Books

The Best Books of 2020

According to Slate’s book critic.

The covers of some of the books on the list.
Photo illustration by Slate

This terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year was not actually that rough on books. Sales throughout the early months of quarantine were up over 2019’s numbers, even when you figured in the sizable new market for educational titles in parents scrambling to home-school their children. However, the pandemic has delivered body blows to bookstores, some of them mortal. The long-term effects of this loss on a system in which local booksellers and publicity tours remain one of the best ways to launch a debut author won’t be clear for a while. When book sales were up in 2020, the bump went to known quantities, the established authors who already rule the bestseller lists. Nevertheless, many people took the pandemic as an occasion to get some reading done, and fortunately, there were plenty of splendid new books to feed that urge.

Fiction

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

At times this autobiographical novel reads more like a collection of essays than a seamless work of fiction, but that doesn’t make it any less engrossing. The narrator, an American-born playwright whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, recounts how what once felt like a simple, unselfconscious American identity became complicated after the rise of the Taliban and 9/11. There are some familiar incidents—an edgy encounter with a state trooper who wants to discuss Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, for example—but the most fascinating parts of this novel describe the narrator’s complicated relationships with Pakistani American elders: a fabulously wealthy patron who makes him financially independent of his parents but ambivalent about his own privilege and, most of all, his father, a celebrated cardiologist, who forms an irrational admiration for Donald Trump. (Read an interview with the author.)

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In this Borgesian novel, a man describes his contented existence in an infinite mansion composed of room after room lined with marble statues. The lower levels of this house are flooded by ocean tides from which he fishes and gathers seaweed for food, and the upper levels are filled with clouds and seabirds. The only other living human being is the Other, a man who calls the narrator Piranesi and who conducts arcane investigations of the house’s contents. In the course of this novel, Piranesi gradually recovers memories of his past while evading a newcomer whom the Other insists is up to no good. Despite this high-concept premise, Piranesi himself is anything but a plot mechanism. His love of the house and the meaning he finds in his humble life within it give this unusual novel a radiant, gentle, melancholy heart. (Read the review.)

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Set in the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn in 1969, this comic novel is rooted in a milieu much like the Red Hook neighborhood where McBride’s parents founded the modest church he attends to this day. The action hangs on an inexplicable act: an alcoholic 71-year-old deacon of the Five Ends Baptist Church shoots the ear off a 19-year-old drug dealer he once coached on the Cause Houses baseball team. The reasons for this act are unknown, and the repercussions unexpected. There are Italian American gangsters and the extremely gossipy members of the church’s multiracial congregation, as well as local characters with nicknames like Sportcoat and Hot Sausage. There’s an implacable hit woman and not one but two buried treasures. But instead of a gritty, bleak, tensely plotted noir, McBride renders Deacon King Kong as a warmly humane portrait of a community, whose members drive one another crazy but come through in a pinch—a place where the worth of every individual is never in doubt. (Read the review.)

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Emira is black, 26, working as a babysitter for a well-off white family in Philadelphia, and freaking out about the fact that she’s the last of her friends to get a “real job.” She also really loves taking care of kids, particularly Briar, the older of her two charges, a bright, extraordinary 3-year-old whose influencer mom finds her baffling. When a security guard in a high-end grocery store hassles Emira while she’s on the job, the young woman suddenly finds herself at the nexus of a lot of other people’s racial fantasies: friends who urge her to sue, a new beau films a viral video of the encounter, and her boss, who becomes obsessed with redeeming herself in Emira’s eyes. This smart, astute novel absolutely nails the way that politics and the internet combine to turn relationships and interactions into performances for an invisible but omnipresent audience, while reality itself becomes maddeningly elusive.

Summer by Ali Smith

Beginning with 2016’s Autumn, the Scottish novelist Smith has written four seasonal novels at (approximately) yearly intervals, concluding with Summer this year. These remarkable books have aimed to depict characters responding to political and social events concurrent with their publication: the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the Grenfell Tower fire, migrant detention camps, and, finally, the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout, an assortment of characters deal with both immediate crises and eternal conundrums involving love, family, work, and art. (The work of a gifted but relatively unknown real-life artist is featured in each book as well.) The whole cast is united in Summer, fulfilling the four novels’ overall mood of Shakespearean comedy, in which rage, horror, and hatred must inevitably give way to the cyclical sway of life, love, and joy. Few writers can look at the worst of us straight in the eye and still find credible cause for hope. Let’s just say that Smith’s fiction is one of the things that helped me make it through the past four years.

