It was a slog to read at times in 2020, so I escaped into other worlds through novels and reread a small handful of favorites, too.
Here are 15 books I read and loved this year, in no particular order:
Long Bright River
This is Moore’s latest novel, and while entirely different in tone and topic than Heft, it’s just as beautiful. At first glance, Long Bright River is a straight, no-nonsense crime novel, but Moore brings to it her literary approach, and her deep sense of compassion. Her characters, who are enmeshed in Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, made me call my own family members just to hear their voices.
I discovered Liz Moore through her short story “Clinical Notes” in The New York Times Magazine‘s Decameron Project issue, and I loved her writing voice and the gentle humanity in it. She reminded me of another favorite author, Brian Doyle. Heft has that same gentleness, with sympathetic characters that leapt off the page and into my heart even after I finished the novel.
The Idea of You
I needed this romance novel as an escape portal this year. The Idea of You is a pure joyride, a smutty, unapologetic love story between an almost-40-year-old divorcée and the 20-year-old lead singer of a boy band. I enjoyed this story so much because of its specificity and its pitch-perfect art, travel and fashion references. I couldn’t stop reading.
Nothing to See Here
Such a delight!
This wacky novel about an unmoored young woman in charge of young twins who spontaneously combust when they’re upset is strange and sweet and perfect for a quick escape in a “what do I do with this summer Saturday afternoon?” kind of way.
I am already the ideal reader for this book, suspicious as I am of Big Tech and the effect its products have on our lives, yet also thoroughly dependent on it. This memoir is a fever dream of shrewd insight into Silicon Valley and the people who shaped it and were shaped by it. I both laughed out loud while reading this and wanted to hurl it at the wall with anger (over how good Wiener is on venture capitalists in all their self-absorbed smugness.) What a timely, satisfying debut.
As the internet likes to say, BIG MOOD.
I love quiet stories like these — evocative, expansive and yet uncomfortably intimate. Gorgeous writing. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to discover Elizabeth Strout.
Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company still takes first place for me, but Eve’s Hollywood was still sublime. It felt especially delicious to read about a sunny, druggy, bright LA while mostly confined to my apartment. Eve Babitz is always a jubilant, seductive ray of sunshine.
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
I’m nominating Gretchen McCulloch as the internet’s librarian. Because Internet would have been satisfying as an in-depth look at internet culture and how it has shaped and molded language, but McCulloch reaches a step further and maps linguistic differences onto different internet cohorts and life experiences, giving the reader a chance to broaden her view and have more empathy toward, for example, older bosses, younger cousins and less-extremely-online college classmates.
Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book
An essential reference book for anyone new to or curious about the publishing world, even if the journey leans more toward voyeurism than actually taking the steps firsthand. This book is funny, informative and packed with useful advice from dozens of literary writers.
Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
Anne Helen Petersen
I am such an AHP fangirl, and this book solidified my love. Maybe most important in this book is how Petersen calls out approaches to burnout that place the blame on the individual (usually the mother/wife/underpaid woman). We need systemic change in the United States, and Petersen is a vital voice shaping the call for a better, saner, more secure country.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
A delicious, perfect little novel. This was exactly what I wanted to read in the week leading up to the 2020 presidential election (if I couldn’t just take an Infermiterol on Tuesday, Nov 3, that is). I love Moshfegh’s dark humor.
The Fixed Stars
I love Wizenberg’s writing — always have, always will. Her voice is quiet and intimate and unravels ordinary moments in life in a patient, steady way. This book appealed to me for its frank exploration of sexuality and fluidity in mid-life, although I think it would have been a better book if she’d waited another handful of years to write it.
Her Body and Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado
These stories are brilliant, creepy, sensual and haunting. (A good October read.) I read “The Husband Stitch” on a weekend away for my first anniversary and “Inventory” during, well, a pandemic — the stories were hitting uncannily close to home for a while, but they also lent a sense of wonder and curiosity to the seemingly ordinary.
Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
This sweet book highlights the relationships that rarely get formal recognition in our lives but are often the true bedrock of our identity: friendships. Sow and Friedman excel at telling their story with honesty, wisdom and heart while making the reader want to hold her own friends a little closer. An important manifesto for modern society.
This tale of escape and triumph over adversity is a bestseller for obvious reasons — I simply couldn’t stop turning the pages. I’m a sucker for a story about the power of knowledge, and Westover delivers.
Here are five other books I’d recommend:
That Kind of Mother, Rumaan Alam
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Brian Doyle
Weather, Jenny Offill
The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory
And three worthwhile re-reads:
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Hyberbole and A Half, Allie Brosh
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri