2020 has been exceptional and familiar since it started. People got sick and stayed healthy. Friends and family grew apart and closer than ever. Eyes were opened to systemic racism while others experienced the same prejudice, discrimination, and racial violence that they always have. It has been an incredibly challenging and absolutely beautiful year.
It has been a year when much has been expected from books. Escape, education, companionship, thrilling narrative. These are my favorites for all of those reasons and more.
“Well, the sun was shining. They felt that boded well - people turn any old thing into an omen.”
The first two sentences of Rumaan Alam’s brilliant new novel, Leave the World Behind, usher readers into a world they think they know. It feels familiar and lived in, but there is menace lurking just beyond the margins.
Amanda and Clay are white, upper middle class parents to two teenage children. They have rented a house nicer than their own small apartment in New York City for a week and they plan to simply enjoy it: get out of town, away from work, to a place with a pool. There is a beauty in their vacation ritual, a mundane joy:
“Amanda volunteered to go to the grocery store...She bought packages of cookies from Pepperidge Farm and three pints of Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream and a Duncan Hines boxed mix for a yellow cake and a Duncan Hines tub of chocolate frosting with a red plastic lid, because parenthood had taught her that on a vacation’s inevitable rainy day you could while away an hour by baking a boxed cake.”
She’s right. They bake the cake on a rainy day. She knows her children and her husband, and also knows nothing at all. This is domestic horror at its finest. It’s quiet and small and huge and terrifying. As the world plummets into a literal and figurative darkness not yet felt in Upstate New York where the family is staying, an elderly Black couple shows up at their door, claiming to be the owners of the home who have fled New York City after an unexplained blackout. The two couples, thrown together under awkward circumstances, work together to understand what is happening and create a plan for survival. Ultimately, though, it is the children who find strength and move forward into the unknown.
“Not quite ten years after 9/11, I wrote a play in which an American-born character with Muslim origins confesses that as the towers were falling, he felt something unexpected and unwelcome, a sense of pride - a ‘blush’ is how he describes it - which he explains in the play’s climactic scene, made him realize that, despite being born here, despite to the totality of his belief in this country and his commitment to being an American, he somehow still identified with a mentality that saw itself as aggrieved and other…”
Homeland Elegies is autofiction at its absolute finest. Ayad Akhtar blurs the lines between lived experience and fictional narrative in such a way that you just cannot stop reading it, puzzling through it, trying to understand what is "real" and what isn’t, ultimately realizing it doesn't matter - a perfect metaphor for the world that we have been living in since Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, as well as the role that art can and should play when interrogating societal and cultural norms.
Akhtar was born in the United States to parents born in Pakistan. And while you could say that this is a book about what it means to be Muslim in the United States since 9/11, or since Trump’s Muslim ban, the truth is that these are just the most current flash points in the demonization of Muslim and Arab Americans.
Much of the book focuses on Akhtar’s relationship with his father, a fascinating man who wears his American citizenship as a badge of honor. He was Trump’s doctor in the 90s which gives him a very different perspective on Candidate Trump than his son. The father and son struggle to understand each other through the election, a projection of their diverse understanding and experience of being an American.
I've never read anything like this before. It is essential reading.
“Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”
The immense talent in Yaa Gyasi’s stunning debut Homegoing, is beautifully surpassed in Transcendent Kingdom. The rich brilliance in these first two sentences persists through the entire book as Gifty devotes her life to studying the scientific causes of depression and addiction after her brother’s death and her mother’s lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Gifty’s family moved to the United States from Ghana when her older brother was a baby. She was born a few years later into a fervent evangelical household. And while her family of immigrants navigated racism and prejudice in her church, her own belief was only tested when her brother died of an overdose in high school. As her mother retreated inside of herself, Gifty was left to grapple with her grief. The Gifty who narrates Transcendent Kingdom is a sixth-year Ph.D candidate at Stanford, and she’s still grappling, desperately trying to reconcile her ardent scientific pursuit with her deep desire to return to the blind faith of her childhood.
