My favorite books of 2020: Nonfiction
Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

File under: books I can’t stop talking about. I’m just a touch old to fall under Petersen’s definition of the millennial generation, yet I found myself nodding along to every chapter as Petersen explained how my and my peers’ personal life experience slot neatly into cultural and economic trends. Her biggest topics are our childhoods, our college experience and the implicit (and explicit) promises it had for our future, and why work is so awful for so many these days—all set against the backdrop of the economic realities of the last 40 years in the United States. I closed this book feeling understood, and like I better understand the world I’m living in. Petersen notes that she completed her final edits on this book while COVID-19 was just beginning her spread, and I appreciated her thoughts on how the pandemic subtly shifts the lens through which readers will engage with the ideas presented here. More info →
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Eat a Peach: A Memoir

Eat a Peach: A Memoir

Food memoir is one of my favorite nonfiction subgenres, and I loved this inside look at the Momofuku empire and Chang’s life story. Raised by his Korean immigrant parents in Virginia, Chang struggled with loneliness and isolation. When he couldn’t find a job after graduating college, he convinced his father to loan him restaurant start-up money. The result: Momofuku’s famous comfort food staples like ramen bowls and simple pork buns. While his career and business took off, Chang struggled with mental illness and self-confidence. With candor and humility, he shares both his struggles and successes in this intimate and unconventional memoir. More info →
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The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

Unlike so much of my reading, I read this book with a specific purpose in mind (and brace yourself, it's probably going to sound like a boring one): when I asked a handful of friends to share tips for running better meetings, an uncanny number recommended this book. Parker doesn't take her subject lightly: she believes that it is the way a group gathers that determines what happens there and how successful it will be, and that the little design choices the organizer makes can make or break it. As someone who tends to be interested in the behind the scenes of any endeavor, I was fascinated by her insights into why some gatherings work—and others don't. With chapter titles like "Don't Be a Chill Host" and "Never Start a Funeral with Logistics," Parker pushes her readers to think differently about why and how they gather. Helpful and thought-provoking. More info →
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Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

I read a portion of this book ages ago, and it was a joy to read it in its entirety this year. This utterly delightful graphic memoir the story of Knisley's coming of age in the kitchen, surrounded by good food and people who love it, and love her. I don't read many graphic memoirs, but this one feels as though it was tailor-made for me, combining so many elements I love: a family story, cooking and craft, New York City, finding your way, and good food. Because we've visited some of the places that appear in the book, my whole family enjoyed passing this around the dining room table, enjoying the stories together. More info →
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Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris

I do love a good food memoir, and food writing of all sorts has been comfort reading for me this year. Ann Mah’s delectable memoir is a rich account of culinary—and expat—life in Paris, City of Light and city of her dreams, where she sinks in for three glorious years when her diplomat husband is stationed there … that is, before he gets reassigned to Iraq, alone, stranding her in an unknown city. I was cheering her on as she tentatively explored the city, dabbled in its cuisine, and began to build her own community far from home. We had such fun reading this together in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club (and chatting with the author, just last night!). More info →
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Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

My husband Will surprised me with a new urban planning book for Christmas, and I enjoyed reading this over our holiday break last year. The author, a Minnesotan who's been an urban planner for several decades, argues that our cities are on the verge of a long, slow decline, and that any solution needs to begin with a bottom-up approach. Marohn pushes for change beginning at the most local level—not by implementing billion-dollar regional plans, but instead carrying out whatever the "next smallest thing" is that can improve our community. I enjoyed it, but wouldn't have called it "best of the year" back when I read it. But I've thought and talked about it SO MUCH this year that it deserves the honor. More info →
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Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story

In this unusual memoir, "matrilinear love story," Bess Kalb tells the story of her grandmother Bobby Bell's life, and their special relationship, in her deceased grandmother's voice. (On the second page of the book Bobby, speaking from her own funeral, is telling the readers, "It's a terrible thing to be dead.") I enjoyed this story so much: Bobby is spry and spunky, fiercely opinionated, a force of nature—and firmly invested in (or committed to meddling in, depending on how Bess is feeling at the moment) her granddaughter's life. Bobby's fierce and sometimes persnickety devotion to Bess shines on every page, from Bess's birth to Bobby's dying days at age 90. For most of Bess's life, the two spoke on the phone every day, and my favorite parts of the book were these phone conversations. More info →
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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

I loved The Warmth of Other Suns and my only regret was how long I waited before picking it up. I resolved not to make the same mistake with Wilkerson's new book Caste, in which she explores how America has been shaped by a hidden caste system. She links the caste systems of the United States, India, and Nazi Germany in a story-driven deep dive into history, class, and race. The subject matter may make this sound like homework, but Wilkerson gracefully pokes the holes in the history you thought you knew, interlacing personal stories with tales from decades and centuries past, wrapping it all in absorbing prose that makes it darn near impossible to stop reading. More info →
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This Will Make It Taste Good: A New Path to Simple Cooking

This Will Make It Taste Good: A New Path to Simple Cooking

Like many cooking enthusiasts, we met Vivian Howard through her Netflix series A Chef’s Life, “a show about people, place, tradition and family told through the lens of food.” Howard's newest cookbook, filled with simple recipes that highlight the way she actually cooks at home every night, as opposed to at her fancy award-winning restaurant, caught my eye at the local bookstore. She’s insistent that she will CHANGE THE WAY YOU COOK. I was intrigued! So I brought it home, read it cover to cover, and immediately started messing around in the kitchen, with great success (so far). I've loved the recipes I've tried so far, but the thing that really makes a cookbook for me is the stories, and this book has oodles of good ones. More info →
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She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

This is the book I didn't know I needed in my life! In a hard season, reading about Dolly's life, both personal and professional, was an unexpected grace. With history, biography, and close-reading of Parton’s famous songs, Smarsh weaves a tale of female empowerment, brilliant songwriting, and the importance of self-expression. I always love to hear the behind-the-scenes stories of my favorite artists, and this one delivered on that count, as expected. But I was unprepared for the poignancy of reading Dolly's story against the backdrop of our current cultural climate. Thank you, Sarah Smarsh, and thank you, Dolly Parton. This book is a joy. More info →
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