2020 Books Review

30 December 2020

I’ve never done a yearly books review! But, considering I was more systematic about the books I read this year, it felt appropriate to recap them in a more ordered way, too.

In 2020, I read 32 books, which is significantly more than I read in 2019 (20). This could be due to the pandemic and a slightly-less-busy schedule, it could be due to having slightly older children… but I like to think it’s mostly due to choosing books to read in advance. Having a plan for each month kept me moving in the best way!

Of the 32, 17 were from my personal reading club (marked with an asterisk), most were excellent, a few were duds, and 1 or 2 were life-changing. All were read via physical copies, mostly from the library and mostly before bed. In the order I read them…

1.Long Bright River* | A thriller with heart. The writing was beautiful and it kept me up too late many nights :) It gets bonus points because the author is my literary agent brother-in-law’s client! From the jacket: “In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.” NYT bestseller, all that good stuff!

2. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry* | So good I wrote a whole blog post about it! My copy has been underlined, dog-eared, read aloud to John, discussed with friends, applied to my life, and recommended many times over. It’s sub-titled “how to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world” and is divided into three sections — the problem, the solution, and four practices for unhurrying your life (silence and solitude, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing). The last section was by my favorite – it was practical, challenging, and gave me lots of good ideas to try in my day-to-day.

3. Ashlords | Our good friend’s newest YA fantasy novel! It was surreal to read since I remember him describing the plot the very first evening we met up for a walk in our neighborhood.

4. Late Migrations | This was a gift from my Mom, and an excellent one at that because it sounds exactly like a book I would love. Unfortunately, though some of the writing was really beautiful, it didn’t sing for me (and the through-line of death just felt heavy).

5. The Sound of Gravel*| A fascinating memoir in the vein of Educated (the author grew up the 39th of her father’s 42 children in a polygamist community in Mexico). Raw and heartbreaking and uplifting.

6. Southern Lady Code* | Do not recommend. Not only did I not howl with laughter, I merely chuckled once or twice. Maybe I’m just not Southern enough?

7. How to Raise a Wild Child* | When reading books like this (manifestos on topics I’m already passionate about), I usually consider them fuel in my tank – encouragement to stay the course! This book, though, combined the passion of a manifesto with some really practical ideas for getting my family outside and facilitating my kids’ connection to nature.

8. The Dream Manager* | Centered around the idea that “a company can only become the best version of itself to the extent that its employees are becoming better versions of themselves,” this book “explores the connection between the dreams we are chasing personally and the way we all engage at work.” Worth picking up if you have a hand in the culture of your workplace!

9. The Golden Hour | My Mom left this book at our house after a last visit before quarantine descended, and since pickings were slim with closed libraries, I picked it up. It’s enjoyable and engrossing, switching between a woman in early-1900s Germany and one in mid-1940s Bahamas. A summer beach read feel!

10. The Tattooist of Auschwitz* | Beloved for good reason! This true story was hard to read at times, as any Holocaust story is, but it was a page-turner that ultimately ended with hope (and love!). A really important reminder of some of the worst and best of humanity.

11. The Invention of Wings | WOW this was so good. I hadn’t read anything by Sue Monk Kidd since The Secret Lives of Bees over a decade ago, and I forgot how elegant of a writer she is. This book is set over several decades in the 1800’s and follows two entwined stories loosely based on real figures: a white girl who grows up to be a Quaker Abolitionist, and the black girl she is given ownership of on her 11th birthday. I think fiction is one of the most beautiful and effective ways to grow empathy for people who are different than us, and on that basis alone I would highly recommend this one.

12. Unshakeable | A memoir written by Cultivate’s summer intern (!). Besides the fact that it’s wildly impressive for a college student to have self-published a book, I appreciated how she handled her rough transition to college, given my own. It was also another eyeopening and frightening look at how insidious anxiety can be for so many people today.

13. The Secrets of Happy Families* | I gave this book an enthusiastic thumbs up on Instagram when I was a few chapters in, and though I still very much recommend it, the first section turned out to be my favorite. The later chapters felt a little more surface to me, and not quite as original.

14. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | I have been talking about this classic with Lisa for years, and I’m so glad to have finally experienced it! As she joked, it’s a book where nothing really happens — and yet, you grow so attached to the characters. A very approachable classic!

