I’m still trying to come up with the right words to describe my experience of last year (aren’t we all?), but one thing I can tell you about for sure is what I read. I set myself a 2020 goal of just reading whatever I wanted, exactly what I wanted, not what I thought I should read. So here’s exactly what I wanted to read in 2020: feminist novels, funny memoirs, comforting classics from my childhood, and books that helped me unlearn my own racism and/or figure out how to move through the world as a white person without further screwing everything up.
The Best Book I Read in 2020
Recommended With Some Reservations
Not Recommended But I Don’t Know Everything So Maybe You’ll Like Them
Within each category, books are listed alphabetically by last name of author.
*Asterisks denote books I re-read in 2020. Sometimes you just want to know what’s going to happen at the end.
The Best Book I Read in 2020
The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai, 2019)
This novel, set in Chicago during the most brutal years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, was far and away the best book I read this year. I think it’s the best book I read this decade. I had some personal connections to the story — I grew up a few blocks from the neighborhood where it’s set, and I lost a family member to AIDS — but I couldn’t put it down. I read it almost a full year ago and I still find myself thinking about the characters as though I once knew them in real life.
At the risk of taking a sharp left from book review to public service announcement, I should add that — thanks in large part to the efforts of the earliest AIDS activists, some of whom are portrayed in this book — HIV is no longer a death sentence, but a manageable chronic illness that need not prevent anyone from having a long and healthy life. If you are feeling freaked out about a positive HIV test, whether yours or someone else’s, there are a million great resources out there to help you. (Here in Chicago, TPAN, featured in The Great Believers, is still going strong and now offers services focused on long-term wellness for people living with HIV.) If you can use someone to talk to, leave a comment or send me a Twitter DM and I’ll be glad to help.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)
My wife, who is a big Atwood fan, was appalled that I had never read this book, so this was the year I finally sat down with it. As promised, it is bone-chilling and eerily prescient. A plot synopsis is probably unnecessary since so many people have watched the recent Hulu series, but: The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fairy tale, but a dystopian novel in which a violent rebellion has turned the United States into the theocratic Republic of Gilead. Through the eyes of a “Handmaid,” whose sole responsibility is bearing children to serve the new regime, we see how quickly democracy can turn into dictatorship, sexual conservatism can lead to the total erosion of women’s rights, and covert racism can become genocide. To me, this was the most important passage in the book:
As we know from the study of history, no new system can impose itself upon a previous one without incorporating many of the elements to be found in the latter … Gilead was no exception to this rule. Its racist policies, for example, were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.
If this makes The Handmaid’s Tale sound boring, it isn’t. You spend every page wondering who lives, who dies, and who escapes.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown, 2018)
A member of my church recommended this book to me, and I’m so glad she did. We wound up doing a church-wide small group study on it, based on the discussion guide written by the author herself. Austin Channing Brown beautifully intertwines her own story with examples of racism and toxic whiteness in church culture, and offers concrete suggestions for how we — the church writ large, and white people in the church specifically — can do better.
Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (MK Czerwiec, 2017)
I put this graphic novel on hold at the library the moment I saw it referenced in the acknowledgements of The Great Believers, and I wasn’t disappointed. MK Czerwiec is a nurse and artist who served on Illinois Masonic’s Unit 371, the first hospital care unit in Chicago dedicated to treating patients with HIV/AIDS. She drew on her own memories and interviews with former colleagues and patients to write a beautiful, heartbreaking graphic history of the unit. The book’s title comes from a doctor who worked alongside her: “We are all just people taking turns being sick. I may be the nurse or doctor today, but I could be the patient tomorrow.”
How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 (Joanna Faber and Julie King, 2017)
OH MY GOD THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD. I picked it up because I have a little kid of my own, but the strategies suggested in it work with people of every age — the kernel of the book is to defuse stressful situations by naming the feeling at play, explaining the options, and problem-solving together. This book has brought me great success in resolving conflicts with everyone from my two-year-old to some of the crabbiest adults I encounter in my daily life and work. I’ll probably read it again in 2021, and I can’t wait for the release of the authors’ next book, How to Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance, and Other Challenges of Childhood.
One more thing … I consider myself a gentle parent and believe the Ross Greene mantra that “Kids do well if they can,” but until I read this book, it had truly never occurred to me that it was possible to raise young children without punishment. Without punishment! Why didn’t I think of that?
