All the Books I Read in 2020
This year's post ended up being super long because I read more—40 books (20 fiction + 20 nonfiction) compared to last year's 26. I also included my thoughts on the 7 novels I abandoned, so there's a total of 47 mini book reviews below. Gah.
My reading year started off slow. The stress of a new virus rapidly spreading around the world zapped my concentration, but once I resigned to the quietness and introspective space that 2020 provided, I went into a reading frenzy.
I'm usually not an audiobook person, but since I started taking long walks after the gyms shut down, I forced myself to be one. I still prefer to read novels, but nonfiction in audiobook form works for me, and I'll continue to listen to them after this pandemic is over.
(AB) = audiobook
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Bunny by Mona Awad
I picked up Bunny because it's about a group of girls in an MFA program, and I wanted to compare experiences. Well, it is nothing like my MFA experience at all. There were no twee rich girls in my program (do girls like that even want to write fiction?), and in the novel, the girls mess with witchcraft to turn bunnies into boys. When I started the book, it seemed like a typical fish-out-of-water story set in academia, but halfway through, it descended into madness, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was one chapter from the collective point of view of all the girls that I thought was genius. If you like experimental fiction with a splash of horror and satire, this is a fun read.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
I thought this was going to be something along the lines of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but it turned out to be the literary equivalent of a Hallmark movie, which is cool if you like Hallmark movies. I say that because there are no real stakes in the story, and everybody gets along. Nina Hill, a shy woman who works in a bookshop, is supposed to have social anxiety, but she seems to have the most happening social life, attending book club meetings, chatting with regulars at the shop, winning quiz nights at the pub, where she meets a hot guy, who, gasp, doesn't like to read. The characters are witty, but they all have the exact same kind of wit, even the Uber driver. I will say, I appreciated this book because I was reading it when the pandemic started, and its lightheartedness and tame storyline put me in a calmer mood during a chaotic time.
There There by Tommy Orange (AB)
I read a quarter of There There in book form, then switched to the audiobook when I started taking long walks during the first lockdown. His words have more punch on the page, so I recommend reading the novel. The writing is poetic and powerful, and the Tony Loneman chapter certainly had me crying. Not every character's story has a big arc; some seem to be more slice-of-life type vignettes than others, and I didn't find that the characters came together in the end in a satisfying way. I would have preferred fewer characters, maybe 4 to 5, and more of a plot, but I still think this book is worth reading to understand what it's like to be Native in modern-day America.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
I resisted reading this book during a time of confinement because I thought a story about a young woman trying to hibernate for a year with prescription pills would be too bleak and depressing. But it turned out to be very sharp and funny — and savage. I'm glad I gave Moshfegh another shot after I abandoned her Eileen last year, which was a bleaker novel.
It's magic how thrilling of a read this is given the lack of plot. I particularly liked the first half with the satire on the New York art scene, Dr. Tuttle's inane dialogue, and Reva barging in all the time. The way the author described sleep made it sound very appealing. I think I expected too much from the last quarter of the book and wanted more from Reva and Ping Xi, but overall, a very solid read that I would want to revisit.
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
I absolutely adored this short story collection. Moshfesh's characters continue to be losers and outcasts, but I could feel the author's great sympathy and tenderness for them. I love her sense of humor. She featured Chinese characters in a couple of the stories, and I found it refreshing that they were well-rounded people rather than lazy stereotypes. (I read somewhere that the author lived in China for a short while.) My favorite short story collection I read this year.
Chemistry by Weike Wang
I first heard about this author from reading her short story, "Omakase," in The New Yorker. A claustrophobic and frustrating read, as I do not think about race nearly as much as the protagonist in that story, but it intrigued me enough to seek out more of her work. Chemistry is about a Chinese-American Ph.D. student having a nervous breakdown while earning her degree in Chemistry at a prestigious university that's probably based on Harvard. She resents her white boyfriend (a theme in the author's work?) who seems to have it way easier in life. Although this narrator is just as frustrating here for her indecisiveness, I enjoyed this book for the deadpan humor and the neat facts about science. A very angsty coming-of-age novel with a fascinating look at the toll parental and societal pressures can have on a young person.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
A beautiful novel by a poet about the violence and delicacy of American life. I cried so much when reading the first half, which focused on the protagonist's relationship with his mother and grandmother. The latter is a bit anti-climactic, and, on the whole, not much plot here, but some of the best writing I've read this year.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This novel, translated from Japanese, tries to make sense of society: how it works, who we have to become to partake in it, and what happens when we deviate from its norms and expectations. The protagonist is middle-aged and has no interest in getting married and having children. Keiko actually wants to be a cog in the machine and thinks of herself and her co-workers as "cells" comprising the sentient being that is the convenience store where she has been working for the past 18 years. It's the only place where she feels she truly belongs because it absorbs her rejected individuality into an accepted oneness. This book is absolutely delightful, but I can understand if others find it unsettling or even dark.
