Favorite Reads of 2020

It doesn’t really need to be said again… but wowza! 2020 was a YEAR. Even with all of the emotional ups and downs of the pandemic year (plus finishing graduate school remotely, virtual graduation, moving to a new town, and starting a new job), I still managed to read some great books.

In fact, I read more books this year than ever before! According to my Goodreads Annual Reading Challenge, I have finished 81 books. 

This was the year of audiobooks for me – I read/listened to about 35 audiobooks. Thanks to the Libby app and library cards, I borrowed many audiobooks each month. I tend to listen to audiobooks when I am driving (anything more than 10 minutes), cleaning, cooking, or doing dishes. In the fall, I listened to many while walking around my new neighborhood. 

About half of the books I read this year were physical copy and, unlike other years,  I read fewer than 10 books on my Kindle. I didn’t actually finish many Kindle books, as I tended to use my Kindle for a lot of reading for school. I like the highlighting and note taking feature on Kindle books and it helped when writing papers for graduate school. Most of my school reading isn’t counted in my books read tally because I didn’t usually read a book cover to cover (no cheating for me!).

Here are my favorite books I read in 2020, organized by date read.

The first four books were all included as favorites on my mid-year reading update. Here is a link to that blog post.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Dates read: January 22-29, 2020
Originally published September 2019, The Dutch House was all over Bookstagram (Instagram accounts dedicated to reading) at the close of 2019. Prior to The Dutch House, I had only read one other book by Ann Patchett, Commonwealth. Patchett is a wonderful storyteller. The Dutch House became one of my most recommended books of the year, anytime someone wanted to read or listen to a fiction book. The audiobook is read by Tom Hanks, and it is lovely.

The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister
Dates read: March 17-19, 2020
I wanted to read this book after it was mentioned on my syllabus for the introductory preaching course I took in the fall of 2019 at Yale Divinity School with Prof. Carolyn Sharp. I read The Time is Now in the early days of the pandemic. The chapters are very short and easy to read, almost like blog posts. It was my first introduction to Sister Joan Chittister’s writing, and I have since added several of her books to my to-read list. Sr. Joan writes in an easy to read style; this book would be great for a small group book study and discussion.

The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen
Dates read: March 20 – May 23, 2020
Another early pandemic read, I savored The Genesee Diary, reading a few pages each day. From my mid-year write up: “It was a wonderful book to savor. It really is a diary of Nouwen’s seven-month sabbatical at Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. Nouwen is self-reflective, without being too self-conscious, and examines the busyness of his normal daily life as an academic.” I do recommend this book, but not for those who haven’t read anything else by Henri Nouwen. I think this book would be best appreciated after some familiarity of his other writings. Life of the Beloved or The Wounded Healer are two of his more popular books.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
First read in 2006
Dates re-read: June 9-12, 2020

I don’t know what it was… early in 2020 I started thinking about The Catcher in the Rye, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Holden Caulfield. I don’t think I had ever re-read a book before and now I am curious what else I should re-read. I hardly remembered any of the book from my initial reading while in high school. In re-reading, I was surprised at the prevalence of mental health issues apparent in Holden’s behavior and those he interacts with. I think when I first read The Catcher in the Rye as a young teenager I probably skimmed over the death of Holden’s brother and the suicide of his classmate. Re-reading The Catcher in the Rye gave me a lot to think about.

Franny & Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Dates read: October 9-10, 2020
As soon I read The Catcher in the Rye, I knew I would soon follow it with Franny & Zooey. I received a lovely used copy of this book a few years ago. I felt like it was just waiting on my shelf for this year. Franny & Zooey was a wonderful follow-up to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye over the summer. Franny is a short story and Zooey is a novella. I think that both were originally published in The New Yorker, in 1955 and 1957, respectively.

From my Goodreads review: “I love the way Salinger writes dialogue. As a reader you are drawn into monologues and quips and so many other verbal spars. The Glass family is easy to imagine. If you liked Catcher in the Rye, I think you will like this. Religion plays an interesting role in the essays. Poor Franny. All the men in her life are constantly mansplaining her. Just let the poor girl have a quarter life crisis. And don’t even get me started on the relationship between Bessie and her children. So strange.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
Dates read: July 18-25, 2020
I saw a friend post about this book in 2019, and it had been on my radar ever since. Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful ode to the prairie lands of America. Her words paint brushstrokes of the natural environment and human isolation. I felt like the week I spent reading this book was actually a full year soaking in the seasons of the Plains. She does an incredible job detailing the weather and landscapes. This was my first time reading a book by Kathleen Norris, but I’ve already added another book of hers to my to-read list. In a year of limited travel due to the pandemic, I felt like I was transported to the Dakotas thanks to Kathleen Norris’ writing.