This City Is Killing Me: Community Trauma and Toxic Stress in Urban America (Jonathan Foiles, 2019)
This book was written by a member of my church! Maybe this means I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer, but whatever, I thought it was great. Jonathan Foiles is a therapist who uses each chapter to connect an individual’s story to the larger policy forces that have impacted their mental health. This City Is Killing Me is set in Chicago, so it will be especially meaningful to you if this city is close to your heart, but it’s for you if you care about the intersection of mental health and policy — especially policy as it relates to healthcare access, child welfare, housing, education, and gun violence. Unfortunately, Chicago is an exemplary case study in how racism and poverty affect each of those things. Foiles ends with a call to action:
For those of us who have played a part in creating and sustaining the structures that make [my clients] miserable, we have to do more than simply praise their strength. We need to ask the hard questions about what created and often sustains their misery. Community trauma isn’t something that arrives out of nowhere.
Though This City Is Killing Me is not an explicitly religious book, many of the questions it asks lend themselves to answering within a theological framework (the author holds an M.Div. as well as a degree in social work). We also did a church-wide small group study of this book, using a discussion guide I wrote. If you would like to adapt it for use in your own community, leave a comment and I’ll hook you up with the Word doc.
I Hate Everyone, Except You* (Clinton Kelly, 2017)
I always got a kick out of Clinton Kelly when he co-hosted the fashion reality show What Not to Wear, so I read this book the year it came out and was pleasantly surprised. Kelly is a deft and funny memoirist with a background in journalism and a knack for pacing a story. In this book, he writes poignantly about his family and hilariously about gay life and culture (the latter is a breath of fresh air, given the wink-wink-nudge-nudge way his sexuality was treated on the show), and talks only briefly about his time on What Not to Wear. My one complaint about I Hate Everyone, Except You is the way he criticizes his former co-host Stacy London. It feels like a punch straight down, especially since the years just before the book’s publication were a time of personal and professional success for him and personal and professional disaster for her.
This year, as I was trying to decide whether I could learn to love audiobooks, it occurred to me that this book (read by Kelly himself) would probably be a good choice. It is indeed very funny on audio, although the audio version omits one of my favorite parts: a script for an imaginary makeover show. If you listen to this book, do yourself a favor and check out the hard copy for that chapter alone.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft* (Stephen King, 2000)
My dad gave me this book when I was in high school. I still have that copy, which is precious to me because he inscribed it with a note congratulating me on a “successful swim season.” I did indeed complete a season on the swim team that year, and every other year of high school, but I can assure you that the only “successful” part of any given swim season for me was that I finished it. On Writing was a gift congratulating me not for talent, but for dogged perseverance, which actually is not a bad attitude to take about writing either. Anyway …
I remembered loving this book 20 years ago, so I pulled it off the shelf and was pleased to find that it’s still brilliant. I’m not a big horror fan and have only read a couple of King’s novels (and I read those as a young teenager), but the memoir section of On Writing is alternately funny and heart-wrenching, and the writing advice is rock-solid. I’m glad I was still in high school when I learned his lessons about how to write dialogue attribution and why you should use the words that come to you naturally, not the words you think will make you sound smart. Whether you love writing or hate it, if you are a person and you use words, this book is for you.
Music for Wartime (Rebecca Makkai, 2016)
After reading The Great Believers, I went scrambling to see what else I could find by Rebecca Makkai. Music for Wartime is a haunting, beautiful collection of short stories, which in the hands of a less capable writer would each have one too many moving parts. Somehow, though, Makkai makes them all work. I usually don’t reach for short stories, but I loved this book.
Anne of Green Gables* (L.M. Montgomery, 1908)
Anne of Avonlea* (L.M. Montgomery, 1909)
Anne of the Island* (L.M. Montgomery, 1915)
Anne of Windy Poplars* (L.M. Montgomery, 1917)
Anne’s House of Dreams* (L.M. Montgomery, 1936)
L.M. Montgomery was a serious favorite of mine when I was a kid. My true favorites then were the Emily of New Moon series and Jane of Lantern Hill (Montgomery titled a lot of books using the formula “[classic girl’s name] of [romantic-sounding place]”), but Anne, the spunky orphan adopted by elderly siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, was also a contender. Last year, a friend mentioned that she was re-reading the Anne books, and suddenly I wanted to re-read them too.
You guys. These books are amazing. The lush descriptions of the landscape on Prince Edward Island, which bored me as an elementary-schooler, paint incredible pictures for me now. The character descriptions, especially of the adult characters, are fuller and more generous than I remembered. Anne sometimes rubbed me the wrong way when I was younger because she was so relentlessly good, but I read her differently now: She is a trauma survivor who finds a way to overcome the extraordinary suffering of her early life, learn to accept love, and reconceptualize the world as a safe and good place. Montgomery was writing a hundred years before “trauma studies” came on the scene, but she manages to take this story of trauma and turn it into a story of hope.
