2020: 0/10, would not recommend. 2020 books on the other hand…
It’s no secret that this year hasn’t been the best of times by any stretch of the imagination. One thing that has (sort of) kept me sane, however, has been reading. Diving into books to escape from the vicious news cycle let my mind wander in the way it desperately needed. To mark the end of this grating year, I wanted to pay tribute to the titles that saved my brain, plus a few I’m very much looking forward to in 2021.
Best 2020 Releases…
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Grove Atlantic): This powerhouse debut broke me open in the best way possible, and did so to the rest of the world, too, when it won the Booker Prize and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. It’s the moving tale of a young boy understanding his sexuality as he supports his alcoholic mother in Thatcher-era, poverty-stricken Glasgow. It’s the book I recommend to boys on dating apps, which probably explains why my bookshelf is more substantial than my love life. Read my review here.
Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity by Peggy Orenstein (Harper): Orenstein isn’t afraid to ask teenagers difficult questions about their sex lives, trying to figure out how young people think about relationships. After the success of Girls & Sex, her latest book takes a deep dive into what guys are thinking about the matter, revealing some uncomfortable (though not unsurprising) truths. A must-read for anyone trying to navigate the modern sexual landscape. Read my review here.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (Grove Atlantic): This was the last book I read before the start of quarantine and one that I returned to many times during. It’s 1997 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Casey is trying to write a novel while mourning the sudden death of her mother and ignoring the bill collectors. Not exactly how she imagined thirty-one… As Casey navigates romance and the challenge of what it means to live creatively, she also finds herself. Get ready to get teary-eyed. Read my review here.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (Vintage): Irby’s writing has a way of making me feel better even when I really would prefer to wallow. She tackles everything from how IBS has inconveniently upended her life to her fears of what it means to be a step-parent. In a year where I desperately missed being outrageous with my friends over one too many bottles of wine, curling up with Irby helped recreate the sensation. Read my review here.
Romance or the End: Poems by Elaine Kahn (Soft Skull): A defining moment of my year was having a love affair with a poet, which also meant reading a lot more poetry than normal. My favorite was Kahn’s new collection, which explores the pain of loving and losing in the digital age, questioning what it all means and if it’s worth it. It’s full of sad girl musings and brutal truths that will have you staring at your ceiling with a new kind of existential dread. Read my review here.
Best Non-2020 Releases…
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin): Coming of age is hard for Harvard freshman Selin, who’s completely out of her element on the 1990s campus where email has just arrived and her friends all feel more interesting than her. But a digital exchange with a senior mathematics student from her Russian class opens her eyes to something brand new. A rumination on love, finding yourself, and the Internet, the novel reminded me that every broken heart is just a step along the way to growing up. Read my review here.
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowciz (Vintage): This book was assigned to me in a transgressive literature course at Columbia and haunted me like no other class reading. A memoir told through essays, the collection highlights the life of artist, painter, and AIDS activist Wojnarowciz and the company he kept: people living on the fringes of society, struggling to survive. Wojnarowciz shares every gritty, uncomfortable detail of this world in a way that will (hopefully) one day bring about change for marginalized individuals.
Juliet, the Maniac by Juliet Escoria (Melville House): Juliet is your average teenager living in California, until one day she starts to feel a shift in her brain, followed by the quick unraveling of her mind as bipolar disorder sets in. Autofiction at its best, Escoria brilliantly depicts the experience of developing a mental illness and all of the confusion surrounding it as Juliet comes to understand and accept the monster that lives within herself.
Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum (Soho): When I asked Binnie Kirshenbaum at 20 about persuing writing, she joked that it’d be better to go to law school. Years later, her class at Columbia bettered my writing, and her writing bettered my soul. This novel (now in paperback) profiles a woman named Bunny struggling with persistent depression and surrounded by inconsiderate friends and a failing mental health care system. Darkly humorous and heartbreaking, you will root for Bunny even when she’d prefer you didn’t.
