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This year of reading was a bit of a slow burn. For awhile, it seemed like I hadn’t read many books that truly grabbed me. Then in the final third of the year, I kept getting hit over and over with fabulous book after fabulous book!
So far I’ve read 52 books in 2020 — a much lower number than usual. I can attribute that to no longer living in New York (no more hourlong subway reading sessions from Harlem to Brooklyn!) and living and traveling with a partner for so much of the year! Moving to Prague and moving in with my boyfriend has changed my habits. But I’m adding in more reading whenever I can, and I hope to read even more in 2021.
My heart goes out to the authors who released books in 2020 and didn’t get the promotional tours they deserved. Especially the unknown, indie and first-time authors. I hope you’ll have more opportunities to get your books into readers’ hands in 2021 and beyond.
This was also the year that I started an online book club of my readers — and it has been one of the bright lights in a difficult year. I love having our group of regulars show up each month, I love the folks who pop in every now and then, and I love that we get to read books by women all over the world! More on the book club at the end of the post.
As difficult as it was, I narrowed those 52 books down to my favorite 12. All of them are fantastic reads. Here they are!
Table of Contents
My Favorite Novel of 2020: Luster by Raven Leilani
“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall with a bottle of Listerine, saying, I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll just revise.” –Raven Leilani, Luster
Edie is a Black woman in her early twenties living in New York. She’s stuck in a tough position: she barely earns enough to eat; her apartment is infested with vermin; she makes a series of bad sexual choices. And it comes to a head when she begins seeing a forty-something white man in an open marriage and becomes swept up in their mind games he and his wife play.
This novel made my skin crawl in the best way. I felt so deep in Edie’s skin that I wanted to scream at every poor choice she made — while simultaneously understanding them, even justifying them. It was like holding up a mirror to my worst impulses, seeing all the horrible things I had done — and still pleading with Edie, “Come with me, stay in my apartment, you’ll be safe there!!”
But once the book gets deeper, it feels like a sickening downward spiral, one where you feel equally sober and intoxicated, looking at a world that is incredibly strange and also perfectly logical. It’s hard to explain, but once you’re in it, you’ll be reading the book as fast as you can.
You witness the worst with Edie. And you grow with Edie.
I will not forget how this book made me feel.
My Favorite Nonfiction Book of 2020: Caste: The Origin Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.” — Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origin Of Our Discontents
In a year when America rose up in protests for racial justice and books about racism topped the bestsellers list, this one was far and away above the rest.
If you’ve been following my reading lists, you know I read a lot about race, class, and inequality in America. This is a book that turns every other book on its head. It takes all of the information you know about American racism and reorganizes it into a new taxonomy: America is a caste system. White people are the upper or dominant caste. Black people are the lowest caste, not unlike how the Dalits, or Untouchables, are treated in India.
It’s not about treating people based on the color of their skin, the way it was explained to us as children, nor is it simply the compounding horrors of 400 years of disenfranchisement. A caste system instantly assigns each person a role in the system, and that decides how people interact with each other.
This book compares America’s caste system to the Indian caste system and the caste system of Nazi Germany (and the Nazis based their system largely on how Black people are treated in the United States — and they used this as a legal discrimination system for the Jews).
This is the single most impactful book that I read in 2020, and I wish that all of you would read it, too. I feel like I see American racism in an entirely new light, and this has given me additional resources to continue the fight for justice.
My Favorite Memoir of 2020: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
“We tend to think that the future happens later, but we’re creating it in our minds every day. When the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it. And having the future taken away is the mother of all plot twists.” –Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
While a memoir technically falls under the nonfiction category, I feel like it deserves its own designation. Taking the truth and editing it down into a piece of compelling literature, sharing one’s life in the first person.
Lori Gottlieb is a successful therapist in Los Angeles, a single mom to a great kid, in a long-term relationship with a man she plans to marry. In an instant, her relationship falls apart and she finds herself desperately in need of her own therapist. The book switches between Lori helping her own patients through their struggles and her own sessions — in which she completely falls apart, again and again, in front of her own therapist.
