Getting Through 2020 — One Book at a Time

Maria
18 min readJan 3, 2021

I wanted to get into a habit of regularly reading books again, and so in early 2020 I took the advice of some admirable authors / writers / bloggers and started to write a short review of every book I read throughout the year, with the goal of producing this:

A 2020 book blog post! And here it is!

It is sorted into categories of:

A) Fiction

B) Non-fiction — memoir / autobiography / biography

C) Non-fiction — science / other

And, if you scroll to the end, I finish off with my top recommendation in each category!

My hope was to inspire myself to read — and it worked. It has been a year of amazing reading. I hope you find something you’d like to read from the list. Then tell me if you liked it! Even better — give me your own recommendations. Even better still — write your own “Books of 2021” list!

Happy 2021 and happy reading.

A) FICTION

  1. “The Days of Abandonment” by Elena Ferrante (2002)

This is an Italian novel about a woman whose husband leaves her after 15 years of marriage. At times the detail of her suffering is exhausting to read, leaving you scared that she will irreparably hurt herself or her children in the midst of her mental breakdown. Her nightmarish loneliness is amplified and made almost surreal by the empty apartment block she becomes imprisoned in, whilst all her neighbours travel elsewhere to escape the oppressive Turin summer weather. Finally, towards the end a glimmer of hope and recovery is a much-appreciated reward after reading so much of this woman’s misery.

2. “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by Cho Nam-Joo (2016)

With a simple structure that chronologically describes the life of Kim Jiyoung, this novel very eloquently depicts the everyday sexism encountered by women in Korea at every stage of life. I am unsurprised that the book has been hailed by feminists. It is perhaps a little more surprising that the novel was so warmly received in Korea — in the society that is not so favourably presented. Perhaps it is because the book depicts such a typical experience and so plainly that the reader cannot help but relate to the protagonist, and cannot not be left with a growing sense of the injustice and inequality that are systemic in the society depicted.

3. “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee (2017)

Back in college I wrote a comparative literature thesis on the multi-generational novel “Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann. “Pachinko” is another example of an excellent, epic novel that spans generations of the same family. Primarily, the story is of the lives of Koreans living in Japan and the Japanese-Korean culture that has emerged from these migrants. Not only is this an historical topic that I knew little about, such that this is in itself enlightening, the book is also compulsively readable and brimming with excellently portrayed, flawed and realistic characters, whilst exploring diverse themes of love, the role of women, death, and identity.

4. “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones (2018)

Lauded by many, this novel is indeed a worthwhile read. The story centres on a young, middle-class couple, Celestial and Roy. They have been married for a year and a half when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. This is a story without a happy ending, but with believable characters facing realistic dilemmas. The novel puts a face to the suffering endured by black people in America, describing in detail the repercussions of just one miscarriage of justice by the state.

5. “Human Acts” by Han Kang (2014)

Han Kang is a South Korean novelist well-known for her award-winning “The Vegetarian”. “Human Acts” tells the story of one boy’s death in the Gwangju uprisings in South Korea in 1980, told from the perspective of several people who are connected to the boy in various ways. Though very sad, this novel serves to educate about a piece of South Korean history that many outside of Korea would have no knowledge of: the primarily student-led pro-democracy protests that were brutally suppressed by the military. With writing that is at times delightfully attentive to detail, at times stark in the depiction of violence, and at times essentially poetry, the novel shows fascinating breadth of writing.

6. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

This historical fiction novel spans the descendants of two half-sisters born in Ghana. Each chapter describes one descendant in one generation, creating almost a collection of short stories, albeit ones that are linked. As one line of descendants stays in Ghana, another line arrives in the U.S. enslaved, such that the storylines diverge substantially, covering major historical events both in Ghana and in the U.S. Each chapter is captivating, clearly well-researched, and full of complex characters. The novel is immensely readable — I found myself wishing some chapters were extended into entire books in themselves. The great reviews of this novel are well-deserved.

