This year I read 34 books. I was hoping for more (like, closer to 50), but over the summer I traded my reading time for an abundance of quarantine running and biking and got in the best shape of my 40s. I also wrote a couple books this year. So maybe 34 books in the bag ain’t too shabby after all.
Overall, there were some real doozies and a couple garbage bombs. The scattering of genres and my personal/emotional state during each read makes it tough to rank the assortment. So I’ll simply name each book below and offer a brief comment.
My list of books is in the order I read them. If you choose to buy any of the titles, please eschew the convenient tendency to shop on Amazon or any other massive bookseller. They all suck. Order from your local independent bookseller or straight from the publisher. Art matters – let’s keep its makers in business!
OK, here goes:
- Train Dreams by Denis Johnson: This was a great quick read to get the creative ball rolling in the midst of my relocation to Spokane, WA. It’s local references added to its allure.
- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez: A dense and wonderful assortment of environmental essays. I learned that polar bears will often throw tantrums after a failed hunt. I dreamed of finding a narwhal horn on a rocky northern beach.
- Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Garth’s prose is always terrific and stunning with tight language and brilliant imagery. Coincidentally saw him read at Powell’s in Portland when I was half-way through the book.
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Loved this little book about a woman who worked most of her life in a small Japanese shop. Dark and illuminating at the same time.
- Dear Martin by Nic Stone: Novel about a young Black boy who writes letters to Martin Luther King Jr. as his life experiences teach him about race in America. Categorized as young adult, but a good read for all ages.
- Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: A stellar collection of dreamy and weird metaphor-rich stories that served to comment on contemporary society. Definitely in my top 3.
- Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz: Gorgeous poetry. Imagery of water, sex, the body, violence. I read this to write a review for a literary PR firm and wrote this in the margin, “This book will win awards.” Stunning.
- There There by Tommy Orange: Story of the myriad people involved in a shooting at an Oakland powwow. The form and design of the work was powerful. One of the best of the year, for sure.
- Worming of America by Autumn Leaf: Another book I read to review. My goal is to always find something I love about books I critique – with this one it was my biggest challenge yet. The artwork within, however, was terrifying and spectacular.
- Silence in the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge: Maybe my #1 of the year. Loved the bit about the author comparing the sound of his vacuum to whales heard off the South Pole. After my read, I emailed the author asking him for a job (he didn’t respond).
- Learn to Swim by Joseph Edwin Haeger: Chunks of lovely narrative braiding multiple stories to tell the tale of the author’s relationship with his best friend who died too young. Spokane-local author. A beautiful story.
- Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim: A compilation of Black female writers exploring their influences. Helped me build my list of books written by People of Color.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Definitely top 3 also. Historical storytelling at its best. Follows the lineage of two sisters from the beginning of the African slave trade to the current era. Couldn’t put it down.
- The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: Amazing and strange narrative about an auctioneer who makes up stories to sell things (teeth) for more money. The author’s afterward made me love the book even more.
- Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: Everything Solnit writes is worth studying. Deep thoughts and gorgeous prose filled with interesting anecdotes that provokes and thrills.
- M Train by Patti Smith: Her work always makes me want to sell my shit and get on with my life (and write a lot more than I already do). This was the perfect companion to a couple weeks when I revised some heavy moments in my own manuscript.
- The Seven Madmen by Roberty Arly: Recommended by a friend who loved it, which means I expected to also love it, but I absolutely didn’t. The work, in my opinion, tried to make itself way more profound than it is. Blah.
- What is it All But Luminous by Art Garfunkel: When I learned Garfunkel (of the famed singing group Simon & Garfunkel) walked across America, I sought out his written work. But this is trash. Self-aggrandizing and misogynistic.
- Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez: Lopez never fails to move me with his essays. “The Presentation of Whales” made me burst out in tears. I feel like if I only ever read his work, I’ll be alright. Love this writer.
- The Raven’s Gift by Don Reardon: Perfect timing to read a fictional account of a disastrous global pandemic (written in 2010). Set in Northern Alaska where resources and companionship are always scarce. Couldn’t put it down.
- Bling by Erica Kennedy: Heard about this from Well-Read Black Girl. It’s 500+ pages were a little daunting, but the story was like watching a captivating TV series. Loved how the author used real celebrities in her fictional narrative.
- Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: I expected this novel to dive more into the American relationship of race (and it sort of does), but mostly it tells a fantastic story about an ex-slave who travels the world. A fun book I devoured in a couple days.
- The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever: A fun collection of stories that all stand alone yet together tell a larger narrative. It’s fun to read books that deliver a burst of an era’s (or place’s) language patterns and tendencies.
- Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: The title is magic. The cover art is too. Main character is a 75 year old woman. I loved how the author drew out her sensuality without letting her age dampen it. Wonderful.
- How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang: One of Barak Obama’s favorite reads of 2020 and one of mine, too. The music in the author’s prose is like reading a (good) song. Story of a young Chinese woman in early America. A delight.
- Hunger Moon by Traci Skuce: So proud to be friends with this super-talented writer of short stories! Her unique style of deep character building and increasing conflict had me smitten. Every piece could have been a chapter 1.
- Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior: If you were surprised that Trump was elected in 2016, read this book to learn about the political and personal machinations that had been setting the stage for the past 40 years. Fucking terrifying.
- The Beauty in Breaking by Michelle Harper: Learned of this book through @blackgirlthatreads on Instagram (check her out). A Black ER doc’s memoir of professional hardship and self-acceptance.
- Arsenal / Sin Documentos by Francesco Levato: Another read to write a review. Redacted/omission poetry that uses national publications to ascertain their embedded meanings. A profound insight into what it means to be an immigrant.
- Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: Powerful accompaniment to Sarah Kendzior’s book (above). An accurate and disturbing foray into what it means to be a American today.
- Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez: Not my favorite book by Lopez, but captivating nonetheless. A little too textbooky for me. Fascinated by the erroneous global lore/data around wolves and their universal associations with evil.
- Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey: Powerful memoir about the author’s murdered mom – but it’s WAY more than just that. So much is said in the space between the lines, in the margins, in the book’s inhalations. A prayer.
- The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: A novel about a trans woman’s coming of age (and eventual death) in Nigeria. Lovely storytelling and character development. Perfect use of the local language without translation. Loved it.
- Desert Notes by Barry Lopez: Lopez passed away at age 75 on 12/25/20, so I closed out the year meditating on this quick read. Walked a 5-mile loop around town on my 1-year anniversary while reading this devotional. RIP