Best books of 2020 (and thoughts on bananas and finding pleasure during a pandemic)

I’m a chronic list maker. The first entry of my first diary features a list called “What’s hanging over my head.” I’d have to unearth the original text which is somewhere in a Rubbermaid storage bin to tell you exactly what was hanging over my head in 1987; I had literally zero chores or responsibilities that I can remember. Maybe there was a birthday party awaiting my RSVP? I vaguely remember some friend drama but overall I am puzzled by what could have stressed me out in the third grade.

When I was older I often listed everything I ate. I thought I’d probably think twice about trying a nibble of this or a bite of that if I knew I’d have to log it later. I thought it would help me stay accountable. (Now I wonder to whom and for what? Why was I hell-bent on ruining the experience of eating? Oh right, because I thought losing weight would make me happy and lovable.)

Every day for the six months approaching my wedding I wrote down every bite I took. Every week I sent my list to my personal trainer. I was training for a half Ironman at the time, routinely swimming, biking, and running eight to ten hours a week. My trainer told me I was eating too much fruit. It has a lot of carbs, she said. I made an effort to cut back on berries, apples, and bananas. Especially the bananas. Every dieter (and “healthy” eater) knows bananas are the devil; high in sugar, low in fiber, we’ve been told time and time again: Beware of the banana.

I (mostly) made peace with food two years ago but I still have issues with bananas. I love them but it’s really hard for me to eat an entire banana unless I’ve just worked out. The conversations in my head go like this:

Me: YUM A RIPE BANANA

Me: That’s basically going to give you diabetes and make you fat in five bites. An ENTIRE BANANA? You know better than that.

Me: But it’s, like, fruit? Isn’t it good for me?

Me: It’s your life. Now it’s a banana. What’ll it be next? Do you have any self-control?

Me: But one banana? It’s the perfect amount of ripe. It won’t be like this tomorrow.

Me: YOLO, right? Do you, girl. [cackles]

Me: It’s a banana, not a line of coke. Jesus. I’m done with your bullshit.

Me: Are you, though?

Me: F*ck you.

It’s nuts here in my head. But in the spirit of my word for 2021, gentle, (why not get a head start), I’m trying not to judge my conversations with myself. Instead of stopping at “it’s nuts” (a judgment!) I can be curious. Why do I have banana problems? I had issues with bananas (and my body and exercise and food) for over 20 years. It will take time to undo the thoughts I’ve been thinking many times a day for many years. (If this resonates I strongly recommend this wonderful interview with Evelyn Tribole, the co-author of Intuitive Eating.)

Our bodies weren’t meant to be micromanaged. Food isn’t something you need to earn. (Nope, not even a banana!) It’s okay to eat just for pleasure. It’s not “sinful.” Eating a salad doesn’t make you good and ordering dessert doesn’t make you bad.

And maybe now you’re wondering why I’m talking about food when this was supposed to be about books… Have I turned into one of those annoying food bloggers who makes you scroll through a goddamn dissertation before giving you the recipe!? (Maybe. My bad.)

Because pleasure is important. Covid has forced me to redefine pleasure because so many of the ways I sought pleasure before—dance classes, spin classes, restaurants and happy hours with friends, wandering aimlessly around the library—aren’t available anymore. Yes, I’ve thrown my share of mental (and physical) tantrums about corona.

But I’ve also tried to adapt and ask myself: where can I still find pleasure? I still love the sound of my kids laughing. I love hearing them play when they don’t know I’m listening and how their little voices go up ten octaves to make their dolls talk. I loved helping our six-year-old wrap her copy of Little Blue Truck as a birthday gift for Dan. I bumped into our eight-year-old on my way home from a run while she was scootering to a neighbor’s house. I gave her an overly goofy wave from afar, and then a kiss on the top of her head and she didn’t know it but after that I stood on the sidewalk and watched her scoot into the distance, her long ponytail flying out behind her like a banner. I tried not to cry while my heart basically exploded because all I could think was, there goes my little baby and how did she get so big.

I still love my morning coffee, the sight of my best friend on my caller ID, the way the light flows in through my bathroom windows in the morning. I still love hitting publish on a blog post. I still love ascending the brutal switchbacks on my favorite trail run and flying down again after I’ve turned around at the summit.

I love it when I catch Dan gazing at me; it still reminds me of the first time I caught him gazing at Boulder Beer at a Spring trivia night that was pretty much like every other trivia night, except my sister happened to be visiting and later she said, “Did you notice how he gazed at you!?” Yes, I had totally noticed.

I really, really love a perfectly ripe banana.

And of course, I still love books and lists. I know a lot of people read for self-improvement and education and I read for those reasons too, but mostly I read for pleasure. And I don’t have any arguments in my head or emotional baggage around books.

This year I read 43 books, which is fewer than usual, which I attribute mostly to the pandemic. Normally I go to the library often and grab an obscene amount of books; if something doesn’t grab me right away I move on to the next title; one of the ways I read a lot is that I tend to only read books I can’t put down and limited library access has changed that. I still use the library and I’ve bought way more books (from our local bookseller whenever possible) but it’s not the same. And outside of a lovely family camping trip this summer (during which I read nearly a book a day), there was no travel, which meant no planes, airports, or extended downtime for reading.