Nonfiction

Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs

Giggs had me from her first chapter, which includes a bravura description of “whale fall,” the process by which the body of a dead whale slowly sinks to the bottom of the deep ocean, at each level attracting new and ever stranger scavengers and transforming into something unrecognizable—a true sea change. This exploration of the nature of whales and humanity’s relationship to them makes numerous important points. Despite a rebound in whale populations after environmental restrictions imposed on hunting in the 1970s, the animals still suffer from man-made hazards; so much chemical runoff collects in their blubber, for example, that two dead humpbacks Giggs learns of had to be classified as toxic waste. Also, a single whale absorbs as much environmental carbon as a thousand trees. But as much as Giggs seeks to caution us about our tendency to romanticize these magnificent creatures as a source of unspoiled wonder, wonder is exactly what pours out of every page of this gorgeously written and daringly imagined book.

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

The large, liberal-minded, culturally sophisticated, and apparently fun-loving Galvin family of suburban Colorado Springs raised 12 children in the decades after World War II. Six of Don and Mimi Galvin’s 10 sons would go on to develop schizophrenia, an experience made even more painful by the erroneous psychiatric beliefs of that time, which blamed the disease on “schizophrenogenic” mothers. This deeply reported family saga discusses the unprecedented opportunity the Galvins presented to scientists seeking the genetic roots of schizophrenia but is at its best when accounting for how every member of the family was affected by it, especially the two youngest siblings, both girls. Every family generates a complex emotional calculus of love and resentment, connection and independence, and Kolker sensitively traces the various ways each Galvin responded to their unusual circumstances. (Read an interview with the author, or read an excerpt.)

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Obama’s gifts as a writer are well-known, and they’re amply displayed in this first volume of his political memoirs. It contains intimate, beautifully rendered moments like his emergency visit to his dying grandmother’s bedside on the eve of his election to the presidency in 2008. But at heart, this is the story of what it’s like to be the president of the United States on a day-to-day basis. In his typically thoughtful, no-drama style, Obama details all the twists and turns and nuts and bolts of pulling the economy out of the worst recession in decades, getting the Affordable Care Act passed, and responding to crises overseas. If you relished that supreme political procedural, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, then boy, is this the book for you. A Promised Land is notably free, for a politician’s memoir, of grandstanding, vaporous rhetoric, false modesty, and self-importance. Instead, it comes across as a sincere, scrupulously honest account of what it was like to play an epochal role in American history while doing one of the hardest jobs in the world. (Read the review of its exterior. Read the review of its contents.)

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

In 1985, Trethewey’s mother was murdered by her stepfather in her home on the titular street in a suburb of Atlanta. Trethewey was 19 at the time, no longer living with her mother, and she would soon leave the city and find her way in the world as a writer, becoming the U.S. poet laureate. She vowed not to return to the area again, but a great job offer lured her back, and this riveting memoir is the result of her efforts to come to terms with her past and do justice to her mother’s life. Hers was a history hemmed in on many sides by the boundaries of race and gender. (Trethewey’s mother was Black; her father was white.) Like the very best contemporary memoirs, this book will swallow you whole and spit you out hours later, shaken and moved.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

A small cohort of historians and intellectuals has been referring to America’s racial caste system for years, feeling that term is more effective than racism, which many Americans prefer to regard as a personal failing rather than an institutional force. Wilkerson brings to bear the formidable interviewing and storytelling talents she displayed in 2010’s The Warmth of Other Suns to popularize this reframing of race, a social construction with no biological validity. It’s a move that places American racism in the context of other heritable hierarchies around the globe, especially the Indian caste system, although Wilkerson is careful not to conflate the two. This important book wrenches our established way of thinking about race out of its rut and encourages us to see it anew, with a fresh understanding of the damage it has done and the potential for change.

Caste

By Isabel Wilkerson. Random House.

Now read Dan Kois’ list of the best books of the year and more coverage of the best of 2020.

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