Books I Read in 2020 (for pleasure)

December 23, 2020


Literature, I believe, is such an integral part of the human experience. Reading reveals the power of the imagination and the ability of words to hold meaning and carry compassion. Especially during times of struggle and hardship, which the world is no doubt experiencing now and has been for the past several months, reading can be a magical escape from reality and immersion into a different world.


As I have done for the past two years at the end of December, I am sharing all of the books I read throughout the year of 2020 for pleasure, including a couple of novels I have read as a part of several reading groups within my school but excluding those that were part of traditional, academic English classes. While I did read many books this year, especially during quarantine, I am hoping to read even more in the upcoming year, and I would love to hear any of your recommendations in the comments.


1. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I first learned of Adichie in my ninth grade English class when we watched her Ted Talk entitled The Danger of a Single Story. Her speech was informative, enlightening, and inspiring, and I have wanted to read at least one of her novels ever since. In March, I read Half of a Yellow Sun, a historical fiction novel about the Biafran War in Nigeria. I loved the book, and hope to read her essay entitled We Should All Be Feminists and her novel Americanah in the future. 


2. The Plum Tree, Ellen Marie Wiseman


I have always been fascinated by World War II and thus many of the books I have most enjoyed are historical fiction novels set during that time. The Plum Tree is a historical fiction book that follows a young German woman under Hitler's regime and her friend Isaac, the son of a wealthy Jewish family.


3. Cilka’s Journey, Heather Morris


This is the sequel to one of my all-time favorite novels, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The novel follows Cilka, a character seen in the former novel. Having been charged as a collaborator after Auschwitz was liberated for sleeping with the enemy, Cilka is sent to a Siberian prison camp, where the story is set. 


4. The Alice Network, Kate Quinn


The Alice Network weaves together two tales. Charlie St. Clair, an American student, travels to Europe in 1947 to find her cousin Rose who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France. There, she meets Eve Gardiner, a former member of the spy network that worked to fight against the Germans in the first World War.


5. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford


This is another novel related to the second World War. Unlike the previous, though, this book is set in America. Ford links together two narratives, that of the protagonist Henry Lee as a child in the 1940s and Henry as a widower and father of a college-aged son forty years later. The novel is centered on the Japanese internment camps established during World War II, a terrible part of United States' history that is too often forgotten about.


6. The Color Purple, Alice Walker


The Color Purple, set in early twentieth-century Georgia, follows the lives of African American women. Exploring themes of sexuality, race, and womanhood, The Color Purple is a story of resilience, of struggle, and of love.


7. We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia Hunter


8. The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah


9. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein


The three books above are all historical fiction novels set during World War II. I thoroughly enjoyed them all, but the first two were my favorites of the three. 


10. The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd


Another historical fiction novel, The Invention of Wings is a multi-narrative novel set in the pre Civil War era. It follows the story of Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a young slave of the Grimke household in Charleston, and the youngest Grimke daughter Sarah. I really enjoyed the novel, and if you are looking for another book by Sue Monk Kidd to read, The Secret Life of Bees is wonderful, too.


11. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky 


I have always loved reading classics, but it had been a while since I read one outside of an academic classroom setting. Eager to read a classic and at the recommendation of my mom who ensured me I would enjoy it, I read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. While it was no easy read, I really enjoyed reading this novel. As a psychological thriller, it is imbued with suspense and horror, yet also weaves in a mix of humor and tragedy that adds a distinct complexity to a traditional crime novel. 


12. Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen


Girl, Interrupted is a memoir by Susanna Kaysen about her experience being admitted to an American psychiatric hospital in the 1960s at at eighteen years old after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. As an eighteen year old myself, it was very interesting to read about Kaysen's experiences in the hospital. She crafted the book in a way that truly allowed the reader to form a connection with herself and the other patients, and she used powerful metaphors and language to describe topics of mental health that encouraged her audience to think about particular issues in new ways. Expanding beyond her own personal experiences, she also touched upon the history of sexism in psychological treatment, an aspect of the memoir I found particularly interesting.


13. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson


Speak is a young adult novel that deals with the issues of sexual assault and mental health, and is especially impactful in the wake of the #MeToo movement It was quite short in length but also easy and engaging, allowing me to start in finish it in just one day. The author powerfully addressed the issue of sexual assault and the importance of speaking up while also crafting an interesting and enjoyable story that allowed the reader to get to know the protagonist in a meaningful way.


14. The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George


From Currently: A Grim Resurgence & Recent Reads

The Little Paris Bookshop was a nice, easy read. It was sent to me as a part of the book exchange, and while it was not very plot-heavy, it was still very enjoyable. Centered in Paris and then moving steadily through regions of southern France, this novel incited my already severe wanderlust and love of Europe.  


15. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys 


From Currently: A Grim Resurgence & Recent Reads

I was also sent this book as a part of the exchange, and I absolutely loved it. If you have seen some of my reading lists, you may know that I have an obsession with reading World War II related novels, and while I enjoy nonfiction, I especially love historical fiction books. Between Shades of Grey is about a young girl who, along with her family, was forced to leave her home in Lithuania and work in a labor camp in Siberia. Most of the novels I read are centered on Hitler's genocide or the war from the perspective of residents of western Europe, and so it was very interesting to read a novel that was focused on Stalin's occupation of the nations surrounding Russia during the war.


16. Want, Lynn Steger Strong


Want by Lynn Steger Strong follows a young mother living in New York City as she struggles to balance being a mother of two young girls with bouts of anxiety and the threat of bankruptcy. The characters are authentic, relatable, and multifaceted, and though the plot is relatively slow, I feel it adds greater complexity to the setting of the story and dimension to its characters.


17. Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi


Every year, my school hosts a Summer Reading Contest, and the contest involved reading a book sponsored by a faculty member. I chose to read Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book chosen by a teacher I am very close to. As a lover of both historical fiction and nonfiction, I picked this novel because I wished to learn more about life under the Islamic Republican of Iran. Focused on Nafisi's secret book club comprised of seven female students reading forbidden Western literature, Reading Lolita in Tehran explores the power of literature and paints a portrait of the lives of women in revolutionary Iran.


18. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez


How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was actually an option for a required reading book for my English course this year, however due to a change in schedule, the course teachers decided not to require it after all. I read it anyways, as I have always really enjoyed reading the books that are a part of my school curriculum, and this was no exception. The fictional story is focused on the lives of four daughters who moved from their home in the Dominican Republic to New York City in the 1960s.


19. All the Acorns on the Forest Floor, Kim Hooper 


This novel, which I actually won from entering a giveaway sponsored by Goodreads, is a multi-narrative novel that weaves together an array of stories all centered around the theme of motherhood, family, and relationships. 


20. Beloved, Toni Morrison


I ordered Beloved off of Amazon toward the end of the summer and read it while participating in a course called Write Your Novel to serve as a source of inspiration in my own writing process. Beloved is such an incredible book. Centered on a Black woman named Sethe in the pre and post Civil War era, Morrison exposes the tragedies of slavery. Morrison's writing is raw and poetic, and her style of writing significantly influenced the way in which I described and conveyed expressions of emotion in my own novel.


21. Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson


From Currently: In-Person Learning, A Dark Winter, Red at the Bone

Red at the Bone will go down as one of my favorites. Woodson beautifully weaves together the past and present as she explores the relationship between two Black families whose lives become linked when their teenage daughter and son give birth to a baby girl, Melody. She delves into themes of race and class, of desire and motherhood, of identity and self-worth. Red at the Bone is one of those rare reads imbues you with a deep feeling of fullness and compassionate connection to each of the characters. For more informationcheck out this review by NPR.


