Book Reviews

Top 5 Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

Happy holidays to you all. Last year I did a post on my top five fiction and non-fiction reads of 2019 and I wanted to continue the tradition. I love my goodreads account because it helps me track what I’ve read for the year and also for my entire life, which is kind of fun. I like a lot of different books. I’m big on romance novels, non-fiction, biographies, contemporary adult fiction, etc. I mean I will literally read anything as seen below. Here are my top five favorite books I read this year split into fiction and non-fiction. These are in no particular order. Let me know your favorites!

Top Five Fiction Books

Sing, Unburied, Sign by Jesmyn Ward

I’ve read Jesmyn Ward’s non-fiction before, but never her fictional work. I was enthralled by this one. “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill anchors Ward’s tale to Mississippi today, which is almost indistinguishable from its notorious yesterday, a present and past (ironically) made more alive in the novel by ghosts and where everyone suffers from the cancers of buried sins. On Jojo’s 13th birthday, while Mam is dying and Pop struggles to keep everyone safe, Leonie plans a road trip to the prison to pick up Michael, Jojo and baby Kayla’s father. It’s The Odyssey meets the Delta blues meets William Faulkner and Toni Morrison and some ineffable something that is Jesmyn Ward’s own magic.”

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

I ventured into middle grade fiction this year just for this book and I am so glad I did! This is a very short read, all in verse, about a son, and his father who is suffering from major memory loss due to his professional football career. It is reminiscent of those who have read Ellen Hopkins fictional story telling poetry. “Jacqueline Woodson brings us into the life of 12-year-old ZJ, whose father is a beloved football star. But after years of professional head-bashing, something is terribly wrong: he now has headaches, memory loss, and mood swings. With the help of his mother and good friends, ZJ faces his father’s decline. An important and heartfelt prose poem.”

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

This book pulled me in right away. It’s fiction, but it covers real historic events I didn’t even know about until I read it. I first read Lisa See in college with ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’, but hadn’t read other works from her since. I loved this one so much that I’m off to read more of her works. “Off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju Island is home to generations of haenyo—women who take their living from both land and sea and call the shots in their matriarchal society. Young-sook and Mi-ja are best friends in the 1930s, learning to dive with their all-female collective while their island suffers under Japanese colonialism. Lisa See follows them as they grow up under Japanese rule, into WWII, to the Korean War and its devastating aftermath, and into the 21st century. The Island of Sea Women is not only a story of friendship found, lost, and found again, but also a richly detailed picture of a unique culture of women in a world spinning out of control. Amazing detail and presence.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

This is one of my favorite books of all time now. How had I never read Ann Patchett before this? The writing style is so dreamy and the story itself pulls you right in. I highlighted so many passages in this book that spoke so deeply to me while reading it. Highly recommend! Can’t wait to read more of Patchett’s work. “Meeting the Conroy family and stepping into their elaborate Dutch house—part museum, part home, with all its secrets and charm, comfort and sadness—enthralled me as the mystery unfolded like a gentle call to arms. From poverty to wealth and from wealth to poverty, we see through Danny’s eyes the struggle to hold the family together against grief, greed, and the heartbreak of losing all that once bound them. Patchett paints a masterpiece here; there’s no looking away. It lingers in your imagination long after the story has been told.”

Death is Hard work by Khaled Khalifa

This was such an interesting fictionalized account of one family’s quest to drive across country with their dead father to bury him during a very real civil war. If you haven’t read anything on Syria this is a great book to guide you toward empathy with the people of Syria. “Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work is the new novel from the greatest chronicler of Syria’s ongoing and catastrophic civil war: a tale of three ordinary people facing down the stuff of nightmares armed with little more than simple determination.

Top Five Non-Fiction Books

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

If you are white and are looking to educate yourself on racism, this is the book. A great way to check your privilege and written by an anti-racist educator. “In this “vital, necessary, and beautiful book”, antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and “allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people’ (Claudia Rankine). Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.’

Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema by Lindy West

This was my most enjoyable read by far. I had so much fun reading this one and laughed through the entire thing. If you haven’t heard of Lindy West (creator of Shrill, author of Shrill and The Witches Are Coming), this book is a great introduction. “In Shit, Actually, Lindy returns to those roots, re-examining beloved and iconic movies from the past 40 years with an eye toward the big questions of our time: Is Twilight the horniest movie in history? Why do the zebras in The Lion King trust Mufasa-WHO IS A LION-to look out for their best interests? Why did anyone bother making any more movies after The Fugitive achieved perfection? And, my god, why don’t any of the women in Love, Actually ever fucking talk?!?!”

Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place by Jackson Bird

This was my favorite memoir I read this year. Like many others in the Harry Potter fandom, I am furious at J.K. Rowling’s misunderstanding of the transgender community. Her beliefs are hurtful to transgender people, and in particular those transgender people who grew up loving and respecting her and her work. I’d been searching for answers on how to move forward in the fandom when I came across this book. Jackson is a huge harry potter fan and has been his whole life even doing work with the HP Alliance in the past. Jackson is funny, honest, and has a fascinating story to tell about his journey. Would highly recommend this book. “An unflinching and endearing memoir from LGBTQ+ advocate Jackson Bird about how he finally sorted things out and came out as a transgender man. When Jackson was twenty-five, he came out as transgender to his friends, family, and anyone in the world with an internet connection. Assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, he often wondered if he should have been born a boy. Jackson didn’t share this thought with anyone because he didn’t think he could share it with anyone. Illuminated by journal entries spanning childhood to adolescence to today, he candidly recalls the challenges and loneliness he endured as he came to terms with both his gender and his bisexual identity.”

The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek

Alex Trebek died on my birthday this year (thanks again for that 2020). I knew he was dying, I knew his illness would be what killed him, and it really was just a matter of when. In February this year, I called in a sick day and flew down to LA in the morning and watched a live taping of Jeopardy! with my Dad, then flew back the same day. It was exhausting but worth it 1000%. I am so glad we did this as Jeopardy is a big part of what we share together. This week Trebek’s final episodes will air and it’s just heartbreaking to me. I grew up watching Alex and I still watch him 5 days a week at 7pm sharp. This memoir was great though. There was so much I didn’t know about Alex’s early life. It’s a quick read and I highly recommend it.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

If you’ve read anything on this site before you’ll know I’ve been venturing into minimalism the past two years. Up until the point of reading this book I was mostly focused on physical minimalism. Wardrobe, home, etc. I deleted Facebook last year and have also talked about how to minimize time spent on phones, but hadn’t really done any research on that digital side before. I was just doing what I thought was best. This book is great though. Not only does it go through the whole social media bad, outdoors good, but it also gives you really great tips on how to accomplish less digital time. I’ve learned about app time limits (which I now have set on all my social media applications) as well as screen down time settings for the work day which has helped me be more productive all around. If you’re appalled by your weekly screen time report that your phone gives you, this might be the book for you. I was averaging 5+ hours a day, and since reading this I’m down to 1.5. Which still seems like a lot right? But I’ve really noticed a difference in my mental health. You would be surprised by what your average screen time is I am sure. I know I was. This book also encouraged me to turn off all apps and notifications when I’m watching a movie or tv show and it has made a huge difference in my attention span and in being present. I recommend this book for anyone wanting to test out a new type of minimalism.

Book Reviews

Top 5 Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads of 2019

Happy holidays to you all. Last year I did a post on my top five fiction and non-fiction reads of 2018 and I wanted to continue the tradition. I love my goodreads account because it helps me track what I’ve read for the year and also for my entire life, which is kind of fun. I like a lot of different books. I’m big on romance novels, non-fiction, biographies, contemporary adult fiction, etc. I mean I will literally read anything as seen below. Here are my top five favorite books I read this year split into fiction and non-fiction. Let me know your favorites!

Top Five Fiction Books

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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This book was a trip. It made me feel all the feels. The novel gained attention when Reese Witherspoon announced it was going to be her book club pick a few years back, so you’ve probably heard of it. Eleanor is a quiet, quirky office worker who is content to stay that way forever. She’s got a long list of weird habits and offbeat social skills that have kept her from having emotional relationships with just about everyone. Once a week she is allowed a phone call with her mother, which gives off a creepy vibe right away, and on top of that she has that mild alcoholism thing going on, so there is obviously more to the story than Eleanor lets on. Boy is there ever. I loved this book. It made me cry.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng is quickly becoming a favorite author for me. Her previous novel, Little Fires Everywhere was amazing and this book was no exception. The story follows a mixed race family in an all white area in the 1970s as they all grieve in their separate ways bout the death of their perfect daughter and sister. All of Ng’s books are super character driven and this one is no exception to that rule.

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass #7) by Sarah J. Maas

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Speaking of character drive books…earlier in the year I finally finished Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series. What I loved so much about this entire series is that it starts off super basic. A girl enters a king’s tournament of assassins to become the king’s assassin and is torn between the love of the prince and his guard. Like, we have heard this one before. By the second book though all tropes are thrown out the god damn window as Maas delights us with plot twists and turns you couldn’t even predict. New characters are introduced constantly throughout the series and somehow readers care so deeply about them all. This series literally has it all. And it goes so far beyond romance and into a high fantasy, EXTREMELY character driven epic series that honestly blew me away. It had such a great final book and I just cannot recommend this series enough. Manon Blackbeak is my hero.

