Bookish Interests

Friends of GNI Share the Best Books They Read in 2020

Ann Friedman, Elizabeth Acevedo, Lupita Aquino, and members of the GNI community share their top book picks of the year.

What happens when you can't really regularly make plans like you used to? For a lot of GNI staffers, friends, and members of The Lounge, it meant more time to dive into a really good book. The kind of book that sweeps you away and makes you suddenly realize that it's 1:14 in the morning and you've been eagerly turning page after page. Below, a (fairly exhaustive!) list of some of the books that have helped get us through 2020. That means some new ones, some revisited gems, and some unearthed classics.

CW: Several of the recommended books deal with traumatic events related to assault and abuse.

NONFICTION

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio: Through this book and in thanks to Karla's words, I have been given the space to reflect on my upbringing as a formerly undocumented American and a path to understanding the rage, anxiety, shame, guilt, and all other emotions I felt growing up that I could not find the language for. This book isn't simply timely or important, it opens a path of healing for many undocumented American's often ignored in US mainstream media. -Lupita Aquino aka @lupita.reads, literary enthusiast and founder of @litonhst book club

...and more praise!

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio's combination of personal narrative, data, and reporting shines light on families and individuals who the United States has decided are not worthy of being American. These individuals have sacrificed so much (in some cases, their lives) and reading each story will move you and open your eyes to what believing in the American Dream can cost. -Sarah Coquillat aka @bookishandblack, researcher and MSW

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay:  Gay spends a year writing a short essay almost every day about something that delights him, which includes anything from “flowers in the hands of statues” to “reckless air quotes.” It was such a joyful and fun meditation on the little things that are really the big things, and it inspired me to seek out more quotidian sources of delight in my own life, which feels more necessary than ever this year. -Emily L., Lounger

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow: You wouldn't think it possible to be more disgusted, enraged, saddened, and dejected over the routine sexual harassment, abuse, and assault committed by Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Donald Trump and so many others, but Farrow's relentless reporting in his book reveals so much more to the story than his articles ever could. His captivating take on the systems that enabled the abuse of hundreds of women demonstrates why so few women come forward and the massive threats they're up against when they do. Farrow details the great lengths to which the rich and powerful will go in order to stay rich and powerful with the help of lawyers, HR, co-workers, friends, family, media, money, and yes, spies. The immense bravery and selflessness of the women who came forward cannot be understated. In this story, everyone is complicit. Everyone knew. -Heather S., Lounger

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby: She’s so amazing at making mundane and even sad topics funny, so I can’t imagine a better person to read this year. I reread the book already (and I’m rarely a re-reader) because it brought me so much joy! -Courtney B., Lounger

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: I learned a lot about how to get more out of not only wine but also tasting food and drinks in general. I found myself staying up late to read another page and another chapter. -Nia G., Lounger

Hunger by Roxane Gay: A gut-wrenching read about a traumatic past that has ultimately influenced how Gay polices her body, her Blackness, and her queerness. -Elaine C., Lounger

Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman: My livelihood has been defined by Big Friendships and I’ve never read a book that better depicts the intimacy of this type of relationship. The highs, lows, and lifesaving moments they shared have made me examine the "big" friendships in my life and cherish them during such a tumultuous year. -Jenny LaVelle, GNI Partnerships Team

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: From the evocative  language, to the unique take on reimagining the idea of what houses us, and we house, Machado crafts a feast for the voracious reader. And at the level of content, It's been a long time since I've read a memoir that, well, leveled me, quite as thoroughly as this one." -Elizabeth Acevedo, poet

Intimations by Zadie Smith: More than anything, this small but powerful collection of essays read like a meditation for me. Smith has captured me with her fiction (On Beauty and Swing Time), but something about these personal accounts of early pandemic-times shook me to my core, begging me to read on. It carved out space for me to reflect, process, and connect the dots in real-time — and that (especially these days) is a gift." - Jenna Catalon, GNI Content Team

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson: In a reflective year, this book offered me a way to dig even deeper into my own privilege and identity, and get honest about my place in this world. Caste reveals how American society, like many others throughout history, is shaped by a hierarchical system of human ranking. -Olivia Rogine, GNI Community Team

