My Top 15 Books of 2020

Touched the Soul

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

A must-read. In search of a storyteller who could deliver narrative with cunning and authenticity, I decided to dust off this historical fiction novel, one I first read in high school and felt even more gripped by it during the second read. Levy’s style and human touch pay tribute to ancestors who were enslaved in not only 19th century Jamaica (when this story was set) but in other ages as well: “…they did more than survive, they built a culture that has come all the way down through the years to us.” In her own words, Levy describes writing The Long Song: “But what I wanted to explore isn’t in our history books. I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record.” And you will get exactly that—voices of “strength, talent, guile, and humor” captured, at times, not in words on the page but through your visceral reactions when reading her words.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

About Japanese-occupied Singapore and the horrors that “comfort women” had to endure, this historical fiction novel brings survival, identity, and storytelling to the fore with the plot shifting back and forth in time and weaving the two main characters closer and closer together. I’d recommend any book that raises awareness about “comfort women” and their stories, and this one is no exception.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel has been on my to-read list for years, and while it took a while to get fully immersed, it did not disappoint. From glimpses of the Vietnam War more memorable than facts listed in history textbooks to the painful effects of the “western gaze” in movies to the unnamed protagonist whose “man of two faces” identity paints a private struggle mirroring that of the external chaotic world of what it means to “assimilate” and to call a place “home”…this novel does an exceptional job of taking a reader through the past and present and painting raw manifestations of what it means to be human.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Favorite quote: “…wherever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.” As I couldn’t resist but to also state on Goodreads: A book that engages the senses like no other, coloring in the marsh’s contours as Kya grows into her own person, the marsh a raw and familial part of her identity. A novel about adulthood, love, nature, murder mystery, and more—a truly magical read.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Soaked in setting and revolving around one house, this novel mimics Bangkok’s vibrant rhythms and culture, with the threat of climate change lurking in the shadows. Chapters jump through different characters and nodes of time, yet Bangkok’s aqueous atmosphere prevails (leading me to read most of this novel while overlooking a pond). Sudbanthad touches on the multi-generational & cultural memory of Bangkok, and how progress threatens to erase it. Great writing & voice—would definitely recommend Sudbanthad’s debut novel!

Thought-Provoking

The Divide by Jason Hickel

“No one colonises innocently.” Aimé Césaire

This book put into words the thoughts and feelings about decolonizing global health, colonialism, etc. I’ve felt for some time now but never could articulate, and Hickel articulates it all so eloquently. Recommended to me by one of my dearest friends and fellow public health nerd (hi Katie), I’d pay it forward and recommend this to anyone who wishes to be a global citizen (aka everyone!). The Divide took a while to get through, sometimes only a few pages during one sitting because of sheer emotion about the vast reaches of injustice this world has experienced. And that’s especially why I’d recommend this book.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Another must-read, Caste’s style is unmatched and packed with brilliant metaphors (“caste is the bones, race the skin,” describing America as an old house, etc.). Meticulously researched and layered with true stories, this book centers on the caste system in the US, India, and Nazi Germany. Not much else to say but to read this book!

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

Recommended to me by my astute sister, Dalio’s book is a compass to how we can better tackle challenges and hone decision-making skills. One aspect of Principles I appreciated is its relevancy to all phases of life and career stages (even applicable to students and thinking about life trajectories, teamwork, and making decisions). A book I’ll no doubt consult often.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Essential reading to those who consider yourselves writers/artists/creatives. Structured as ten letters by poet Rilke to an aspiring poet, Letters to a Young Poet offers great advice on writing and truly living. There are too many life-affirming quotes from this tiny book that I’ve collected! A favorite: “…be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now.”

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Reading Thick gave me an imaginary glimpse into what it would be like to have Dr. Cottom as my professor. In her essays, she outlines the nuances of navigating the world (and how the world shapes that navigation) as a Black girl and woman, touching topics related to politics, systemic racism (i.e. in healthcare—“When my daughter died, she and I became statistics”), beauty, and more. A modern classic & essential read. Could pair your read with Dr. Cottom’s On Point interview.

Inventive

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Favorite review: “A brilliant, exhausting, emotionally involving attempt to get up again, to fight for empathy, kindness, and self-sacrifice, and to resist.”—Observer review

Unsurprisingly, I was immediately drawn to Saunders’ novel. I knew I was in for a ride as many of my college creative writing professors and peers mentioned Saunders though, aside from assigned short stories, I hadn’t fully immersed myself in his works until now. Rich with pathos, the novel is set in a transitory “bardo” of death and rebirth and narrated by spirits who desperately attempt to free Willie Lincoln from this state. I can understand why the writing style and structure aren’t palatable to all readers, though if you’d like a taste of pure invention and empathy in its purest form, read this book!

Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

This novel’s poetic structure, breadth and depth of characters, portrayal of racism, and satire mixed with empathy pushes it to the top as one of my favorites of 2020. Charles’ Washington Post review captures my sentiments: the novel “is a breathtaking symphony of Black women’s voices, a clear-eyed survey of contemporary challenges that’s nevertheless wonderfully life-affirming…“Girl, Woman, Other” is choreographed with such fluid artistry that it never feels labored.”

Native Guard by Natasha Tretheway

A classic more people should know about and appreciate, Native Guard is one of the finest books of poems I’ve experienced, written by former United States Poet Laureate Tretheway. First reading it in high school, I found solace in this masterpiece amidst the tumultuous twists & turns of 2020. Synopsis: “Through elegiac verse that honors her mother and tells of her own fraught childhood, Natasha Trethewey confronts the racial legacy of her native Deep South—where one of the first black regiments, the Louisiana Native Guards, was called into service during the Civil War. Trethewey’s resonant and beguiling collection is a haunting conversation between personal experience and national history.”

Classics

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

As Dostoyevsky’s last novel, this one is a true masterpiece. Dostoyevsky remains one of my favorite authors for his humor and commanding voice and prose that makes you pause at times to ponder the weight of certain sentences. This novel is on the lengthy side, but if you enjoy deep dives into philosophy, morality, theology, and experiencing a literary tour de force, this book is for you. 

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

This novel in one word: gentle. A classic that I’ve only now come across & highly recommend. Synopsis: “Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated Black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.”

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