Kat’s 2020 Book List

I started compiling this list in early November on a day when I had several projects to complete but felt the need to procrastinate with a project more fun than those looming over me.

At that point, I was making excuses for the paltriness of the list, even though I nearly doubled last year’s puny total. My baseline goal is 52 books a year – an average of a book a week – so I hadn’t done too badly at 40+ – but the early compilation motivated me to add a bunch more books to the list before releasing it in December. I made my goal of 52!

Last year’s excuse for a shorter list was that I had listened to a lot of podcasts in 2019. I listened to fewer podcasts this year, but this year’s excuse (not that I turned out to need one) was that I listened to quite a few “Audible Originals,” some of which I don’t consider to be book length. In fact; book length was a dilemma in compiling this list; I decided a book had to be at least 3 hours long to make the list. Most readers know that I consume the vast majority of my books in audio form.

If there was any trend this year, it was my continued enjoyment of and fascination with books about women of India and Indian-American women. I read 4 novels in this genre this year, one of which was my favorite fiction of the year. I also read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which complemented these novels and was my favorite work of nonfiction.

Perhaps another theme was revisiting “comforting narratives,” subject-matter areas I return to over and over, partly because I already know the stories and find comfort in reliving them, knowing what happens next, and seeing them from various perspectives. This year’s comforting-narrative reads dealt with the British Monarchy, the Beatles, the US Space Program, as well as newer comforting narratives about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos fraud and anything that trashes Scientology.

Unlike in some years, I did not binge on a particular author. In several cases, I read the third book of an author I had liked from earlier reads.

Favorite Fiction of 2020

  1. The Henna Artist: A Novel: Alka Joshi. My favorite fiction of the year, and part of my beloved women-of-India/Indian-American women genre. Bonus: This one was set in the 1950s. I found it extremely evocative of its times and one of several fictional glimpses I’ve had into how women have been and continue to be treated in India.
  2. The Unseen World: A Novel: Liz Moore. I enjoyed Moore’s previous work, Heft, but The Unseen World far surpassed it. A young girl raised in an unusual way by her father discovers he is not who he seems to be. Moore excels at eccentric characters. Beautifully written and compelling, though I felt the ending dragged on a bit too long. When I saw Moore had a 2020 release, I was eager to check it out. Not as good as her others but not bad; see No. 34 on this list.
  3. My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton: Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie. I learned more from this insightful novel than from Ron Chernow’s dense biography upon which the Broadway smash Hamilton is based and was well prepared when I finally got to see Hamilton on Disney+.
  4. A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel: Anne Tyler. I had long wanted to read some Anne Tyler, and I’m glad I did. This family saga had an interesting structure that took a very unexpected turn with a major character about a third of the way through. I found it compelling.
  5. The Secrets Between Us: A Novel: Thrity Umrigar. I had read one of Umrigar’s books back when I first discovered the genre of women-of-India/Indian-American women. The Secrets Between Us turned out to be a sequel, so I also read the next entry on this list. I liked both better than the earlier Umrigar I read.
  6. The Space Between Us: Thrity Umrigar. The enjoyable book to which The Secrets Between Us is the sequel.
  7. Truths I Never Told You: Kelly Rimmer. Compelling though improbable family saga cum intriguing family mystery. I was drawn in. Also presented uncommon subject matter – postpartum depression.

Favorite Nonfiction of 2020

  1. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents: Isabel Wilkerson. Absolutely brilliant and thought-provoking. Everyone should read this book.
  2. Thicker than Water: Tyler Shultz. Annnddd… another dip into a comforting narrative – Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal. This one was especially fascinating because author Schultz, grandson of former Secretary of State George Schultz, was an insider.
  3. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape: Jenna Miscavige Hill. Annddd… another. This trashing of Scientology was made more compelling by the fact that Miscavige is the niece of long-time Scientology head David Miscavige.
  4. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001: Garrett M. Graff. Excellent and chilling collection of original oral history from 9-11 (though mostly read by actors on audio).
  5. A Promised Land: Barack Obama. I thought this would be my final read of 2020, but managed to squeeze in 2 short books after this (see end of list). I adore Barack Obama and would probably give high ratings to him reading the phone book, but of course, the first volume of two about his presidency is far richer than that. Felt good to start reading it the day after the electoral college affirmed Joe Biden’s win.

