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One of the little-discussed effects of the pandemic has been a sustained growth in the sales of hardcover fiction, which I’m going to use as an excuse for the slight preponderance of fiction on this list. What’s behind this unexpected boon to the book business? I won’t presume to say definitively. Along with the equally unforeseen labor shortage, the public’s increased interest in reading books seems a manifestation of some significant change in American society, the nature of which is still unclear. It’s not just that people have “more time” to read. It’s that they seem to be reassessing the ways they were spending their time before the coronavirus changed everything. One thing a lot of us want to do more of is read books. Here are the 10 I most enjoyed this year.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Tookie, a tough Ojibwe woman working in an independent bookstore much like the one the Pulitzer-winning Erdrich herself owns in Minneapolis, believes the store to be haunted by the ghost of its most annoying customer, a Native wannabe who died reading a lethal sentence in a cursed book. But this is just one of the problems Tookie’s got on her hands in 2020, as her tranquil life married to the tribal police officer who once arrested her for stealing a corpse (she was high, and fulfilling the request of a scheming crush) is disrupted first by the arrival of his daughter with a newborn baby, then by the pandemic, and then finally by the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. This deceptively casual novel is a feast of deadpan Native humor, bookish lore, everyday mysticism, intergenerational friction, history, and politics, the best book yet about the mess that was 2020.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
The Hildebrandts are a consummately middle-ish family—middle class, middle American, Midwestern—living through the wrenching social change of the early 1970s in a suburb of Chicago. The source of this novel’s spell lies in how richly each family member is drawn, from Russ, the minister father infatuated with one of his flock, to Marion, his seemingly dowdy wife who harbors a terrifying secret ferocity, to princessy daughter Becky, setting her cap at the already-taken coolest boy in the church’s youth group, to borderline sociopathic son Perry, who sells pot to his classmates to fund his own habit. Each of these characters struggles to reconcile their desires with moral codes in flux and fraught beliefs about sin and redemption. (Along with its acutely unfashionable setting, this is one of the rare contemporary mainstream American novels to put the varieties of religious experience at its center.) The Hildebrandts’ heedless encounters with an entirely different way of life while volunteering at a Navajo reservation suggests just how far they have to go, but fortunately this superb novel is only the first in a projected trilogy. (Read the review.)
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
A real-life version of the HBO series Succession with a lethal sting in its tail, this masterful work of narrative reportage recounts how one family became fabulously rich in the 2000s by peddling the opioid OxyContin as a nonaddictive painkiller. The result was an epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans per year. As Keefe illustrates, the Sacklers profited less from the development of new pharmaceuticals than from marketing. The dynasty’s founder, Arthur Sackler, made Valium the first $100 million drug in history using a host of deceptive advertising and publicity techniques. He also launched a family tradition of burnishing the Sackler name with high-profile donations to educational and cultural institutions. His heirs continued his legacy, willfully encouraging the rise of pill mills and instilling Purdue Pharma, their cash cow, with the baldly stated mission to “protect the family at all costs.” Quotes like those and other suggested resemblances to the Mafia are definitely intended. (Read the review.)
By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
This first novel by the acclaimed poet and memoirist recounts how a woman’s intoxication with “the communal stream of consciousness” of the internet collides with the birth and inevitable death of her severely disabled niece. Most novels about how the internet has transformed our lives are fundamentally opposed to it. The multivocal, interactive flow of social media feels inimical to the single, sustained voice of the novelist. But Lockwood manages to capture what’s entrancing about what she calls “the portal”—the bliss of letting a flood of human expression wash over you—by showering the reader with delightful and amusing shards of thought, story, and experience. The jewel-like quality of her metaphors is arresting, as when she describes the uglier side of her cohort on social media: “Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate.” And when her attention finally switches to that thing no one is talking about, the beauty and sorrow of one very brief life, the effect is even more piercing. (Read the review.)
All That She Carried by Tiya Miles
One untraceable day in the mid-19th century, a mother in South Carolina handed her 9-year-old daughter a cotton sack packed with a handful of treasures. They would never see each other again, separated by the man who owned them both and the brutal institution of slavery. In this book, Miles, a historian, explains how difficult it is to trace the path of this sack and of Rose, the mother who gave it, and Ashley, the sold-away daughter who carried it, through the years. The archives historians typically use to reconstitute the past contain almost no information about the lives of enslaved people. The sack itself, currently part of the collection at Middleton Place in South Carolina, near where Rose is believed to have lived, can tell its story only because Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered the tale onto the fabric itself, creating an alternate archive made of ordinary domestic materials. This National Book Award winner is a beautiful and heartbreaking evocation of the stories history so often fails to tell. (Read the interview.)
