Friends, ’tis the season for recap and “best of” lists! I always love seeing the ones that my favorite media outlets and trusted friends post, so this year I’m sharing my own. But trust that there’s no possible way I could narrow down my entire year of reading to a single top 10, so I’m splitting it into two categories: new releases and backlist titles, with each list getting its own blog post.
First up are the 2020 releases!
(Oh, and there may or may not be twelve books on each list instead of the traditional ten, for no reason other than that I couldn’t choose two to eliminate. I just couldn’t.)
I don’t consider myself a trendy reader. I tend to hold back when it comes to brand new, especially super hyped, books. If I had to guess, I’d say I read maybe one or two new releases per month on average. But looking back at my spreadsheet for this year, I discovered that I’ve read thirty books released in 2020! New releases made up about 25% of my reading for the year—I blame excessive All the Books listening, #bookstagram scrolling, and my Signed First Edition Club membership.
Of those thirty, I present to you the best new releases that I read in 2020, in alphabetical order by author’s last name because trying to rank them would just make my brain explode:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Two twin girls, who have been raised in a town comprised completely of extremely light-skinned Black folks like themselves, lose touch after they both move away, one eventually returning and the other instead deciding to start passing as a white woman. Just hearing the premise, it’s tempting to cast judgment on the sister who chooses to pass, to think that she’s betraying her culture and upbringing, or that she’s living a lie. But the beauty of this story is in the way Brit Bennett writes these sisters and their family members, so richly and compellingly that it’s impossible to figure out an easy “answer” to the complicated situation in which they find themselves. I sympathized so much with both sisters, and with their daughters, and I appreciated that the ending was not necessarily what I wanted it to be. This would be an excellent book pairing with Nella Larsen’s Passing.
All I will say about this book is that it takes place in some sort of labyrinthine, statue- and staircase-filled House; it’s written in the form of the main character’s journal entries; and it’s probably best to go into it not knowing much about the plot. Take the psychological atmosphere of Room, add the simultaneously endless and claustrophobic mood of House of Leaves, stir in the timelessness of The Starless Sea (without all the honey), season with the power dynamics and dry wit of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, sprinkle a dash of the “wtf is actually happening?” feeling of The Third Hotel, and you might have something like Piranesi. It’s short enough to prevent dragging on or becoming uneven in pace, but substantial enough to make you speculate and mull over it for quite a while after you put it down. By the end it’ll have you wanting to read it again for details that you might’ve missed the first time. Highly recommended for discussing with a book club.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Gifty, a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who studies reward-seeking behavior in mice, has to move her mother into her home and care for her while her mother struggles through a severe depression. As Gifty tries to break through the fog surrounding this remaining family member, she is also digging into lingering emotions surrounding her older brother’s death by overdose, and trying to understand her religious upbringing as it relates to her current scientific work and intense longing for connection. I related to so much in this novel—the mental health struggles; the world of addiction research (my spouse’s field of undergraduate and graduate study); the persistent yearning for the comfort and safety offered by faith, despite the problems one might have with organized religion; the deep desire for a close relationship with one’s parent(s). It is tender, earnest, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. Be sure to pick up Gyasi’s previous novel, Homegoing, too, if you haven’t read that one yet.
This novel follows Casey, a struggling writer in her early 30s, as she navigates life in late 1990s Massachusetts and attempts to finish the novel she’s been working on for the past six years. Her mother has just unexpectedly died, so Casey is fragile and grieving, looking for solace in dating and distraction in her restaurant job. I adored this book, not only because it is beautiful and well-written, but also because I’m in the white-hot center of its target demographic: youngish, creative, educated white women who have Dreams and Aspirations but also Food Service Industry Jobs and Grief, and beneath it all they’re trying so hard and they just want to figure their shit out and do something good and eventually feel like their lives have been worth something. Falling into this specific category isn’t a prerequisite to your enjoying the story, but I will say, it definitely aided in my Swift and Total Gobbling Up of this book.
This story follows a university librarian named Lizzie as she interacts with people at her job, helps her recovering addict brother, raises a son, and navigates her marriage, all while helping a friend and former mentor (who hosts a podcast about climate change) stay on top of her email correspondence. As Lizzie sinks deeper into the world of the podcast and its listeners, she consequently becomes more and more concerned about environmental issues herself. This is a short book, written in the same form as Offill’s previous novel, Dept. of Speculation, as a series of vignettes. Though it reads quickly as a result, there’s a lot here to chew on. Personally, I liked it a bit more than Dept. of Speculation, which I read earlier this year—Lizzie is more relatable than Dept.’s unnamed narrator, and the subject matter of Weather feels especially timely.
This novel hooked me from the beginning. Emira, a young black woman, is called up on the weekend to come get Briar, the white toddler she regularly babysits, and take her to Market Depot (a grocery store similar in vibe to Whole Foods) so her parents can deal with something that’s going on at their house. She is then accused by a white customer and security guard of kidnapping Briar, and the incident is filmed by a white bystander. The rest reads SO fast. It’s a perfect storm of bad decisions and performative wokeness, and in the middle of it all, Emira is just trying to live her life, find a better place to live, and figure out a way to get health insurance when she turns 26 and gets booted off of her parents’ policy. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s smart, funny, relevant, cringe-worthy at times, and super engaging, with a supremely well-written and lovable toddler character as the icing on the cake (I laughed out loud at some of the things Briar said in the background. So good). It was technically published in 2019, but it was published on the actual last day of 2019, so we’re counting it here.
