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  • Writer's pictureKatie Breen

My Favorite Books of 2020

It's that time of year again...for the yearly reading round-up! View past years here (2019) and here (2018).

Not gonna say too much about 2020 already know. I somehow read *less* in 2020 than in prior years but that's probably due to filling my free time by watching TV regularly for the first time since middle school, taking Spanish lessons, going on long walks around the neighborhood, and being a quavering shell of anxiety.

A word: while these are roughly ranked, none of them are bad! Almost all of them made their way to me after becoming highly-acclaimed bestsellers, and you know they're all good because I don't read beyond 5% if I'm not into it. So even if one isn't at the top of my list, if the description piques your interest, you may love it! I had a hard time ranking them because I really enjoyed most of them, but I will mention the ones I didn't love. Will also mention where I listened to the audiobook.

Let's hop to it.

Top 5 Books It was difficult to order numbers 3-5, but overall VERY easy to select these as my top 5 reads of 2020. #1 and #2 were easy picks.

  1. Know My Name, Chanel Miller (non-fiction) One of the most powerful reads I've ever had. The memoir of the woman assaulted by Brock Turner, in what became infamous as the "Stanford Rape Case" for Turner's shockingly light sentence. Miller takes us through the night of the assault, the hospital room after, and her survival through a long, torturous court battle. She sheds light on the nightmare that is the court system for survivors, and what recovering your life from such a core-shaking, and in her case public, event can look like. Highly recommend the audiobook so you can hear it in Miller's own voice.

  2. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson (non-fiction but almost reads like fiction) Pulitzer Prize–winning author chronicles the migration of almost six million Black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities between 1915 to 1970. Through telling the stories of a few specific families, while interweaving them with historical accounts and data, she demonstrates how the Great Migration changed the face of America.

  3. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead (fiction) Won the Pulitzer Prize. Historical fiction about the story of two Black boys unjustly sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. Written by the author of bestseller and one of my favorite books of 2018, The Underground Railroad.

  4. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction) Gorgeous prose, powerful commentaries on being Black in America. About two Nigerians who have emigrated to the US and the UK, respectively, and uncover universal questions of race, the immigrant experience of the African diaspora in white countries, and the search for identity.

  5. The Water Dancer, Ta'nehesi Coates (fiction) A bestseller from the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me. Historical fiction/fantasy about slavery in the American South and the operatives of the Underground Railroad.

Additional Fiction Faves (rough order - it's so hard to pick!)

  1. The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo Historical fiction set in 1930s colonial Malaysia; coming-of-age tale of an orphaned house-boy in a colonial house of a white doctor, and a Malaysian woman in a neighboring town.

  2. Valentine, Elizabeth Wetmore The women of one small Texas oil town in the 1970s deal with a violent crime amidst poverty, desperation, absent men, and Mother Nature.

  3. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett Two twins live separate lives when one "passes" for white while the other "remains" Black.

  4. The Family Upstairs, Lisa Jewell A boy watches his British family slowly descend into madness and poverty after they fall under cult-like influences.

  5. Washington Black, Esi Edugyan A slave in Barbados escapes with the help of his master's brother. He spends his life hiding from captors and tries to find a sense of identity and home.

  6. The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri A family escapes modern, war-torn Syria and navigates a Europe that doesn't want them.

  7. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett A dysfunctional yet repressed New England family dissolves but their family house remains the same, just without them in it.

  8. The Huntress, Kate Quinn A woman who was a former Nazi collaborator hides out in the US as Nazi hunters, one of whom was a former Russian bomber in an all-women squad, search for her.

  9. Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson A politician's twins have a secret problem: they light on fire. Their new babysitter navigates life with these political and literal liabilities who are also still just children deserving of love.

  10. Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid A white woman tries way too hard to prove to her Black nanny that she's not racist.

  11. The Guest Book, Sarah Blake (not to be confused with "The Guest List," also on this list) A family summer home on a remote island in Maine sees generations of change, beginning in the 1920s. Lovely historical fiction if you'd like to think of yourself as Kennedy on the Cape in the 1950s.

  12. The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes Librarians deliver books on horseback in a rural, Appalachian coal town in 1937 Kentucky. Not everyone trusts them.

  13. The Stationary Shop, Marian Kamali Teenage love amid political upheaval in 1953 Tehran.

  14. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson A Black woman becomes an American spy aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary Communist president of 1986 Burkina Faso.

