Believe it or not, we found time to enjoy books during this totally normal year. For some of us, we discovered work written long ago, while others read more recent publications. Either way, books kept us company and helped us escape the despair of endless Zoom meetings. Thanks for letting us share some of the books* that sustained us! Happy New Year!
*(hyperlinked titles will send you to our editors’ favorite indie booksellers.)
I read a lot of wonderful novels this year, but DIE MY LOVE by Ariana Harwicz stands out for its beautiful, clever writing, where you’re never sure what’s happening is real or a figment of the narrator’s imagination. RUN ME TO EARTH by Paul Yoon will stay with me for a long time for its raw honesty about war and childhood—the characters are unforgettable. On the nonfiction front, I couldn’t put down THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII by Alison Weir. A great book to transport you to another time and place, full of fascinating women who die much too quickly.
Brianna Di Monda
First and foremost, THE BOOK OF X by Sarah Rose Etter was a book that I’d been dying to read since I’d first heard about it, and it absolutely delivered. Etter expertly created a surrealist landscape where men mine raw, bloody meat from the ground, and the main character is born with a knotted stomach (a genetic abnormality passed down via the X chromosome in her family). The novel critiques arbitrary beauty standards, the abusive power men can hold over women, and the burdens women carry simply by existing in their bodies. Etter has such mastery of language that the story unfolds seamlessly, and on my shelf, The Book of X lives next to two of my other favorites this year: GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray and HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado. I put them together because I think these authors work towards similar projects in their own brilliant ways. I also want to shout out Emily Wilson’s translation of THE ODYSSEY, which I read just before the pandemic hit. It seeks to redefine modern translation theory and push the literary world to revisit a nearly three-millenniums-old poem that almost everyone has heard of. In doing so, she invites us to ask what truth is when it’s possible to translate the same line a hundred different ways.
I read a lot of great books this year, but since there’s been so much discussion of genre fiction, literary fiction, and literary non-fiction, I’m going to focus here on two books I read that were both well outside my comfort zone and that might not normally make it into the discussions we have at MAYDAY. The first is Annping Chen’s THE AUTHENTIC CONFUCIUS: A LIFE OF THOUGHT AND POLITICS. Confucius is a figure who I’ve always felt should be an obsession for me though it’s never quite happened. The books I’ve read on Confucius focus on the seismic social and political changes his ideas brought into the world, but I’ve never felt as if I’d been given a sense of who he was. Thus, I was drawn to Chen’s audacious claim, found in the title of her work, to present the man himself authentically. Chen did not disappoint. Instead of wringing her hands about them, Chen confronts the antinomies behind Confucious’ life and thought—how could a man who, by all accounts, was an abject failure personally and politically, become so associated with power and success? How do we reckon with his insistence that humans can achieve moral perfection under their own power? What was behind his ambivalence towards teaching as a profession?—as potential sites of reflection. It was the first biography I’d ever read that was more about what we don’t know about its subject than what we do know, and the experience did not disappoint.
The second book I’ll mention is Thomas Pikettey’s CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Piketty’s book embodies the idea of the doorstop. Picture this, a meticulous and precise 800-page survey of the economic phenomenon of material inequality—replete with formulas, archival research, critiques of all his predecessors, and extensive policy recommendations—that, when it was translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer from French to English in 2014, spent the summer on the NYT’s bestseller list. It didn’t take me long to see why this book had the impact it did, however. Piketty is a deft and subtle thinker, and in spite of the density of his critiques and the impracticality of his policy recommendations, a single, exciting theme emerges: the human future, economic or otherwise, will be determined by nothing more than how and why we decide to act in the present. I walked away from it with a sense of real, substantive hope I’m not used to experiencing outside science fiction.
I usually always read a prose and a poetry book at once, and this year I’ve kind of dug myself into the world of books to escape the barrage of pandemic news. The first book I read last year was HEAVY by Kiese Laymon, and it was a brilliantly structured memoir I continue to turn back to for Laymon’s story-weaving skills. Also a memoir, Esmé Weijun Wang’s THE COLLECTION SCHIZOPHRENIAS helped give me language to explain my own experiences as a neurodiverse person who sometimes experiences psychosis. The book is brilliant and vital. In the world of poetry, I’ve read like too many good books to count, but DOCUMENTS by Jan-Henry Gray, POST COLONIAL LOVE POEM by Natalie Diaz, THE MALEVOLENT VOLUME by Justin Phillip Reed, and KINGDOM ANIMALIA by Arcelis Girmay were some of my favorites. For fiction, my favorites were AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones and THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet. The Vanishing Half is a brilliant story overall, but I was also excited to see a trans guy love interest so well depicted. I also love reading gay YA romances, and RED, WHITE, AND ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston and FELIX EVER AFTER by Kacen Callender stole the show for me.
