Every year on Goodreads, I create a faves-20## list to track the things I read that I really liked. It’s done in the moment, and I try to check in on it and cull things at midyear and in december so that it’s roughly 50-60 books max. If you want to see all of this year’s cuts in detail, click the image above. Here’s the 1̶0̶ 13 from that list I wanted to call out in particular, in no particular order (also, in the time it took to write this, a few things got added to that goodreads list that aren’t in the above image, lol).
See you next year!
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo
This was one of the books I started my year with, and it’s been in the back of my mind throughout. This came on my radar after its joint win with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments in last year’s Booker Prizes, and having now read and sat with both, I’d argue this should have won the prize solo.
Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale is fine (I’m down for a good multi-perspective thriller, though it’s easy to figure out the plot beats once you realize who all is involved in the book), but the style of Girl Woman Other (text that’s somewhere between prose and poetry; chapters that follow one character each and form interlocking narratives with other chapters), the polyphonic voices of its characters, and the way it does all of the above and makes it seem like the easiest thing to read in the world all make it deserving of the prize.
This is the book I think I’ve recommended the most to people this year, and a planned reading/Q&A with Evaristo at the Cambridge Public Library is probably the one event I’m still disappointed the pandemic cancelled.
Forgotten Work, Jason Guriel
It’s a concept that shouldn’t work: a novel in verse? A speculative fiction novel, at that? And it fills in styles like music reviews, fan forum posts, and other narrative exercises in iambic pentameter? And yet it does, and does so in such a gleeful way that I found myself slowing my normal reading pace to spend more time with the book. It feels like an album in miniature, each chapter a track (with some stylistic diversions), hurtling through the chronology of a band that barely existed and the cult of followers it created.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
This is slim compared to Clarke’s previous novel, but has so many wonderful moments where you the reader know slightly more than the main character what’s happened to him. A great book about being lost to get lost in.
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
I keep an eye on (and vote in) both GoodReads and Book of the Month club’s annual best-of-the-year roundups, even though the nominees (and, usually, eventual winners) tend to remind me of how much my own reading diverges from their metrics of what is “popular”. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see The Vanishing Half get both BotM’s top accolade AND Best Historical Fiction over in GoodReads’ year-end roundup. The story of twin sisters whose paths diverge wildly after leaving their home (a city in Louisiana where everyone is light-skinned), this felt like a good sister-read to something like Nella Larsen’s Passing, but felt entirely contemporary. It also has such a great tablecloth-pulling moment for one of its characters that completely resets who they are for the reader, and it’s added Brit Bennett’s previous novel, The Mothers, to my TBR list for 2021.
Crossings, Alex Landragin
I’m still working my way through David Mitchell’s latest genre-bender, the music-focused Utopia Avenue (which feels like it’d go hand-in-hand with Forgotten Work), but this is the book that felt the Mitchellest to me, with its two ways of being read (either cover-to-cover or following an order of chapters listed up front that the e-book will actually guide you through if you so choose). It’s all wildly inventive and does some soul-swapping two-people-across-a-great-deal-of-time stuff that was a lot of fun.
Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu
Seeing this win the National Book Award this fall reminded me how good this had been when I read it after it came out at the end of January. It does some fun plays with form (large bits of the book are written in screenplay format) and has some great insights on being Asian-American in Hollywood and what we’re allowed to be.
Mary Toft, or: The Rabbit Queen, Dexter Palmer
I picked this up in late 2019 based on loving Version Control, Palmer’s previous book, as well as loving the trippy op-art-meets-The-Favourite cover art, and finally got to it in the leadup for the 2020 Tournament of Books. Historical fiction isn’t usually my jam as a reader, and this took a second to really click into place for me, but once it did, it REALLY clicked for me. Mary Toft is known in history for claiming to give birth to rabbits - she was later found to be a fraud. This uses that as its basis, but follows the apprentice to the doctor attending to Mary as its main character, with a brief glimpse into Mary’s psyche for one chapter. On a larger level (and as the plot gets more and more farcical), it’s a book about what we believe to be true as a collective, what we “buy”, and the lies we tell ourselves.
