My Favorite Books in 2020

“ . . . the books we read are more than just things. Somehow they become a part of who we are. A little piece of our soul.” –Mari-Jane Williams

Along with cycling and writing, reading is one of my very favorite things to do. That is why I have enjoyed sharing this annual post with my readers for the past five years. You can check out all of them at these links: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019

I read a lot—66 books in 2020. As the quote from Mari-Jane Williams says above, the books I read become a little piece of my soul. I grow and learn so much through reading. It is one of the ways I continue to self-educate. What a privilege it is to be able to do this throughout life!

I read mostly on Kindle these days. While I love libraries and love the cost savings they allow, as well as the look and feel of physical books, Kindle fits best most of the time during this season of life.

My Kindle is not a fancy one, and the cover is certainly showing some wear. This is my second one, after Logan or his friend Dakota stepped on my first one, already several years old, in 2017.

I have been saddened to notice how the apparently irresistible force of Logan’s phone and the Xbox have pulled him away from reading. I notice this in many of my students, too. I wonder how many read anything long form these days. How many adults do? I know I still have reading friends, and, if you are reading this post, you are likely a reader, too. Maybe you will be inspired to check out one of these titles. I hope so, and I hope those who are under the spell of electronics (I know. I read mostly on Kindle, and I am typing this on my laptop, where I have conveniently recorded my favorite books all year.) can somehow regain a love of reading. Logan used to love to read. Until it became too much work. That makes me sad.

But this is meant not to be a lament for nonreaders but an ode to readers and fuel (“Kindling,” if you will) for their fiery passion for books.

I have included in this post those books I awarded four or five stars on Goodreads. I read almost exclusively nonfiction, albeit a wide range of genres within nonfiction. Some of the categories overlap—especially memoir and personal development or psychology. We can learn and grow so much from reading each other’s stories. Your preferences may differ from mine. That is great. The main thing is to keep reading!

Business/Career

Difference: The one-page method for reimagining your business and reinventing your marketing, by Bernadette Jiwa—This was a short, easy read with simple, yet useful suggestions for creating a business based on empathy. This was the gist of the book—lead with empathy for those we serve. If doing work with purpose is important to you, this book can help

The End of Jobs: Money, Meaning and Freedom Without the 9-to-5, by Taylor Pearson—I debated about whether to give this book three for four stars. Finally, I decided on four because there was a lot of good information, and there were useful questions and exercises in the book. In general, the book is written for prospective or aspiring entrepreneurs, but there is an odd section that feels like it belongs in a different book. It is a long chapter providing details about how to hire an apprentice. The book explains that apprenticeship is a potential path into entrepreneurship, but this section feels like it was written for established entrepreneurs who may hire others to work in their businesses. Still, the book has value and earned its place in this post.


Getting There: A Book of Mentors
, edited by Gillian Zoe Segal—This was a really good book, full of interesting first-person accounts written or spoken (I’m not sure which.) by people who have achieved big things in a variety of careers. I really liked reading their insights and gained some pearls of wisdom.

Health

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, by Jo Marchant—This was an interesting and critical look at how our mind contributes to our well-being. It is written from the perspective of a scientist, not a New Age believer, yet she recognizes a place for mental wellness in physical health.

Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites, by Alexandra Levitt—Although written before the COVID-19 pandemic, I read this book during the early stages of our ongoing pandemic. It told an interesting story about the epidemiology behind solving tough outbreaks. I’m sure the “medical detectives” have been hard at work on this pandemic.

Even Vegans Die: A Practical Guide to Caregiving, Acceptance, and Protecting Your Legacy of Compassion, by Carol J. Adams—This book turned out to be different than I expected, but it deals with an important topic. I guess the subtitle should have been a clue. This book acknowledges that vegans may face guilt and shame if we have health problems. I can relate to the expectation (self-imposed or not) that I should have perfect health and stay effortlessly at a perfect weight, in order to represent vegans well. This is the first public discussion I have read of this issue, and I appreciated the discussion of it that Adams presented. Then the book did become the practical guide the subtitle claims, addressing things like wills and advanced directives. While unpopular, these are topics we should all consider, and Adams’ perspective and experience are useful.