With no further ado, my favorite books of 2020, including whatever I review I left them on Goodreads, copied and pasted. (Why reinvent the wheel?)

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (self-help/ wellness)
Loved it. Many of the concepts weren’t new to me but I loved Dooner’s voice and the way she peppered in her own experiences and those of her students. I liked the way she presented the science behind weight loss and the role of stress and hunger/diet/digestion but I wish there was a little more science. There were some claims that made a lot of sense to me but didn’t seem to be backed up with any evidence, anecdotal, scientific, or otherwise… I also wanted a little more background on what makes Dooner an expert. Yes, I trusted her as an expert- she’s been on her own diet journey and cites the success of many of her students- but I wondered how long she’d been doing her online courses/how many she’s helped/what are her credentials.

One aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was her approach to dealing with the uncomfortable feelings we all have and our tendency to be disembodied. Like her suggestions to spend some time lying down each day, journaling, resting, doing things that give you pleasure… all make sense and are accessible no matter your budget.

It was a little repetitive at times but considering that what she’s saying is anti-every diet book you’ve probably ever read (e.g. you are fine the way you are, everything we’ve been told about weight loss is wrong, and you CAN be happy and healthy at any size), I give her a pass; you never know how many times or in what way someone needs to hear something before it really makes an impression.

TLDR: If you’re ready to change your relationship with food/your body, read it. 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (fiction)
It’s only March and I can say unequivocally that this is going to be one of my best reads of the year. I devoured in two or three days, including one night staying up waaay too late. It’s a fast, light, juicy read imbued with some heavy themes: race, class, and power, and friendship to name a few. It explores the question of what it really means to have a voice and the extent to which powerful individuals can (unwittingly or not) shape the narratives that affect our lives, both on a cultural and individual level.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (fiction)
A light, sweet story with realistic characters and seriously realistic dialogue. Evvie Drake is insanely lovable, I can just see her picturesque Maine town in my mind, and the writing is just so sharp and funny. I would love to see this book as a screenplay. This was one of those books I didn’t want to finish because I enjoyed it so much.

Magical Realism for Non-Believers by Anika Fajardo (memoir)
Beautifully written. I almost felt like I was reading poetry. Explores themes of home, family, and belonging.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (fiction)
I got an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Sittenfeld fans will not be disappointed… Similar to American Wife, she’s done what appears to have been a TON of research to create a believable, multi-faceted protagonist—Hillary Clinton in an alternate universe where she never married Bill. She’s also rewritten history, but if there’s anyone who is up to the task, it’s Sittenfeld (if you haven’t read Eligible, her modern take on Pride and Prejudice, do this ASAP).

The book explores gender, power, privilege, and race with dialogue that’s realistic and at times hilarious. I couldn’t put this one down.

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman (fiction)
Funny, sweet, sad, compelling. I literally laughed so hard I could not breathe and was crying with legit tears running down my face (not at the same time) while reading this book. Will definitely be one of my best reads of 2020. Kind of perfect for a pandemic.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (essays)
Hilarious, engaging, and poignant just as you’d expect from Irby. I think this was my favorite of hers so far. 

Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur (memoir)
Wowza. After listening to the author on Dani Shapiro’s fabulous Family Secrets podcast I knew I had to read this book and it did not disappoint. There was zero fluff. Every scene was tight and gripping… and whenever you thought things couldn’t possibly become any more enmeshed/messed up in this family… they did. I’m not going to give away the ending except to say it was PERFECT.

Dear Edward by Ann Neopolitano (fiction)
I was hesitant to read this book b/c I was afraid it would be too heavy to be enjoyable but I am glad I was wrong. I couldn’t put this one down. I fell in love with Edward along with every other character in this novel. This is a story about love, loss, and resilience.

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (essays)
Hilarious, sad, and at times absurd, always shockingly honest. I’ve never had an open marriage or a panic attack, as Broder describes in this essay colection, but I find her writing profoundly relatable.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (fiction)
Thank you to Scribner for an advance reader copy of this gorgeous novel. I’m still gathering my thoughts but for now… a fantastic and un-putdown-able story about a lost 20-something eating disordered Jewish woman whose heroine’s journey includes dreams of a sage rabbi, a golem, an affair with a larger-bodied orthodox woman, frozen yogurt sundaes, Chinese food, and detoxing from her mother.

Previous lists
2019
2018
2017
2016
2015

3 thoughts on “Best books of 2020 (and thoughts on bananas and finding pleasure during a pandemic)

  1. Nina Badzin (@NinaBadzin) says:

    1. for the record, loved your intro. I struggle with the all or nothing approach to food sometimes. (All healthy or totally whatever goes.) My point is, I hear you on the bananas.

    2. Intrigued by the two Broder books. I have never heard of her.

    Like

  2. Pam Moore says:

    Thanks, Nina:) I found Broder when I read The Pisces a couple of years ago. I didn’t realize she’d written more until I saw she’d blurbed one of Jami Attenberg’s books which is how I ended up reading the other two.

    Like

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