During this year of our plague, two thousand and twenty, I spent roughly a third of my waking hours working as a scholarly editor (thank goddess I am still employed), a third sprucing up the 1919 bungalow with overgrown yard I purchased in October 2019, and a third escaping within the pages of books. Losing myself in other people’s stories and reading about faraway worlds and experiences from the safety and comfort of my heavenly front porch was my best remedy for coping with the isolation and emptiness of the year. Reading books has been a balm on my anxious bones; and audio books, too, helped fill the vast silences of my days and nights. Books have been great friends, keeping me company and joining in the chorus of my voice echoing off lonely walls.
I read fifty-five books this terrible year, nearly double the leisurely reading I might have done if the pandemic had not isolated me from friends and family and travel. My reading journey this year began on New Years’ Day with The Giver of Stars and concluded December 28 with Girl, Woman, Other. In my reading this year, I escaped to rural Kentucky, London, Australia, the Holy Land, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the American Northwest. I read novels, memoirs, collections of poetry, history, and one work of philosophy. I enjoyed books about nature, coming of age stories, and nineteen works of historical fiction, my favorite pleasure-reading genre. I solved mysteries, walked the streets of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, shivered in Alaska winter, traveled back to 1950s India, learned about the brain and personality of the American crow, and raged at the injustice that is bound up tight in the DNA of American democracy.
I smiled. I frowned. I laughed. I wept. I pondered. I learned. Books are so magical in their power to influence our emotions and challenge our brains.
As a historian, I read history books and articles and bend over historic documents during my work days, and pleasure reading provides an important counterweight to all of the scholarly reading I do. However, pleasure reading this year took on a more important purpose. I felt a pressing need to escape the political and biological chaos of the world around me and to fill the silences of socially distanced family and friends. In that context, I read far more light-hearted books than I have allowed myself the luxury of reading in decades, and I embraced the soothing joy of audio books to cope with a new and unwelcome brand of quiet. Books helped me cope with that quiet, and although I am happy to bid farewell to 2020 and will not remember it fondly, it has been an epic year of reading.
And for all the books I read—the great, the good, and the meh—I am grateful. They remind me that stories are at the heart of every human experience. That stories nurture and guide us, teach us, remind us of the past, get us through our days, and inspire us to face the future. Stories reveal the breathtaking diversity of life experiences, but they also remind us of our shared humanity. Stories help us understand the world and ourselves.
In no other time in my life do I think that books have been so important, so loved, so appreciated, so damned necessary. This is my humble ode to my 2020 reading list, filled up with books that nurtured and inspired me, kept me sane, and carried me through the long, lonely year. It is also a kind of portrait of my life this past year, a record of my travels, a log of the characters I met along the way, and the stories I heard from the comfort and safety of home.
Alphabetical Annotated Reading List for 2020 (Each includes my love rating)
♥ Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one star.
♥♥ Pretty good story, writing meh.
♥♥♥ Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.
♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something and/or took me away and I was happy to go.
♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.
Bauermeister, Erica, The Scent Keeper (2019), fiction. This story about a family who smells memories is mystical (and odd) and mildly interesting. ♥♥
Burton, Jesse, The Miniaturist (2014), historical fiction. I likely would not have picked up this book in a typical reading year, but listening to it on audio was quite agreeable. I think my daughter Mack was right when she said: “Everything sounds good in a British accent.” ♥♥♥
Cameron, Claire, The Last Neanderthal (2017), historical fiction. Meh. I really don’t remember why I even finished it. Good idea, poor execution, and I don’t recommend it. ♥
Chevalier, Tracy, A Single Thread (2019), historical fiction. A sweet story about a single woman in the decade after WWI, when a generation of women in England was adjusting to a heartbreaking dearth of young men. ♥♥♥
—Girl with Pearl Earring (1999), historical fiction. After reading A Single Thread , I remembered how much I loved this older book I had read many years ago. This time around, I listened to the audio book. Chevalier is a great writer of the genre. If you’re new to her, start with this one or At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), which is my favorite. ♥♥♥
Coehlo, Paulo, The Archer (2017), fiction. As a rule, I don’t read much nonfiction by men, frankly because so few of them write well-formed, realistic female characters. So why would I bother with the Brazilian Coehlo, you ask? I loved The Alchemist, and so decided to try this novella, a fable like that older book. Bad idea. Definitely my worst reading decision of the year, and I only finished it out of respect for the renown of the author and because it was mercifully short. ♥
