley. I found it at turns inspiring, cheesy, self-aggrandizing, helpful. I was all over the place with it. And the book is all over the place too. Doyle says that Liz Gilbert encouraged her to write and structure it in a “wild” way to back up the message. But I thought that message (which I think is great at its core!) would have benefited from more methodical organization and explication, and a heavy dose of self-awareness on Doyle’s part. I want to like Doyle more than I did in this book (I haven’t read her others) because she is a friend of Brene Brown’s and I deeply love Brene. But where Brene has degrees and decades of field research to back up her work and draws extensively on other peoples’ experiences, Doyle seems to draw exclusively from her own life to tell us how we can live better. Which is fine—it’s a memoir, after all!—but I also just wanted more evidence, more owning up to the ways her advice might not work so well for people in different circumstances, more drawing from her humanitarian work (how is the desire to become untamed made more complicated, for example, for people who aren’t coming from the privileged background Doyle—wealthy, white, traditionally attractive, already successful as a writer—represents.) Not every book needs to be all things for all people, of course, and this book might just have a specific audience, and I might just not be exactly the audience. And again, I still found the message of deprograming from what’s expected of us, of shedding self-sacrifice as the ultimate virtue, is wonderful. I just didn’t always connect with the presentation. So ultimately—recommended, for anyone looking to be inspired or get out of a rut, with the caveat that it probably won’t slap for everyone 🙃.

July:

  1. Farmer Boy – Laura Ingalls Wilder
  1. Stamped From the Beginning – Ibram X. Kendi: I love Dr. Kendi’s work so much. This book is an incredible distillation of 400 years of racism in America, told through the stories of 5 key figures: Cotton Mather, W.E.B. Dubois, and Angela Davis. The history moves fast and it’s a lot to digest, but Kendi lays everything out in a very graspable way. There’s also a version written for younger readers, if you want something shorter. But this history is vital context for understanding how racism plays out in the same ways over and over and over, just with new disguises. It’s frankly disheartening to see how little progress we’ve made, but it also helped me understand what things have helped in the past and how I can be antiracist now.
  1. The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander: This book brought mass incarceration into the public conversation in a big way back when it was published in 2010. It’s clear and research-dense (but very readable), and a crucial resource for understanding how the “War on Drugs” has perpetuated systemic racism and made it palatable for the modern masses. Alexander is passionate and COMpassionate. She views and writes about prisoners as humans, deserving of help, health, votes and voices. She’s not shy about positing bold claims, but backs up every claim brilliantly. I think this is one of the most educational and important antiracism reads out there.
  1. I’m Still Here – Austin Channing Brown: Brown’s convo with Brene Brown on Brene’s podcast is the best thing I listened to (and re-listened and re-listened to) all year. ACB is an anti-racism educator and activist and a very good writer; this is her memoir. She’s evangelical and many of the experiences she relates are about racism in the church. But the messages carry over, and the compassion and strength ACB displays here are really worth digging into. Also go listen to that podcast episode!
  1. The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin: This is a truly incredible, powerful book. Baldwin is a brilliant observer of race, religion, history and society. The letter to his nephew that starts off the book is one of the best things on race I’ve ever read. I’ve loved every Baldwin book I’ve read and recommend anything of his; this is a great place to start.
  1. Just Mercy – Bryan Stephenson: One of the most powerful, affecting, upsetting and beautiful books I’ve ever read. Stevenson is a profoundly inspiring social justice warrior and has devoted his law career and his life to helping unfairly convicted people in prison, many of them on death row. Stevenson masterfully braids together the story of one prisoner, Walter McMillian’s, long fight for justice with many other individual stories and a broader picture of mass incarceration and the dehumanization of our criminal justice system. Stevenson is somehow able to view and portray everyone—from convicted murderers to court room clerks and bigoted prison wardens—with compassion and empathy. While terrifically upsetting, this book is also deeply hopeful. Add it to your short list of to-be-read-ASAP antiracist reads. (I could have screenshotted the OG cover, but you know i wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to get Michael B. Jordan on the feed.) 
  1. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah: I love Trevor Noah so much, but I knew very little of his story. And oh man, guys—HIS STORY. This guy has lived a LIFE. The book is funny and poignant and eye-opening and so smart. I learned loads about South Africa and came away with even more respect for this man. Highly, highly recommend this. Especially if you’re wanting to engage in antiracist reads but also need something a bit less heavy at the moment (no shame, anti racism is a a lifelong marathon, not a sprint!)
  1. On the Banks of Plum Creek – Laura Ingalls Wilder
  1. You Never Forget Your First – Alexis Coe: Most presidential biographies are thick, wordy, reverential and written by men. This bio of George Washington is none of those things and it’s friggin’ delightful. I learned a ton, it wasn’t a slog, Washington comes across (accurately, I felt) as fallible and human rather than godlike, and it was funny too. Would that Coe would write one for every president!
  1. Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan
  1. White Kids – Margaret A. Hagerman: Oh man, this book was so fascinating. Detailing the author’s multi-year anthropological study of white families in a typical midwestern town, it hits on many ways that even “woke” parents pass racism onto their kids. So much interesting material here, from how kids take in coded messaging, to how they come to feel so entitled to their privileges, to how “good schools” carries a racialized message. It’s a single researcher’s single study, but it feels very much like a microcosm and though the author clearly passes judgment on her subjects, I thought there were so many interesting ideas to sift through, especially as a parent of white kids myself. If you’re also a white parent, I’d recommend this as part of your racism awareness toolbox.