By Tiya Miles. Random House.
Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller
The Jamaican poet and novelist opens his first essay collection by saucily addressing that supreme essayist, James Baldwin, reasoning that if Baldwin’s poems don’t equal the “majesty” of his essays, they at least embolden Miller to try his hand at the master’s form. These pieces, he explains, seek to voice what people so often fail to tell each other, and they are true essays, each one an exploration, a journey toward understanding that begins without a set destination. Miller has a way of writing about widely discussed issues—race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality—that feels fresh and intimate rather than doctrinal or sentimental, and yet is instantly recognizably true. Add to that the often shattering beauty of his prose when describing everything from the Gully Queens (transgender street kids) and local scandals of his beloved home island (N.B. Jamaica has the best scandals) to the Carnival in Trinidad and his uncomfortable experiences as a visitor to Africa. Without a doubt, Baldwin would be proud.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I could never get enough of the nameless narrator of Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Sympathizer. His self-deprecating, hopelessly morally compromised takes on his homeland of Vietnam and the two Western nations that toyed with its destiny and ravaged its people are irresistibly jaded. In this sequel to The Sympathizer, he returns, having survived a stint in a brutal reeducation camp at the mercy of the Communist regime he once spied for. He washes up in France, Vietnam’s former colonial master and a nation whose intellect and sophistication he finds far more seductive than the “shallow, boring, and sentimental” American dream. He’s no longer a Communist, but he insists he still believes in the “principle of revolution.” He goes to work for a Vietnamese gangster and starts selling drugs to the intellectuals who congregate around his chic, leftist “aunt,” while trying to protect his last real friend from the consequences of that friend’s too simplistic view of right and wrong. He sympathizes with everyone and therefore no one, commits to everything and therefore nothing. And his observations on the absurdities of postcolonial life are always razor-sharp. (Read the review.)
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
In 1944, a German V2 rocket struck a London Woolworths, killing 168 civilians, 15 of whom were under age 12. That’s what really happened. This radiant, symphonic novel imagines otherwise, picking up the lives of five (fictional) child victims of the bombing, and revisiting them at 15-year intervals as they grow up and old in the last half of the 20th century. A bit like Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, this novel makes an epic story out of ordinary lives. What will clever Alec, dreamy Ben, bully-boy Vern, boy-crazy Val, and musically gifted Jo make of the destinies denied them by war and by history? When lives are cut short, it’s tempting to imagine the great things they might have achieved, but Light Perpetual is as much about the value of ordinary, private pleasures and terrors, of art and madness and greed and love on a humble, human scale—all done justice by Spufford’s gorgeous prose before it passes away, as everything must. In this vision, heartbreaking transience isn’t a flaw in the beauty of life, but rather the essence of its beauty. (Read the review.)
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Set in New York’s Black enclave during the 1960s, this slangy, louche caper yarn is the most fun the two-time Pulitzer winner has had since he wrote about competing in the World Series of Poker in 2011. His main character, a crime-adjacent furniture store owner named Ray Carney, isn’t even in on the caper, a sly touch on Whitehead’s part. Instead, Ray tries to make his way into Harlem’s snooty upper-middle class, where his in-laws reside, while conducting a discreet sideline in stolen goods. In other words, he’s a fence. His feckless but beloved cousin Freddie keeps dragging him back into trouble, most notably with a robbery at Harlem’s fanciest hotel, a job that draws the wrath of numerous menacing underground characters. The gangsters turn out to be not that much worse than the Harlem grandees who are determined to keep guys like Carney out of their club. Whitehead uncannily re-creates life in a legendary neighborhood at a pivotal moment of fragile progress and seething unrest. (Read the interview.)
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
When Zauner (the leader of the indie rock group Japanese Breakfast) was 25, her Korean-born mother was diagnosed with the rare cancer that would end her life five months later. The loss left Zauner bereft not only of a parent but also of half her identity. (Her father is a white American.) Although her mother could be prickly and demanding—she longed for the sort of “Mommy-Mom” her friends had, the kind who’d comfort instead of scolding her if she fell out of a tree—Zauner came, over the years of missing her, to appreciate just how fiercely she had been loved. At times painfully honest about the bitter fights between the two women, particularly when Zauner decided to become a musician instead of a doctor, this tender, vivid memoir is mostly about food. Food was how Zauner’s mother expressed love, self, and family, and how Zauner clumsily tried to nurture her when she became ill. After her mother’s death, Zauner slowly acquired the ability to cook the Korean dishes that once bound them together, and brought a little bit of her mother’s love back to life, even if shopping in the Korean American supermarket still sometimes reduces her to tears. (Read the interview.)