I’ve always considered that my reading—everyone’s reading—is tempered by their own perspectives. No two people will read the same piece of work in the same way; all people take in art in their own way based on what’s going on in one’s head while reading a story. Nobody is a blank slate. This year provided a shared pandemic that brought even more layers to readers everywhere depending on how it affected your perspective. For stretches, I couldn’t read. I found myself rereading pages, sentences, paragraphs over and over again as if the letters were abstracts and I couldn’t make sense of them.
Yet, I still managed to read 57 books this year. I think there are so many great books out there to experience, I only wish this year it had been easier to focus. At the same time, these books will remain special because they managed to keep my attention in a year of a pandemic, immense social upheaval, and a nauseating election. A handful of these books were faithful companions in the first two months of 2020 when I was relegated to my home with a four-year-old because my husband was on tour. The rest were steadfast soldiers on my bedside table and desk during the rest of the year spent in this home: quarantining, addressing voting postcards, doomscrolling, covid infection map refreshing, zoom calls, test results, admiring Steve Kornacki’s math skills, planning how to safely protest, vacillating on countless decisions based on safety, working from home harder than I ever had. From the lows of dealing with a close family member’s (non-covid) diagnosis of a serious illness to the highs of being promoted, these books were there through it all. Every year I always believe that about my books, but this year, when I couldn’t see my friends as often or travel, they did feel like a gentle and needed presence.
My Ten Favorite Fiction Books of 2020 (In Order of How I Chronologically Read Them)
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (2019)
If you were to create a book for me, that fit into my special niche interests perfectly, you could do little better than Optic Nerve. It's a book told from a woman's perspective, and she's an art critic...which the author herself is, too, in Argentina. Each chapter focuses on a piece of art or an artist, and Gainza uses that art as a prism into her own (character's?) life and history; or even Argentine history, world history. She treads on topics of how people choose to present themselves, the arc of a friendship, motherhood, family, marriage, and death. It's about how perception of art can shape lives; I mean, what do we do here but share how we perceive art (books)? It seems plotless, but it culminates in a particularly poignant last chapter. It welled my eyes with tears.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)
I immediately fell into the rhythm of Girl, Woman, Other, a novel written in a prose style with little punctual adornment whether it be periods or quotation marks. The narrative never faltered without it; the lack of stopping made the stories glide by and helped the chosen endings that employed stops reverberate on the page. This novel illustrates a myriad of British Black women in their histories and their present day lives. Evaristo made me smile wryly through much of it, both for her character connections and her witty writing. There were moments of realization and sadness and despair, too, of course, amid a rich array of remarkably rendered women.
This book reminded me of a memoir I read late last year; the memoir written in part because there were not many texts from their particular point of view, non-fiction or otherwise. In Girl, Woman, Other, a character laments about a novel chosen by her book club in which the women "don't even get a chance to speak in the book." Evaristo gives voice to those muted Black women in fiction and represents an array of women that are all so beautifully different and then culminates in a theme of togetherness. She accomplishes this, and, in the same vein of Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House, provides more visibility to a depiction of lesbian relationships rarely seen. And while they are very different books, they are two great works filling in literary gaps. I'm so glad to witness it.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
I love to be wowed. And that's what Larsen's Passing did for me, from the onset. From the quiet first scene of the protagonist reading a letter from a long-ago friend. To the second chapter that flashes back, enticing with "This is what Irene Redfield remembered." To the introduction of her friend Clare Kendry on a sweltering Chicago day and their shared history and divergent present-day lives. To the central theme of the book, 'passing.' These Black women live in 1920s Chicago and New York, with the ability to pass as white, though one chooses to make it her lifestyle (marrying a white man who doesn't know she's Black) and the other deeply entrenched in Harlem society. Their complicated friendship ebbing and flowing through the book, Irene's anxious thoughts flooding her decisions, Clare's cool confidence wavering every now and then, and Larsen's subtext fueling a fire under all of it.
Each sentence a passion.
When I began, there were echoes of my reading of Sula last year—a book I picked up because it was said to be similar to Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. And all three manage that which I love about these books about women's friendships: the fissures that come about, the ones that leave and the ones that stay, the rebel and the stickler to the rules, what each does when faced with a society that would rather ignore or harm them (in Ferrante, though, its about economic standing, not race). These stories always fascinate me for what I learn and what I feel. Passing also manages a Rorschach ending—asking the reader "what do you see? what do you think happened?" And yet all these months later I still haven't landed on a final answer about it. All I know is I loved all 147 pages.
Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer (2019)
The thing about this book is that it continues to linger. The suggestions in it come out from the recesses of my mind every now and then, and a lot in the last few months since reading it in February, whenever I caught a news story or headline. Because this book is an IDEAS book. Sure, it has a plot and a narrative to keep the reader engaged, but often the reader must step back and take a look at what Palmer is demonstrating for you.
The book takes place in 1726 England, but it's speaking to you, today. It's based on true events of a woman named Mary Toft who claimed to birth 17 rabbits, and the doctors who treated her (or, really, her condition). It's about truth and what you can convince yourself is true, and disseminating that 'truth,' even if you believe yourself to be a moral person. And the deprivation of morality that can come from the idle greed of the overrich. To be sure: this book is unsettling not only for its prescience but also because it is graphic. (Warnings for gory descriptions) Palmer also nods to healthcare, sexism, and racism. I thought of how some people consider that anything set during a certain time period in film could not possibly cast a black person, as if black people or BIPOC didn't exist then. Media that perpetuates a practice of erasure. At one point I think Palmer includes a scene in this novel to, literally, stare back at the proverbial camera. All this to say: prepare yourselves for a look at the grotesque in humanity, in all manner of speaking.
I loved MARY TOFT. I relished in its provocations and what it made me think about even when the book was closed.
“But here is what you need to understand - here is why you are in danger. Here is why you must speak, and why you must not allow us to speak for you. Because history is an act of continuous collective imagining, and the perception of truth is a constant, unending negotiation, with others, and with oneself when one is alone.”
If you pressed me to choose a favorite book of 2020 of these ten, this would probably be it.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2020)
I could probably write a whole novel about this novel but I already wrote a thousand words back in March in my review, which I’ll quote here, as it still resonates even more at the end of this damn year:
“Halfway through reading Hurricane Season my part of the world was instructed to stay at home and quarantine ourselves in an effort to stave off the spreading of COVID-19. Those first days were ones of anxiety and terror; picking up this book amidst that atmosphere felt different. Before, I used to be able to lose myself in Melchor’s sentences, to contemplate the many facets of poverty faced by the people of La Matosa, and after, I would shake my head with self-disgust. At my own privilege, the greed inherent in contemporary life, and that while Melchor may have written fiction, all of the terrible humanity represented within is true. We are so terrible to each other. And perhaps that’s what will haunt me the most about Hurricane Season.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (2020)
The experience of reading Real Life came on in waves; there was during, directly after, and far after reading it. And now, so long after having read it, the imagery of waves makes sense given how Woolf-like the prose is. The main character, Wallace, also happens to read Woolf during the course of the weekend in which the book is set, and perhaps this is why my recall lands there. Reading Woolf, and reading Real Life, is a slow process of understanding. You can't whiz through the pages, and the thought-provoking themes ask readers to examine its layers. In Real Life, those layers are mostly about living in contemporary society while Black and gay. Wallace lives in a predominantly white midwestern college town working toward a biochem degree and his friendships with a group of white men is fraught with tension of varying kinds. His loneliness is palpable, even while among academic colleagues or friends—early in the book Wallace's friend Vincent says to him jokingly about having gone so long without seeing him, 'it's like you don't exist,' an obvious allusion to the Ralph Ellison classic Invisible Man. Where that book’s narrative is built on satire and symbolic imagery, Taylor’s is grounded in everyday realities. But that connection lingers.
REAL LIFE is literary fiction that challenges white fragility and the unchecked white gaze. The writing is intimate in more ways than one. Every quality of this book cuts in more ways than one. It's an uncomfortable read at times, that aforementioned examination not only of the novel but of the reader, too. That discomfort felt in the scenes (a potluck dinner, a confrontation with a mediocre peer) and in oneself. Closing the book with a sharp breath, mind still racing.
The waves that crash far after reading are still happening. I still think of Wallace a lot, now months later. I don't think that will change in the coming years, either.
Mem by Bethany C. Morrow (2018)
A short book, Mem is speculative fiction that explores the life (existence?) of one Dolores Extract No. 1, known as Elsie. She's a mem: a physical, clone-like embodiment of a human memory. Elsie is a creation extracted from the original Dolores, and she's special because she has the ability to create her own memories unlike other mems who live repeatedly in the one memory they represent. Morrow swiftly builds the fascinating world of Elsie in 1920s Montreal, crafting an essentially sci-fi story that feels like a character study, and ultimately a study of humanity itself.