“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris, page 121

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
Dates read: October 27-30, 2020
I am not a regular podcast listener, but I do enjoy occasionally listening to episodes of On Being, a public radio conversation and podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett. Many of the people she interviews on the podcast and the topics she discusses are both of personal and professional interest. I was very glad to be able to borrow this audiobook through Libby. I enjoyed the audiobook because it was read by the author and included snippets from the podcast. However, one bookish friend of mine commented that it was too much to take in and hard to listen to. Whichever way you read this book, I do recommend Becoming Wise. There is so much wisdom and life experience shared by those she interviews. Those who are already fans of Krista Tippett may also appreciate the personal life stories she shares scattered throughout.

Barack Obama Book Club
In November, I did a deep dive into the world of Barack Obama. I knew that his newest memoir was being released in November, 2020. I decided spur of the moment to read/listen to his two previous memoirs before reading A Promised Land. All three books were favorites for the year.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Dates read: November 11-13, 2020
Originally published in 1995 and re-released in 2004, this book had been on my radar for a while. Barack Obama is a great storyteller, and he doesn’t linger in one place too long when describing things for the reader. I thought Dreams from My Father had a great flow and enjoyed listening to it. Obviously, listening in 2020 was interesting because Obama’s commentary on race is actually very mild. Don’t expect to hear the phrase Black Lives Matter. Context is also important. This book was written “pre-politics” and he doesn’t write about his graduate studies at Harvard or anything beyond that time.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
Date read: November 17, 2020
Again publication date is important when reading Barack Obama’s work. The Audacity of Hope was first published in fall 2006. I continued to be impressed by Obama’s concise storytelling. He doesn’t repeat much between any three of these books.

From my review on Goodreads: “This is not Barack Obama running for President, or at least that’s not exactly what he thinks. At the time he wrote this book as a way to “finance” his campaign for US Senate. I put finance in quotes because he already won the campaign. He says that it was just part of his pitch to Michelle for how he could help their family financially after running a big campaign. Before he realized that the BIGGEST campaign lay ahead.
The Audacity of Hope is idealistic first term Senator Obama. He writes about his respect for President George W. Bush. Obama the optimist writes a lot about values. The values of the Founding Fathers, shared values, values that were instilled in him by his mother, etc. All sorts of values.
The optimistic Obama sees the government as the place where people can work together for good. He also talks about how President Bush and the people around him were just everyday people trying to make the best decisions they knew how.”

A Promised Land
Dates read: November 17-27, 2020
After so many hours of listening to Barack Obama read his work, I never grew tired of his voice and his storytelling. My own political coming of age coincided with Barack Obama’s presidency. I was aware of many of the events that he talked about, but obviously learned a lot from the level of detail he provided with his reflections.  I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book where Obama explains just how improbable his quick ascension to running for the highest office in our country was.
I was captivated and very interested through the election and his first days in office. I’m not a policy wonk though so the intricate details on Affordable Healthcare and some of the energy policy were not as interesting. His choice to split this memoir into two parts was smart. He keeps a good balance of storytelling, nothing too long and doesn’t try to cover too much ground.

I hope that my reading recap inspires you and your reading life in the year ahead!
Do we share any favorites? Please let me know.

Reflection on 30 days without social media

On the afternoon of July 8th I deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter apps from my phone and then I logged out of all accounts on my computer. I was determined to stay off of social media for the next 30 days. This social media detox was inspired from reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Even before reading Newport’s book, I had been thinking about my social media consumption. I had begun falling victim to sitting down to look up one thing on my phone and the next thing I knew I had been scrolling for over an hour!

Digital Minimalism was a quick read (I read most of it poolside the week of 4th of July). One part of the book that resonated with me the most was the contrast of high quality leisure time versus low quality leisure time. Personally, spending a large amount of time on social media felt like time was wasting away. Newport suggests the 30 day detox as a time of intentionality. He advises spending time during the detox considering how to you want to spend your free time and what habits or relationships you want with social media if you return at the end of the break.

I began the detox with a goal of spending more time reading books for fun. I had already done a good amount during my summer break. I read 10 books from May 19 to July 5. I also had a few small projects around my apartment that I hoped to carve out time to work on.