Gyasi respects her characters, listens to them, is sensitive to their fears and doubts, and celebrates their triumphs. It was an immense pleasure to read her words. Gifty’s brother Nana is so much more than just an addict; her mother is so much more than just enshrined in her depression. They are full characters. Gyasi refuses to essentialize them to their ailments. I wish all books were like this one. Yaa Gyasi is a great American novelist and storyteller and we are so fortunate to have her.
“Many white women reading this now will know exactly what I am talking about, because this very thing happens between men and women: the condescending dismissals, the exaggeratedly mystified claims of unprovoked hysteria and unhinged emotion, the gaslighting. What I and many women of color before me, and no doubt after me, are asking is that white women open their minds and hearts when women of color talk about the double whammy we are dealt...White women can oscillate between their gender and their race, between being the oppressed and the oppressor. Women of color are never permitted to exist outside of these constraints: we are both women and people of color and we are always seen and treated as such.”
I had the privilege of reading Ruby Hamad’s essay collection over the summer. I read it in one day, almost in one sitting. I felt immense grief. I felt complicit in the centuries of abuse committed - and still being committed - in the name, or, more accurately, under the oft-denied veil, of white supremacy. I felt determined. I felt like I needed to read the book again immediately.
Hamad’s essay collection was spurred from an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2018 entitled “How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour.” In the introduction to the book, she explains that while she received an overwhelming amount of very negative attention from readers all over the world, “there were the testimonials from women of color who shared their stories, their tragedies, their stolen years spent wondering why this kept happening to them, why they were ‘going crazy.’” The essays are impressively comprehensive, and nuanced - a smart rebuke of white women and our interactions - historic and otherwise - with BIPOC women. It is the history that should be taught in every classroom.
White women must internalize this story and make it a part of their own, personal story - the part that we work against, that motivates us to change so that history does not repeat itself any longer, every day, on the bodies and in the minds of BIPOC women.
Feminism is not feminism unless it is intersectional.
“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.”
At one of our pop-ups this fall, I was talking with a fellow booklover about some of my favorite books this year. My list was far too long to be helpful in choosing a book - which is often the case - so she asked me, which one was the most enjoyable to read. My answer was Writers & Lovers by Lily King.
This is a book about death and grief. This is a book about being in your early- to mid-thirties and having a job that others don’t respect or understand. This is a book about being a writer. This is a book about love. It’s poignant and understated and funny and just really great.
I loved everything about this book, but here are two specific things.
First, Casey, King’s protagonist works as a server at an upscale restaurant in Boston. I worked as a server for many years before we moved to Eau Claire and opened this bookshop. Most of the time, reading a narrative about serving is so frustrating. It's either glamorized, inaccurately portrayed, or both. No so in Writers & Lovers - which made me feel seen and understood. Serving can be a beautiful and lonely job, especially as you move past the age where it is seen as a socially acceptable position. This book wonderfully captures the feelings of insecurity that can accompany a serving job, while also accurately describing the exquisite joy of emptying your mind of everything except the three orders you just took, the coffee that must be served to the table of business associates on their lunch break, and the details of the special pasta the head chef just painstakingly described. Not to mention the triumph and sheer physical exhaustion at the end of a double.
Second, the action of the book takes place in the nineties and consequently, Casey does not have a cell phone. There are numerous scenes in the book where Casey is waiting and hoping for phone calls throughout the day, but she has to return home to see if there is a message on her answering machine. It’s a simple thing, but the lack of a device adds a different kind of urgency to so many of the scenes in the book and it’s so relatable. It also cuts down on distraction, distills the narrative down to its most essential. What a novel concept.
“Truth be told, this whole company was something of a mystery to Shigeru. He’d applied for the job after seeing it advertised in a free local employment paper he’d picked up at the convenience store. Some of the words cramped in the tiny square notice had been so blurred that he could barely make them out, so it was hard to tell what kind of company it was, or the exact nature of the work...Not only that, but as he headed to the interview, he was seized by panic upon realizing he couldn’t for the life of him recall the company’s name.”
