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Mel's Favorite Books of 2020 So Far

Last year my boss came up to me at an office party and wanted to talk about books. He asked first if my husband read as much as I did and I laughed, honestly telling him that not one of my IRL friends (save for some of the lovely souls I’ve met through #bookstagram) reads like me. He was confident and saddled with the fact that he read 2-3 per month he assumed that he, of course, would at least be on my level. I did some quick math in my head and said that lately I was averaging 3-4 books per week. He nearly spat out his drink. “Per WEEK?” he asked.

I repeat that story if just to say that I really do read a lot of books. I don’t stick to a particular author or genre, I don’t even stick to imprints solely put forth by the Big 5 publishers. I pride myself in reading often and reading widely. This year I lowered my yearly reading goal so I could focus more time on writing, but thanks to the anxiety that has accompanied lockdown orders, reading not writing has been my main mode of maintaining any level of sanity. And so I will likely still come close to meeting the bar I have maintained for a few years now, 200-220 books. So far I’ve read 86 and I’ve called out 27 favorites below.

Best (and ultra-relevant) nonfiction to learn from

A few years ago I realized that I read almost no nonfiction books, despite my penchant for purchasing a little bit of everything every time I go out and test the limits of my checking account with a book haul. This might be the first year that I outpace my previous record and firmly read far more nonfiction than fiction. This is likely due to how galvanized the national and global political climate has made me, pushing me to be constantly learning, inhaling political memoirs and retellings of recent histories like candy. Is the author a brash, gives-zero-fucks feminist? Need it. Is the author going to share everything I wish I’d been taught in history class? Give it to me. Am I about to see how convoluted and backwards the American system for healthcare/voting/[insert any should-be-normal aspect of life here] is? Just take my money.

I had a lot of thoughts about An American Sickness (can be found here, also on TBS) which I hope more citizens read to learn from and keep in their arsenal when demanding change from the government. The same can be said for The Uninhabitable Earth which is part horror, all truth about how climate change is already affecting the planet, perhaps irreparably so. Proceed with caution. Either books may produce exasperated tears and white-hot fury.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls I purchased on on a whim after I fell in love with the cover—then the contents proved to be just as cool, sophisticated and bold as the design, and I knew it was kismet that I finally got a formal introduction to Mona Eltahawy. *Cue all the heart eyes and feminist fists raised high.* This year I was also introduced to Anne Helen Petersen who compiled a list of celebrities and adjectives that society, unfortunately, assigns to many women in a ploy to make them align better with a twisted ideal of what women “should” be. Kim Kardashian is “too pregnant,” Serena Williams “too strong,” Melissa McCarthy is “too fat,” Hilary Clinton “too shrill,” and so on. The essays are fabulous. All the women are so visible that whether or not you can relate to them or even like them, Petersen’s point lands like a kick in the ass.

One of the most important lessons I’ve had in recent years inhaling feminist texts, is the importance of listening and intersectionality. Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage made me especially aware of this. In response to the surge of national interest in anti-racist books last month, I’ve recommended Cooper’s book above all others. The heightened interest also inspired me to pick up a few books that would keep me learning alongside so many other readers and engaged citizens. That included The New Jim Crow and A Black Woman’s History of the United States, and, the most important & innovative book I’ve been confronted with in a long time, How We Fight White Supremacy. Stamped from the Beginning, Me and White Supremacy, and White Fragility are getting the most attention right now, but I wish that Solomon and Rankin’s How We Fight White Supremacy would be just as popular. While each of the other books mentioned here go a long way in producing excellent history that we should all be made aware of and remember as we push to remake the broken systems in America, How We Fight White Supremacy is a collection of cartoons and photographs and essays and interviews and poems and playlists all meticulously curated in order to portray Black lives and voices in a way that is more encompassing than other nonfiction books overflowing with centuries of trauma which many of us are turning.


Best memoirs

Depending on the bookstore, memoirs might be included in the Literature section, deemed creative nonfiction and thus allowed to stay. Though I often go looking in the wrong place, I appreciate and agree with the distinction. The above titles were all uniquely beautiful and moving and relatable. I don’t know if I should even try to say something newly insightful about Michelle Obama or her book, it’s just wonderful. Through 25+ hours I listened to her tell me her life story herself and I laughed and cried and cheered her on. Alexander Chee’s essay collection was more artistic but had a similar effect on me. He is so vulnerable and open in sharing about his personal life and advice on writing.

The Chronology of Water and It’s Okay to Laugh were both incredibly sad in the way that pushes me to invest all of myself with the hope that there will be a payoff. Lydia Yuknavitch taught me how good storytelling could be. And Nora McInerny Purmort, as her subtitle implies, showed me how important it is to feel *everything*. Each focuses on supreme tragedy and loss, and yet they’re also full of magic. Yuknavitch is blunt and her crassness is welcome as she pointedly addresses topics with an openness that is often too taboo to share publicly and she went and wrote a whole book, accusing her father of brutality and her mother of being a drunk, also calling out herself for partying too hard and sleeping around. In readily admitting her hardships, my reaction to it all is not judgment but respect for her humanness. Similarly, after Purmort becomes a young widow, and just after her mother was also widowed, she is trying to figure out how to pick herself up... and her words of encouragement could easily be taken out of context in order to help almost anyone no matter the situation. Though I’ve never gone through anything as extreme as either woman has, their perspectives provided me with so much insight and comfort.

