Favorite Books of 2020

A lot of people had a difficult time reading in 2020. With the world in such a mess, it can be hard to concentrate. I wasn’t one of those people. I got through a LOT of books of 2020. I bought them from independent bookstores. I read them in sweats on my couch. I listened to them on long walks around my neighborhood and at a nearby lake.

One hundred and fourteen of them, to be exact. They were a respite from pandemic, a window into real and imagined places, and a way to educate myself about issues confronting the world.

SO MANY GOOD BOOKS!

And so, in this blogpost, I’ll just talk about some highlights, choosing two favorites in each of five sometimes overlapping categories: General Nonfiction, Memoir and Essays, Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, and YA/Middle Grade.

General Nonfiction

I read eighteen books this year that I’ve categorized as general nonfiction. In this group were a number of anti-racism books and several books about the #MeToo movement that were highly enlightening, as well as some deep dives into recent and not-so-recent history. For my two favorites, I’m going with Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker and Sisters in Hate by Seyward Darby. Hidden Valley Road is an utterly engrossing book about a family of 12 children, half of whom have schizophrenia. Kolker weaves together intimate details of family history with mental health research, showing both empathy for those he writes about and a clear-headedness about the challenges inherent in both understanding and living with serious mental illness. My second pick, Sisters in Hate, examines of the role of women in the white nationalist movement. Seyward Darby centers the book on three women representing various aspects of white nationalism and supplements their stories with extensive historical and sociological research. When we think of white nationalists, we often picture men with swastika tattoos and semi-automatic weapons. This book highlights the fact that women have always been integral to the movement and are now at the forefront of some of its most disturbing permutations.

Memoir and Essays

I read twenty memoirs and seven essay collections this year. They included some lighter reading such as celebrity memoirs and great comedic essays, but the two I’m choosing as favorites are serious books that take hard-eyed views of sexual assault and racism. The first of this is Know My Name. This powerful memoir is by Chanel Miller, known for several years as Emily Doe, the rape victim of Brock Turner, the “Stanford Swimmer.” Know My Name is a compelling account of Miller’s experiences with assault, with a criminal justice system that strips victims’ humanity, with the vagaries of university sexual assault policies, and with living anonymously within a spotlight where everyone thinks they know what “kind” of woman you must be. My second favorite in this category is a book from 2014, Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. This is a powerful and disturbing book about five young men – including Ward’s brother – who died young. The compelling narrative forces the reader to think about the deaths of young black men not in statistical terms but in ways that are stark and visceral and achingly human. It wrenches the reader from apathy to empathy and felt especially relevant as I read it in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May.

Contemporary Fiction

I read twenty-nine books this year I’ve characterized as contemporary fiction. There were a few duds (that will go unmentioned!) but many were compelling reads. For my favorites, I’m going with one that made almost every “best of 2020” list in the country this year and one that was well-regarded but not quite as lauded. My first choice, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, centers on twin sisters who run away from home together as teens. Their lives then totally separate as one decides to pass as white and move away from all she knew as a child. The book bears witness – with stellar writing – to how race and family and secrets are layered into every corner of our lives. It was hard to decide on my second choice in this category. I considered My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell and Writers and Lovers by Lily King, or perhaps going with a quirkier option such as Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony or Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. But I finally decided on The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel is known for Station Eleven, a pandemic novel that many either re-read or studiously avoided this year. The disasters in The Glass Hotel are smaller ones – disconnection, the economic ruin, drug addiction – but the characters living them out are compelling. The book structure is a kaleidoscope with shards of the plot coming from various points in time from various characters point of view. It all comes together beautifully, and Mandel’s prose is sure-footed and hits the right notes of imagery and rhythm and memory.

Historical Fiction

I only read eight adult books solidly in this genre (plus several YA historicals) but because it’s my favorite (and because so many of the eight I read were excellent), it gets its own category. Like in contemporary fiction, I’m choosing one favorite that got a lot of buzz and one that didn’t. My “big buzz” favorite is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet is a book about Shakespeare’s family in which the Bard himself remains largely in the wings. Instead, the beautifully-rendered narrative centers on themes of passionate motherhood, sudden loss, and the power of grief. The writing is evocative and lyrical and there were pleasures to be found on every page. My other favorite historical fiction, The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams, received much less buzz. This debut novel, set in Massachusetts in the 1870s, is pitch perfect and fiercely feminist. It’s Little Women meets The Birds meets The Crucible meets Handmaid’s Tale, plus a lot more nuance that can’t be captured even in all those collisions. I found it highly original, with exquisite writing. I could be overselling this – others without my penchant for feminist historical fiction might not care for it – but I thought it was quite astonishing.

Young Adult / Middle Grade

This year, I read twenty books characterized as “YA” and nine written for Middle Grade readers. In middle grade, I leaned toward recent classics as I haven’t typically read much in this genre (but plan to continue!) including The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin) and books by Gary Schmidt and Meg Medina. For my favorites, though, I’m choosing two YA books. The first is 13 Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby. Set during the WWII era and narrated by a ghost named Pearl, 13 Doorways is the story of Francesca (Frankie), a teenager living with her brother and sister in an orphanage. It is a masterfully-rendered novel, the braided narratives full of the details of everyday life and the fantastical events of the world beyond life. It is funny and poignant and sometimes hits you with a powerful gut-punch of emotion. My second favorite in this category is Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold. It is a modern and magical retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. There is blood and bullying and feminist vengeance, as the book juxtaposes the joy of positive sexual relations with the trauma of sexual violence. The story is told with exquisite skill and is not for the faint of heart.

So that’s it! A Top Ten (of 114!) for 2020. Joy was sometimes difficult to find in the midst of a world turned upside down and inside out. But it was there, often between two covers or on an e-reader or coming through ear buds. Like everyone, I’m hoping for a better 2021 in many ways, but it could be hard to top 2020 for me in terms of books. Happy reading to all!

3 Comments

  1. I have printed out your blog, Kathy. The number of books you read is so amazing and inspiring. I am reading “The Cool Millions,” by Jess Walters, and am finding it a page-turner. Book Club is reading “Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Such a timely topic. Well-written and well-researched. Thanks so much for your “Best 10.”
    Nan

  2. Hi Nan – As it happens, I’m also reading “The Cool Millions” now! And Caste is up next on my Audible queue – so we are definitely in synch. I miss all the folks from the Esplanade book club – what a great group – and hope all are well.

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