The Best Books We Read in 2020

We write this post every year, but this year it has a little more meaning. I don’t know about you, but reading was the only thing that got me through this year. We love television, of course, but reading was the only activity absorbing enough to get me to stop doomscrolling. So here are the books that got us through quarantine–the best books we read during this cosmic joke of a year.

Janes

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

A dystopian thriller that reads like an elegy, this recently translated novel takes place on an island where the inhabitants lose their memories of objects or concepts one by one, and anyone who retains their memories is taken by the totalitarian Memory Police. I read a bunch of recommended end-of-the-world novels at the start of quarantine, like Ling Ma’s Severance (which was also very good), but none of them hit me quite as hard as The Memory Police, which perfectly captures the feeling of watching the entire world slowly slip away from you. 

Luster – Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s first novel, which follows an young black woman who gets entangled in a white couple’s open marriage and becomes a mentor for their young black daughter, is bitingly funny and incisive about race, marriage, and the aimless malaise of young adulthood. Leilani’s prose is lush and beautiful, with a few well-placed long sentences at pivotal moments that show she’s in total control of her craft. Plus, she wrote an essay about looking for God at Comic Con, so I basically love her. 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

The first South Korean novel to win the International Man Booker Prize, The Vegetarian is a profoundly disquieting fable about a woman who, to the dismay of her husband and family, suddenly refuses to eat meat in an attempt to assert control of her body in a patriarchal world. (If you saw the French movie Raw from a few years ago, it’s sort of the inverse of that. And if you haven’t seen Raw, you should.) It’s a fascinating project on its own, made even more fascinating by the controversy over its translation, which really gets to the heart of the purpose and philosophy of translating literature.

After Claude – Iris Owens

I had never heard of this book, or its author, until I emailed Lithub for a personalized quarantine book recommendation, and now it’s one of my favorites! After Harriet gets dumped and evicted by her pretentious boyfriend Claude, she wanders around 1970s New York and has a breakdown (and maybe joins a sex cult?) in the Chelsea Hotel. It’s light on plot but heavy on hilariously acid one-liners, like “Claude pretended not to hear me, an act of male intelligence that never fails to impress me.” Also, Owens seems like she was a character unto herself; she made her living writing erotic novels–under the penname name Harriet, funnily enough–and the very admiring introduction to After Claude was written by Emily Prager, a fellow author and old friend with whom Iris had a huge falling out. “I can’t remember exactly why Iris and I weren’t speaking,” Prager writes, “but I know I was in good company.” 

Tampa – Alissa Nutting

Based on the real-life case of Debra Lafave–whom Nutting knew in high school–Tampa follows a beautiful young blonde woman who gets a job as a middle school teacher in order to seduce pubescent boys. As was the case with Lolita, the controversial nature of the subject matter often eclipses discussion of the author’s craft–Nutting is brutally funny and frank about female sexuality, and her narration perfectly inhabits the warped mind of her Lafave stand-in, whose exaggerated performance of “perfect” femininity is a pitch-perfect satire of the value society places on women’s beauty.

Infinity Net – Yayoi Kusama

I don’t often read nonfiction, but after seeing a couple of exhibitions by Yayoi Kusama, I wanted to hear what she had to say for herself. The book provides insight into a fascinating mind, from her explanation of her signature polka dots as an obliteration of the self to her phallic sculptures as “Psychosomatic Art,” as a means of “healing [her] feelings of disgust towards sex.” She also describes her remarkable correspondence and friendship with Georgia O’Keeffe as a young unknown and throws heavy shade at Andy Warhol for maybe plagiarizing her (!). While occasionally the quotations from her reviews feel superfluous, it’s worth reading for her musings about her art and childhood, her deadpan humor, and her original poetry, which I couldn’t find anywhere else.

My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

I wrote in our Favorite Books by Black Authors post

“Biting and hilarious, this modern noir follows a practical young Nigerian woman whose sister has a nasty habit of killing her boyfriends. It’s structured like a thriller, but subverts thriller tropes at every turn, with delightful results.”

The Wallcreeper – Nell Zink

Zink originally wrote this short novel in order to illustrate the challenges of anal sex from a woman’s POV to her pen pal, Jonathan Franzen (probably after reading the ridiculous anal sex scene in Freedom?). But this slim novel is about so much more than that–in just over a hundred pages, Zink covers a miscarriage, a failing marriage that hinges on the survival of a lost bird (a wallcreeper), and then some minor eco-terrorism. It’s funny, irreverent, and desperately sad when it wants to be.

Best Quarantine Re-Reads:

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

Yes, yes, everyone told you to read this during quarantine, if only because it’s about a woman who doesn’t leave her apartment for a year, but it’s really that great! It was one of our favorite books of 2018, and I reread it all the time, even before COVID.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

A stone-cold classic by an underrated–although re-emerging!–author. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Jackson’s last and best novel: funny and witchy, with an unforgettable narrator and one of the best opening paragraphs of all time.

Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante

I’m not going to be one of those contrarians who says that Days of Abandonment is *even better* than the Neapolitan Quartet–they’re both perfect versions of what they are! Where the Neapolitan Novels are sweeping epics, Days of Abandonment, which follows a woman whose husband suddenly leaves her for a teenager, is an intimate, concise character study of a psyche pushed to its limits.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Both Nerdy Spice and I read this in classes with James Wood (the critic, not the actor/pedophile), and we both re-read it in quarantine, because it’s just that good! This study of power and cruelty is technically a classic, but should be talked about much more often.

Nerdy Spice

Abigail – Magda Szabo

Abigail is a spoiled teen girl who has to leave her comfortable lifestyle and boyfriend behind to go to a strict boarding school in the middle of World War II, and rebels against the restrictive environment, with unexpected consequences. The novel would be an excellent read at any time for its portrayal of her coming-of-age. But I also happened to read it right at the beginning of lockdown, and it read like a parable about the lives of myself and many of my friends and family during Covid. White-collar workers were stuck at home and it was HORRIBLE and terrifying and all our pleasures in life had suddenly vanished… and even though I knew other people were on the front lines giving their lives to save others, I couldn’t help but grieve so deeply for my normal, privileged life while cocooned (relatively) safely in my apartment.

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

A young Bangladeshi woman from a small village marries an ambitious but hapless man who brings her to London. She’s always been brought up to accept her fate, but her new life calls that into question more and more. It’s a sprawling novel that deals with immigration, with the lives of women in Bangladesh and in the Bangladeshi community in London, with politics and racism, with parenting and with professional ambition, with grief and with love. But at heart, and most movingly, it’s about the deep change within one person who learns to recognize her own autonomy and power.

Fleishman is in Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner

This book totally gripped me from beginning to end… and by the end it made me so angry. I don’t want to give too much away because, unlike some critical reviews I’ve seen, I actually found the book quite surprising. But the basic premise is that a divorced man who’s always been a great dad suddenly finds himself taking care of his kids full-time because his ex-wife is nowhere to be found. It’s very funny and sharp, and it takes this turn into being about modern parenting in a way that kind of blew my mind.

Meridian – Alice Walker

I had never read Alice Walker’s wonderful novel about an activist so passionate she drives her body nearly to destruction for her cause. Meridian is a wonderful, complicated character, with her passion for justice and her messed-up personal life. She’s detached from everyone she might have loved because she has devoted her heart and body so completely to her cause. And Alice Walker’s prose is incredibly powerful, unsurprisingly. This novel wasn’t frequently recommended in this summer’s flurry of listicles (ourselves included!) about racial justice reading, but it should have been. Perhaps the problem is that Walker has some abhorrent views, but they weren’t on display in the book as far as I could tell, and it was a moving read about the fight for gender and racial justice.

Uncanny Valley – Anna Weiner

Anna Weiner’s outsider memoir about the tech world–like me, she’s a writer who ended up working in tech because that was where the jobs were to be had–is so funny and true. She coyly declines to name the places she’s talking about, but she went from a startup called Oyster that was later acquired by Google, to Github, and as she’s assimilated into the system, she describes and dissects its mores and delusions incisively. It’s so smart and so funny–and it was like reading about my own life.

Honorable Mentions:

Emma – Jane Austen

Like the faux-intellectual airhead I am, I read this just ahead of my tickets to see the movie in the theaters. (Remember the theaters? Sob.) Knightley is kind of creepy to me — he has basically been negging Emma since she was a teenager, no wonder she fell in love with him when she was Of Marriageable Age? — but my sentimental heart still totally bought into the romance, and Jane Austen is always irresistibly funny.

Her 37th Year, An Index – Suzanne Scanlon

A slim and delightful read, indexing the various parts of the heroine’s life in (you guessed it) her 37th year. Funny and modern and relatable.

Jane Steele – Lyndsay Faye

My Sister, the Serial Killer isn’t the only excellent novel I read this year about a female serial killer. Jane Steele isn’t the kind of thing we usually write about on the blog, being more of a commercial novel–but it’s excellent. It’s a period retelling of Jane Eyre, if Jane had responded to her abuse by becoming a serial killer.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

I had never read this either! Embarrassing, I know. It transformed my understanding of various aspects of US history.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

I loved Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion but had always skipped this one based on the title, which made it sound terribly uninteresting. Big mistake! It’s about a set of friends who meet at arts camp and stay friends for life, and it’s moving, witty, and impossible to put down.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

A novel in short stories that traces the generations of a family starting with two half-sisters, throughout the history of slavery in both the U.S. and Ghana. The intricacy and breadth of it is astounding, and each short story manages to make you care about a new protagonist in the space of just a few pages.

Asleep – Banana Yoshimoto

I read this collection, three short pieces about young women who have magical relationships with sleep, many times when I was younger. But I reread it this year and it remains as good as I remembered, which isn’t always true. It’s told in a delicate, distinctive, metaphor-driven voice and the stories are beautifully simple on the surface, but yield complexity as you dive in.

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