Books are always a fixture in my life, but with the pandemic I leaned on them in 2020 even more than ever before.
For my final column of the year, I put together a list of the best books of all genres I read this year, in no particular order. Some new, some old and others somewhere in between. A few of these books I’ve already told you about, but the rest are waiting for me to write a column about them in 2021. If you’d like to share your favorite books of the year, feel free to send me an email and I will add them to my ever growing reading list.
You might also notice several are about sexual assault. These books were recommended to me by my former colleague Oliva Heersink following my column about Fredrik Backman’s novel “Beartown” over the summer. I learned a lot from them and my discussions with her afterward.
Thank you for reading along with me this year. I have enjoyed this side project immensely and I hope to keep it going as long as you all don’t chase me out of the pages of the Community section. Happy holidays and I wish everyone a more peaceful new year than the one we’re about to leave.
Margaret’s Top 2020 Reads
“Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward
This is not a light-hearted read by any means, but Ward’s memoir is a powerful look at the death of five black men in her life. She investigates the myriad of systems and chance leading to their deaths, the depths of her own grief and that of her complex community. But on top of the sadness, Ward brings touches of beauty and love that make you understand why people choose to stay in rural poor Mississippi towns like hers. It’s a classic.
“Refresh, Refresh: Stories” by Benjamin Percy
Anyone who is a fan of short fiction, or even newcomers to the genre, should absolutely pick up this dark and affecting collection set in Central Oregon. In these stories, Percy examines fathers, sons, friends, wives and children touched by the seemingly endless Iraq War, and what it looks like from rural, poor America. Percy explores couples contending with their marriages, the horrendous grief from losing a loved one suddenly, broken hearts and even simply getting old. The emotional range here is amazing.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
I know, I know. This book is on everybody’s list, but I couldn’t help but include it here. In her debut, Owens managed to create a stellar combination of gorgeous nature writing with a gripping story of a murder trial. And at the center, is Kya, a woman who grew up alone in the swamps of North Carolina for years and fell in love with the natural world around her.
“Lucky” by Alice Sebold
Memoirs from rape survivors and accounts have become more popular in recent years due to the #MeToo movement, but when it was published in 1999 I bet “Lucky” was ahead of its time. With this short, but powerful memoir, Alice Sebold recounts her brutal beating and sexual assault in a park at the tail end of her freshman year of college at Syracuse University, the trial and the roller coaster of emotions that came with with it. This book kicked off a strong contemporary tradition of women telling their own story of their pain and I’m glad I read it.
“Know My Name” by Chanel Miller
In this book, Miller names herself as the woman attacked by Brock Turner in a viral court case after years of anonymity and shares her experience with the assault from waking up in the hospital with no memory of the event all the way through to the sentencing and beyond. Her story is important, but her writing is the true stunner here. She also delves into the double standard applied to her partying and Turner’s, what it felt like to be crucified in the media and her casual experiences with sexual harassment in the world.
“A False Report: A True Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
I said this before, but it remains true. This is a terrifying book. This slim volume is the expanded version of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” from ProPublica and The Marshall Project about a teenage girl who was raped in a Seattle suburb and was charged with falsely reporting the attack. But it turned out, the brutal attack she described really happened and she was one of many victims. True crime fans, this is for you.
“Educated” by Tara Westover
If you’re an Idaho reader, you probably know this book. I was late to it, and if you are, too, then you should fix that immediately. Westover’s story about growing up homeschooled in a fundamentalist Mormon family where doctors were evil, a government takeover was imminent and her journey out and on to a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. Her harrowing childhood is fascinating to read, but the brilliance comes in the second half where she wrestles with her family and her newfound place in the world of higher education.
“Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty
This is the conclusion of my favorite fantasy series I’ve read in years. “Empire of Gold” concludes the stunning Daevabad trilogy, a fantasy adventure set in the Middle East during the 1800s. It’s a politically nuanced story filled with complex characters, warring factions, magical creatures, gorgeous writing and a well-thought out arc for all of its characters. I absolutely adore this series and will buy anything Chakraborty puts out.
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
Bennett’s second novel deserves its place on many “best of” lists for 2020. In this beautiful story, she follows twin sisters who follow different paths, one passing as white and the other living as a black woman during the 1960s. What starts as a relatively simple story exploring colorism ends up being an engrossing story with a wide range of characters trying to reconcile with their past selves. There are so many layers of character here and it was a wonderful surprise.
“Notes on a Silencing” by Lacy Crawford
There isn’t much hope in this memoir about Crawford’s experience with sexual assault at the elite St. Paul’s School in the 1990s, but it’s necessary. Crawford simultaneously talks about the importance of sharing your story and shedding shame, but she also crushes the reader with the realization that the powerful school and its alumni would stop at nothing to keep her quiet. They did it in 1990, and did it again in 2018 when another victim came forward. It’s a horror story, and there is nothing to feel good about here, but we shouldn’t look away.
“After I Do” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In this story, Lauren and Ryan have been together since they were 19, but 11 years since they met all they do is fight, so they decide to take a year-long break from each other to figure out if they want to stay married. It’s a relatively simple concept, but Jenkins Reid captured these characters and the nuances of how hard relationships can be with a practiced ease. This one got me in unexpected ways.
“Columbine” by Dave Cullen
Here’s another one for the true crime buffs. “Columbine” is a meticulous dissection of one of the nation’s highest profile school shootings, both the events leading up to the disaster and its aftermath. Cullen also deeply investigates how the media covered the event and debunked many widespread conspiracy theories that still persist today.
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkinson
This is an incredible, paradigm-shifting work investigating the depths of American racial hierarchy in all of its ever shifting and carefully constructed ways. Using reams of research ranging from multiple disciplines, Isabel Wilkerson argues America wasn’t built out of systemic racism, but instead rests on a foundation of a caste system. At first, this idea may seem far-fetched to many readers, but as she lays out comparisons to India and to Nazi Germany and develops her definition of caste, it cannot be more clear.
“The Seven and ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton
This is a mind-bending murder mystery you won’t soon forget. I won’t give away too much of this wild plot, but Stuart Turton managed to mash an Agatha Christie style “locked room” mystery with “Groundhog Day” to create a story that keeps shifting with every page. It’s meticulously planned and it comes with an ending you won’t soon guess.
“Memorial” by Bryan Washington
“Memorial” finds longtime boyfriends Benson and Mike struggling with their relationship. They’re not talking anymore and loving moments are hard to find, but they haven’t come to terms with the end yet. What follows is a heartbreaking story of two men struggling with how to end a beloved relationship that doesn’t feel “right” anymore, and reckoning with the distance their sexuality put between them and their families. Washington is a brilliant new talent who brings his hometown of Houston to life with startling detail.