It was strange to revisit my childhood self as I re-read these books. Back then, I identified (of course) with Anne; now, my sympathies lie with Marilla. I don’t remember tearing up at this passage when I was nine.
Marilla asked no more questions … Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had—a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth. No wonder she had been so delighted at the prospect of a real home.
Certain elements of these books have not aged well, like one particularly distressing plot line in which everyone in town pities a woman with an abusive husband but there is never even a whisper of possibility that she could leave him, but I think they’re an accurate representation of the time and place in which they were written.
Serious Anne fans will notice that I only re-read the first five books in the eight-book series. Maybe I’ll get to the last three in 2021, but I was primarily interested in Anne herself, and the last three books focus more on her kids. Also, by the time I finished Anne’s House of Dreams the pandemic was taking over, and the last thing I was in the mood to do was read about World War I. Still, if you want to buy the Anne books for yourself or a spunky child in your life, the thing to do is really to spring for the 8-book set. (And if you need a baptism or confirmation gift for an Anne enthusiast, this Anne of Green Gables devotional looks pretty great.)
Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool (Emily Oster, 2019)
I loved Oster’s book about pregnancy, Expecting Better, and I enjoyed Cribsheet too. As in Expecting Better, Oster explores controversial issues by tracking down the most reliable data available and presenting it to you so that you can make your own decision. In almost every chapter of Cribsheet — and there are chapters on breastfeeding, sleep training, day care, and more — her conclusion is “the data don’t really indicate that you should make one choice over the other, so just do whatever works best for your family and don’t worry about it too much.” This is my kind of parenting book. As the title promises, it will help you relax. (Oster’s book on decision-making in the early school years, The Family Firm, is coming out this summer. I can’t wait.)
Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood (Andrew Rannells, 2019)
Andrew Rannells is best known for starring in The Book of Mormon on Broadway, but this book is about his childhood and early adult life, long before he played Elder Price. He made me laugh, cry, and cringe in equal measure, with stories about his vermin-infested college dorm in New York, the sexually predatory priests at his Catholic boys’ school in Omaha (chapter title: “It’s Never the Priest You WANT to Kiss”), and the humiliating roles he played on stage while waiting and hoping to make it big. The automated recommendation feature at the library thought I would enjoy this book, and for once it was right. I appreciated this, since for the most part it only ever thinks I will enjoy Seabiscuit or heterosexual smut.
Push (Sapphire, 1997)
You might know this story from the 2009 film Precious. I haven’t seen the movie, but I strongly encourage you to read the book. Precious, the protagonist, is a Black teenage girl living in 1980s Harlem. She has never known anything but a life of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from both her parents, and when she becomes pregnant with a second child by her father, she is sent to an alternative high school. There, she connects with the teacher and the other students, learns to read, and begins to envision a different life for herself. The depictions of violence in this book are brutal, but that brutality is what saves it from being one more inspirational-teacher story. After publishing a 2011 sequel (The Kid), the author had this to say:
Sapphire dismisses critics who complained [Push] was unrealistically brutal, saying this reaction reflects audiences’ ignorance about the ubiquity of abuse. “There are people who are really horrified,” she says. “In Michigan one woman held up the book, trembling, saying: ‘I’ve never heard of anything like this in my life.’ On the other side of the room there was a psychiatrist who said: ‘I hear it every day.'”
If you’re looking for a contemporary Anne of Green Gables, Push isn’t it. If you’re looking for a story of beauty from ashes, though, you’ll find it here.
Me Talk Pretty One Day* (David Sedaris, 2000)
Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim* (David Sedaris, 2005)
When You Are Engulfed in Flames* (David Sedaris, 2008)
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls* (David Sedaris, 2013)
Calypso (David Sedaris, 2018)
I’ve always liked David Sedaris, but thought there was something a little bit … strange … about the tone and pacing of his writing. As a preacher, I should have figured it out: These are stories meant to be read out loud. I listened to all of these on audio this year, often at a slow trot while pushing my daughter in a jogging stroller, dodging the broken asphalt of Chicago’s sidewalks because the lakefront running path had been shut down by COVID-19, craving something, anything, to give me a good laugh and make me forget that the world was falling apart. Of all these books, Calypso was the best. It’s as funny as the others, but also filled with beautiful meditations on his mother’s alcoholism, his sister’s mental illness, the reality of aging, and the inevitability of loss.