  15. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott In the Cold War of the 1950s, a young Russian-American secretary is plucked from the CIA typing pool to help smuggle Doctor Zhivago into the USSR, where it is banned.

  16. White Houses, Amy Bloom Eleanor Roosevelt's lover, a woman journalist, moves into the White House where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers.

  17. The Tuscan Child, Rhys Bowen An Italian woman helps an injured American airman stay alive in a small, Nazi-occupied Tuscan town.

  18. My Sister the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite A woman in Lagos, Nigeria, helps her beautiful, favored younger sister get away with murder.

  19. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins Psychological thriller; a woman goes missing and another woman think she may have had something to do with it, but can't remember what happened to her that night. (Great audiobook for a road trip)

  20. The Guest List, Lucy Foley A posh couple get married on remote Irish island during a storm. Someone dies but no one knows how. (Another road trip audiobook)

Additional Non-Fiction Faves (again, rough order)

  1. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson You may have heard of the 2019 movie that was created based on this book starring Michael B. Jordan. A hard look at the injustice of our "justice" system written by the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending wrongfully or overly-harshly convicted prisoners on Death Row. A necessary look at how our criminal punishment system is not applied justly across the board and the system that maintains this injustice, especially for the Black or poor.

  2. Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad A fantastic, intentional, and approachable journey in anti-racism work. Chunked into 28 days of reading, with a new topic and journal prompt for each day to walk you step-by-step through the work of examining your own white privilege; what allyship really means; anti-blackness, racial stereotypes, and cultural appropriation; changing the way that you view and respond to race; and how to continue the work to create social change.

  3. The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power Memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner, human rights advocate, and Obama's former UN Ambassador, Samantha Power. Read the description at the link, which captures this better than I can: "Power transports us from her childhood in Dublin to the streets of war-torn Bosnia to the White House Situation Room and the world of high-stakes diplomacy." I loved learning about the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, the inter-workings of the UN, and seeing the foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration from a new perspective. She also presciently describes how the Obama Admin didn't f*ck up the ebola crisis so we never heard much about it.

  4. The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, A.J. Baime A fascinating account of Harry Truman, a very ordinary Midwestern guy who never wanted to be president but was thrust into the role at the very end of WWII by FDR's sudden death. I learned a ton about Truman (who seemed like a genuinely good, humble, thoughtful, sensitive guy and great husband, son, and father), the decision to use the first atomic bomb, and the very interesting account of The Potsdam conference (where Truman, Stalin,, and Churchill + Atlee gathered in July 1945 to decide how to deal with Germany and post-war Europe after Germany's surrender in May 1945). If you get halfway in and start getting bored around the middle sections, stick with it.

  5. When the Red Gates Opened, Dori Jones Yang I interviewed Dori on the podcast but only was able to read her book the week after our interview! As a foreign correspondent for BusinessWeek, Dori Jones Yang was among the first American journalists to cover China when it opened its doors in the 1980s by allowing private enterprise and free markets. Her memoir describes the hope of the Chinese people in the 1980s as their economy changed, and the despair of the Tianamen Square massacre. This book really helped me understand China better (in addition to my interview with Dori!)

  6. How to be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi If you heard the term "anti-racism" and don't know what it means, read this book. "Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science with his own personal story of awakening to antiracism. This is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond the awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a just and equitable society."

  7. The Son and Heir, Alexander Munninghoff A prize-winning Dutch journalist’s memoir of growing up in post–World War II Europe with a broken family and a father who was a former Nazi. I learned a ton about Baltic Germany and post-war European life.

  8. The Body, Bill Bryson Getting tired so again I'm gonna copy from the link: "Bill Bryson...guides us through the human body--how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular."

  9. Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, Conor Dougherty Read if you want to understand why your rent is so high or why it seems like you're seeing more homeless people on the streets these days. "A stunning, deeply reported investigation into the housing crisis." I listened to the audiobook but wouldn't mind actually reading it again because I retain details a bit better when reading

  10. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, Ann Fessler Anyone who thinks adoption is the simple antidote to abortion needs to read this book. Seriously. "In this deeply moving and myth-shattering work, Ann Fessler brings out into the open for the first time the astonishing untold history of the million and a half women who surrendered children for adoption due to enormous family and social pressure in the decades before Roe v. Wade. An adoptee who was herself surrendered during those years and recently made contact with her mother, Ann Fessler brilliantly brings to life the voices of more than a hundred women, as well as the spirit of those times, allowing the women to tell their stories in gripping and intimate detail."

