Posted by: montclairlibrary | March 23, 2021

20 Books for 2020

Books can distract us from reality, connect us to diverse stories, provide context for our current situation, and help us do something as complex as find a path through difficult times or as mundane as plan our next meal. Here are 20 books – some new, some old; some fiction, some non-fiction – that embrace, encapsulate and assuage the times we’re living through.

Note: I’ve mostly linked to the hard-copy book listings for simplicity, but many of these books are available from the library as ebooks and/or audiobooks if you search for them. Quotes are from the publishers’ blurbs unless otherwise noted.

(Side note: If you’re looking for a laugh, SparkNotes put together this list of book titles – from 100 Years of Solitude to A Series of Unfortunate Events that sound like they were made for 2020.)

  1. Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak (FIC HORNAK)
    This is the “warm, wry, sharply observed” story “about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays” when one of their members returns from treating patients of an epidemic. Those of us who’ve been largely housebound with our families for a year now might think a week sounds kind of quaint, but like all good stories of forced proximity, the Birch family’s isolation leads to simmering tensions and surprising revelations.
  1. Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May (818.603 MAY)
    “An intimate, revelatory book exploring the ways we can care for and repair ourselves when life knocks us down….A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat,” from solstice celebrations to dormouse hibernation. May’s book provides some context and comfort as we all endured a year where many things were scaled back and canceled.
  1. Together, Apart by Erin A. Craig, Auriane Desombre, Erin Hahn, Bill Konigsberg, Rachael Lippincott, Brittney Morris, Sajni Patel, Natasha Preston, Jennifer Yen (YA SS TOGETHER)
    “A collection of teenage love stories set during life in lockdown during the COVID-19 epidemic. There’s flirting and romance through window signs and over Skype and Zoom. There’s a determined girl with a mask-making business, and two boys who meet through socially distant dog-walks. It’s about finding love in unexpected place during an unprecedented time. In other words, it’s like real life.” (adapted from back cover and Goodreads info)
  1. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (303.4833 ODELL)
    Our lives shifted dramatically in the past year, and for many of us this shift involved some forced simplification – of tasks, of travel, of goals. Local author Odell’s book is “a galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention that redefines what we think of as productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about ourselves and our world. Nothing is harder to do these days than nothing.”
  1. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (SF WILLIS)
    This book, in which a history student from the year 2054 travels back to the 14th century while unforeseen complications in her own time jeopardize her return, will simultaneously make you feel better about not living through a pandemic in the Middle Ages, wistful for the medical advances in Willis’s invented future, and awestruck at how Willis, writing in 1992, predicts everything from toilet paper shortages to American resistance to quarantine rules. (If you feel like this one’s too long to tackle on paper, the audiobook is very well done.)
  1. The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time by Nancy Davis Kho (ebook)
    Local author Kho’s often humorous book is part memoir and part how-to guide to identifying the people who’ve influenced your life and crafting letters to let them know how much they mean to you. Gratitude is scientifically proven to increase happiness, and if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t wait to tell people how much they mean to us.
  1. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (FIC SLOAN)
    A lot of us took the opportunity of being home more this year to try our hand at sourdough bread. In this fun little novel by the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, “a software engineer is left a sourdough starter from sibling bakers after they’re forced to close their shop, a gift that leads to a new vocation, a legal dispute, and a venture into a secret market that fuses food with technology.” You’ll recognize lots of Bay Area locations and archetypes.
  1. Milk Street Cookish: Throw It Together by Christopher Kimball (641.555 KIMBALL)
    Cooking more these days? This book “uses techniques from around the globe, ingredients that don’t necessarily require a trip to the grocery (six or fewer per recipe) and recipes that take less than an hour to make,” according to the NY Times.