Other fiction I read:

  1. The Silent Wife: Kerry Fisher. Unmemorable family intrigue
  2. The Forgotten Garden: Kate Morton. I keep reading Kate Morton books, even though I feel they are much longer than they need to be. Still, this was probably the best of the 3 of hers I’ve read.
  3. Summer of ’69: Elin Hilderbrand. Pleasant family-saga beach read. I enjoy novels set in the 50s and 60s.
  4. The Silent Patient: Alex Michaelides. Many raved about this mildly twisty thriller, but I found it totally predictable.
  5. Second Skin: Christian White: This novella, which toys with reincarnation, was somewhat compelling.
  6. The Man on the Mountaintop: Susan Trott. Nice parable, but somewhat boring.
  7. Snap: Belinda Bauer: Liz Sumner turned me onto this Brit thriller, which I liked reasonably well, though it lacked likable characters and I was turned off by children living under dreadful conditions.
  8. The Lost Vintage: A Novel: Ann Mah. Wine-making, romance, a bit of 20th-century history, and mystery. Enjoyable.
  9. The Chocolatier: A Heartwarming Novel of Chocolate, Love, and Secrets on the Italian Coast: Jan Moran. This one reminded me of The Lost Vintage above. Set in the 1950s, it’s a novel of romance, family saga, and chocolate-making. I liked lit.
  10. A Place Called Freedom: Ken Follett. I read two by Follett this year. A Place Called Freedom is lesser known among his books, and is set primarily in Colonial America. Typical Follett saga. I appreciate his portrayals of empowered women.
  11. The Evening and the Morning: Kingsbridge, Book 4: Ken Follett. Prequel to the Pillars of the Earth series. Also typical Follett, with lots of blood and guts, torture, and cruelty, but also a powerful woman character, one of 3 protagonists.
  12. The Cuckoo’s Cry: Caroline Overington. Notable for being the first work of fiction I’ve read set in the pandemic. A teenager shows up claiming to be an Australian man’s granddaughter. I can’t figure out how this novella got its title.
  13. When I’m Gone: A Novel: Emily Bleeker: Heartwarming novel of a man whose dead wife has arranged for him to receive notes from her after her death.
  14. A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers: Hazel Gaynor: One of those formulaic dual-timeline (1876 and 1912) novels of historical fiction in which a mystery is solved. I found this one charming.
  15. The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel: Lisa Wingate: And another dual-timeline (American post-Civil War Reconstruction and the 1980s). Despite my interest in women in slavery, I found myself much more absorbed in the 20th-century story than the 19th-century saga.
  16. The Glass Ocean: A Novel: Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White: Annddd… yet another dual-timeline historical novel (2013 and 1915), this one surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania.
  17. Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero: William Makepeace Thackeray. I like to read at least one literary classic, typically from the 19th century, annually. I became intrigued with Vanity Fair when I saw a mini-series of it this year. I enjoyed Thackeray’s lengthy portrayal of the social mores around the time of the Battle of Waterloo, and the way the author injected himself into the story and addressed the reader periodically.
  18. The Grace Kelly Dress: A Novel: Brenda Janowitz. A TRIPLE-timeline historical novel – 1958, 1970s, and the 21st century. Family saga of a woman and her mother and grandmother with romance interwoven.
  19. The Searcher: A Novel: Tana French. I consider French one of my favorite authors, but I do find her work uneven. This one was a bit of a departure in that the protagonist was American, albeit living in French’s traditional setting in and around Dublin. I didn’t find the story terribly compelling, but I liked the characters.
  20. Queen of Dreams: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Divakaruni was the author who kicked off my love of books about women-of-India/Indian-American women when I read Sister of My Heart, one of my favorite novels of 2012, as part of my library book club’s “Blind Date with a Book” assignment. This one was decent, but I think in this genre I like novels set in India more than those about Indian-Americans. I wasn’t much into the dream aspect. Also wasn’t fond of the narrator.