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (AB)
Written as the transcript of a documentary on a fictional, Fleetwood Mac-like band, this book was made for the audiobook experience. The cast really brought extra depth to the story. The author did a good job depicting all the different types of relationships—lovers, bandmates, siblings, friendship—and I liked how all women were supportive of each other. Not crazy about the main character, but everyone else was cool. Forget Daisy; the real star of this book is Camila! Now there's a woman with common sense and a backbone. All about sex, drugs, and rock and roll with beautiful young musicians in the '70s, this is just screaming to be adapted for the screen. Apparently, it's going to be made into a Netflix series.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
An international sensation, this slim novel, translated from Korean, single-handedly started a much-needed feminist discourse within South Korea. And caused sooo much controversy. The power of fiction, right? If you're a woman, you'll be able to relate to this book in some way. I was unimpressed by the sterile writing style at first, but there's a reason it's written this way. Definitely a book worth reading.
Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwong
What a perfect summer read, especially in a year when we can't travel. A lot of this novel is set in Capri, Italy, and those parts are pure travel porn. While I haven't read his Crazy Rich Asian trilogy yet, this book taught me a lot about rich people, particularly New York high society. I doubt Kwong is exaggerating about the snobbery and racism that exists in those circles. I also thought he did a good job depicting what it's like to be biracial and torn between two cultural identities. That brought some depth to an otherwise light and airy beach read.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
I don't know if I'd recommend Asymmetry to the average reader. I usually enjoy experimental, challenging novels, but throughout reading this, I was constantly wondering, what is the point of this story? The rewards come later because long after I finished it, I found myself thinking about its themes of identity, empathy, and power dynamics. It's a novel about writers for writers or those in the publishing industry, which makes sense why it got so much press. Nonetheless, I'm pleased that such an unconventional novel found mainstream success.
(Spoiler alert: Personally, I think this novel is about a white woman writer, in the book and IRL, who is saying "F.U. I want to write from the POV of an Iraqi-American man. Screw staying in my lane!!" and proceeds to do it well. Part 1, the Philip Roth-inspired love story, was her Trojan horse to get the book published by the white people in the publishing industry and have a shot at mainstream attention. Part 2 was the story she really wanted to write. Well played, Lisa Halliday!)
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad (AB)
I enjoyed Bunny so much, I read the author's debut novel. Each chapter is from a different time in the main character's life, not always in chronological order and not always from her point of view. Lizzie has struggled with weight throughout her young life, and the stories show how obsession with weight and appearances affect all her relationships. After she loses the weight, her life gets worse in many aspects. Some stories are better than others—there's one where she gets annoyed that someone else is hogging an exercise machine at the gym. The strongest stories are the ones about Lizzie's complicated relationship with her mother.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
The stories are definitely sour, but there are two that are really moving and it comes later in the book. Although I didn't always enjoy reading the stories—it can be a bit profane and many of the protagonists sound the same—I respect them. Zhang is probably the only writer who understands how I grew up as an immigrant and the kind of kids I knew. Her style is very unique; she writes in a raw, stream-of-consciousness way. If anything, read "The Evolution of My brother," and "Why Were They Throwing Bricks?" The ending of the latter really crushed me.
