2020, obviously, was a wild year. The first half, cooped up at home, gave me my highest reading numbers ever in my entire life. Sometimes, I was reading a book a day. The second half, still cooped up at home, I had my worst reading slump I think I've ever had. 2020 was a year filled with unbelievably high highs and exhaustingly draining, earth shattering lows. We are so lucky that we had our books to comfort us in a time of strain and tragedy and also give us patience and compassion as we let dust quietly gather on their spines.
Here are some of the best and brightest books I read this year.
Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now by Jenny Brown
I have read a few books on the abortion and reproductive rights activism movement, but I think this had the most profound effect on me. It offers a lot of vocabulary, history, and intersectional insights that can revolutionize how people talk about and discuss abortion, in terms that can push the movement forward. Abortion rights is one of the most stringent stances people take and has the capability to drive a person’s entire political affiliation. If more people read this book and learned how to deconstruct the argument for accessible abortion, we might be on our way towards cementing abortion as a human right and a valid form of healthcare.
I used to talk about how abortion is about individual choice. This book made me realize that this can remove abortion from the realm of political power and can narrow it to an individual system. I used to say that abortion wasn’t birth control, it’s just a last resort. This is incredibly unhelpful and dangerous, because it still positions abortion as a ‘morally bad’ thing when in reality, 3 in 10 people with uteruses will have an abortion in their lifetime. Back when I had nice health insurance under my dad’s company plan, I used to proudly say “Abortion is between a woman and her doctor.” This ignores the reality that many people, myself included now that I’m 27, don’t have a primary doctor. And for people that do have a primary physician, it forgets that doctors have a long, unsavory record of coercing women to have children they don’t want.
The history portion of this book was the most influential for me as I realized I didn’t actually know why abortion was outlawed in the first place. If you are looking to expand your worldview on abortion and the political strategy that needs to be at the forefront of your activism, pick this one up. Abortion is healthcare.
Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now
By Jenny Brown
208 pages. 2019.
Sula by Toni Morrison
As a person who was never assigned Toni Morrison growing up and had never been introduced to her until I took a women’s lit class in college, I decided to dedicate 2020 to reading some of Morrison’s most prominent books. I started 2020 off with Sula, finishing it in the very first week of the new year. It was beautiful.
“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” When I read that line, I envisioned that sound. The way Morrison wrote about the guttural sob of grief brought me to my knees.
I am still gobsmacked by the talent of Morrison who was able to fit so much story in a book of this size. The women in this story are complex and were handled with so much care, crafting them with immense nuance—often creating deep parallels between characters. I rarely find a book where I want to internet deep dive about its symbolism and structure, but I found that with Sula. One such review was by Deborah McDowell, who explained the significance of Sula. The ambiguity of her character subverts traditional binary oppositions, and “transcends the boundaries of social and linguistic convention.” She basically invented the utilization of characters being more of a ‘process,’ versus being a static part of a story.
The book is perfect down to its dedication—”It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”
By Toni Morrison
192 pages. 1973.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The first 100 pages of this book took me a bit to get into because the humor is dry and you have to take your time with the characters. But wow, after that…fully invested. This book has some of the most memorable characters I have ever been given the privilege of knowing. Zadie Smith is incredibly swell at seamlessly intertwining gender, class, race, and academia into a captivating story.
Having the setting be an elite academic institution perfectly displayed how universities serve as a cog in the machine of white supremacy. The analysis on intellectualization and how we attach it to masculinity was also *chefs kiss.*
You can read my full review on The Book Slut here.
By Zadie Smith
443 pages. 2005.
Cravings by Chrissy Teigen
In February, I watched Julie & Julia for the first time. It made me laugh, cry, smile, and really see myself. Because, like Julie, I found myself having a hard time finishing things. I always set a lot of goals for myself, start new hobbies, and fill up my activity and interests plate on a constant voyage to always be the most interesting person in the room. This was at the same time I was starting piano lessons and learning embroidery. I set a goal to cook through an entire cookbook, and for some reason, the goal stuck. I cooked through this entire cookbook by Chrissy Teigen and had the time of my life.
I started easy and made her Dump and Done Ramen Salad. Then, I made her creamy potato salad with bacon. Roasted tomato soup. Seared scallops. Drunken noodles. Pretty soon, I was roasting an entire chicken and deboning fish.
In August, less than eight months after I started, I cooked all 94 recipes and now I’m cooking through her second cookbook Cravings: Hungry for More.
As a person who primarily ate takeout and only knew how to make macaroni salad and dress a bagel, I discovered that anyone can cook. A cookbook is like a friend in the kitchen, slowly nudging you towards a better understanding of flavors and techniques. Anyone can cook. I hadn’t even minced garlic before this project. There are so many resources online to help teach you how to fold in the cheese, desand clams, season a cast iron, and stuff a chicken.
Cooking through this book and gaining confidence in the kitchen directly correlated with the confidence I felt increasing in my personal life. It gave me a better understanding of intuitive eating and trusting my body. I learned how to enjoy food in a public place (I cooked through the entire book on my IG stories) without feeling shame as a fat woman.
