Like most, a good chunk of my time otherwise not doing anything in 2020 was spent with books and graphic novels. I always feel like I could be reading more, but I actually felt pretty accomplished by the end of the year, reading about 20 novels and non-fiction books (and a bunch more in the comics realm, but more about that in another post). Like anything else, it was a bit of a mixed bag, but I thought I did a pretty good job curating things I really wanted to read, so I thought it might be interesting to run through the list and share some recommendations!
Normal People – Sally Rooney
You may have heard about the Hulu miniseries this novel has already become, about the on-again off-again relationship of two very different high school (then college) kids who have more in common than they think, but if you haven’t seen or read either, I highly recommend starting with the book. The miniseries is actually a really good adaptation (likely due to the involvement of the author in the process, not to mention the keen eye of Lenny Abrahamson, who directed half the series (with Hattie Macdonald directing the latter half) and has done good work adapting dramatic novels in the past. So something as thoroughly satisfying as the miniseries may turn you off from also reading the novel, and that would be a shame because it’s a damn fine novel, most likely the best thing I read all year. Plus, going into series knowing the characters of Marianne and Connell intimately added another layer for me.
The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Trilogy #3) – N.K. Jemisin
My relationship with the Broken Earth trilogy and N.K. Jemisin’s writing has been a little bumpy, if I’m being honest. I appreciate her skill as a fantasy writer, and it hits me in flashes when I’m reading her work, but I’ve honestly had trouble putting it all together and getting excited about it as I’m reading her novels. There are moments of brilliance all throughout this trilogy, a climate fiction series about a world constantly ravaged by climate change events and the fantastical “Orogenes” that control energy and cause/prevent earthquakes in order to keep the world from completely self-destructing, and there’s an inherent brilliance to how it’s all structured and how confident Jemisin is in presenting a world that’s both very familiar and very foreign and different. There are excellent, relevant themes about climate change, the destructive nature of white supremacy, and more personal ones about motherhood and family, and these all three books are complex, intricate master classes in modern science fiction and fantasy literature, you just have to put yourself in the right mood for what these are, as I often had a tough time getting into them.
Devolution – Max Brooks
Max Brooks doesn’t write novels that often, so I was really excited for Devolution, hoping it would do for the monster genre (in this case Bigfoot) what World War Z had done for the zombie genre years ago. World War Z gave us a whole new perspective on what zombie fiction could be, and while Devolution applies a lot of the same principles to this story about a hyper-modern micro-community that gets attacked by sasquatch-like creatures, I can’t say I was anywhere near as enthralled as I was hoping to be. It’s an entertaining horror story, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed my time with it, so perhaps I was simply expecting too much. Not every book can be genre-defining, I suppose, but when you write novels as sporadically as Max Brooks does, you can’t blame your readers for wanting more than a generic monster thriller.
Ask Again, Yes – Mary Beth Keane
Ask Again, Yes is similar in certain ways to Normal People, in that it is a complicated, emotional love story between two characters, but where Normal People charms you and draws you in with the relative simplicity of its premise and plot, Ask Again wows you with a much more complex multi-generational plot-driven epic about love, family, mental illness, class, and so much more. Like Normal People, I can visualize this story as I’m reading it (but I don’t know what brave soul would dare take on trying to film its complex, multi-generational story). It doubles down on the themes of forbidden love a lot more than Normal People, a much more modernistic take on the subject, to the point where even the author accepts the comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. This has all the makings of a novel that could easily become a classic, and it’s one of the best books I read in 2020.
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
Rounding out my trilogy, of sorts, of family drama and forbidden romance is this multi-generational story about African-American twins who lose each other and wind up living very different lives. Taking place over the course of decades in which America’s racial fabric changed drastically in the 20th century, we follow Desiree and Stella as they go through very different journeys, as one of them leads her life passing as a white person, unbeknownst to her new family, or her old one, who never stops searching for her. I must admit that I had trouble getting into this one, despite its excellent premise and all of its buzz, but there are some twists and turns late in the book that are well worth the setup. I don’t know if I’d concur with those that put it up there are one of the best books of 2020, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
Fall; or Dodge In Hell – Neal Stephenson
I don’t think I have a more complicated relationship with an author than I do with Neal Stephenson. Some of his work has been eye-openingly brilliant to me, notably Seveneves, which may be my favourite science fiction novel of all time. But just about everything he writes is also overwrought and in desperate need of an editor who’s willing to say no to him on occasion. None of that is more apparent than in Fall, which clocks in at nearly 900 pages, which may actually be on the shorter side for him. And just like a lot of his previous work, about a third of it should have probably been left on the cutting room floor. Despite its very apparently and heavy flaws, there’s so much about Fall that I actually liked. The book is about a billionaire game developer (the titular Dodge), whose mind us uploaded to the cloud upon his tragic and sudden death, after which the book follows two threads. The good: how society is affected by the ostensive confirmation of an afterlife, albeit one created by man. This is where Stephenson excels. He portrays a near-future world (particularly America) that becomes different in sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic ways. His willingness to go places other science fiction authors wouldn’t dare with such force and precision is what I appreciate about him. However that also gives us the bad: a meandering, often vague exploration of what the mind would do given a blank canvas to create the universe that lasts hundreds of pages too long. We see what Dodge’s mind sees in the abstract, we see him build his world from scratch and then fight for it in what was clearly an attempt to parallel the bible and works such as Paradise Lost, but it’s just way too much and way too boring when the other half of the story is so much more interesting. Stephenson has been doing this for years and it won’t change, so you can only hope that the next one will be better.