Severance by Ling Ma
Damn. This novel gave me nightmares. Published in 2018, it shares many unsettling parallels with our current pandemic. The author had a lot to say, and she packed it all into this multi-layered, genre-bending novel. The immigration story was heartbreaking, and it helps explain why the narrator decides to stay in New York and work while everyone else has long fled the city to escape the virus. The book is a slow burn, but it'll get under your skin. Ma is a very talented writer.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
The stories by Machado mix folklore, science fiction, and horror. They are a bit hit-and-miss for me, but the really good ones are worth reading, and I appreciated her interesting ideas and where she wanted to go with most of them. My favorites are "The Husband Stitch" and "Eight Bites." This collection of horny and creepy stories reminds me of a more feminist Kelly Link.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Not a book I'd typically pick up, but I was curious why this novel was so popular. The marsh setting is really interesting, and I felt I was there. The author clearly has a love of nature, and the strongest part of the book for me was her metaphors of nature for love and life. The murder story kept it a page-turner, although the ending gave it a sinister tinge. I didn't end up loving the book in a deep, personal way. One reason could be that I didn't buy Kya as someone who could exist in real life. She's been living alone in the marsh since she was a kid, but she never needed to go to the doctor or dentist or something? She's drop-dead gorgeous, yet the townspeople treat her as if she's vermin? And the only friends she makes are two handsome, age-appropriate, eligible bachelors from town who are both in love with her? The twist at the end is kind of far-fetched as well, not to mention quite disturbing. This is a book that tries to be several things at once: a coming-of-age novel, a literary love letter to nature, a murder mystery. The former and the latter didn't hit the spot for me, but it's a compelling read nonetheless.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
It's my understanding that the original Japanese version of Breasts and Eggs is a novella, released ten years ago. In the English translation edition, the author tacked on a sequel, making this an unnecessarily bloated read. I wish she'd just left it at the original novella. I laughed out loud so much at many of the narrator's observations, I cried in spots, and I just loved everything about it. Weird, funny, sad, touching—it's got everything, which is why it was a bestseller in Japan. Book 2 is set a decade later, and I believe the author also wrote it a decade later for the expanded English translation version...and it's not very good. It goes on way too long about the narrator's journey with donor conception with little payoff and with none of the charm and humor of the first part. If only I can get a copy of just the novella in English and pretend the sequel never happened.
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami
This is marketed as a novella, but I think it's more of a short story or a novelette at most. You can read it in under an hour. The story is about a little boy who has a crush on a convenience store cashier. The author did a really good job depicting the innocent and often complicated feelings of a child. A really sweet and touching story.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
I was blown away by the rich narratives in this novel, which felt more like a short story collection with interconnected characters. Each chapter is a story of a different black woman in London. I loved following their thoughts, desires, learning their secrets. They're intelligent, flawed, and aware of their own hypocrisies. In many stories, you'll find discussions on race, privilege, and feminism that are way more nuanced than the think pieces you'll find on the Internet. Great energy comes from the unconventional prose style and line breaks. The characters are all very distinct and feel like real women. A masterclass in character study and empathy. My favorite novel, along with Convenience Store Woman, in 2020. A very intellectually stimulating and emotionally fulfilling read.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith
You know I absolutely adore Zadie Smith's essays, but as much as I try, I can't connect with her fiction. While I enjoyed White Teeth, and parts of On Beauty, I haven't been able to finish her recent novels. Grand Union is her first collection of short stories, and I gave it a whirl, but I didn't end up being too crazy about most of the stories I read either. "Sentimental Education" I enjoyed, but the others felt like writing experiments and I didn't know what she was trying to say in them. The stories didn't feel cohesive as a collection either. Oh well.
Show Them A Good Time by Nicole Flattery
Sally Rooney blurbed this book with a positive review, and it sounded like something I'd be into, but I read three stories and stopped. Some really witty writing and truly original one-liners, but very little happen and all the characters sound the same. If I can't connect to the characters, it's hard for me to keep going, even when the writing is excellent.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (AB)
Good writing and a fleshed-out main character, but after a few chapters, I got the gist of how a 42-year-old teacher managed to groom a 15-year-old schoolgirl into a sexual relationship that continued into her adulthood. I listened to the audiobook, which is super long, and I really didn't want to listen to 15 hours of a very unsettling story. Basically, all you need to know is that the main character is young, insecure, and needs validation, which this middle-aged man exploits. The end.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
I abandoned this novel by Samantha Hunt almost halfway through. The writing was fine, but the story didn't intrigue me enough to keep going. I found myself not caring about the unrequited love story.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (AB)
I feel like every new book by a young author is marketed to "fans of Sally Rooney" these days because she's now the gold standard for millennial fiction. But aside from a quasi-love triangle and the author also being Irish, I didn't think this novel has much in common with Rooney's work. First of all, the protagonist here seems to have no life other than obsessing over some guy who's clearly not into her. She's Irish and living abroad in Hong Kong to teach English but she doesn't explore the city and has no real interest in the culture. She has no friends, except when she goes drinking with coworkers in Lan Kwai Fong, the neighborhood in Hong Kong where all the white ex-pats hang out. What a waste of a location. Even when she's talking to her family or a roommate or anybody else, it's about Julian, who is really not that interesting either. After Julian leaves town abruptly, she starts obsessing over a local woman. If she started exploring more of Hong Kong at this point, I didn't find out because I abandoned the book here.