Two notes: The audio version of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls has a very funny bonus section, courtesy of the Pimsleur Japanese language program; and in several of the audiobooks, the essays read to a live audience (easily identified by the noisy applause) are somewhat different from the written versions. This annoyed me, but not so much that I wouldn’t listen to the audiobooks again.
How to Save a Life (Sara Zarr, 2012)
All my young-adult lit friends love Sara Zarr. This was the year I finally picked up one of her books, and it was a good one. How to Save a Life is a story alternately told in the voices of two teenage girls: Mandy, who is pregnant, and Jill, whose mother wants to adopt Mandy’s baby. Where Zarr shines is in giving the relationships between characters a complexity not often found in YA books. Realizing that you truly love your high-school sweetheart but you both kind of know you won’t be together forever, or that you will always crave the approval of a parent who doesn’t want you and there’s nothing you can do about it, is common in real life but hard to work into a genre that demands tidy resolutions. How to Save a Life manages to tie the central story up in a neat bow (YA publishing has its limits), but this book was still a satisfyingly messy, and therefore truthful, read.
Recommended With Some Reservations Just Because There Are a Lot of Great Books Out There in the World and You Might Find a Better One to Read Instead
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (Austin Kleon, 2012)
I enjoyed this book (which began its life as a blog post) and picked up some good ideas from it (especially Kleon’s suggestion of having a digital work station and an analog work station — it made me run straight out and buy a huge pack of sticky notes for my wall). It didn’t change my life, but it didn’t demand much of my time either. Go ahead and read it. It’s short.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life* (Anne Lamott, 1995)
I read this book in high school when one of my favorite teachers recommended it, and I remembered enjoying it then, so I read it again this summer and enjoyed it then too. The thing is … I don’t remember much of it, and I usually have a pretty good memory for what I read. Not a great sign. If you enjoy reading about writing and getting a glimpse into an author’s creative process, you’ll enjoy this book. If you only want to read one book about writing this year, though, I would go with Stephen King’s On Writing instead.
The Magician’s Nephew* (C.S. Lewis, 1955)
It pains me not to give this book a higher recommendation, because I LOVED the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and The Magician’s Nephew was my favorite. I re-read it this year, and … it was fine. I just kind of had to push myself to pick it up, you know? I still love a lot of the children’s books I loved when I was in the target age group — Anne of Green Gables and Harry Potter are the most obvious examples — and The Magician’s Nephew, even though it includes the moment I love best in the whole series (the creation of the world), didn’t quite hold up. I’m still planning to re-read the rest, in part so I can refamiliarize myself with the stories and screen them for anti-Muslim imagery before I introduce my daughter to them, but I’m in no rush.
And no, I didn’t take down the framed Narnia poster we have hanging over our reading nook. I’m not that unsentimental.
Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age (Gary Marcus, 2012)
Gary Marcus is a cognitive scientist who undertook a delightful sabbatical project: He learned how to play the guitar as an adult with no musical background and wrote a book about the process. This was a very enjoyable read, with intertwining chapters about both the cognitive science and the lived experience of learning how to play music. I was particularly interested because I learned to play the guitar as an adult with no musical background myself, and I was encouraged by his conclusion: In certain areas, like memory, reflex, and the presence of grown-ups who force them to practice every day, kids have the advantage over adults when it comes to learning an instrument — but in other areas, like being able to conceptualize the arc of a song or predict the last note in a musical phrase, adults have the decided advantage over kids. If you like music or cognitive science or both, you should pick this book up. (For you linguists out there, Marcus also devotes a fascinating chapter to the ways in which learning music is, and is not, like learning a language.)
There There (Tommy Orange, 2019)
It’s hard not to give my absolute highest rating to a novel whose New York Times review was headlined, “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good.” And I agree, There There was good. But it was the kind of first novel that makes me wait eagerly to read the author’s second novel, rather than getting excited about re-reading the first. Orange writes beautifully, and I loved getting glimpses into the lives of his characters, all urban Native people making their way to the same powwow. My complaint about this book was one shared by many other readers: There were so many different characters that it was hard to get invested in most of them. To do justice to all the protagonists, There There would have needed to be about three times as long. Still, I would gladly have read every page of a triply long There There, and I look forward to reading Orange’s next book.
Not Recommended But I Don’t Know Everything So Maybe You’ll Like Them
Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin Curtice, 2020)
Look, I am a white settler American with no understanding of how it feels to be a Native person living in the United States, much less a Native person trying to navigate the landscape of white American evangelical Christianity, so I’m uncomfortable sharing too many criticisms of this book. I will say, however, that if you can make sense of proclamations like “Community is journey in and of itself,” Native will probably be right up your alley; and if you can’t, you are better off devoting your time to reading one of the many brilliant Native authors and theologians Curtice quotes throughout the book, including Richard Twiss (Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way), Randy Woodley (Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision), and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance).
