What I Read in 2020

December 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

For the third straight year, presented in the approximate order I finished them, here is an unasked-for list of my favorite books that I read for the first time this year.  

DREYER’S ENGLISH by Benjamin Dreyer. A guide to grammar, punctuation, and style written by the Random House copy chief, who approaches his subject with a keen wit and a sensibility that in the object of clarity, not every rule is meant to be steadfast.

NINTH STREET WOMEN by Mary Gabriel. Intimate in its details yet vast in its scope, this 944-page tome looks at the careers of five painters who scratched for their places in the gallery, and the conversation, amid the male-dominated world of mid-20th century American abstract art.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt. One of the more thrilling campus novels, with an interesting backstory, this paperback was a fun book to carry in my hoodie and read when I was out and about, back when we did such things.

MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE by Jane Alison. An analysis of plot structure and the variety of patterns that a narrative can follow, backed up by the author’s close and insightful reading of example texts, opens up a trove of strategies for the writer looking to advance their prose.

THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai. A novel about AIDS and its immediate and everlasting impact on a community. With characters seeking hope and forgiveness against a climate of dread and judgment, the friendships are some of the most believably rendered I’ve read in fiction.

NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin. A novel of intense young love and desire among Taiwanese college students, cleverly structured and freshly irreverent against the backdrop of post-martial-law Taiwan.

SONTAG by Benjamin Moser. A richly researched biography of a writer who refused to be reduced, one that elevates its subject by keeping a balanced focus on the passions that drove her: love, curiosity, and a hunger for an erotics of art.

THE GREEN HOUR by Frederic Tuten. Fluidly written novel about an art historian pursuing her romantic obsessions in Paris, cliched in just about every possible way, and yet despite its melodramatic twists I found quite an enjoyable read.

BORROWED FINERY by Paula Fox. A memoir of the novelist’s childhood and early adulthood, when she was raised by a succession of odd guardians until her volatile, wayward parents barge back into her life. The narrative looks in unexpected places and avoids tropes.

CROOKED HALLELUJAH by Kelli Jo Ford. Set against a vividly rendered landscape, this novel uses snappy language to tell about four generations of hard-bitten Cherokee women as they run from brush fires, look for escaped mules, and deal with unreliable men.

LATER by Paul Lisicky. A memoir of the writer’s years spent in Provincetown, Mass.; the friends, artists, and lovers he meets there; and the community’s response as the AIDS crisis swells in the 1990s. An honest book about the struggle to both live fully and survive.

INSIDE by Alix Ohlin. A novel about strangers and the psychology of connection, loss, forgiveness, and redemption. Set across continents and decades, it brings together a series of characters who might otherwise have nothing to do with each other in an artful and effortless way.

BROWN ALBUM by Porochista Khakpour. Frank and lyrical essays of the experiences of growing up as an Iranian-American immigrant, and the dismaying challenges that arise in a society that assigns you an identity before you are given a chance to develop your own.

YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN by Mary South. Remarkably fresh stories that get ahead of modern trends and tropes with savage humor, pinning down uncanny situations that are familiar yet nameless, taking a razor to the kinds of real-life characters who suck the air out of the room.

NIGHTS WHEN NOTHING HAPPENED by Simon Han. A story of a Chinese immigrant family in Plano, Texas, this novel manages to evoke the silences of nighttime through its gentle register and yet artfully haunts its neighborhoods with the horrors of rumor, kid logic, and racism.

FLIGHTS by Olga Tokarczuk. Wryly observed meditations on travel, airplanes, and the spaces and headspaces that we occupy in between other spaces. This turned to be a well-timed read as it evoked the kind of feelings that were denied to those of us who stayed home this year.

My top three might be the Makkai, the Tokarczuk, and the Gabriel, all of which coincidentally have bright yellow covers.

I also dug into Shirley Jackson for the first time (apart from “The Lottery”), and Arthur Koestler, Doris Lessing, and Graham Greene. I re-read THE PILGRIM HAWK, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, and Camus’s THE STRANGER, which felt aptly lonely and disorienting.

I read 41 books in all, which is more than usual for me, though at one point it felt like I might break 50. No bowling leagues, no travelling, and I didn’t watch sports because they didn’t feel worth the stakes. So I puttered around on my novel and read books.  

Our first full year owning Federal Street Books—a store whose crowded shelves and cramped aisles invite one to get lost and wander into other people’s spaces—was interrupted by a pandemic that made that very activity dangerous and irresponsible. We got a harbinger of what was coming when my wife picked up a bag of books that someone left to “donate” and got her hand bitten by a brown recluse spider. (It was very painful, but she recovered.)

Stories meant so much more this year, they provided what rare chance we were afforded to get out of our doom-clouded heads. Through books this year I got to visit Chicago, Algeria, Texas, Taiwan, Uganda, and a host of other places. I miss overhearing conversations in bars, the lacquer-scent of a bowling alley. This year’s voyage required so much imagination, and now I fear imagination has taken over in a darker direction—people are imagining their own election results, their own narratives of evil, and talking themselves into comfort with living in a different reality from the rest of us. I want the idea of fiction to return to the page and the screen, where it belongs, to remind us of what we can do, not what can happen to us. I want to go home.  

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