  21. Alice I Have Been, A Novel: Melanie Benjamin. I did NOT enjoy this fictional story of the “real” Alice of Alice in Wonderland (Alice Liddell), which initially portrayed Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson as a pervert but then later suggested Alice’s behavior toward him had been seductive.
  22. Long Bright River: Liz Moore. Inspired to read this one by my affection for Moore’s earlier work, Heft and The Unseen World. This one was very different; it evoked “Dennis Lehane Lite.” A police officer tracks down her missing and opioid-addicted sister. I liked the fact that it was set in Philly, close to where I grew up in South Jersey.
  23. The Queen’s Gambit: Walter Tevis. Had to read the book after seeing the series. I enjoyed Tevis’s spare, Hemingway-esque style and the connections to his own too-short life (alcoholism, chess, gambling). I am always fascinated when an author of one gender creates a protagonist of another gender and am curious why he made this choice – perhaps to make Beth’s accomplishments seem more dramatic. The series seems to have been pretty faithful to the book. I wonder if I would have liked the book as much if I hadn’t been prepped for the chess jargon by the series. I did NOT care for the narrator.
  24. Eight Perfect Murders: Peter Swanson. This is the third Swanson thriller I’ve read, having adored his uber-twisty The Kind Worth Killing. This one reminds me Anthony Horowitz’s books, which often have literary settings. The bookstore-owner protagonist teams with an FBI agent to investigate a series of murders that seem to be based on the bookstore owner’s blog post listing 8 literary perfect murders. Though I had seen some of the films based on the the 8 storylines, the only book on the list I’d read was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, so enjoyed learning more about them. Especially liked the mentions of John D. McDonald, one of my dad’s favorite authors. The book had some good twists, though their revelation made me unsettled with the tone of the book, and the ending was a bit of a letdown. Still Swanson really drew me in; this was an audio equivalent of a book you can’t put down. Superb narration, as well.
  25. The Housekeeper: Natalie Barelli. Far-fetched storyline in which a woman obtains a housekeeping job so she can get revenge on her boss, whom she believed wronged her family many years ago (the boss doesn’t recognize her because she has deteriorated). Despite the preposterousness and lack of likable characters, the book was somewhat compelling. The protagonist was supposed to be 24, but the narrator voicing her sounded middle aged.
  26. The Scapegoat: Daphne DuMaurier. This was my third DuMaurier. I adore her best-known novel, Rebecca, and have seen three movie/miniseries adaptations of it. My Cousin Rachel, the other DuMaurier I’ve read, joins The Scapegoat as one of five of the author’s books to have a male narrator. I found the story pretty far-fetched – guy meets his Doppelganger; they get drunk and swap clothes, and then our protagonist, John, wakes up hungover to find that the Doppelganger has stolen his identity. They essentially live each other’s lives for a week, with fairly significant consequences. DuMaurier is a terrific writer, but I can’t say The Scapegoat is my favorite of hers.
  27. Moonflower Murders: Anthony Horowitz. Speaking of Anthony Horowitz (as I did regarding book No. 36 above), I read my third Horowitz novel this year. I had noted above that Horowitz often inserts literary aspects into his work; however, at the time I wrote that, I had no idea how very prolific Horowitz is; I will have to dip into some of his other 80+ books to see how many have literary elements. Anyway, in recent books at least, Horowitz not only calls on the literary world, but typically inserts, for lack of a better word, gimmicks, into his novels. Moonflower Murders contains an entire additional novel within it because Moonflower Murders‘s premise is that the embedded book reveals the murderer in the main book. There’s even a long short story embedded in the embedded book! The clever Moonflower Murders connects to the first Horowitz I read, Magpie Murders, and shares a protagonist, Susan Ryeland, who is not a detective, but an editor! Horowitz drew me in once again; I’m a fan.