I read this book on the island of Vis in Croatia and took it on our boat around the island. I would jump off the boat for a swim, hop back on, and then dive back into the book until our next stop. It was THAT GOOD.
Gottlieb is remarkably frank about her personal struggles, taking months to do anything more than just cry in front of her therapist. And the patients that she profiles — some are composites of her patients, all with their identities changed to protect their privacy — are truly remarkable. Flawed people, angry people, impossible people. Yet their stories will leave you so hopeful.
This book is a work of compassion — to other people and to the author herself. And that is a beautiful thing.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (2020)
“They are skeptical of the rhetoric of addiction as disease, something akin to high blood pressure or diabetes, and I get that. What they’re really saying is that they may have partied in high school and college but look at them now. Look how strong-willed they are, how many good choices they’ve made. They want reassurances. They want to believe that they have been loved enough and have raised their children well enough that the things that I research will never, ever touch their own lives.” –Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
Gifty is a neuroscience researcher at Stanford studying the effects of reward-seeking behavior in mice — namely, the science of addiction. This work relates to her brother, a gifted athlete who became addicted to opioids as a teenager and died of an overdose.
This book brings Gifty’s past and present together: her family’s immigration from Ghana to Alabama and never feeling like they belonged; her mother’s strictness combined with her ultimate loss; and reconciling her evangelical Christian upbringing with the study of science.
Yaa Gyasi published her debut novel Homegoing a few years ago and I was nearly shattered at how brilliant that book was. This book is just as magnificent.
I can’t even decide what I love most about it — the inner turmoil of Gifty, trying to find her place as a scientist, a Christian, an immigrant, a bereaved sibling? How Gyasi writes about neuroscience, a field that she does not work in, with eloquent brilliance? The novel’s quiet emphasis on nurturing relationships, on being denied them as a child, on learning to accept them as an adult? The searing indifference of Gifty’s mother’s church after a decade of giving everything she had to them, and what it says about Christianity and racism?
Months after reading it, I still marvel at this book. Read it over your holiday break and I’m sure you’ll love it.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)
“You know when true equality will be achieved? When a woman with these kinds of skeletons in her closet has the nerve to run for office.” — Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham
Well, this was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, and it paid off. Years ago, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote American Wife, a fictionalized life story of a First Lady quite like Laura Bush, that was illuminating, fun, and full of compassion, adding so many dimensions to a woman who kept much of her true self under wraps.
Then came Rodham: a fictionalized account of Hillary Clinton’s life, if she had never married Bill. Say, after a few years of living with him, she realized that she loved him fiercely but couldn’t handle his sexual misconduct, and went home to Chicago, launching a high-profile law career of her own, then taking the plunge into politics.
This book could so easily be wishful thinking fan fiction, but it’s not. It’s a highly entertaining read that takes you through so much history, turning around with a wink, ending up in such interesting places, but with nods to today. How plausible it could be that Hillary, or any other white woman, had stepped on an emerging Black woman on her way into the Senate. And if Bill hadn’t stayed in politics, well, what career do you think he would have had? I think the book puts him exactly where he would have been.
Even so, I didn’t read this as a “what could have been.” (Though I found Sittenfeld’s alternate history list of who was elected president from 1992 to 2016 to be fascinating, including two terms for McCain instead of Dubya.) I read this as a compassionate study of Hillary — a grown-up nerd who grew up, did everything right, never stopped studying, worked for justice, and still had to work her ass off to burst every barrier along the way.
There is a Trump cameo. I found it distracting. Other than that, this book was one of the most delicious reads of the year. I can’t wait to read it again.
Open Book by Jessica Simpson (2020)
“It didn’t make me cry, it made me mad. But he was breaking down in front of the world, and, again, I felt responsible. How many times are women made to feel responsible for the actions of men? I know now that.” –Jessica Simpson, Open Book
Back in the day, I was really into celebrity gossip. Dlisted was my favorite; I loved Lainey Gossip’s point of view, too. But when I was really deeply into it in the early 2000s, you know who one of the most-talked-about stars in gossip? Jessica Simpson.