August:

  1. The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin: One of my favorites from childhood. It holds up. I was reading it to see if it was too old for Graham (7 yo; I think it’s better for 9+) and revisiting it after all these years was a delight. Also I have a terrible memory, so the mystery element was still mysterious to me.
  1. Talking with Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell: I love Malcolm Gladwell. To me, he’s the master of pop social science (which I know isn’t everyone’s bag, but I love it.) This book was meant to be listened to as an audiobook, and is recorded more like a podcast, with quotes mostly delivered by their original speakers, music and narrative phrasing. It’s extremely well done and highly listenable. The crux of the book is the Sandra Bland case. Gladwell examines what happened to Bland through various lenses, telling other stories along the way to illustrate his points, and examining how and why humans misunderstand each other. Covering topics from racism and police brutality to World War 2, Bernie Madoff and Amanda Knox, I found it incredibly interesting and intelligent; Gladwell’s storytelling abilities just amaze me.
  1. Dear White People – Justin Simien: This is a quick and funny antiracism read, tackling topics like why not to touch Black people’s hair, why you shouldn’t expect Black people to speak on behalf of their entire race, and why Michael Jackson is so very important. I still need to watch the show of the same name!

September:

  1. Jack Stalwart: USA – Elizabeth Singer Hunt
  2. Jack Stalwart: Russia – Elizabeth Singer Hunt
  1. Zoey and Sassafras: Dragons and Marshmallows – Asia Citro
  1. The Growling Bear Mystery – Gertrude Chandler Warner
  1. The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’ve read every book Coates has written, some multiple times, but his novel was not at all what I expected! After reading his autobiography, for some reason I was expecting a sort of fictionalized account of his early life, something contemporary and urban. Anyway, this is not that. This is historical magical realism, set in antebellum Virginia and written in gorgeous prose. The story kept catching me by surprise and I just really enjoyed it. I wanted a leeeeetle more character development to raise some of the relational stakes a little. Still very much recommend.
  1. Everything is Figureoutable – Marie Forleo: Self-help, you-go-girl book with lots of good info and practical exercises for setting goals and achieving them. In the realm of real-talk empowerment authors, Marie seems particularly smart and professional, and her titular axium is actually proving really helpful to me!
  1. Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid: At once a character-driven page-turner and a brilliant examination of blackness, whiteness and “woke” affluence, this novel is all over the “best books of 2020” lists and deservedly so! Loved it.
  1. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens: My MIL was reading this book on a recent camping trip and I picked it up while feeding the baby and started to read. Owens is a biologist and writes beautifully about the marshes of North Carolina’s outer banks, the setting for the story. And the story itself is well-told, with a mystery at its heart that keeps you guessing til the final page. I’ve been stalling out with my reading lately, getting bogged down in heavy nonfiction stuff and it was really nice to read a novel again!
  1. The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt: Haidt is a moral psychologist and this book is all about how good people can have such vastly different ideas of what it means to be good people. It took me forever to get through because there’s just so. much. information. And the topic is fascinating to me so I really wanted to process it all. Haidt is very good at taking murky concepts and giving them context, story and metaphor so they’re graspable and memorable. I can’t say it helped me understand the current Republican Party, but it did help me with the idea of conservatism in general. If you like pop psychology and want to know why we’re so very divided, this is an excellent read.
  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