7. “The Snowman” by Jo Nesbø (2007)

Having read a number of intense works of non-fiction in a row, I decided to take a quick break with something entirely different — a Scandinavian thriller. Nesbø, from Norway, is one of the genre’s famous authors. In 2017, a movie based on this book came out to awful reviews with everyone claiming the book is exceedingly better. Indeed, the book is addictive, intriguing, and suspenseful throughout. The plot is detailed and incredibly well thought through. It reminded me at times of the skill of Stieg Larsson’s novels. If you want to be engrossed for a while, this is a great book.

B) NON-FICTION — MEMOIR / AUTOBIOGRAPHY / BIOGRAPHY

  1. “Maid” by Stephanie Land (2019)

Reading this following “Evicted” gave a broader perspective on poverty in the U.S.A. Where “Evicted” was ethnographic, “Maid” was a memoir of one woman who grew up middle class but ended up a single mother struggling with poverty. The first-person perspective emphasises how cruel society can be towards those who are struggling. The book does an excellent job of showing how quickly she slipped into this position and how easily she could slip further. After reading “Evicted”, I couldn’t help but wonder how her story might have ended in a worse situation had she been black or living in a U.S. state less supportive than Washington.

2. “Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?” by Jeanette Winterson (2011)

This memoir is not chronological and at times it is hard to follow the author’s chain of thoughts. The memoir goes far beyond “what happened” and delves deep into feelings, psychological development, and linking the author’s story to history and society. She is also heavily influenced by literature, which can be both intriguing and distracting at times. There is no doubt that she has a fascinating story to tell about discovering her own identity and struggling with her two mothers — both her adoptive and biological one. I was left with a feeling that this memoir was written more for the author’s sake than the reader’s. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with that, and the story feels more real as a result.

3. “The Colour of Water” by James McBride (1995)

This memoir reads like two memoirs in one, alternating between the author’s early life story and that of his mother, with two distinct voices. At the same time, of course, those two are inextricably related. The son of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, the author primarily deals with religion, discrimination, and race. More broadly, however, the memoir delves into motherhood, grief, the importance of education, identity and finding ones purpose. Really, the memoir explores so many themes that readers are bound to relate to some and learn about some they are less familiar with, all whilst being excellently written, very readable and a fascinating story.

4. “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon (2018)

The title of this memoir is incredibly apt. The memoir deals with heavy themes of race, obesity, abuse, violence and addiction. At times I felt myself comparing it to Roxane Gay’s “Hunger”, in that both Gay and Laymon are educated and talented black writers dealing with race and weight. (Gay reviewed Laymon’s book, calling it “astonishing”.) But whereas I remember Gay’s book having plenty of calls to action, leaving me fired up about the injustices she faced and keen to try to be a better person, Laymon’s book is more turbulent. As one reviewer put it, there is a sense that we are eavesdropping on his life. As he reveals his darkest secrets, in a memoir constantly addressed to his own mother, we are mere witnesses to an intense story that is unrepentantly his own.

5. “The Bigamist” by Mary Turner Thomsen (2011)

This story was a riveting read simply because the story is quite incredible. Over the course of six years, Mary is conned, tricked and defrauded by her husband. Eventually she discovers the extent of his lies and the truth — that he is married to another woman, has fathered countless children with various women, and has tricked her into giving up large amounts of money. The author clearly has a unique story to tell and it is told clearly and in detail. It is, however, a memoir that rides on the plot alone. The writing itself is adequate but unremarkable. As such, even if the author should be lauded for her courage in sharing her story, for the reader, an hour long documentary on the topic may have been just as good.

6. “Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy (1994)

Having myself received a tough diagnosis in childhood, I empathised with some of the author’s experiences, but whereas my disease is an invisible one, Grealy’s was profoundly visible. Diagnosed with jaw cancer at age nine, this memoir describes her struggles with coming to terms with her appearance after a third of her jaw is removed, the cruelty she frequently faced, and her path to learning that she can be loved. The story is a heavy read, but it is honest and because it is so exceptionally well-written, the reader can gain rare insight into what it is like to be so exceptionally physically different, and how that in turn makes you psychologically different.

7. “The Rules do not Apply” by Ariel Levy (2017)

Despite being a keen reader of The New Yorker, I had not realised that Ariel Levy was a staff writer there. Unsurprisingly, knowing that, her writing is excellent. Her memoir is one of those full of stories and experiences that others have experienced and can empathise with, but few are able to express with such power, brutal honesty and insight. My suggestion is to not read too much about what this book is specifically about. Suffice it to say that it deals with love and loss, then dive in.

8. “Travels with Lizbeth” by Lars Eighner (1993)

This memoir describes the author’s homelessness in the south-west of the U.S. in the late 1980s. At first the writing seems quite mundane, but over time the reader becomes immersed in the author’s life. Memorable chapters describe in detail how the author survives from dumpster diving and how his homeless acquaintances survive by pretending to be university professors or nurses, a technique the author names ‘institutional parasitism’. As noted by the author himself in an afterword, this memoir stands out by being a first person account of homelessness that is written by a competent writer, as well as for depicting homelessness in a time before cell phones and social media.

9. “The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esme Weijun Wang (2019)

Having long been interested in what mental disorders are really like for the people that experience them, it was wonderful to read such well-written and honest autobiographical essays about schizophrenia. The collection opens your eyes to the breadth of the disease and the stigma it can carry, whilst also demystifying it somewhat, by letting you hear in first person what this highly mythologised disease entails. It is rare to find someone able to put these experiences into words, let alone so eloquently.

10. “No One Cares About Crazy People” by Ron Powers (2017)

This autobiography tells the story of Powers’ two sons and their eventual diagnoses of schizophrenia, interspersed with chapters serving as a summary of the history of mental illness in the United States. By slowly building to the time when insanity enters his sons’ lives, the book serves to emphasise that behind the label of schizophrenia lies people with talents, ambitions, and potential. By being made privy to the tragedies caused by the disease in this one family, it makes the reader that much more incensed at the evidence presented that ‘no one cares about crazy people’.

11. “Laughing at my Nightmare” by Shane Burcaw (2014)

Shane Burcaw’s book builds upon a blog he started in order to describe his life with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). I had initially intended to read one of his later books, but this one is an interesting insight into what it’s like to come of age — from child to teenager to young adult — with a serious disability. It seems unavoidable that the book covers some dark times in his life, but the overall tone remains one of optimism and humour, which reflects the high level of maturity one is essentially forced to reach when facing an illness at a young age. I would especially recommend this book to young readers.

12. “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward (2013)

I read this memoir as part of a desire to explore literature about being black in America. This is one that I think will stay with me for a while. With chapters describing her family’s history, interlaced with chapters chronicling the lives of five young men in her life that have died, Ward reflects on what it means to grow up a black man in the south. The memoir is honest, emotional, and deeply personal. The reader is left with a greater understanding of the systemic barriers to success that black people face, the frustrations that lead to drugs and crime, and the impact of death on the community.

13. “Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter” by Kate Clifford Larson (2015)

Usually I stay away from biographies, preferring memoirs or autobiographies. In this case I was intrigued by the story of how a large, powerful family like the Kennedys managed a disabled daughter. Desperate to protect the family from the shame of Rosemary’s intellectual shortcomings, the family keeps it secret for decades. As Rosemary is shuffled off to one school after an another in the search for something to cure her, her frustration-fuelled temper tantrums increasingly concern the family patriarch. At age 23, Rosemary is forced into a lobotomy procedure, robbing her of most of her mobility and speech. Her siblings, in their positions of power, later engage in multiple endeavours on behalf of disabled people, but meanwhile Rosemary is institutionalised until her death at 86. Rosemary’s story is truly a mental health tragedy.

14. “In The Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)

At the same time as Machado acknowledges that her experience of domestic abuse is common, she acknowledges that her writing about it is not. There is a gap in the literature that she feels compelled to partially fill: that of domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship. The structure of the novel — with short, somewhat poetic chapters — was a little jarring at first. Machado has named Garcia Marquez as one influence on her writing, and it shows. But, after a little while it is clear that the writing is excellent and her experiences are heartbreakingly vivid. I devoured the book in two days.

15. “Notes on a Silencing” by Lacy Crawford (2020)

This memoir documents the author’s years in high school at an elite boarding school in New England, during which she experiences a sexual assault. I found the description of teenaged life entirely engrossing and very relatable, perhaps amplified by having been to boarding school myself. That said, what happens to Crawford has effects that endure well beyond those years. The memoir left me feeling the frustration and hurt the author must have borne at the woefully inadequate response by the school and her community. In showing how easily power lets men off the hook, the book is very timely, being published now in the wake of the #metoo movement.

