The 10 Books We Loved Best in 2020
Gripping fiction, thought-provoking nonfiction and a defining text on contemporary pop music
It’s been a great year for books and a weird year for reading. Name a genre or subject and it’s likely that a notable book in that vein saw print this year. Where did things get trickier, then? It’s not hard to figure out. The pandemic’s effects on publishing have been well documented: browsing in bookstores was more difficult in some cases and logistically impossible in others. Book tours and literary festivals went virtual. And some readers, overwhelmed by an overwhelming series of events, found it impossible to focus on books with the same attention they had in earlier years. Still, the books themselves aren’t going away — and there’s a certain pleasure that comes from picking up a book you might have missed the first time around.
The way we read certain books also evolved this year. In some cases, literally: certain sinister scenarios devised before the pandemic took on newfound significance during the time of COVID-19 (Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song both come to mind). But even books that didn’t directly evoke the pandemic had unlikely resonances this year. Novels that took on a tactile quality that explored intimacy, or works of nonfiction dealing with faces or virtual communications picked up a greater significance when read at a time of Zoom meetings and face masks. Every year brings with it unexpected resonances with books, film and music; 2020 had that in abundance.
Here are 10 books that we first encountered this year that we’ll be thinking about long into the years to come.
The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka (Knopf)
Trying to find a place to start when talking about Vanessa Veselka’s powerhouse of a novel is nearly impossible. It’s about families found and biological; it contains moments of joy along with utterly harrowing scenes, and both tall ships and ghosts play a part in its pages. Veselka focuses on a quartet of characters from the same family, then sends each on their way, some across the country, towards very different kinds of revelation. There are a couple of nods to the whaling ship Essex to be found in these pages, which, some may note, was the inspiration for Moby-Dick. Sometimes a journey can tell you about the state of a nation, or the world. Herman Melville showed that in his novel, and Vanessa Veselka shows that in hers.
Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell (Transit Books)
What does it mean to look at someone else’s face? What do faces reveal about ourselves — and what does the way we perceive faces say about us? Namwali Serpell’s concise, powerful book — a meditation on human faces, approached from myriad angles — took on added resonance in 2020 for a host of reasons. Reading about faces during a time when most people were masked during interpersonal interactions drove some of this book’s points home dramatically well. And at a time when race, racism and bias are being hotly debated, Serpell’s observations take on an even greater relevance.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon)
Charles Yu’s latest novel won the National Book Award for Fiction earlier this year, capping off a year that’s brought Yu abundant acclaim. In telling the story of one man coming to terms with his own identity and accumulating a greater understanding of his family, Yu utilizes an innovative approach, using screenwriting techniques (Yu’s written for Westworld, among other acclaimed shows) along with a metafictional critique of film and television’s historical handling of race. It’s like nothing you’ve read before — a moving and transportive work abounding with risks that pay off.
Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year by Michaelangelo Matos (Hachette)
Did 1984 change the face of music forever? Michaelangelo Matos makes that argument convincingly in his new book Can’t Slow Down. Matos’s book provides a fine overview of the pop stars ascendant in that year, including Michael Jackson, Prince, Duran Duran and Madonna — but it also offers a portrait of an industry wrestling with new technology and exploring bold new methods of corporate synergy. In the end, 1984 looks a whole lot more like 2020 than you might expect.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
If you read Susanna Clarke’s previous novel, the sprawling Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, you’re already aware of her ability to evoke magnificent settings and create fascinating plots. Though more compact than its predecessor, Piranesi has no shortage of either — though one of the joys of it is figuring out exactly what’s going on with the book’s protagonist, who seems to be trapped within an impossibly large structure under mysterious circumstances. The novel abounds with puzzles and sinuous plotting, along with a moving meditation on identity.
Magnetized: Conversations With a Serial Killer by Carlos Busqued (Catapult)
In 1982, Ricardo Melogno murdered four taxi drivers in Buenos Aires when he was 19. Decades later, writer Carlos Busqued interviewed Melogno in prison. Those interviews provide the structure for Magnetized, a work of nonfiction that’s both gripping and thoroughly chilling. Readers of true crime narratives will find plenty to ponder within these pages, but so will any reader curious about themes of violence, evil and what might drive someone to commit a horrific act.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead)
A finalist for this year’s Booker Prize, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life may well have given the concept of the campus novel new life. Through a series of meticulously detailed scenes, the protagonist of Taylor’s novel struggles with a new relationship, ponders his fraught connections to his friends and grapples with professional setbacks in his graduate program. Taylor writes about the interaction of bodies — whether as friends, lovers or enemies — with breathtaking skill, and the novel that results is both tactile and philosophical, all to haunting effect.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Some of the details Anna Wiener provides about her time working at a number of Silicon Valley startups offer a memorable perspective on companies that have become ubiquitous in the time since she worked there. And some of the details — particularly a few passages about working in an office where nearly everyone is working remotely — hit a little differently now than they did earlier in the year, when this was first published. But whatever angle you’re approaching this book from, its balance of insider knowledge and outsider analysis makes for an enlightening read.
Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby (Flatiron Books)
A talented getaway driver, now running a small business, convinced against his better judgment to pull One Last Job? There are elements of Blacktop Wasteland that tap into pulp fiction archetypes for sure. But much like the cars this novel’s protagonist utilizes over the course of the book, the form matters less than the craftsmanship and attention to small details. And Blacktop Wasteland is a perfectly plotted crime novel with thrills aplenty — even as Cosby deftly explores the psychological and moral toll they take.
The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism by Kyle Chayka (Bloomsbury)
What does “minimalism” mean? For some, it’s an approach to decorating; for others, it’s a style of visual art. For an entirely different group, it’s a way to compose music. What Kyle Chayka has done in The Longing for Less is bring these disparate takes on minimalism together into one volume and find the common elements among them. Throw in plenty of fascinating cultural history and you have a deeply compelling book — one which might also prompt a radical overhaul of the way your house or apartment looks.
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