I had no idea she was even writing a memoir. But as soon as I heard it was coming out, I HAD to have it. I bought it the day it came out.
This is a celebrity memoir that actually delivers. Nick Lachey? Yep, the marriage was as rough as it looked — they barely knew each other. Her parents? There’s clearly a lot of love there, but a lot of her upbringing is sad, too. John Mayer? FUCK THAT GUY!!! Johnny Knoxville? OMG OMG OMG OMG. I won’t reveal anything but it is worth it.
Oh, and I feel like her husband, Eric Johnson, didn’t get the credit he deserved. Everyone mocked him when they got together, because he didn’t have a job and gave up business school to be with her — but they seem like a really great match and bonded over their shared new age interests. And they named their first two kids after four of their beloved grandparents. So sweet.
This was SUCH a juicy read — but more than anything, it made me feel horrible for how the gossip community (myself included) laughed at her over the years. I’m sorry I ever laughed at you, Jessica! She is such a kind person and this book will make you appreciate her.
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away by Dionne Searcey (2020)
“How could I convey in newsprint what these people were experiencing at the hands of government, oil corporations and their own leaders, all of whom were profiting off their misery? It was easier for a group of men to pick up a stick of dynamite, but for the people of the Delta, the violence had changed nothing.” –Dionne Searcey, In Pursuit of Disobedient Women
Dionne Searcey’s life was solid — but maybe a bit boring. She had an excellent job as a journalist at the New York Times, a home in Brooklyn, three great kids, a strong marriage. But life was getting a bit predictable. So when a job opportunity came up for the paper’s West Africa Bureau Chief position — a position Searcey qualified for with her French language skills — she applied, got it, and moved her family to Senegal. In this memoir, she breaks insane stories, including several about Boko Haram, and tells the unvarnished truth of the effects this job can have on your marriage and family.
I don’t read as many travel books as you’d expect someone like me to, in part because most of the travel books that get the publishing and marketing dollars are in the exotic-places-seen-through-colonialist-white-eyes category. I was a bit wary as I picked this book up, wondering how this point of view would affect the book.
This is one of the good ones. More than anything, this is a memoir about work — in this case, journalism — and I ADORE memoirs about work. Just learning all the intricate details about what goes on in someone else’s life. Searcey doesn’t view West Africa as a place for her to discover or save — she sees her role as a westerner with the power to bring attention where it is deeply needed. And she depicts everyone she meets with dignity.
My mouth frequently fell open at the insane nature of her trips. But what makes this book different is her frankness when it comes to how this job affected her family, and particularly her marriage. She and her husband both had high-powered jobs and acknowledged that sometimes it was the time to let your partner shine and you would be in the back — as Chris Rock would say, playing the tambourine. It didn’t always go that well.
I’m really interested in visiting West Africa in the future. I already read a lot of Nigerian authors but would love to expand into more authors from the region.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall (2020)
“We rarely talk about basic needs as a feminist issue. Food insecurity and access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. Instead of a framework that focuses on helping women get basic needs met, all too often the focus is not on survival but on increasing privilege. For a movement that is meant to represent all women, it often centers on those who already have most of their needs met.” –Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism
Intersectionality is the study of how various aspects of people’s identity affect their lives. And this book is a call to arms to increase intersectionality in feminism, a cause historically led by highly privileged women looking to increase their own privilege instead of providing highly needed aid to the least privileged women. Because of this, women of color, queer and gender non-confirming people, and disabled people are too often excluded from the feminist movement.
In short, food insecurity is a feminist issue. Access to medical care is a feminist issue. Safe schools are a feminist issue. And we can’t have a fully feminist focus until we devote as many resources to providing healthy food to low-income families as we do to getting women in board rooms.
Kendall devotes each chapter to a specific issue and some of her findings are shocking — like the fact that soda taxes, seen by so many people as a universally good idea, end up doing the most damage to low-income families. Even though we know that soda is a horrible culprit, for many low-income people it’s the cheapest beverage that isn’t tap water. And in some parts of the US like Flint and some Native American reservations, tap water isn’t safe to drink.