16. “The Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (2020)

Part autobiography, part biography, part essay, Villavicencio tells deeply personal stories about her own life and those of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.A. Herself undocumented and a Harvard graduate, she is not only able to gain the trust of these people, but also, as an excellent writer, able to beautifully depict their private lives. She is also intent on describing ordinary immigrants — not DACA recipients or those fleeing war-torn countries, but those who came to America simply looking for better lives. It is truly enlightening to start to see what it might be like to live with perpetual fear of deportation, of illness (because of lack of health insurance), or of being taken advantage of.

17. “Lightning Flowers” by Katherine Standefer (2020)

I read the subtitle of this book — “My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life” — and was intrigued. On top of the onslaught of serious medical tragedies that befall the author related to her genetic heart condition and implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD), she needs to navigate the absurd bureaucracies of a medical system that cares more about profit than patients’ lives. That story is interesting and very well written. The delving into the environmental costs of producing an ICD, including the societal costs of mining, felt a bit like a tangent and had the unfortunate effect of making an otherwise intriguing story feel too drawn out for me.

C) NON-FICTION — SCIENCE / OTHER

1. “The Cyber Effect” by Mary Aiken (2017)

This book has a pretty lengthy subtitle: “An expert in cyberpsychology explains how technology is shaping our children, our behaviour, and our values — and what we can do about it”. Some chapters I found indeed both informative and helpful, especially the ones focussing on very small children. But, as soon as you are dealing with teenagers or adults, the situation feels more hopeless. How do we protect teenagers on the Internet? There’s nothing wrong as such with that the author doesn’t have all the answers, but for any reader expecting more tangible solutions, the book falls a tad short. For example, she argues that we should have international law on the Internet, much like we have international law at sea, but for anyone informed about how incredibly badly international waters are policed, this is a rather underwhelming suggestion. Still, the book is well-researched and worth a read.

2. “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond (2016)

Theoretically, I already knew that poverty is an issue in America, that people who get evicted aren’t necessarily more lazy or stupid than anyone else, and that privilege is arbitrarily decided by where you’re born and the colour of your skin. This book, however, makes these facts starkly real. Faced with the fact of someone’s eviction, your subconscious judgements are then firmly shaken and dismantled, as Desmond reveals how this person reached this point. The ethnographic research that has produced this book is impressive in reach and depth. The result is a very necessary picture of what poverty and eviction really look like in urban America.

3. “Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou (2018)

This book is compulsively readable — I finished it in two days. Describing how biotech start-up Theranos deceived and scammed investors into investing in tech that didn’t work, the story is fascinating and at times even mind-blowing, and excellently told. The amount of investigative journalism that went into this is evident. The author’s fearlessness in pursuing the story and getting it told, in the face of such intimidation and attempts to stifle him is quite impressive. Although the story doesn’t as such have a happy ending in that the damage is irreparable, it does have a satisfying ending in that the bad guys get caught. At times you forget how real the story is — the court case will take place only now in 2020.

4. “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson (2015)

Ronson’s style is referred to as Gonzo journalism, in which the author’s subjectivity is embraced and made part of the narrative. Combined with the interesting topic of online shaming, this results in an easy, entertaining read, much like Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”, which I read many years ago. Ronson describes his own experiences of shaming and actively befriends those who have been profoundly shamed, detailing their experiences. The stories flow from each other with a somewhat meandering style, however, and Ronson’s own reflections, though thought-provoking, at times strike me as not as probing as I would have preferred. When the final story is told, the book ends somewhat abruptly with not much sense of a conclusion or wrapping up. That said, if Ronson had gone deeper or been more scientific in his methods, perhaps that would have meant compromising on the entertainment value.

5. “How to Feed a Dictator” by Witold Szablowski (2020)

In this book, Szablowski, a Polish journalist, interviews the cooks of five past dictators: Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Enver Hoxha of Albania, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Pol Pot of Cambodia. The result is a new and intriguing perspective on these infamous men. Sure, there are disturbing stories, and strange rumours are probed, but it is also striking how these almost mythologised men are revealed to be mundane human beings with culinary tastes and preferences. Behind men who murdered countless people, are cooks who loved, feared, and served them.

