Books I Read in 2020

Well, 2020, it’s been a year. Over the years I’ve come to really enjoy this period between Christmas and New Years for reading, riding my bike, for writing, reflecting, and looking at things I read and loved in the year. It’s a ritual. I love that I get to read other people’s book lists (Emma’s! Rachel — who inspired me to start this little habit), it’s such a voyeuristic and delightful peek into the hearts and mind of smart people in my orbit.

This year was hard. For so many reasons. There were long periods of time when I was too anxious to make it past a few pages, and then there were times when I couldn’t muster up the energy to do much else but read. I picked up and put down a lot of books I just didn’t fall in love with. I re-read a lot.

I always have aspirations to read mostly fiction, but I use books not only to escape and dream but when I get stuck — at work, in love, in life, so I do wind up reading a fair amount of non-fiction too. 56% fiction, 44% nonfiction. This year was the first year I started thinking about representation in the authors I read. I sought out more female authors and people of colour. The breakdown of authors was 49% women, 51% men. I’d like to read more queer voices next year.

Without further ado…my fave books of 2020: An Everlasting Meal by Tamara Adler, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee.

The List, in chronological order:

  1. Moneyball by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (script) — I rewatched this at the beginning of the year after I’d been talking with Grace about teams and how they work. I love teamwork and Aaron Sorkin’s writing, and I loved reading this script. As always, when I read scripts, I recommend the advice that was given to me: read them in one go, just like you’d watch a movie. Takes about the same amount of time.

2. Culture Code by Daniel Coyle — At the beginning of the year I was searching for books on teamwork and psychological safety, and this came up in my search. It is an excellent exploration of what makes ‘safe’ teams tick, from creative teams to improv actors to Navy Seals. It’s not only interesting but applicable, if you’re running a team. One of the better books on this topic that I read over the year.

3. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King — When I first watched Shawshank Redemption I was blown away by the characters, the dialogue, and the story arc. Reading this book, it’s clear that the genius is in the story (although the filmmaking and acting is superb). Reading this novella is a masterclass in how to tell a compelling story.

4. Apt Pupil by Stephen King — Chilling (which seems to be Stephen King’s brand) short story about a high school student who discovers a fugitive Nazi war criminal living in his neighborhood. Dark, un-put-downable. But I had to stop reading King after this one.

5. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamara Adler — Wow, wow, wow. This book is pure poetry and philosophy, wrapped in the guise of food writing. Cooking became a bit of a comfort this year while being stuck instead. Between this and watching Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I felt empowered to play with food and trust my tastebuds instead of being lashed to the rigid mast of recipes and stern directives from master chefs.

6. Find Me by Andre Aciman — I loved Call Me by Your Name a few years ago, so I picked this up as soon as I found out it was a sequel. It was a fun read but didn’t deliver the poignancy of Call Me By Your Name. One thing’s for sure though: Aciman’s forte is describing the all-consuming nature of infatuation and the experience of falling in love.

7. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture by Bruce Pascoe — This book opened my eyes to a lot of history, specifically with regard to the Aboriginal vs the Western relationship to country (custodianship versus transaction). At times I found it a bit dry, but the content was so compelling it kept me going.

8. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Torentino — Every year Emma manages to offhandedly recommend something that I love a lot. This was that book. This book of essays made me think about social media, the rise of having a ‘take’ on everything as action (it’s not), and what to do about it all. Always be Optimising, and The I in Internet were stellar.

I’ve been thinking about five intersecting problems: first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.

The ideal woman…is equally interested in whatever the market offers her — in the tools that will allow her to look more appealing, to be even more endlessly presentable, to wring as much value out of her particular position as she can….The ideal woman, in other words, is always optimising.

9. Heart Talk by Cleo Wade — A re-read, I picked this up after my heart got knocked down and it felt like it couldn’t get up. I’d read it a few years prior but the words were the balm I needed to dust my bruised little self up and keep going.

How you speak to yourself sets the tone for how the rest of the world will speak to you; use that power to lift yourself up and set the standard for loving communication. If you can learn how to lift yourself up with your words, you will be able to do the same for everyone else. Our world needs more cheerleaders. Start by being one for yourself.

When we realise that there is no such thing as a conflict-free life, we can instead choose to view every conflict as an opportunity to interact with others with a wider heart.

10. Everything I know about Love by Dolly Alderton — I have never placed a book on a waiting list, except for this one. I’d heard her described as a modern day Norah Ephron, so I was dying to read it. Ephron is a high bar, though: Alderton’s writing was entertaining but to me lacked an incisive and intuitive edge (but I’m an Ephron tragic so maybe I’m being unfair).

11. Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer — This was recommended by Tom, and it was one of those books that I needed exactly in that moment. It mindfulness, big picture stuff — a reminder to zoom out and stay present.