Falling in love with food also helped me fall in love in real life. I met my current boyfriend of seven months, Austin, on Hinge. The very first thing he said to me based off my prompt that I was cooking through a cookbook was “Which cookbook?” and I dazzled him with my passion for Chrissy Teigen and her shenanigans. Our first texting conversation off the app was me giving him the 411 on the Alison Roman/Chrissy Teigen drama. One of our first dates was cooking her Zucchini Bolognese. Would Austin and I be dating without this book? I hope so, but thank you anyway, Chrissy.
Food culture is elitist, classist, and fatphobic. This experience was anything but (except for Chrissy thinking we can cook potatoes in our $40 microwave). Understanding the politics and privilege around food is important and this experience enlightened me and helped me grow. My Best Books of 2021 will hopefully have her second cookbook on it.
Cravings: Recipes For All The Food You Want To Eat
By Chrissy Teigen
256 pages. 2016.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
I love Sally Rooney. Her writing is impeccable. Ghastly entertaining. Frighteningly frustrating. I read Conversations with Friends last year and it made me throw my book across the room at the end. Not sure why I thought this book would be any different.
Rooney is good at writing about a snapshot in time. The beginning and ending are never wrapped nicely with a bow, which can frustrate a reader or it can invigorate them. Rooney changes my mind constantly about what the structure of a book can be.
The characters in this novel are maddening but you can’t actually get legitimately mad at them because you would probably behave in the same way if you are honest with yourself, which makes you cringe. But then empathize! But then hate yourself! But then love yourself because you are reminded that you aren’t the only one in the looming universe who can’t communicate AT ALL.
As a person who freezes up and feels paralysis during communication mishaps, this book was enlightening to navigate. Sally Rooney can always put to paper what an authentic and moving experience it is to be a young person with anxiety in love. It’s agonizing, yet comforting. Which is why it is so wonderful.
By Sally Rooney
266 pages. 2018.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
This novel follows Wallace, a biochem grad student in a Midwestern university town over one singular weekend. Having lived there, and knowing Brandon Taylor’s educational history, it was exhilarating having Madison, Wisconsin be the backdrop of one of the best novels I read this year. The lake, the terrace, the square.
It’s funny—I’m from the Midwest and moved to the South in 2016, back to the Midwest in 2018, and back to the South in 2019. The opposite trajectory of Taylor. And I remember discovering his short story/nonfiction essay writing when I moved to Alabama and I was struggling looking for people who wrote about Alabama with honesty and vulnerability. I found his essay “Being Gay vs. Southern: A False Choice” on LitHub. I loved it.
I had been looking forward to his novel since that moment and it was beautiful, breathtaking, and enraging. It deals with Blackness and queerness in a town with educated white people who act like they are “one of the good ones” while remaining silent and complicit in acts of racism.
The dialogue in this book is incredible and it flows seamlessly. The way Taylor portrays the desire to be both known and unknowable, especially on the topic of childhood trauma, is like a punch to the gut. Can we ever distance ourselves from our past and overcome our private wounds?
By Brandon Taylor
336 pages. 2020.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This is the most devastating book I have ever read. I started it in 2019 and had to stop because I got so emotional. I picked it back up in 2020 and devoured the last 500 pages. There are trigger warnings for basically EVERY subject you can imagine. But, this book changed my life.
It elevated my empathy and my mourning for characters to a level that I didn’t know was even possible. It is overflowing with trauma but it is also flooded with so much love and friendship. It will make you think deeper about the magnitudes and depths that friendship can reach and will open your mind to the realities of what it is like to live with so much chronic pain and engrained sexual trauma that it makes you want to die. I sobbed, no exaggeration, for the last 200 pages. Have you ever done that? I was exhausted. If I read it again, I think it would kill me.
A Little Life
By Hanya Yanagihara
814 pages. 2015.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
This book made me laugh so effing hard. Sam Irby is an autobuy author for me. She writes about things pretentious people often view as nothing and makes it EVERYTHING. I love her humor and would probably break up with somebody if they said she wasn’t funny. She uses double exclamation points!! Like me!!
Her 90’s mixtape essay is killer (she has an ANI DIFRANCO tattoo). Irby’s first book and subsequent blog is actually what encouraged me to start a blog myself and I probably wouldn’t be writing at all post-college if it wasn’t for her.
I can’t wait to see what Irby comes up with for her next three books.
Wow, No Thank You
By Samantha Irby
336 pages. 2020.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
This book is too beautiful for words. I finished it in one day. The last chapter had me sobbing, not because it was overly climactic (the biggest spoiler is in the title of the book and the first sentence, like Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng), but because it was written in the most gentle, loving fashion and I just loved Vivek Oji with my entire heart.
The book wrapped up perfectly and sadly and lovingly and oops, now I’m tearing up again.
This book is about standing softly in your truth, forgoing society’s standards on gender and queerness, and the crushing guilt of grief. “Some people can’t see softness without wanting to hurt it.”
The Death of Vivek Oji
By Akwaeke Emezi
256 pages. 2020.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 To The Present by David Treuer
Chapter by chapter, this book shatters every myth you could possibly hold from your United States History lessons you garnered as a child. The prologue moved me to a puddle of tears as the author emphasized that Native Americans are not a monolith stranded in the past. Native Americans are very much present because of their intense struggle to preserve their languages, their traditions, their families, and their very existence against the cruel, genocidal actions of white colonizers.
This book blends memoir and history perfectly and I know it will be a book I come back to time and time again.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 To The Present
By David Treuer
528 pages. 2019.