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The 15 best books our book critic read this year

From Piranesi to A Promised Land, 15 new books for understanding and surviving 2020.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked to this year. But also it sometimes feels as if all I did this year was read.

When Vox’s New York office closed in March, I surveyed my bookshelf full of galleys and selected a handful that were due to come out over the course of the month. I looked at all the ones I had piled up for April, and thought about adding a few of those to my stack, just in case — but then I thought about lugging all those heavy books onto the subway and decided against it.

So I left them all there, all the galleys I had accumulated and sorted by publication date, from April’s new releases to August’s, waiting fresh and expectant on the office bookshelf. As far as I know, they are there still.

Sometimes I panic, thinking about all those books waiting for me to read them. The ones I never picked up and never opened and will have to donate to some worthy cause as soon as I get back to the office, so I can make room for next year’s books. If I ever do get back.

There are so many books that came out in 2020 that I just never picked up. A lot of them were probably very good. They’ve been ignored, underread, abandoned by a media that hasn’t given books the space they deserve in a year when our focus was mostly elsewhere.

But there were times this year when I didn’t have space in my mind for anything new. I felt like it was shattered.

The first week of lockdown, I read a lot. What else was I going to do, I thought; I couldn’t leave my apartment. I set up a nest on my fire escape and listened to sirens and read with half my attention. I couldn’t bring myself into the state of mind with which I try to read books that I want to cover — transparent, so I’m not bringing my own preoccupations to the text as I read — but when a book was engaging enough, I could still get through it.

By the next week I had started to grasp that lockdown was going to last a lot longer than two weeks, and then I stopped being able to read. I stopped being able to do anything but doomscroll through Twitter.

Books will save you, I told myself. They will nourish your mind and your soul. They will give you a space away from the rest of the world, for now, when you can’t deal with the world. And when you’re ready, they will give you a space to understand the world.

I write about books because I genuinely believe all those statements to be true. But it takes energy to let a book save you. I didn’t have that energy.

I built up to it slowly. I read trashy fanfiction. (Good fanfiction exists, but the stuff I was reading in April was trashy.) I read old children’s books. I read old cookbooks. I read Jane Austen.

After awhile I was able to start reading new books again. Not as many as I would have before: There are still so many titles that came out this year that I missed. But I was right. Books did save me.

These are the books that came out in 2020 and got me through the year. Like all “best of” lists, it is heavily subjective, but these 15 novels and memoirs helped take me outside of myself when I needed to be elsewhere, and made me feel that I either understood the world better, or could leave it behind when I had to. I hope they will help you too as we move into 2021.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Brit Bennett’s rich and lovely sophomore novel, The Vanishing Half, tells the story of identical twin sisters from a color-struck town.

The entire population of Mallard, Louisiana, is Black, and its residents have devoted themselves to trying to make their skin as fair as possible. Our twin sisters grow up in this town — their father was lynched by white people, his fair skin having failed to protect him — and then proceed to take wildly divergent paths through life.

One sister leaves the colorism of her childhood life behind to marry the darkest-skinned man she can find. The other marries a white man and starts passing for white.

What ensues is a layered and extravagant fairy tale that tracks America’s ideas about race and Blackness across decades, and somehow manages to find a possibility of redemption at the end.

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody

Brash, bold, and belligerent, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy is one of the great heroines of American children’s literature, and possibly just of American literature, full stop. The image of Harriet sitting in a drugstore, nursing an egg cream and taking meticulous notes on every conversation around her is so indelible that I am compelled to order an egg cream every time I see one on a menu, even though they are actually a little disgusting.

In Sometimes You Have to Lie, Leslie Brody paints a portrait of Fitzhugh that’s almost as indelible as Harriet herself. Fitzhugh apparently lived a life of whirlwind glamour, beginning from her birth as the daughter of a Southern aristocrat and a jazz dancer; continuing through her days traveling Europe to learn how to paint Italian frescoes and smoke in Parisian gay bars; and into her time as an out lesbian artist living in New York’s West Village, learning how to write from a pulp novelist who was also Patricia Highsmith’s lover. In Brody’s hands, even Fitzhugh’s clothes (Brooks Brothers menswear, combat boots, and a cape) are over-the-top marvelous. Sometimes You Have to Lie is a deeply endearing introduction to the woman who gave the American canon one of its icons.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi haunts me. When I read the book, I wanted to let it swallow me whole. It’s one of the best books I read this year, and maybe just one of the best books I’ve read, ever.