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
This was my third Emma Straub novel—I’ve also read and enjoyed The Vacationers and Modern Lovers— and probably my favorite one yet. Like the previous two, it focuses on a family of people and examines the relationships between them and the choices they make, in a “slice of life” sort of way. Straub does this type of writing well; nothing major happens, but characters grow and change and realize things about themselves, even if they’re still (sometimes deeply) flawed by the end. But where the previous two books of hers held my attention in a “these people are slightly distasteful hot messes but I can’t stop reading” sort of way, in All Adults Here I found myself sympathizing with the Stricks and pulling for them to come through their various struggles because of the good I saw underneath the questionable choices. Straub covers a lot of ground here, including such themes as gender, sexuality, adultery, abortion, and bullying, to name a few, but she weaves them in seamlessly, not as capital I “Issues” but simply as elements of life. Just because a book has a trans character, for example, that book doesn’t necessarily have to be A Commentary on Being Transgender. Sometimes a character has an abortion and it doesn’t have to be A Whole Thing. I loved all of the detail included in the Stricks’ lives and appreciated how realistically and representationally they were written.
Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel
Not everyone will find this book relevant or useful, but wow, I did. If you’re someone who often spirals into negative thought patterns, replays past conversations or situations where you wish you’d behaved differently, or spends so long on decisions that you make yourself miserable, you probably will too. Anne Bogel’s writing is warm and approachable, and she does a good job of pulling in examples and support from scientists and other thinkers to back up the ideas she presents. I also appreciated the inclusion of concrete exercises at the end of each chapter to help the reader put her advice into practice—while I didn’t write out answers to most of them, they were helpful to think about and I will definitely return to them in the future for continued consideration. (One thing I will say is that the book is mostly geared toward women, whom Bogel identifies as the most likely group to be affected by overthinking, but honestly it could apply to anyone).
Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby
This book was my first introduction to Samantha Irby’s writing, and I loved it—crass, funny, and instantly familiar. She talks to her readers as if they are her friends. I had to remind myself to be quiet while reading because I kept chuckling out loud and worrying that I was annoying my spouse, who was next to me reading his own book at the time. The whole chapter about owning a home is on point, and I highlighted multiple quotes throughout the rest of the book, including: “these days, disgusting cozy clothes are my main sartorial vibe” and “I have a running inner monologue recounting every horrible thing I’ve said or done since I can remember first publicly humiliating myself, and the voice never shuts the fuck up or goes away even for a minute.” RELATABLE CONTENT.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
Like many other readers, I loved Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, and for that reason I was excited to pick up this new collection of essays. And what a lovely collection it proved to be. The content varies—there are musings on migratory patterns, essays about particular species of birds (I learned a lot about swifts!), stories of Macdonald’s time working on a secluded farm, and even a short anecdote involving her dad accidentally getting aggressive with a goat. Truly, something for everyone. There isn’t as strong of a sustained emotional core as there is in H is for Hawk, but the same curious, earnest spirit is present, along with Macdonald’s subtle humor and wit. I truly enjoyed each of these forty-one treasures and though I read the collection in e-galley form, I’m looking forward to getting a paper copy to keep on my shelf and loan out to nature-loving friends and family members.
The individual chapters of this book cover a wide variety of topics, including the American West, Bernie bros, football, and higher education, but at their core they all examine and illuminate the ways in which white male supremacy functions and manifests itself in our society. And let me tell you: this book is incredible. It’s well-researched and scholarly and so smart, and yet the writing is not stiff or overly intellectual. I learned a ton. Oluo takes seemingly unrelated subjects and moments in history and weaves them together into a very clear picture of the power of white men, how that power has taken shape and how it has affected our country over the several hundred years of its existence. And then, as she writes, “with a clear view of our past, we may then consider trying something new for our future.” Yes. What a timely, informational, and important book. I can’t recommend it enough.
Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
It’s hard to separate my enjoyment of this book from my love for Ann and Amina, whose podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, I’ve been listening to since it launched in 2014. After hearing these two amazing women talk about current events, feminism, books, politics, race, pop culture, fashion, menstruation, anxiety, work, family, and friendship for going on six years, I feel like they’re my friends. So getting to peek inside the history of their relationship and learn that it hasn’t always been as easy as they’ve made it sound in my headphones (thank goddess, because it makes them more human and relatable) was a real treat. Their voice—singular, because they truly wrote this text together and use “we” pronouns throughout—is authentic and relatable, and the way they incorporate outside research about friendship is seamless. They do not shy away from the fact that true big friendship takes work, but they also do not fail to emphasize that the work is so, so worth it. Big Friendship feels like a warm hug from someone who knows you fully, has been there through all your bullshit and embarrassing moments, and will still be there at the end of the day.
Do we share any 2020 favorites? Are any of these going on your to-read list for 2021? And most important, are there any great books from 2020 that I missed and need to pick up ASAP? Let’s talk in the comments!
It looks like we have similar taste. I’ve read a few of these books and have others on my TBR. Such a Fun Age was one of my favorite books this year but I loved The Vanishing Half as well.
I plan to read Big Friendship, Wow No Thank You, Transcendent Kingdom, and Writers & Lovers this year.
Currently making my way through Mediocre.
That’s awesome, Dee Dee! How are you liking Mediocre? I thought it was so cool how the topics were so different but the overall message was still cohesive and strong. Can’t wait to push that one into all my friends’ hands.
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I am so sorry I’m just seeing this. I love it so far. It’s cool, but a bit scary to see some the parallels between the past and present. I am still making my way through the book believe it or not. One of those books I need to take in in small doses.
It’s all good! I hear you. That’s definitely a good one to take your time with and mull over slowly.
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