What We’ve Read, Watched, or Listened To in 2020
Once again this year, we asked our staff to recommend books, programs, and podcasts they found particularly interesting or entertaining in this unique and strange year. Here is their wide array of responses—some related to housing, some tangentially related, and many that touch on broader subjects and themes.
Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, Research Associate
It was a good year for doom-scrolling and a terrible year for actual reading! One of the first books I did manage to read during the shutdown was A Gentleman in Moscow, which tells the story of a count who is confined to house arrest in a hotel. Despite living in a small room crammed full of his possessions, the count manages to build a rich life full of friends, routine, and purpose, a message that really resonated during the early days of the stay-at-home order. I also loved The City We Became, a beautifully written fantasy novel that I think most urbanists would enjoy. The main characters are avatars of New York’s boroughs fighting against an evil force that is trying to destroy the city. I enjoyed how N.K. Jemisin highlighted the characteristics that make cities great and unique while also exploring the forces that threaten the very soul of cities. Probably the greatest delight of my year was the BBC show Staged, featuring David Tennant and Michael Sheen as they continue to rehearse a play over Zoom during the pandemic. It’s lighthearted and charming but captures some of the malaise and worry these last many months have brought about.
Corinna Anderson, Publications Coordinator
There, There by Tommy Orange builds its story through an accumulation of points of view, alternating between twelve people traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons and with different hopes for it. Through their lives, which intersect and interrupt each other, Orange shows the city as Native space. Shadowing the present is the history of 1950s and ‘60s Indian Termination Policy—when the US government did its best to dissolve Native nations through urban relocation—and how the violence of forced assimilation refracts through generations. Also, though it was written in 2014, I found some eerie familiarity in Station Eleven’s depiction of the descending panic before a global flu pandemic. That’s where the realism ends though; in Emily St. John Mandel’s book the survival rate is a grim one percent, and one thread of the plot—which jumps in time before and after the pandemic—follows a group of performers traveling through a series of post-apocalyptic Midwestern towns, bringing Shakespeare to a New Dark Ages civilization and trying to survive.
Kermit Baker, Senior Research Fellow
During the pandemic, I’ve tended more towards television shows than books, just so I can feel like I’m seeing something beyond the four walls of our house. Other than the Bosch series on Prime Video, all of the shows I’ve been binging on are on Netflix, with the most memorable among them: The Kominsky Method, Tiger King, Lovesick, Cheer, Unorthodox, Dead to Me, Emily in Paris, and The Queen’s Gambit. However, recently I’ve yearned for a show that portrays good government, and since The West Wing is old news, I’ve turned to the many seasons of a show with a similar set of plot lines, Madame Secretary.
Kerry Donahue, Associate Director of Communications
For most of 2020, I had a difficult time finishing books but when I finally did, three were among my favorites. For her book Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, author Ada Calhoun spoke with middle-aged women across America and found that most were exhausted, financially insecure, under-employed, and overwhelmed. Examining housing and childcare costs, job trends, credit card debt, and divorce data, she saw that Gen X women are facing problems and expectations very different from women before them, and drowning under the weight of it all. Although the book was written pre-pandemic, anyone trying to juggle a full-time job with full-time parenting and remote schooling this year will find the book immensely, painfully relatable. On the flipside, Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story tells of the bond the author shared with her eccentric, opinionated grandmother through a series of anecdotes and amusing voicemails (“Bessie, if you try on a dress and you don’t immediately want to parade outside the dressing room and show it off to everyone in the store, take it off and forget it ever existed.”). The book is a quick, light read and thoroughly lovely. The Elizabeth Gilbert novel City of Girls was my favorite fiction of the year. Told from the perspective of a 98-year-old woman as she recounts her experience living above her aunt’s New York City playhouse in the 1940s, it’s a quirky story about a woman in her early twenties, finding her voice and her place in the world, at the onset of World War II.