Diamonte, Anita, The Boston Girl (2015), historical fiction. This book is a good story about an immigrant girl in the tenements of Boston. I listened to it on audio, read by the actress Linda Lavin, who elevated the story. She was a brilliant narrator. One of these stars is all hers. ♥♥♥
Diaz, Joanne, My Favorite Tyrants (2014), poetry. Witty and deep, this Illinois poet is incredible. So good. She teaches at Illinois Wesleyan, and I saw her do a reading from this book in January before the pandemic cancelled 2020. Not all of the poems are great, but a few of them are sensational. ♥♥♥
Doyle, Glennon, Untamed (2020), nonfiction. Doyle is a social media darling who offers some valuable nuggets in this book. I appreciate Doyle’s voice, and I follow her on Instagram. She is smart and observant as fuck. But, I must say, the book was a tad underwhelming, and a bit overhyped. ♥♥
Erdich, Louise, Future Home of the Living God (2017), fiction. Two stars because Erdich is a great writer, and there is some great writing on the pages of this book. However, this futuristic story did not capture my imagination. ♥♥
Ervick, Kelcey Parker, The Bitter Life of Božena Nȇmcoá: A Biographical Collage (2016), nonfiction. Part history, part memoir; has words and images. This book is so weird, impossible to categorize, and so wonderful because it is brilliantly off kilter. ♥♥♥♥
—Lilian’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (2013), fiction. Ervick is a creative storyteller. I met her at a writer’s fair and workshop at Eastern Illinois University early in 2020, before we knew there was a virus lurking. She views writing as more than words in ink on a white page, preferring to tell stories with images and space as well as words. Function and form commune with the voices of her characters, and she likes to blur the lines of genre. I love her work, and she’s a fun follow on Instagram, because she draws memoir almost daily (that’s a bad description of her work, but check her out, she’s great). ♥♥♥
Evaristo, Bernadine, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other is a triumph of writing, of the powerful voice of female characters who know who they are, and of storytelling across race and gender. The diversity of voices in this creative work scream from the mountaintops that their stories matter. That all of our stories matter. ♥♥♥♥♥
Gregory, Philippa, Three Sisters, Three Queens (2017), historical fiction. Written by a popular British writer of historical fiction, this book is about Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh, the intrigues of British royalty during the Middle Ages. And, yikes, the human drama of medieval life in general. ♥♥♥
Hamilton, Gabrielle, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2012), memoir. My surprise book of the year, written by the chef of the award-winning New York restaurant Prune. Gorgeous writing about life and food. Read it. It is fabulous and there are mouth-watering descriptions of food. ♥♥♥♥
Hannah, Kristin, The Great Alone (2017), historical fiction. Pretty good coming of age story, but the star of the book is Alaska. Lovely. Vivid. And fucking freezing. ♥♥♥
Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise (2019), poetry. Want to cry? Read this collection of poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo about the Trail of Tears, history, grief, cultural annihilation, and memory. Wow. Breathtaking. Horrifying. Heartbreaking. ♥♥♥♥
Harper, Michelle, The Beauty in Breaking (2020), memoir. A female, African-American ER doctor, Harper puts her deft fingers on the heart of racism in America and caresses out of her stories the truth of our shared humanity. After I read the book—in two days, it is that good—I watched Harper on Zoom in a book talk and Q&A, and she is an impressive woman. She is a bright-sider, despite all the ugly she has seen, and her perspective was a welcome viewpoint during this year of our biological and political plague. ♥♥♥♥♥
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (2009), nature. I only discovered Haupt last year, but I’m hooked. She is a spectacular writer and gives the reader science and nature with pure joy. She is birder with a great sense of humor, and her knowledge and insights are wonderful. Love her work. ♥♥♥
—Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2013), nature. I am obsessed with Haupt’s view of nature and her funny bone on the intersection of humans with nature. Her eco-sensible philosophy is inspirational, and she has made me a more observant citizen of the spaces I share with birds and squirrels and other wild animals. She has a new book coming next year called Rooted, and I can’t wait. ♥♥♥♥
Hoffman, Alice, The Red Garden (2010), historical fiction. Hoffman is a very popular author in the genre of historical fiction. However, her books for me always just miss the mark. This one was creative and enjoyable, but not great. ♥♥
Holmes, Linda, Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019), fiction. I chose more light books this year than is typical for my tastes, because pandemics are pretty damned depressing. But this book was a little too romancy for me. If I’ve learned anything from this year of magical reading, it is that prefer books that are more substantive than this one. ♥♥
Joshi, Aika, The Henna Artist (2020), historical fiction. Joshi’s story of a single woman making a life for herself in India in the 1950s reveals much about caste and gender and human dignity. Great story with very good writing. ♥♥♥
Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Anti Racist (2019), nonfiction. It is not enough to just not be a racist (is there I better way to state this—I tried but failed!). In America, white people must become actively anti racist. This book by an important historian of race should be required reading for every high school student in America. ♥♥♥♥