Welcome to the land of the Wild Ladies, a short story world where the living and dead coexist, working at a factory that manufactures incense and dispatches ghosts to assist the living in their day-to-day activities. Each of Aoko Matsuda’s offbeat and completely delightful stories takes inspiration from traditional Japanese ghost and yōkai tales. They are full of grief, loneliness, and hope.
The previous quotation is taken from “Where the Wild Ladies Are,” the titular short story in the collection. Here we meet Shigeru, a man whose mother recently, and very unexpectedly, committed suicide. After her death, Shigeru loses all motivation and goes to work for Mr. Tei, an enigmatic manager at a strange factory.
One of the wonderful things about this collection is its interconnectedness. While we don’t meet Shigeru until close to the middle of the collection, we’ve already met his ghost mother, who has taken up residence in her niece’s home, giving her a confidence she was sorely lacking. We’ve also already met Mr. Tei as he goes around recruiting both the living and recently deceased to fill just about any position available - ghost babysitter, ghost toad, door-to-door saleswomen ghosts, and so many more. Not only does this collection create a strange and hopeful world, it also brilliantly takes on sexism and sexual harassment in both the workplace and throughout larger society. This book was a bright spot in my reading year.
“Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .45 Luger in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.”
So begins Deacon King Kong by James McBride. Set in Brooklyn in 1969, this is a fantastically uplifting, funny, and, yes, heartbreaking novel about gentrification, addiction, loss, love, and community.
McBride is a master storyteller. His novel is populated by a huge cast of characters and each one, no matter how minor, is completely and realistically drawn. As I read this book, I realized that McBride doesn’t think of any of his characters as minor because he doesn’t think of people as minor. He dutifully and generously imagines the interior life of every character he writes because he does the same with every person he meets. I’ve never met McBride, so I obviously have no idea if this is true, but to read his writing is to know that it must be.
This book has absolutely everything. It’s hilarious and ridiculous and sad and maddening. It is a book about life told from inside a forgotten community, held together by patience, perseverance, habit, and hope.
“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.
Once, my husband found a colony of storm petrels on the rocky coast of the untamed Atlantic. The night he took me there, I didn’t know they were some of the last of their kind. I knew only that they were fierce in their night caves and bold as they dove through moonlit waters. We stayed a time with them, and for those few dark hours we were able to pretend we were the same, as wild and free.”
Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations is a wonder, from the first sentence to the last. The book is set in the near future, after multiple climate change disasters have slowly driven many animals to extinction. Franny Stone, our narrator, is determined to follow the Arctic tern on what scientists believe will be its final migration - from the Arctic to the Antarctic - no matter the costs.
Franny’s motivations for taking this trip slowly unfold through the course of the story. She is in her early thirties feeling immense grief and longing. She grieves for personal losses and the collective loss of the world she once knew, and the one she never had a chance to experience. McConaghy’s exploration of collective grief is especially poignant during this moment, while some have been intimately affected by loss and others deny that it exists at all.
McConaghy’s writing is exquisite in its sadness and complexity, and even more wonderful in its ultimate arrival at hope and strength to carry on.
“It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all. The lake was dimpled with white waves. People coveted these last blustery days of summer before the weather turned cold and mercurial. The air was heavy with their good times as the white people scattered across the tiered patios, pried their mouths apart, and beamed their laughter into each other’s faces. Overhead, gulls drifted easy as anything.”
In reflecting back on the books of the year, I think Real Life is probably my favorite book. You know that feeling of possibility that accompanies opening a book and reading the first sentence? The first paragraph? Sometimes, you just know that something special is going to happen; that the author is taking care of you; you can trust them. That’s how Real Life feels.
