I absolutely love when Obama comes out with his favorite books of the year lists. He usually has some of my favorite books on his list as well. Except for last year. 2020 was not a great year for me, reading-wise especially. And going into 2021, I hadn’t read a single one of the books on his 2020 favorites list (even though I definitely meant to and already had several of these on my shelves – I actually got a few chapters into The Glass Hotel before life got in the way).
So I decided to do what any
logical person crazy book blogger would do, and read ALL OF THEM. That’s right. I spent this year reading every single one of Obama’s favorite books from last year (in addition to all my other reading). All seventeen of them (plus one extra, which I will explain in a bit). Then I finished it off by reading his new book, because that just felt right and I don’t need sleep, it’s fine. And I blogged about what I thought for all of you to read. You know, in case you thought I’d take it easy for the last reading experiment of the year.
Here are all of Obama’s favorite books of 2020 (don’t they look pretty and not at all intimidating?):
Clearly, this is going to be a very long post (I read nineteen books for this), so get a snack and your drink of choice, and let’s jump right in. As always, I blogged about these in the order in which I read them.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
This was not one of the books that I was particularly interested in reading going into this. Yes, the cover and title had definitely caught my attention. And I was a tiny bit intrigued by the premise. But westerns are really not my thing, and this one didn’t get added to my to-read list before this post. So I was even more surprised that this was a five-star read. I loved it. I loved the characters and I loved the story. But what really pushed this over the edge into five-star territory was the writing. It was absolutely beautiful. I fully expect this book to stick with me for a while. (Note: I’m finishing up this post more than ten months after I first read this, and yes, I am still thinking about it.)
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
The premise of this book kind of reminded me of The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which I loved. So I was really excited to read this. But I just had a little trouble connecting to the characters. I really enjoyed the diversity of their stories and the Hawaiian mythology elements, but I just personally wasn’t into the family drama all that much. I still really enjoyed this one, though, and can definitely see why it was on this list. I think it does a great job illustrating a part of American culture that isn’t really mainstream, while also delving into classic American struggles.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
Because I always go into these posts with a plan (not), I did not realize that this is part of a series. More specifically, it is the fourth book in the Gilead series. Which, after much Googling, I came to understand don’t necessarily have to be read in order, but most people enjoy them better that way. So I planned to read all three books in the series before this one. However, I really didn’t enjoy book number one, Gilead. But I still tried to read the other two anyway. However, I refuse to spend money on something I don’t think I’ll enjoy and the two libraries I have access to only had Gilead and Jack (why, I will never understand). So, after waiting a few months for to see if they’d get them after the entire series was added to Oprah’s book club, I just skipped to the end. And I have no regrets.
Honestly, I kind of wish I’d just read Jack. It was so much more up my alley than Gilead. But, because I had read Gilead first, I didn’t go into Jack with the best mindset. I didn’t think I’d like it, I just wanted to get it over with, and I just was not excited to read this book. And I think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t gone into it that way. But it is what it is. I actually enjoyed Jack, it is a great commentary on race and relationships in America, but I don’t think the series as a whole is for me. And that’s fine.
Luster by Raven Leilani
I had heard mixed things going into Luster, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I also didn’t really know much about it going in, because I was reading it either way. This book reminded me a lot of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. It’s a commentary on racism in predominately white communities. Except this one is mostly about the main character’s affair with a white married man. And it’s… really sexual. Not gonna lie, there were times while I was reading this that I remembered Barack Obama recommended it and I felt a little weird. The experience was not unlike accidentally watching a sex scene in a movie with your parents. Anyway… I didn’t hate this. I think I would have liked it more had I not already read Such a Fun Age, but it was a pretty okay book.
I am not excited about the rest of this experience. Why did I have to read How Much of These Hills Are Gold first? I feel like I set myself up for failure there.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
In a list of seventeen books, it was bound to happen. I found a book I didn’t like. This book bored me nearly to death and I’m still recovering. Granted, I knew going in this wasn’t really my cup of tea – reading a detective novel about the opioid crisis and family drama just doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy. But How Much of These Hills is Gold has made me more willing to step outside of my comfort zone, so I was a little hopeful going into this. It just didn’t pay off this time. If a book is labeled a thriller, I would like it to be thrilling. Just me? My first (but hopefully last) two-star read of this list.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum
Fortunately, I followed up a book I didn’t like with a book I did! This was a brief overview of some of the challenges democracy has faced in different countries in recent years. It also discusses the inherent flaws in democracy, and why it is so easy for democracies to fail. Really interesting book, and I definitely appreciated how short and concise this is. Four stars from me! So far, we only have one five-star read on this list, but I definitely see a few more possibilities here.