October:

  1. American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins: Mmmkay, lots of problems with this book. It’s the story of a Mexican woman and her son who flee their home to escape the cartel who killed the rest of their family. The author is not Mexican, but she received a 7-figure advance for this novel and a place in Oprah’s book club. There are LOADS of #OwnVoices novels about crossing the border and the Mexican experience with U.S. immigration that should have had that money and promotion. If it were an *excellent* book that shone light on a complex and often dehumanized problem, that would be one thing. But it’s written like a cheap thriller, chockablock with melodrama and stock bad guys. Worse, it almost entirely brushes over the politics of both Mexico and the U.S. that have created the plot’s central problems. Many Mexican-Americans and Latinx people have written about its shortcomings. And even though its exciting to read as pure thriller, I hope the publisher takes all the criticism into account and starts choosing authors that can tell more authentic, nuanced stories WITH THE POLITICS.
  2. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – Michelle McNamara: A true-crime investigation into the Golden State Killer from a writer who herself is at least as compelling as her subject. McNamara’s obsession drives this book with chilling details and gripping prose. She died suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of writing the book, which adds to the mystery and tragedy of the book. I appreciated the humanity that she brought to the victims; I also got pretty lost trying to keep track of the characters, timeline and clues that McNamara was following up on. This was exacerbated because I listened to it on audiobook, which is generally a format I have a hard time focusing on, and I didn’t really like the narrator. I can’t decide if I like true crime; it’s thrilling and absorbing, but it also makes me feel a little . . . macabre? Gruesomely voyeuristic? Voyeuristically gruesome?
  1. Women Talking – Miriam Toews: Based on a true happening in a Bolivian Mennonite colony, Toews book is literally just women talking. Over one hundred of the group’s women have been assaulted in the night by what they’ve believed to be demons punishing them for their sins. But as it turns out, some of the men have actually been drugging and raping them. It’s an incredibly dark premise, but the book isn’t graphic. Instead, Toews gives us a peek into the secret meeting some of the women hold to decide what they will do and which approach would be the most righteous in God’s eyes. I didn’t find it as gripping as the storyline would suggest; it’s more of a Socratic discussion of religion and philosophy in terms that are sometimes super interesting and sometimes just “huh, okay.” But it’s a quick read and definitely worth checking out if you’re up for a novel that’s more about ideas than plot.
  1. By the Shores of Silver Lake – Laura Ingalls Wilder
  1. My Heart is Laughing – Rose Lagercrantz
  2. When I Am Happiest – Rose Lagercrantz
  1. Good Night, Sleep Tight – Kim West
  1. Juana and Lucas – Juana Medina: A great read-aloud for kids of all ages—it’s short and there are illustrations on most pages, so it’s a good one for easing into longer read-alouds. The main character, Juana, is from Colombia and struggles to learn English in school until she finds a motivator in the form of her favorite fictional character. Juana has beautiful relationships with her mom and extended family, and she’s so funny and relatable. I highly recommend this for any and all kiddos! The follow up “Big Problemas” is about Juana’s mom getting remarried and it’s just as funny and sweet as the first book.
  1. Juana and Lucas: Big Problemas – Juana Medina
  1. Tumtum and Nutmeg – Emily Bearn: An elderly mouse couple and their adventures. It’s so funny and clever and exciting and British. My kids were rapt! A perfect read-aloud.
  1. The Awakened Family – Shefali Tsabary
  1. The Power of Showing Up – Dan Siegel and Tina Paine Bryson: I heard Siegel and Bryson describe this book on a podcast as a culmination of their other books and research, which I was already a big fan of, so I knew I wanted to read this one. The premise is that how our kids turn out (at least the parts we have any control over) comes down to our being present with them and the quality of that presence. It’s a simple, clear, short book with lots of examples, research and applications. And it doesn’t leave you with a laundry list of new parenting skills to work on, which is . . . a relief.
  1. The Wild Robot – Peter Brown: This is a wonderful read-aloud book, probably best suited for ages 4 all the way up, about a robot who washes up on an uninhabited island and learns to take care of herself and others by getting to know the animals around her. It is so well-written—funny, tender and exciting—and the illustrations are great. The followup, “The Wild Robot Escapes” is almost as good.
  1. The Wild Robot Escapes – Peter Brown