Nothing, ever, is worth closing your heart over.

Your heart is an instrument made of extremely subtle energy that few people come to appreciate.

Allow yourself to experience very note the heart can play.

12. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx — A long ago recommendation from Chris. I’d read Proulx’s Close Range, a series of short stories about Wyoming a few years ago and loved it. The story centers around a man who’s been beaten down by life, who finds himself living in a decrepit house lashed to a rock in Newfoundland in search of a new start. It’s dark family legacy and small town small mindedness and how our stories about our families shape our self-determination. She writes place well, and even though I’ve never been to Newfoundland, I felt like I visited by reading this book. I liked the book but did wish the plot was pacier. It’s quirky and edgy, just like the people and the place itself (from what I understand).

13. Untamed by Glennon Doyle — A friend from work, Mel, recommended this book to me and when I watched this interview with Glennon and Marie Forleo, it floored me. Doyle captures, exactly — soulfully —what it feels like to be a woman. We’re too much, we must fit in a box, etc. An easy read, like tea with a big sister who can poetical describes how the patriarchy has whittled us down into tiny, conformist versions of ourselves, and then delivers a fiery pep talk on how to rise back up.

Selfless women make for an efficient society but not a beautiful, true, or just one. When women lose themselves, the world loses its way. We do not need more selfless women. What we need right now is more women who have detoxed themselves so completely from the world’s expectations that they are full of nothing but themselves. What we need are women who are full of themselves. A woman who is full of herself knows and trusts herself enough to say and do what must be done. She lets the rest burn.

14. The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine — I read a New Yorker interview with Fran Leibowitz where she mentioned this book and it subconsciously influenced me to pick it up. It’s about words, and sisters and identity and how they are all fluid and changing, and I thought it was fabulous.

15. The Journey Home by Lee Carroll — Someone mentioned that this was a beautiful parable and I picked it up and read it in a few days. Like the Little Prince or the Alchemist, it’s a simple story with big implications about consciousness, energy, and possibilities. It’s one that’s stuck with me, about the people we’re becoming through the trials we face.

16. The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier — Honestly, this is one of the most useful business books I’ve read in years. Too often we’ve got it in our heads that we have to have all the answers in order to manage people…that thinking is totally wrong. This book teaches you how to ask useful questions that help the people you work with help themselves, to listen more than talk, etc. Highly recommend. Worth saying that seeing this in practice from Grace and Kirstin make learning this far easier than simply reading and trying it on my own.

17. The Boy the Mole the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Macksey — Picked this up for a friend and read it before I gifted it (I know, I’m terrible!). It is absolutely stunning. Part story, part character sketch, part reflection on friendship and life and love and loss — it’s beautiful, and it’s.a beautiful gift for when it’s hard to remind ourselves of the light in the world.

18. Exhalation by Ted Chiang — I loved Stories of Your Life and Others last year, and this collection of sci-fi-esque short stories was no different. I particularly loved The Great Silence, narrated by the last remaining parrot on earth.

One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders. Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.

19. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris — Picked this up on hearing about the differences between CBT and ACT. It was a bit dry, but resonated in theory.

20. White Fragility by Robin Diangelo — This I picked up to read after seeing a friend post about it. It opened my eyes to things that I hadn’t seen before, but I after reading it I wanted to hear from people of colour. Diangelo is a diversity trainer, but reading her reflections felt reductive and I was challenged to seek out BIPOC voices not just in anti-racism texts but across all my reading throughout the year.

21. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta — This I read on Sara and the Reunion crew’s recommendation. Tyson Yunkaporta talks about how he is often in the position of explaining the Indigenous point of view to the world. But — what if we looked at it from the other way round? To focus the Indigenous point of view on the world and describe what we see. Really thought-provoking beautiful stuff. Thoughts it provoked in me: how do I square property ownership with my worldview? Do I believe in ‘ownership’ or ‘custodianship?’ Written vs oral culture — the Indigenous tradition is oral, storytelling and contextual to the place and time in which they’re sharing knowledge. Writing things down cements knowledge to a place and time and context that elevates the writers point of view and is more often than not — extremely divisive. As he says in a NYT interview, in the Indigenous tradition, “knowledge changes depending on the relationship of the people who are sharing it.” Tyson’s style is free-flowing, all over the place and leapfrogging from topic to topic. I loved it. Highly recommend.

22. The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Roz Zander — This book completely changed the way I think about managing people. Benjamin Zander is a conductor, but the way her writes about coaching creative people resonated WAY more than any management book ever has. The problem with managing based on output breeds comparison, especially in creative work. It pits people against one another and props up the myth of the lone creative genius. That sucks. Benjamin Zander talks about ‘giving people an ‘A’ — starting not from the place of measuring how people perform according to your standards, but from a place of “respect that gives them room to realise themselves.”

