The A.V. Club’s 15 favorite books of 2020

Illustration for article titled iThe A.V. Club/i’s 15 favorite books of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

A certain amount of escapism through books would have been more than understandable in 2020. (And by “a certain amount” we mean “a lot.”) You’d be forgiven for favoring the comfort food of a reread or a beach read. Or for not reading at all. Because for every person who was able to forget themselves in literature, who found books to be a refuge in this year where the news of the day and the light of our screens was oppressive and inescapable, there was another, if not several others, who was too bleary-eyed to even pick one up. So what’s perhaps most unusual about this year’s list of favorite books is just how usual it is. These selections—represented as individual favorites, rather than consensus picks for the year’s best—feel like the books we would have chosen regardless of all that was going on outside our windows. They’re a pair of dark, violent novels in translation. Incisive nonfiction that examines the powerful (and not so powerful) people working within the startup industry. Books that interrogate broad societal concerns like climate change, immigration, and right-wing extremism, and those that examine grief, nostalgia, and personhood within single individuals. These are books that look at difficult things, rather than turn away (but don’t worry, there’s some fun in here too). 2020 sucked, these books don’t. Thanks for reading.

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Enter The Aardvark by Jessica Anthony (Little, Brown)

Enter The Aardvark by Jessica Anthony (Little, Brown)

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FedEx delivers an unexpected package at your doorstep in Washington, D.C. You open it to find a stuffed aardvark that you last saw in the bedroom of your clandestine lover. You are a closeted Republican congressman with a Reagan fetish, currently gobsmacked by the “gigantic taxidermied beast” in your living room, and you are about to receive word that your lover is dead. Narratively ping-ponging between the second-person point of view and an account of the aardvark’s Victorian era origins, Jessica Anthony’s Enter The Aardvark is a glorious guffaw-fest that skewers sex and masculinity, politics and power, science and secret-keeping. Someone should deliver this madcap novel into the hands of Armando Iannucci. [Rien Fertel]

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The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender (Doubleday)

The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender (Doubleday)

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“The symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum,” Philip K. Dick wrote in his 1981 opus Valis. Mundane things can be an avenue for the miraculous. In Aimee Bender’s The Butterfly Lampshade, a girl named Francie witnesses three impossible events: a butterfly floating in a glass of water, dead rose petals falling from curtains, and a beetle coming to life from a school paper. How these magical events affect Francie and shape her relationship with her mentally ill mother form the spine of Bender’s beautiful novel. Effortlessly jumping back and forth in time across from Francie’s childhood to her adult life, The Butterfly Lampshade explores the power of nostalgia, the uncertainty of memory, and how the fear of inheriting a family member’s madness can take over someone’s life. [Ashley Naftule]

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At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (translated by Anna Moschovakis, Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (translated by Anna Moschovakis, Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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In David Diop’s mesmerizing second novel, a Senegalese soldier fighting for the French in World War I begins to go mad after watching his best friend die. At Night All Blood Is Black draws on oral storytelling traditions, and Diop’s rhythmic prose is at its most beguiling when read aloud. The novel stretches out as an elongated coil, with phrases repeated and the narrator’s story often circling back on itself before proceeding ahead. Such elegance belies just how layered this short book is. The narrator recounts not only his brutal nightly ritual of cutting off the hands of enemy soldiers, but also his life before the war. “Until a man is dead he is not yet done being created,” his grandfather says in one remembered story. He means he is still able to learn new things, yet the proverb also underscores the bifurcation at the heart of At Night All Blood Is Black: Witnessing violent death can create a stark before and after in an individual. For better or worse, people change. [Laura Adamczyk]

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The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery/Saga)

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery/Saga)

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It’s a classic horror plot: Four friends commit an unspeakable act and then, one by one, get stalked by someone who knows their terrible secret. With a premise like that, Stephen Graham Jones could have called his latest book I Know What You Did Last Hunting Season. Instead of hapless horny teens, The Only Good Indians revolves around four young American Indian men, their complicated relationships with reservation life and with each other, and the implacable force that hunts them. Jones’ prose is harsh, pitiless, and engrossing as he gets inside the heads of these men—generating sympathy for their plight while also making a case for why they might deserve what’s coming to them. Where his book really shines is when we see through the eyes of its antagonist—few writers are able to write from a nonhuman, otherworldly point of view as credibly as Jones can in this bloody and thrilling novel. [Ashley Naftule]