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Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

A LOT of people were talking about this book this year. Mostly for how unconventional it was. The story follows Daisy Jones and The Six, a fictional band in the 70s (think Stevie Nicks and The Heartbreakers). We follow Daisy’s journey from no one to fame, from solo career to The Six, all through a series of interviews pieced together by the interviewer. And wait until you find out who the interviewer is. It is super unique and a really fun read.

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

This has my vote for book of the year. Ocean Vuong is a fairly well known poet and this is his first novel. The entire thing reads like poetry. It is heartbreaking and beautiful and really pulls you in. The novel follows a young Vietnamese immigrant throughout his childhood and adulthood. Told through the boys’ letters to his mother later in life, the novel follows his mother and grandmother’s lives as they deal with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the cultural shifts in America and the narrator’s sexuality. My heart. It hurts.

Top Five Non-Fiction Books

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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McKeown’s book had a profound effect on the way I do my job since reading it. Trying to wade through the madness of a to do list and multiple priorities, McKeown asks you to find the priority. Singular. There should only be one after all, it was never a word that was meant to be used to describe more than one thing. Essentialism also asks you to say ‘no’ more, to value your time and better decide how and where to spend your energy. Something I’ve been trying to do for ages. This book has really helped me and I read it twice this year!

Educated by Tara Westover

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I did a full review of this already, but this was such a good read. There have been some disputes from Tara Westover’s family that have come out since the book released, but I believe Tara’s story over theirs. Even if it turns out some facts aren’t 100% true the overarching story definitely is and it is one of the power of education and living your own life, even if it means separating from your family and leaving everything you’ve ever known behind.

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White Rage by Carol Anderson

This is a fascinating read about how historically white people in power and the voting public have roadblocked black Americans at every twist and turn since slavery was abolished. This book is a short, but powerful narrative on our society and understanding the pervasiveness of racism and inequality, and the state of current American politics.

Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robinson and Joe Dominguez

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This was another one I did a full review on. This book changed my life about how I perceive my time and money. It’s been around for a long time and the basic concept is to treat each decision with money as if you are paying for it with your life force, which essentially you are. Paying for a night out drinking? That’ll be five hours of your life force on Monday, please. The book also helps calculate your true hourly wage (after the cost to get to work, time traveling to work, lunch bought, etc.), which has really been eye opening for me.

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Maid by Stephanie Land

The things people say, do or leave out for their maid to find are truly staggering. This book is a memoir of sorts from Stephanie Land, a woman who raised a daughter alone, battled with government assistance and tried to make a better life for herself and her daughter while cleaning houses. Barrack Obama chose this as his summer reading pick this year and it is well worth the read.

Book Reviews

Educated by Tara Westover

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind.”

Educated was not what I expected, but it was as good as people kept telling me it was. It’s a fascinating memoir of a girl who grew up in Idaho raised by fanatic religious doomsday preppers, who never received any formal education, but went on to receive a PHD and attend BYU, Harvard and Cambridge.

There has been some controversy since the book came out of course, but I choose to look at all memories as fiction to begin with anyway.

It’s a truly remarkable story and held my interest the entire time. My favorite non-fiction read of the year so far. My only regret is it took me so long to finish it.

Book Reviews

Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

In my quest to be more well rounded in my news consumption this month, I picked up a few different political books to consume. One of these was a middle of the road book, written by a liberal, condemning liberals.

I really enjoyed this book and it was really eye opening for me. I think what I’m going to learn most about my no news, fox news, cnn, world news challenge this month is that I really do live in a blue bubble here in Portland. I only talk to people who think like I do. I only read news that confirms what I already believe to be true.

If this book taught me anything it’s that I don’t really know anything. I know what I choose to read and what I choose to hear.

Now this book isn’t without its faults. Frank seems to have a personnel vendetta against innovation and Uber in particular. Not without reason, but it also goes a bit far. Like, innovation isn’t BAD, and it’s a good thing liberals support innovations. However, it’s not ALL THERE IS, and focusing solely on that as the key to solve all our woes is not helpful. Not EVERYONE is going to want to be college educated and start their own business that will turn into a monopoly. We need to make sure those people still have access to good jobs with fair wages.

That’s where we are falling behind: with the working class. We are too focused on the ‘Professional’ class. The elite educated class. We believe all our problems can be solved with education and the flip side of that is that we are leaving out a huge voting populous that used to be ours. We used to be the party of the people. What happened?

Frank sets out to show how our two party system has morphed into Conservative and Not-As-Conservative and I think he does a pretty good job. Which billionaire do you want to elect next that has no real idea of the struggle of the working class? We cannot elect people solely on which candidate is more moral: we (liberals) will lose that election again and again if we continue down that path.

