Ann Patchett, Bel Canto, best books of 2020, best books of the year, C Pam Zhang, Children of the Land, favorite books, Hamnet, How Much of These Hills is Gold, Kawai Strong Washburn, Lily King, Lydia Yuknavitch, Lynn Steger Strong, Maaza Mengiste, Maggie O'Farrell, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Natalie Bakopoulos, Scorpionfish, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, The Shadow King, Verge, Want, Writers and Lovers
In a tough year, my saving grace was books. I did a lot of yoga, and spent good time with my husband, but books were the best escape from the ugliness of the world. I waited until January 1, 2021 to even consider my favorites, just in case the novel I finished New Year’s Eve (After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Wyld) would vault onto the list. Some of these are a surprise even to myself. Popular choices like Caste by Wilkerson, Leave the World Behind by Alam, and Luster by Leilani are just outside of my top ten. I considered others: Leonard and Hungry Paul by Hession, Real Life by Taylor, Little Weirds by Slate, The Night Watchmen by Erdrich, Horror Stories by Phair… but I stand behind the choices below as the best according to me. They are the books I still think about and will recommend without hesitation. They made me think, laugh, cry, reach out to friends to discuss. I remember where I was while reading, and sometimes recall specific lines, stories or passages. In no set order, these are my favorite books of the year.
Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos
I read this in late November over the Thanksgiving holiday break. I loved the feel of the story, relaxed and contemplative. Mira, returning to Athens after her parents’ death, is rooted and wandering at the same time, moving between the United States and Greece or between towns in Greece, always with a place to land and family or friends to welcome her but never quite at home. I get that: the idea of having a web of connectivity and yet feeling displaced. She is not the only character in motion; the Captain is between the islands and Athens, with family or alone. I loved the way the author developed relationships between the characters, creating plausible suspense, and particularly enjoyed the subplot of Dimitra and Fady.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
With Mussolini’s army threatening Ethiopia, soldier Kidane rushes to set defenses against the coming attack. Fierce and brave Hirut and other women, including Kidane’s wife, Aster, rise to protect their families and neighbors in unexpected and breathtaking ways. I cheered through this book, but was dismayed to think that much of it is based on historical events of cruelty and horror. While rooting for the Ethiopian women, I sympathized with Ettore, a photographer for the Italian army. This is a novel of wit and bravery, strong women, and the terrors of war. It is beautifully written and much-deserving of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist. (I think it should have won.)
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Early in the year, there was quite a bit of hubbub surrounding a certain novel which shall not be named. From lists of books suggested instead of the offending book, I learned about Children of the Land, a memoir about the author’s immigration experience and his father’s decades-long attempts to be with his family in the United States. The descriptions of being separated, and of the processes our government forces citizens to endure to move across the Mexican border to see family, are excruciating and infuriating to read. How and why do we do this to people? I was heartbroken and spitting mad on behalf of Marcelo and his family, particularly his mother, who seemed to bear the brunt of the trauma. An illuminating memoir written with love and frankness.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Just before the lockdown in March, I checked out a stack of ten books from the library. How was I going to read ten books in three weeks? Well, thank goodness I got that many because I had them for about three months. My favorite novel of the stack was Writers & Lovers; I read it in a single day and then had the luxury of revisiting a few passages over the course of several weeks. Casey is struggling: stuck in a bad living situation, not loving her job, eager to write and not sure how to pull it off. She meets two comically different men and makes a serious of bad choices (in hindsight, of course) in her relationships with them. Without spoiling the end I will say that it All Works Out, though maybe not as expected. This was a nearly perfect read; I thought I would never love another Lily King book like I loved Euphoria, and I was wrong.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
This was also in my Lockdown Stack and it was an absolute surprise, a hopeful and emotional story about family, identity and belonging. Seven-year-old Noa falls overboard on a family cruise and is carried to safety by a shark; so begins his legendary status as a healer ordained by the Hawaiian gods. You can imagine how it might feel to have a hero for a son and brother, and the later story examines the limits and constraints of family ties, the idea of a homeland and feelings of being rooted to a place. I cried at the end for about five different reasons, primarily because I didn’t want to stop reading.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
This novel conjures memories of gut-churning anxiety as I worried how the characters would survive. It is raw with emotion and sharp with edges. It is scrappy, gritty and lean. I don’t want to give away the story; I read with no knowledge of what was going to happen and the experience of discovery seems important. What I will say: you can’t imagine the limits of what people can do, see, or endure until they do, see or endure them. The tiger symbolism is powerful and beautiful. The characters are crisp and the plot surprises again and again. A breathtaking read.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
How on earth did I go so many years without reading this book? Of all of my favorites, this was perhaps the finest crafting of characters and relationships. To sympathize with kidnappers, to know what was inevitable and hope that it wasn’t, to watch it all unfold, was so refreshing. Is that the word? I don’t know. I read this as part of a work book group and enjoyed the discussions so much. We talked about music as a unifying force, communication when you don’t have shared language, the development and strengthening of love and friendships in times of crisis. I’m still furious about the ending.
Verge by Lydia Yuknavitch
A gut punch of a collection. I usually read so many short stories, but this year only managed twelve collections. This was hands-down my favorite, and I almost skipped it! To think. Here’s where I will give a nod to David Naimon and his extraordinary podcast, Between the Covers, which I discovered midsummer. I learned that I could listen while working and absorb/appreciate the intricate conversations without compromising my work. It is now my favorite part of working from home, which I am lucky to do. I have plans this month to revisit a few favorite episodes (Fernanda Melchor, Ayad Akhtar, Jenny Erpenbeck) and then deep dive into the archives and listen from the beginning. Back to Verge: I listened to David’s conversation with Ms. Yuknavitch and was so mesmerized by her words that I knew I had to read the book. It is so good; she is a genius with language. The stories are often brutal but so well-crafted. I need to revisit her other books, and listen again to the podcast.
Want by Lynn Steger Strong
In August we rented a gorgeous lakeside cabin with my siblings and escaped. The house was so large, we each had a sleeping bed and a reading or napping bed. I brought a hefty stack of books and spent a good chunk of the vacation on my reading bed; Want was the best book of the lot and I knew right away that it would be a favorite for the whole year. I don’t have children but I identified so strongly with the main character, and was impressed by the clarity of the children’s voices. In my Goodreads review: “I can feel the feelings of the narrator. I can put myself in her place and understand.” A deceptively simple novel, plot-wise, written with nuance, precision, and honesty.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
If I am being honest, this is the best book I read all year. It is nearly perfect. Based loosely on the family of William Shakespeare, we imagine the tragedy of the death of his son Hamnet (Hamlet) during the plague. The shining character is Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, a doting mother who maintains independence despite living in her husband’s parents’ house with a temperamental father-in-law and opinionated mother-in-law. The author’s descriptions are paramount; there is a passage in which she details the migration of a flea from Italy to England. It is astonishing, creative, creepy, and well-placed as a turn in the narrative. The entire novel was a triumph, of character development, plot shifts and craftsmanship. If you haven’t yet read it, you must.
And so a great year of reading concludes and I look forward to what will come in 2021. I hope to read more short stories and essays, and explore the backlist of some authors I enjoy — Jenny Erpenbeck, Lydia Yuknavitch and Maggie O’Farrell come to mind. I have grand plans to read some classics; we will see how that goes. I’m always looking for book suggestions; please feel free to comment with your own favorite books, or those you are excited for in the months to come. Happy reading!