15. World Without End* | The massive, sweeping sequel to my favorite fiction read of 2019. It did not disappoint. Though many people who’ve read both told me they prefer this one, I think I enjoyed them equally! The plague is a major plot element, which made for interesting reading in this season. Highly recommended!

16. Just Mercy* | So, so, so good. If, like me, you have grown weary of the hot takes, gleeful shaming, and educational oneupmanship that has accompanied this year’s racial justice movement on social media, you might find it equally refreshing to be educated by such a wise, compassionate expert in long-form. The way Bryan weaves together facts, stories, and his experiences is masterful and incredibly impactful.

17. Eligible | I picked this up while we were in Maine and it was an ideal vacation read! Funny, well-paced, and with very short chapters that made it perfect for picking up and putting back down :) The story is based on Pride & Prejudice, but because it’s been years since I read P&P, it had to stand on its own for me, and it did.

18. Bet on Talent* | This work-related pick was a good read, but nothing Earth-shattering. I’m always willing to learn from the masters at CFA about team culture, though!

19. The Giver of Stars* | Controversial opinion! I thought this universally-beloved book was good, not great. The characters felt a little two-dimensional all the way through, and Alice’s husband and father-in-law were so awful that the first half of the book was kind of hard to read for me.

20. The Paris Wife | This novel was enjoyable, but knowing only a little about Hemingway and his first wife, I felt a general sense of dread hanging over me the whole time I was reading, knowing that I didn’t know what was going to happen but that things wouldn’t end well. If I had known Hadley’s life turns out in the end, I think I would have perked up a little :) Also, I assume the more Hemingway you’ve read, the more interesting you’d find this book! (I’ve read very little.)

21. Adopted for Life* | I enjoyed the Biblical depth he offered for the underpinnings of adoption, but I think I was hoping for something more practical.

22. The Signature of All Things | Did not enjoy, do not recommend. Another controversial opinion :)

23. 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You* | I have read many books on our digital lives at this point, and I think this one is middle of the pack. Similar to Adopted for Life, he’s less focused on the practical and more on the big picture… and I guess I like the nitty gritty :) The “change” that has stuck with me the most, though, has really stuck with me: “we ignore our flesh and blood.” I think about it every time I’m tempted to pick up my phone while driving.

24. Lilac Girls | I don’t believe I’ve ever read fiction told from the perspective of a Nazi, which made this novel set in World War II an interesting addition to the genre. If you enjoy stories from this era (The Nightingale, anyone?) you’ll eat up this weaving together of three distinct, yet entwined, narratives.

25. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry | Highly recommended by a dear friend, this novel felt jangly, chaotic, and a little too self-aware at first, but I ended up loving it (though I did find the idea of classmates writing such horrible notes to a fellow 7-year-old – and no grown-up stepping in – hard to stomach). The way it weaves together and unveils the house residents and Miamas kingdoms is magic!

26. Save Me the Plums* | A delightful read. Ruth’s writing is simple but rich, and as a former magazine editor, it was so fun to get the behind-the-scenes details of her time at Gourmet.

27. God and Money* | This was a thought-provoking read, and has already stimulated conversation between John and me. The authors focus a lot on wealth and consumption “finish lines,” ideas I both chafe against and want to embrace.

28. The Handmaid and the Carpenter | A short little book bringing Mary and Joseph’s story to life. Elizabeth Berg is a favorite author of mine and it’s a treat to hear her take on this famous story!

29. The Great Alone* | One of my favorites from the year! Though there is tragedy and darkness woven throughout, it’s an epic, engrossing tale that ends on a bright note. Love, love, love.

30. Time to Parent* | I’m going to file this one under “good for her, not for me.” I agreed with most of her ideas about organizing our time and actions as parents, and there were some gems tucked in, but I’d say this book was a 101 level, and time organization is probably one of the things I’m better at in life. If you’re struggling to find time for all of your priorities as a parent, I think this would be a great read!

31. HRH: So Many Thoughts About Royal Style | A very sweet gift from my work Secret Santa, this has been the perfect read for lazy post-Christmas days (and has also totally gotten us back into The Crown!). I find her writing a little chatty (Can you imagine? Don’t you think?) but it’s a fun read.