This book is a must-read for anyone who is a proponent of feminism, or anyone who does work in the left-wing space — especially if most of the time you’re surrounded by privileged people when you do so. If you’re looking to make positive change in the world, this book lays out a smart blueprint.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019)
“Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.” –Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
If you ever get a chance to read a work of fiction written by a poet — take it. Just know that it will take you much longer to read than you anticipate. Poets seem to spend ages choosing each word so that it’s perfect, flowing like music.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel drawing from Vuong’s life: he was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States as a child with a stint in a Filipino refugee camp in between. This book is written from the point of view of Little Dog, a teenager writing letters to his illiterate mother. The letters cover his family’s history, his struggle with his identity, and his first romance.
This book is so beautifully written, and raw in the subject matter. Just don’t rush this one. Read each carefully chosen word and savor it slowly. I feel like that’s all I can say about it.
Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller (2019)
“I did not come into existence when he harmed me. She found her voice! I had a voice, he stripped it, left me groping around blind for a bit, but I always had it. I just used it like I never had to use it before. I do not owe him my success, becoming, he did not create me. The only credit Brock can take is for assaulting me, and he could never even admit to that.” –Chanel Miller, Know My Name
She was known as Emily Doe, the rape victim of Brock Turner, when she wrote the open letter to her assailant, a letter that reverberated around the world. But Chanel Miller was far more than Emily Doe, victim. She was a gifted writer, and she puts her gifts to use in this beautiful and sad memoir.
This book is about the sexual assault that destabilized Miller’s life — not only for her, but for her sister, parents, and boyfriend, among others. It is shocking and horrifying hearing what she went through. The assault happened when she was blacked out, and she had no idea she had been assaulted because NOBODY AT THE HOSPITAL TOLD HER. Everything was handled so poorly at every level (she later received a settlement from Stanford, which she says paid for therapy for her and her family).
And yet she had one of the best case scenarios. Her assailant was arrested. Two men witnessed the assault. Turner was arrested, went to trial, was actually convicted — then was sentenced to an absurdly short sentence.
But this book illustrates what happens when your life falls apart, and how to slowly, gently pick yourself up again. How she leaned on her loved ones, her writing, her art, just to get herself to a point of functioning. Miller had a lot of privilege (she was able to stop working thanks to savings, family support, and eventually a book deal), but even with that, it remains an ongoing struggle.
Miller’s writing is the star of this book, and you should read it for that reason.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
“Ageing is nothing to be ashamed of
Especially when the entire race is in it together
Although sometimes it seems that she alone among her friends wants to celebrate getting older
Because it’s such a privilege to not die prematurely” –Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other
Bernadine Evaristo was the first Black woman to ever win the Booker Prize — but it stung a bit when it was announced that she was co-winners with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, a book I found to be entertaining but far from the best of the year. After hearing that, I promptly sought this book out and discovered a deeply moving collection of characters, their stories told in free verse.
This book tells the story of various Black British women, many of them entwined across London, up to the rural North and southwest. Women from Guyanese, Jamaican, Nigerian backgrounds. Many of them queer people and multiracial people wrestling with their identities. The kinds of women whose stories are told, but aren’t given the audience they deserve thanks to publishing and marketing budgets favoring white authors.
The book is written in a poetic free verse, every chapter a run-on sentence. The characters are the kind of people you want to spend more time with. Some of these women take the most conventional route available. Some make an effort to be as alternative as possible. Some attempt to rise in the ranks as best they can, hiding their secrets behind closed doors.
If you’re an anglophile, I highly recommend this book. Most contemporary British books marketed to Americans tend to be either royalty or romantic comedy focused, nearly all with white protagonists. This one shows you a side of Britain you don’t usually see.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020)
“The truth is, I’ve never been a big believer in destiny. I worry that it encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful.” –Barack Obama, A Promised Land
Presidential memoirs are an unusual kind of book. They innately read defensively. “This is what we did and this is why it was the right decision. This is what our critics thought and this is why they were wrong.”