Know My Name by Chanel Miller: I have never felt my emotions as viscerally as I did reading this. Reading Miller's life story from the beginning to end was absolutely gut-wrenching and powerful. -Mia F., Lounger

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin: I don't think I would have loved it as much as I did if I read it in any other year besides 2020. I've been cooking A LOT this year and Colwin captured my feeling of exhaustion that comes with cooking three meals a day (on a good day) seven days a week (on a good week), but also the joy and the humor of cooking at home. Although her descriptions of dinner parties did make me feel homesick for friends and having people over. -Maggie G., Lounger

Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner: I read this book at what was either the perfect or worst time for it: just before we entered a pandemic forcing us to rely on tech more than ever... and in a transition time between school and my first adult job. It teed me up to think critically about labor and surveillance, two things that we know are being exploited in 2020 more than ever. If this sounds like a downer, it is, but it's also really beautifully written, with lighter stories sprinkled throughout. -Mary Anne Porto, GNI Team

Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel: It’s about desire and intimacy within long-term relationships, and it made me completely rethink many of my opinions on the subject. I spend a lot of time pondering the feasibility of long-term love, so it was fascinating and comforting to look at it from a clinical perspective that was simultaneously very human. -Sara N., Lounger

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: He did such a great job of telling stories from his childhood growing up during apartheid in South Africa. They were incredible, honest, and funny stories all at the same time. -Joya A., Lounger

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre: This is about a Russian spy who ends up spying for the UK. It’s a page turner and reads like a movie. It’s full of suspense and also interesting look at culture and politics in the Cold War era of Russia and Great Britain. -Lynn P., Lounger

The Daughters of Yalta by Catherine Grace Katz: This tells the story of the three daughters of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Harriman, who accompanied their fathers to the famous conference and contributed to it in different ways. So much of the work of these women was invaluable, strategic, and thankless, and it was truly a joy to read about their lives. I really hope to read more books about women “forgotten” by history in the new year. -Sarah R., Lounger

FICTION

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: This is a book about the many possible lives that one person can live—quite literally. The main character is born and then dies, in different ways and at different times, only to be reborn and start it all over. It's not like Russian Doll, because she's not fully aware of what's going on, but something about its story—repetitive, but never quite the same—did indeed feel perfect for these endlessly similar pandemic days. -Ann Friedman, co-author, Big Friendship

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Live two divergent family lines through the course of 300 years of history -- one in Ghana and one in the United States. Each generation faces trials and tribulations that will stick with you for years to come. Gyasi’s writing sucks you in and makes you feel like you are right alongside the characters. -Jordan P., Lounger

Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco: There's a strong, badass female protagonist with some questionable morals since she'll do anything to avenge her sister's murder. Working alongside her is a moody and mysterious demon prince to help her solve the murder. All in all it's a solid escapist book if you want to be transported to a fantasy world. -Chandra C., Lounger

The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: There is a line in this book that made me laugh out loud. It was a necessary reminder of Black joy at a time when I desperately needed it. -Lyndsey W., Lounger

Circe by Madeline Miller: Escaping to an alternate world was so necessary during this pandemic. It almost felt like historical fiction because the premise is all about rewriting myths. -Venus, Lounger

Anxious People by Frederik Backmen: Other than a title that we can all relate to in 2020, Anxious People is quirky, comedic, and poignant. It kept me own my toes with twists and turns, and made me laugh and cry in the same sitting. There was something heartwarming about watching strangers come together, even if fictional, during 2020. -Maggie G., Lounger


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: It’s a multi-generational story about a Korean family over the course of the twentieth century, set in both Korea and Japan. Beautifully written, emotionally consuming—the kind of book that you stay up reading for hours and hours because you just can’t stop. I wept in the best way. -Carolyn Kylstra, editor in chief of SELF magazine and host of Checking In. Check out SELF's newsletter here

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: I love how deeply human Bennett's characters are; their lives and relationships are messy and complicated and so compelling. The story is a powerful exploration of community, friendship, and the often toxic game of “what if?” that we play as we question the decisions we’ve made, but it was the prose itself that really won me over -- the writing is absolutely beautiful! -Claire B., Lounger

