Like many, I’m trying to be a better book-reader, after too many years of internet distractions. 2020 proved both a boon and a bane to this desire, but, in all, I think I did pretty good on the book front. If you’re looking for something good to read, maybe you’ll find it here. (None of these are related to my professional interests—I may have a separate book list of those over on my professional site.)
The Best Book I Read: Caste
In no way an original choice, it’s still worth calling out Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, as the best book I read in 2020. This deconstruction and reconsideration of race as something more structural proved eye-opening and thought-expanding, and should be required reading for all Americans.
Thinking on the form of the book, what I distinctly admire is how Wilkerson balances the structural and systemic with the specific and personal. It’s a balance that can be hard to strike. Too systemic, and the analysis feels bloodless and academic, but too specific, and it just feels like a series of anecdata. Caste has the space, and Wilderson the savvy, to navigate the macro and micro to masterful effect.
In my 20s and 30s, I was all about non-fiction. I had trouble engaging with novels, found them irrelevant, and prioritized reading that helped me Gain Knowledge. Starting in my 40s, and increasingly these past few years, that’s shifted, where I crave the escapism and empathy of good fiction over the Knowledged Gained of non-fiction.
Here are the fiction books that I rated ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ or more this past year on Goodreads, in the order I read them.
Dragon Hoops, Gene Luen Yang
As an Oaklander, I’m a sucker for this graphic novel about the basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd high school, and how the author (who was a teacher there) overcame his aversion to sports and saw the positive role it can play in developing the lives of his students, many of whom come from challenged backgrounds. Dragon Hoops is distinctly Oakland in its exploration of race, ethnicity, heritage.
The Dog of the South, Charles Portis
After the author’s death, I thought I’d try the book that his ardent fans love most (True Grit, while his most popular, is not the most revered). This is a peculiar, sly, shaggy dog tale that remarkably captures a place and time (1970s American South through to Central America), and should have you laughing out loud quite a bit.
Network Effect, Martha Wells
The latest Murderbot tale, and the first full novel. I love Murderbot, and this book gets back to the spirit and verve of the first couple novellas (that had kinda waned the later ones). If you dig genre fiction (in this case, space-y sci-fi) with an arch sense of humor, and haven’t yet dug into Murderbot, you’re in for a treat.
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
I was surprised I had never heard of this book, written over 20 years ago and with quite an avid following (65,000+ ratings on Goodreads), and was turned onto it after a shout into the ether (well, Facebook) asking for good things to read.
It’s the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials, lead by a team of Jesuits. How the book probes matters scientific, spiritual, and ethical makes sense when you learn the author was an anthropologist. The Sparrow is remarkably thoughtful, good-humored, and ultimately brutal.
Oh, and I heard in an interview with Scott Frank, the writer and director of The Queen’s Gambit, that he’s developing this as a production.
Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra
A lengthy, sumptuous cops-and-gangsters tale begins in Mumbai and expands across South Asia. At 900-plus pages, plenty of room for diversion from the main plot (about a policeman trying to unpack the story of a notorious gangster), but it never feels egregious—everything contributes to enabling the reader to dwell in the locale (including the use of local argot that had me looking up words frequently).
The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon
I probably liked this book more than it deserves, but I’m a word nerd, and this novel is about, well, the dictionary, and runaway capitalism, smartphones, oh, and a virus, so yeah, it came to me at just the right time this year.
The Changeling, Victor LaValle
A captivating contemporary take on the classic “changeling” tale. Set in New York City, with a rare/antiquarian book dealer at the heart of a fantastical horror story.
Piranesi, Susannah Clarke
One of the most discussed/reviewed novels of 2020, from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Whereas that book was long, deep, rich, and thorough, this is shorter, sparer, and more suggestive. It’s a curious work, at first seemingly allegorical, then a detective story.
The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova
With a Ph.D. in psychology, and extensive experience in longform non-fiction, Konnikova explores the world of high-stakes poker (specifically no-limit hold ’em) and how it proves to be an intense distillation of so much of what makes humans human. You don’t have to be interested in poker to appreciate the book—she connects her experiences at the table with how she (and we) make decisions and actions throughout our lives.
User Friendly, Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant
While on the face of it, this is a professional book for me (and I think folks working in digital product design would benefit from reading it), it’s intended for a broad audience, and I think succeeds in appealing to that generally Interested Reader. I’ve long thought the world would benefit from a general audience book that peels back the mechanics of how design effects so much of our lives, and this book does that well.
The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Matt Zoller Seitz
For reasons unbeknownst even to me, I didn’t watch The Grand Budapest Hotel until last year, and then found it my second-favorite Wes Anderson movie (after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). And it is probably the height of Anderson’s craft, and this book, which deconstructs all that went in to making the film, proved to be a fan’s delight.
Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino
I’m technically cheating with this one — I finished it at the end of last year. It’s an excellent book, a collection of new essays by one of my favorite The New Yorker writers. She has a keen eye and a remarkably sophisticated social-critical sense. It was all the talk of 2019, but if you never got around to it, do yourself a favor and read it!