Yeah, we know. We're a year late on this one. 2020 was a bit of a blur, and we spent a lot of time just surviving. These were the books that helped:
How often can you say you have a new favorite book? For me, it's been almost two decades since I last crowned a book as my favorite (The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken.) What is as weird and delightful and sardonic and cynical and ultimately life-affirming as that reigning champion? Parakeet. Oh my God, Parakeet! When I got to the end of Parakeet, I took a reflective 90 seconds and then literally went back to the beginning to read it again. And I loved it even more the second time. This novel of identity, family, trauma, estrangement, and bereavement is like Kafka on helium. Every metaphor is reality, and every reality a metaphor. In the very first sentence, our narrator (known only as the Bride) reconnects with her long dead grandmother in the form of a parakeet, but this is only the first of many cases of transmogrification, mirroring, transition, and identity crisis. Somehow both zany and melancholic, this surprising little novel is ultimately an exhilarating read.
There's this strange thing that booksellers have where we often don't write staff recommendations for the big books. We already know they'll sell, so instead we focus on other books that need more of our help. Caste is a big book. It was our 2nd bestselling title of 2020. It made almost all of the best of 2020 lists. It doesn't need my help, but it's impossible for me to think about 2020 without talking about how much I love this book and how it altered my thinking. Unlike most books that completely reshape how we think about a topic, in this case the United States, it wasn't written by some Ivy League distinguished professor, it was written by a journalist (though a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has taught at multiple universities including Princeton University). Being a journalist is important because this is a book of stories, some personal, some reported, and its the totality of the stories that build on the big idea: race is this country's caste system. From slavery to Jim Crow, from Native American genocide to anti-immigrant tirade, it is the structure that has always been there. Using caste as a framework explains all the unexplainable things, my favorite being that poor white people supposedly vote against their "economic interests." (Hint: white supremacy is their economic interest.)
Wite Out is a hybrid-form poememoir that documents the author’s experiences as a parent and publishing industry worker navigating historical race and class tensions in Oakland, CA. The text is pieced together from decades of notebooks: its insights emerge out of a dense collage of jotted down memories and reading excerpts. Norton treats the people in her life with deep respect but also exerts this fierce intellect and deadpan wit. I wanted to underline something every other page. If you enjoy this book I also highly recommend its prequel The Public Gardens: Poems and History.
An entanglement!! The whole story from beginning to end one crazy entanglement! Leilani draws in the reader with her sharp prose. She has developed her characters to feel like you know them in real life. Edie is tired of being broke and feeling broken. She works for a powerhouse publishing company, barely scraping by to have a proper apartment. Trying to find herself through the muck of life in New York City within lovers and shallow friendships. She does what any Gen Z adult would do. Jumps directly into the internet for answers. Finding herself dragged into online dating, Edie falls for a suburbanite named Eric from New Jersey. This story spirals into the unexpected and leads with a string of sadness. My ‘mom’ judgment had me shaking my head the whole time but I could not put this book down. Did I mention the entanglement?! Thank me later after you have felt your heart break over and over in this story but somehow, some way holds itself so true.
Reading this book felt like wearing a garment made with a kiss on every stitch. The fabric can't insulate you from a cruel world but you feel such beauty in the warmth that its maker must be a wizard, powerful and loving in equal measure. Vivek Oji will make you cry and think think think. All of Emezi's revolutionary, imaginative work expands its reader for the better. I love you, go read them.
This story is ultimately one of love. A family and their struggles to cope when they find that one of the children is somehow special. That same child and his struggle to find out what it means to be so, or even if he is. Washburn's skill as a writer is on full display as he builds a myth in lyrical prose from five distinct voices. Not since White Teeth have I read a debut novel so full, with characters so bright. Sharks in the Time of Saviors will leave you awed and in love with each of the characters of the book. It would be a fool mistake to skip this book.
When I read The House On the Cerulean Sea - the story of an orphanage for unusual children, including the Antichrist who loves 50s rock and roll and helping in the kitchen, and goes by Lucy - having read it prior to its release in March 2020, I adored everything about it and couldn't wait until it came out so I could tell people this was the book they needed. Then ... well we all know what happened in March. But now in this worn and wearying time, perhaps we need it even more. A gentle and optimistic fantasy which also has no illusions about the cruelty inherent in both humans and the bureaucracies we create, that knows we combat darkness with love, a wicked and knowing sense of humor, bravery in the face of the unkindness of others, and disobedience. I adore this book, I bet you will, too.