Brandon Taylor’s debut novel takes place at a large midwestern university (ahem, UW-Madison). Wallace, his protagonist, is a Black biochemistry student navigating a system built for white people. He has left his life, and associated trauma, back in Alabama in the hope of becoming the person he thinks he should be. Over the course of a weekend, he stumbles into a fraught relationship with Miller, while simultaneously sabotaging the results of his lab work and concealing the fact that his father has recently died.
Wallace is guarded. He doesn’t trust the people around him. He’d rather ruin everything before it starts than come out on the other end battered and bruised. In Taylor’s talented and compassionate hands, Wallace and all of his trauma are laid bare in such a vulnerable and visceral way that you can’t help but slow down and feel all of the pain and all of the hope that he clings to in equal measure.
“I don’t ask where he’ll stay in Japan. I don’t ask who he’ll stay with. I don’t ask where his mother will sleep here, in our one-bedroom apartment, or exactly what that arrangement will look like. The thing about a moving train is that, sometimes, you can catch it. Some of the kids I work with, that’s how their families make it into this country. If you fall, you’re dead. If you’re too slow, you’re dead. But if you get a running start, it’s never entirely gone.”
Bryan Washington’s debut novel drops readers into the relationship of Benson and Mike, two men who have seemingly come to the end of their four-or-so-year relationship. The first half of the book is written from Benson’s perspective, and the second from Mike’s. The shift is brilliant; just as I was ready to write Mike off as a real jerk, he takes over and everything changes. I’m never not astonished at a writer’s ability to lay plain the challenge of connection, of the daily choices that must be made so that people can consistently and honestly open themselves up to each other.
We’re all born into a family and then we spend the rest of our lives creating another. As those two families merge and diverge and fall apart and come back together, it’s impossible to ignore the way they inform each other. Everything is connected, and books like Memorial explore the depth of that connection - the consequences of each of the choices that we make on the people around us. At a time of deep division, when the stakes of our selfishness get higher each day, is there a more important reminder?
It has been very challenging to limit this list to only ten books this year. I have been shifting books around, second guessing my choices, feeling sadness at excluding certain titles. For me, books represent the moments in my day when I’m able to rest, to care for myself a bit, to empty my mind of the to-do list and just engage in another world. And while that has always been the case, those moments have been fewer in 2020. I am therefore quite attached to the books that I have loved and enjoyed, the books that have challenged me and welcomed me into the shoes of another. And so, since ten seems such an arbitrary number, I’m going to include five more books that I loved. I’m also going to include a few of my favorite books that I read this year but were not published this year.
“When Girl flips the book over, she’s careful not to look at the summary but lets herself read the sentence above it. THERE WAS SOMETHING STRANGE ABOUT AMERICA, SOMETHING THAT THEY ALL SEEMED TO SHARE AND UNDERSTAND AND SHE DID NOT. It makes Girl remember something her dad used to say, about being in the West and how the Arabic word for west was connected to the word strange. Isn’t that something? he would ask. Girl now wishes she had asked him what he meant. Isn’t west a direction? Doesn’t it depend on where you stand?” - from “A Girl in Three Acts”
Alligator is the first book I’ve read by a Syrian American author. It is a fantastic collection full of rich history and beautiful writing. I couldn’t put it down.
“Otherwise, I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of the facts. Here’s a fact: I have great breasts, which have warped my spine. More facts: My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends, and men lose interest in me when I talk. It always goes well initially, but then I talk too explicitly about my ovarian torsion or my rent. Eric is different...Of course, the context of my childhood - the boybands, the Lunchables, the impeachment of Bill Clinton - only emphasizes our generational gap. Eric is sensitive about his age and about mine, and he makes a considerable effort to manage the twenty-three-year discrepancy. He follows me on Instagram and leaves lengthy comments on my posts. Retired internet slang interspersed with earnest remarks about how the light falls on my face. Compared to the inscrutable advances of younger men, it is a relief.”
