While I’m immensely proud of all the books I read last year,, I also want to recognize just how HARD it was to read during the pandemic. So many times, reading felt like work and I couldn’t concentrate enough to even pick up my Kindle. As someone who has always prided herself as a “voracious reader,” going through a reading drought felt like a loss of self. Part of my identity is that I’m a reader, and that most of my childhood was spend with book in hand, curled up, and getting lost in the words. The last time I remember not liking reading was when I was five and my mom had to bribe me with the promise of an American Girl doll. For every book I read, I earned $1.
I’m sharing this because I’ve found that most “best of book lists” are filled with dense, thought-provoking, high brow books. And don’t get me wrong, this list has some of those as well, ahem Aperiogon. But there is also something nice about the low-brow, every day thrillers, those books that you secretly loved but also don’t exactly want to share with the world. I shared by in April that the book that got me out of my reading slump was Jessica Simpson’s Open Book. My pride was SO wounded that a pop-singer that I wasn’t particularly interested in awoke my happy reading habits. I’m not sure why because the best part of reading is the versatility — of being able to lose yourself in something magical or just distract yourself from the terrifying terrifyingness of living through a global pandemic.
As I put together this list, I realized that 7 out of the 10 books on here came from my former apartment building book club. Though many of us have moved away, we’ve taken advantage of virtual meetings each month to explore deep themes of love, loss, immigration, racism and such much more. I hope that you enjoy these reads. And as always, please feel free to share your favorites.
Best Books of 2020//
The Forty Rules of Love by Eli Shafak
For years, my friend Monika recommended this book- repeatedly urging our book club to read it. Yet, the title alone put me off. What I assumed to be some weird, self-help about romantic relationships, turned out to be an incredible, philosophical book on the many types of love- romantic, spiritual, social justice, humane.
Ella Rubenstein is forty years old, unhappily married housewife, when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel by unknown written Aziz Zahara. Ella is transformed reading the tale of how Shams of Tabric, a wandering whirling dervish, transformed thirteenth century Rumi from successful but unhappy cleric to committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. Through the story, Sham’s presents his forty rules of love,and how “A life without love is of no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern of Western… Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. IT is what it is pure and simple.” As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi’s story mirrors her own unfulfilled and that Zahara—like Shams—has come to set her free. This is a story about love, and about a global unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us.
Read When: You need something spiritually satisfying and uplifting.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
One afternoon in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in the eastern most corner of Russia, two sisters, ages 8 and 11, go missing after accepting a ride from a stranger. Each subsequent chapter follows the impact of the disappearance on a different Kamchatka woman, tracing the shock of the disappearance from in a small community to the gradual fading from memory.
While the disappearance– the need to find out what happened to the girls — propels you through the book, it hovers mostly in the background for the many different stories that follow. This is a story about the place, the women, power, and belonging.
Phillips is a great writer, and her descriptions of the diversity of the remote peninsula, temporarily make you forget the urge to google each location. As the story unfolded, I found that I stopped reading for “clues” on the abductor” until she leaves a small detail that you make a connection that forces you to flip back to earlier pages.
Read When: You want to be transported to a place you’ve never heard of before with a deeply satisfying story.
The book follows two siblings, Danny and Maeve, and their childhood home, the Dutch House, across five decades with a mother that disappears, an emotionally distant father, a stepmother who cares more for her own kids than Danny and Maeve, and eventually, Danny’s wife and children. It’s an intimate portrait of siblings who find a home in each other when they are failed by the adults who are suppose to nurture them.
It’s a complex novel of family relationships, sibling relationships, secrets, memories that can so often turn out to be unreliable, and coming to terms with what life can throw are you- grief, loss and forgiveness. This is a brilliant, thought provoking, multilayered, complicated and well crafted book infused with a wryness and humor that made it such a memorable read.
Read when: You want to get lost on a cozy Saturday afternoon with a good story.
Apeirogon is unlike any story I’ve ever read. Told in 1000 short segments, it tells the true story of two men who have lost daughters to violence – one is Israeli and the other is Palestinian. Rami and Bassam are joined together in their grief and united in trying to find a road to peace. McCann’s brilliant narrative goes back and forth in time, narrowing in on different times of these characters lives and families, weaving in scraps of history, politics, natures and bits of poetry.
I will be honest. This is a difficult read because of the unusual, fragmented and sometimes seemingly rambling story structure. It is WORTH persevering through.