So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith
There's nothing bad about this short story collection. In fact, the opening pages are stunning, and I liked the longer stories. My issue is that most of the stories are so short—flash fiction of only one or two pages oftentimes—and I personally don't like starting a story and having it end two minutes later. But this could be great for someone who loves flash.
Lot by Bryan Washington
Given all the accolades this short story collection received, I really thought I was going to like it. It's not bad, but I didn't feel an emotional connection to any of the characters. Not enough distinction between the protagonists in the different stories either, but maybe some of them are supposed to be the same person? The stories I read reminded me of a tamer, less sexist Junot Diaz. I would have probably finished this book if it wasn't due so soon at the library.
Women with Money by Jean Chatzky
A good beginner's guide on money for women. I wanted to learn more about investing, but since this book is more of an overview of different topics, it doesn't get too deep. This book did make me think about things I otherwise wouldn't, such as caring for aging parents and leaving a legacy.
My Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper (AB)
I'm a fan of Ellie Kemper, the actress from The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Kemper is just so darn likable and it was a pleasure to listen to her narrate in the audiobook. The chapters on her career trajectory and the behind-the-scenes commentary on her sitcoms were more interesting, probably because her personal life is so tame. I didn't know she used to write for The Onion, which is awesome. Unfortunately, some chapters fell flat, such as the one that's all about her being hangry in a restaurant, but even the worst of them are saved by the author's charm.
Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (AB)
Another celebrity memoir to keep my mood light during the heaviest part of 2020. Like with Ellie Kemper's memoir, I only really found the stuff on showbiz interesting. Sometimes Kendrick got real and personal about her insecurities and experiences dating crappy men, which I appreciated, but on the whole, I think she's too young to write a memoir of much substance on her personal life. It is interesting to learn that when she was going to the Oscars for Up in the Air, she was still living with roommates in LA and living from paycheque to paycheque. Doing the Twilight movies gave her the means to take on low-budget indie films. I'm sure she is no longer worried about money these days.
Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum
A writer friend recommended this book to me since we're both working on book projects. It's an indispensable guide for authors, outlining what we need to know about the industry, from the process of writing and finishing books to the awkwardness of promoting them.
Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow (AB)
This book mostly covers Farrow's efforts investigating the Harvey Weinstein case and how many powerful forces tried to silence his reporting of the women's stories. It's an eye-opening look at just how far wealthy men are willing to go to cover up their sex scandals. I listened to the audiobook, which is a hilarious experience because Farrow, a former voice actor, narrates. He puts on these cringe accents for different characters, but I love that he just goes for it. My fave is his cockney accent. I'd burst out laughing in the middle of serious moments.
Dear Girls by Ali Wong (AB)
I listened to the audiobook of comedian Ali Wong's Memoir, which is written as a collection of letters to her young daughters. Wong narrates, and as a professional voice actor, she does a great job conveying the various emotions. I'd find myself snorting with laughter then moved to tears. One of the better celebrity memoirs. Frankly, it made the other celebrity memoirs feel shallow in comparison.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (AB)
Interesting stories about how underdogs succeed against all odds, and those who turn disadvantages into advantages. Sometimes the author tried too hard to make the stories fit into his theme, but on the whole, there's a lot to gain from this book. My big takeaway is that it's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.
We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (AB)
I listened to my first Samantha Irby essay collection on audiobook, and I laughed out loud many times in public like a mad woman. The author's droll narration makes the experience even funnier. The first essay, "My Bachelorette Application," is legendary.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (AB)
Irby's newest collection of humorous essays. I didn't laugh out loud as much as with the previous book, but maybe it's because I got used to her humor and delivery. There are still some very funny stories here, and I will read every book she writes.
Blue Truth by David Deida
Right after I finished the library book, I went out and bought my own copy of Blue Truth. His core spiritual teaching in this book is to allow the self and the body to be open, and each chapter provides a different angle on how to do this.
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk
Slowly working my way through Rachel Cusk's body of work. She is a true intellectual with feminine sensitivity and warmth. Reading her makes me a better person. Some really beautiful, honest, wise, and sometimes sad passages on motherhood here.