A few of my favorite books I read for the first time this year were HOW TO DO NOTHING by Jenny Odell, SOCIALIST REALISM by Trisha Low, AXIOMATIC by Maria Tumarkin, NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin, GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo, WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS by Saidiya Hartman, FIGURING by Maria Popova, THE INJURED PARTY by Elaine Dundy, and FAKE ACCOUNTS by Lauren Oyler, which comes out in a couple weeks. A few others I kept returning to were Toni Morrison, Clarice Lispector, and Mary Gaitskill. During a year that has completely redefined “attention span” for many of us, these writers all helped me catch my breath.
I love short story collections. Two favorites I read this year are FLORIDA, by Lauren Groff, and THE ISLE OF YOUTH, by Laura van de Berg. Both books have strong female voices and dive deep into the tangles of life in distinct times and places. I also loved Catherine Lacey’s novel, NOBODY IS EVER MISSING, a dark humor travel story that sucked me into its core, and Aimee Bender’s new novel, THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE, a magical realism story about a girl’s relationship with her mentally ill mother. I did read a few nonfiction books, as well, to balance things out. CHEMICALLY ENHANCED BUTCH, by Ty Bo Yule, a trans coming-of-age story, and ORDINARY GIRLS, by Jaquira Diaz, a queer latinx memoir about growing up between Puerto Rico and south Florida in the tangle of a complex family culture.
There were lots of books I read in 2020 that I loved (ON LIGHTHOUSES and FRESH WATER FOR FLOWERS both rank high on the list), but the one book that I can’t stop talking about is RED COMET: THE SHORT LIFE AND BLAZING ART OF SYLVIA PLATH. Up until this last November, I hadn’t thought about Sylvia Plath in almost a decade. But when this thousand-page biography came out, my inner angsty teen compelled me to rush out and buy it, and, to my slight amazement, devour it almost immediately. It delivers exactly what it promises: a celebration of Plath’s life, rather than just a sad story that we already know the ending to. It left me completely in awe of Plath and made me think that maybe that angsty teen who would sit on the stairs of my high school reading ARIEL between classes wasn’t spending that time wallowing in the misery of Plath’s words, but relishing the magnetic brilliance of each and every line, how she alchemized every dark thought and strange image into a manifestation of her poetic and personal power.
The photographer Robert Adams wrote BEAUTY IN PHOTOGRAPHY in 1981, and this brief book of essays on art theory and criticism was the sole required text for my Intro to Photography course in college. I didn’t read it. I found it for the first time again this year, and Adams’ theory, especially about photographing evil and photography as social activism, really crackles on the page. When faced with the ultimate trial—using his camera to document trauma and pain—he falters. He writes, “After years with a camera I had wasted still more time trying to do what it apparently was not given me to do.”
I’m pretty sure this is the year I read my first—and definitely not last—book by Olga Tokarczuk, DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD. It was so fun to read that I started teaching it in my fall online classes. That said, the book that really spoke to me this year was written more than fifty years ago, Frank Herbert’s DUNE. I bought the book on a whim, maybe hoping to challenge myself as I’d done with other past purchases, like the time I picked out ULYSSES at Borders (RIP), which I still haven’t tackled after scanning the first couple pages. I expected DUNE to be more of the same, a book I’d try to get into, then blame my disinterest on bad genre writing. Not the case. Herbert’s magnum opus is masterfully written, with memorable characters, an eerie setting, and political shenanigans that are consistently enjoyable. I might even read the second saga, DUNE MESSIAH, while I wait to see if Denis Villeneuve’s film can surpass the greatness of the 1984 iteration. I can’t be the only one who loves Lynch’s version, can I?
I am so with you, Kirk—discovering Olga Tokarsczuk through that marvelous, mysterious novel was a real highlight of my year in reading. I’ve never craved funny fiction so much as I have in 2020, and Nathan Englander’s KADDISH.COM made me laugh and ache at the same time, all the way through. I also read Natalia Ginzburg (THE DRY HEART) for the first time this year, and I found that her devastating brand of directness was so well-suited for the times in which we’re living. Oh, and on the topic of fitting books for these times—if you haven’t read Jericho Brown’s (Pulitzer Prize-winning) poetry collection THE TRADITION, you must, you must, you must. But just be prepared to weep.
A lot of this year for me was about jumping around, through genre and form and time period. In April I read THE SOUND AND THE FURY for the first time, and—listen. I know a lot of people don’t like Faulkner, and their complaints are valid, but I loved this book. I devoured it in the way I haven’t devoured a book since I was twelve years old, meaning sitting on the floor of my bedroom for four hours straight, not moving or looking up or blinking enough. And then for more recent books, I ate up Sally Rooney’s CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS, which reminded me yet again, after NORMAL PEOPLE, why I think she is perhaps the most skilled writer of young people alive today. My October was dominated by Angela Carter’s collection THE BLOODY CHAMBER, and the final book of the year for me was Ken Kesey’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, just as depressing and uplifting as I remembered the movie being. And though it’s a departure from my usual, fiction-heavy reading list, I can’t not mention Hanif Abdurraqib’s collection of essays, THEY CAN’T KILL US TILL THEY KILL US, which was hands down the greatest thing I read all year.