Functional Medicine Coaching: Stories from the Movement That’s Transforming Healthcare, by Sandra Scheinbaum & Elyse L. Wagner—This book seems to have been written to recruit coaching students to the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, but there is still a lot of great information in it. I have already included some of it in a blog post and probably will in the future, too.

History

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer, by Margalit Fox—I finished this book on New Year’s Day 2020, and I knew I already had the first addition to My Favorite Books of 2020. Fox does an excellent job of providing general information about Arthur Conan Doyle. I learned that he was much more than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, although that is remarkable enough. This is the true account of his two-decades-long quest to free a wrongly convicted man. I was so fascinated that I decided to purchase the book for my mom for Mother’s Day. She enjoys classic mysteries, and I knew the British element of this story would be of interest, as well. This was a great book to carry into 2020 to start my new list.

Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy—This was a very long book, and there were times I wondered if I should stick with it, but Levy presents an extensively researched account of Facebook’s history, including his personal exclusive access to inside information and happenings. Part of my reason for reading was to decide how concerned I should be about my privacy in Facebook. To be honest, I haven’t changed anything since reading this book, but at least I feel like my use is less naïve. The origin story and evolution of the company really is quite amazing.

Memoir

Becoming, by Michelle Obama—I read this book for the WSU Common Read Book Selection Committee, and it just happened to come in the midst of the social unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd. Obama covered so many topics—gender, race, socioeconomic status, education. She also shares details of the Obama family life very openly, including what it was like to live and raise children in the White House. It was very informative, and I admired her authenticity.

Contact Wounds: A War Surgeon’s Education, by Jonathan Kaplan—This is the second book, after The Dressing Station, by Jonathan Kaplan, that I read. I think I liked it even better than the first. It chronicles Kaplan’s fascinating career before and after the stories he covers in The Dressing Station. Kaplan chose an unconventional medical career, and he is open about the sacrifices involved, but it is clear that there are also many benefits.


Counting Backwards: A Doctor’s Notes on Anesthesia
, by Henry Jay Przybylo—I learned a lot about the world of anesthesiology. I didn’t realize there was as much potential for self-advocacy with anesthesiology as there apparently is. Dr. Jay, as the author is called, feels deeply that his mission is to alleviate all pain for all patients, to the greatest extent possible.


Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving and Thriving After a Suicide Attempt
, by Kevin Hines—I gave this four stars because the story is so important and told so honestly. The writing is not the highest quality, but it is genuine and told with passion. I heard Hines speak at WSU a few years ago and was quite moved. After surviving a suicide attempt via jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, Hines has continued to struggle with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, but he is a passionate mental-health and suicide-prevention advocate. His story is important. I highly recommend attending a speaking event where he presents if you have the opportunity.


Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
, by Manal al-Sharif—This is a very powerful book that shares the story of Manal’s coming of age as a Saudi woman. She transitioned from a traditionally raised Saudi girl to a fundamentalist Muslim to a bold and courageous woman who fought for women’s right to drive. This book touches on many challenging issues and can be hard to read at times because of her history of abuse that she shares, but it is compelling and important.

Downhills Don’t Come Free: One Man’s Bike Ride from Alaska to Mexico, by Jerry Holl—I loved this book. It represents my very favorite genre—what I call personal-growth adventure memoir. Even better, it was cycling specific. Holl’s story of his solo cycling trip from Anchorage to Mexico was so much fun to read and very interesting. His accounts of riding past grizzly bears makes my dog encounters seem pretty mundane. The simple daily journal style was easy to read and rolled readers along on his journey.

The Dressing Station: A Surgeon’s Chronicle of War and Medicine, by Jonathan Kaplan—This is an amazing account of Kaplan’s assorted adventures as a doctor who traveled. He shares his experience in everything from war medicine to cruise ship physician. Quite a fascinating life!

