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Some of Jen's Favorite Reads of 2020 (so far)

by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)

I love my friends, I love my friends, I love my friends. But when we were chatting and decided to do these mid-year, five-favorites-so-far posts, I knew I would be sending a little resentment their way. Only FIVE picks!?! Really? I can't choose just FIVE favorites! I want to include all the things.

So, here's my methodology. I looked back at my monthly wrap-up posts in IG, and I ONLY allowed myself to jot down the titles of my five-star reads. I didn't even look at my four-and-a-half-star reads because, let's face it, ratings mean nothing, and I'm as likely as not to suddenly think those are better.

I ended up with twelve five-star books, and I just sort of whimsically chose the ones to include here. (Hint: If you scroll to the end of the post, I may have cheated.) But, seriously, these five are epic and brilliant and wonderful.

From the publisher:

"When Ada Calhoun found herself in the throes of a midlife crisis, she thought that she had no right to complain. She was married with children and a good career. So why did she feel miserable? And why did it seem that other Generation X women were miserable, too?

"Calhoun decided to find some answers. She looked into housing costs, HR trends, credit card debt averages, and divorce data. At every turn, she saw a pattern: sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennials, Gen X women were facing new problems as they entered middle age, problems that were being largely overlooked.

"Speaking with women across America about their experiences as the generation raised to 'have it all,' Calhoun found that most were exhausted, terrified about money, under-employed, and overwhelmed. Instead of being heard, they were told instead to lean in, take 'me-time,' or make a chore chart to get their lives and homes in order.

"In Why We Can’t Sleep, Calhoun opens up the cultural and political contexts of Gen X’s predicament and offers solutions for how to pull oneself out of the abyss―and keep the next generation of women from falling in. The result is reassuring, empowering, and essential reading for all middle-aged women, and anyone who hopes to understand them."

Why it made the list:

As I said in my review for the website, this book speaks to me. I kept gasping in recognition as I read through Calhoun's analysis of why OUR middle age is different from every other generation of women's middle age. I haven't felt so seen by a book in a while.

Mikel Jollett's Hollywood Park: A Memoir

From the publisher:

"We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion. …

"So begins Hollywood Park, Mikel Jollett’s remarkable memoir. His story opens in an experimental commune in California, which later morphed into the Church of Synanon, one of the country’s most infamous and dangerous cults. Per the leader’s mandate, all children, including Jollett and his older brother, were separated from their parents when they were six months old, and handed over to the cult’s 'School.' After spending years in what was essentially an orphanage, Mikel escaped the cult one morning with his mother and older brother. But in many ways, life outside Synanon was even harder and more erratic.

"In his raw, poetic and powerful voice, Jollett portrays a childhood filled with abject poverty, trauma, emotional abuse, delinquency and the lure of drugs and alcohol. Raised by a clinically depressed mother, tormented by his angry older brother, subjected to the unpredictability of troubled step-fathers and longing for contact with his father, a former heroin addict and ex-con, Jollett slowly, often painfully, builds a life that leads him to Stanford University and, eventually, to finding his voice as a writer and musician.

"Hollywood Park is told at first through the limited perspective of a child, and then broadens as Jollett begins to understand the world around him. Although Mikel Jollett’s story is filled with heartbreak, it is ultimately an unforgettable portrayal of love at its fiercest and most loyal."

Why it made the list:

So, this is my second nonfiction read on the list, and it's just amazing. I listened to this memoir, which Jollett reads and scores, and though there is SO much that happens that is just devastating, Jollett's ability to move forward, to find joy, to re-build relationships, and to forgive is astonishing and hopeful and beautiful. I absolutely loved it.

Emily Henry's Beach Read

From the publisher:

"A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

"Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

"They're polar opposites.

"In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they're living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer's block.

"Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She'll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he'll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really."

Why it made the list:

I think people will soon be tired of seeing me rave about this book, but I couldn't leave it off my list. As I said in my IG post, I've now read this one three times (once in my review for Edelweiss, once for a buddy read, and once for our Unabridged Podcast Book Club episode), and it holds up. Yes, there's some backlash on bookstagram now--as happens with every buzzy book--but this one is nuanced and sad and hopeful. I love that it takes on the prejudices against women's fiction, our ability to forgive, the idea that we shouldn't judge people for the worst thing they've done, and the idea that healing means being able to stand alone (even when that's not what we'd choose).

Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other

From the publisher:

"Bernardine Evaristo is the winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and the first black woman to receive this highest literary honor in the English language. Girl, Woman, Other is a magnificent portrayal of the intersections of identity and a moving and hopeful story of an interconnected group of Black British women that paints a vivid portrait of the state of contemporary Britain and looks back to the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.

"The twelve central characters of this multi-voiced novel lead vastly different lives: Amma is a newly acclaimed playwright whose work often explores her Black lesbian identity; her old friend Shirley is a teacher, jaded after decades of work in London’s funding-deprived schools; Carole, one of Shirley’s former students, is a successful investment banker; Carole’s mother Bummi works as a cleaner and worries about her daughter’s lack of rootedness despite her obvious achievements. From a nonbinary social media influencer to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England, these unforgettable characters also intersect in shared aspects of their identities, from age to race to sexuality to class.

"Sparklingly witty and filled with emotion, centering voices we often see othered, and written in an innovative fast-moving form that borrows technique from poetry, Girl, Woman, Other is a polyphonic and richly textured social novel that shows a side of Britain we rarely see, one that reminds us of all that connects us to our neighbors, even in times when we are encouraged to be split apart."

Why it made the list:

I read Girl, Woman, Other for this year's Tournament of Books competition, and honestly, I didn't expect that it would make it to the end of my bracket. I just didn't know much--anything--about Evaristo.

I absolutely loved it. (This is one reason why I love the ToB: it's always helping me to discover new, brilliant works by authors I don't already know.) Evaristo creates a beautiful blend of poetry and prose, evoking a unique new character with each chapter. The characters' interconnectedness reinforces their differences but also the ways we can find common ground, even with those we see as polar opposites. Girl, Woman, Other is a lyrical, powerful novel that highlights a multitude of social issues without ever losing focus on each character's humanity and individuality.

Elizabeth Acevedo's Clap When You Land

From the publisher:

"In a novel-in-verse that brims with grief and love, National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo writes about the devastation of loss, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the bittersweet bonds that shape our lives.

"Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

"In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

"Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered.

"And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other. "

Why it made the list:

We've raved about Acevedo before (we covered With the Fire on High in a Book Club episode), and I continue to be astonished by her brilliance. Her novels are perfect for young adults but nuanced and complex enough that adults enjoy them just as much. Her newest novel in verse offers the story of two sisters, strangers to each other, whose parallel stories converge when their father dies. Though their lives are different, Camino and Yahaira find common ground as they struggle to mourn their father and to find ways to pursue their dreams.

A few more . . .

Because I can never leave out anything, here are my other five-star reads from the year. (I'm tempted to put in four-and-a-half-star reads, too, but I'm resisting!)

John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (re-read)

Brigid Kemmerer's A Curse So Dark and Lonely

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (re-read)

Jason Reynolds's and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Sara got here first!

Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park (re-read)

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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