I was initially turned off by Luster. I just couldn’t quite find a way to connect with Edie, Raven Leilani’s twenty-something protagonist. About halfway through, everything clicked. What I had written off as a trendy-feeling treatise on sexual exploration is actually an incredible story of loneliness at the conjunction of youth, art, and racial identity. Leilani’s writing is unforgettable: absolutely gorgeous in its description of the colors with which Edie prepares her palette - and the three women at the center of this novel are each an amalgamation of the hot magentas and cold blues that fill Edie’s paintings.
“Cheng Shi-Xu had bought a kentucki card and established a connection with a device in Lyon. Since then, he’d spent over ten hours a day at his computer. His bank account balance was shrinking every day, his friends almost never called anymore, and all the fast food was burning a hole in his stomach. ‘So this is how you’re going to let yourself die?’ his mother asked him over the phone, perhaps because she really had been working on her own death for years now, though he was always too busy to notice. For over a month now, though, Cheng Shi-Xu had been focused on something new: he was experiencing the birth of a great love, perhaps the most authentic and inexplicable of his life.”
Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes is mainly terrifying. It tells the story of the kentucki: a device with both a dweller and a keeper. Across the world, people are being connected via web cam, one computer dwells within the kentucki, watching the goings-on in the homes of their keepers. This feels like a dystopian premise, but in reality, haven’t we already invited this sort of intrusive connection into our lives? Many of the stories are filled with danger of various kinds, but peppered throughout are the instances of hope in connection that span the globe.
Just like Schweblin’s writing, the timing of this book is eerie. Who could have guessed that, when this book was published, we’d all be seeking connection online while indefinitely sequestered in our homes?
From “my president”
& my grandma is my president & her cabinet is her cabinet
cause she knows to trust when the pan knows
how the skillet wins the war
& the man I saw high kicking his way down the river?
he is my president
& the trans girl making songs in her closet, spinning the dark
into a booming dress? she too is my president
& shonda rhimes is my president
Choosing just one part of one poem from Danez Smith’s Homie was a nearly impossible task. This collection is everything. It’s joyful. It mourns. It celebrates. It rages. Homie is one of the best collections of poetry I’ve ever read.
“It was Ma who laid down the rules for burying the dead.
Lucy’s first dead thing was a snake. Five and full of destruction, she stomped puddles just to see the world flood. She leapt, landed. When the waves quit their crashing she stood in a ditch emptied of water. Coiled at its bottom, a drowned black snake.
The ground steamed pungent wet. The buds on the trees were splitting, showing their paler insides. Lucy ran home with scales between her palms, aware that the world unfurled its hidden side.
Ma smiled to see her. Kept smiling as Lucy opened her hands.
Later, too late, Lucy would think on how her mother might have screamed, scolded, lied. How Ba, if Ba were there, might have said the snake was sleeping and spun a tale to chase the hush of death right out the window.
Ma only hefted her pan of pork and tied her apron tighter. Said, Lucy girl, burial zhi shi another recipe.”
C Pam Zhang’s debut novel How Much of These Hills Is Gold is the story of a Chinese American family living in the American West before, during, and after the Gold Rush. The book follows Lucy and Sam, the children of Chinese American gold prospectors. They each inherit that role in very different ways, but with much the same goal - to find home. Zhang’s perspective on the American West is fresh and new and sorely needed. Her writing is fluid and mesmerizing, and Lucy is one of the most complicated, interesting, and well-drawn characters I had the pleasure of reading in 2020.
Top 6 Not Published in 2020
“As obvious as it might seem, to truly and completely reject a culture of violence, to banish it from our hearts and souls, we must first fully refuse to participate in it, and refuse to partake in its normalization. When we consider the border, we might think of our home; when we consider those who cross it, we might think of those we hold dear.”
Francisco Cantú’s memoir of his time working as a border patrol agent on the southern border of the United States and Mexico is a transformative book. Not only is the writing so beautiful it will break your heart, but Cantú’s struggle with his role as part of a broken system is one we can all intimately connect to. His concern about racist and violent systems informs the way we should look at white supremacy and systemic racism - and both are present in this country's handling of immigration and border issues.