Untamed (Glennon Doyle, 2020)
Glennon Doyle has become a big name in progressive Christian circles, so I was curious about her work, even though I probably should have known that a book flagged as Amazon’s #1 bestseller in a category called “Christian Self Help” was not going to be for me. I would characterize Untamed as “inspirational word salad.” There’s a lot of stuff in there about loving yourself, trusting your knowing, and remembering that you are a goddamn cheetah and should therefore consider yourself untamed. It wasn’t my cup of tea, especially because Doyle has departed from anything I might describe as orthodox Christianity, but maybe it will be yours?
Although I did not particularly care for this book, I must give Doyle credit for helping women develop healthier relationships with their bodies and sexuality, and for working hard to redistribute wealth to marginalized communities through her nonprofit, Together Rising. I also credit her for giving me one of my few deep belly laughs of 2020, thanks to a passage in Untamed that begins “I love having sex with my wife” and later specifies “I love the liquid velvet of her skin.” In fact, I might go read this chapter to my wife right now. I look forward to the expression on her face when I get to the liquid velvet part.
Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right (Jamie Glowacki, 2015)
As you might imagine, I read this book not for cheap thrills but because I have a toddler at home who needs to be potty trained. I detested both Glowacki’s tone, which was unfunny and smug, and her method, which turned my normally calm and cheerful little girl into an anxious mess. Against our better judgment, my wife and I tried this punitive, boot-camp-style approach to potty training last July, and our daughter still begins wailing when she goes anywhere near the potty. I know the Oh Crap! method works for lots of kids, but I cannot overemphasize what a disaster it was for us. If I ever recover from the experience, I have higher hopes for Ready, Set, Go!: A Gentle Parenting Guide to Calmer, Quicker Potty Training (elsewhere titled The Gentle Potty Training Book). Especially after surviving 2020, a little gentleness is what we all need.
Gnomes* (Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet, 1977)
Oh, guys. I LOVED this book when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the illustrations and spent hours turning the pages, memorizing every detail of how gnomes built their houses, what they ate and which animals were their closest allies. Even when I was old enough to know that it was obviously all pretend, the book was so scientific in its tone that it made me wonder … just a little … if maybe there was some way that gnomes really could be real.
When I re-read it this year, my memories did not disappoint. Except … it’s now impossible for me to ignore that the gnomes and their good-magic allies are all white with fair complexions, and their evil, stupid enemies (like Siberian gnomes and trolls) are all dark-skinned. Nothing in the book suggests that this decision is intentional, but isn’t that exactly how white people pick up our implicit biases? Through covert racism in whimsical children’s books?
I haven’t decided whether this book should stay on our shelves or not. Part of me thinks there’s no reason for my daughter to read it when there are so many fantasy books with better representations of people of color. Part of me thinks that, when she’s old enough, we should read it together. I’m trying to raise a race-conscious, actively anti-racist child, and I want her to have the tools to notice what I missed.
The Borrower (Rebecca Makkai, 2012)
As you already saw above, I loved The Great Believers and Music for Wartime. (And I’m looking forward to reading The Hundred-Year House!) In short, I am a Rebecca Makkai superfan. However, this novel (her first) didn’t grip me. The story sounded like one I would enjoy — a children’s librarian “borrows” (kidnaps) a young patron to rescue him from ex-gay therapy, and in the process discovers some of her own family secrets — but, I don’t know, it just kind of dragged. I didn’t get attached to the characters and couldn’t bring myself to care about what was going to happen to them. Read one (or several) of Makkai’s other books instead.
Nothing to See Here (Kevin Wilson, 2020)
I admit that this novel, about a woman who becomes the caregiver for her friend’s troubled stepchildren, was a page-turner. However, I also had some serious issues with it, the biggest being that it gave me that squicked-out “straight man writing with prurient interest about sexual tension between women” feeling. (If you enjoy this feeling, you may also enjoy Tom Robbins’ out-squicking classic, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.) Here’s a representative sentence from our narrator, in a scene where both women are high school freshmen: “She looked psychotic as she said this; I wanted to make out with her.” If you want to read a book about queer women, how about reading one by a queer woman? Autostraddle can give you some ideas.
… and that’s what I read in 2020. On the same theme of “read whatever you want,” I’m starting off 2021 by reading one of my very favorites for the third time: The Miseducation of Cameron Post.