The first few days of the detox I felt a physical urge to scroll on my phone, searching for the feeling and the validation of social media. Newport talks about this in Digital Minimalism so I felt prepared for this unpleasant feeling. He explains how social media sites want you to spend more time looking at them. The algorithms are formulated to keep you engaged by randomly showing you content they believe you will like/comment/share. Our natural instinct responds to this random feedback by continuing to scroll and hoping for that next endorphin boost when we see something we like or when we get a notification.

My biggest insight during the detox came during the final week. I realized that my month had been spent much more internally focused than my past few months had been. I felt like I was internally focused in a healthy reflective way, not a self-centered way. When I was not on social media, I was not constantly thinking about what other people were doing, what recipes they were sharing, or what articles they were recommending. My time was spent reflecting my own day and who I wanted to connect with or reach out to.

Overall, I was very happy with how my social media detox went. I reconnected with my love for reading. I finished 13 books in 30 days! I hosted my 1st game night at my apartment, having several friends over to my apartment for the first time in nearly two years. I completed several of the small projects I had around my apartment, even starting and finishing a small Ikea project, pictured here! Throughout the month, I cooked healthier meals, exercised more often, and slept better. I felt much less distracted at work and at home. Often when I returned to my apartment after work, I was amazed at how many hours there were in an evening when I wasn’t sucked into looking at my phone and wasn’t entering into the endless loop of social media.

Newport doesn’t talk very much about this in his book, but one of my biggest takeaways was reflecting on the natural size of a social network – the REAL physical social network. Is there a limit to how many people we can actually keep in touch with and keep strong connections with? I would suggest that yes there is a limit to how many people you can physically keep in touch with. Digital social networks want us to believe that we can keep in touch with everyone, every former classmate, every person you’ve ever met, every former colleague you’ve ever had. They can all be your friends! Newport showcases that many people have come to accept a large number of surface level relationships and possibly sacrifice higher quality relationships in the process. I don’t have an immediate answer, but it is something I will continue to think about.

It would be misleading to make it seem like this was the perfect month and I crossed everything off my to-do list. That was not the case! I had many ideas for things that I wanted to do and still didn’t carve out time for. But the social media detox helped me to realize what was most important to me. And I realized that what is most important to me is not found on social media.

Have you ever done a social media detox? What were your thoughts?

July 2018 Book Recap

July was a fun month of reading! I read 7 books this month. Some of the books pictured in this stack represent others because I already returned them to the library.

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It had been a while since my last graphic novel. So July started with The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. It was a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about the author’s family and immigrating from Vietnam. I knew next to nothing about Vietnam before or after the war. Bui does a great job of drawing connections between her childhood, her aspirations as a new mother, and the life her mother and father lived before she was born. The Best We Could Do has a contemplative quality to it and many of the illustrations encourage you to linger and consider their impact.

My next two July reads were the second and third books of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. I thought the middle book (China Rich Girlfriend) in the trilogy was better than the conclusion (Rich People Problems). But overall an interesting story that I enjoyed reading! I am looking forward to seeing the movie coming out soon. If you are looking for a late summer pool read, I recommend starting with Crazy Rich Asians, the first book in the trilogy.

After finishing the trilogy I took a little bit of time to decide what my next read would be. At the beginning of the summer I had made a list for myself of books that I wanted to read this summer. I considered a few from the list, but I ended up ordering A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was all over bookstagram last summer and it has a very memorable man crying on the cover. I had been thinking about reading it for over a year! It was just the kind of epic 800+ page novel that I needed to dive into. A Little Life is a book that will linger in my mind for a very long time. I fell in love with the four friends (Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude) and their journey, struggles and celebrations, through adulthood. Earlier in the summer I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and the characters in A Little Life reminded me a lot of Cyril Avery in different ways.

Maybe my next two reads were dissapointments because the shadow left by A Little Life was so big… I really wanted to like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Books about books are usually my favorite. I didn’t feel strong connections to Montag or any of the main characters in Fahrenheit 451. I wanted to see more from Clarisse and some of the other minor characters. I followed Bradbury with a new book that has been getting a lot of publicity, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Educated fell flat for me. Similar to Fahrenheit 451, I struggled to connect with any of the individuals. The abuse that Westover faced by her family was terrible, but I was concerned by the lack of analysis she gave to the actions of others. I would have liked to have seen a conclusion that looked back and more clearly articulated the abuses she suffered, rather than leaving it implied, especially related to the risky situations her father put her and her siblings in while working in the junk yard.

