Two years ago, when I started tracking how many books I was reading in earnest, I wrote a wrap up highlighting some of my favorites and listing some I planned to read the following year. I skipped last year, but I’ve gotten a few requests this year to pick it back up again so I am back at it! In the interest of completeness, I’m going to start with the ten books I said I was excited about in my first round up and say whether or not I read them, because transparency is a good thing and it’s always nice to remind people that sometimes things don’t go as planned. In May 2019, I said I was looking forward to reading the following books:
✅ A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
❌ Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
✅ A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles
❌ My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
✅ Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
✅ Grit by Angela Duckworth
✅ Cathedral of the Wild by Boyd Varty
✅ Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
❌ The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte
✅ Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
In the end, I read seven of the ten — not so bad! All the books I didn’t get to are still on my “to read” list, so we’ll see if they appear in this space next year. If you’d like to follow along with what I’m reading, you can find me as @theinkfish on Instagram and on Goodreads. Now that I’ve gotten my report out and self-promotion out of the way, let’s talk about this year’s list!
This year, this year, this year. Oh, 2020. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m so glad you’re ending. However, you did give me more reading time than I got last year, which means plenty of choices (68 of them, in fact, or a little over a book a week) for books to talk about. Like I did last time, I’m going to start with five fiction and five non-fiction books I read and loved this year:
I read Normal People during the surreal early days of the Covid lockdowns in the US, and there was something very moving about the ordinary story of these two young people whose lives overlap and diverge again and again as they move through life. The book is beautiful, and also very sad for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I loved it and highly recommend it — and if you like adaptions, Normal People is also on Hulu!
The Vanishing Half is a sprawling two-generation, multi-location story about identity, family, what it costs to “pass”, and what it means to be authentic. I wish I could say I took my time with this one, but the truth is that I devoured it because I was desperate to know if the estranged sisters would find each other and what would happen when they did. I won’t say I was necessarily satisfied with the ending — but I think that is part of the point and really helped it feel real.
The English Patient is an older book — I found it on the shelf at my family’s cabin and worked my way through it while laying in the sunshine. I alternated reading and dozing and jumping in the water and just really took my time with it, and that’s how I recommend you read it too because the language is gorgeous but sometimes a little difficult to parse. It also has a non-linear structure that reveals relevant information in bits and pieces, which led to some page-flipping as I tried to match the pieces up. This is another one for the adaption lovers — the movie was nominated for Best Picture and can be streamed on Hulu.
As a child of divorced parents, the complex family dynamics and overlapping stories in All Adults Here felt very familiar to me. Each of the characters felt painfully real as they tried to negotiate their relationships with each other and reckon with the state of their own lives. It’s not what I would call a heavy read, but it has the ability to catch you off guard with some of its insights into the nature of families.
I really enjoy the way science fiction makes me think about the future and all the possibilities it holds, so I’ve been trying to add a bit more of it to my reading rotation. I don’t remember who recommended The Three-Body Problem to me, but I wish I could send them a fruit basket! Lots of sci-fi starts at an undefined point far in the future or takes place in a totally different galaxy, so it doesn’t feel particularly connected to the current state of our world. Three-Body starts in our recent past and moves forward from there to show a path I could imagine our civilization taking if a few things played out differently.
I recommend reading the essays in The Book of Delights the way they were written — one day at a time. Let yourself linger over them and enjoy the everyday delights that Ross Gay describes so lovingly. These are a great way to ground yourself in the morning or get settled for bed at night!
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a LOT older — but that doesn’t mean it’s any less useful! As with most books in the self-help category, my advice is to read it, think about it, adopt anything that works for you, and discard the stuff that doesn’t. What works for Mr. Covey may not work for you, and that’s fine. Everyone has to find their own path forward. But looking at maps that other people have drawn can be helpful for finding some direction!
Lights Out is about the rise and fall of General Electric. The fall referred to took place between about 2015 and 2018, which is about exactly the time frame that I was employed there. It was very surreal to read about events that I experienced personally in the context of the near destruction of one of the oldest and most revered American companies. Well written and VERY well researched — if you enjoyed Michael Lewis’ The Big Short (or were at least fascinated by it, I’m not sure if that subject matter can be classified as “enjoyable”), you might enjoy this one as well.