  11. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know, Malcolm Gladwell I listened to this as an audiobook which is well worth it because it's actually produced in a similar fashion to Gladwell's great podcast, Revisionist History. Just gonna copy from the link: "Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don't know. And because we don't know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world."

  12. Lion, Saroo Brierly Turned into an Academy Award-nominated movie with Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara. When Saroo was 5, he got lost on a train in India and ended up many miles from home. He couldn't read, write, or remember the name of his hometown or his last name. After living on the streets, he was taken in by an orphanage and later adopted by an Australian couple. When he grew up, he used the nascent Google Earth to painstakingly and meticulously find his childhood home and reunite with his birth family.

  13. The Library Book, Susan Orlean "Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the [Los Angeles Public Library] fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a 'delightful…reflection on the past, present, and future of libraries in America' (New York magazine) that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.'"

  14. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb "From a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, a hilarious, thought-provoking, and surprising new book that takes us behind the scenes of a therapist's world--where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she)."

  15. Trick Mirror, Jia Talentino (essays) "In each essay, Tolentino writes about a cultural prism: the rise of the nightmare social internet...the punitive dream of optimization, which insists that everything, including our bodies, should become more efficient and beautiful until we die. Gleaming with Tolentino’s sense of humor and capacity to elucidate the impossibly complex in an instant, and marked by her desire to treat the reader with profound honesty, Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet."

  16. Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, Wendy Behary Sooo this one was def recommended by my therapist. I would recommend it to anyone dealing with a narcissist in their lives. Helpful. "This book will help you learn to meet your own needs while side-stepping unproductive power struggles and senseless arguments with someone who is at the center of his or her own universe."

  17. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe About the period of horrible conflict in 1970s Northern Ireland known as "The Troubles." Listen to the audiobook for some excellent Irish brogues. TBH, I got bored but I had friends who loved it. I would have liked the written version better vs. the audiobook because I would have better retained all the details about the IRA.

  18. The Killer Across the Table: Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI's Original Mindhunter, John E. Douglas I love true crime but this was kind of disappointing because it got repetitive after a while. "The legendary FBI criminal profiler...and inspiration for the hit Netflix show Mindhunter delves deep into the lives and crimes of four of the most disturbing and complex predatory killers, offering never-before-revealed details about his profiling process."

  19. Zak George's Dog Training Revolution, Zak George We got a puppy and this has been super helpful! Zak George is a hugely famous dog training YouTuber and Animal Planet personality who focuses on positive training (heavily reward the good, patiently ignore the bad rather than punishing). It's made me realize (a) there aren't really any "bad" dogs - only owners who haven't been diligent enough in training, and (b) your dog training knowledge is probably outdated (mine was).

Fiction I Didn't Finish:

These came highly-acclaimed but I got bored early on and couldn't finish them. Do with this info what you may:

The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd Historical fiction set in Galilee. A young, independent woman is repressed and ahead of her time. She meets Jesus (literally). I got bored in the first 5% and quit. But I LOVE Sue Monk Kidd's "The Invention of Wings" and you should definitely read that. It was one of my top books of 2018.

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado

Essays. I liked the first few but then got stuck in an overly long one (but you might like it if you watched Law & Order SVU) and lost my motivation to finish the book. "In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies."

Non-Fiction I Didn't Finish:

These are also very highly-acclaimed but I didn't finish them (for reasons stated below):

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo I read the first 5% of this and really liked it! It felt very actionable. However, I got distracted by a library book that had a more urgent due date, so I stepped away and planned to return to it. I want to finish it in 2021. "In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to 'model minorities' in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life."

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein About the climate crisis. I was trying to read this at the beginning of the pandemic when all hell was breaking loose and it's honestly so depressing that it was self-care for me not to finish it. Which I feel guilty about because kicking the can down the road is how we got into this whole climate crisis in the first place. But it was a particularly depressing time so I'll give myself that. "A brilliant explanation of why the climate crisis challenges us to abandon the core 'free market' ideology of our time, restructure the global economy, and remake our political systems."


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