No one’s saying 2020 was a good year—let’s not get crazy here!—but we think that it ended up being a time of self-discovery and growth. Many people experienced a renewed motivation to learn, to be delighted, and simply to get lost in a good book, and we at Peaceful Dumpling were no exception. Without further ado, here are the best books Peaceful Dumpling editors read in 2020!
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
I dislike horror movies and don’t care to see the suffering of others, so I wasn’t sure horror literature would be a good fit for me. But I read more horror novels nowadays than I ever imagined I would. I have been pleasantly surprised by them, and this one is my 2020 pick.
The tale follows four Indigenous men, ten years after a hunting excursion during which they brutally killed an entire herd of elk on sacred tribal land. One of the elk was a pregnant cow. Spectral elk, or as the story describes one in particular, “Elk Head Woman,” end up haunting and ultimately playing a hand in the vengeful murders of these men. The storyline is nuanced, and introduces several characters along the way. As a vegan, I found the close of this novel quite satisfying.
Stephen Graham Jones’s writing style in this book is unlike any I’ve encountered before. Initially, it took some getting used to. But once I was into it, I came to like it. It is a reminder that the unconventional can broaden our minds and facilitate growth. This story draws on Indigenous cultural identity and the cost of breaking from tradition, making it a perfect 2020 pick. I would note, there are some viscerally upsetting parts involving both elk and dogs. (I viewed these parts of the story as an exercise in emotional intelligence, but you could of course skip a few paragraphs). Jones—a Blackfeet tribal member—invokes paranoia and fear, and elusively whispers a chilling reminder to readers that no one escapes their past.
The Atlas of Happiness: The Global Secrets of How to Be Happy by Helen Russell
Author of The Year of Living Danishly, Russell dives into various cultural happiness practices from across the globe—from sobremesa in Spain to joie de vivre in Canada and beyond. In a year that’s been difficult to say the least, Russell’s fun illustrations and whimsical portrayal of cultural practices are a much needed reminder on where to find happiness and meaning in the modern-day world.
Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
This December, I am spending the month working my way through Me and White Supremacy. The book is a 28-day journey to explore and understand one’s participation in systemic racism.
Each day, there are reflective journaling prompts that help us to unpack thoughts and feelings as well as dismantle the way the system manifests within ourselves and our community.
Earlier this year, the Black Lives Matter movement evolved from a hashtag to rallies all over the world demanding justice. It was a big wake-up call for me to recognize my white privilege. Up until this year, to be completely honest, I hadn’t really considered it or even thought about it. Many people found a way to get involved in the movement and like many others, I want to keep putting in the work.
Feck Perfunction by James Victore
The best book that I read in 2020 goes to…Feck Perfunction: Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life by James Victore. It is the perfect book for creatives that are either stuck in a rut or are looking for new inspiration to tackle creative projects. This book is full of humorous but blunt advice on becoming the best version of your creative self. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to start a creative project, especially in 2021.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
This retelling of the story of the Pyrrhic War and the Siege of Troy, from the perspective of the enslaved Queen Briseis of the Trojan empire, is a refreshingly honest look at the cost of war to women. It focuses on the complex psychological effects of being powerlessness within a society, and the way that the women eventually come together to survive while adapting to the harsh, violent circumstances they find themselves in. I love the fact that the situation and characters were not portrayed as black and white. Briseis’s stark honesty with herself (and the reader) about her changing views of herself, her captors, and of the other women, shows that even in situations which are starkly black and white, kindness, warmth and even love find a way to creep back in eventually. For me, it tells that no matter what violence a toxic patriarchy wreaks on people (of all genders), it’s by the strength of relationships with others, and rising above the concept of “sides,” that we can survive, discover our own worth, and even find ways to exert power in situations of powerlessness.
There are no warm and fuzzies with this book, but I love its frankness, and that Barker finds a way to tell the sorts of experience and perspective that tend to only be shared in the company of women. And in this book, it’s laid bare, powerfully and with dignity and (because ancient Greece is so far removed from today’s patriarchy) in a context which makes empathy possible even by non-feminist men. It’s a powerful call for compassion and understanding, which really resonated with me.
Women who run with the wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The book is considered as a feminist book, but I am not sure about that. Maybe the idea of feminism has evolved since the time of its publication.
Estés writes this book from the perspective of a storyteller who has collected all the myths and stories women supposedly need to understand themselves. Then, for every story she tells, she breaks up every single part of the story and tells us what they mean. She spends majority of the book talking about what “every” woman feels. Every woman apparently feels the wild in her bones, and every woman has certain experiences, too. Such as an experience where she learns she has been naive for many years. Or a secret that she’s kept from herself.
I think the book can be interpreted in many ways but it is something I would recommend for every woman to read at any age, and re-read in different phases of their lives as we all have this free, wild woman within ourselves but it means different for all of us. For some it’s being a doula, for some it’s being a business woman, for some it’s living in the wilderness, and for some it’s being a stay at home mom. But this wild side of us feels the same for all of us: free, happy, light, easy, whatever positive words come to your mind. And this book helps each and one of us to find and understand this wild woman within and finally, let her free.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
I devoured the 2020 National Book Award winner in just 24 hours—it’s so gripping that you could easily finish it in less time than that, but I found myself having to put down the book and nurse my heart at those searing, nerve-striking passages. Willis Wu has worked his way up the bit parts in order to play Kung Fu Guy, the highest role attainable to an Asian-American actor. Just when he is about to achieve his goal, he meets a beautiful actress whose love just might be able to save him and break down the ominous TV show that dictates their lives. Although it has been described as a satire, I think of Interior Chinatown as a cri-de-coeur with sparkling wit, incredible courage, and commitment to truth. You’ll laugh out loud, tear up, and feel as though you’ve learned something new about the Asian-American experience—or gratified that Yu was brave enough to put into writing so many unspeakable truths.
Self-Portrait by Celia Paul
This short, poignant memoir by painter Celia Paul details her journey from muse to artist with unflinching honesty and humor. Through her diary entries and letters, you watch her find her voice, all while navigating life as an artist and woman. It’s funny, intimate, and candid, and just what I needed in 2020.
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