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey
You know I always love a good memoir, and this one was no exception. This is about the author’s experience growing up in a blended family, dealing with abuse from her stepfather, and the trauma of him shooting and killing her mother when she was only nineteen. So not an easy read. But very worth it. It’s fairly short, but incredibly impactful. Definitely another good one from this list.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
I was excited to read this one because I loved Station Eleven when I read it a few years ago (I think it was actually one of the books that got me to start this blog). Unfortunately, this book is nothing like Station Eleven. It isn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t the story for me. This isn’t the kind of story I would gravitate towards if it was an author I’m unfamiliar with. I feel slightly better about not finishing it when I attempted to read it last year. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it at that time. I can see why people liked this one, and I did enjoy the writing. But the story was just okay in my book.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
This was my first Kim Stanley Robinson book, so I didn’t know what to expect going in. I did like the idea behind this book – I am definitely intrigued by cli fi (or climate fiction, which is a subgenere of sci fi). And I did enjoy the message (or warning) of this book, and how it was conveyed. But I did not particularly enjoy reading this. I didn’t necessarily dislike it, but I just don’t think it was for me. To be honest, this isn’t something I would have picked up on my own and I definitely put off reading this for most of the year because I wasn’t really looking forward to it. This was long and semi-boring and overall just kind of meh.
After reading this, I actually went through a list of more books Obama has recommended over the years, and I have realized that, before this insane post, I tended to treat his lists more as a way of finding books I might like and not just blindly reading all of them. Our taste in books definitely overlaps, but is not the same. There are definitely a few more books on this list I’m not that excited to read, but there are also some I am very excited about. Hopefully I am able to get this all finished by the end of the year, because it’s now the end of October and I have so many books left.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
In addition to reading all of the books on this (very long) list AND doing eleven other reading experiments this year, I have also attempted to continue with my anti-racism reading. Luckily, this one was already on my list and I didn’t have to try and add it to the massive list of books I read for posts this year. Because I do think this book made a great addition to my own education. While this didn’t provide a ton of information that was new to me, I did find it very insightful. I have been enjoying not just learning new things, but reading different perspectives on information I was already familiar with.
I can definitely see why this was on Obama’s favorites list. At its core, this book illustrates why people of color in America are rightfully pissed and how prejudice and racism came to be ingrained in our culture. Also, it kind of made me smile that a book on our former President’s favorite books of the year list trolled a certain orange former reality TV personality (who shall remain nameless on this blog, because this is a nice place).
So far, I think this is the only book on this list I was able to accurately predict my rating of. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. And the one other book I’ve read for this post so far that I gave five-stars to is a book I didn’t think I would enjoy all that much. Not sure what that says about me or why I felt I needed to mention it, but there it is. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and am looking forward to reading Wilkerson’s other book, The Warmth of Other Suns after this is all over.
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavincencio
This book was SO GOOD. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy learning the stories of so many diverse Americans, but I absolutely loved the writing. I’m honestly a little bit upset that I can’t go straight out and pick up another book by this author. I honestly didn’t think anything could surpass How Much of These Hills is Gold as my favorite of this list, but The Undocumented Americans comes very close. Maybe it’s a tie. A book written by a DREAMer who attended Harvard and traveled around the US gathering stories about undocumented Americans was absolutely needed. I loved it so much, and I hope we get more like this one because these stories deserve to be shared. Everyone should read this.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
If you didn’t know already, I am a huge anglophile. So a book about Winston Churchill was right up my alley. I was also excited to finally read an Erik Larson book – even though it wasn’t the one that has been sitting on my bookshelves for like six years (Devil in the White City). But this book took me forever to get through. I decided to listen to the audiobook – which I tend to prefer for nonfiction – and had to listen to it in chunks over several months.
I really enjoyed this book and ended up giving it five stars (I rounded up a little bit). And it was very interesting. But it was so dense. I didn’t realize when I picked this up that the majority of this book concentrated on just a few years during WWII, so there was a lot of information. And to be honest, I’m not super into reading about the technical aspects of war. I prefer to concentrate on the people. But I still really liked this one. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed the writing quite a bit. My only real complaint about this one is that it felt longer than it actually was.
Missionaries by Phil Klay
I’m going to be totally honest here: out of all of the books on this list, this is the one I was the least excited to read. Again, reading books about wars isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do. I can absolutely see why this was on Obama’s list of favorites, but it did not have a great chance of making my list. I ended up giving it three stars. The story was not for me at all, but the writing was actually engaging enough that reading it didn’t feel like a huge chore.
I think I’ve mostly blocked this from my mind already, which isn’t great. But it was fine. Not my thing. But if you do enjoy reading about wars, especially contemporary military history, definitely check this one out.
