Ghosts, boxers, Jesus, and Coca-Cola baths
2020 has been the most important reading year since I graduated college. Certainly I haven’t needed reading material this badly since I was a child, and hopefully won’t again. But the books pulled through, despite each and every obstacle — and there were many — thrown in the way of authors, publicists, editors, booksellers, warehouse workers, delivery drivers. Perhaps the most significant obstacle among them, at least in my apartment, was my dwindling attention span, which frequently found itself caught in the web of anxiety that spread in my chest and mind despite my best intentions. Below are the books that conquered my wayward focus, broke my heart, and gave me hope when I desperately needed it. I hope one or two will lift you up, too.
THE KNOCKOUT QUEEN, Rufi Thorpe. This is Thorpe’s third novel, a terrifyingly powerful expansion of the talents evident in her previous books, The Girls From Corona Del Mar and Dear Fang, With Love. In it, a young, gay, adrift teenager named Michael becomes best friends with his wealthy, beautiful, very tall neighbor Bunny Lambert. A cascade of violent events fractures, but never entirely destroys, their connection. This book is made all the more incredible by how Thorpe merges humor, philosophy, and tragedy in one breath as if it’s effortless. I will never forget The Knockout Queen. “With charismatic characters and a surprising and devastating storyline, The Knockout Queen is a moody and mordantly funny contemplation of the rigors of growing up that will leave readers reeling,” writes Bookpage. Read my full review here. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
THE BOOK OF LONGINGS, Sue Monk Kidd. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I finished it several weeks ago. It follows Ana, brother of Judas and the only daughter of Herod Antipas’s head scribe, through several disastrous betrothals until by chance she meets the humble young Jesus, with whom she falls in love and spends a tumultuous decade before his death in his early 30s. The book gorgeously depicts the unnecessary cruelty of religion equally alongside the beauty and hope that can be found in faith, the written word, and other people. “Not just an extraordinary novel, but one with lasting power,” writes Associated Press. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
DEACON KING KONG, James McBride. McBride’s straightforward, beautiful dedication — “For God’s people — all of ‘em” — embodies the loving, forgiving, warm tenor of the book that follows. The novel jumps seamlessly between different characters — sometimes within a single paragraph — but focuses primarily on Sportcoat, an elderly church deacon, green-thumbed handyman, and alcoholic who has lived in a south Brooklyn housing project for several decades. One day, for unclear reasons, he shoots the ear off the most dangerous drug dealer around, setting in motion a series of events and hijinks that reveal the incredible inner strength and capacity for joy exhibited by the people of the Cause Houses, where Sportcoat lives. Friendship takes the front seat here, though there’s a love story that warmed my frigid heart. “The sheer volume of invention in Deacon King Kong — on the level of both character (the first chapter alone introduces twenty individuals by name) and language — commands awe,” writes The New Yorker. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
THE MARGOT AFFAIR, Sanaë Lemoine. A tender, charming depiction of an adolescence overshadowed by one’s talented, famous parents. Margot, the illegitimate daughter of a brilliant stage actress and up-and-coming politician, grows increasingly frustrated with her parents’ tenuous relationship, and her own lack of what she perceives to be an unstable family environment. Her anger and impulsiveness leads her to a journalist and his ghostwriter wife, in a relationship that will prove disastrous for her splintered family. “It’s impossible not to love Margot’s delicate mixture of maturity and naïveté,” writes the New York Times Book Review. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
MY DARK VANESSA, Kate Elizabeth Russell. “It’s strange to know that whenever I remember myself at fifteen, I’ll think of this.” An almost unbearably potent novel about abuse and the stories we tell ourselves about what we’ve endured. A controversial story about a difficult topic, made simultaneously easier and more painful to read by its excellent pacing and relentless tension. “A lightning rod,” writes The Washington Post. Read my piece in GEN about MDV here. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
SIN EATER, Megan Campisi. The emotional power of this book settled over me gradually in the days after I finished it; like The Book Of Longings, the story tugged at me in ways I didn’t expect as I read. It follows May, who steals bread to survive after her parents die, only to be arrested and sentenced to a lifetime as a Sin Eater. In the alternate Elizabethan era in which this story takes place, Sin Eaters listen to the confessions of the dying, then eat the foods that represent their sins in front of their family members after the person has passed. It’s a lonely, miserable existence — while essential, Sin Eaters are scorned and feared — and May spends her young life desperate for love and connection in a world that despises her. In the end, there’s hope here, so poignant and beautifully drawn that I cried. Read my full review here. “While Campisi doesn’t flinch from depicting its horrors, the ultimate effect is far more exhilarating and hopeful than grim,” writes The Washington Post. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