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Once I Was You: A Memoir Of Love And Hate In A Torn America by Maria Hinojosa (Atria)

Once I Was You: A Memoir Of Love And Hate In A Torn America by Maria Hinojosa (Atria)

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In her memoir, Once I Was You, NPR host Maria Hinojosa seamlessly places her own story of emigrating from Mexico into the larger, oft-contentious history of immigration in the United States, taking the debate over citizenship from the border and the nation’s capital and bringing it right into people’s homes. The Emmy-winning journalist combines her decades of reporting on immigration with the decades spent assimilating in the U.S. to spin a compelling and far-reaching narrative about how we define citizenship in and out of the legislature. Through her moving excavation of family history and anti-immigrant sentiment, Hinojosa also reminds us of just how tenuous the label “citizen” can be when applied to anyone who doesn’t fit the whitewashed mold. [Danette Chavez]

Read Danette Chavez’s essay on Once I Was You and Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens.

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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru (Knopf)

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru (Knopf)

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To echo a post-2016 refrain, Donald Trump is a symptom of America’s dysfunction, not the cause of it. Still, it was Trump’s trademark vulgarity, when elevated to the land’s highest office, that helped usher the smirking edgelords of reddit and 4chan’s darkest corners off the internet and into the mainstream. Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill isn’t about their emergence so much as their effect on cozy liberals, who, after eight years of smug self-satisfaction under Obama, couldn’t stand a chance against the “invincible sarcasm” and “constant hints of transgression” of the post-truth sect. Red Pill’s narrator, an unnamed author at a German writers’ retreat, unravels after stepping into their orbit, their casual nihilism exposing the hollowness at the core of his own values. Kunzru’s prose is as lyrical as it is paranoid, and his ability to frame our current moment through the lens of European history gives heft to his provocative themes. [Randall Colburn]

Read The A.V. Club’s review of Red Pill.

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Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated by Sophie Hughes, New Directions)

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated by Sophie Hughes, New Directions)

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It’s fitting that Hurricane Season begins with a landslide. As with the “hellacious force” that befalls the fictional Mexican town of La Matosa in the novel’s opening pages, Fernanda Melchor’s formidable, recursive prose—long, breathless sentences punctuated with vulgarities and slang—surges ahead without pause. A marvel of shifting perspective, Hurricane Season speaks with a communal voice of hearsay and superstition before moving from one character to the next, each subsequent chapter swirling tighter and tighter around its central mystery, like blood circling a drain, of who killed the village’s Witch and why. In her first book translated into English, Melchor examines “the full, brutal force of male vice,” telling her dark, violent story with obliterative power. [Laura Adamczyk]

Read The A.V. Club’s review of Hurricane Season.

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A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton)

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton)

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It’s best to approach this National Book Award-nominated novel with zero expectations. At first, Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible will read like a literary take on teen angst, as the narrator details the debaucheries of her parents and their friends in their rented summer share. The disdain Eve and the other vacationing children feel for their parents is palpable, almost cruel; and though the air of neglect is clear, it would be easy to dismiss it as Caulfieldian affectation. Don’t make that mistake. When a devastating storm ravages the estate, the teens band together to survive an apocalyptic reality, in the most biblical sense of the word. This is when the real story unfolds, as the climate change tragedy reveals the depths of both human kindness and depravity. This novel acknowledges the failings of previous generations while also refusing to let us off the hook. [Ines Bellina]

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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

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The Harry Potter series has inspired so much fan fiction in no small part because J.K. Rowling left so many unanswered questions about how her world works, and when she did deliver extra information it was often of the sort readers didn’t want. Spinning Silver author Naomi Novik provides her own version of Hogwarts in A Deadly Education, where magically gifted kids and teens are locked away to learn how to protect themselves from all manner of dark monsters who would love to devour them, but surviving graduation means fighting among each other to gain an edge. Combining aspects of Harry Potter with Dungeons & Dragons, the alternately thrilling and funny story follows Galadriel, or El as she prefers to be called, whose natural propensity for dark magic is matched only by her unwillingness to use that power, even if it means needing to be repeatedly saved by the school’s obnoxious resident hero. [Samantha Nelson]

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What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead)

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead)

