Following my annual tradition – this is a quick round up of some of the best books I read in 2020. For previous roundups, see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and to see all books I read this year, see Goodreads. - I’ll be moving off Goodreads soon though!
This year, two major themes governed my reading habits. The first – the pandemic. In response to the pandemic, I went through a long phase of wanting to read only out-of-this-world fantasy, as a way of escaping lockdown and reality, followed by a time struggling to read at all. The second – pregnancy, and motherhood, as I was pregnant for nine months of the year, and now have a three month old baby (!). I didn’t read much by way of parenting books, but I have been interested in memoirs and fiction exploring themes of parenthood, motherhood and creativity as a way of helping myself make sense of this new role and identity I find myself with. In between those, little bits and bobs popped up, as I’ll describe below – some to do with technology and society themes, others that followed a loose theme that I set myself at the end of 2019, which was to read more books that were published prior to 2015.
This year, I read 56 books – slightly more than I have in recent years, and probably because I spent a large portion of the year with large chunks of time where I’d normally be travelling, seeing friends, or doing something other than sitting in my apartment.
- 37 were by people of colour (66%)
- 30 were published before 2015 (53%)
- 53 were by women or non-binary authors (95%) – this surprised me, as I wasn’t explicitly trying to read books by women, just going with what came up as interesting in my networks.
Focus: books published earlier than 2015
I like having a loose focus to guide my reading – in past years, I’ve tried to read more books in translation, books with cultural roots outside the US and Europe, books by women, and books by people of colour. Having those guidelines helps me in those moments of wondering what to read next. This year, I went back to read debuts or earlier novels of some authors whose work I really love, like N.K. Jemisin’s first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It wasn’t my favourite of hers, but I enjoyed reading her biography at the end of the novel, where it was noted that her day job was as a counselling psychologist. Little did she know then that only ten years later, she’d be winning the MacArthur Genius grant for her incredible writing!
Along similar lines, noting that The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste was popping up on lots of ‘must read’ lists – I picked up an earlier book of hers, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, an epic and at times brutal tale following one family during and following the 1974 revolution and civil war in Ethiopia. It is beautifully written, which makes the brutality both at times easier to read (because I needed to know what happens to these characters that I grew to know so closely) – and harder (because I grew so fond of many of those characters.)
At times it was a little hard not to just pick up the latest book that everyone was talking about, so I was pretty gentle with this focus (e.g. I let myself pick up Yaa Gyasi’s latest, Transcendent Kingdom, and I am so glad I did – it was one of my favourites all year) – but I also stumbled across some fantastic books that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, like The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1979, or Granada by Radwa Ashour, first published in 1994. Emecheta’s writing was stunning, and I am a little embarrassed I hadn’t read anything by her before.
During the pandemic, I went through various waves of being able to concentrate on reading. First, all I wanted to do was escape the current reality – so I dived into out-of-this-world fantasy. Then, I struggled to concentrate on anything, and followed the sage advice of a friend, who suggested trying some books that are particularly easy to read.
One such genre is perhaps the book version of what many people (including myself) did this year of re-watching old series in order to provide some predictability and a distinct lack of unexpected plot twists (which 2020 brought enough of IRL) – that is, reading different cultural adaptions of well known classics. Much to my surprise, there are a lot of these out there, even just taking adaptations of one specific novel, Pride & Prejudice. I zoomed my way through a couple of these, like Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal, a modern-day adaptation of Pride & Prejudice set in Pakistan, or Ayesha at Last, a ‘modern day Muslim’ Pride & Prejudice, by Uzma Jalaluddin. These were both easy reads, familiar yet a little new, and honestly just what I needed to get out of my reading rut.
The fantasy trilogy that I (and so many of my friends!) got deep into was the Daevabad trilogy, by S.A. Chakraborty. Contrary to too much science fiction or fantasy that I’ve read before, the cultural references throughout the trilogy are rooted in the Middle East or from Islam, which was refreshing. The world-building was complex, but once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down – I picked up the second book as soon as finishing the first, and was relieved to see the third come out in June this year, which did not disappoint.