A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet
I wrote last month about feeling underwhelmed by the much-hyped Leave the World Behind, and I think it’s because I had read this earlier in the year and it did the parts of what that did that I liked better. I got drawn in by the cover of this one (which felt like an eerie child’s primer that had been through some shit), was lucky enough to get a galley, and was delighted by the prose inside. A chorus of slightly-too-wise-for-their-years children dealing with a destructive storm that their parents are too inebriated to care about narrate, and there’s some larger-scale climate metaphors going on that I think the book pulls off even if the landing is a little bumpy.
This Is Major, Shayla Lawson
I still haven’t figured out how this got on my radar, and I almost returned it to the library unread when I couldn’t figure it out, but then I read its first essay about American Girl dolls (and the lack of an African-American one until Addie, a former slave), got hooked and didn’t put it down until it was done. I’d put this in the same category as Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist or Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick — essay collections both specific to the experience of black womanhood and universal in what they explore. This would pair nicely as a fiction/nonfiction thing with Girl Woman Other.
Boom Town, Sam Anderson
I’m slowly learning to like professional sports by finding the weird and wonderful stories within the large corporate machine that I generally don’t care about. The main source for these are Jon Bois’ delightful videos for Secret Base. Boom Town is like a book version of those videos - it’s about Oklahoma City’s basketball team, but it’s also about the founding of Oklahoma City, the land rush, the 1994 bombing of the city, and so many things in between (like a fun diversion about a Capitalism Museum). It’s a wonderfully perfect blend of high and low culture.
Jesus & John Wayne, Kristin Kobes du Mez
I got really into reading about the rise and effects of Christian Nationalism within the United States this year. Not everything stuck (I look forward to reading books that cite Taking Back America For God in the future, but it was a bit too dry and I returned it to the library after a few chapters), but Jesus and John Wayne was the perfect starting place for some of the further reading I did (like The Power Worshippers, which has some great on-the-ground reporting from the efforts of the last few years). It’s clear and readable, and traces a great line from the start of the movement through to the bits of Evangelical Culture I remember from the 90s and early 00s.
Can’t Even, Anne Helen Peterson
I’ve been following AHP from her Scandals of Classic Hollywood days at The Hairpin through to her work both at Buzzfeed, and now at her own newsletter, Culture Study (which is worth a subscription for the “just trust me” links alone). She’s done a great job at taking her doctorate in old hollywood gossip and using that same investigative lens to cover both modern celebrity culture (as in her book Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud) and larger issues in the world today - she and her partner Charlie Warzel are working on a book about remote work out next year that’s already on my TBR list the second I have a title.
Her article about millennial burnout last year went viral, and Can’t Even extends from that article to find out the particular whys and hows of the moment we’re in and how it’s hitting more than just millennials. Critics have been all over the place on this one, some coming to the book looking for answers it never promises to have, others that really get what it’s going for in its synthesis of the many sources it cites. I love the points it makes about returning to collective action, and it’s pointed my TBR list in some great directions for further reflection on what that could look like.
Uncanny Valley, Anna Weiner
As a Person In Tech who has an ever-growing list of Feelings about Startup Culture and Ethics in Technology (the short version of said feelings is that software as a field should have some sort of licensing/code of ethics for its builders and designers similar to medicine or other engineering fields), I also have an ever-growing Goodreads shelf of books talking about this. Anna Weiner’s memoir of a particular slice of early 2010s Bay Area startup culture is so vivid, and her outsider perspective as someone who suddenly realized they were the frog in the boiling pot of water in time to jump. There’s some lovely stylistic choices as well — company names as a whole are largely avoided, but easy to piece together, and her description of an outfit as a “startup twin set” made me audibly cackle as I read it in the park this summer.