Our picks for the best books of 2020
We love all the books, but there are some we love just a little bit more than the others. Here is our idiosyncratic, highly biased list of our favorite books published in the last year.
I nearly got fired at my first-ever job because I couldn't stop reading City of Saints and Madmen at the register. When I told David I picked the Ambergris collection, he seemed surprised. "Isn't Vandermeer kind of mainstream?" Like I'm unhappy an author I love has seen success? On reflection, that statement's a perfectly justified stealth roast re: me and my (contrary! deliberately obscure!) tastes. Ambergris is enough of a deep cut that at one time you could bring City to a Vandermeer signing and he'd look at you like excuse me, where did you find this roadkill? But finally-- the whole Gormen-ghastly, delirious, Nabokovian sprawl is back in print. Yes, there are fungi.
If Marlon James and the ghost of Gabriel Garcia Marquez collaborated on a feminist crime novel, it would look something like this. Melchor's characters are hustlers and whores, full of yearning and violence and loathing for the hellish world they inhabit. Male brutality--and female complicity--are rarely so fully rendered.
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is an imagined account of the family of William Shakespeare, who reside in Warwickshire while he is off writing and producing plays in London. Little is known about them and O’Farrell imagines a credible and loving relationship between him and his free spirited wife Agnes, an herbalist and healer, and their three children. Central to the novel is the death by plague of 11-year-old Hamnet. O’Farrell recounts in gorgeous language the passion, grief, and ultimately, reconciliation with this loss. O’Farrell’s sentences have been described as having a music-like cadence that make the book pure pleasure to read. It is one of those rare books you will want to read and reread and to share with friends.
A valuable addition to American music writing. Beautiful profiles of genius composers, from Chuck Berry to Merle Haggard to Willie Dixon and beyond. Guralnick is a fantastic journalist who illuminates the fierce creativity of these transcendent artists and their times. Highly recommended.
Please take me away from pandemics. And Osman does. He took me right to over-the-hill folks solving murders and being amusing as well. A great read. People being both smart and wise.
While I read lots of cover to cover books, both fiction and nonfiction, this is the book that gave me some hope and a look forward during this bizarre year. What armchair pleasure, with its gorgeous color photos and detailed maps, it provides as I anticipate searching for some of these birds in the spring. Janssen’s scholarship and dedication to his life‘s work to document the birds in Minnesota—where they can be found and when—just boggled my mind. I’m an amateur birder at best, but this is a great addition to my collection of guides and would be a welcome gift to birders at any level.
This novel felt like a story I was being told by my closest girlfriend over glasses of wine. Leilani's prose give a unique and realistic perspective to black female sexuality, feminism, extramarital relationships, and microaggressions in modern society. Hilarious, thought-provoking, and intimate.
A story of two friends, Effie and Tavia, who navigate blackness and misogyny in Portland gets an added twist when Tavia is holding a secret: She is a siren. In this magical realist novel, sirens, gargoyles, and other magical creatures roam the world but some are viewed with more suspicion and distrust than others. An allegory, while also not, for what it means to be black women coming of age while also trying to manage family trauma, culture, identity within their journey to seek safety in a society that is systematically built against you. Great for people that loved The Hate U Give or your favorite mermaid fan, A Song Below Water will make you love the characters and the worldbuilding before you've even finished the first chapter.
This is the story of the Filipino-Hawaiian Flores family. Life is a near constant struggle for Malia and Augie. But they have each other, their children, and the beautiful Big Island. With the collapse of the sugar cane industry and the declining financial condition of the family, the three children make their way to the mainland to attend university and to pursue lives there, not all happily. When tragedy revisits the family in Hawaii, they’re all forced to reevaluate their beliefs and the meaning of family. This book is so gorgeously written, the story and the characters will stay with me for a long time. One of my favorites this year.
In Earthlings, Sayaka Murata takes the central theme of her hit novel Convenience Store Woman--a woman’s response to societal pressure towards marriage and motherhood--and turns it up to eleven. Earthlings is raw and shocking, and yet I closed the book wanting even more. Not for the faint of heart, Earthlings is a shocking funhouse mirror held up to the modern world.