As you might have heard, 2020 was full of unprecedented times. All of the worry, uncertainty, and change of routine negatively impacted my reading life. I managed to read my average number of books (54), but I would sometimes go weeks without reading a single page because I didn’t feel like my brain could handle the kind of focus a book requires. I said multiple times that it was Zoloft and the Great British Baking Show that got me through such a difficult season, and I stand by that in 2021.
Despite my reading life being a little weird at times, I managed to read some books I truly love. Here’s a look at my top ten plus some honorable mentions. These are in random order.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
I finished Such a Fun Age in January of last year, and even though it was early in the year, I knew this book would be on my favorites list. It tells the story of a young Black woman named Emira who works as a babysitter for a white child named Briar. Briar’s mother is Alix, a blogger and social media influencer. One night, Emira is asked to take Briar out of the house for a bit, so the two head to a high-end grocery store nearby to kill time. It’s there where Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar, an event that sets off a bomb in the lives of the characters. Kiley Reid’s debut novel is a smart, immensely entertaining look at race, white privilege, and how people can be blind to what’s right in front of them.
The Lazy Genius Way: Embrace What Matters, Ditch What Doesn’t, and Get Stuff Done by Kendra Adachi
I’ve been a long time listener of Adachi’s Lazy Genius podcast, so I was eager to get my hands on her book. I knew I’d like it, but I didn’t expect just how helpful it would be. I appreciate this book because it isn’t full of specific steps or lists of things you must do to achieve success. Instead, Adachi presents the reader with different principles that can work for any person and situation. I’ve applied a couple of principles to my own life with great success. As soon as I finished this book, I gave my copy to my mom and sent another one to my best friend. It’s that good and useful.
Here for It, or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas
I don’t reread books very often, but as soon as I finished Here for It, I wanted to start it again. This book is a collection of essays by the hilarious and thoughtful R. Eric Thomas. He writes about pop culture, religion, sexuality, and growing up as a gay man in the Midwest. Here for It is funny, smart, and more profound than you think it’ll be if you’re judging it by its bright pink cover. I’m grateful to have finally found R. Eric Thomas since there hasn’t been a year in which I needed laughter more than in 2020. (Sign up for his newsletter for weekly laughs. They’re the delights of my Sundays.)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
When I read fiction, I appreciate and seek out certain settings, including schools (I guess I don’t get enough at work). My Dark Vanessa goes back and forth from a boarding school in 2000 to 2017 where our protagonist is working at a hotel. The title character reflects on the relationship she had with a former teacher when she was 15 and how it still shapes her life at 32. If you’re a sensitive reader who’s troubled by stories of abuse, this is not the book for you. Russell’s story is dark, yet the psychology behind the power dynamics of a student/teacher affair is handled with sensitivity and great insight.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
by Carol Anderson
This book blew my mind. I thought I knew a decent amount about American history, but I was wrong. I thought I had a sense of how deep the roots of racism are in the United States, but I was wrong about that, too. In White Rage, Carol Anderson explores the opposition white people have had to Black success and flourishing. The part of the book that explores segregated schools was particularly eye-opening for me. If someone came to me and asked where to start with their antiracist reading, I’d hand them a copy of White Rage along with a pen so they could take notes.
Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump
by Kate Andersen Brower
As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I’d love it. I’m happy to say I was right. Team of Five explores the lives and relationships of the five other presidents alive during Trump’s time in office: Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush (who passed in 2018), Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Brower discusses their relationships with each other, how they governed, and their legacies compared to #45.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. I’d make it assigned reading for everyone if I had such power. Because of my love for that book, I couldn’t wait for Gyasi’s next release. Transcendent Kingdom was worth the wait. It’s the story of a twenty-something scientist named Gifty living in California. Her mother, a Ghanian immigrant, visits during the middle of a mental, emotional, and spiritual breakdown due to the loss of her son and Gifty’s brother, Nana. This novel explores family, religion, addiction, and memory in profound ways. It’s an incredible story that has stayed with me.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
I read this book on my own, and I’m going through it again right now with the equity committee I serve on at one of my schools. I’ve told my peers that I could read this book over and over again and get something new out of it each time. Kendi is brilliant, and his arguments are challenging and ultimately convicting. This book’s chapters are broken up into different categories, such as biology, space, and class. In each chapter, Kendi discusses how antiracism pertains to the topic and shares stories from his own life.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
2020 was full of surprises, and one was that I discovered joy in reading graphic novels. I’d read a handful over the years but always said the format wasn’t for me. Despite that, I couldn’t resist picking up Good Talk due to the buzz it was getting and its overall look. (I’m a sucker for a pretty book.) I ended up loving this memoir in which Jacob explores race, parenthood, and life as a person of color in the post-Trump United States. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated story. I love it so much that I bought my own copy after reading it from the library.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Along with Good Talk, we can add Rodham to the list of books that surprised me in 2020. I don’t have much interest in alternative history stories. If I’m going to read about history, I want to read about actual history. Or so I thought. Rodham is the novel you probably assume from the title, Hillary Rodham’s story if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton. Despite my hesitation, I picked up this novel from the library and devoured it. I loved all of the political content, but what I appreciate the most about Rodham is the way Sittenfeld made this story seem real. It raises the question about how different our lives could be–good or bad–if just one choice were different.
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
- Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks
- Dear Martin by Nic Stone
- Intimations by Zadie Smith
- Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran
- Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now by Scott Erickson
Books I Didn’t Get to in 2020
that I Still Want to Read
- Writers and Lovers by Lily King
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
- Memorial by Bryan Washington
- The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
- A Promised Land by Barack Obama
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor
- The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson