Every year at FSG, we ask our staff to come together and talk about their favorite books—old, new, or forthcoming—that they read or reread that year. This year, that sense of community feels more important than ever, as we come together to talk about the books that got us through the strange and taxing year that was 2020.
These are three of the books I read this year and intend to continue loudly and relentlessly recommending for years to come: 1. Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. Possibly my ideal combination of humor and suffering. Cannot wait for her next book, Milk Fed, this February. 2. Danzy Senna’s New People. I love a book that makes me freeze with the realization that I hadn’t noticed how far from reasonable behavior the protagonist has strayed until they’re way beyond its limits. 3. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Likes. These stories are magnificent, truly. I think a lot about how well they capture some of the subtlest ways humans, especially family, hurt one another—or sometimes ways that aren’t subtle but are nevertheless officially forgiven—and the lasting, deep, often inconclusive reckonings that follow. I need people in my life to read these stories so I can refer to them in regular conversation like the myths from “Darmok.”
Walking and reading were what got me through this year—Jessi Jezewska Steven’s singular The Exhibition of Persephone Q united the two in a way I couldn’t have predicted when I first read it in February, right on the hinge of the world changing forever. It lingered with me long after as I wandered the streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood, feeling a spiritual kinship to its protagonist, Percy, doing the same in a haunted post 9/11 NYC. Percy couldn’t see the eventual rebirth of the city coming in her story, but as the reader, I could—thinking about this gave me a spark of hope for a similar eventual restoration of the city the both of us love and inhabit.
I loved Amina Cain’s Indelicacy for exploring so beautifully the search to find what actually constitutes a meaningful life—and what’s more, how to hold agency over that life you create for yourself.
Amelia Gray’s Threats is kind of like a phantasmagoric Gone Girl—but so much more than just that. It may be the best evocation I’ve ever read of how grief so completely warps your world, and how our lost loved ones continue to haunt us with mysteries we might not ever be able to solve—but also, how these mysteries keep them somehow alive.
I could be upset it took me until now to read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, or choose to believe in that sentiment that some books come into our lives at the exact right moments. In a year where I was spending more time in the space I call home than ever, Housekeeping’s exquisitely eloquent questioning of the motions we go through to keep human homes, and whether or not they leave us feeling truly sheltered, resonated deeply.
To me, poetry offers a space for contemplation, which feels like a luxury more than ever—in this way, Carl Phillips’ Pale Colors in a Tall Field and francine j. harris’s Here is the Sweet Hand felt like gifts.
I read The Dutch House this year and was completely transported. Anne Patchett is such a pro. And I love a sibling story. I also devoured Raven Lelani’s Luster. That book is FUNNY. And surprising. And edgy. I was terribly impressed by Lelani’s skill and guts. Speaking of funny—I LOVED Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. What a voice. Wilson has such deep empathy and love for weirdos. His writing is totally brilliant but also gives me the warm and fuzzies. I’m a fan.
In a year when the “new normal” is becoming increasingly strange, my favorite reads are escapes to worlds that are even stranger. Sayaka Murata’s second novel, Earthlings, certainly fits that bill. This outrageous, absorbing, and at times deeply unsettling novel follows a young woman as she withdraws from society, believing herself to be an alien stranded on planet Earth, in order to process a traumatic sexual event from her youth. Murata delivers this narrative with her trademark brusquerie and a keenly imaginative “alien eye” that transforms the mundanity of suburban living into something acutely bizarre. Not for the faint of heart, Earthlings burrows in your brain like a parasite or a persistent memory.
Closer to our reality—perhaps too close, as it’s set in the 2020s—Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower is a necessary speculative fiction read. Depicting the birth of a new society amidst the rubble of a post-apocalyptic, post-capitalist America, this novel is an epic survival journey as well as a chilling meditation on where we might be headed.
Other favorites from this year include Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (a heartrending, devastatingly gorgeous memoir) and the audiobook edition of Rivers Solomon’s The Deep (an otherworldly and instantly immersive novella narrated by Daveed Diggs).
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic. After months of struggling with my attention span for obvious reasons, these two thrillers set in an evocatively described Mexico and featuring Mayan mythology, demonic colonialists, and substantive heroines snapped me back into reading. Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poetry: a grab bag of beauty and tragedy, distilled. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. This blew my mind with its complexity of language, plot, structure, characterization . . . one of the most challenging, most brilliant books I’ve ever read.
Han Kang, Human Acts, translated from the Korean, follows the violence of the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea with a precision that is both delicate and harrowing. I fell in love with Kang’s writing, which bends the boundaries of voice, trauma, and memory.
All year long, I have turned and returned to Sabrina Orah Mark’s short story collection Wild Milk. Everything about the writing is unexpected; the whimsy and grief float alongside one another in an effortless ease. Wild Milk makes the everyday absurdity of our lives just a little bit more bearable.
I loved Gingerbread and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. Reading her books is like laying my head down on a pillow and dreaming about every person I’ve ever loved, or like fortuitously taking a left turn somewhere and then for the first time walking the halls of a world as it actually is. I’m also obsessed with Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy—so sexy! Such precise prose.
I can’t wait to put Tove Ditlevsen Copenhagen Trilogy in the hands of everyone I know!!!! You’re welcome in advance!!!!
My favorite book this year was Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive, which astounded me. With stark emotion and stunning execution, Trethewey’s book is a reckoning with race, womanhood, motherhood, and America, explored via the devastating murder of Trethewey’s mother at the hands of her obsessive second husband. It’s a tough read, but I will never, ever forget it—it transcends simple memoir, and I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I loved it. I was absolutely enraptured by Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes), an obscene, torrential, and absolutely masterful novel, which disturbed and captivated me in its horrific unraveling of a Mexican village past salvation. The prose, which, really, is like the eye of a hurricane, is an experience in and of itself. Finally, I also loved James McBride’s brilliant and cinematic Deacon King Kong, Adam Mars-Jones’s sexy and submissive Box Hill, Deborah Levy’s captivating, hilarious, and incredibly observant novels Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything, R. Eric Thomas’s life-affirming essay collection Here For It, and Carmen Maria Machado’s astonishing memoir In the Dream House, which reinvents, and asserts the value of, queer storytelling and redemption.
Cathy Hong Park’s Minor Feelings is gorgeous and meditative and made me feel known. I spent a lot of time this spring sitting out on my stoop completely captivated by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which was as good as everyone said it was. And finally, Raven Leilani’s Luster! I pushed it onto my book club and have loaned my copy out to five people (and counting). It’s a book where at every turn, I truly, truly could not predict what was going to happen next—a feeling I relish.
Time ran and crawled and ran again this year; even with a schedule cleared by the virus, it was hard to read, and for me, especially hard to keep faith in the project of fiction. A collection about the 2010s, Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless was not what I expected, but I liked it. The tone of many of these collected pieces, dotted with transient, single-letter-named characters, balanced sterility with measured, cozy retrospection. In a year that feels more than a decade away from 2010-2019, reading party reportage—already a dying art—has become a disarming practice in remembering our past lives.
I picked away at Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, thrilled by the sexiness of every trope that writing fiction set in between Art Basel and a writing desk entails. The prologue is one of my favorite solo performances in contemporary writing, a beautiful arc of putting words to things we all think of the people we love but rarely say.
Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? left its mark on me this summer so violently characterized by American police brutality and the endlessly violent online sharing of police brutality. Its brevity is deceptive to how compelling it is.
Despite being a seriously devoted Selected Shorts and radio play listener my entire life, I could never commit to an audiobook habit. The arrival of a new dog, some very long walks, and key recommendations from People-in-the-Know have meant that 2020 was the year I rediscovered the wonders of listening to books. From that treasure trove I recommend to you the spectacular performance that is Wolf Hall. As well as brilliantly presented, the book is so much funnier than I had expected, and page-by-page a reminder of the stakes of political intrigue.
I read Being Mortal, finally, and came away wanting to wave it in the air to everyone I meet and say: it’s never too early for this lesson, how do I want to spend my time?
I read again a classic that had mesmerized me years ago, Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, and was struck as ever by the poetry in her prose, but even more so by the tension and space created by her structural choices. It’s a book I would like to re-read many times, to learn from it, but also to spend more time in that state of devotion to the beautiful ordinary.
I read Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for the first time this fall. A study of retaining life and joy in confinement, it’s a pleasure to feel trapped with Isabel, with buckets of wit and on the most beautiful estates that James could conjure, instead of in my little apartment. To say nothing of Lord Warburton!
Luster by Raven Leilani is the sort of novel you hope to find when you reach for a new book to read. I’ve recommended it to all of my friends this year, and each one has, in fact, read it and told me they adored it. Even the ones who never text me! I can’t think of a stronger endorsement.
I started reading Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs on a bus to Teotihuacán and finished it on my couch at home as the world began to fall apart. It’s a book about friendship and protest and capitalism—all things that have been on my mind even more than usual this year. It’s funny, too.
