The Best Books I Read In 2020

Amid all the upheaval of 2020, at least I found time to read amazing books. Some were heavy, while others transported me to other worlds. (Like I did sitting in the van with the view above, immersed in the world of Dune.)

Turning off the news and disappearing into a book served as an important reset for me. I suppose it always does…

Before we get to the books, a request of all you erudite Traipsing readers: please send me your book recommendations! I’m constantly impressed by the quality ideas you send my way, so keep them coming.

Quick Note On My Reading Process

I borrow most books digitally from the library using the Libby app. I mostly read on a Kindle, which allows easy highlighting of favorite passages and is great for travel.

Then I export those highlights to Readwise so I can revisit them frequently. It’s majorly upped my retention and I love it! (If you feel guilty for not buying the books, did you know libraries a) pay more for their copies and b) also buy new digital copies after ~30 rentals?)

Enough chit chat – let’s do this. Here are my favorite books from 2020! (For those of you who prefer hard copy books, all links below point to, which supports local bookstores.)


Everything She Touched by Marilyn Chase: A look into the world of Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American woman pursuing art against so many odds. Rising above racism and internment during WWII, she created marvelous sculptures while raising six kids AND diving into civic engagement in San Francisco.

I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson: The autobiography of the famous Black baseball player, the first allowed to play in the major leagues. Like all my favorite biographies, this goes beyond what the person DID and looks deeper and wider. Performing at the level he did while under enormous pressure astonishes me.

Ansel Adams by Ansel Adams: Everyone knows his name and iconic Yosemite black and white photos, but did you know Ansel Adams was also a classically trained pianist? Or that photography wasn’t even considered art when he started making photos of Yosemite in the 1920s!? A story of his life, but also a history of early 20th-century photography since he was so intertwined in it.

The World’s Fastest Man by Michael Kranish: This biography opened the door to a world I’d never heard of: bike racing in the 1880s! It chronicles the life of Major Taylor, a Black racer who wowed crowds of thousands all over the world, all wrapped into the astonishing rise (and fall) of bicycles in the United States.

Today We Die a Little! by Richard Askwith: Emil Zatopek was a Czech runner probably most famous for winning gold medals in the 5k, 10k and marathon in the 1952 Olympics. (What?!) Beyond that is an unswervingly friendly man who bridged the East/West divide to race (and win) all over the world during the Cold War.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin: One of those series where life felt a bit empty after I finished it! Any fantasy reader will love this absorbing narrative wrapped around fabulous world-building. Each of the books won a Hugo for Best Novel (2016-2018), making N.K. Jemisin the first Black woman (or man, for that matter) to win the award.

Dune by Frank Herbert: The metric by which so much science fiction is measured, Lord of the Rings for scifi… so many accolades. Rereading this was an absolute pleasure and I’m excited to continue on in the series.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein: More 1960s scifi! Revolution on the moon aided by an AI computer named Mike. I don’t always enjoy older scifi, but this captivated me.


The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: A glass hotel in the wilderness, a Wall Street investor with a secret, and a swirl of artists with intersecting lives. GO!

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg: Set in Hollywood, every sentence in this book feels handcrafted, fine-tuned, and/or witty. The theme of striving too hard and the costs of that intensity brought me back to my single-minded focus on money and business in my 20s. (Ack.)

The Overstory by Richard Powers: A Pulitzer winner as complicated and layered as the arching canopy of the trees the author venerates and celebrates. A call to action, a novel, and a love story about the forest wrapped into one book.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: An intriguing format for a “novel”: a story of two people meeting and living out their lives…but with occasional insightful commentary from the philosopher author. SO good.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: This Pulitzer winner made me laugh out loud while crying at the same time. Warning: it starts slowly (Chelsea and I abandoned the audiobook), but I’m glad I picked up the book again later. Witty, entertaining, touching, hilarious… Stick with it!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: The story of an abandoned girl growing up in the marshes of North Carolina. 

Natural World

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben: I dove into the natural world this year via our garden project, but also via the Seek app (thanks Alastair) and books. The complexity and adaptability of trees opened my eyes and deepened my appreciation for them, whether I’m deep in a forest or sitting in my backyard. This book is fun and approachable, not some dry science tome.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: A lyrical, crafted gem of a book about the author’s interactions with nature. From wandering the Oregon coast in a rainstorm to rescuing salamanders on New York highways at night to the ebb and flow of living on a farm, I loved all of it. And I say this as someone who does not read books like this very often!


The Woman’s Hour by Elaine F. Weiss: The incredible story of the fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S.. As other countries finally realized the error of their ways in the early 1800s, the battle raged on for 100 years (!) in the U.S. What astonished me was the staunch anti-vote stance of so many women who trotted out B.S. like “politics will overwhelm the fragile constitution of women” and “dissolution of the family will occur.” (COUGH patriarchy much?)