Finally, I was happy to end the month with a book that surpassed my expectations. I had my eye on The Power by Naomi Alderman since it was a Book of the Month club pick in October 2017. I purchased a used copy at the Book Barn in Niantic in May. It probably would have sat on myself unread for a while if it wasn’t for Kate McGuire. She told me that her book club in DC was going to read it. I decided to make it my next read in so that we could discuss it when I visited DC. As I said before, The Power pleasantly surprised me! I knew a little bit of the premise before reading, but the execution of the plot was incredible. I loved the themes that Alderman tackled and the way she handled them: patriarchy, human nature, religion, etc. If you like Sci-fi or dystopian fiction, I highly recommend The Power, especially if you like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu TV show.

I have one more month of summer “break” before the fall semester starts. Hopefully I can squeeze in a few more fun reads before it’s back to theology, exegesis, etc!

2017 Reading Challenge

In 2017 I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge and finished 53 books.

I had never done a reading challenge before. I started actively using Goodreads in the second half of 2016. I had seen others post about their progress on 2016 challenges and thought it would be a fun way to push myself to see how much I could read.

At the time that I started the challenge I was still working full time in Alexandria, VA and commuting from Petworth in Washington, DC. I took the metro to work, which gave me at least an hour and a half of uninterrupted reading time each day. Some days, thanks to metro delays, I had up to 3 hours of reading time!

I read 38 books before the beginning of July when I left my full time job and took a month long summer vacation. I started grad school full time in August and my reading for fun slowed immensely. Luckily I managed to finish 3 books during Thanksgiving break and 3 during Christmas break!

My best reading month was January when I finished 13 books. According to my reading challenge, my worst reading months were September and October when I didn’t finish any books. In reality, I was constantly reading for grad school, but I didn’t read the full text of any book.

My first suggestion to anyone who wants to read more: always carry a book with you. I tend to prefer physical books, but I always have at least one book downloaded on the Kindle app on my phone. I only read two books electronically in 2017. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout I read on my Kindle and Only Child by Rhiannon Navin was an electronic advance reader copy I received through Book of the Month that I read on my laptop.

I listened to one full audiobook in 2017, Hillbilly Elegy. When my parents helped me move from DC to New Haven, CT, we listened to it in the car. I have downloaded some other audio books from the library, but the jury is still undecided on whether audiobooks are my cup of tea.

I read 6 graphic novels and 1 book of poetry. I discovered a passion for graphic novels thanks to this reading challenge. Shout out to DC Public Library for their impressive collection of graphic novels. I hope to continue reading the Paper Girls series and would also like to finish the March series.

My second suggestion to anyone who wants to read more is to read what you enjoy. If I am 100 pages into a book, don’t like the characters and am not invested in the plot, I have no problems with putting it down. I know that I enjoy primarily fiction, 35 books I read this year were fiction. I enjoy family dramas, historical fiction, and science fiction.

I recognize that part of my ability to finish so many books in 2017 is that I am a fast reader. But I also actively chose to spend time reading. This meant I didn’t spend much time listening to podcasts or NPR. I also didn’t go to the movies more than 5 or 6 times all year. I enjoy reading and decided to prioritize it for this year.

My reading challenge for 2018 will be very different than 2017. In 2018, my challenge will be 12 books. I enjoyed seeing the quantity of books that I could finish in 2017, but I’d like to step outside my comfort zone in 2018. I want to work through some classics and I also want to read more of the Bible. Maybe I’ll even catch up on a few episodes of This American Life?

Happy reading!

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

First a bit of a backstory, I commute 45 minutes each way to work on the metro. I love to read and almost always carry at least one book with me. When I’m enjoying a book, in particular novels, I can usually finish them in a day or two. Thus I read A LOT of books. I often talk with friends and family trading book recommendations, but sometimes I’ve read so many books in the previous month they all start to blur together. Therefore my goal is to write at least a short book review for each book I read, which I can refer back to later when recommending future books!

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinStoriedLifeofAJFikry

This book arrived to me via my mother. I’m not sure how she received it or was recommended it. I finished it in early November 2015.

Honestly I didn’t know what to expect at first while reading this book. I was completely surprised by the package that shows up at A.J.’s store! I won’t ruin the surprise for other readers. The relationships throughout the book felt very real to me and I enjoyed the twists and turns in the plot.

One of my favorite characters in the book was Lambiase. I really enjoyed his perspective and his book club he started with fellow police officers. I also recently referenced the book club A.J. started with the women of the island where they read all the books about “wives.” For someone who reads a lot, I thought it was very funny!

I created a new genre in my mental library because of this novel, books about books. I decided that I love books about books, two other examples that I have read are: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour bookstore and People of the Book. One that is on my to read list: The Little Paris Bookshop. The author of Fikry compiled a list of the literary references within the book, viewable here.

TL;DR: Great book, definitely worth a read, especially if you like book stores!