2020 may have been a dumpster fire but I managed a major personal victory: I rediscovered a love of reading and read more than I have in the rest of my adult life. I’m very proud of that, and I am much the better for having read some amazing literature. Below, I share my list of the 19 books I can remember reading last year, along with links and some brief thoughts about each. I divided them into some basic categories and, within each category, ranked them from my most to least liked.
Luster by Raven Leilani
Probably tied for first as my favorite book I read this year. Dark, funny, sharp writing, an excellent main character, a totally bizarre narrative proposition: a struggling young Black female artist takes up with an insecure man in an open marriage and by a weird turn of events ends up living with him, his wife, and their adopted Black daughter, forming unique bonds with each of them. Absolutely engrossing story and writing.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
So, so good. I didn’t yet read Yaa Gyasi’s debut from a couple years ago, Homegoing, but this was pretty widely anticipated and I read it as part of the book club I managed to get going at my company. Gifty is a PhD student in neuroscience from a family of Ghanaian immigrants, and her study of reward-seeking behavior in mice provides a lens that helps her navigate her familial experiences with grief, addiction, and depression.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women by Wayétu Moore
This is a narrative nonfiction book by Wayétu Moore, another story framed by an immigration experience. Moore tells the story of her family’s flight from violence and unrest in Liberia; the impact of her separation from her mother, who immigrated ahead of the rest of the family; and her experience in her new life in Texas. Moore also wrote the origin story of Liberia in a novel called She Would Be King a few years ago. Both books are brilliant.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
Two light-skinned Black twin sisters have grown up in a small town in Louisiana, a community of people who have deliberately fostered this characteristic and used it to claim a sort of status. Their roads diverge when they come of age; Stella vanishes, passing as white to create a new life and identity as a white woman; Desiree remains to work in a diner and care for their aging mother. The distance between them and the lives that they create don’t intertwine again for years. A generational family saga about race, color, gender, sisterhood, estrangement, love.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I read this spooky story just before Halloween because I was craving something dark and atmospheric and dramatic. This was the ticket — a young woman newly married to a wealthy man with a dark familial secret and plagued by a mysterious illness; her cousin, Noemí, a smart, witty, strong-willed socialite who comes to her aid after receiving a pleading letter; an old mansion that seems to have a life of its own and creeps into her dreams.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
A vision of a civilization collapsing under the weight of capitalist oppression run amok, this book seems terrifyingly prescient. I’d been meaning to read Octavia Butler’s novel about a young woman in a post-apocalyptic setting who creates her own religion and an unlikely band of followers, migrating North to try to reach a safer place to start a community. At some point I will read the next volume, Parable of the Talents, but I wasn’t ready.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Really only interesting for the well-cultivated sense of place — the natural ambience, flora and fauna of the novel (marshland of North Carolina) are the most interesting things about this book. I found the relationships flat, the main character unrealistically perfect and Beautiful Without Knowing It ™, and the murder mystery rote and formulaic. I wouldn’t bother.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Tied with Where the Crawdads Sing with ‘book I most wish I hadn’t spent time on’. I read it for a mini book club and the three of us talked shit on this book for an hour and a half. A Wes Anderson movie in book form. A bizarre murder mystery. An annoying ensemble. Badly written women. Contrived dialogue. A predictable final twist. Unbearably twee.
The White Album by Joan Didion
I love Joan Didion and I always learn something more about writing from her. She tells her own stories as though she is bemusedly retelling anecdotes at a dinner party, but the kind where one might casually use the word “inchoate”, a word I had to look up every time it was used because I immediately forgot its meaning (just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary). The essay “Holy Water” is my favorite — she parallels the ancient, mythological natural power of water with the grand modern systems we use today to bring it into even the most arid climates for desert communities. You can read that essay here. This book made me crave writing again.
Thick: and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s is a brilliant Black academic in the field of education; this book is a personal, political collection of essays about her experience, beauty, politics, feminism, and identity.
Books on Race
Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
I honestly feel like if you read this book by Angela Davis, you could skip the others on this list. A detailed history about the intersection of gender, race, and class identity in America, this book contextualizes the violence of Karens and Amy Coopers as well as the unique hardship of living at the intersection of “woman” and “Black” in America.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
This is probably the most accessible book about race in this list. It has the same empathetic, educational tone as White Fragility without the coddling. Oluo is a Black woman and so is able to connect with the subject in both a personal and an academic way. For folks wanting to start their education in race and racial justice, this is an excellent entry point.
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
An autobiographical narrative by Ibram X. Kendi that, in my opinion, is most striking in how he tells the story of his own internalized anti-Black racism. It has been criticized for statements that white people can be victims of racism (this is not true according to the accepted academic definition, as instances of anti-white bias lack a critical component of the ‘racist’ formula, which is systematic power) and for some problematic portrayals of women in his story. This one, like White Fragility, could be safely passed over in favor of the two above.
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
A book primarily for white people; a bit of a coddle-fest about how ‘you are racist but it’s not your fault and you’re not a bad person’. I thought this was a good read but it should by no means be the only book a white person reads about whiteness. The most important thing I think I learned about this is the fact that whiteness is only an identity by dint of its nature as a social construct and its use as a blunt object to enforce hierarchy. You can learn this elsewhere so I actually don’t think it’s important to read this book. I would prioritize books by Black scholars more highly.
Books About Thinking
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
Along with Luster, one of my favorite books from this year and the only one I’m thinking of reading again (I don’t usually re-read). This book is about how productivity is a destructive capitalist myth and how to detach yourself from having to constantly do ‘useful’ things with your time. After I read this book, I started feeding sunflower seeds to the magpies that landed in the garden and watching them from the window. The premise here is that finding ways to experience the real, physical, natural world right in your own surroundings is a path to finding some serenity, and that that goal is worth pursuing for its own sake, not to help you become more productive at work.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This book is about what ‘flow’ is and how it is achieved. I read this book because I am unhappy at work and wanted to learn how to create opportunities to get into ‘the zone’ in my work. The premise of this book is that flow doesn’t have to just be sought out and found — you can use tactics to improve your chance of getting into a flow state (i.e. finding ways to make boring tasks more challenging or gameify them).
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
I read this book early in the year to give me tools to cope with my mounting stress (just before my COVID-exacerbated stress flame-out in April — anyone else?!) and its advice comprised variations on a hyper-masculine “just do it” attitude. I completely abandoned the idea that stoicism would provide me any solace after reading this book.
Product/Design in Tech
Talking to Humans by Giff Constable (a pretty good little handbook about incorporating user research into product decision-making, but most of the stuff is easier said than done, like in most ‘thought leadership’ books about product management)
The Product-Led Organization by Todd Olson (a sales vehicle for Pendo)
I read these for work.