Books

The Best Books of 2020

Ten picks from a reader who only wanted literary escapes.

Photo illustration by Slate

Please forgive me, authors of hard-hitting nonfiction investigations, or dark personal sagas, or intense emotional thrillers set in contemporary New York. This year, all I craved in my reading was escape. I couldn’t focus on a book unless it got me out of my head and into someone else’s, or out of my house and into another world. It was fine if the place I was escaping to was worse than America, 2020, as long as it was different. These are the 10 books that whisked me away.

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The Animals in That Country

A wildly inventive dystopian adventure, in which a mysterious pandemic causes humans to be able to understand the speech of animals. As an irascible grandmother follows her son across the Australian Outback, she’s tormented by the birds overhead, bugged by the ants underfoot, and protected by a dingo who wouldn’t mind becoming the alpha. Both a hell of a ride and a revealing thought experiment about our place in the natural world.

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Barn 8

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Another story of the perils of bridging the animal-human divide, this pitch-black comedy of poultry liberation follows two rogue egg auditors who attempt to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night. Everything goes wrong, and soon both humans and chickens are running around like … well, you know.

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Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture

It’s true that this book might as well have been written specifically for teenage me, who so idolized R.E.M. that he viewed Athens as a kind of artistic Shangri-La. But Grace Elizabeth Hale’s engagingly written history is more than a portrait of a college town’s most famous college rockers: It will introduce even the most knowledgeable music lover to a dozen or more bands that put the passions and politics of their members into action, and it makes an innovative argument about what it takes for a city to foster creativity in its citizens. (Read an excerpt.)

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F*ckface and Other Stories

A razor-sharp collection about life in the Appalachians. The title story is a tiny masterpiece of minimum-wage office politics and queer longing. Another story, a surprisingly tender romance, kicks off with this instant-classic opening line: “The Holiday Inn Express on Richland Skyway seemed like as good a place as any for Margaret Price to maybe, possibly, stick her finger up a guy’s butthole.”

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Homie

A book of poems as vibrant as its neon-green cover and as warm and welcoming as its title. (That the book has another, secret title is the first of hundreds of sly jokes—but not really jokes—dotting its pages.) Danez Smith’s poems can be heart-wrenching and angry, or funny and savvy, or sometimes all of these at once, as in “Self-Portrait as ’90s R&B Video,” in which the narrator finds themself “opening doors in slow motion” and “wearing loose white silks/ in rooms packed with wind machines.”

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Year of Keeping Bees

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Frustrated at her job and missing a connection to the natural world, an office drone installs a hive of honeybees in her Oxford backyard. The result is a winning combination of history, nature writing, seat-of-your-pants improvisation, and love story.

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums

Of course you know about the penises. If you’ve ever been to Reykjavik, you heard about the Icelandic Phallological Museum, where the wangs of countless species are displayed. But Iceland is the home of countless DIY exhibits—from Petra’s Stone Collection in Stodvarfjordur to the Sea Monster Museum in Bildudalur. This lyrical book is half travel guide, half inquiry into the joy of collecting—and a true original.

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Nothing to See

A meditation on surveillance capitalism, an empathetic story of life on the margins, and a science-fiction creepfest all in one, this story of Peggy and Greta—who sometimes are Margaret—is the most uncanny book I read in this, the uncanniest of years. Eventually American publishers will figure out that the New Zealand novelist Pip Adam is a stone-cold genius, but until then, order her book straight from the Kiwi source.

Nothing to See

By Pip Adam. Victoria University Press.

$30 from Victoria University Press
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The Office of Historical Corrections

Danielle Evans’ title novella follows a smart, serious federal employee in the post-Trump years as she works to reengage public trust in the concept of truth. It’s a remarkable tale of racial resentment and the weight of history, and it anchors an engrossing collection that finds new ways to tell the oldest American story.

Or What You Will

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The narrator of this witty meta-fantasy is a real character. In fact, he’s been many characters in many novels, all written by Sylvia, the author in whose brain he’s lived for decades. This muse knows that when Sylvia, 73, goes, so does he, so as she begins work on a new book, he’s set his sights on something bigger: a way to bring Sylvia along with him into the novel. Jo Walton’s ode to the mystery of inspiration and the pleasures of fantasy is a wondrous reminder of the joys of getting out of your own head and diving headlong into a story.

Now read Slate book critic Laura Miller’s list of the best books of the year and more coverage of the best of 2020.


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