Thursday, December 10, 2020

Best Books (I Read) in 2020

I’ll say this about this crummiest of years: I read more books than usual, since reading is my favorite way to escape the world. Narrowing what I read down to 10ish books for my annual list of “best books I read this year no matter when they were published” is consequently VERY DIFFICULT. (Nothing about 2020 is easy! My first cull gave me 21 options!!) As always, I’ve refrained from including on my list books by writers I know/“know”, and I’ve moved those to a separate category. Order is chronological to how I happened to read these books, which basically means the order is random. And do I mean “best,” or do I mean “favorite,” or do I mean “book that was exactly right for the moment I read it”? Maybe I simply mean, “book I literally and truly recommended to others at least once over the year.”

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Linked stories (not a true novel, sorry publisher who claims it is) set in a remote peninsula of Siberia. Beautiful language, an austere setting…I was mesmerized.

You by Caroline Kepnes: Voice x 1000! Dark, funny, smart, New Yorker, bookish, creepy. I loved the TV show, but the book is even better.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: I ended up reading a lot of books about dire situations this year, and this (non-fiction) depiction of the working poor in the 1930s was one of the most dire. A disturbing, compelling book.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang: Here’s another very dire and very harrowing book, about two Chinese-American girls struggling to survive in the 19th century American west. You’ll rethink the myths of the west and the immigrant tale. Well-structured, gorgeously written, unforgettable. But DIRE x 1000!

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge: She’s an under-appreciated writer in the U.S., I think, as I’ve admired several other books she’s written. Wonderful historical fiction, inventively told, about a surgeon and his circle of affiliated people. The sections in the Crimean War are (wait for it) incredibly dire. Also, a truly shocking ending that was, nevertheless, inevitable. Interesting to read for structure if you’re struggling with that in your WIP.

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford: A horrifying (and dire) immersion into 1980s British “football” hooligan culture. Lots to think about with regard to group-think. A violent book, but a thoughtful one. We like to think we’d never fall sway to mob violence, but I’m not so sure.

Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell: It’s rare these days to find a novel that sweeps through decades as this one does, starting with a fictionalized Emmett Till character, and following the ripples and waves outward from that terrible murder. It’s also rare to see a novel tackle so many POVs, including that of the woman who incited this incident.

**The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford: Life is not entirely dire, and maybe there’s a reason this is my **favorite book of the year; after finishing, I immediately crammed it into my “favorite books bookshelf.” I absolutely loved everything about these two companion books in one volume; I didn’t read, I inhaled them! Funny, frothy, smart, provocative, zany…about a rich British family after WWI. Rabbit holes I traveled down after reading include researching Nancy Mitford and the Bright Young Things (be assured she’s not the Nazi Mitford sister); ordering a special marmalade mentioned; researching and baking a special walnut cake alluded to; watching the (delightful!) movie on Amazon Prime. Truly, for me, this was a magical reading experience, made more so by the fact that I’d randomly grabbed this book at least a year ago out of a Free Little Library, mistakenly thinking it was a memoir about the Mitfords. What a joyful discovery.

 Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alum: So eerie and unsettling that I had to make sure I still had cell service several times. This book is about the (possible) end of the world, as seen through two very different couples who are ensconced in a luxury house beyond the reach of what we imagine must be mayhem and destruction, who have no way of knowing what’s going on. (Nitpick: no one has a radio??) A good book to read if you’re into interesting POV, as I thought the omniscient narrative worked well to create a disturbing sense of distance.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: IMHO this book totally deserves the National Book Award that it recently won. It’s inventive, funny, dark, and on-point with regard to thinking about issues of race today. The book is told in the form of a screenplay, which I found easy to melt into, and on the surface is about a young Chinese-American male actor trying to get better roles in a police procedural called “Black & White.” So…clearly, it’s about much, much more than TV.

Rereads I’m Sneaking onto My List

 Sometimes one just needs to comfort-read a beloved volume from childhood. These two still stand up for me:

 From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: I was missing NYC, and this charming story about a brother and sister who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is about as perfect as a novel gets. I’m incredibly jealous if you’ve never read it and get to encounter it for the first time!

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I was missing NYC (a different time) and returned to one of the books that changed my teenage life, now viewing Holden’s struggles with the “phonies” as an extended meditation on unexpressed grief and loss. Maybe I’m smarter now, or, more likely, just older and possibly wiser. Brilliant book.


And now a shout-out to the books I read by my friends and social media friends that I love-love-loved!

Malawi’s Sisters by Melanie S. Hatter: After a young Black woman is murdered in a “stand your ground” incident, we follow the family left behind as they try to cope with this shattering loss. Great use of multiple POVs.

The Cactus League by Emily Nemens: Spring training baseball in Arizona captured with depth and nuance.

Jack Kerouac Is Dead to Me by Gae Polisner: YA…lost friendship, the lure of the boyfriend with the motorcycle, butterflies, and a surprising yet inevitable ending I so admired.

I Brake for Moose by Geeta Kothari: Short stories about a thousand different things, including feeling placed (or not) in the world. (My favorites were the title story and “Foreign Relations.”)

This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah: Lyric essay collection; here’s a super-short sample, about the author’s “Indian” wedding, one of my favorite pieces:

 Until We Have Faces by Michael Nye: Short stories, and what I especially loved was seeing people at work, in a variety of jobs (including, not for the faint of heart, a man raising dogs for meat after chickens have been wiped out).

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead: Set during the Civil War, this lyrical novel is spare, precise, and urgent. Oh, and dire.

Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard: Part memoir, part exploration of why we have SO. MUCH. DAMN. STUFF.

wife | daughter | self: memoir in essays by Beth Kephart: I’m cheating, since this book will be officially released in the spring (pre-order now!!). Relentless exploration of self, with sentences that will stop your heart with their exactness.

The Fear of Everything by John McNally: Immersive short stories that made me feel I was getting a novel in 20 pages. My two favorites: “The Creeping End” and “The Blueprint of Your Brain.”

 The Rest of the World by Adam Schwartz: The author uses his two decades of experience as a schoolteacher in Baltimore to capture the tough yet fragile complexities of adolescence in these short stories. Dire, nuanced, hopeful.


Happy holidays, everyone, and happy 2021! I'm grateful you're part of my  literary/reading/social media/real life community!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.