Messages from the Masters by Brian L. Weiss, M.D.
Weiss is a psychiatrist who wrote the popular Many Lives, Many Masters, about his experiences working with a patient who remembered her past lives. In this book, he shares more testimonials from his past-life regression therapy work with clients and the lessons they learn about life, death, family, and the soul's journey.
Only Love is Real by Brian L. Weiss, M.D.
Weiss worked with two clients, Elizabeth and Pedro, who were strangers to each other and lived in different countries. Yet Weiss knew from both of their past-life regressions that they had been together in many lifetimes. He can't tell one about the other due to client confidentiality, and his subtle attempts to introduce one to the other fail. But the universe has a plan of its own. A real love story that sounds straight out of a movie.
Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith
I'm not ready for COVID entertainment, but I made an exception for Intimations because I wanted to see what Zadie's been up to during quarantine. These six short essays she wrote in the early months of the lockdown might be some of her best work yet. They're at once personal and abstract, moving and intellectual, so casually powerful. My fave has to be a couple of mini-chapters under "Screengrabs": "A Man with Strong Hands" and "Contempt as a Virus." Some of the ideas in her other essays appealed to me as a writer. In one, she argues that writing is just "something to do" the way baking banana bread is something to do. In another, she explains why writing is all resistance. A form of control. Great for the page, but terrible practice for real life. I can't disagree.
Make it Scream, Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison
The writing was competent, and her topics were interesting, but I felt like she was trying to work out her own personal issues through her subjects in many of these essays. I got this sense she really wanted to write about her own life but was hesitant to elaborate. When I read the essays later in the book where she did focus on her own life experiences, it made so much more sense. Yet, I still felt her hesitancy, maybe even shame and embarrassment, in opening up about herself. I think I picked up that hesitancy because I was reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle at the same time, who has no shame in sharing whatsoever.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle (AB)
This book was endorsed by every celebrity ever, and I wanted to see what the hype was about. I didn't expect to like it, thinking it was going to contain cheesy motivational messages, but I ended up really enjoying it. You win, Adele. Doyle talks a lot about intuition, although she calls it "knowing." I appreciated that she was an open book about her life, and she manages to find insightful spiritual lessons from banal everyday experiences. Many would find value in reading this book.
Two Unlikely People to Change the World by Karen Berg
Karen Berg passed away this year. She's such an inspiration to me, and I feel privileged to have met her several times in my life. Her memoir recounts her journey with husband Rav Berg as they went from teaching Kabbalah to a few people in their home to millions around the world. This book inspired me to write about my own spiritual journey so far.
Change: Realizing Your Greatest Potential by Ilchi Lee
Such a fascinating book that touches on many topics: spirituality, Tao philosophy, science, manifesting, and creating a sustainable future. I took my time reading this because I wanted to properly understand and absorb his teachings. His greatest message in this book is how to truly connect with ourselves to do what is right instead of what we are conditioned to want. His plan to reform this earth is also extremely enlightening. I hope we can succeed in making that happen.
The Complete Works of Florence Scovel Shinn
I've read plenty of law of attraction books by men, so it's pleasure to discover a woman writing on this subject. This edition covers the four books she released from 1925 to 1940. While many of the cultural references are dated and the quotes from the Bible might not be for everyone, her core content help improve abundance mentality.
ThetaHealing: Digging for Beliefs by Vianna Stibal
A new book by Vianna Stibal, the creator of the ThetaHealing technique. You might know that I am a certified ThetaHealer, and most of the teachings in this book are geared toward healers and those already familiar with Thetahealing. A lot of the teachings from the book I'd already learned from class, although Vianna included additional information and personal experiences to highlight certain lessons. One concept worth noting is that the subconscious can't always tell a negative belief from a positive one. If you command, for example, all negative beliefs to be released and healed, it would likely not be effective because the subconscious might actually consider some negative beliefs to be positive, so we have to be very specific with what we're commanding. A great reference book for healers.
I borrow books from the library most of the time and only purchase books if I know I'll reread them to keep my collection minimal. From the books I read this year, these are the ones I loved enough to buy:
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
- Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
- Severance by Ling Ma
- Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
- Blue Truth by David Deida
- A Life's Work by Rachel Cusk
- Intimations by Zadie Smith
- Two Unlikely People to Change the World by Karen Berg
- Change by Ilchi Lee
Read my other annual reading roundups.