The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis
Hear me out: donald trump is bad. Of course we all know this, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explain it more succinctly and dramatically than Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, a book about the clear and present dangers of an incompetent, likely malevolent government that has no interest in running a government and its agencies the way they were intended to be run; for the people, and not the personal gain of the people in charge. I know there’s a sentiment that all politicians in America are bad, but there are things that the government does that most people don’t understand, including those that were put in charge of those things in 2016. Things that would lead to widespread suffering or even destruction if they were mishandled. Lewis demonstrates this through interviews with people are various departments that handle things like maintaining a deadly nuclear arsenal, warning people about natural disasters and even feeding millions of Americans, and contrasts it with the goals of the trump administration, which included weeding out people who believed in climate change from positions within the federal government and using its agencies to amass wealth and power in the private sector. However bad you think it is, it’s actually so much worse. And it was especially eye-opening to read back in the spring of 2020 when those failures were just starting to be on display with the COVID pandemic, a topic which Lewis hadn’t even really considered. But the parallels are right there. If you’re curious about what the government actually does to help you, read this book.
Best. Movie. Year. Ever. – Brian Raftery
I was skeptical about a book positing that any particular year in movies is the “best” year, but Brian Raftery makes a very strong case for 1999, a year on the cusp of major change in Hollywood with a shocking amount of hits and influential films. I still don’t think you could definitively say any year is the “best” for movies, and I have problems with Raftery’s conclusion that the industry started a long downfall after this, and with how he ignored what was also a tremendous and transformative year for television, but I came out of this book appreciating the topic almost as a style of debate, and would love to see more years in Hollywood broached this way. And entertaining read if you’re into film history.
Dead Astronauts – Jeff Vandermeer &
Borne – Jeff Vandermeer
It’s hard to put into words the feelings that Jeff Vandermeer made me feel the first time I ever picked up one of his books. Annihilation is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. It’s so unique, and once you pick it up it’s hard to put down. Even its unfortunately mediocre followups, Control and Acceptance. Just look at the Alex Garland film adaption of the book. I thought that movie was nothing like how I envisioned Annhilation, but Garland said that the movie basically came to him in a dream, and I can totally get that. That’s the kind of effect I feel Jeff Vandermeer can have through his work, and I’ve been chasing that ever since. And in certain ways, it’s almost there in both 2017’s Borne, and its 2019 followup, Dead Astronauts, two bizarre, unique post-apocalyptic worlds that feature both advanced technology and seemingly mythical creatures. Both having a lot to say about the direction the planet is heading. But ultimately, both falling short of achieving what Vandermeer did with Annihilation, unfortunately. Neither book made me feel what I’ve been chasing, but they might still be worth checking out.
Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up – Tom Phillips
I know we’re a long way’s away from having parties again, but if we were able to get together tomorrow, the first thing I’d annoyingly talk about at some sort of dinner party or get together is the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias I learned about in this book. It’s one of the many anecdotes about human stupidity and the way it repeats itself throughout history that Tom Phillips shares in the book, from Lucy, the early primate that fell out of a tree, to, of course, donald trump, the primate that somehow became an American President, Humans is full of interesting anecdotes presented in a way that’s often laugh-out-loud funny and easy and fun to read. And I will forever be grateful to it for teaching me to be at least 10% more annoying at parties, that is if we ever get to go to parties ever again.
- A Very Punchable Face – Colin Jost: As an SNL fan, I had a lot of fun reading about Colin Jost’s life and all the behind-the-scenes stories from his many years on the show.
- The Library Book – Susan Orlean: I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this knowledge I now possess about the Los Angeles Public library and the fire that almost destroyed it many years ago, but I’m glad I have it. If you’re looking for a lighter True Crime style story, this is a good one.
- Movies (and Other Things) – Shea Serrano: A relatively personal collection of movie essays, I would only recommend it if you’re aware of the author, as I am from the podcast world, but it’s still a fun read about recent pop culture in the world of movies.
- White Fragility – Robin Diangelo: Among the books that were all the rage in the wake of the latest BLM movement last year, I would say this is a relatively easy read that most people should check out as a starting point to racial allyship.
- Invisible Women – Caroline Criago Perez: Many of the statistics on the gender gap presented in this book are eye-opening and will make you angry, however the whole thing winds up being pretty dry and statistics oriented and lacks a proper through-line to encourage action or to be accessible to the people who likely need to read it the most. But if you’re interesting in the many, many ways women are screwed over all around our male-dominated capitalist society, I’d recommend it.
- Calypso – David Sedaris: I’ve been told this isn’t the best starting point for people who want to check out Sedaris, so I’m going to give him another shot, but to be blunt, I wasn’t too impressed with the mostly out of touch perspectives of a crotchety old man who seemingly hates everything. I get that it’s a bit, but perhaps I wasn’t in the right headspace for it when I read it.