Going Dutch by James Gregor (Simon & Schuster): Dating in New York is rough. Gregor’s debut novel dives into how it goes for a man named Richard, who simultaneously falls for a successful lawyer named Blake and his PhD colleague, Anne. Full of low-key New York locations, romantic faux pas, and a desperate desire for intimacy, it really spoke to me when I was desiring all three. Read my review here.
Best Didn’t Read 2020…
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead): A Booker Prize finalist and a New York Times Editors’ Choice, Taylor’s debut novel revolves around Wallace, whose queerness, blackness, and Southernness make him an outsider in his Midwestern university town. Distancing himself from his peers for self-preservation, tensions boil over one summer weekend, forcing Wallace to confront his current community’s hostility and his past demons in order to move forward.
13th Balloon by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon): A friend sent me about 20 pages of this and I was absolutely obsessed. Bibbins’ (who I am so proud to say follows me on Twitter) fourth collection addresses the American AIDS crisis, exploring what it means to grieve and how society collectively experiences tragedy. The themes are even more resonant as the country faces another pandemic, and brave, too, as Bibbins dares readers to sit in an uncomfortable state of wonder.
Luster by Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): The cross-country bestseller description reads like something from my manuscript wishlist: a lost twentysomething becomes involved with a married couple, engaging in tumultuous sexual choices and struggling to confront societal racial truths. My friends who have read it often find themselves at a loss for words. I think that’s the tell of a near-perfect title.
Weird but Normal: Essays by Mia Mercado (HarperOne): I worked for Mercado’s agent when this book was in its proposal phase and couldn’t stop laughing at the excerpts. There is nothing Mercado shies away from addressing, from her former life as a greeting card writer to dealing with micro-aggressions as a bi-racial writer. If you’ve ever wanted someone to understand the sacredness of the Target skincare aisle or the fear your dog is judging you, Mercado is your person.
The Lightness by Emily Temple (William Morrow & Co.): When working at Grove Atlantic, I was often privy to LitHub team discussions (the two share office space), which is when I started fangirling over Managing Editor Temple, though I was too shy to say anything. Her debut novel follows a teenage girl on the hunt for her father who enrolls in a haunting meditation camp full of strange characters mastering levitation. Escape reality to get lost in this madness instead.
Most Anticipated 2021…
Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy by Larissa Pham (Catapult): Forget being judged for falling for a song so hard that you play it a dozen times in a row because this book applauds exactly that. Phan investigates the strange process of trying to find herself through art, reflecting on how many times we let ourselves be hurt on the journey to growth. It won’t be out until May, but until then, I’ll continue streaming my sad song playlist and questioning my life questions.
Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler (Catapult): In the land of a new Trump presidency (thank god, now historical fiction), a young woman discovers her boyfriend is an online conspiracy theorist with a massive following. The revelation offers an explanation for his distance and a reason to break up before the narrator starts over in Berlin. In navigating online dating, political meet-ups, and attempts at building community, Oyler explores what it means to really know the truth.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Atlantic): After winning the Pulitzer Prize, Nguyen has finally returned with a follow-up to The Sympathizer. It’s 1980s Paris and the Sympathizer is struggling to fit into French culture while dealing drugs to stay afloat. Taken in by left-wing French intellectuals, he finds comfort alongside his continued struggle with addiction. Political, complex, and emotional, this is surely going to be the talk of the town.
Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz (Grove Atlantic): Set in the suburbs of Florida, this story collection tackles intergenerational tales of what it means to be part of a community and how deeply those ties bind. The characters across these pages struggle with feeling obligated to others while trying to neglect the parts of themselves they also cannot forget. You can get a taste for Moniz’s work with “Exotics” in Oprah Magazine and “Necessary Bodies” in One Story.
Kink: Stories Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell (Simon & Schuster): This superstar anthology curates work from Roxane Gay, Melissa Febos, Carmen Maria Machado, and many more of today’s strongest literary voices, writing about the oft-misunderstood worlds of BDSM, love, and desire. From a therapist’s office to an underground sex club, imaginations run wild in showing just how diverse pleasure can be.
See you again next year!