Educated, by Tara Westover—I am late to the party on this one. I purchased this in 2018, but I just read it in May 2020. This is a wonderful book, with so many rich layers of social topics. Westover and two of her seven siblings overcame incredible odds, as members of a Mormon extremist family, to earn PhD’s, despite never having been sent to school as children. Learning to think for herself had a steep price for Westover, but her story is one that can benefit many, through the thought-provoking way she tells it.

E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, by Pam Grout—There were a lot of good reminders about the power of abundance thinking and the Law of Attraction. She proposes nine experiments, and, honestly, I gave them up because I didn’t achieve “success.” Still, there is a lot of good stuff, and I liked reading this book by a fellow Kansan.

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe—This is a beautifully written book about a topic that could have been depressing but wasn’t. Schwalbe shares his mother’s last years and their journey together through the books they read and discussed. Not only was it a lovely testimony to the power of reading to shape and enhance lives, but it was a wonderful tribute to his mother and almost a guide to facing end of life with grace. A powerful book.

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, by Alex Hutchinson—This was a fascinating treatment of the psychological and physiological aspects of endurance. The author shares his personal experience, as well as the stories of many other athletes, plus hard science.

Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner—Weiner presented the history of the FBI and a fairly extensive biography of J. Edgar Hoover in this exhaustively researched book. It is long and dense. To be honest, I skimmed parts, but it was not difficult to read. It was particularly fascinating to read more recent history that I remembered in order to attain a better understanding of what really happened.


Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning
, by Leslie Odom, Jr.—This was a quick, easy and worthwhile read. Odom’s story of his rise to play Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton is inspirational and instructive. I’m not sure the title really fits, but there are some good lessons in this interesting memoir.


Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness
, by Suzy Favor Hamilton—I’ll be honest. The writing is not spectacular in this book, but the story is truly unbelievable, and the intention behind the book—illuminating the extreme behaviors that unmanaged bipolar disorder can cause, while removing the stigma and shame associated with mental illness—is a good one. Hamilton’s story is one I will remember. I probably bought this book because I love reading memoirs by endurance athletes, and I did enjoy reading about her running career, but the second half—her life as a high-end Las Vegas escort—was astounding. I can’t imagine how her husband stuck by her through it all. It is one that made me think.


Fat Girl Walking: Sex, Food, Love, and Being Comfortable in Your Skin…Every Inch of It
, by Brittany Gibbons—I went back and forth about whether to give this three stars for four stars. I ultimately decided on four stars because of Brittany’s transparency and positive message. She tells the story of how she became an internet celebrity advocating for body acceptance. It is an entertaining, poignant and quick read.

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer, by Heather Lende—This is another one where I found myself teetering between three and four stars. I settled on the higher side because, although somewhat depressing, I believe so strongly in Heather Lende’s core message to find the good in every life and situation. She uses the lives and deaths of members of her small Alaska town to illustrate the various lessons she has learned from them, and I like that. Her writing is not depressing. I think the heaviness I felt while reading it was my own.

Girl Unbroken: A Sister’s Harrowing Story of Survival from The Streets of Long Island to the Farms of Idaho, by Regina Calcaterra & Rosie Maloney—What an incredible story! I wasn’t too sure about it at first, but it quickly grew on me, and I loved it, although there was plenty that was hard to read. A family of five kids suffered unthinkable abuse at the hands of their mother. Rosie suffered at the hands of a stepfather and other men, as well. Two of the five teamed up as adults to share their story. It is brave and hopeful and deserves to be witnessed.

The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun, by Sister Madonna Buder—What an inspiration Sister Madonna is! Like Downhills Don’t Come for Free, this book falls into my very favorite category, personal-growth adventure memoir. Sister Madonna, who is now 90 (https://triathlonmagazine.ca/personalities/sister-madonna-buder-turns-90-today/), shared her fascinating story of personal growth and her unique brand of ministry and mission in this wonderful book.

Notes from a Young Black Chef, by Kwame Onwuachi—I read this for the WSU Common Reads Book Selection Committee. Onwuachi tells his courageous story of breaking away from gang life to “hustle” (to use his word) to make it as a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, who has worked at, and briefly operated, some of the most exclusive fine dining restaurants in the U.S. His perspective is an interesting one worth reading. In the unrest of summer 2020, it was timely.