Roxane Gay blurbed Morgan Jerkins debut essay collection This Will Be My Undoing, and she has never steered me wrong. Jerkins often goes viral on Twitter and has an insight that I found inspiring. The ease with which she writes about herself and contextualizes it in the greater diaspora is near flawless— it makes it seem like each essay lived within her for years before falling out of her fully formed and fueled by the rage that led her to each conclusion. And while her intellect is obvious, so is her acceptance of herself. I don’t know how many women could so openly write about her own labiaplasty and tie it into a weighty lesson on body positivity and the power & magic of Black women. She has a new book coming out in August which I’m sure to learn a lot from.

Both Tara Schuster and Jacob Tobia use humor and personal anecdotes to strategize best practices for the reader. Tobia’s book is more overtly a memoir, detailing their story of growing up and coming out as trans. Schuster’s is her own “coming out” of sorts, when she has to admit that she’s damn near close to rock bottom and needs to accept what she’s already done and figure out how to move forward and better herself. My first thought when I finished listening to Sissy was that Tobia felt like a friend who had just shared their life story. If Tobia treats their readers like a dear friend, then Schuster is like that tipsy girl you meet in line to the bathroom at your favorite bar who compliments your shoes and says “I love you” and tells you why you’re so amazing, all before returning to your respective barstools. Schuster’s past self was a freaking mess and you can read her book for encouragement and to feel a little less lonely, instead of replicating all of her mistakes.


Best adult fiction

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to it being an incredible weird and difficult year. I’m not sure how that contributed to my reading less and less fiction since March, but that’s what happened. My Dark Vanessa was the first book I finished in 2020 and it set a high bar for fiction that likely has deterred my reading even some of my most reliable author’s new releases. However, Maisy Card’s prowess in These Ghosts Are Family outmatched Russell’s style by being so meticulously well-planned that the Jamaican family’s epic tale will stick with me for years to come. Separation Anxiety and Oona Out of Order were both oddball reads that I didn’t expect to like half as much as I did, but that way each surprised me—Separation Anxiety with its over-the-top satire and the time-traveling Oona—each easily made me feel strongly for the characters. Any book that brings about a strong emotional reaction, be it sorrow, rage, joy, is an excellent one in my eyes.

In May I read The Bromance Bookclub and realized that contemporary romance (adult or YA) was what I needed to best soothe my world-weary heart. And so, Hibbert easily became my favorite new-to-me author. I’m sad to be done with the sarcastically sassy & intellectual Brown sisters for the year as the youngest sister’s story isn’t set to be released until spring of 2021. However, I’m sure I’ll dive into some of Hibbert’s backlist before year’s end. I also found my way to Alyssa Cole, another romance author with a hefty backlist to keep me busy, by way of the Reluctant Royals series, the first of which really blew me away with the complex plot (and of course the sexy chemistry between the main characters).


Best young adult fiction

In April I took part in a reading challenge that allowed me to knock out eight young adult novels from my shelves. I don’t read enough YA throughout the year, which is disappointing, because there is so much outstanding storytelling to be unlocked if only you allow yourself the chance to explore. I tend to stick to realistic fiction over fantasy and that is likely because of how jealous I am of kids today who get to read the words of Angie Thomas or Jenny Han or Elizabeth Acevedo and see themselves or aspects of their lives between the pages—and even though I’m grown, I don’t want to miss out.

Fans of Warcross need to read Slay, another novel detailing a gamer mecca but this time focusing on a digital world that honors the many aspects of Black greatness in gameplay. If recent outrage over police brutality has sparked a change in your reading and you need more recommendations for yourself or the kids in your life, both On the Come Up and Angie Thomas’ debut, The Hate U Give, and Tyler Johnson Was Here (among so many others, like Dear Martin, I’m Not Dying With You Tonight, American Street, All American Boys etc.) can get you started. It’s worth noting that Slay and With the Fire on High will touch on similar issues of racism, but not as overtly as Angie Thomas and Jay Coles do. Last but not least is the sole book that I picked up so my feet could leave the ground if just for a few hundred pages through the lens of the babysitters in The Babysitters Coven (sequel to come in September!) which gave me all of the retro Stranger Things vibes. Anyone into magic, will find a home with Kate Williams.


Recent weeks and the remaining months of 2020 have brought and will continue to bring so many huge releases that I’m sure my best-of lists could all double by year’s end. I’m more than happy to accept the challenge of (at least) doubling the total number of books read this year with the hopes of finding out how all those new books *stack* up!


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