"It was one of those strange remarks offered in jest that nevertheless displays all the hallmarks of honesty. I hadn't known till then that my condition could be thought costly if it meant men of science must confess their limitations."
When I finished the book, I thought, wow, how did she do that? How does this book glide so seamlessly for 184 pages and make me believe in Elsie? The ending is beautiful, a... well, I could go on—and there's so much to unpack I know this will be a reread for me in the future—but I don't want to spoil your experience. I love discovering a new favorite.
Luster by Raven Leilani (2020)
There's a sticky heat feel to Luster. Sometimes stifling to the point of nervous discomfort, Leilani's protagonist Edie is living a season of wandering discontent. Edie is a disaffected Black woman in her 20s, navigating NYC, the mediocrity of modern society and what people make of her, and the remnants of a cooling passion for her art. The book is witty and also feels like a stone cold stare back at the reader most of the time. Edie's narration and decisions challenge preconceptions; her relationship with other characters—from the sex she's having with a married man, to the morgue visits she shares with his wife, and the quiet connection she finds with their adopted daughter—provoke bewilderment and deep thought.
This book has so much style; Leilani has certainly written a debut that excites me for all that she will be publishing in the future. Every accolade I've heard, most recently the NBA 5 under 35 award, ensures I'm not the only one. I love the book's style, I love the writing, I love its unpredictability about how Edie will react and relate to those around her. The final scene and sentence carried an emotional reverberation, a power, that took my breath away.
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982)
I love discovering favorites in older books I'd previously never heard about; The Women of Brewster Place was released in 1982 and won the National Book Award for first novel. Naylor writes about beautifully rendered and specific characters, Black women living in the titular apartment building, but she's also writing about the world. I reread so many lines, for their beauty but also for their technical prowess—the way Naylor writes feels smooth and easy, until you realize what's happening and the many layers become evident. Her time passes like no other.
Here is just an example of the power in her prose, and a paragraph I reread several times, and still think about on many levels long after finishing the book. Sometimes I can't just write about something, I have to show:
"She had stepped into the thin strip of earth that they claimed as their own. Bound by the last building on Brewster and a brick wall, they reigned in that unlit alley like dwarfed warrior-kings. Born with the appendages of power, circumcised by a guillotine, and baptized with the steam from a million nonreflective mirrors, these young men wouldn't be called upon to thrust a bayonet into an Asian farmer, target a torpedo, scatter their iron seed from a B-52 into the wound of the earth, point a finger to move a nation, or stick a pole into the moon—and they knew it. They only had that three-hundred-foot alley to serve them as stateroom, armored tank, and executioner's chamber."
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers (2020)
This is my “well, this is a surprise,” late-in-the-year page turner read that left me disgusted and delighted! Meet Dorothy Daniels, a high end food critic who divulges in exquisite food, international travel for specific cuisine, and has an equal passion for sex. She’s also a psychopath with a penchant for elaborately killing her ex-boyfriends. Equal parts repulsive and hilarious, Dorothy narrates her story to the reader, and she’s mesmerizing.
“And then, my breath caught in reverence, I watched as his eyes grew blank with ethereal suddenness. It’s such an intimate thing, to witness another’s death. Orgasms are a dime a dozen. Any old human woman can see a man orgasm. We so rarely get to see them die; it has been my greatest gift and my most divine privilege.”
I highly recommend this if you grew up on Thomas Harris thrillers, enjoyed the foodie-tinged murderousness of the Hannibal series, or like your macabre with a flair of funny. Not for the faint of heart!
Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US
My Five Favorite Non-Fiction Books of 2020
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villvicencio (2020)
This is a book I will universally recommend to everyone. A devastating and revealing book. Revealing about the United States and experiences not often covered with such depth in the media, nor fiction (if you remember anything around these parts from January...).
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio travels across the United States to speak to undocumented Americans, something she writes about from personal experience. As she stated in the The Book Slut interview with Karen Salgado: "Nobody else but a mentally-ill undocumented writer could have written this book." I learned a lot from her writing, about the people rendered invisible and largely unhelped while they ran to ground zero on 9/11 to assist, while they clean houses on Staten Island, while they and their children are poisoned in Flint, or seeking sanctuary from deportation in a church in Connecticut. KCV gives these undocumented Americans what so many other people and writing and news media fail to: humanity. Faces.