Kendzior, Sarah, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), nonfiction. A journalist and anthropologist who studies autocratic and dictatorial regimes, Kendzior offers a lucid portrait of the horrifying story of Trump’s rise to the presidency and depicts American democracy dangling precariously from a cliff. She’s lives in St. Louis, where I lived from 2012-2019, and I knew about her work and followed her on Twitter before she became well known. She’s super smart (PhD, Washington University), and she minces no words. She’s not an optimist, though, so if you’re looking for a bright spot in the dark of night, don’t look here. ♥♥♥
Kidd, Sue Monk, Book of Longings (2020), historical fiction. This was the bravest book I’ve read in a decade, the biblical story of Jesus from the perspective of his wife. Fabulous writing and sensational female characters set in the stark historical context of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. Brilliant. Stunning. One of my favorite books of the twenty-first century. Shout out to my dear friend Sandra who recommended the book to me by saying: “Stace, I know you don’t do Jesus, but you have to read this book about his wife!” ♥♥♥♥♥
—The Invention of Wings (2014), historical fiction. I had missed this novel about the life of Sarah Grimké, a historical hero of mine, because it was published in the year my daughter died. In a normal year, I would have read this book by an author I loved and a historical topic that intrigued me. But my grief robbed me of reading for almost four years. I stopped reading after losing Mack because I couldn’t let my mind go long enough to get through a novel. Thank goodness my joy of reading and my ability to read returned to me in 2018, and I am grateful it was here for me this year when I needed it so much. In this book, Kidd takes too many literary licenses with Sarah’s story, but her writing is always good and the story moves along at a good clip. ♥♥♥
Kingsolver, Barbara, Unsheltered (2018), fiction. I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver forever, and this book is the epitome of her. Kingsolver knows humans better than almost any writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Simple story paired with good writing is Kingsolver’s method for uncovering the beauty of the human heart, and this book is her, per usual. ♥♥♥
Letts, Elizabeth, Finding Dorothy (2019), historical fiction. This story of L. Frank Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, who consulted with MGM on the production of The Wizard of Oz offers some interesting stories of Maud Baum’s early life and her famous suffrage mother Matilda Gage, and it offers some provocative observations about Judy Garland. Good story, but a little draggy. ♥♥
McLain, Paula, Circling the Sun (2015), historical fiction. Mediocre novel set in the overlapping contexts of the Out of Africa story. Privileged white people in Africa. Kind of boring. And definitely passé. ♥♥
Miller, Madeline, Song of Achilles (2011), historical fiction. I read this because I loved her novel Circe, but this book is not as good. However, for full disclosure, I suspect I didn’t like this one as much because it is about a man and Circe is about a woman. I prefer a women’s perspective on things, even regards ancient mythology, thank you very much. ♥♥
Moriarty, Liane, The Husband’s Secret (2013), fiction. Moriarty is my latest guilty pleasure, because I relate to the quirky, middle-aged women who inhabit her stories. I started reading Moriarty’s work last year with Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty, and I appreciate the dark corners her humor. ♥♥♥
—The Last Anniversary (2005), fiction. Sisters and secrets. ♥♥♥
—Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), fiction. Wacky characters in an absurd settling. Mayhem ensues. Laugh out loud funny. ♥♥♥♥
—Three Wishes (2003), fiction. Funny, heartwarming sister drama. ♥♥
—What Alice Forgot (2009), fiction. A story of amnesia with Moriarty’s usual compelling characters. I made my way through five of Moriarty’s light-dancing books this year, and what fun they were. On audio, they are made even more delightful by the talented Australian voices of the two fantastic readers who narrate them. Moriarty doesn’t set the world on fire, but she tells a good story and makes a reader giggle and gape. ♥♥♥
Moyes, JoJo, The Giver of Stars (2019), historical fiction. This book offers a fictionalized story about the Packhorse Librarians, women during the Great Depression who delivered library books to people in the hills of Kentucky. It’s pretty good, but the happy ending is contrived and disappointing. ♥♥
Oliver, Mary, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016), essays. Stick to her poetry, which is gorgeous. These essays, published late in her life, not so much. ♥
Orlean, Susan, The Library Book (2018), nonfiction. Interesting story of the devastating L.A. Public Library fire written by an excellent journalist who is also a great writer. It’s a bit plodding in its methodical retelling of the events of the fire. I liked that level of detail, but it’s probably not for everyone. ♥♥♥
Owens, Delia, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), fiction. A truly lovely novel with a haunting human story told among the vivid images of a disappearing landscape. Gorgeous prose and an unforgettable female protagonist. ♥♥♥♥