Piranesi is about a man who is called Piranesi, although that is not his name. He lives in a world that consists of a vast, endless marble hall that goes on and on for miles in all directions, flooded with water and populated by broken statues; the vibe is part Borges, part C.S. Lewis. Piranesi calls this hall the House, and understands himself to be the Beloved Child of the House. He navigates his way through this strange world with a kind of radiant innocence.

It becomes clear to the reader quite quickly that Piranesi is a prisoner in this world, and that his naiveté does him a disservice. Less quickly, it emerges that Piranesi’s naiveté is what allows him to transcend his prison and experience his world as a gift. The project of this novel, and what gives it its strange power, is finding a way to bridge those two truths.

Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley

“Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” begins Maria Dahvana Headley in her profane and lively new translation of Beowulf.

Headley’s Beowulf is word-drunk. It puns and plays obsessively with language, with its Old English root words and its slangy modern-day English: characters “unexpectedly stan” for Beowulf, while Beowulf himself “began, sick-hearted, to hear his death knell, his sure feet fumbling, his fight-spirit fugitive.”

It is also recognizably a woman’s Beowulf. The female characters in this translation are given more space to explore their powers than other translators traditionally grant them. And femininity seeps into places where other translators don’t usually go looking for it: The dragon becomes female, and the battles Beowulf and his men fight are laced with imagery of captive women and miscarrying women.

There are dozens of Beowulf translations out there. But Headley’s is the funniest and most vivid of the ones I’ve read.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic is a creepy, elegant riff on the postcolonial gothic. It begins in a decaying English manor that sits in solitary splendor, slowly rotting, above the Mexican mining town of El Triunfo. The English came to El Triunfo to run a silver mine and steal the land’s riches — but now the mine is defunct, the people of the town are unemployed, and the English remain locked up alone in their mansion.

So when the cosmopolitan young Mexico City socialite Noemí comes to El Triunfo, she will have to learn the manor’s secrets. And, inevitably, she will learn that the true source of the gothic in the living nightmare in which she finds herself is colonialism.

Mexican Gothic is a daring and witty joyride of a book. Read it with the lights on.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The City We Became has the misfortune of using a malignant, infectious virus spreading across New York as one of its central metaphors; it also had the misfortune of debuting in April, just as the pandemic had New York City in its grips. But to Jemisin’s immense credit, The City We Became never felt too soon or too sad. Instead, it’s a joyful book, about what makes cities powerful and why they will endure.

The City We Became is the first volume of a planned trilogy — one that posits that when a city becomes strong enough, when enough people live there that the place seems to have developed its own personality, then that city comes to life. It develops a human avatar, who embodies the city and its interests. In The City We Became, New York City comes to life — and then something goes terribly wrong, and its avatar ends up in a coma. Now it’s up to the avatars of the city’s five boroughs to save him, and to help protect New York from the forces of assimilation, gentrification, and white supremacy, all of which are spreading, virus-like, across its bounds.

You will have a blast reading this book. And then you will also have a blast arguing about who the avatar is for your favorite city. (Personally, I have only grown to feel more strongly this year that the avatar of my hometown, Philadelphia, is Gritty.)

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg Atria

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Danny M. Lavery

There are few subsections of the internet that I miss in the way I miss The Toast, the extremely niche humor-and-feminism-and-weird-old-science-fiction-and-assorted-other-stuff website created by Danny M. Lavery and Nicole Cliffe. And an enormous part of what made the site work was the specificity of voice developed by Lavery, who is probably one of the most skilled writers I know of at wielding “extremely specific, but somehow deeply relatable” as his weapon of choice. Like: Have I ever had the thought that Duckie from Pretty in Pink is a lesbian? No, I’m not that funny. But once you’ve said it, do I get it? Oh, I absolutely do.