Finally, when I needed a pick-me-up this year, the Canadian TV show Still Standing was my go-to. In each episode, comedian and storyteller Jonny Harris spends a week in a small town in Canada and, at the end of the week, does a stand-up show about the town, for the town. Harris manages to showcase the people, the towns, and their struggles, while also celebrating their quirks and triumphs in a way that is both hilarious and affectionate.
Riordan Frost, Research Analyst
Like many others, the amount of time I spent reading declined during the pandemic. One work that I found easy to dive into, however, was The Phantom Atlas, a book filled with beautiful maps that are in some way, shape, or form wrong. Many of the maps simply contain mistakes, like the one demonstrating that many Europeans thought California was an island for most of the 1600s, or the one drawn by a captain in 1818 who was tricked by a mirage of mountains into thinking there was no Northwest Passage. Others are more sinister, like the one drawn by an arctic explorer in 1906 naming a nonexistent island after an expedition sponsor, which prompted more expeditions in which the theme seemed to be not finding or accomplishing anything except horrible mistreatment of the Inuit guides. It serves as an important reminder that a map portrays the perspective of the maker, who often has motives beyond simply depicting the world.
Raheem Hanifa, Research Analyst
The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap provides a historical examination of the intersection of black banking, systemic racism, and the racial wealth gap. Mehrsa Baradaran, a University of California-Irvine law professor and banking expert provides a historical analysis of how the plan of “Black Capitalism” and black banking was undermined, often by its very same proponents in banking and government. For example, the book describes the rise and fall of the federally chartered Freedman’s Saving Bank for newly emancipated Blacks in 1865. The bank was advertised as a means for them to gain access to landownership, however white bankers who managed the bank funds used Black savings for risky investments that resulted in bank insolvency and financial ruin for many Black depositors. The book describes how deeply embedded systematic racism is in US banking and economic systems and provides a critical lens to identify bad faith policies that lead to further entrenchment of the racial wealth gap. Additionally, a favorite podcast I’ve been listening to is NPR’s Code Switch. The hosts, Eugene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, are delightful and engaging in their discussion of race, culture, and politics. They engage with experts while discussing complex and thought-provoking topics pertaining to tensions around identity and conceptions of cultural authenticity within communities of color, and ways in which race and racism manifest in society and affect public life.
Chris Herbert, Managing Director
Books and videos were an important source of inspiration, learning, and distraction this year. In the inspiration category, I immensely enjoyed The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, which tells the story of the German Blitz in Britain from the time of Winston Churchill’s ascension to prime minister through the end of the Nazi bombing campaign. It’s a story of inspired leadership; Churchill was brutally honest about the challenges facing the country but also rallied hope and gave people the courage needed to carry on. It’s also a story of everyday fortitude in trying times, as people went about their lives through this dark time, continuing to commute to work each morning after the nighttime bombings and looked for ways to celebrate and find joy where they could. Reading the book made Zooming from my basement every day much easier to handle! It was a year for reflection as well, and the most meaningful experience for me was participating in a learning community at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, led by Naisha Bradley and Esther Weathers, grounded in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The book and the discussion sessions were the source of many new and provocative insights into the nature of systemic racism and my own role in perpetuating it. DiAngelo makes a compelling case that recognizing and confronting systemic racism is an ongoing process that doesn’t end with one book or one learning group.
This was also a year where distraction and entertainment were much needed. For me, Ted Lasso on Apple TV was perhaps the most enjoyable escape. Ted is a Division 2 football coach brought on to coach a premier league soccer team in an attempt by the new owner to ruin the franchise to spite her former husband. But Ted’s talent for recognizing and cultivating talent and goodness lead to some surprising successes, while introducing many memorable characters, spinning a lot of great dialogue, and producing more than a few laugh out loud moments, all of which was needed and appreciated this year.