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: The story of the great migration of Black southerners to the north and west in the 1900s. For 50+ years, over 6 million people upended their lives in search of a better life and drastically changed the face of northern cities as well as the places they left behind. Written as a narrative of various people who undertook the journey, this book is brilliant.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: I read this prior to the pandemic, but it’s even more compelling in the face of COVID-19. How do we thrive during the final years of our lives? A powerful takeaway for me was that the things we want for aging parents (safety and loss of autonomy) are often things we would never wish on ourselves.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: This book upended so much of my progressive, back-patting misconceptions about what it means to be a true ally and anti-racist. Kendi does this in a vulnerable, non-judgmental way by sharing his path and personal racist beliefs as a Black man in America.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne: Holy crap the Comanches were badasses! An intense, fascinating book about the rulers of the plains who held off the encroaching settlers and U.S. soldiers into the 1870s.

Figuring by Maria Popova: Written by the brilliant author of, this book links together pioneering women (many of them queer) from the 1800s into the 1900s. From poets to astronomers to authors to sculptors, the depth of power and conviction of the women illuminated in this book blew me away.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin: My biggest takeaway: they all surrounded themselves with people who questioned their viewpoints. More importantly, they listened to those people!“I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” 

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle: What do brilliant performers have in common? From tennis to chess to music, there’s a common code in place. (Deliberate practice, a catalyst, and mentorship.) An engaging, useful book that helped me tailor how I practice piano and approach any learning project.

That’s it for this round! Please send me your recommendations and why you dug them, I’m all ears.

Creativity and Fear, My Road Trip Companions

Kite boarding in Resia, Italy

The winds over the Cascade Mountains in Washington always punch airplanes around. As I sat in a 20-seat propeller aircraft during a recent trip, the metal creaked, the engines roared, and the pilot fought winds so strong the flight attendants stayed seated the entire time. (Never a good sign.) Luckily, I happened to be reading a book chapter about fear.

But I’m not talking about that kind of fear.

I’m talking about creative fear. The kind that stops you in your tracks and makes you say no, to shelve an idea, curb a project and stay safe. As Aristotle said, “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Liz Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, describes how she pictures any creative endeavor as a road trip with twins named Creativity and Fear. They’re always there, but she sets ground rules before the trip: Fear gets no radio station control, and definitely doesn’t get to drive.

Creativity, meanwhile, rides shotgun and picks the music, points out restaurants, and picks fun side diversions along the way, loving the ride. Yet through it all, Fear sits in the backseat with arms crossed and points out how stupid it was to take the road trip, that everything is going wrong, and whines about taking a pee break.

Lounging by a lake in Italy

Lounging by a lake in Italy

I fight fear every time I hit publish on a blog post or video. Blogging is easier these days since I’ve published 120 of them (how did that happen?!) without anyone shipping me off to the gulag for dissent. However, I’m a neophyte with video, so each completed work is a large percentage of my lifetime efforts. It’s a new arena where I’m equipped with a fork and spoon as I wish for a trident and lion-emblazoned shield.

Luckily, there are no other gladiators, and my life isn’t at stake. Just my self-confidence.

But hey! Learning with no expectations is good for me; video taps a different part of my brain versus writing or photography. Chelsea loses me for hours as I disappear into editing or drift off thinking about a fun angle for a shot. I know a well-done video when I see one – I think we all do – so efforts at this new endeavor frustrate me sometimes. But while these little video compilations don’t meet my vision for desired quality, they’re training, a method to figuring things out.

Ira Glass from This American Life said it well: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good… A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this…And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Every time I “finish” a creative project, a part of me still cringes because I know it’s not perfect. Making something feels like physical effort akin to scaling a castle wall, and publishing is tossing the work off a turret into the commons for all to see. Yet there, open and exposed, is where a project teaches me something. Readers email with support or (hopefully constructive) feedback, and I also ask for input from people whose skills I respect. (Brady, you wily film maker, you’re right – moving text and cross-fades are lame.)

If I don’t do that, there’s no improvement – I’d send text shooting across the screen and execute bad transitions forever. Instead, progress. Or at least it feels that way.

Wandering the castle grounds in Prague.

Wandering the castle grounds in Prague.

Just like this blog, which has expanded beyond what I expected when I started tapping keys two years ago, I have no idea how video will add to my life. Maybe it’s just a fun side project, a good outlet for my curiosity. Or maybe I can leverage those skills, our travel experiences, and my writing to tell stories about issues that needs attention. I felt too awkward to film the Syrian refugee situation when we were in Salzburg, but that is a perfect example of a story that needs to be shared.

Footage from our cycling trip in Europe is my current video medium. I’m parsing my way through it to learn new skills like decoupling video and audio for voiceovers, layering audio tracks, plus discovering free creative commons music sources. And while Fear sullenly plays Solitaire and Creativity babbles on about all the adventures around the bend, I’m enjoying the heck out of this road trip.

Check out my latest video – it’s a quick 1:20 and, I dare say, my cleanest one yet. Please let me know what you think!

High-Frequency Trading Is Just Another Wall Street Scam

There’s nothing quite like knowing you’re getting ripped off, and my blood boiled after reading the book “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis. It’s another brilliant work of non-fiction covering a topic about which everyone should be informed: high-frequency trading (HFT).