In his memoir Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery, who is now Slate’s Dear Prudence, returns to his Toast roots. Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a transition memoir (Lavery is transgender), and it’s also a gleeful, incredibly specific and improbably deeply relatable joy-read.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie is 23 years old, a Black woman living in Brooklyn and working a crappy publishing admin job. Out of a combination of boredom and self-loathing, she’s slept with most of the men at her company, including the boss who eventually fires her. At the end of her rope, Edie moves in with her much older married lover Eric, who is white — and his wife Rebecca and their Black daughter, Akila. Rebecca knows exactly who Edie is. Akila has no idea, and feels skeptical.

Much of Luster is devoted to this slightly surreal ménage à trois. Eric fades into the background as Rebecca, a medical examiner with “chunky, tragic sneakers and freaky competence,” becomes fascinated with Edie. She takes Edie along to the office to watch as she performs autopsies. She suggests that Edie might be a good role model for Akila, who is lonely as the only Black kid in a mostly white suburb.

Leilani tracks these shifting psychosexual relationships with detached, surgical prose. (At 29, she’s developing a reputation as a Sally Rooney-esque wunderkind.) And Edie is a beautifully morbid character, prone to remarking, when a child annoys her, of how glad she is she got an abortion several years before.

But for my money, what makes Luster sing most is its evocation of all the tawdry, banal details of Edie’s crappy Brooklyn life: the roach-ridden Bushwick apartment, the grimy heat of a New York summer, the way her supposedly woke industry treats her with palpable contempt for being Black and a woman.

“I load up on the free hand lotion the publisher started putting out,” she writes early on, “after it was revealed that the women in the company (a whopping 87 percent of the employee base) are still making less than the men.”

When I read that passage, I immediately took a picture and sent it to a coworker. “Free hand lotion but make it organic tampons,” she wrote back.

We all know these infuriating details. Luster makes them shine.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror and the Light is a deeply immersive book, the kind of book that asks you to swim down through its many levels every time you open it up, and then when you close it again it takes you a while to resurface into reality. It’s the third volume in Mantel’s acclaimed Wolf Hall trilogy, and it covers the end of the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief fixer to Henry VIII.

In the two earlier volumes, cosmopolitan young commoner Thomas Cromwell accumulated power, brought modernity to England, and acquired and disposed of the king’s wives. But in this third volume, Cromwell himself — whose power depends on the king’s goodwill — finds himself in the same position as all those long-suffering wives. He has lost the king’s good favor, and death, inevitably, awaits him. But Cromwell isn’t about to go down without a fight.

The whole Wolf Hall trilogy taken together forms a portrait of a man’s inner self, and it makes us watch as that self is corrupted and corroded by the pursuit of power. The Mirror and the Light brings home the chilling consequences.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The first volume of Barack Obama’s planned two-volume presidential memoir is unusually ambivalent for books in its genre.

Presidential memoirs are usually about presidents defending their legacies, and on one hand, Obama follows through on that goal. He argues strenuously that he always made the best of a bad set of choices, that he saved the country from the brink of ruin, that he led a successful administration that accomplished more than anyone else, in his shoes, could have.

But on the other hand, Obama continuously runs up against the question of how the racist backlash to his presidency birthed the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump — and the question of whether Obama himself, in turn, can be said to bear any responsibility for what has followed. He doesn’t ever seem able to answer those questions to his own satisfaction. But some of A Promised Land’s most poignant passages come when Obama muses over how the power of the office of the presidency has robbed him of his ability to connect with people, and whether he would have been able, as a junior senator from Illinois, to sit down one-on-one with all the Tea Partiers who thought he was a secret Muslim and talk his way to an understanding with them.

A Promised Land is written for the historical record first and with an eye to an engaging reading experience second. It can sometimes be a slog. But it’s essential for understanding the shining hope of those early Obama years — and exactly what developed out of those years when those in charge weren’t looking.

Courtesy of Putnam

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is one of the most fun books I read this year. It tackles heavy topics — racism, misogyny, cancel culture — but it does so with such deftness that it never feels weighed down by its own self-importance. This social satire is breezy.

It concerns Emira, a 26-year-old Black woman who becomes the center of a scandal when a racist security guard accuses her of kidnapping her 3-year-old white babysitting charge. In the wake of the incident, the white people around Emira begin clamoring at her to validate them for the way they respond. They need her, with a deep ferocity, to assure them that they are good white people. That they are not racist. That they are, by virtue of their proximity to her, cool. And as Emira tries to navigate the ensuing chaos, Reid develops a biting satire of both woke white bros and banal, corporate-friendly white-lady feminism. The result is a romp, with teeth.

