I read (and more importantly, tracked or reviewed) at least 50 proper books between 2020 and 2021, which for me is a lot! It comes to a book every two weeks on average, which feels like a lot when there is an entire internet that could be trawled instead. I feel like that needs to be celebrated with a rundown. So I made a list organised by theme, a little shortcut to some of the smartest, most illuminating things I read over 2020–21 that I truly enjoyed and perhaps you might as well.
Favourite books on science:
If Our Bodies Could Talk by James Hamblin. If awards were given for clear, concise non-fiction writing that is also memorable, the Atlantic’s doctor on staff would win for his service to humanity (and comedy). This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the world based in scientific fact and actually retain that knowledge through laughter and vividness of prose.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. I read this in the throes of a twelve hour mid-pandemic airport layover, quarantined alone in a large hall with some of the worst menstrual cramps of my life…and no internet. Perfect reading conditions aside, this is an excellent book for anyone who has ever been in (or is curious about being in) therapy. Through a series of pointed examples and her own experience as a therapist who also has a therapist, Gottlieb explores the patient-therapist relationship and its nuances, complications and implications. Gottlieb is also incidentally a columnist for The Atlantic (what is with their excellent, cogent journalism), so her prose is as much a delight as the lines of thought behind it.
Books that make you laugh, cry and question how much you are really observing in your own life:
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Japanese Breakfast’s lead vocalist shows through her incredible power of observation and feeling what it is that makes her such a powerful artist. If you want to read a book that drops you into someone else’s body and makes you laugh and cry and be ever so grateful for everything you have, this is the one.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. An absolutely hilarious book about being an Indian American woman and all the tensions it brings. Scaachi’s spitfire wit and razorblade observations make you feel all the feelings and give you a glimpse into the mind of an acutely intelligent, opinionated human being. Highly recommend.
Writers and Lovers by Lily King. A tremendously rich book, so well written and contextualised, I had trouble believing it wasn’t a memoir. One day, I want to write a book that digs in to my core like this one did. Like all the books in this category, highly recommend.
Favourite books on writing:
Welcome to the Writer’s Life by Paulette Perhach. A practical book on the process of making a writing career work for you in whatever stage of writing you’re at: as your second, non-paid job, as part of community, as a freelancer. This book has answers to all the questions you can ask as a writer starting out or even well into your life as a writer.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. If you’re into writing and you’re into mindfulness, this is a great book to connect the two and give yourself permission to write as a spiritual practice. A corollary to The Artist’s Way, and one I found myself relating to quite well for practice, process and technique.
Favourite book on urban planning:
Streetfight by Jeanette Sadik Khan. Urban planning isn’t everyone’s jam, and I get that, but if you want to learn about why using even just cheap paint to model a bike lane can make the road safer for everyone, or how following worn out paths in grass and removing paid street parking can make a city friendlier, more accessible and more profitable for everyone, this is the book to read. Many of the interventions in your city have a reason behind them (or haven’t been thought of at all), and understanding them as a citizen helps make them work so much better.
Books to learn about the world of food:
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. A classic for a reason and the one that started the eponymous genre. If you can keep up with Bourdain’s swearing, ostensibly cocaine-fueled prose, this is the place to start.
Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding. Riveting, rollicking writing by one of my favourite food writers of all time (after, of course, Bourdain). Goulding’s essays about the processes and relationships in play in Japanese cooking is illuminating for anyone who likes to know more about the science, politics and environmental context behind food. This is the first in his trilogy on different countries and the history behind their cuisines, and by far my favourite.
A book that makes you angry, but in a good way:
Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly. In my life, there is a before and after, and this book marks the inflection point. As a woman in my late twenties when I read this, I learnt so, so much about the ways in which women are socialised and given permission to express their anger. Is this book about anger, you ask? No, it is about so much more — emotional labour, likeability versus freedom of expression, and accountability. Chemaly’s central thesis is that women’s anger is something to be respected, inherently valued, and allowed to lead the way forward so that society does not perpetuate or repeat historic injustices. These are powerful lessons anyone can find value in, and this book reminded me that it was not only ok but important for me to pay attention to the things that riled me up.
A book about meditation if you don’t believe in meditation:
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren and Carlye Adler. A former news anchor and a meditation teacher with ADD ride a tour bus through the US to answer people’s most common questions about meditation. Sound like the setup for a joke? Well, that’s the intention of the book: to elucidate the flowy-robe-fearing sceptic (NB: British spelling) about meditation as something that works best when put into action in real life, not as something done in maimed isolation on the top of a mountain. After 27+ years of hearing about and not really understanding how meditation could work for (fidgety sceptics like) me, this is the book that started to unlock some of the keys of mindfulness in my everyday life and allow me to just sit with my feelings (of which there are clearly a lot). This is not an ad, but over a year and a half after reading this and doing meditations on the companion (paid) app, I feel more grounded, sleep better, and am so much more interoceptively aware of what’s going on within and around me. And probably the biggest thing — I’m no longer afraid of whatever eternal, internal churnings life brings through.
And finally, not books but newsletters:
Anything by Craig Mod. I am a big fan of Craig Mod’s easy, personal style and his sheer ability to write (2,000-word daily newsletters while walking 20 km between towns?!) Though we have maybe zero things in common — he is a tech person with a US upbringing living in Japan, with an excellent habit of taking notes (which is probably what helps his prolific writing, so maybe I should…take note? Ha), while I am a poetry-type living on the exact other end of the globe with negligible organisation system for my own scattered musings — I read his many pop-up newsletters along the year like an old school novel, released one mini-chapter a day. Craig, who has built a steady supportive audience over years of writing, makes me believe in the power of doing something consistently and intelligently for a long time. Just…read his stuff.
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. Alicia is one of the smartest food writers I know, and I really look forward to her newsletters each week. There is no escaping that food is political, but did you know how exactly your choice to buy Jif no-stir peanut butter or chef-loved Diamond Crystal salt contributes to exploitation around the world? Many of us reading this may want (and be able) to buy better, but the information isn’t always out there. Alicia brings together the personal and political to provide a very sane weekly account to inform those spending decisions. She too, is prolific and she is my hero.
What about you? Do you have any absolute recommends from this past year?