6. “The Radium Girls” by Kate Moore (2016)

This true story will make you angry, amazed and sad, but it is worth it. Starting around the time of WW1, young girls in the US were recruited to paint watch dials with luminous paint. As they are explicitly taught how to dip a paint brush into their own mouths to create a fine point, the company kept them in the dark about the dangers of ingesting radium, even as those dangers became ever clearer. As the girls start developing horrific signs of radium poisoning, they embark on a long, hard legal fight against their previous employers, struggling to stay alive long enough to see justice. The book does an excellent job of telling this incredible story but staying focussed on the victims — the girls themselves.

7. “The Great Pretender” by Susannah Cahalan (2019)

Cahalan’s book is essentially an in-depth investigation of one psychological study, with the reader increasingly appreciative of why this matters. In the 1970s a Stanford psychologist sent people undercover into psychiatric asylums by pretending to hear voices. In the research paper that followed, he seemingly exposed how easily faulty diagnoses of insanity were doled out and how poor the care offered by institutions in the US really was. Though just one study reporting on eight cases, it set into motion widespread closure of mental health asylums and a revolution in how mental illness was diagnosed. Cahalan questions not only the legitimacy of the consequences of the study and what it means for the field of psychiatry, but also throws into doubt the veracity of the research itself.

8. “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Wilkerson has compiled a detailed historical study of the migration of black Americans from the south of the U.S.A. to the Northeast, West and Midwest, between 1915 and 1970. The result is epic — both in scope and length — but the book is remarkably intriguing and readable, perhaps because of how it alternates between general historical description and the biographies of three emigres. The book gives valuable insight into the struggles that black people have endured, post slavery, both in the Jim Crow south and in the places to which they emigrated in the search for something better.

9. “The Turnaway Study” by Diana Greene Foster (2020)

The book’s subtitle easily explains what this one is about: “Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having — or Being Denied — an Abortion”. The scientific study that has produced this book is lengthy and impressive. It’s not flawless, but it is certainly informative and the findings serve to correct many myths regarding abortion. If one is very interested in the complete details of the findings, this book is a great source. However, for me, I find a reading of a scientific article would have sufficed, as somehow the book was a slow read. The first-person accounts of several women are interesting and illustrate the breadth of women’s experiences, whilst putting a face to the issue. However, I somehow felt that a narrative approach would have been more effective than the verbatim stories.

10. “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin (1961)

At a time when black Americans were still living under racial segregation, Griffin — a journalist — decides to dye his skin black and travel in the Deep South as a black man in the 1960s. His diary recounts his experiences and how everything is altered after making that one change of the colour of his skin. There are the somewhat expected episodes of racism he faces, but more interesting is perhaps how he realises the extent of the suppression in a way he had never thought about when walking the same streets as a white man. I was sadly left with a feeling that even if this happened 60 years ago, not enough has changed by today as it should have.

11. “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery (2015)

Having discovered a personal fascination with sea creatures in recent years, I was excited to learn about octopuses. (Fun fact: octopuses is in fact the only correct plural form!) The book did in many ways deliver; I learned a lot of fascinating things about the animals, especially in the first few chapters. From there the book veered further into memoir-esque descriptions of the people that the author encounters on her journey of discovery and general musings on animal consciousness. This makes the book’s focus is a bit broader, which could be enjoyed by some, but was somewhat less interesting to me.

FAVOURITES

And finally, here are my top recommendations in each category:

A) Fiction

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (2016) — Impressive in scope and historical knowledge, whilst remaining immensely enjoyable.

B) Non-fiction — memoir / autobiography / biography

“The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esme Weijun Wang (2019) — How often do you find someone able to describe what schizophrenia is like so eloquently?

C) Non-fiction — science / other

“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond (2016) — An amazing feat of ethnographic research, with a truly enlightening result.

Thanks for reading and please leave your recommendations in the comments!

Photo by Mikołaj Palazzo on Unsplash

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