Self Care by Leigh Stein

Speaking of banal, corporate-friendly white-lady feminism! Self Care begins with Maren, one of its two protagonists, lying on one of her office’s lavender velvet chaises, drinking wine out of a mug that says “MALE TEARS” and compulsively hate-reading her mentions after she tweeted something mean at Ivanka Trump.

Maren is one of the founders of a self-care app called Richual, where users track their meditation practices and sleep hygiene, read recurring features called “Healing Crystal or Dildo of Antiquity?” and buy snail serums and vape pens and cheek tint that also raises cancer awareness. Influencers get extra perks if they’re willing to share stories of personal trauma.

Maren’s the self-hating workaholic of the Richual leadership team. Her co-founder Devin, Self Care’s second protagonist, is also a self-hating workaholic, but in more of an Instagram way than a Twitter way: She arrives to comfort Maren over her Twitter trolls after getting out of a yoga class where she does down dog burpees until she screams “I MISS MY DAD” and then blacks out. Devin is the face of Richual, and the “after” picture for posts about their 30-day cleanse. Maren, who is “smart enough to retweet [her] rape threats,” is the brains.

Stein is taking a vicious, unforgiving swipe at the monetization of feminism and wellness and trauma and self-care here. This is the book you should read if your Instagram ads just tried to get you to buy a millennial pink thong that says “pussy grabs back” on the front.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life is a campus novel of enormous restraint and precision. It deals with Wallace, a gay Black biochemistry grad student who is slogging his way painfully through a tedious experiment on nematodes while he skips the funeral for his abusive father. Wallace is depressed and trying very hard not to feel anything at all, and part of what gives Real Life its power is the way the prose, in turn, skirts around Wallace’s feelings. Instead, it gives us his observations, rendered with all the cool detachment he can muster: “The scent of aloe, wet and clear. The sunscreen cool in his palm.”

But Wallace can’t entirely avoid his feelings when he embarks on a tryst with Miller, one of his straight white friends. Over the course of the three-day span that makes up the novel, their affair mingles violence and tenderness, and it’s in this fraught romance that Wallace at last must stop hiding behind his scientific detachment. And Taylor’s prose, in turn, slips inevitably from detached observations into something altogether warmer.

Or What You Will by Jo Walton

Or What You Will is a frothy and playful fantasy novel from Jo Walton that is so much fun to read, it takes a while to realize how existential it is.

It’s narrated by a spirit who is living in the back of the mind of an aging author named Sylvia. The spirit is a character in some of Sylvia’s books, and also a representation of the creative part of her mind. But — crucially — the spirit is also just a spirit, with an ontologically separate existence from Sylvia’s.

Sylvia is reaching the end of her life now, and the spirit is worried that he will die with her. So he wants Sylvia to write them both into the world of a new book, one where they will never die.

My favorite part of Or What You Will is how skillfully it manipulated me. The novel’s final pages are, more or less, a reveal. But Walton had somehow incepted the information that she was gearing up to divulge into my mind over the course of the book, without ever doing anything so clumsy or gauche as to hint at it. When she finally confirmed what she had already somehow pushed me to know, the moment was so cathartic that it made me cry.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Uncanny Valley is a memoir about the tech world, written for liberal arts skeptics. It’s not out to convince us we’re wrong, so much as it aims to convince us we’re not skeptical enough.

Wiener moves to Silicon Valley in 2010 as a bright-eyed young refugee from publishing, looking for a job that will suit her ambitions. Over the course of the decade, she works her way through a series of Bay Area startups, always on the “soft skills” side, where the engineers treat her with amiable condescension. She is excited by tech’s utopian rhetoric and eager to please. One young CEO remarks approvingly that she is “DFTC”: Down For The Cause. Another advises her she should learn JavaScript, and suggests she knock it out in a weekend.

But as Wiener entrenches herself deeper into Silicon Valley, she watches the industry’s ostensible ambitions curdle into something darker. Tech startups, she concludes, are skillful at talking about themselves as scrappy underdogs — but what they are really interested in is acquiring power, and they are pursuing that goal assiduously. And Wiener, whose “soft skills” include a razor-sharp prose style with a cutting eye for detail, shows us the all-too-human costs.


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