TOKYO UENO STATION, Yu Miri, Morgan Giles (translator). “To speak is to stumble, to hesitate, to detour and hit dead ends. To listen is straightforward. You can always just listen.” One of the most heartbreakingly beautiful and sorrowful books of the year, about a ghost who haunts the Tokyo homeless encampment where he died alone. In halting, lyrical prose, the first-person narrator describes the cruel poverty that kept him working distant jobs to support his family, and the regret that he didn’t make more of an effort to be with his wife and son while they, too, experienced tragedy. The astonishing ending made this a book I’ll never forget. “A stunning novel, and a harsh, uncompromising look at existential despair,” writes NPR. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM, Yaa Gyasi. A book I’d recommend to just about anyone —a graceful, genuine, affecting novel about a neuroscience graduate student desperately searching for answers to why her brother succumbed to addiction and her mother falls into monstrously deep depressions. This is the sort of writing that deserves to be not on just best of the year lists, but considered as best of the decade. The audiobook, narrated by the inimitable Bahni Turpin, is particularly moving. “A book of blazing brilliance,” writes The Washington Post. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
PIRANESI, Susanna Clarke. It’s a rare delight to read a novel about a character as naïve, big-hearted, and curious as Piranesi. He wanders the halls of his water-logged, colossal house (which he calls a House), tenderly caring for the skeletal remains of those who passed before him, communing with a pair of albatrosses, fishing, and writing in his journal. Yet he’s haunted by how he ended up almost entirely alone here, as he has no memory of what came before, and begins to suspect his only companion — named merely the Other — doesn’t have his best interests at heart. A strange, brilliant little book from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Read my review here. “The sweetness, the innocence of Piranesi’s love for this world is devastating to read,” writes NPR. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
KEPT ANIMALS, Kate Milliken. A debut novel that captures the California I know, love, and fear better than nearly any other. In the early 90s, teenaged Rory cares for rich people’s horses on a luxury horse ranch in Topanga Canyon, a picturesque rural region outside of Los Angeles. When her beloved stepfather is involved in a tragic accident, Rory finds comfort in a burgeoning friendship with the wealthy equestrian June, while becoming consumed by her fascination with her new neighbor, Vivian, the daughter of a movie star. These three young women search in vain for guidance and stability among the broken adults around them, instead relying on each other — to devastating consequences. “An event-packed novel of class, desire, coming-of-age and familial disintegration,” writes the New York Times Book Review. Read my longer review here. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
LONG BRIGHT RIVER, Liz Moore. With this resolute portrayal of addiction, violence, and the binds of family, Moore has created a crime novel masterpiece. Her protagonist, Mickey, is an emotionally cut-off cop and single mom in Philadelphia, while her estranged sister, Kacey, is a sex worker with an opioid addiction. Kacey goes missing as rumors about a serial killer targeting sex workers in the downtrodden neighborhood of Kensington, where Kacey lives and works, and Mickey becomes obsessed with finding her, uncovering secrets about her colleagues and her family that shake her to her core. Moore’s depiction of Mickey’s inner monologue is brilliantly evocative of her character — aloof, cold, yet clearly yearning for the courage to reach out and touch the people she loves. A difficult story that ends with hope. “A compassionate, multidimensional look at an epidemic that surrounds us,” writes Oprah Magazine. Read my full review here. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
GODSHOT, Chelsea Bieker. A stunning portrait of climate change and the tenuous bonds between a daughter and her mother. Lacey and her alcoholic mother live in drought-ridden Peaches, California, whose community is almost entirely under the thumb of a charismatic but tyrannical cult leader. When Lacey’s mother runs off, she leaves Lacey to fight for her survival as the cult’s demands on its young women grow more dangerous. The ending is a shocking and audacious cap to a startlingly original and heart wrenching story. “Fiercely written and endlessly readable, a novel like this is a godsend,” writes Entertainment Weekly. Aggregated critical reviews, Bookshop.
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