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Note this title’s lack of punctuation. Authorial choice? Shrewd editorial-slash-marketing decision? A hint of what these pages contain? We are all, always going through something—2020 just made the going feel a bit more grim. At least, we’re too often reminded to remind ourselves, we went through this year together, apart. The follow-up to her National Book Award-winning The Friend, Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through will immediately feel familiar to anyone hip to Cuskian autofiction. An unnamed narrator details seemingly inconsequential past and present interactions with an ex-lover, lonely neighbors, a stranger in the gym, an Airbnb host, and finally a terminally ill friend, who asks the narrator to help her die. This brilliant novel could have just as easily been declaratively titled What You Are Going Through, but Nunez challenges readers to ask each other, to ask ourselves, perhaps the only question that matters. [Rien Fertel]

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Something That May Shock And Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery (Atria)

Something That May Shock And Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery (Atria)

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Daniel Lavery reinvigorates the memoir as only he can in Something That May Shock And Discredit You. Lavery’s ability to mine great humor and personal insight from even the most relentlessly pored-over pop culture remains uncanny—he moves effortlessly from a close reading of the myth of Hyacinthus and Apollo to the comforts (and pitfalls) of binge-watching The Golden Girls. So pithy is his prose and so clear are the parallels he draws, that Lavery’s book feels immensely relatable. But we shouldn’t lose sight of just how deeply intimate Something That May Shock And Discredit You is; it’s a riveting memoir about transitioning, one that centers joy and progress over trauma. [Danette Chavez]

Read The A.V. Club’s review of Something That May Shock And Discredit You.

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Jack by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Jack by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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Marilynne Robinson may spend the rest of her career keeping her fiction set in the world of Gilead, which she birthed more than 15 years ago (four books and counting, now); if so, novels like Jack will stand as testament to the fragile beauty of her creation. By far her finest since the striking epistolary grace of Gilead itself, Jack follows the attempt by the titular black sheep of the Boughton family to halt his ascent into anonymity and waste after he finds love with a high school teacher in St. Louis, and their illegal interracial romance changes the trajectories of their lives. Plot aside, this is really a book about how to reconcile the mistakes and cruelties a person has visited upon others, and find redemption—even a measure of peace—among the guilts and regrets we all live with. [Alex McLevy]

Read The A.V. Club’s review of Jack.

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The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)

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As Y2K approaches, the characters in The Glass Hotel muse about how they wish the world would end. It’s a nod to Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic hit, Station Eleven, but also an examination of how living in a world that feels on the brink of collapse can be even harder than surviving a cataclysm. The beautiful novel is filled with liminal places and people, like the titular resort in the Canadian wilderness that seems to exist outside of space and time while serving as a way for its Bernie Madoff-like owner to find new victims for his financial schemes. While it touches on topical issues like addiction, wealth disparities, and student loan debt, The Glass Hotel provides a more universal examination of what people can learn to live with and how they reinvent themselves. [Samantha Nelson]

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Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman (Little, Brown)

Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman (Little, Brown)

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Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser tells the story of WeWork’s ridiculous rise and ridiculously fast collapse with an impressive ability to connect the entertaining oddities with the substantive social, economic, and political issues of which WeWork is just an example. Wiedeman’s main focus is Adam Neumann, the company’s founder and erstwhile CEO, and his wife, Rebekah. Their failures are delectable, but Wiedeman keeps his eye on the ball, focusing on the people who are hurt in the process. Where the book really shines is in its detailing of WeWork’s ballooning valuation, bolstered first by ambitious and ignorant early investors and then by Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank. As unprofitable tech companies become increasingly tangled in our lives, Billion Dollar Loser is an insightful glimpse into the people creating them and the way they are insulated from the risk that burns everybody else. [Bradley Babendir]

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Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener (MCD x FSG)

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener (MCD x FSG)

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Uncanny Valley won’t shock you. It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley is filled with children, tantrum-prone tech bros with egos massaged by the millions pumped into their feather-light ideas. Knowing that, however, doesn’t negate the gripping perspective of author Anna Wiener, a liberal arts alum and technology outsider who rather unwittingly ended up spending her late 20s providing customer support in the heart of the tech utopia. Her elegant, observant writing offers a firsthand account of the culture’s sexism, lack of diversity, and disregard for privacy, but she’s also open about how easy it is to be swept up in its promise for a better future and awestruck by the billionaires in your midst. Optimism, even the most vulgar and hollow kinds, goes a long way these days. [Randall Colburn]

Read The A.V. Club’s review of Uncanny Valley.

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