A necessary book, and one that is written with vigor, warmth, and most of all compassion.
Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US
Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz (2014)
This book was brought to my attention earlier this year due to the author calling out the whiteness of the publishing industry. It’s a book written with such genuine reflection on what it was like to be a teenage girl, to be figuring out how the world works, and for Ortiz, that included a teacher who seduced her. Writing between two time periods and reflecting on how this pervasive element in her youth continues to invade her life as an adult, Ortiz’s excavation also manages to uncover the worst part: it happens all the time.
Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US
On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2020)
As mentioned in my lengthy review of this slim novel about lighthouses, this was an excellent book to read during these more isolated times. From that review:
“I have no special bond to lighthouses, but I know Barrera’s words have made me consider them differently. If I saw one now I would look up and a great many thoughts would come to mind directly from On Lighthouses. I’d never thought of Virginia Woolf when I saw a lighthouse (though I’ve read To The Lighthouse), but now I might. And Edward Hopper. And Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. And the fact that Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe’s last works were about lighthouses, published posthumously. And the fate of the survivors of a lighthouse keeper who went mad on Clipperton Island off the coast of Mexico in 1917. Barrera provided me with a complete paradigm shift on the buildings, and I’m sure it will happen for you, too.”
Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)
I don't often have to take 'emotional breaks' from a book. In fact, I'm not sure I have before Know My Name. I mean, I got through A Little Life directly after having a baby and my post-partum self would worry my partner with all the tissues I went through, but I didn't step away from the book. I was immediately astounded by Miller's crisp, clear, and open writing about her sexual assault and subsequent trial. She managed to write about a deeply traumatic experience, and in doing so, let others in on processing something that society tells women should remain private... mainly so as not to 'tarnish' a man's reputation.
Know My Name drudged up some things in my past that I'd pushed into the recesses of my mind for years, decades. So often while reading I felt my eyes shining with tears and sometimes I couldn't pinpoint a single sentence or memory, but just the collective experience of all that I was reading and internally experiencing. I know I'm not alone, and during a zoom book club meeting after finishing the book, all of us women, and all of us acknowledging something that spoke to us from Miller's words. It's nice to not be alone, but it's a tragedy that sexual trauma is not a rare experience.
Miller understands that her experience is not singular, though in many ways she was 'luckier' than most (she went to trial, he was found guilty). I admire how Miller, in the ending chapters, places her story among the rest of the world and acknowledges the history that came before her to make her into this person, the writer that can share her story.
"My writing is sophisticated because I had a head start, because I am years in the making, because I am my mother and her mother before. When I write, I have the privilege of using a language that she fought her whole life to understand. When I speak in opposition I am grateful my voice is uncensored. I do not take my freedom of speech, my abundance of books, my access to education, my ease of first language for granted."
I had to take breaks from it, but I'm glad to have read it, and I'm glad Miller's voice exists today.
Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz (2020)
Richard Linklater's Before trilogy are some of my favorite films. Dazed & Confused is great fun, but I was a little unsure if I needed to read a book-length oral history about it. I'm happy to report that I was wrong and this book is a treasure trove of insight about the movie itself from pre-pro to present, filmmaking in the early 90s, and the burgeoning careers of (in some cases) eventual mega-stars.
I am a sucker for film history, and stories of how movies get made or decisions that changed an entire trajectory of a project or a career. Love a casting decision that could've been someone else. Love that at the time of filming, Milla Jovovich was the biggest star among cast members that included Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey (his debut). Love that most of these now-stars or now-Apple Genius Bar workers contributed to this oral history. We all know I love stories about friendship between women, and all the women during this shoot (described as 'summer camp' in Austin) had a lot of differing opinions about their relationships, and includes details on how the formerly tight-knit friendship of Joey Lauren Adams and Parker Posey transformed over the years since.
Speaking of women, Linklater humbly mentions how the original script (excerpts which were included in the book) had focused on the women with more depth and on par with the men's stories in the film, but editing had shifted the story. Linklater says "I really wanted a young woman's perspective in the movie, and it's just barely there now. I feel like I failed with the women." It felt redemptive in a good way and I respect an admittance of failure.