The Books Briefing: The Best Books of 2020


Eerie valley, by Anna Wiener

Before Anna Wiener gave up her poorly paid life in publishing for the startup scene in San Francisco in 2013, she was a literary guy from Brooklyn, socially concerned and “affected by analog” (owner of a record player she rarely used, dater of skilled men bent), not to mention “the people behind the internet”. In other words, she was just the unlikely Silicon Valley observer I’d been waiting for: an outsider insider, articulated insecure and overconscious. Her eyes and ears for the tribal details of the Tech Bro culture are acute. Wiener is also ruthless about her own fascination for an ethos of social and cross-generational arrogance: She is busy on the customer care side of the technology world and feels driven to impress millennial bosses, who are her colleagues, but all-powerful. Her indictment of the myopia and insularity of the industry, which preaches connectivity while facilitating the rupture of America, is close and personal. She never aspired to the elite of programmers. But in Vienna the Bay Area now has a brilliant decoder. – Ann Hulbert


Beowulf: A new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

I admit a moment – more than a moment, actually – of misty recoil as I stepped into the shabby familiar / unknown world of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf. “Blown out”? “Hashtag: blessed”? “Beowulf gave zero shit”? I feared this Beowulf nerd was too groovy. Not at all. Headley’s text strategically brings these surprises, almost tricky, little fireworks of idiom to grab our attention as it winds with great purposefulness into the depths of the Beowulf poet’s language – the alliteration, the compound words, the sinewy formality , the sad magic, and the hard existential light. Exciting, it becomes a double act: Headley and her old ancestor dive into the vocabulary together. Her Grendel – “brotherless, muddy” – is more pitiful than ever, her Beowulf more of a throbbing superjock. As for the kite: “The fire brake drove from coast to coast / clawed, charred, gilded geatland without a break.” Right on – James Parker


Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi

I remember reading Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 debut, Homegoing, and was overwhelmed by the book’s ambition. A cross-generational story that crossed oceans and eras and stayed with me for years. Gyasi’s latest book, Transcendent Kingdom, uses a narrower lens but is no less engaging. This is followed by Gifty, a sixth year neuroscience PhD student who anticipates her family’s relationship to mental illness, addiction, and abandonment. The work she does in her lab examining the reward-seeking behavior of mice channels the grief she still bears over her brother’s death from opioids. Gyasi skillfully moves back and forth between the present and Gifty’s childhood, describing the lives of her characters in detail and treating these difficult issues with complexity and honesty. In particular, the scenes in which the addiction of Gifty’s brother is depicted are devastating without being emotionally overwhelmed. It’s difficult to write a successful follow-up to a formidable debut, but Gyasi definitely did. – Clint Smith

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