The best books of the year so far explore themes of power, perseverance and hope through creative storytelling and glittering prose. Journalist Robert Kolker reports on the strife of an American couple in the 1970s, overwhelmed by their sons’ schizophrenia diagnoses. Poet Cathy Park Hong establishes herself as an energetic and necessary voice in the dialogue surrounding racism in the U.S. in her nonfiction debut. And Jenny Offill takes a clever approach to tackling the anxieties that are synonymous with life in the 21st century. These 10 books, from a biting collection of comedic essays to the final novel in a beloved trilogy, represent authors at the peak of their craft. Here, alphabetically by author, the best books of 2020 so far.
The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich
Though she’s written more than 20 books for adults, Louise Erdrich’s latest work is perhaps her most personal. Drawing on her Chippewa heritage, the National Book Award winner constructs a portrait of a community fighting for survival in The Night Watchman. The titular character, based on her maternal grandfather, leads the effort against proposed legislation that threatens the rights to his tribe’s land. Erdrich describes the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota in rich detail and illustrates the lengths that some will go to protect the ones they care for.
Cleanness, Garth Greenwell
The second book from Garth Greenwell appears to feature the same unnamed narrator from his first — a gay American teacher living in the capital of Bulgaria. In nine interlinked stories, Greenwell dissects the expatriate’s relationships with his students, his sexuality and the city of Sofia in an aching examination of intimacy and power. As the narrator reflects on his time abroad before he returns home, Greenwell asks potent questions about how and why we long for love.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong
Blending cultural criticism with personal stories, poet Cathy Park Hong analyzes the impact of racism against Asian Americans in her debut nonfiction collection. Her voice is urgent and raw as she unpacks what it’s like to experience prejudice that doesn’t fit into the exact mold of oppression faced by other minorities in the U.S. From reflecting on her childhood in California to her evolving attitude towards the English language, Hong is brutally self-aware and embraces her anger as she captures how she’s struggled to make sense of her identity.
Wow, No Thank You., Samantha Irby
Reading Samantha Irby is a welcome relief from what’s going on in the world, even though she’s picking apart every single aspect of it. “Over the last couple years I have had to learn to live in a house, and that is one of the hardest and most boring things I’ve ever had to do,” she writes in an essay that lists off hilarious questions related to maintaining a home. In another, she mines our obsession with skin care and declares: “I don’t drink water and my blood type is pizza.” Her collection is riddled with punchy lines as she contemplates everything from trying to make new friends in adulthood to working in a television writers’ room for the first time. Wow, No Thank You. is signature Irby — honest, dry and the kind of funny that truly induces laughter.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker
“Even if just one child has schizophrenia, everything about the internal logic of that family changes,” journalist Rober Kolker writes in his bestselling book, which traces the plight of a Colorado-based family devastated by the mental disorder. By the mid-1970s, six of the 12 Galvin children had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kolker traces the family’s suffering in Hidden Valley Road, which focuses on how the Galvins were studied to help better understand the disease. Though so much of the story is rooted in tragedy — abuse, violence, death — Kolker’s voice remains empathetic as he balances breaking down the science behind schizophrenia and describing the gutting details of one family’s unthinkable circumstances.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson
The latest book from Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, is an engrossing account of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In gripping and propulsive terms, Larson depicts the horrors of Hitler’s bombing campaign, which killed tens of thousands of Britons. Though the end of World War II is no mystery, The Splendid and the Vile reads like a thriller, demanding attention with pages that illuminate the strength of leadership in times of grave crisis and uncertainty.
The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel
One of the most anticipated novels of the year — Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her celebrated Wolf Hall trilogy — lived up to expectations and then some. Beginning in the wake of Anne Boleyn’s death, The Mirror & the Light captures the final years of 16th-century English lawyer Thomas Cromwell, scheming aide to King Henry VIII. The Booker Prize winner masterfully completes her years-long character study of Cromwell, again fusing history and fiction to create a mesmerizing narrative centered on a man whose obsession with power leads him to his brutal, and inevitable, end.
Deacon King Kong, James McBride
It’s September 1969 in the projects of Brooklyn when a church deacon shoots an ear off a local drug dealer in front of the whole neighborhood. The seemingly random act of violence is just the start of James McBride’s humorous, electric and heartfelt book — his first novel since the 2013 National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird. From the white neighbors to the Latinx and African American witnesses of the crime, McBride introduces a diverse cast of characters to deliver nuanced commentary on race and class in New York City. McBride’s voice is rhythmic and compassionate as he asks how communities come together and support each other in the face of adversity.
Weather, Jenny Offill
It would be an understatement to declare that Weather, a story fixated on a woman’s anxieties regarding both the mundanities of life and the end of the world, feels prescient. Lizzie Benson, the narrator of Jenny Offill’s kaleidoscopic third novel, is increasingly worried about everything from her young son’s experience at a new school to the impact of climate change on the planet. The absorbing power of Offill’s spare but striking prose grounds the book’s frenetic structure, culminating in an unnerving look at a world where a constant flow of disquieting information can’t be escaped.
Run Me to Earth, Paul Yoon
In Run Me to Earth, three orphaned teenagers linked by grief live in a bombed-out hospital in 1960s Laos, where they assist a doctor and transport supplies to those in need. The coming-of-age premise leads to something much larger as Paul Yoon propels his young characters into adulthood, where they’re haunted by the pain of their shared past. Yoon seamlessly connects his characters’ storylines over time and across continents, all the while highlighting the subtle yet piercing tensions that accompany life after childhood trauma.
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