I was ready for that. And yet a presidential memoir is fascinating because it shows you the inner workings at the White House, all the initiatives, all the bills, all the backstage drama. I was here for it all. And while I was an early supporter and volunteer for Obama and I followed his presidency closely, there was so much that I had no idea was going on.
The book is more than 700 pages of detailed political work, and some of it is a bit much, like everything about the financial crisis. But there are parts that absolutely draw you in. I loved reading about his dinner at Medvedev’s dacha in Russia. And the climate summit in Copenhagen, where he pulled “some gangster shit” to get China to cooperate, as one of his colleagues said. But especially the process that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, which is the end of the book. Yep, this is only volume one!
One thing I struggle with as a progressive is wanting insanely audacious political action, but knowing how hard it is to get anything done. This book shows just how hard it is to get audacious things done — even with a Democratic supermajority. You can’t wave a wand and make things happen, even if they’re the right thing to do.
It’s Obama’s work, so of course it’s going to read beautifully. His writing is like Murakami’s — it instantly makes me feel calm, like the words are a babbling brook in the middle of the forest. (Murakami minus the weird sex stuff, anyway.) It was so nice to return to his voice, feel calm, and feel like adults are in charge.
And full disclosure: it took me a month to read it and I finished it last night after midnight!
Other Notable Books
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen challenged my assumption that queer people move to big cities as soon as they can. Many are staying and building queer communities in their deep red hometowns in the United States.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha brought me to wild and dazzling Seoul, told through the stories of women trying to stay afloat and better their lives. Frances Cha graciously joined us for a book club meeting earlier this year!
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow was a riveting account of the effort to cover up the Harvey Weinstein allegations at NBC, exposing a toxic underbelly at the network (and pretty much media, everywhere).
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was a haunting look at a predatory teacher’s grooming of a student.
Your Money Or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez was essential reading on the psychology beneath money.
And the worst of the year? Unlike the past few years, I didn’t read anything that was terribly written and/or egregiously racist.
But there was one book that made my eyes roll more than the others.
Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis is a massive bestseller and I felt a bit swindled when I realized how little actual substance was in it, either in the form of stories or advice. It was very “Let me tell boring stories about my life and have it be framed as advice. Also, pornography is evil.”
Plus, her husband treated her like garbage when they started dating and I couldn’t get over that. He has since written a similar book to hers aimed at men — and they recently announced they’re getting divorced.
Looking Ahead to 2021
I didn’t do a reading challenge in 2020, so it might be time for another challenge in 2021! I like the look of Book Riot’s Read Harder 2021 list, and it’s a doable 24 books.
Beyond that, I have an urge to read more nonfiction about subjects I don’t know enough about — filling in the gaps in my knowledge. When I was reading Obama’s book, he was talking about Gandhi’s impact on him and I realized that I know SO little about Gandhi! And then I saw one of the Book Riot categories is “A book written by/about a non-Western world leader.” Total coincidence!
Maybe 12 books this year on subjects I know little about. Not one per month, because I know myself and I need to do it as the interest arises, not when it’s on the schedule.
Join our book club!
This past spring, I launched the Adventurous Kate Book Club, which has been SO much fun! Roughly every five weeks on Sundays, we’ve been meeting to discuss a different book written by a woman of color from around the world. You can see them all here on Bookshop.org.
We’ve traveled to the Haiti news headlines don’t tell you about with Haitian-American author Roxane Gay; we’ve explored the seedy side of Johannesburg with Indian-South African author Ameera Patel; Korean-American author Frances Cha took us into Seoul’s most exclusive room salons; Malaysian author Yangsze Choo took us into 1930s Ipoh; Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi reflected on the immigrant experience, science, and religion; and Native American author Robin Wall Kimmerer taught us how we can learn from nature.
This month we are reading Mexican Gothic by Mexican author Silvia Moreno-Garcia — a huge bestseller this year that I’m sure some of you have already read. It even has its own playlist on Spotify by the author!
You can sign up here for our meeting on January 10. It’s pay-what-you-wish and I suggest $5. Adventurous Kate Patreon subscribers get in for free.
What were your favorite books of the year?