Since then, I’ve started a lot of books and finished few of them. Among the ones that gripped me enough to compete with the news were Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands and Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults.
My favorite book this year was The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I went into it without any expectations, having purchased it simply because it was on sale for a few bucks at my local bookstore. It then proceeded to quietly, subtly, gently creep its way into my unsuspecting heart and made a home there; I’m all the better for it.
Party Going, Henry Green (1939): A heavy fog has descended on 1930s London, stranding a gaggle of bright young things at the train station as they attempt to make their way abroad for a lavish party. A strange, dark, and witty novel, an indictment of a doomed world.
What You Have Heard Is True, Carolyn Forche (2019): The moral bildungsroman of a brilliant, fearless poet and activist. It’s riveting, and a call not just to witness wrong in the world but to act on the side of justice.
My Brother, Jamaica Kincaid (1998): A memoir of grief and memory, wrenching and clear-eyed and poignant, rendered with perfect control of tone and language.
Some of my favorite reading experiences this year were getting lost in the world of Middlemarch, discovering Tove Ditlevsen’s stunning The Copenhagen Trilogy, which FSG is publishing in January 2021, and revisiting Inger Christensen’s alphabet. Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae also held me in complete thrall; if you need a cry or fresh encounters with the sonnet form, read this.
Three books that swept me far away from Covid: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker—I never imagined a book about schizophrenia would grab my attention but this book about the Galvin family and its six sons diagnosed with the disease reminded me of when I was equally captured by Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down.
Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas—The brilliance and energy of Cárdenas’ writing as Antonio tells his story in long roaming sentences made this my favorite novel of the year.
Miss Aluminum by Susanna Moore—A young Moore coming into her own, mixing with old and new Hollywood in the 60s, far from her childhood in Hawaii. I was mesmerized by this memoir.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind—a richly informed inquiry into national, racial, religious and class identities, their abundant uses and misuses, and the many consequential riddles and traps they pose.
David Edmonds and Bertie Fraser, Undercover Robot: My First Year as a Human—an elucidation of the puzzles of consciousness and artificial intelligence, in the form of a novel for children.
I thought about making this a list of all the books I started this year but couldn’t finish. But that’s depressing, because there are many of them, and I don’t think it’s unique to talk about how much my focus has suffered in 2020. Instead, I’ll mention two books that managed to completely capture my attention, even while the world was on fire.
Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019 by Natasha Stagg transported me back to a New York City that feels very far away now. Through meditations on ephemera such as the popularity of red thigh-high boots on runways in 2017, to thong underwear, to robot influencer Lil Miquela, to the late-stage capitalistic venture of brands scrambling to align themselves to political causes to avoid cancellation, Stagg’s razor-sharp dark humor and nihilism as she delves into the minutia and intricacies of cultural aesthetics and their deeper political meaning felt like scratching an itch in the best way possible.
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill is a wild ride of a book that I quite literally could not put down and have since recommended to many friends, who have also loved it. The book stemmed out of a 1999 piece O’Neill was assigned to write for Premiere magazine (now-defunct) on how the Manson murders changed Hollywood. The article quickly grew into a 20-year obsession with the case. As you get deeper and deeper into the book, you get drawn into O’Neill’s all-consuming hunt for the truth about one of the most infamous cases in American history, and it grows increasingly difficult to put the book down as the theories get wilder and wilder. Now, here I am going to admit something to you: I read this book twice in a row. I read it once, and then I listened to the audiobook, which should tell you everything you need to know about how fun this book is. Something about O’Neill’s absolute enthrallment in this spiderweb of a case was a real salve for me in these chaotic times.
There’s a good reason that Luster is showing up on so many “best of” lists. There’s so much to love about this book, especially Edie who is unabashedly herself—both flawed and fearless. You’ll want to rush through it to find out what happens to her, but you shouldn’t. Luster is a novel that begs to be savored. Especially the ending which somehow managed to feel both surprising and inevitable.
On the surface, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is the story of two siblings who must bury their dead father, a Chinese laborer, in the hills of California in the middle of the Gold Rush. But, like the land that Ba prospects, there’s so much that lurks beneath the surface. Zhang’s prose is unflinching and the questions she asks—What makes a home a home? Who gets to tell the narratives of our collective histories?—feel more pressing than ever.
Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living was by far my favorite book I’ve read this year and may just have topped my list of favorite books of all time. To call it a quiet little book about love would be a disservice. It is quiet, and it is about love, but it feels more like a bible of sorts. It is a hopeful kind of “living autobiography” about learning to unravel the patterns of our lives, about finding new modes of pleasure and meaning after tragedy and grief. To sum it up, I feel a spreading warmth whenever I think of this book.
I read most of Liz Moore’s Long Bright River while in incredibly uncomfortable positions. Lying on my left side in the passenger seat of a car to lessen the rising heartburn from the McDonald’s I just inhaled with my legs slowly falling asleep on the dashboard? Bundled in three layers of towels on a blustery, overcast Lake Michigan day? In bed with the covers pulled over my head? Ok, the last one wasn’t so uncomfortable, but you get my point. I would have read this book anywhere. This is a book about two sisters: one a cop, one a heroin addict. Some may fixate on the suspense aspect of this story, but what drew me in was the propulsive, moving dynamic of these two sisters and of their fierce loyalty to home. I get that calling a book “unputdownable” is cringey and hyperbolic, so I’ll just say that I could put this book down, but I really didn’t want to.
In the three decades that have passed since March 2020, I’ve cooked—a lot—with a wooden spoon in one hand, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal in the other. The book is about food (the delights of boiling, of good cheese, soft bread, and fresh butter) and about everything else: intimacy, care, sustenance, solitude. It led me to the eccentric and gorgeous MFK Fisher, whose every line is a chef’s kiss.
Speaking of savoring, I loved Hilary Leichter’s debut, Temporary, an exuberant and cutting allegory of itinerance under capitalism. And Zama, Antonio Di Benedetto’s completely hypnotic masterpiece. And Yiyun Li’s wrecking Where Reasons End, about the conversations we have with those who leave us.
Finally, I read Portrait of a Lady for the first time. The protagonist, Isabelle Archer–clearly a fellow sagittarius—is one of the most human characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Her story is an epistemological thriller, studded with gemlike sentences. A man’s body is “an accidental cohesion of relaxed angles.” Cheek kisses are dispensed “in the short, quick manner of a bird drinking.” I want a shirt that says HENRY JAMES RUINED ME to wear when I go out next, presumably in three decades.
Looking back at the past twelve months, my reading was largely dominated by FSG books, including a number of hefty works of nonfiction: Alex Ross’s remarkable Wagnerism, Yang Jisheng’s The World Turned Upside Down, a meticulous history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Louis Menand’s sweeping history of art and ideas, The Free World (the latter two both forthcoming in early 2021). But I did find time for some extracurricular reading—in April, during the peak of the initial shutdown in New York, I read Jason Lutes’s ambitious Berlin, a graphic novel set during the final few years of the Weimar Republic. It’s not a happy book (needless to say), but it was probably my most transporting and purely pleasurable reading experience of the year. Over the summer I read Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of In Search of Lost Time—I think I’m now officially committed to the end.
I could get into all the personal reasons for why I’ve been awaiting US publication of Nathalie Léger’s Exposition and The White Dress for years, but it all boils down to this: Léger writes about art (photography in Exposition, performance in The White Dress) with more understanding, clarity, potency, and expansiveness than anyone can else I can think of. Art is life, yadda yadda, but really—art is life / life is art when Nathalie Léger writes about it.
I needed Sam Pink’s The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories in 2020 to assure myself that writing doesn’t have to feel like death this year. I thought about it every time the ice cream truck rolled by. It made me miss my friends.
At the beginning of the year, I read Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats, in which he loves cats and loves more cats and then kills all those cats, so very relatable to me aside from the killing part. A perfect little book—perfect for traumatizing your fellow cat lovers around the holiday season. But it’s Hrabal so it’s funny, too, and tender and moving.
Also: Jonathan Buckley’s The Great Concert of the Night, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, Andrés Barba’s A Luminous Republic, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, Matthew Rohrer’s The Others.
Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is the perfect balance of heart-wrenching, raw honesty, and sophisticated meta-commentary. I loved the way Machado builds a canon around her story, drawing from scraps of queer history, telling silences, subtext, and fresh readings of familiar narratives. It is a book about abuse and queer erasure that insists, more eloquently that I would have thought possible, “I am not alone.” I flew through this book at the beginning of the year and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a novel I turned to for escape in a difficult time, and it was beautifully written, transporting, and fun. But it also really stuck with me for its thought-provoking and original spin on fairy-tale tropes, which dug into money and morals, patriarchy and antisemitism, and the dynamics of power.
Finally, I just finished The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, and I can report that it lives up to the hype!