32. Make Something Good Today* | I had the joy of reading Erin’s daily blog that inspired this book long before HGTV found her and Ben. Her writing was something special back then, and it shines here, too. I don’t think you need to care at all about their show to enjoy this book, though, of course, if you do, you’ll probably like it even more!

Whew! I hope you found something here to add to your TBR pile, or just to generally inspire a year of reading ahead! I’d love to hear a favorite book you read this year, if you’d like to share! Back with my 2021 list next week :)

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December 30, 2020 3:36 pm

I really enjoyed Erin and Ben’s memoir as well! I’ve started writing something good from everyday as a result. I also enjoyed Emily Ley’s book When Less Becomes More- it was a very fitting read for 2020.

Kelly Strawberry
December 31, 2020 9:01 am

Love this list and will add some to my ongoing reading list! My favorite from 2019 was The Great Alone and my favorite from 2020 was American Dirt. One to add to your passion reading about raising kids in nature is Balanced and Barefoot. I’m only one chapter in but it’s very eye-opening written from a child occupational therapist.

Kelly Strawberry
January 4, 2021 2:07 pm
Reply to  Em

Ok, I finished Balanced and Barefoot – good quick read but it’s kind of repetitive and repeats a lot we already know about kids in nature. So maybe don’t add that one. :)

December 31, 2020 10:12 am

I’m so grateful that you shared The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry earlier this year because it was one of my most life-changing reads of 2020! Outside of scripture, I don’t think I’ve ever interacted more with a text as I’ve read :)

December 31, 2020 4:32 pm

Really enjoyed your list and commentary! Such a Fun Age was hands down my favorite fiction of the year, with Ruthless Elimination of Hurry coming in at #1 for non-fiction. Now, I just want to find the time read through my notes and actually implement what I read…that always seems to be the hardest part of reading a life-changing book for me!

Abigail Gray
December 31, 2020 4:50 pm

Love this list! Just Mercy was a 2019 favorite for me and I am so glad it was impactful for you, too. Long Bright River is a 2020 favorite for me, too – especially as a current resident of Philadelphia, it has been so wonderful to see the book take off! I have a bit of a controversial opinion on The Great Alone: I didn’t love it. I LOVED Educated and Crawdads so I was eager to read it, but I felt like it was a series of unfortunate events and the ending was too far fetched for me to come around. There were plot points that made me want to shout “come on!”. I know I am in the minority on this, though, and I am so glad it worked for you and most others! Also definitely made me want to visit Alaska :) I highly recommend This Tender Land – excellent descriptive writing, and I think it could fit into the Crawdads-Educated-Great Alone triumvirate in a lot of ways. I also read and loved A Gentleman in Moscow this year – fantastic writing, characters, and world-building. My fiance read it this past week and it was so fun to re-live my favorite scenes through discussion! Looking forward to your 2021 list!

December 31, 2020 6:53 pm

Loved reading this!! You inspired me to write my own :)
I read the Paris Wife too, and agree that reading a lot of Hemingway is somewhat of a prerequisite. I didn’t love the Lilac Girls as much as you – I think because it didn’t live up to All the Light We Cannot See, which was my only other foray into WWII fiction (you MUST read it if you haven’t!!). The Nightingale and Great Alone are up next on my list for 2021!!

January 1, 2021 10:58 am

I sometimes think it’s more fun hearing about books people didn’t enjoy more than about the ones they did, so I appreciate your honest thoughts! I fully expected to love Giver of Stars, based on reviews, friends’ recommendations, and the fact that I’m a librarian, but I agree — it was just ok. I’m partway through HRH right now, and also keep getting distracted by the chatty writing style, but I think I was more prepared for it since I’ve been following her Instagram series for a long time. A favorite from this year was American Royals: light and fluffy, but with some fun historical details to build this world (like that because America has a royal family, other European countries did not subsequently have revolutions/also still have royal families).

[…] Turns out, I loved everything about this project – turns out, it was one of my favorite things about 2020! I did, indeed, hold the plan loosely, especially when libraries closed for several months, and ended up reading 17 of my planned 24 books. Because of it, I was much more thoughtful about the mix of books I read – dipping into a wider variety of authors, subjects, depths, and modes than I would have had I just been at the whim of my library requested-books queue. […]