The player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.

Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children’s eyes are not shining? That’s a totally different world.

23. Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon — I read this predominantly across one long soak in the bathtub when being creative was feeling really hard and putting words to ‘how’ to unlock different ways of thinking felt miles away. Kleon has a really lovely way of talking about the magic and the machinations of unlocking creativity. A fun read.

24. Atomic Habits by James Clear — This was recommended to me when I was taking a look at how I organised my workflow. I try to stay away from self-help books (I have a wicked bent on self-improvement and it needs to be reined in from time to time) but this was insightful, particularly what he has to say about the link between habits and identity. It’s a bit self-improvement porn — put it this way: dudes who love Joe Rogan love this dude too. But, not totally unhelpful stuff if you’re trying to start new habits.

25. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday — I picked this up because it’s been on my list for a bit, but in a period when I have been working through barriers (pandemic, iso from family and friends, the demands of a rapidly growing team and business and what that’s required of me), I thought a little Stoicism was in order. The thesis of the book sits around this idea: Obstacles illuminate new options. Which, in 2020, feels very appropriate.

In our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything ‘means’ whether something is ‘fair’ or not, what’s ‘behind’ this or that, and what everyone else is doing. Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems. Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of the overthinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already.

26. Ogilvy on Advertising by who else, David Ogilvy — I’ve been wanting to work my way through classic advertising texts for a while now. Parts of this have aged better than others (spoiler alert, the old ad world is sexist and inappropriate, shocker). My favourite was seeing all the old ads and how tight (and well-researched!) their copy was.

27. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple — Picked this up on a mental health day after I’d seen the trailer to the film and thought it sounded charming: an architect who goes into relative hermitude after a turf war leads to one of her projects being destroyed out of spite, living a life constrained by her own fear, and plotting to bust out of it and live a creative, courageous life. It’s also set in Seattle, which I appreciated as a former Northwest dweller.

28. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo — I read this on Grace’s recommendation. It’s beautiful, moves quickly, and gives a really beautiful window into the interconnected lives of women — and in a delicate way, reminds us that we’re all our own individuals. Fair warning to the punctuation lovers among us: this book has none. It also has no traditional plot, but reads like vignettes of (sometimes interconnected) lives. How funny was this, to read, in the acknowledgements, too — “I’d like to thank Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers on Whidbey Island, USA, for my residency there in 2018.” That’s where I grew up!

29. How Not to Die by Michael Greger, M.D. — I heard this guy on the Rich Roll Podcast and loved how open source his information was. I read the China Study a few years ago and have been plant-based diet curious but this book reads like a prescription for plants for — just about everything. Reversing heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety and depression. What I like about him: he’s pretty much open sourcing and giving away his knowledge, and his daily dozen (foods you should eat every day — beans x 3 serves, berries x 2 serves, other fruit x 3 serves, cruciferous veg x 1, greens x 2 serves, other veg x 2 serves, flaxseed x 1 serve, nuts and seeds x 1 serve, herbs and spices x 1 serve and whole grains x 3 serve, water and exercise) makes it easy to make sure you’re getting a healthy dose of the good stuff every day.

30. Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk —Another podcast find. I heard Palahniuk talking about how he researched for this book, reading internet forums and studying an increasingly divided America. This is the natural conclusion of an intensely divided nation. It’s violent, dark, and disturbing — not really pleasant, on reflection I don’t like the book itself but I admire Palahniuk’s range as a writer. If anything it strengthened my resolve to take a more active role in eliminating inequality in the world around me.

31. Dream Teams: Working Together without Falling Apart by Shane Snow — Started reading this book as a follow up on the earlier book I read about psychological safety. It’s good, but I sort of feel like once you’ve read one of these books…you’ve read them all? I’d recommend Culture Code over this book if you’re getting into teams and psychological safety for practical information, this is more story and case study based.

32. The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers by Douglas AtkinThis was mostly a work read, but I’ve watched Doug’s talk many times about how they built Airbnb’s brand around community participation, particularly in the early days when changing legislation was a big part of making the Airbnb product work. I’d recommend his talk on YouTube over this but if you’re really into community you might find the book interesting.

33. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy — Picked this up in a secondhand bookstore after seeing it on booklists everywhere last year. This book captures the mugginess, listlessness and stillness of summer in contrast with the protagonists rich inner life. It’s about identity, duty, and infatuation. In some ways, it reminds me of Call Me By Your Name. Sofia, an anthropologist, is spending the summer in Spain in a coastal town that is home to a clinic run by a man called Gomez. Sofia’s mother, Rose, suffers from mysterious paralysis which binds them together in a codependent relationship and Gomez is her last hope. Really enjoyed this one. Beautiful writing.

34. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee — I read this one on Grace’s recommendation (can you tell we are best friends who talk about books a lot?! It is the best) and whoaaaa was it good. The story hooks you in, but the whole thing immerses you in big themes of love vs prosperity, debt, being indebted to family, and more. The forward of this book, in which Lee details how she essentially assembled a self-taught MFA, was almost as impressive as the book itself and reminded me that writing is such an undertaking — we’re lucky to be gifted with stories like these. Pachinko is next on my list thanks to this read.

I fumbled around and made up my own writing program…I studied the ones that were truly exceptional. If I saw a beautifully wrought paragraph, say from Julia Glass’s Three Junes, I would transcribe it in a marble notebook. Then, I would sit and read her elegant sentences, seemingly pinned to my flimsy notebook like a rare butterfly on cheap muslin…there was so much to learn and practice, but I began to see the prose in verse and the verse in prose. Patterns surfaced in poems, stories and plays. There was music in sentences and paragraphs. I could hear the silences in a sentence. All this schooling was like getting x-ray vision and animal-like hearing.— Forward, Free Food for Millionaires

35. Keep it Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life by Twyla Tharp— I’ve come across Twyla Tharp before, mostly likely quoted by folks like Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert in books on creativity. I just love how she talks about her process. She‘s a dancer and choreographer with an impressive body of work but I think the real work of art is maintaining a creative career over a lifetime. To me, she is goals. I hope I’m creating and helping others find their voice well into my 70s.

36. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — It felt like everyone was talking about this book. It’s an intergenerational story that centers around a Korean woman who moves to and navigates life in Japan, I’ve heard it described a bit like Les Mis and I agree. It’s epic — over 3 or 4 generations, and is about sacrifice, love and how we move in and out of people’s lives across time, what happens when someone makes a final exit, and about small kindnesses along the way.

37. Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky— This was another re-read (do y’all do this? I find I re-read a lot when I need to remind myself of things, it’s a security blanket or like pulling on a favourite sweater). It’s a coming of age story written as letters from 16 year old Charlie to an unknown character, a story about choosing to watch life happen or to participate in it. It’s tug at your heartstrings, punch you in the gut, take-your-breathe away good with how raw and fresh it is.

I am both happy and sad at the same time, and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.

38. Stories by Helen Garner — I picked this up at Nicole’s place and started reading it at the beach. Previously published as “postcards to surfers” (I adore this name) it is a collection of Garner’s short stories. This is my introduction to Helen Garner and I am infatuated with her tight edits. Her stories about love, loss, and longing leave space for the reader to contemplate, to feel, to breathe.

39. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See — Unannounced books arriving in my mail are my love language. Kourtney mailed this to me and I devoured it in a weekend. Set in 19th century China, it’s a love story about Lily, but about her relationship with her laotong, “old same” or arranged emotional match with Snow Flower. It is a book about what it was to be a woman, a mother, a friend, a wife, how friendship sustains us — and the consequences of misunderstanding and hard hearts.

40. Lustre by Raven Leilani — This was a bookshop perusal that I picked up after flipping through a few pages of beautiful writing. I’m so glad I did. It’s gritty, harsh, and poetic all at once. It centers on a young black woman who falls into an affair with a middle aged white man in New Jersey, eventually living in their family home. She becomes companion to his wife, party to a semi- open relationship, and de facto mentor to his adopted daughter Akila. It’s fresh, smart, and riveting.

41. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed — Another re-read, this is an old favourite now and I pick it up from time to time to recall favourite passages or just remind myself of some good old fashioned wisdom. Passages that made the highlight / transcribe to journal list this year:

You aren’t afraid of love. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright — to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying.

Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word ‘love’ to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.

42. The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett — Another recommendation from Grace, I ate this book up. The main characters: twins who choose different lives (white passing vs. black), the daughters of those twins and how different their lives look as a result of their mother’s choices. It’s got delicious writing and the theme of the masks we wear to gain acceptance / love etc was so well-explored.

43. One Day I’ll Remember This by Helen Garner — If the idea of publishing your personal diaries terrifies you, please meet the bravest woman alive: Helen Garner. I, personally, have my best friends under instruction to personally set light to my diaries should I come to an untimely end but Garner has published an edited tome of 7 years of her quotidian observations in which she begins an affair with a married man who is also an artist. A fascinating read for both form and content. Voyeuristic. Clever, and fun to read.

If you made it this far, you probably like books, too. I’m always giving / looking for book recommendations, so if you want to compare notes or want a recommendation (I love doing this, I really do!), please hit me up on whatever medium you’re reading this on). I hope you read things that expand your mind and heart.

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