This topic is frequently in the news lately thanks to Lewis and his great work of investigative journalism. My takeaway is that we, the American people, are once again being ripped off by Wall Street middlemen to the tune of billions of dollars per year. In fact, even as the financial world crumbled in 2008 thanks to the mortgage debacle, with stock values and pension funds plummeting, high-frequency trading volumes were skyrocketing for the cloak-and-dagger firms operating in profitable obscurity.

Basically, HFT is where a firm trading in the stock market has a faster route to the stock exchanges than someone else, such as your investment platform (e.g. Fidelity or Schwab). That advantage is achieved via buying fiber optic cable or “co-location,” where a trading firm literally sets up their server INSIDE the building of stock exchange, paying millions to that exchange for faster access to information than you, I or our investment platform can get. The result is an unfair advantage that bilks us of our money yet earns these high-frequency traders an estimated $20 billion per year. While some companies, such as Vanguard (which I use), say that it reduces the overall cost to investors, that doesn’t seem to be the consensus of Flash Boys or other articles I’ve read about it.

There are 13 registered stock exchanges, such as the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ, all of which are for-profit entities. In the years since the traders on the floor that were buying and selling stocks have been largely replaced by computers, wiring and switches transferring stock orders, the footprint of the buildings of these exchanges have grown in square footage. Not to hire more people: to have more space to sell to these HFT firms that want to buy expensive space. We’re talking about millions of dollars to get a millisecond (one-thousandth of a second) advantage over other traders, and far more of an advantage over non-HFT firms.

Why would a HFT firm want to be close to a stock exchange? Here’s where it gets tricky – bear with me. Say an order for 10,000 shares comes out of Manhattan from a big retirement account run through Fidelity for the everyday American. As part of Regulation NMS, which implemented “National Best Bid and Order”, a huge institutional investor like Fidelity must buy the cheapest available shares on the market first, then fulfil the rest of the order elsewhere. The HFT guys have offers out to sell 100 shares of every company on the stock market at any given moment as a way to test the market. For example, say the stock in question is Apple. That HFT firm first sells Fidelity 100 shares of Apple at a price, then uses their speed advantage to race ahead using computer algorithms to all the other exchanges, buy up the stock and turn around and sell at a higher price, turning an instant profit. Think of this as a “gambler” betting on a boxing match that they’ve already seen. Easy to know a boxer is going down in the third round and win big every time!

THIS IS CHEATING. Not “creating liquidity” or any of the other euphemistic drivel applied to this tactic. These HFT firms, which are some of the most opaque in the market today, have been known to brag about being profitable every single day they operate. It’s just fractions of a penny per share being extracted…that EVERYONE in the country, except for these HFT crooks, is paying as a premium on every single trade we do, totaling millions of dollars per day in profit for the HFT schemers. A devious fiber optic robot dipping into every pocket and transferring it to silk-lined trouser pockets in New Jersey.

The book centers around a stock trader from the Royal Bank of Canada, Brad Kutsuyama, who learns he is being ripped off and goes on a search to figure out why. After years of investigation, he leaves his lucrative job and assembles a crack team of traders and tech wizards to create his own stock exchange, IEX, with the stated goal to deliver a fair and level trading environment. It has been a race to go fast for these HFT traders, with companies doing things like building a $300 million fiber optic line straight from Chicago to New York even if it meant tunneling straight through limestone. All to get a TWO millisecond advantage on the markets. IEX literally coils miles and miles of fiber optic cable in a box to slow down the signals from HFT firms, winning the speed race by going so slowly that the HFT punks lose their purchased advantage. This levels the playing field for anyone who wishes to place a trade. (I’ll leave it at that, check out the book for more detail if you’re interested.)

The most infuriating thing about this for me: Even with a stock exchange like IEX as a proven way for a trade avoid exploitation by HFT, and with big institutional investors asking their brokers and banks to fulfill their orders through IEX, it’s not happening. Why? Inertia, to some degree. And unclear, yet certainly lucrative, relationships between big companies like Goldman Sachs and the exchanges that pay them spiffs and other incentives to trade with them. Goldman could change things around practically overnight by placing orders on a fair exchange, but so far it isn’t happening to a very large degree.

High-frequency predatory trading such as the above is a bad thing that needs to be stamped out. It is a drain on the economy and is not contributing anything to the world. Instead of competition, launching new stock exchanges merely gave high-frequency algorithms more ways to take advantage of speed they purchase. At the time of this writing, IEX is the only exchange built around delivering a fair price that doesn’t offer incentives or co-location services to the HFT firms. It only earns income from a flat fee per trade, the way it should be!

The SEC, regulator of Wall Street, is not going to keep the sharks and their shredding teeth out of our trades. Regulators are too slow. So what can we, the ordinary investor, do to stop high-frequency trading? Take matters into our own hands and let capitalism and social media be our solution. Go to and share the truth about how we’re all getting ripped off, or sign this petition. Ask your brokerage to execute your trades on a platform like IEX, where you are able to honestly exchange shares of a company for the real price and not get gouged. Hopefully the “Flash Boys” story will result in enough public outcry that the companies holding our retirement and trading accounts will pay attention and use their financial sway to do the right thing.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at