Anne Gunderson
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Anne Gunderson

Top 10 Quarantine Reads of 2020

Every day during quarantine, I’d start my morning with a cup of coffee and an hour or so of reading. This quiet and gentle morning routine allowed me to read 37 books (listed at the end) from March to December, ranging in genres from fantasy to memoir to non-fiction theory. I know it’s a cliché to say that reading has the power to transport you, but it’s true. And there has never been a better time to be transported than when you’re trapped in your 600 sq. ft. apartment for months on end. While there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel as we move into the new year, at least the first few months of 2021 will be spent at home. So I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite books from 2020 in case you’re looking for something to read.

Best Storytelling — Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows the stories of a Korean family across several generations, a genre that requires a set of sympathetic characters above all else. Min Jin Lee achieves this from chapter one and keeps you engaged through this monster of a book without relying too heavily on painful tragedy. As you read, you want to engage deeply with each family member as you root for their success. There is of course some heartbreak (most lives involve some), but there’s also love, triumph, and forgiveness. I picked this up because it was my favorite writers’ favorite book of 2019. If you read nothing else in 2021, this should be it.

Best Discovery — Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor

Imani Perry tweeted a recommendation to read Linden Hills and two other books (by Baldwin and Wideman, respectively, listed below) to better understand the literary genre of “post-movement Black modernism.” I’ll be honest, I’m still not super clear on what that means, but I’m so grateful that she brought Linden Hills into my world. In this book, Naylor introduces us to a Black, upper middle-class neighborhood that physically models the ascension to wealth as families move to larger and larger homes down the hill. As you move through the book, more and more secrets are revealed about the origins of this neighborhood and the family that built it. It’s ominous and fascinating and the more you reflect on the metaphors, the deeper the message becomes. This is a book that sticks with you, so it’s truly a crime that it’s not more widely known and read.

Most Imaginative — Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

This was my first real foray into fantasy and Afrofuturism and I’m hooked! Onyesonwu is our magical, mystical, lead character who spends the length of the novel understanding and developing her powers, then using them to kick some serious ass. This is not a kid’s fantasy book (though I think teenage bookworms would love every second of it). The imagery alone is enough to keep the pages turning, which is probably why there’s talk of HBO turning it into a series. This book converted me into a fantasy reader.

Best Adventure — The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Every now and then, I jump into a book without any idea of the plot or purpose. With The Moor’s Account, I picked it up because I enjoyed Laila Lalami’s newer novel. I had no idea that I’d be jumping into one of the most fascinating and exciting adventures I’ve ever read. Lalami spins a story about a Moroccan man, Mustafa, who sells himself into slavery in Spain and is taken to 16th century Florida for a New World expedition. There’s nothing I can tell you to prepare you for the things our protagonist witnesses and experiences. You’ll just have to jump in. This book is further proof to me that the folks giving out Pulitzer prizes know what they’re talking about.

Most Fascinating Perspective — The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Someone has probably already recommended this book to you, and you should take their advice. The Vanishing Half follows light-skinned, Black twin sisters born in 1940s Louisiana who move to New Orleans together after high school, but separate when one decides to live her life as a white woman. Many of us have heard about Black people passing as white, but this was my first experience with a story that provided an in-depth look at what that life entails, including the challenges of maintaining the lie and the pain of being estranged from your family, both for the person passing and the family left behind.

Biggest Page-Turner — Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a member of the Trevor Noah fan club until I read this memoir (I wish he was this funny and endearing all the time). Leave it to a comedian to give the details of his truly challenging and heartbreaking life in a way that literally makes you laugh out loud. I consumed this book in like two days because I could not put it down. Folks tell me that the audio book is even better somehow (and a few people told me they read it and listened to it), so however you do your book reading, add this to your list.

Better Late than Never — Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’m late to the party but, man, I’m glad I showed up. This is one of those books that most of you have probably already read, but indulge me anyway. This novel follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to U.S. for school but is working towards returning to her family and friends in Lagos. What I appreciated most about this book (besides the fact that it was so well written) was that I felt like I personally knew the characters. Often when I’m reading a novel, I find the characters sympathetic, but rarely are they so real to me that I feel like I’ve met them at a party, made full judgments of their personalities, and decided that they’re cool but I don’t really want to be friends with them (sorry Ifemelu — I was still rooting for you, though). I heard this is also going to be turned into a movie, so make sure you read it first, because the writing is too good to miss.

Most Highly Anticipated — Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson

I’ve been in love with Isabelle Wilkerson ever since The Warmth of Other Suns, so I had her new book on pre-order the moment she tweeted about it. My only criticism of the book was that I wish she had taken a couple hundred more pages to give us the depth she delivered in Warmth (there’s also a debate among sociologists and anthropologists about whether a caste lens can be applied to the U.S., but I don’t know enough to wade into all that). For those of us who have read our fair share of books about the history of race and racism in this country, I can honestly say that Caste offers a new approach to understanding the origins and purpose of race in this country by offering comparisons to India and Nazi Germany. I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for a 102 course on racism.

Most Relevant to the Moment — Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Like with The Moor’s Account, I didn’t know what I was getting into with this book (I’ve really got to start reading the back covers). Leave the World Behind is about a family who rents an AirBnB in upstate New York. On the first night, after the wifi and cell phone service goes out, the couple that owns the house shows up at the door saying that there was a massive power outage in New York City, so they instinctively drove to their vacation home in the hope to wait out whatever crisis is going on in the city. Things get more mysterious from there as one inexplicable event piles onto another, like a flock of flamingos landing in the pool and a glass-shattering sound inducing strange illnesses. As I was reading this, in the middle of a pandemic, I was struck by how many peculiar things these people allow to happen without seeming to do much of anything about it. But then I checked myself because that’s exactly what 2020 was. So shout out to Rumaan Alam for capturing the mood of absurdity and obliviousness in such an apt and timely way.

Most Recommended — Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad

Remember at the beginning of the summer when white people finally showed some interest in understanding our role in racism? Well, this was on most of the reading lists that were floating around, so my sister, mom, and I decided to read it together and complete the daily journal entries, accountabili-buddy style. As someone who’s almost constantly thinking about race and racism, this book brought out some new perspectives on my upbringing and required me to identify and interrogate some of the ways I’ve fallen short on being a decent white person. Layla Saad doesn’t hold any punches and asks questions that really get to the foundation of the way white people make the world a harder place to live for Black people. If you want to get the most out of this book, approach it with honesty and fidelity.

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Anne is a friend of all things nuanced, inspiring, and thoughtful.

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