November:

  1. The Best Halloween Ever – Barbara Robinson
  1. Me Oh Maya! – Jon Scieszka
  1. Zoey and Sassafras: Merhorses and Bubbles – Asia Citro
  1. Burnout – Emily and Amelia Nagoski: Easily the most immediately helpful book I read this year, I want to gift it to every woman I know. I say woman because that’s the intended audience, and one of the culprits behind burnout is the dang patriarchy, but there are so many structural social issues that contribute to burnout and that’s super helpful for anyone to learn about. This book talks about completing the neurological process that is the stress cycle, so we can feel good and not get trapped in chronic stress. It’s short and clear, full of compelling research and actionable ideas, funny and warm and abounding in empathy. I definitely want Emily to be my best friend. READ THIS BOOK.
  1. Rabbits for Food – Binnie Kirshenbaum: “Rabbits” chronicles the depressive spiral of Bunny—the first section covers a single day with lots of expository glimpses into the past; the violent culmination of this day lands Bunny in the psychiatric ward of a New York City hospital. Part two of the book sees Bunny killing time by writing about her fellow patients. Bunny is witty, ascerbic, and very self-aware; despite her condition, she feels like a trustworthy narrator and she’s very likeable. I think part of the power of a mental health narrative is the feeling that any of us could spiral into madness, none of us is really, fully “normal.” In that regard, Kirshenbaum does a terrific job making Bunny’s decline relatable, in that literary trope of personal madness being the most reasonable response to the insanity of the world. But through all the heaviness, the book is also funny and endearing, a “Cuckoo’s Nest” with a great deal more hope.
  1. Faith is Not Blind – Bruce C. Hafen and Marie Hafen: This is a book about simple faith, complex faith and the simplicity beyond complexity. I think it’s a really beautiful way to frame a complicated topic, and it gives practical help for faith as action. It’s a skinny volume, but very full.
  1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman: A socially odd woman with a dark past finds friendship and comes to terms with her history. I enjoyed it, it was fine, I just didn’t buy it. Didn’t buy Eleanor as a narrator, and was baffled by the choice to make this first-person—I think it would have been way better in third-person, because Eleanor’s voice just didn’t work to give us a clear picture of her as this repressed character with loads of deep problems. The things she observes don’t fit with her abnormal way of relating to people; if she did observe those things, she wouldn’t have an abnormal way of relating to people. She hints and hints and hints at her past, which is necessary for the plot, but makes no sense when we’re in the head of a trauma survivor with massive disassociation—so then the writer relies on Eleanor thinking to herself “No, no, we mustn’t think about that,” which I just thought was kind of cheap. It also bothers me that in so many books and movies about people outside the mainstream discovering love and friendships, they just happen to be conventionally attractive and thin (the whole trope of removing glasses and taking out your ponytail and suddenly you’re beautiful! Don’t love that.) If I hadn’t been thinking about this problem of her being an unreliable narrator written as mostly reliable, I would’ve probably enjoyed it much more. It reminded me of “The Rosie Project”, so if you enjoyed that, you might like this. As a side note, Reese’s book club pics have mostly been misses for me—anyone else?
  1. Nothing to See Here – Kevin Wilson: I really enjoyed Wilson’s “The Family Fang”, so when this novel popped onto my radar, I knew I wanted to check it out. In the story, our narrator gets pulled into a nanny position by an old school friend whose children spontaneously combust—literally. It’s odd, obviously, but also darkly sweet, funny, poignant and full of heart. An easy book all the way through, but one that kept me thinking, too.
  1. The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman: Four septuagenarians at a senior living center meet to solve cold murder cases. When murder shows up on their front door, they’re prepared to leverage their skills and others’ mistaken expectations of them to solve the mystery. It’s engaging, funny and at turns a bit sad, and the perfect book to buy your mom for Christmas.