David Luberoff, Deputy Director
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was, by far, the most powerful, insightful, and timely book I read this year. While housing is not the book’s central focus, it is a central metaphor. “America is an old house,” she writes. “When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril… Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.” Wilkerson, who also wrote the masterful The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, does touch on housing in Caste, though. She recounts familiar topics like redlining, and reminds us the many times Black people have been attacked, sometimes killed, by raging mobs that invaded their homes. She regularly returns to her central metaphor, though, writing at one point, “we in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even… We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.”
Like my colleagues, I’ve also turned to lighter fare, notably watching Unorthodox and The Queen’s Gambit and reading The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a wonderful story about “a life lived again and again.”
Samara Scheckler, Postdoctoral Fellow
The stresses of 2020 sent me searching for joyful stories about people overcoming difficult circumstances. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist hit that note. Heumann depicts barriers left largely invisible to those of us who easily navigate an uncut curb. She recalls her first move from her parents’ home into a college dorm, a rite of passage complicated by the need to enlist another student to pull her chair over a step into the hall bathroom every single time she required the toilet or shower. Then with full expectation that a lawsuit would be needed for her to attain a teaching job, Heumann earned her degree and passed her boards. Through her idealism, tenacity, and good humor, readers experience the youthful energy of the early disability rights movement. We see children and adults who literally pull and drag their bodies up the marble steps of the US capital to demonstrate obstacles to their participation in American life and governance. And we are introduced to organizers who link arms with civil rights pioneers to advocate for the protections that would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act to formally establish the civil rights of all Americans, including meaningful access to public spaces.
Every movement has a catalyst. The documentary Crip Camp, told entirely through original footage, features Heumann and other activists. The story begins at Camp Jened in the early 1970s where, the documentary suggests, their expectations for inclusion were cultivated. In this summer camp, sports, boyfriends, and smokes were more important than the limitations of a body. The intimate footage tracks campers from a childhood in which some were banned from public-school classrooms, to an adulthood in which many became pivotal community leaders. The documentary is a wonderful companion to Being Heumann, as it suggests the power of an affinity space where people can come together to be authentic and envision a better-fit world.
Alexander von Hoffman, Senior Fellow
This year I finally got around to reading John A. Farrell’s Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. A charismatic and difficult man, Darrow defended assassins, bombers, and in “the trial of the century” the infamous teenage thrill murderers, Leopold and Loeb. He successfully represented Eugene Debs, accused of fomenting violence in the great Pullman railroad strike of 1894, and “Big Bill” Haywood, head of the Western Federation of Miners, indicted for the murder of Idaho’s governor in 1905, and took down William Jennings Bryan in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Darrow was an early and ardent supporter of the rights of African Americans. After Dr. Ossian Sweet was charged with murdering one of the white men in the mob that had attempted to drive him out of his house in a white neighborhood of Detroit, Darrow took the case and, against all odds, won. A great read about a deeply flawed individual whose eloquence on behalf of the forgotten soared like no other.
In a quieter and more topical vein, I found Katherine Anne Porter’s elegiac novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about a young professional woman living through the 1918 influenza pandemic, to be hauntingly beautiful.
Sophia Wedeen, Research Assistant
This past April, with the stay-at-home advisory newly in effect, I started reading David France’s 2016 book, How to Survive a Plague. It’s a detailed account of how the HIV-AIDS epidemic unfolded in New York City and across the country. I was periodically stunned to learn just how much the activists, scientists, researchers, and clinicians were able to accomplish in the face of remarkably open hostility and in the absence of a coordinated public health response. In a Deadline interview, France discussed the similarities and differences between the AIDS crisis and COVID-19, and it’s a fascinating follow-up to the book. I also finished former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2018 book, In the Shadow of Statues, about local efforts to remove confederate memorials and how the confederacy is still entrenched in white southern culture.
On a lighter note, one of my favorite works of fiction from the year was Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis. It’s a sci fi novel set in America in 2007, in which a young woman makes first contact with an alien species. Some of my go-to podcasts this year have been City of the Future from Sidewalk Labs, about design and urban infrastructure, and Ologies with Alie Ward, which explores obscure and quirky fields of scientific study.