For all the tragedy, strife, violence, grief, frustration, political insanity, and misery this year brought forth, it is ending with a sane and smart new President, our first-ever Black, South Asian female VP, and hopefully a Democratic Senate so we can say so long to the Republican Voldermort known as Mitch McConnell.
For me, and maybe for some of you too, books have given me a way to get away, a little space in my mind where another world is built from words. And if ever we needed another world, it was 2020.
In no particular order, here are the 11 best books I read this year—stories that gave me a jolt of joy, a room for wonder, and a way to examine my own life while immersed in someone else's.
In West Mills by De'Shawn Charles Winslow
This debut was a gift from my friend Jenny Fox and I loved the story, the writing, the movement of the characters through grief, love, loss, and life. Here's a summary from Good Reads:
"Set in an African American community in rural North Carolina from 1941 to 1987, In West Mills is a magnificent, big-hearted small-town story about family, friendship, storytelling, and the redemptive power of love."
Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
I never figured myself a sucker for a story about a pair of little kids—twins—who spontaneously combust when they get upset, but I absolutely LOVED this book. It's a story of parenthood, friendship, sacrifice and suffering, and how we become a sum of our experiences, and can perhaps grow larger than them. From Good Reads: "Kevin Wilson’s best book yet — a moving and uproarious novel about a woman who finds meaning in her life when she begins caring for two children with remarkable and disturbing abilities."
Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld
This book was fascinating, a juicy, insightful, page-turner about the life (and love life) of Hillary Rodham. It tells the story of her romance with Bill Clinton and imagines if she had said no to his marriage proposal. The results of that decision provide a glimpse into a very different life for Hillary, our democracy, and our country. It's impossible to put down and fantastic, though given what we ended up with in Trump, also tragic. From Good Reads: "From the New York Times bestselling author of American Wife and Eligible, a novel that imagines a deeply compelling what-might-have-been: What if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton?"
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart
This book was tough to read, kind of like A Little Life, or Angela's Ashes, it's just heartbreaking, but it's also revelatory. Gorgeously written and poignant and true, it is the story of one boy's life, exploring identiy, addiction, love and survival in working class neighborhood in Glasgow. I loved it, but it's brutal at times. From Good Reads: "A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Edouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell."
Writers & Lovers, by Lily King
I'd never read anything by Lily King before this but now I want to read everything she's written. I loved her prose, paragraphs, every word. Wow. The story follows a young woman suffering from the loss of her mother and the end of a relationship who is trying to figure out how to live her life. This story may seem ordinary—but Virginia Wolf showed us that the ordinary is often the most revelatory. From Good Reads: Writers & Lovers follows Casey--a smart and achingly vulnerable protagonist--in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King's trademark humor, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another."
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
This book has been on everyone's must read list, and there's a reason for that. It's a page-turning exploration of race and family, and the writing is tight and tense, exploring sisterhood, longing, and what it means to belong. From Good Reads: Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
This is another book that will leave you shaky with emotion; it's stunningly written but tragic. I was transfixed and could not put it down (and learned a lot about Nigerian food along the way). From Good Reads: "Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader."
When No One is Watching, by Alyssa Cole
This is a great thriller, one that felt like a mix of Rear Window and Get Out. I loved it and learned a lot about the Black history of many Brooklyn neighborhoods and our government's segregationist and racist land owner policies. From Good Reads: "When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?"
Anxious People, by Frekrik Backman
Fans of Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove) will love his latest, another tale of lovable misfits and misunderstood curmudgeons, this time told in the shape of a hostage crisis gone wrong. This is a feel good read that will leave you feeling like a warm cup of cocoa. From Good Reads: "A poignant, charming novel about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined."
Monogamy, by Sue Miller
Let me be clear: this book is not page turner. It's not a fast-moving plot-driven story, rather it meanders through the life of a married couple—pre-marriage to post-death of the husband—and explores what happens in the nooks and crannies of relationships and hearts. We mostly live in the head of Annie who has been married to Graham for 30 years. I liked being there with her thoughts and doubts and questions. I found it very satisfying, but my mom found it too slow. Up to you. From Good Reads: "A brilliantly insightful novel, engrossing and haunting, about marriage, love, family, happiness and sorrow, from New York Times bestselling author Sue Miller."
Want, by Lynn Steger Strong (no relation)
This book is one for the mothers, the wives, the dreamers, the questioners, and the runners. The ones who find themselves tired, wrung out, frustrated, wanting, and broke—financially and maybe emotionally too. I found I could relate to a lot of the struggles that plague the main character — "a certain type of woman when she dares to want things―and all the various violences in which she implicates herself as she tries to survive," as described in Good Reads, which continued: "Grappling with motherhood, economic anxiety, rage, and the limits of language, Want is a fiercely personal novel that vibrates with anger, insight, and love."
I don't read a ton of non-fiction (Just Mercy is a fave from last year), but these were two I loved this year.
Maybe Your Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb
This first person account by therapist Lori Gottlieb takes us through the cases of several of her patients juxtaposed with her own personal story. I found it incredibly valuable and insightful and feel like anyone who's ever been in therapy, or considered therapy, or opened their eyes to life on any given day feeling any form of doubt, frustration, or any feeling whatsoever, should read this book. So yes, everyone should read this book. It's about the problems we all find in our lives, hearts, minds, and days. You'll learn something about yourself, I promise. From Good Reads: "From a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, a hilarious, thought-provoking, and surprising new book that takes us behind the scenes of a therapist's world -- where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she)."
The Sound of Gravel, by Ruth Wariner
This was an extraordinary memoir, on the level of The Glass Castle, just an absolutely unbelievable story of struggle and survival set in a polygamist cult. From Good Reads: "Recounted from the innocent and hopeful perspective of a child, The Sound of Gravel is the remarkable true story of a girl fighting for peace and love. This is an intimate, gripping tale of triumph, courage, and resilience."