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Favorite Reads of 2020

Sunday, January 10, 2021

I read lots of great stuff this year, so let's get into it! If you are interested in the full list of what I read then check out this post.

I was able to get my favorites to a list of ten (ish), but first, some random thoughts.

Two non-fiction books that felt life changing, and were extremely motivating, but over time I had a hard time implementing lasting changes:

  • Tiny Habits by B. J. Fogg - I've read a bunch of these self-help-ish books about habits, and this is by far the best, because it defies the category. It's a complete framework, based on actual original research done by the author (a researcher at Stanford), whereas most of the others just compile quotes and ideas from others.
  • How Not To Diet by Michael Greger - I've also read a bunch of "diet"/nutrition books and this is also best of breed. He has compiled so much research, and backs up virtually every assertion with solid studies on the applicable topic. He also is careful not to go past what the science actually can support, as opposed to a lot of books about nutrition that make extravagant promises and claims that really aren't supported.

Political-ish books that I really enjoyed and felt like I learned a lot from:

  • Let the People Pick the President by Jesse Wegman - digs into the history of the electoral college, the arguments the founders had at the time about it, and while it didn't make a lot of sense at the time, it certainly doesn't make sense today. I really enjoyed the format too, where he picks apart the various arguments for the electoral college in detailed responses. Very enlightening.
  • Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein - one of my favorites. I feel like it should be required reading to help understand how we got here. Things weren't always like this, and this books does a lot to explain what happened.
  • Open Borders by Bryan Caplan - so this is actually a graphic novel of sorts. He basically breaks down all of the arguments surrounding immigration policy in a really engaging, yet thorough way. Can be read in a couple of sittings, but presents a lot of eye opening data and statistics that really made me reconsider what I thought I knew about immigration.
  • Crime in Progress by Glenn R. Simpson and Peter Fritsch - So this is about the now infamous Steele Dossier and Fusion GPS (the investigative firm initially hired by republicans during the primaries, and then later hired by the DNC once Trump won the nomination). This whole topic is frustrating because of the partisan nonsense surrounding it. It was actually refreshing to get more details from behind the scenes about what happened from the perspective of the people who actually were involved. It added a lot of nuance and perspective to the topic that felt missing from the public discourse at the time. Probably not as relevant now (don't we all just want to move on?) but if you're interested in the topic, this was a good read.
  • UnTrumping America by Dan Pfeiffer - speaking of moving on. The title speaks for itself. I'm sure you can figure out if something like this interests you or not. I enjoyed the read, for what it's worth.
  • The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato - this is more academic than any of the other books on this list, and shouldn't even be considered political, but unfortunately these topics are. It's about the role the government has played in investment and innovation throughout our history (as well as those in other countries), and how the narrative around innovation often leaves this part of the story untold. We have an idea in America of the bold and risk-taking innovators who get things done and create massive change through their work, but the reality is often that the government played a critical role in early stages of technological development, that then created the space for others to build and innovate further. Apple is a good example that we are all familiar with: GPS, touch screen technology, voice recognition (which led to Siri), the internet itself all came from government funded research. No government investment, no iPhone. Similarly the algorithm which helped create Google's search engine was funded by the US National Science Foundation. There are lots of examples, and the book is great. She doesn't just dig into the history, she also looks forward at the technologies and sectors that will require investment moving forward if our society and country hopes to continue to prosper.
  • Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum - about the rise of authoritarianism throughout the world, with three main examples: Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The author is an award winning historian of Soviet atrocities, and her perspective on the crisis of democracy we are seeing around the world is quite stark. It's a short book, and well worth the read.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is the final book in her Cromwell trilogy (I've written previously about Wolf Hall and Bringing Out the Bodies), and I felt like I needed to at least touch on it. Basically, I struggled with this final book. I absolutely loved the first two, and was so excited to read this one, but it was long and it felt long. I was ultimately glad I finished the journey, but it didn't have the same energy or propulsive feeling and excitement that the first two books in the series had. I don't know if that was because of the mindset I was in, or something else, but that was my experience. I still recommend the series wholeheartedly, and I think this last book is excellent and worthwhile, but it was not an easy read for me.

A few honorable mentions released this year, that were all popular, quite enjoyable, but didn't crack my top ten:

  • Anxious People by Frederick Bachman (please read A Man Called Ove first if you haven't read that yet)
  • Midnight Library by Matt Haig - I really loved this premise. What if you could see the different branches of your different lives based on different choices? What if you could actually try and live all of those different lives to see which one suited you best? 
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - this is a neat little book. I'm not sure what to say about it, other than that I liked it and it was surprising, and original. 
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman - this felt like a cozy little mystery. Some foul play occurs near a retirement home in England, and some very enterprising members of that community set out to untangle the mystery. Delightful.

And now for the top ten:

10. Locke and Key vols. 1-6

Whatever Joe Hill is usually excellent, and this is no exception. I find that most people I know watched the Netflix series, so they have some familiarity with the story, but the series of graphic novels are truly exceptional. The way the characters and the story evolves, the way the lore is deepened, and ultimately how everything comes together at the end, made this one of my favorite reading experiences of the year. The last volume is especially breathtaking.

It's definitely grisly, with adult language and themes, but if you can handle that, then I think this is worth the journey.