“What I remember most about the whole ordeal, groggy from trauma and pain and narcotics, is how nothing about who I was in any other context mattered to the assumptions of my incompetence. I was highly educated. I spoke in the way one might expect of someone with a lot of formal education. I had health insurance. I was married. All of my status characteristics screamed ‘competent,’ but nothing could shut down what my blackness screams when I walk into the room. I could use my status to serve others, but not myself.” - from “Dying to be Competent”
I’ve said a lot about this essay collection over the last few months - here & here. This has been essential reading on my personal antiracism journey. It’s a brilliant collection and Tressie McMillan Cottom has received much-deserved recognition for work, becoming a MacArthur Fellow in 2020.
“Pricked by the hopelessness of her situation, Patsy considers her story - one that lacks the drama inherent in, say, an asylum story, which she heard guarantees acceptance anywhere. She read in the Jamaica Observer a few months ago about the man who got chopped up with a cutlass by four men who found him in a ‘compromising position’ behind a bush with another man. How he hauled himself, not to the hospital or police station, but to the Canadian Embassy and got a visa on the spot.”
I loved Patsy. Nicole Dennis-Benn is an immersive storyteller, writing characters who dream and struggle and refuse to let life pass them by. Patsy is a Jamaican woman and mother to Tru. She feels trapped by her life on the island, her relationship with her fundamentalist mother, and the needs of her daughter. She sees America as a symbol of freedom, as a place where she can live and love on her own terms.
The book begins as Patsy finally acquires a visa to go to the United States. The decisions that follow shape her life and her daughter’s life forever. The narrative follows Patsy and Tru through the next two decades.
“The key thing, we reminded ourselves, was never to stop, to always keep going, even when the past called us back to a time and place we still leaned toward, still sang of, in quieter moments. Like the canyons of office buildings all the way down Fifth Avenue. Like all the Japanese and Swiss businessmen leisuring through Bryant Park, sipping hot chocolate. Like the afternoon sun cast through our midtown office windows, when it was almost time to leave for all the pleasures of the evening: an easy meal eaten standing up at the kitchen counter, a TV show, a meetup with friends for cocktails.”
Ling Ma’s Severance is the perfect pandemic novel - and it is especially fitting for our current times. I say this not so much because of the pandemic that we're living through, but more because of our society’s strict adherence to workplace achievement as the pinnacle of achievement itself.
“My name doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that I’m a phantom, a figment, a man who was mistaken for waitstaff twice that night - odd given my outfit. I managed to avoid additional embarrassments by wallflowering in the shadow of the grand staircase. Their cheeks pink from Southern Comfort, the partners - or shareholders, as the firm called them - stood chatting in clusters around the dining room.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow is the book that took me most by surprise this year. It’s brilliant and cutting satire, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and Mark Twain. We Cast a Shadow takes place about 15 minutes from now - in a society that looks much the same as ours. There is a controversial treatment available that bleaches the skin, thins the lips, and narrows the nose; essentially, a treatment that turns Black people into white people. Readers follow Ruffin’s unnamed protagonist, a Black man with severe internalized racism that spills into all aspects of his life, and the decades-long story that unfolds holds one tragedy after another. This is a devastating glimpse into the impact of lifelong racism on BIPOC neighbors, friends, and loved ones all over this country.
“Each time a new baby was born, we went to see it, and the adults talked about how they were fortunate to have babies and how lucky they were to be born in America, not in Laos or Thailand - places where so many Hmong people had died. They would never understand why American people talked about how expensive babies were and how poor people shouldn’t have so many. How was it that such smart people couldn’t understand that the best way to live life was to give life.”
Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir is a gift to us all. It redefines family, love, and commitment and has fundamentally changed the way that I see refugees, immigrants, and people of different socio-economic classes. I’m so grateful to have read this book and try to think of the things Yang and her family have taught me every single day.