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
Now this book was more up my alley. It’s about a family who had twelve children in the mid-twentieth century. And out of their ten sons, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Which is really heartbreaking to think about. But they ended up being studied to see how mental illnesses can run in families, especially to that extent.
It was fascinating to learn each of their stories and how their experiences differed, but also the trauma their mental illnesses caused their siblings. It was definitely a difficult book to read, but I thought it was so well done and interesting. It’s just one of those stories I read about and am glad someone took the time to write.
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
In the period between me starting this experiment and reading this book, it was announced that Homeland Elegies would be adapted into a film starring Kumail Nanjiani, who I’m a big fan of. So I was pretty excited to read this. I wasn’t expecting this book to focus pretty heavily on a certain orange former White House resident (who shall remain nameless on this blog, because this is a nice, accepting place). And it did not escape my attention that this is not the first book on this list calling him out for basically being the worst (and calling him a terrible . So there’s one more reason why Obama is still my favorite president that I’ve voted for (2008 was the first election I could vote in, so you can do the math there – or don’t, we already know I’m an “old” book blogger).
This book didn’t end up being a new favorite, but I did really enjoy it. I absolutely see why this was on Obama’s favorites list though. I’m learning that he likes a lot of books that are about the different experiences of people in America. In this case, a Muslim immigrant family living in the US post-9/11 and then dealing with the 2016 election. It’s not the easiest story to read, because we lived through these times (although it is just occurring to me that I might have readers who were not born in 2001). But I did think it was representative of how Muslims and Middle Eastern people were treated. Plus, it’s really well-written.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
This is one of those books that I don’t think was for me. The story is not something I gravitate towards on my own – though this book was on my radar when it came out last year. Honestly, I think I just loved the cover. But again, this story wasn’t totally my thing. I was definitely more into it than, say, Missionaries. And I absolutely appreciated where the author was coming from with this story. But it wasn’t something I was super invested in.
What made this book for me – and led to me giving it four stars, was the writing. I loved it. By chapter two, I was already Googling other James McBride books. Not every story is for every person, but I do think McBride has the potential to write a book that would be a favorite for me. I can absolutely see why this book got so much hype last year, and has such amazing reviews.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
I saved this one for the end, because I was really looking forward to it. Not only have I owned a copy since it came out, but I have heard so many amazing things about this book. Everyone seems to love it, and I was really hoping I would, too. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I think my problem was that I went into it really only knowing the basic premise – twin sisters grow up and live their lives very differently, one as Black, and the other passing as White. And while that was obviously a huge part of the book, it wasn’t all of it.
For some reason, I have not been doing well with multi-perspective or generational storylines. I feel like they’ve rarely worked for me, but especially the past few years, I’ve been having issues connecting with them. And this was a weird one, because I absolutely saw how showing the sisters’ children and how this affected their lives was important. My brain just struggled to care all that much. Still a four-star read. Just not a favorite, unfortunately.
And, to finish off this journey, I read…
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
I was honestly a little skeptical going into this one. I was hoping to love it, but it’s also a giant (767-page) memoir that I knew would be heavily political. And we all know the last few years politics have been crazy and stressful. This book brought me back to when it felt fun to participate and not like you might die if you didn’t convince your family and friends to vote. Like I said, Obama was the very first president I ever voted for. I was nineteen in 2008. And it was such an exciting thing. It was nice to go back to that time. And remember what it was like to vote for a someone without feeling terror at the prospect of the other candidate winning (for those of you who are younger, yes, that was how it used to be, and it was great). Like, I would have been a little disappointed, but I don’t think I would have cried had John McCain won the election in 2008.
I think that’s why I loved this book so much. It brought me back to a time where politics felt important, but a lot less critical to survival. I really hope we go back to that someday. I listened to this on audio, and it was also just really nice to hear Obama’s voice. It’s very soothing and honestly kind of comforting after the last five years. Overall, I loved this so much more than I thought I would, and I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it.
And that is it for the final reading experiment of 2021! I hope you enjoyed this one! Even though I didn’t enjoy every single one of these books, it was kind of fun to branch out. And I don’t think I would have read what ended up being my two favorites – How Much of These Hills is Gold and The Undocumented Americans – had I not done this experiment. (Seriously, I loved those books, and already want to pick them up again.)
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?
Obama just released his favorite books of 2021, and I have actually read one of them this time! It wasn’t a personal favorite, but I did enjoy it.
And check out my bookshop, where you can buy books and also shop my curated collections of my personal favorites AND all of the books I’ve read for my reading experiments. Or you can just buy whatever books you want to. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, and you get to support your choice of indie bookstores – it’s a win all around!