Other Non-fiction I read:

  1. Eleanor: David Michaelis. I have read quite a few Roosevelt (FDR, Teddy, Roosevelts in general) books and others specifically about Eleanor. The publication this year of Michaelis’s take on ER’s life reminded me that I have long wanted to read Blanche Weisen Cook’s comprehensive bio, which I mistakenly believed was not on audio. It IS on audio, but I decided to consume the Michaelis version first since Cook’s is 3-volumes long, and I wanted to finish an ER bio in 2020. I appreciated the deep psychological analysis Michaelis applied to ER; he also portrayed her marriage to FDR as much more turbulent than I recall reading from other sources. Michaelis extensively scrutinized ER with regard to racism and antisemitism. While it cannot be said that Eleanor had not a racist or antisemitic bone in her body, she did grow and evolve in her recognition of equality and civil rights, and she was far less racist and antisemitic than FDR. One oddity: Apparently nothing of any consequence happened in Eleanor’s life when FDR was governor of New York, because Michaelis goes right from describing FDR’s gubernatorial win to discussing his 1932 first presidential win. I appreciated being refreshed on ER’s years between FDR’s death and her own.
  2. My Story: Elizabeth Smart. I’ve long had a morbid fascination with stories of young people kidnapped and held captive for a long time. I appreciated Elizabeth Smart’s take on her ordeal.
  3. Finding Tess: A Mother’s Search for Answers in a Dopesick America: Beth Macy. Sad tale of the life and death of an addicted young woman. Lots of context on the opioid crisis.
  4. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer: Michelle McNamara. I read a couple of true-crime books this year that dealt with breakthrough techniques, such as Internet crowdsourcing and ancestry DNA, to solve crimes. This one by the late McNamara, who was married to comic Patton Oswalt, is especially poignant.
  5. Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit: John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker. This one, in my view, falls into a similar category as the above entry because the techniques revealed were revolutionary for their time in the 1960s. The “Mindhunter” Netflix series is based on this book, but begins much later into the investigators’ journey than the book begins.
  6. Cold Turkey: How to Quit Drinking by Not Drinking: Mishka Shubaly. As someone who has been in recovery from alcoholism for almost 38 years, I’m often attracted to work about beating this addiction. This book offers down-to-earth advice.
  7. The Life and Times of Prince Albert: Patrick Allitt. The British Monarchy is one of my “comforting narratives,” and I’ve read and viewed a fair amount about Victoria and Albert. I enjoyed getting the Albert perspective.
  8. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family: Robert Kolker: A jaw-dropper about a family of 12 children in which half of them develop schizophrenia.
  9. Blood: A Memoir: Allison Moorer: I don’t know much about musician Moorer, but her memoir, focusing on her father’s murder of her mother and his subsequent suicide, was lyrically written and compelling.
  10. Nut Jobs: Cracking California’s Strangest $10 Million Dollar Heist: Marc Fennell. A short true-crime piece that makes you shake your head at things going on the world you never knew about, such as almond thievery.
  11. The Space Race: Colin Brake, Patrick Chapman, Richard Hollingham, Richard Kurti, Sue Nelson, Helen Quigley, Andrew Mark Sewell. Another visit to one of my comforting narratives. This audiobook was notable for narrator Kate Mulgrew’s consistent mispronunciation of NASA as “Nassau.”
  12. Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood: Margot Mifflin. This book reflects a subject area that once was a comforting narrative/obsession but that I outgrew. I still find the history of this flawed American tradition interesting.
  13. Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles: Kenneth Womack. I read two pieces on The Beatles (another comforting narrative) this year; the second one, The Beatles Play Shea, was too short to make this list. Solid State was an interesting technical take, but the best audience for it is really music and sound-engineering wonks. I have a Paul McCartney bio waiting for me in 2021.
  14. Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller. This has got to be one of the best book titles ever as one feels one must read it to find out why and how fish don’t exist – which Miller doesn’t reveal till the last chapter of this short book. The book focuses on Miller’s fascination with David Starr Jordan, who collected and named thousands of fish species around the beginning of the 20th century and then lost all of them in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Undaunted, he just started collecting them all over again. Miller shares the life lessons she learned from Jordan – and tries to reconcile herself to what a horrible person he ultimately was – a rabid eugenicist who may have murdered the wife of the founder of Stanford University. Fascinating book, and well narrated by the author, which doesn’t often happen with author-narrated books.
  15. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm. I read this one because of Amy Whitehurst, who posted on Facebook about a new podcast about the Jeffrey MacDonald case, which I guess could be considered another of my “comforting narratives” since I have consumed several books, movies, documentaries, and now a podcast about the case. Both the podcast and The Journalist and the Murderer deal with the ethics of Joe McGinnis, author of Fatal Vision, the best-known work on the case. McGinnis was famously hired to write a book about MacDonald’s murder trail that would take MacDonald’s side and show him to be innocent. Not only that, but McGinnis and MacDonald became close friends. But Fatal Vision did not take MacDonald’s side; instead, McGinnis portrayed MacDonald as the murderer he probably is. Though New Yorker writer Malcolm writes in a highly journalistic manner, it’s clear she found McGinnis unethical.

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