When All Else Failed in 2020, I Read
My ten favorite books of my least favorite year
In mid-February of 2020, I took a trip alone to the desert. It was the first and only vacation I’d taken by myself in my entire 47 years on this planet. I am the mother of three teenagers and an elderly dog. I’m also married to a man who loves solitude, and he thought that I would love it too, so he encouraged me to go away for a week. I don’t do well by myself, and I’m terrible at relaxing, but I managed. I took the week off work and social media and taught myself how to be alone. I also read more than I had in a long time.
A month later, when I stopped going into the office, and my kids and husband stopped going to school and work, I was grateful for that time alone. I’ve been lonely a lot this year, but I haven’t really been alone since February.
We all have our own adjectives that we’ve used to describe this indescribable year. And I know that for some, the stress of this year made it impossible for them to focus on books, but for me, reading was often the only thing that I could count on to transport me from the anxiety, confusion, frustration, and terror of what was going on in our world.
Here are my ten favorite books I read this year, roughly in the order that I read them.
Normal People by Sally Rooney. Definitely read this before you watch the show on Hulu. But do both, because they are both fantastic. Arguing over which is better is as fruitless as arguing over which of Rooney’s novels, this or Conversations With Friends, is better. Both are dumb arguments because everyone should consume all content that Rooney helped create. Normal People has the most complicated male protagonist I’ve ever read, and Rooney’s dialogue will crush you, but in a good way.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel is perhaps most well known for Station 11, a novel about a global pandemic. This one is a fictionalized account of the Bernie Madoff scandal combined with mysterious events at sea. I love it mostly because I’m fond of novels with characters whose lives intersect in surprising ways, and I simply love Mandel’s writing. If you read the first 15 pages and you decide it’s not for you, then I might have to decide that we can’t be friends anymore. Bonus: There are ghosts in it.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I read this one in February and remember thinking, can you imagine spending an entire year inside your home? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I wonder if this year would have been easier or harder if I’d had the kind of kooky psychiatrist in this book who dispenses hard drugs like candy. Like Normal People and The Glass Hotel, Moshfegh’s main character is a charming and lost young woman searching for something that others seem to be able to grasp with a kind of unimaginable ease.
Severance by Ling Ma. No one will blame you if right now you don’t want to read a book about a fictional virus that spreads all over the world. I’m sure there are a thousand think pieces about why reading about a pandemic during a pandemic is so soothing. For me, it was definitely a comfort to repeatedly think, “at least things aren’t that bad.” Maybe it’s the same reason we watch reality shows to feel good about our own relationships. Severance is dark and sweet and sad and also a reminder that even when things get really bad, some of us just still keep showing up to work every day because what else can we do?
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. In the weekly 1:1 I have with my boss, sometimes we just talk about books. He recommended this one, and I’m so glad that he did. The story spans seven decades and tells the story of four generations of a Korean family living mostly in Japan. Lee wrote Pachinko in 2017, but reading it this year when I was reminded about my own country’s historical roots of racism made me realize how people the world over treat each other terribly in the name of race and ethnicity.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I’d been meaning to read Oluo’s book for a while, but in June, I (like many other white ladies) turned to books to understand my complicity in systemic racism. Oluo has kids around the same age as mine, lives on the so-called woke West Coast, and has worked in tech as I have, but that’s about where our similarities end. Still, I felt like she was talking to me when I read this book. I think about parts of it often and recommend it to everyone I know. This should be required reading for any white person who thinks they know how to talk about race. There is always more to learn.
Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan. As I look back on my list of favorite books from this year, I was surprised that this was the only one written by a man. I read a few other books by men, but they weren’t my favorites. I still like men, though. I usually don’t enjoy reading fictionalized accounts of technology's perils because I often find that authors get things very wrong. But McEwan’s story of the perils of humanoid robots also takes place in the past, which I found to be a neat trick.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I fell in love with the characters in this book from the first page and then kept falling in love with the new ones who Bennet introduced. This is a story about passing, colorism, and transgender identity, but it’s also a story about love and family and pain. If you don’t trust me, Obama also named The Vanishing Half as one of his favorite books of 2020, so maybe you trust him more?
Wandering In Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins. This story of a young woman’s search for her roots across the United States is beautifully written and both funny and sad. Jerkins tracks her family from New Jersey to Los Angeles to New Orleans and beyond. I immediately fell in love with Jerkins's thoughtfully introspective storytelling, and in a year when I reckoned with unacknowledged aspects of my own white privilege, it was helpful to read Jerkin’s memoir to better understand some of the impacts of The Great Migration.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life & Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby. Technically listing both of Irby’s books brings this list to 11 books, but it doesn’t count since I listened to both of these books of essays, which I highly recommend since Irby herself reads them. When I look back to this long and lonely summer, I’m reminded of the hours I spent walking the same laps around my neighborhood, and I often wondered if my neighbors thought that I’d finally lost it when they heard me constantly chuckling at Irby’s stories beneath my mask.