Revisiting the 10 Books We Loved in 2020
It’s been a great year for books and a strange year for reading. Name a genre or topic, and chances are a notable book was printed to that effect this year. Then where did it get more difficult? It’s not difficult to find out. The publication impact of the pandemic is well documented: searching bookstores was more difficult in some cases and logistically impossible in others. Book tours and literary festivals became virtual. And some readers, overwhelmed by an overwhelming array of events, found it impossible to focus on books with the same attention they had in previous years. Even so, the books themselves don’t go away – and there is a certain joy in picking up a book that you may have missed the first time.
The way we read certain books has evolved this year too. Literally in some cases: Certain sinister scenarios developed before the pandemic took on new meanings during the time of COVID-19 (Rumaan Alams Leave the World Behind and Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song both come to mind). But even books that didn’t directly spark the pandemic had an unlikely response this year. Novels that took on a tactile quality that dealt with intimacy, or nonfiction books that dealt with faces or virtual communication, gained greater prominence when read during the times of zoom meetings and face masks. Every year brings unexpected responses with books, film and music; 2020 had that in abundance.
Here are 10 books that we saw for the first time this year and that we will think about for years to come.
The large offshore area
Penguin random house
The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka (Riverhead)
It’s almost impossible to find a starting point when talking about Vanessa Veselka’s powerhouse of a novel. It’s about found and biological families; It contains moments of joy along with extremely harrowing scenes, and both tall ships and ghosts play a part on its pages. Veselka focuses on a quartet of characters from the same family and then sends them on their way, some across the country, to very different types of revelation. There are some references to the Essex whaling ship on these pages which, as some may notice, were the inspiration for Moby-Dick. Sometimes a trip can tell you something about the state of a nation or the world. Herman Melville showed it in his novel, and Vanessa Veselka shows it in hers.
Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell (Transit Books)
What does it mean to look someone else in the face? What do faces reveal about ourselves – and what does the way we perceive faces say about us? Namwali Serpell’s succinct, powerful book – a meditation on human faces viewed from a myriad of angles – received additional resonance in 2020 for a variety of reasons. Reading about faces at a time when most people were masked during human interactions dramatically brought home some of the points of this book. And at a time when race, racism and bias are hotly debated, Serpell’s observations become even more relevant.
Penguin random house
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon)
Charles Yu’s latest novel won the National Book Award for Fiction earlier this year. This ended a year that earned Yu much recognition. Yu tells the story of a man who grapples with his own identity and develops a better understanding of his family. He uses an innovative approach in which script techniques (Yu was written for Westworld, among others) and metafictional film criticism are used, as well as the historical approach that television has with races. It’s like nothing you’ve read before – moving and transporting work full of risks that pays off.
Can’t slow down
Can’t Slow Down: How Pop’s 1984 blockbuster year was made by Michaelangelo Matos (Hachette)
Did 1984 change the face of music forever? Michaelangelo Matos makes this argument convincing in his new book Can’t Slow Down. Matos’ book offers a good overview of pop star ascendants this year, including Michael Jackson, Prince, Duran Duran, and Madonna – but it also offers a portrait of an industry grappling with new technology and exploring bold new ways of corporate synergy. In the end, 1984 looks a 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 are already aware of her ability to create great backdrops and create fascinating plots. Piranesi may be more compact than its predecessor, but it doesn’t lack either – although one of the joys is figuring out exactly what’s going on with the book’s protagonist, who under mysterious circumstances appears to be trapped in an incredibly large structure. The novel is full of puzzles and tortuous plots, as well as 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 at the age of 19. Decades later, the writer Carlos Busqued interviewed Melogno in prison. These interviews form the structure for Magnetized, a non-fiction literature that is both gripping and thoroughly deterring. Readers of true crime stories will find a lot to ponder on these pages, but also any reader who is curious about topics such as violence, evil and what could lead someone to commit a terrible deed.
Penguin random house
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead)
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, finalist for this year’s Booker Prize, may have breathed new life into the concept of the campus novel. Through a series of meticulously detailed scenes, the protagonist of Taylor’s novel struggles with a new relationship, reflects on his close ties with friends, and grapples with professional setbacks in his graduation program. Taylor writes about the interplay of bodies – whether as friends, lovers, or enemies – with breathtaking skill, and the resulting novel is both tactile and philosophical and haunting.
Eerie valley by Anna Wiener (MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Some of the details Anna Wiener shares about her time at a number of Silicon Valley startups offer an unforgettable perspective on companies that have become ubiquitous in the time since she started working there. And some details – especially some passages about working in an office where almost everyone works remotely – are now a little different than at the beginning of the year when this was first published. Regardless of which angle you approach this book from, the balance between inside knowledge and outsider analysis makes for an insightful read.
Blacktop Wasteland by SA Cosby (Flatiron Books)
A talented getaway driver who now runs a small business and is confident in his better judgment to pull One Last Job? There are elements of Blacktop Wasteland that are sure to fall back on pulp fiction archetypes. But similar to the cars that the protagonist of this novel uses throughout the book, shape is less important than craftsmanship and attention to small details. And Blacktop Wasteland is a perfectly drawn, thrill-filled detective novel – even if Cosby cleverly examines the psychological and moral toll they are taking.
The longing for less
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 is a style of visual art. For a completely different group, it’s an opportunity to compose music. What Kyle Chayka did in The Longing for Less is to put these different views of minimalism together in one volume and find the common elements among them. If you bring in a ton of fascinating cultural history, you have an extremely compelling book that may also result in a radical overhaul of the look of your home or apartment.