Penny, Louise, A Better Man (2019), mystery. This book is part of a great mystery series I love, but it is a weak book in the series. However, I recommend the entire series, which is chockablock with loveable, eccentric characters, gorgeous (and frigid) Canadian landscapes, and great literary and historical references. The series is much more than the standard detective story. It weaves together the lives of Inspector Gamache and his wife with the residents of a strange and isolated little town where the stories are set. Start with the first book Still Life and keep on reading…there are sixteen books in all (and the seventeenth is scheduled for 2021)! ♥♥
Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), history. If you want to understand why America is in such a political mess these days, read this book. Richardson, a political historian and expert on the history of the Republican Party from Lincoln to the modern day, studied American history under the great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald at Harvard, and I have admired her work for years. She is one of the most trustworthy and talented historians working today. ♥♥♥♥
Rutherford, Edward, New York: The Novel (2010), historical fiction. Rutherford’s book sweeps broadly across time, setting fictional characters, connected through the generations, in the (fairly accurate) history of one of the world’s greatest cities. The sweep, I think, is why I enjoyed this fictionalized story of New York, which began with the Dutch in the colonial period and ended with stockbrokers in the 1980s. ♥♥
Sedaris, David, Calypso (2018), humor. Is there any writer who is funnier than Sedaris? That’s a rhetorical question. I love, love, love this guy. Calipso is not his strongest collection, but it has some dandies; and I happily recommend any of his books or audio book (he reads them himself). I met him once at a book signing, and my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a treasured possession. ♥♥♥
Stedman, M. L., The Light between Oceans (2012), historical fiction. I was haunted by the many sides of loneliness depicted in this story, set in Australia after WWI. Did I relate a little too directly in my isolation to the two lonely characters in the story who inhabited a lighthouse on a remote island? Maybe. Whatever, I enjoyed the book. ♥♥♥
Stockett, Kathryn, The Help (2009), historical fiction. I had never seen the movie or read the book, and I selected it this year as an audio book. It is a good, albeit problematic, story, the dialogue is fantastic, and the black women in the novel are compelling characters. The readers of the audio book elevated the story, and their brilliant reading added that fourth star. ♥♥♥♥
Strayed, Cheryl, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2014), memoir. I am very late to the party on this one, but it is a fascinating, well-told story. I liked it. As well, in reading this book, I learned not to ever, in a million years, no matter what personal difficulties befall me, to go looking for myself, all by myself, on a hiking trail more than four or five miles in length. ♥♥♥
Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge (2008), fiction. Many of my friends love Elizabeth Strout, but I am less enamored of her writing. Olive is, however, an intriguing character, and I hope I do not become the cranky old lady she turned out to be. ♥♥♥
—Olive Again (2019), fiction. I did not really think I needed more adventures of Olive, but this book was not without its worthwhile scenes of Olive’s strange interactions with the world. ♥♥♥
Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018), mystery. Not my usual fare, but this story was fun and this British writer definitely has found a niche. ♥♥♥
—In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), thriller. Not my cup of tea, and I think Ruth Ware might be crazy. The pandemic has been scary enough; I should have skipped this one. ♥♥
West, Lindy, The Witches Are Coming (2019), essays. West’s cultural critiques are hysterical, and she is dead-on balls accurate in her observations about Trump, social media, and an array of other topics, as well. ♥♥♥
Wetmore, Elizabeth, Valentine (2020), historical fiction. Yowza! This is a stunning first novel, set in the bleak oil landscape of Odessa, Texas, in the 1970s. And it is an important novel, too, with its beautifully crafted story of race on the border. Gut-wrenching. Haunting. It will make you scream and cry and mourn the pain that humans are capable of inflicting upon the “other.” ♥♥♥♥
Wilson, Catherine, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019), philosophy. I picked this book up in late December 2019 on a “new book” display cart in the library at Eastern Illinois University, where I hold a “local scholar” library card which grants me 16-week borrowing privileges. The book’s cover intrigued me, but it sat on a shelf in my office for weeks and weeks. I never picked it back up, and then the pandemic came and the library closed, and all of the books I had checked out were renewed through October. And so, with time and automatic renewal, I finally cracked it open; and although I probably would not have ever gotten around to reading it if not for the pandemic, I’m glad I picked up and even more glad I read it. It’s basically the philosophy of me. I understand myself so much better now. I am an Epicurean. Who knew?!! ♥♥♥
Zabin, Serena, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (2020), history. A fresh approach to the American Revolution that depicts the blurry lines between patriot and loyalist. A friend of mine who is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College recommended the book, because she knows Zabin, who is a professor of history at neighboring Carleton College in her Minnesota town. I like reading books written by people I know or with whom I have some personal connection. ♥♥♥