I read a lot this year. Being homebound, away from most of my friends and family; grieving the loss of a sibling, trying to make sense of a senseless passing; and juggling the dual demons of stress and anxiety in a line of work that escalated during a pandemic year — books were my only reprieve.
Call it escapism. Having traveled nearly every single month for the past 7 years, sitting still was a novelty. While I’ve always been a voracious reader and prefer to read for 5 hours straight than to sit through a 2 hour-movie, being homebound was a welcome change of pace and gave me time to read and reflect, and a chance to travel through the books I read.
Out of the 60 books I read in 2020, below are my top picks. I’ve separated them by non-fiction and fiction, both of which I read with equal gusto.
- Know My Name
by Chanel Miller
Remember the Stanford rape case, where a star varsity athlete was considered to have had his future ruined by a sexual assault he committed and his deeds sugarcoated with ‘boys will be boys’ excuses? The victim was known only as ‘Emily Doe’ during the trial. In this powerful memoir, Chanel Miller brings to the fore the haunting and traumatic experience of one’s entire existence being called into question during a sexual assault case, when really, it is the perpetrator who we should be talking about. Miller is an eloquent writer who shines a light on the pain sexual assault victims go through and how they continue through life with dignity. While occasionally a difficult read, her story is one of resilience, strength, and hope.
- Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
by Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer-winning poet. Her beautifully crafted memoir centered on her mother, who was murdered by her partner, is an examination of race, domestic violence, and a mother-daughter relationship. Her poetic framing of words come across vividly in this heart-wrenching memoir as she retraces the steps until her mother’s violent death, pausing intermittently to reflect how this untimely ending could have been averted. This book will make you want to pick up the phone and call your mother.
- The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine
by Ben Ehrenreich
My understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been mostly superficial. It has gone on for so long that I think of it only when I read about escalation of violence in the region in the news. Ben Ehrenreich is a skilled journalist that writes about his experience living with Palestinian families in the West Bank, and the atrocities these families face. As he so succinctly states in his introduction, “This is therefore not an attempt to explain Palestinians to an English-speaking audience. They are more than capable of explaining themselves. One must only trouble oneself to listen. Nor is it an effort to ‘humanize’ them, a favor they do not need from me.” His writing is coldly factual, almost to a fault, but brooding. And it this tonality in his writing that leaves you with a sense of foreboding, and a feeling of hopelessness about a conflict that seems to have no end. I fell a little in love with Ehrenreich’s writing style, his suppressed anger at the atrocities, and the unfairness of it all.
- How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
by Michael Pollan
I have long been a big fan of Michael Pollan ever since I read his other works on food and nature. He’s excellent at taking topics he has no knowledge of, studying it for years, and making it accessible to a layperson. So if you’ve ever wondered about psychedelics but never had the opportunity or the temerity to dabble in it, here’s your chance. Pollan explains its fraught history, its implications in psychotherapy, the neuroscience behind it, and even provides detailed accounts of his experimentation, in controlled environments, with psychedelic drugs. This book will leave you fascinated.
- No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us
by Rachel Louise Snyder
Another book on domestic violence, you say? Yes, because it’s an important topic. Rachel Louise Snyder is another skilled journalist that has doggedly spent years interviewing victims of domestic violence, their families, perpetrator, and advocates to provide the clearest picture to date of how interventions early on can save countless women’s lives. An average of 137 women are killed by familial violence across the globe every day. Depressing statistics certainly, but the book will also tell you about the tireless work that continues to go into improving this situation. While the book is U.S.-centric, and some realities, like easy access to guns, do not apply in other places, it is still an important read. It is not necessarily a book of hope, but a critical look into what needs to be done to make women safer.
- The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett
This is a story that cuts across multiple decades and three generations. Patchett weaves a brilliant story of two siblings, a wicked stepmother, an ostentatious manor, and everything else in between. The novel is tenderly and beautifully crafted with the magic of close sibling relationships, a house that seems to be its own central character, and a protagonist that appears more to be a clueless bystander even though the story is told from him point of view. I was disappointed that despite the nomination, it didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but this is Patchett’s best work to date.
- Nothing to See Here
by Kevin Wilson
A hilarious book about two children that spontaneously combust, this novel is masterfully spun by Kevin Wilson into one about unequal friendships, the audacity of the affluent, and finding one’s path in life. As improbable as the premise may be, the story feels familiar due to the protagonist’s longing to call someplace home. It is a lot less serious than many of the other books in this list, and is a perfect summer read.
- Writers & Lovers
by Lily King
In a coming of age story, rather reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Lily King paints a moving story of a young writer coming to terms with her mother’s death and trying to make her way in the world, while grapping with self-doubt. The characters are imperfect but their imperfections are those you can empathize with. The book is beautifully written and will leave you wistful, yet satiated, once you reach its happy ending.
- The Death of Vivek Oji
by Akwaeke Emezi
Set in Nigeria, this is an electrifying book where you know the ending right from the start, but one where Akwaeke Emezi unravels each thread until the very last page. In the story, a community mourns the death of a young person. But underneath it all, it is a story of not fitting in, attempting to meet societal expectations, confronting taboos and finally, acceptance. As a non-binary transgender author who was asked to provide proof of their gender to be considered for a Women’s literary prize, Emezi brings diversity of perspective to the literary scene. It is also not unsurprising how they give voice to the shunned in their story, perhaps drawn from their own life experiences. If you’ve made resolutions to read more diverse fictions, this is certainly a top contender.
- Girl, Woman, Other
by Bernardine Evaristo
Two reasons I liked this book: one, the stories are centered almost exclusively on female, transgender, and non-binary characters; two, I learned a great deal about the experience of British black women, which I hadn’t read much about before. The collection of stories are intertwined, but each story holds on its own. Every character’s story is different, and they all encounter trauma, pain, and hurt, but are able to define success in their own way as well. It is simultaneously a book about the immigrant experience and modern Britain.
Leave me a comment if you’ve read any of these books as well, and let me know you liked them. You can follow me on Goodreads here.