22. Heroine, Mindy McGinnis


From Recent Reads & A Course on the Heroin Epidemic: Initial Thoughts & More

Heroine, by Mindy McGinnis, is centered on a high school softball player who, after severely injuring her leg in a terrible car accident, is given OxyContin to relieve her pain. She soon comes to like the pills for more than their pain-relieving qualities, though, and as her want for them increases, her addiction starts to consume her life. It is real and raw, and for those reasons is all the more frightening and heartbreaking. For anyone interested in learning more about this issue, I would highly recommend this book as an introductory novel. Though it is fiction and is classified as a young adult novel, it gives a very comprehensive introduction to the opioid problem and highlights how it affects everyone, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.


23. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates


From Recent Reads

As a part of a Summer Reading Committee at my school, I as well as the other members of the groupboth student and faculty—were given three books from a long list we narrowed down at the end of the summertime to read and discuss throughout the end of the fall and winter term. The first book I read was Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. To quote Toni Morrison, who is referenced on the cover of this novel, Between the World and Me is "required reading." The book is formatted as a letter to the author's teenage son and explores what it means to grow up as a Black person in the United States. Especially given the terrible racial injustices that occurred over the past summer and exposed the deep-rooted, systemic racism in America, this novel is all the more essential for people to read, particularly those individuals who identify as White. Aside from the insights I gained from Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, I was also awed by his beautiful writing style and the way he captured and expressed his internal thoughts and emotions. The fact that it was formatted as a letter to his son made his words even more impactful.


24. Body Talk, Kelly Jensen


From Recent Reads

Another novel that I read as a part of my membership in the Summer Reading Committee is Body Talk. As the cover of the book states, Body Talk, edited by Kelly Jensen, is comprised of thirty-seven voices mostly in the form of three to six paged personal narratives, but also includes illustrations, interviews, and FAQs. Ranging from topics of scoliosis, dwarfism, and other physical disabilities to cancer, eating disorders, and gender and sexuality, the book offers a very wide range of perspectives and seeks to explore how the bodies we live in affect how we moves and view the world and also strives to promote healthy and loving relationships with ourselves and our bodies. Often, these issues are viewed as taboo and there is very limited open discussion, and I appreciated how the authors wrote with such honesty and raw reflection.  The level of intimacy laced in each response allowed me as the reader to better understand the topics being discussed in a more meaningful manner.


25. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafa


From Recent Reads

I am also a part of a reading group at my school called The Fifteen, a band of fifteen literature lovers in the senior class who gather together throughout the year to discuss novels. The first book we will be discussing is The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. The story focuses on salesman Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a huge, grotesque insect. The novella was published in 1915, and is said to have served as a source of inspiration for dystopian writers George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. As a novella, it of course was very short, and I finished it a couple of days. Over the summer, I read Death of a Salesman, a play by Arthur Miller, and it was so interesting to read the afterwords from the translator and her comparison of the protagonists, since both are salesmen. Also, she discussed the challenges she faced in translating from German to English and analyzed how specific language the other used suggested certain subtleties in the story. 


26. Dreamland, by Sam Quinones


More in Currently: Surging COVID, Art, & Opioid Book

Dreamland delves deep into the history of the opioid crisis, analyzing the revolution in the perception of pain, the prescribing of opiate painkillers, and the role of Purdue Pharma in the epidemic. He weaves together various perspectives, including recovering addicts, doctors, and medical experts, and Mexican dealers to reveal how extensive and complex the crisis is. He also ties in the idea of the American Dream, exploring how it has changed in the past decades and how that shift - with a new focus on consumerism and materialism - has affected the epidemic. At times, Quinone’s acute attention to detail and deep explorations into the history of the use of opiates as painkillers can sometimes leave the reader feeling lost in the complexity of it all. To balance the more factual information and historical aspects, though, the author incorporates narrative to help the book read as both informative and as a story.

2 comments

  1. You read lots of books, well done! I didn't read as much as I wanted to this year, but I did manage to read some books I really enjoyed. The most recent one is A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, historical fiction which I love! :) x

    Julia x
    Last Post: The Best Festive Displays in Paris This Winter!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! As a historical fiction lover too, I will definitely check out A Column of Fire!

    ReplyDelete