What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, by Mona Hanna-Attisha—I also read this one for WSU Common Reads Book Selection Committee. Dr. Mona was the driving force behind breaking open the Flint, Michigan water crisis. In this memoir, she tells the story of the fight against institutionalized racism that had created the problem and threatened to keep Flint in danger because of lead in the water.

Personal Development

Badass Habits: Cultivate the Awareness, Boundaries, and Daily Upgrades You Need to Make Them Stick, by Jen Sincero—I love Jen Sincero’s work. I listened to this one on Audible because I have listened to one of her previous books, and she is just so funny. Humor aside, there is a lot of great material in this book. She has designed it to function like a course, and it makes adopting new, or losing old, habits very manageable. Jen tells it like it is and has a way with words that is uniquely her own.

Beginner’s Pluck: Build Your Life of Purpose and Impact Now, by Liz Forkin Bohannon—I read this for the WSU Common Reads Book Selection Committee and probably wouldn’t have chosen it, based on the title. The title just didn’t speak to me, although I can see why it might to college students. However, I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out to have a lot of relevance for any age, and it was very well written and quite funny in spots.


Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
, by Chip & Dan Heath—This was an enjoyable read with lots of good suggestions for making better decisions. I gleaned some tips that I have already put to use and will in the future.

The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms, by Danielle LaPorte—There were quite a few good ideas and inspiration in this book. Any time I find inspiration to grow in some way, I get excited.


Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be
, by Rachel Hollis—This is another book where I was late to the party, reading it long after the hype settled, and I accidentally read her subsequent book first, a while back. I wasn’t thoroughly convinced with my four-star rating, but I ultimately settled there because I did pick up several good quotes. Hollis shares 20 lessons she has learned through life. It’s good, but I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, based on the hype or on Girl, Stop Apologizing.

Psychology

Cringeworthy: The Value of Awkwardness in a Put-Together World, by Melissa Dahl—The best gift of this book was the feeling of “It’s not just me!” that I got when I read about cringe attacks and mind pops. Until that point, to be honest, I was feeling disappointed in the book, but that chapter elevated the book to four stars for me. I wrote a blog post inspired by this chapter because reading that others share these experiences was such a relief to me.


The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better
, by Gretchen Rubin—Although I have read Gretchen Rubin, used her Four Tendencies in my coaching practice and had this book on Kindle for years, I didn’t actually read the book until November 2020. There is so much that makes sense here, and it is a helpful way of trying to understand ourselves and the people around us. I confirmed that I am an Upholder. Only one of the Rebels with whom I live would take the quiz. The other is too much of a Rebel for that. Understanding tendencies helps to depersonalize some behavior.

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, by Ada Calhoun—This book is hard to categorize. Personal growth? History? Psychology? I’m not sure where it belongs, but I did appreciate it. It left me with some questions. I had not previously thought of myself, as a GenXer, as really being part of a community because of that—one with a unique set of challenges because of when we grew up. I’m still not sure I do. However, it did make me wonder if the angst and searching I have felt so often is generational or if it is just me, as I have always assumed. Maybe it is a little of both. This was an interesting discussion of GenX women at midlife.

True Crime

The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation, by Dennis L. Breo—This is one of the best true crime books I have read. It was so thorough in its coverage of a horrific crime and the exhaustive investigation and legal proceedings that followed. The investigators, prosecutor and star witness were clearly the heroes of the book, rather than glorifying the murderer. The victims were treated with respect, and their story was told with dignity. I had heard of this historic crime for years, but I didn’t really know the details until I read this book.

Deliver Us: Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields, by Kathryn Casey—This was a fascinating examination of three decades of murders along I-45 in Texas, between Galveston and Houston. Casey examines these murders from a compassionate perspective and in the hope of generating interest in cold cases.

“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” –Annie Dillard

I hope this list of my favorite books from my 2020 reading inspires you to pick up some of them. What was the best book you read in 2020? Let us know in the comments.

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One thought on “My Favorite Books in 2020

  1. Pingback: Sheri Barnes adds “Downhills....” in her annual Best Books - Downhills Don't Come Free

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