We all have different coping mechanisms for this pandemic. Recently, I told a friend I was reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers (a Pulitzer prize winning book about trash collectors who live in Mumbai’s slums) and she replied, “are you sure you don’t want to read something a bit lighter in times like these?”
I paused for a moment, and then decided to dive into the book anyway. And I’m glad I did. It helped me, actually. I can appreciate that reading heavy material is not for everyone. But reading stories of people enduring great difficulty has actually brought me a lot of comfort during this time; it’s taken me out of my own small stage, as Chesterton put it, and onto a street full of splendid strangers. I’ve been grateful to befriend some strangers in the pages of these books, and for the tender invitation to hear their stories, their anger, and their resilience.
One of the deep frustrations of the past year has been the way life has been forcibly put on pause, and my own powerlessness to “unpause” anything about it. I coped with that frustration by picking up books about the lives of others, I was reminded that losing years of our lives, or even whole lifetimes, to forces beyond our control is a big theme in the human story.
So with that in mind, I decided to curate this list of my favorite recently-read books based on that question: did this book help me to remember that other people have been through great hardship, upheaval and loss? Did this book make me feel less alone as a result? If the answer was yes, it was added to the list. So here goes.
First, a few incredible novels (historical fiction):
Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Ingrid Rojas Contreras)
This is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. An essay of hers, “Translation as an Arithmetic of Loss”, led me to read this book, and I’m so glad I did. The Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a haunting story filled with expressions of the beauty and fear of being a young child in the midst of upheaval. The novel is loosely based on the author’s own childhood experiences growing up in Columbia.
The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen)
A riveting spy novel about the American War (this is what Vietnamese people call the Vietnam War), this book is full of adrenaline, double agents, the tension of being caught between two worlds, and a lively critique of Hollywood’s Apocalypse Now and its depiction of Vietnamese people. The Sympathizer received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was well deserved. I think this book will eventually be seen as an American classic.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (Cho Nam-Joo)
This one is a quick read; it highlights the experience of being a woman in the workforce in South Korea.
First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks (Habiburahman)
After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America (Jessica Goudeau)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Katherine Boo)
We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories (Emei Burell)
A graphic novel telling a woman’s story of coming of age during the final years of China’s cultural revolution. This set of stories, and in particular the fact that a whole generation of young people was forced to leave their homes and families for a decade, really put this whole current “pause” of ours in perspective for me.
Down and Out in Paris and London (George Orwell)
Imagine a version of Anthony Bourdain, but he’s in 1930s France, he has no money, and he goes from having a job washing dishes, to being jobless and homeless on the streets of London. It’s a book brimming with interesting people, vivid descriptions, and incisive social commentary critiquing the way homeless and impoverished men were treated like criminals.
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson)
This book draws from the history of systemic racism around the world, and links it to the way systemic racism plays out in the US. Wilkerson also illustrates the way the US’s chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws actually served as inspiration for the Nazi persecution of Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s. The book uses the language of caste rather than the typical terms such as Black and white, and that language choice provides a helpful new lens for evaluating familiar systems.
American authors writing about life experiences that are different from my own:
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Chris Arnade)
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (Cathy Park Hong)
“Three Chinese laborers died for every two miles of track built to make Manifest Destiny a reality, but when the celebratory photo of the Golden Spike was taken, not a single Chinese man was welcome to pose with the other—white—railway workers.”
Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body (Roxane Gay)
Roxane Gay writes about being a victim of a horrific act of violence at a young age, and the ways it has shaped her life, her experience of the world, and her view of her own body. Hunger book offers a window into the world of weight discrimination and racism, and it is a pointed reminder of the way society fails victims of abuse and often leaves them alone to bear the weight of their suffering.
Men We Reaped (Jesmyn Ward)
This book is a memoir of growing up in Mississippi; it’s written as a memorial of four young men in Ward’s life who died tragic deaths. The book serves as a reminder of the way systemic inequality makes living so difficult and dangerous for young black men.
Blessed are the Nones: Mixed Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community (Stina Kielsmeier-Cook)
“I wonder if the work of love begins when our ideals shatter, when we’re forced to sort through the broken pieces together.”
Blessed are the Nones is an intimate and vulnerable reflection on a mid-life crisis of sorts: the challenge of loving and remaining committed to a partner whose no longer shares the same religious faith. This book is about mixed faith marriage, but its reflections are applicable far beyond marriage relationships. What does it really mean to love and remain committed to someone who sees the world differently than you do?
Thick: And Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom)
One of the best essay collections I’ve ever read. Cottom is an amazing writer and her words are full of fire.
Favorite Theology books I read this year:
Mujerista Theology (Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz)
“Mujerista theology denounces any and all so-called objectivity. … Instead of objectivity what we should be claiming is responsibility for our subjectivity. All theology has to start with self-disclosure.”
The Cross and the Lynching Tree (James H. Cone)
“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.”
Books for Fun, Comfort, or Nostalgia:
Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (Anne Lamott)
If ever there was a year for a book like this, it’s 2020. I read this at the start of the pandemic and it was a comfort. I’ll be circling back to it before long, I expect.
Save Me the Plums and Garlic and Sapphires (both by Ruth Reichl)
Both of these books were a delightful escape from reality. Save Me the Plums is fun peek into the magazine publishing industry and the quirky personalities Reichl encounters in her position as editor of Gourmet magazine. Garlic and Sapphires is Reichl’s story of becoming the NYT restaurant reviewer, and her extensive efforts to disguise herself and go into character in order to review restaurants without being recognized. The book is full of sharp observations about human behavior and food, but it’s also just a lot of fun to read.
The Bride Test (Helen Hoang)
A fun romance novel featuring an autistic character, and centered around families in the U.S. Vietnamese diaspora.
Superman Smashes the Klan (Gene Luen Yang)
A graphic novel blending historic events from the early 1900s with the Superman story. Really fun read.
Smile, Sisters, Guts (Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel series)
These books brought up a lot of memories of young adulthood. Reading Smile, especially, reminded me of how it felt to have braces, down to the aching jaw cinched up with rubber bands. This series jogged a lot of memories, and also reminded me that I survived being a middle schooler! Definitely planning to read these with my kids when they’re middle school age.
Plus: Some of my favorite kids’ picture books this year
Sulwe (this book addresses colorism and anti-blackness, and it does so beautifully)
Last Stop on Market Street (poignant story of a child and grandmother who eat at a food bank kitchen)
The Book Itch (true story of a famous Harlem bookstore)
The Day You Begin (a book for kids on their first day of school, especially for those who feel different from their classmates)
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya (this is a remarkable story about a woman who worked to reforest a significant part of her country)
Dreamers (a story of a mother and child discovering a library for the first time)
Freedom in Congo Square (a book about music, Sunday markets, and resistance)
The Red Pencil (Andrea Davis Pinkney)
The story of a Sudanese girl who is displaced by violence, and her fight to seek an education while she lives and waits in a refugee camp.
For the full list of books I read this year (there were many other good ones that I didn’t list on the blog)