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: This is a book that is absolutely crushing, but moving beyond measure. It opens one's mind and calls on our humanity. Required reading. -Caitlin K., Lounger

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: I loved the characters. Although their lives are very unlike my own in many ways, Thomas has made them so relatable. In a single scene she explores deep issues around systemic racism AND shows siblings fooling around, giving each other a hard time. Reading this had me crying one moment and then literally laughing out loud the next. -Alexa L., Lounger

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff: The twist! What a twist! Not a scary twist, or a suspenseful twist, but to have a twist that turns a story on it's head was such a gift, it made me so happy. -Giulia I., Lounger

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: A lot of anti-racism reading lists include nonfiction books which are great, but it’s important to support Black fiction authors too. Such a Fun Age covers a wide range of topics from white fragility and Karens to the precarious job market for millennials. I couldn’t put it down! -Corinne F., Lounger


One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London: The book was real and raw and so smartly written. Bea Schumacher is a plus-size fashion blogger who has always been unlucky in love, especially when it comes to her best friend / crush, Ray. One interaction between them leaves her devastated and feeling completely unlovable and awful. Meanwhile, she’s always loved Main Squeeze (which is basically The Bachelor). One night on her blog she publishes a (slightly tipsy) takedown of the show, calling it out on their lack of diversity. The next thing she knows, the show is under new management and they want her to be the star. Bea was just such a wonderfully relatable character. I adored this book and truly miss her now that the book is over! -Grace Atwood, founder of The Stripe and co-host of Bad on Paper podcast

Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel: I'm re-reading this historical fiction novel about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn. It's a great quarantine read because it helps me escape from my present day. I can truly savor over every word and detail, and go down rabbit holes researching who each character was in history. Mantel left some great gems in there for history nerds — and I think it's funny, too." -Alisha Ramos, CEO/Founder at GNI

Take a Hint, Dani Brown! by Talia Brown: Wow, these not your grandma’s romance novels. I love the representation of race, body size, chronic illness, sexuality, class, consent, actual communication, etc. It’s the fluff we need but rooted in reality (and wow are they steamy). -Christina S., Lounger

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern: It’s the perfect escape to another world right now, beautifully written, and I’ve been thinking about it since. It’s rare I want to re-read a book immediately after finishing and I felt that way with this one.  -Katie M., Lounger

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson: Travel between parallel worlds plus a fascinating take on race and class in a dystopian future. Plus an angst-filled romantic mix-up! -Jennifer K., Lounger

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo: It was simply one of the most human books I’ve ever read and a reminder that just because a book isn’t seen on every bookstagram or year-end-list doesn’t mean it won’t be one of the most worthwhile books you read that year. -Mallory F., Lounger

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré: An absolute treasure, and Adunni has become my favorite protagonist. The writing style takes a minute to adjust to but adds so much to the book as you go on her journey towards education. This book is absolutely heartbreaking and so so inspiring. -Stacey L., Lounger

Writers and Lovers by Lily King: The main character is an aspiring writer; the story focuses on all the ups and downs that come with it. It also touches on romance, grief, and just trying to make it through life in your early- to mid-twenties. Overall, a really enjoyable read. -Claire L., Lounger

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: A true page-turner set in a dystopian future where most Americans spend the majority of their time in a virtual reality universe, this book has so many laugh-aloud moments and nostalgic references to 80s music, movies, and games. Two bonuses: 1) Wil Wheaton narrates the audiobook, which I will admit I began listening to exactly 24 hours after I finished re-reading the hard copy, and 2) the sequel Ready Player Two was released over Thanksgiving (definitely on my Christmas list!) -Audrey A., Lounger

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: This blew. me. away. The book’s dedication page reads “This book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own”, and as someone who’s grown up feeling very much between two cultures I think the author threads that needle in a fascinating way. It’s definitely science fiction, but it takes such a personal perspective that it doesn’t feel like some other books in the genre. There’s fascinating world-building including discussions of what translation means when cultures are vastly different, political intrigue, poetry battles, and even a little murder mystery. -Hali S., Lounger

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity, but never meaning.

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