Read When: Right after you’ve completed a mindfulness flow and have some uninterrupted hours to get lost in a book that you will continue to think about every times the headlines focus on international disasters.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan- Philipp Sendker
The story follows Julia, a lawyer from New York City looking for clues as to her father’s sudden disappearance. When her mother gives her a love letter her father had once written to a woman named Mi Mi a long time ago, Julia decides to follow the address to her father’s hometown in Burma (present day Myanmar), not knowing what she will find. There she uncovers is a story about overcoming grief and sadness, the beauty of the senses, and the amazing power of love. The book cuts back and forth between the present and the Burma of the 1940s and 50s.
It is a modern day fairy tale and an incredibly touching story love and mindfulness.
Read when: You want a beautiful romance novel and you’ve already gone through your Netflix queue.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins who grew up in the small, nondescript town of Mallard, Louisiana, whose population is comprised of mostly light-skinned Black residents. At a young age the twins witness the brutal lynching of their father by a white man, and at sixteen, they run away together to escape the horrors of their past. One day, Stella vanishes without a note of exploration. What unfolds is a tale of the two sisters, one assuming a life as a “white” woman and one as a Black woman as viewed through their two daughters. Bennett has created an incredible exploration of colorism, privilege, of sibling relationships, of love of many forms.
This is both an easy read and a complex deeper read. I’ve found myself picking it up from time and again to re-read certain passages.
Read when: With a nice cocktail and a open weekday night with a throw blanket. You’ll want to get comfy because you will NOT leave your couch/seat/bed when reading.
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole
When recently divorced Sydney Green returns to her Brooklyn neighborhood to take care of her sickly mother, she is struck with how much her beloved, predominately Black Brooklyn neighborhood has changed (read: gentrified). Her neighbors are moving out of their houses with no notice and no goodbyes, shops are disappearing over night, and white families are moving in droves. Anxious to make sure everyone knows the roots of the community, Sydney begins researching the history for a walking tour she’ll host for her upcoming block party. The more she, and her research assistant/new neighbor Theo uncover, the more danger they enter. This is, at the end of the day, a fantastic thriller, but this is one of my favorite reads because it is also thought provoking, informative, piece of historical fiction that reveals the often overlooked history of racism, gentrification and redlining in Brooklyn.
There were so many times I put down the book to google whether it was real or not (spoiler: it was ALWAYS real, including the 1800s theme park about plantations and slavery).
Read When: You want a good mystery/ thriller that actually makes you think. And make sure you keep your lights on for this one.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
When the reclusive Hollywood movie icon, Evelyn Hugo, invites the relatively unknown writer Monique Grant to write her autobiography, no is more surprised than Monique herself. This novel traces the real story — not the carefully constructed public story Hugo creates to become and remain Hollywood’s most iconic female movie stars. What is uncovered is a story, flooded with glamour, betrayal, secrets, deceit, and one hell of a complicated love story that is so intensely authentic its unreal.
This is my favorite type of read — light enough to read on a beach, but with such substance that you will find yourself thinking about it for months after you read it. I started this novel at 12am and stayed up until 4AM to finish it.
(Don’t) Read when: You’re just about to go to bed like me. Read with a delicately made Gin & Tonic and maybe some of your pre-quarantine finest.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
There is a reason that this story has continued to be republished and tops school reading lists each year. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the simple story of Francie Nolan, a smart little girl whose trying to find the beauty in her sometimes ugly, always poverty-stricken life. She adores her father, who is often too plagued by his own demons to support his family. Her Mother loves Francie, and her baby brother, but is often strict to keep them grounded in reality. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a beautifully moving and hopeful portrayal of the human condition. The pride of ownership, of work, of finding joy in such bleak circumstances seeps through each page. For me, Francie is a character up there with Elizabeth Bennet, Jo Marsh and Anne of Green Gables, with her book-smart, independence and wit.
Read when: You have some apple-based pastry around and a glass of (non-diary) milk.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
What can I say, other than this is just an incredible look at Obama’s rise to office. I’m so grateful that I got to read this as Biden won the election. Having the opportunity to learn what happened behind the scenes– with critical self-reflection and the dry wit — is such a privelege. Yes, it is a long read for the fact it’s only volume one, but it never feels long-winded. The book is dotted with personal anecdotes that reveal a man who is deeply intellectual, witty, generous, self-flagellating at times, but is a true believer in a better world, determined to do his part, hopeful that even if progress is slow, it is inevitable. Now, more than ever, we need more empathetic and self-aware politicans.
Read when: You need a burst of inspiration and optimism in life… especially after watching the news. There is no way you’ll read this in one shot so just be prepared for many many many reading breaks.