9. Breath by James Nestor

You're probably breathing wrong. This book goes into the science of breathing, as well as explores many of the more mystical traditions where breathing plays a central role. Besides being fascinated by this topic, the author really committed to the journey, and experimented and tried to live many of the things he was learning about and reporting, which made it feel like I was on the journey with him. It wasn't just a dry recitation of our most recent scientific understanding, it was an adventure. 

8. Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

Speaking of science. I listened to this one on a car trip, and it was narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch. Definitely can recommend that consumption method.

This book is about Time. It dips into our current understanding of quantum physics, relativity, and a bunch of other scientific disciplines that are way too complex for me to understand, even though I'm endlessly fascinated by them. What I loved about this book, is how accessible it was for me. He builds your understanding brick by brick, finding elegant comparisons or allegories for complex concepts, in a way that allowed me to actually follow what he was talking about.

Also this book just blew my mind. Did you know that time doesn't exist as we think it does? There is no such thing as uniform time in the universe. There isn't even a single thing we can call time on earth (time moves slower or faster based on elevation levels and speed). Anyway, you're probably smarter than I am and knew this stuff, but I loved thinking about these things, and this book does a great job of walking you through it.

7. Satari by Don Winslow

All right, so we need to talk about Don Winslow again. I read six of his books this year, and it was a delight. He is one of my favorite authors and I basically love all of his books. The books of his I read this year are:

  • The Dawn Patrol
  • The Gentleman's Hour
  • The Winter of Frankie Machine
  • California Fire and Life
  • Satori
  • Broken

Satori is a prequel to a novel called Shibumi, which is a classic spy novel published in 1979. The main character is Nicolai Hel, a westerner born in Shanghai, raised all over. He is a master Go-player and assassin. After reading this book I bought a fancy Go board and tried to learn the game, although I did not take up any assassinating.

Basically, Don Winslow is the best, and if you like a good old fashioned spy story, then I think you'll love Satori. 

I thought about including Broken on my list (it was just as enjoyable for me), but ultimately decided against it since it is a collection of short stories/novellas that contain a lot of characters from Winslow's other books. I don't think it's the best starting point for someone who has never read his work. If you have read his other books, then Broken is incredibly satisfying, as loads of people you love show up (sometimes unexpectedly), and the stories themselves are excellent. 

Read more Don Winslow. There's your 2021 resolution.

6. Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby

The best crime novel I read this year, and maybe one of the best from the last several. I couldn't put it down. It was emotional, exhilarating, exciting, crushing, moving, etc. etc. etc. Just look at the blurbs and the cover description:

Yeah, it was really good.


5. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I wasn't planning on reading this in 2020 (it's LONG), but it came up sooner than expected on my library holds so I dove in. It only covers the first few years of his first term (through getting Bin Laden) and it's still 800+ pages, yet I blew through it in a matter of days. It is incredibly well written, and I found myself really drawn in to the behind the scenes experiences.

The big takeaway for me is that reality, life, and of course our politics, is all much more complicated than we really understand. So many of us think that we know how the world works, or why things are a certain way, but this book helped me see more of the grey. I remember being very critical of Obama, especially during this period, and maybe it's just age, or a different perspective (given recent events), but it was very helpful for me to see some of the behind the scenes logic behind publicly controversial decisions. The negotiations and concessions that had to be made, and just how difficult it is to make everyone happy. To get anything done requires heroic compromise, and that left everyone feeling unhappy with the outcome. It's truly incredible how much they were able to accomplish given the circumstances they faced.

Highly recommend for both sides of the political spectrum.

4. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

This book is incredibly powerful. The book examines and compares three caste systems: Nazi Germany, India, and the United States of America. It properly puts race and racism into the context of what really is a larger caste system, very like the other two systems she examines. Race and caste are not synonymous, rather according to the author they "can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin" (source).

Her book breaks down eight pillars of caste, and then presents many historical (and some too painfully present) examples from all three of the societies in question. A lot of this book is painful reading, but it is also always illuminating. I believe this is a necessary read for everyone in America.

3. The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V. E. Schwab

I wasn't expecting to love this book as much as I did. It's about a woman who made a deal with a devil of sorts, that ended up so no one ever remembered her. If they leave the room and come back, they don't know who she is or why she is there. She can leave no permanent mark on the world. She survives hundreds of years like that, and then suddenly someone remembers her. 

This book is romantic. It's whimsical. It's dark at times. Funny at others. It takes the great premise and uses it as a way to dig deep on interesting characters, and the human experience itself. Another long book that was just a pleasure to read the whole way through.

2. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

One of my favorite protagonists in a long time, in a setting that is unlike any other fantasy novel that tackles this premise (magical school/university). I got so invested in her journey, her success, her friendships, and relationships. I was rooting for her the whole way through and was delighted as the story progressed. The magic system is also very good, and unlike anything I've seen before.

So much fun to read. I cannot wait for the next entry in the series!

1. A Gentleman in Moscow (Honorable mention Rules of Civility) by Amor Towles

Easily one of the best books I've read in years. I recommend it to people constantly. It is so wholesome, so uplifting, just so much fun. Here is the blurb description, which I think sums it up nicely:

A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

This book is life affirming. It made me want to live more fully and expansively. I just fell in love with all of the characters and wasn't ready for it to end. I dare you to read this book and not love it.

And that's that! Here's to 2021.

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