December:

  1. As Long As We Both Shall Live – JoAnn Chaney: Good gracious, this book was terrible. It read like “Gone Girl” fan fiction written by a Dan Brown cosplayer. Stocked exclusively with cliches and ridiculous suspensions of logic, the only real mystery is how it has so many good reviews.
  1. The Guest List – Lucy Foley: It was fine. Suspenseful, but clichéd. Each narrator dragged his or her secrets out (while constantly being obvious about the existence of said secrets) in a way that had me semi-eye-rolling and the climax was a little too neat. Everyone gets what’s coming to them, which is sometimes all you want from this genre, but it’s pretty boring on the way there. On the whole, not one of those mystery-thrillers that really gets your brain going in a satisfying way, but it would be a solid beach read or thing to get you through a long travel day (remember those?) I rate this a “just-go-read-Tana-French” out of 5.
  1. Orange World and Other Stories – Karen Russell: I love short stories and Karen Russell’s got to be one of the most talented fiction writers of our time. Her stories seem at the start to be real life until suddenly you discover some magical element lurking. Some grabbed me more than others—the first and last stories were my favorites.
  1. What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era – Carlos Lozada: As a book critic for the Washington Post, Lozada has read a mountain of books about Trump and what led to his rise and election. In this book, he distills key points from each thematic grouping: “Heartland” literature, the resistance, what happened with Russia, conservative reactions, books on immigration and racism, the Me Too movement, and more. It’s a fascinating overview of Trump literature, literally a documentation of what we (or at least, the represented authors) were thinking throughout Trump’s presidency. As a book about books, don’t expect it to make its own points; do expect to come away with a longer list of books to read (but one that’s mercifully whittled from what Lozada consumed). At the end of each chapter, there’s a helpful bibliography of each book Lozada mentions in each category.
  1. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – Lori Gottlieb: Really liked this. Gottlieb is a therapist, and this is a book about her patients and their problems, her own therapist and her own problems, and the purpose and practice of therapy itself. I liked getting a peek into the therapy room and found Gottlieb warm, wise and funny. My only issue with it was its length—a think it was a bit too long! But I’m allergic to anything over 400 pages so that might be a me thing.
  1. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett: Every year, LitHub publishes an amalgamation of the “best books of [year]” lists put out by various organizations. In 2020, “The Vanishing Half” appeared on 25 prominent lists, the most of any other book published this year. Which is A LOT. And I thought it was really excellent—a story that digs into questions of identity and belonging to our communities and to ourselves. It’s beautifully written. Because so much of the narrative is told through the inner reflections of the characters, it lacked the forward drive of a plot that happens “in the moment.” Not necessarily a bad thing, but less absorbing for me. Which is fine! Because not everything has to be super exciting. It’s a beautiful book.
  1. The Searcher – Tana French: My love for Tana French is well-documented here, and I was so excited to read her latest offering! This book is so much different from her previous ones—it’s beautiful and compelling with great characterization, but it’s not a traditional murder mystery like her other books. Cal is a former cop from Chicago who moves to Ireland to renovate a cottage and disappear into country life. But what he expects to be a quiet and private retirement complicates with the cloudy morality of small-town life. It wasn’t what I expected, but I loved it all the same.

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