    A few other cookbooks that were popular this year as we ate in more and coped with sporadic and sometimes seemingly random shortages of ingredients:
    Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish
    Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
    Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African-American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin
  1. The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (381.4564 LORR)
    Speaking of shortages, raise your hand if you gave way more thought to groceries and how to get them in the last 365 days than ever before. “Combining deep sourcing, immersive reporting, and compulsively readable prose,” Lorr’s book is “an extraordinary investigation into the human lives at the heart of the American grocery store” and the workers, truckers, farmers and other people who help get the products on the shelves.
  1. For Small Creatures Such as We by Sasha Sagan (390.0973 SAGAN)
    “Part memoir, part guidebook, and part social history,” for many of us this timely book helped provide structure to the cycle of an unusual year. Sagan “invites us to appreciate the everyday wonders of life through the eyes of science, sharing a worldview instilled by her unique upbringing, which she delightfully recounts for us. Read this book and feel a bit better about our world, our universe, and our place in it.” (The Guardian)
  1. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham (973 MEACHAM)
    “Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear. Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” have repeatedly won the day.”
  1. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (305.5122 WILKERSON)
    From the pandemic to politics, economics to ideology, this year highlighted some deep divides between Americans. Wilkerson explores another divide, “how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate….Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.”

  2. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
    There were plenty of non-fiction books released in 2020 that looked at our current political situation from all angles, but many people also took a fresh look at Lewis’s 1935 novel, “a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy in which an American president becomes a dictator in order to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press.”
  1. Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America by Stacey Abrams (324.60973 ABRAMS)
    In this history of voter suppression and roadmap for how to overcome it, Abrams, who became a powerful positive force this year, “weaves together the experiences of those who have fought for the vote and the right to be seen throughout our nation’s history, linking them with how law and policy deny real political power.”
  1. The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris (BIO HARRIS)
    Our newest Vice President, Oakland’s own Kamala Harris, writes about “the core truths that unite us, and the long struggle to discern what those truths are and how best to act upon them, in her own life and across the life of our country.”
  1. How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi (305.80097 KENDI)
    As the nation erupted in protest last summer over police violence towards Black people, books like Kendi’s flew off the shelves as Americans worked to understand the roots of the problems embedded in our society and explore possible solutions. “In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.”

    There are too many good books on this topic to pick just one – see also this list OPL put together in summer 2020.
  1. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (363.28509 CANTU)
    Refugees and immigration continued to be at the forefront of American consciousness, as misinformation and government policies exacerbated an already difficult situation. Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent, puts together “A beautiful, fiercely honest, and nevertheless deeply empathetic look at those who police the border and the migrants who risk – and lose – their lives crossing it. In a time of often ill-informed or downright deceitful political rhetoric, this book is an invaluable corrective.” (Phil Klay)

    For more fiction and non-fiction by and about immigrants from many places, see this list from Oprah Magazine.
  1. All We Can Save, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K Wilkinson (363.7056 ALL)
    Climate change became even more apparent last year, from the pandemic to wildfires and blizzards and other natural disasters. This book collects stories of women fighting climate change, from communities to laboratories to boardrooms. Bonus book: Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World, edited by John Freeman (808.83935 TALES) collects fiction, essays and poetry from around the world by writers like Margaret Atwood and Edwidge Danticat.
  1. Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West by Gary Ferguson (634.9618 FERGUSON)
    Smoky days and orange skies drove home the new reality of wildfire season for Californians last fall, as a record number of acres burned across the state. In this book, nature writer Ferguson explores the science behind increasing wildfires, “the extraordinary efforts of those responsible for fighting wildfires,” the ongoing research to find a solution and “how nature reacts in the aftermath of flames.” For more personal accounts of fire’s toll, check out Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano (363.37 GEE), about the Camp Fire that ripped through Paradise, CA in 2018 or Brian Fies’s graphic novel A Fire Story (BIO FIES), about losing his home in the 2017 fires.
  1. Public health and viruses were at the forefront of everyone’s mind this year, for obvious reasons. From books about past epidemics to tales of those on the front lines fighting infection, people snapped up information and several new books sped into print, like The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski (ebook), in which epidemiologist Kucharski looks at the science of how things spread, “from ideas and infections to financial crises and fake news,” and Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis (362.1962 CHRISTAKI), in which physician and sociologist “Christakis explores what it means to live in a time of plague — an experience that is paradoxically uncommon to the vast majority of humans who are alive, yet deeply fundamental to our species as a whole.” For more pandemic fiction, see this list we put together in August.

What books got you through 2020? Feel free to add them in the comments.

Illustration credit: Dumpster Fire by EFF Photos via Flickr/CC

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