My favorite books of 2020

I am an insatiable reader. I read every night before going to bed; while walking the dog (audiobooks, of course); on airplanes (remember those?); on a stationary bike. I read with my kids every night, too, alternating with my husband between my 5 and 8 year old sons one night, and my 10 year old daughter the next. As a result, I end up reading 70-80 books per year (not counting the ones I read to my five year old!).

Because I’m a list-maker, I keep track of the books I read, and because I’m forgetful, I also jot down my impressions of each book, a few sentences for each. This way I’m able to pass along my book recommendations (and occasionally, my anti-recommendations, and by the way, we need a better word for that concept in English!). Here, without further ado, are my ten favorite books that I read in 2020 (although not necessarily published that year).

  1. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. A collection of essays, this book is written with the straightforward, clean prose that characterizes Patchett’s fiction (The Dutch House, Commonwealth, Bel Canto, etc). I picked it up because her essay “The Getaway Car,” about the craft of writing, has a must-read reputation among writers. The title essay on marriage, as well as other pieces about her grandmother, her dog, bookstores, and others, were moving and so artfully written. 
  2. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. I worried that this book, about two children who spontaneously combust (but really about their accidental babysitter), would be gimmicky. Instead, I found it absolutely charming: funny, unpredictable, and surprisingly moving. After reading this, I learned that Patchett is one of Wilson’s mentors and friends. Now that is a powerhouse twosome!
  3. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. This book, by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, couldn’t be more relevant to 2020. Wilkerson examines our unwritten caste system in the US, which she describes principally along racial lines, and she compares it to the caste systems in India and Nazi Germany. Be prepared for a hard, but necessary, read, that calls us to examine our own assumptions about how we got to where we are today with respect to racial inequality, and our culpability in that narrative.
  4. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This story, about twin sisters whose choices about race result in their very different lives, became one of the sensations of 2020. Networks engaged in a bidding war (to the tune of a 7-figure outcome!) for the rights to produce it as a limited series (won by HBO). The novel was named as one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times, Time, and others. So, does it live up to the hype? Yes, if you are a fan of literary fiction. The jumping narrative (between characters and times) might not be for everyone, but I was riveted by the story of the sisters, one of whom chooses to pass for white, and the other who gives birth to a girl with much darker skin (described as “blue black”). The ripple effects of their choices in their own lives and in their children’s reminded me of a contemporary and nuanced take on the Harlem Renaissance classic Passing. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
  5. Long Bright River by Liz Moore. Another story about two sisters making very different life choices, although that’s where the commonality with Bennett’s work ends (aside from both being excellently written). In Moore’s book, one sister becomes an opioid addict who goes missing in Philadelphia, and the other sister is a cop whose beat includes the most drug-ridden neighborhood of the city. I couldn’t put this book down. Its character-driven suspense plot was tightly crafted, and I admired the nuanced depiction of the siblings’ relationship.
  6. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I confess that I couldn’t get through Gyasi’s first, and much-praised, book Homegoing. In its early pages, I also struggled with Transcendent Kingdom. Then, somewhere around one-third of the way in, I started to feel consumed by Gifty, the main character, and her relationships (and carried trauma) with her mother, dead brother, and absent father. This book is so skillfully written that it reads like a memoir; the author inhabits Gifty completely and convincingly. No matter that Gifty is a PhD-level neuroscientist and Gyasi confesses to not liking science! You’ll fall in love with Gifty’s little lab mice and her own desperation to understand them, in order to better understand herself.
  7. Heavy by Kiese Laymon. WOW. I challenge anyone to start this book (just read the preface, “Been”)– and not feel compelled to continue. This memoir is as raw and real as any I have read, an honest look at the weight (literal and metaphorical) of growing up black in Mississippi, at abuse, addiction, and fighting inner demons through outer compulsions. It is about trying to pull oneself up and out, via education, relocation, economic opportunity, only to find that you have only worked on your exterior, that inside, you are still broken. Not an easy book to read, but Laymon’s writing is devastating and exquisite, the story wrenching and impeccable.
  8. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The author won back-to-back Pulitzers, for this and his previous novel, The Underground Railroad, becoming the first author to accomplish this feat (and only the fourth to win two fiction Pulitzers). In this book, inspired by true events, the main character is forced to go to a segregated reform school where he is treated in nightmarish fashion. The writing is flawless, the pacing spot-on, and the tension perfectly developed.
  9. Know My Name by Chanel Miller. A memoir by the woman who was sexually assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner (who famously received a mere six month sentence for a heinous crime), this book is a “Me Too” survivor’s tale and so much more. The prose will take your breath away. Miller’s voice is raw but powerful, lyrical and literary in a way that you don’t necessarily expect from memoirs. I feel this should be required reading for college freshmen, to know what the world can be like, and for adults of all stripes (but especially men), to have insight into what 1 in 4 women have been through. This is the highest-rated book on my list (by Goodreads users), receiving an average 4.71 rating across 60,000+ ratings as of this writing. Clearly, it resonates with a vast readership.
  10. The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. A 14 year old Nigerian girl, whose mother (now dead) had promised she would receive an education, is instead sold into marriage by her father. Adunni must rely on her courage and her belief in her dream for herself, as a girl who wants and deserves an education, in order to overcome every barrier put in her way. The story is compelling, but what sets this book apart (and the reason I have already recommended it to so many people) is Adunni’s voice. She will enchant you with her curiosity and imagery and the lyricism of her words. Not only my favorite book of 2020, this is also one of my favorite works of contemporary literature, period.

So there you have it, the best books I read in 2020. What were your favorites? Comment and let me know!

8 thoughts on “My favorite books of 2020

  1. I agree with you on Nothing to See Here and Long Bright River! Ask again, Yes and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry were also in my top 5. Great list Jill. I’m adding all of the rest of yours to my Libby on hold. 😊

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  2. Know My Name was our Richmond Duke Women’s read for the fall – excellent. I’ll add See No Stranger, Raising Ryland, The Sun Does Shine and Unfollow. If you like animal tales, then Ever By My Side, by Nick Trout. All except the first were audiobooks, and the narrator did not disappoint.

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  3. Nickel Boys is one of the most brilliant, devastating, necessary books I’ve ever read–so powerful. I’ve definitely added a few of these to my list, but for my top ten of this year I’d also add Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), Circe (Madeline Miller, even though I think I’m late to the party on this one!), and The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern) for something rather sparkly and lovely, which I was definitely looking for by month six of work from home.

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