Looking for more that was just as un-put-downable as the Daevabad trilogy, I tried a couple of fantasy trilogies others with similar themes (non-Western, fantasy) like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and Tasha Suri’s Books of Ambha – but neither of them, nor the sequels, were quite as gripping for me. One Young Adult book that I picked up and very much enjoyed was Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, a tale of a white hat hacker based in a country where women’s rights are severely curtailed.
Earlier this year, there was also a rise in anti-racist literature, alongside the resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement in many countries. I didn’t feel like reading books which explain racism, mostly because I see and feel racism and white supremacy everywhere, and reading more examples of the terrible impacts of both of these didn’t feel helpful to me personally. Instead, I continued educating myself on anti-blackness - a huge and continuing problem among South Asian communities in particular - via essay collections like Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, and re-reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Along similar lines of educating myself, as trans rights have come increasingly under threat in the UK from within the ‘feminist’ movement, I also read and enjoyed Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows, by Christine Burns. It’s a comprehensive overview of the journey the trans community has had in the UK, and I learned a lot from it.
Motherhood and pregnancy
I read only one proper ‘pregnancy’ book – Emily Oster’s ‘Expecting Better’, which took an economics approach to the many decisions and advice that one needs to make while pregnant. Instead of blanket recommendations, Oster reviews the latest evidence and scientific studies available, and sets out what one needs to know in order to make an informed decision that suits each person’s values and needs. It was perfect for what I was looking for, and helped me feel far better informed than medical recommendations telling me to do or not do certain things which, as I discovered, differ greatly from country to country anyway.
An excellent book that I read was The Second Shift, by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. She’s the person who developed the concept of ‘emotional labour’ and the author of ‘Strangers in Their Own Land’, a book which really helped me make better sense of the United States when I was there just after the 2016 election. In The Second Shift, she focuses on labour division within heterosexual relationships in the US after having children, and dives into the ins and outs of a few specific relationships in detail, providing both of the partners’ perspectives, the people they outsource that labour to when relevant, and her own analysis – all making for a truly thought-provoking combination. Though the findings are very much based on a society without laws and support for families and parents (ie. the US), it was a fascinating read and great combination of solid research with compelling storytelling.
I also enjoyed a couple of memoirs I found about issues around pregnancy and motherhood. Elif Shafak’s Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within, was one of these – a book about her own quandary of whether or not to have a child, then about her post-partum depression, and how she struggled with writing during those first few, new months. She writes of many other writers who balanced motherhood and writing in so many different ways – from Toni Morrison’s waking up at 4am every morning to write before her children woke up, and her view of motherhood as “the most liberating thing that ever happened”, to Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was a diarist and edited Tolstoy’s manuscripts – and ended up having thirteen children, drastically reducing the time had available for her own writing. I appreciated Shafak’s broad review of all sorts of experiences on this front, without any explicit bias towards painting a portrait of motherhood as one superlative or another.
Another such memoir was The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, which along with Shafak’s book, helped emphasise for me how motherhood and creativity can be mutually reinforcing and give rise to new paths of writing and work, rather than taking away from each other. Nelson combines her own personal experience with a more theoretical discussion of identity, sexuality and love, and what it means to make a family.
In my first few weeks postpartum, I read ‘Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Editor), China Martens (Editor), Mai’a Williams (Editor)’ – a collection of stories, essays and poems from women of colour and marginalised people from the US about mothering, and I’m so glad I did. It reminded me that care and nurture are among the most important roles we can play, and are – or can be – truly transformational.
My top few
From everything I read this year, in no particular order, my favourites were:
- Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, by Audre Lorde
- The Second Shift, by Arlie Hochschild
- In the Dream House: A Memoir, by Carmen Maria Machado
- The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, by Alondra Nelson
- H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
- Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, by Simone Browne
- The Daevabad Trilogy, by S.A. Chakraborty
- Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi
- Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak
- The Joys of Motherhood, by Buchi Emecheta
- Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
- Small Island, by Andrea Levy