I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because I could afford to vote for her over Trump. I am an educated college graduate with a good job and I can choose morality over everything else because I will continue to have income in my field. Clinton’s proposed policies supported people like me. They supported the educated and the innovators. The white collar workers. What they ignored were the blue collar workers.

Blue collar workers who might have no interest in being college educated (and that’s okay!). Not everyone wants to be! AND THAT’S OKAY. And those used to be our people, liberals were the party of the working class – and we have left them behind. We have told them there is no place for them among our elite educated class where everyone supposedly wants to be. They cannot always afford to vote for morality as much as they might want to.

62,984,825 people voted for Trump and they aren’t ALL racist misogynistic idiots. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those with high moral standards in that number were people of white privilege that didn’t feel like they had a lot to lose on the morality front of the election. If the election had been about whether to vote for a racist or not, I believe that most people would have voted for the person who wasn’t a outright racist. But that’s not all there was at stake for those people.

A lot of those people who voted for Trump don’t have to worry about policies that effect people who aren’t white, straight and male (privledged people) because they ARE those things and they will always be protected by that. They might, however, have to worry about their manual labor jobs. They have families to support, rent to pay, mouths to feed, and they need their jobs to do that. And a college education isn’t always worth a whole lot when you live in small town America. So all they’re hearing from the liberals is that jobs will come to them if they just go to a big city and get a degree. INNOVATE! Otherwise you’ll get left behind. It’s YOUR fault you work where you do. Those jobs don’t work anymore. Get an education and all will be solved. And that doesn’t exactly work for them.

That is what Frank’s book is all about. It’s not perfect, it has its flaws. Frank is by no means a Trump guy. He hates the guy as he says several times. Frank’s beef is with liberals throwing elitism at blue collar workers as a solution for them. A solution that doesn’t resonate with them. And when they’re being told ‘too bad, that’s how things work now’, that message doesn’t resonate. They turn to the party who is telling them they will keep their jobs (even if they won’t). The turn to the party that says they will fight for their right to good wages in a factory (even if they won’t). Because the rhetoric liberals are pushing when it comes to the working class just isn’t realistic for them.

Book Reviews

Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

I’m five books into my 75 book challenge this year and this is my favorite book I’ve read so far. It really got me thinking about my time and how I spend it and I wanted to recommend it to you all and tell you a bit about it.

This book has been out for a long time, but recently a revised edition was published to fit into more of the technology and millennial mindset of todays new adults. The book is essentially a nine step program to become financially independent and start seeing the value of our time.

A particular gem in the beginning of the book really got to me and startled me quite a bit. Robinson actually describes my work day 100% Monday-Friday.

We act busy, scroll through social media feeds. Hide mistakes. Smile when handled impossible deadlines. Give a sigh of relief when the ax known as “restructuring” or “downsizing” or even “lay off” falls on other heads. Shoulder the added workload. Watch the clock. Argue with your conscience but agree with the boss. Smile again. Five o’clock. Back in the car or on the bus or train for the evening commute. Home.

Vicki Robinson, Your Money or Your Life

I had to close the book at this point for a few moments. This is me. 40 hours a week. 40 hours of my life energy, plus five for the forced lunch I have to take, plus five more for the time I spend commuting to work, plus five more for the time I spend when I get home to complain about work problems.

Honestly, I really like my job. I worked really hard to get here as you’ll see in my “Week Three – Honest Photos – Career and Money” post that will be up this weekend. I work with amazing people and I get to work on really cool projects that make a huge difference in people’s lives. But if I had one million dollars tomorrow would I still work here? No. I’d stash that money into savings, work 3 days a week part time to support my basic needs, and spend the rest of my time writing. Writing is my passion and what I enjoy doing. I work so I can pay my bills and live in a home and write inside of that home for the few hours I actually get to myself. My other passion? Traveling. I get ten PTO days a year to travel. I manage to fit in a lot with that time, taking extended weekends and stretching out time off next to holidays, but I’d like to do more. I’d like to sleep in. Take care of my body. Walk more. Not be so tired all the time.

This book really helps you think through what you want with the the small amount of life energy you have left. At the end of the day our most valuable resource is our TIME. How do we want to spend it? How much do we really need?

I encourage anyone who has these thoughts to read this book. There’s an amazing step by step program to look at your finances and discover your real hourly wage and honestly get a good feel for what you want to do with your life.

A better summary of the book can be found here, you can buy it on Amazon here, and my personal recommendation is that you can get it from your library! For free! You guys, the library is seriously amazing. Check it out. If you have an e-reader you can even get the book delivered there for free like I did. Plus you’d be supporting your local library. Win-Win.

“We aren’t making a living we are making a dying. What we do for money dominates our waking hours and life is what can be fit into the scant remaining time”