I’m a huge history nerd, and I especially enjoy learning about the World Wars. Much has been made of Winston Churchill’s leadership of Britain in World War II, but I had never spent much time on how he came to have that role or what life must have been like in the days before the United States entered the war, since that’s the point at which most American history classes pick up the thread. History books usually follow a narrative style, but The Splendid and The Vile is presented as a series of anecdotes from Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister, which felt very approachable and very human.
I’ve been doing some reading on race in America this year (along with a lot of other people, I imagine) and the way Caste looks at the power structures of racism and the ideologies of racial supremacy in America as a caste system comparable to other caste systems in the world instead of as a uniquely American problem is both interesting and informative. It’s also not a purely academic text — the author is a Black woman, and stories of her life experiences and experiences while doing the research for this book specifically add tangible modern examples of the racism white Americans often claim is a thing of the past.
As we gear up for 2021, I’ve also picked five fiction and five non-fiction books that I’m excited to read in the new year:
I’m a huge historical fiction nerd, but somehow I never got around to reading Wolf Hall. The third book in this series came out this year, so I’m bumping the first one up my list! I loved Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge and Century trilogies, I tore through David Gilman’s Master of War, and I’ve been working on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, so this feels like a natural progression of that trend.
I picked up Memorial from Book of the Month, and I’m really excited about it. From what I’ve seen, it sounds like it’s going to be an exploration of love, grief, and self-discovery in the context of a multi-cultural queer relationship, which sounds fantastic. Reviews say “hilarious and heartbreaking” so I’m fully expecting to laugh while I cry.
I want to read more science fiction next year because I feel like it makes me more creative and open-minded about the possibilities in the future. Axiom’s End has a “current events” style similar to the one I enjoyed in Three-Body, and it gets bonus points for being written by a woman — the books considered “classic” sci-fi tend to run very white and very male.
The Mercies is described on Goodreads as “a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization” and it’s inspired by real events, including a series of witch trials. I could not possibly ask for more!
Homeland Elegies is on both the Washington Post and New York Times Book of the Year lists, which makes it an automatic “To-Read” for me. What puts it on this list is its unique structure. It’s ostensibly a novel, but based on the reviews I’ve seen it sounds like it’s more “faction” than pure fiction. Add that to the fact that the author won a Pulitzer as a playwright, and this theater junkie is all in!
I’ll admit to not reading very much about religion. I was raised religious, and now identify as agnostic, but books on religion don’t often find a home on my “To-Read” list. My dad pointed out that even if I’m not personally particularly religious it’s still a good idea to have an understanding of that way of explaining the world, and recommended that I read The Language of God.
My background is in computer science and I work in tech, so I should know my history. I’m excited to learn about how The Four developed as businesses, how they contributed to the current state of the tech world, and how that influence might shape its future.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of cloning and the history of domestication, so Frankenstein’s Cat caught my attention immediately. It explores the next steps down that path — using biotech to save species, increase disease resistance, and tinker with the building blocks of life itself.
Based on the synopsis Range feels like the anti-Outliers, and that alone makes it very interesting to me! I personally strongly identify as a generalist, and I’m curious to see what Epstein has to say on the topic.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was re-recommended to me this year, though I don’t remember by who. There’s a fairly significant Hmong population in my home state of Washington, including a group that is known for selling beautiful flowers in Pike Place Market (and now in some other places, as they’ve adapted due to the pandemic), so this seemed like a good addition as I try to broaden the range of experiences that I read about.
So there you have it — 10 books I loved last year, and 10 I’m looking forward to reading this year. If you have recommendations, I would love to hear them! And if you decide to read any of the books on this list, I would love to know what you think. You can drop me a line here, or you can find me as @thinkfish on Instagram and on Goodreads. Happy reading!
All cover images are from Goodreads unless otherwise stated.