I didn’t read nearly as much as I had hoped last year. I had set a low-bar goal of 28 books and didn’t even hit that. I know there are two types of people – or two ways – in dealing with a pandemic. You either bury yourself in books or you don’t pick up any books at all. I fell in the latter camp last year. Although I still managed to read 22 books (see all above), but felt that had little to no brain-space and little focus to read with everything else going on in the world.
If you look through the titles, you can see that I picked up a lot of “heavy stuff”. Maybe that’s why my reading goal suffered because some of these books really took a lot out of me and I just had to take my time (and reading breaks) to process it all.
You can read all the individual reviews in my monthly book reviews (or connect with me on Goodreads!). The books that I did read were all very good and I would recommend most of them (minus one or two that I would say aren’t must-reads), but I thought I’d pick and share my top 5 out of the 22 books I read in 2020. (Surprisingly, there are exactly 5 books that I gave 5 stars, but then most of the others had 4 stars (and a couple had 3 stars), so definitely consider them all for your to-read list!)
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen
I loved everything about this book. The historical background, the descriptive writing, and heroine Kya, the Marsh Girl. Abandoned at age 10, Kya learns to survive in the North Carolina marsh on her own, taking lessons from nature, and living in harmony with it. But she does have to venture out to nearby Barkley Cove for supplies and inevitably sparks the interest of two young men from town. When one of them winds up dead, Kya is instantly suspect.
I am a bit of a critical reader and it’s very rare that a book is so neatly structured that I hardly find anything to criticize. There were no loose ends, no eye-rolling moments, nothing that was tied up too conveniently. Go read it.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
This novel is based on true events, the Packhorse Librarian Program that was inaugurated by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Depression in rural Kentucky. Five brave and independent women travel into the mountains to bring books and magazines to those without access to schools. The book touches on many topics, including racism, sexism, and corruptness during these times, but it’s mostly a book about female friendship and the slow but steady revolt against a system that is (still) run by men. The characters were intriguing and well-developed, and I felt so invested in their journeys. I highly recommend it.
A long way home by Saroo Brierley
Better known as a backstory for the movie, Lion, in this autobiography, Brierley tells his life story, describing his ordeals and adventures as a lost five-year-old in rural India, his adoption by an Australian family, and his search for his Indian native family as an adult.
It reads like fiction and it’s hard to comprehend what Brierley has been through. Just imagine getting lost when you were five and not being able to find your way back to your family. It sounds unimaginable and almost too good to be true that he was able to track down his roots years later. Read his story, I promise it won’t disappoint!
Strangely, this book made me think of all the kids that came here as refugees and were separated from their parents by ICE, and some of whom will probably never be reunited (go read Soboroff’s book, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, about this topic!). What an unthinkable tragedy!
Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption by Bryan Stevenson
This book had been on my to-read list for a while and it finally became available. A lot in this book sounded familiar, and I remembered that I had read “The sun does shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton who was also freed by Bryan Stevenson, but this book talks about Bryan Stevenson’s own story of becoming a civil right’s attorney in Alabama and founding the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit law office, dedicated to defending the poor, the incarcerated, and the wrongly condemned.
This book tells the story of EJI’s first client, Walter McMillian, who was put on death row for a murder he didn’t commit and eventually freed by Stevenson and his team.
So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo
This book was really good. I’ve read a few anti-racists books in 2020, but this one was by far the easiest to digest. I mean, not “easy” in the way that it’s a “fun” book, racism is a heavy topic, but I felt that Oluo made this topic really accessible. There was a lot I just “nodded” along because on a theoretical level, I “knew all this” already, but there were also some things I really hadn’t considered (because, well, the situation hadn’t presented itself to me and this is not an excuse, but having been raised in Europe, I think my upbringing and socialization was a little different from being brought up in the United States. There definitely is racism in Europe, and everywhere else in the world, I’d argue, but I think it’s different from the structural racism in the United States that originated from chattel slavery.) Oluo did give some good examples on how to change behaviors because I will admit that I often agree with a lot of what is said about structural racism, but feel helpless in how I personally can make a difference.
We have to get comfortable with the word “racist” (as someone who not necessarily feels, but shows – maybe unknowingly or even unintentionally – discrimination or prejudice against POCs) and just challenge our learned behaviors and thinking patterns.
I think one of the most important arguments I have found in all the books about anti-racism that I’ve read last year is that we have to acknowledge what Oluo put this way: “there is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacy history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist. This does not mean that you have hate in your heart.” (p. 218)
What was your favorite book of 2020?