Best Books from 2020
A few weeks ago, as I went through my own 2020 Reading Log, (a pull-down menu at the top of this page), I realized that some of the best books that I had read this year had never made it into my blog at all for one reason or another. This convinced me to do my own “best books of the year” list for the first time since I launched Vertigo in 2013. I wanted to create a truly manageable and readable list, so here you will find the eighteen titles I found most outstanding of the more than seventy books I have read this year. My list contains ten novels, three non-fiction titles, two volumes of poetry, one collection of essays, one book of detective fiction, and one collection of art journalism. Seven of the titles were published in 2020, five in 2019, and the remaining six are scattered across the years 1949-2016. So here goes, in order by author.
Rachel Cohen. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Artists and Writers, 1854-1967. NY: Random House, 2004. Cohen is now much more well-known for her recent book about Jane Austen, Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels. But, not being much of an Austen fan, I prefer her earlier book of thirty-six short biographical essays about how writers and artists affected each other, how their meeting—chance or otherwise—changed their work or their life. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of this book is that Cohen is such a good writer. What she does so well is give sharply observed introductions to artists and writers we all need to know better or ones we should take a second look at, like William Dean Howells, W.E.B Du Bois, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, Katharine Anne Porter, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Beauford Delaney, and Richard Avedon. It’s a bit like chemistry class; put two people together and watch for a reaction.
Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick and Other Essays. NY: The New Press, 2019. Cottom is a sociologist and MacArthur Fellow and someone everyone should read and follow. Her essays are entertaining, edgy, and wise. Although she writes primarily about the perspective and roles of Black women, her pieces range far and wide, so it’s really hard to say what any piece is really about. Let’s just say I adored Thick. Here’s Cottom on the title of her book: “Sociology comes as close to the core of where my essays start as anything else I have explored. Drawing on what ethnographers have called thick description, I finally found a label as complex as my way of thinking.” A powerful book.
Percival Everett. Telephone. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2020. Everett’s understated style is really beginning to grow on me. It’s so easy to read his novels for their compelling story lines and miss the subtle but powerful undercurrents that are playing out just below the surface. In Telephone, Zach Wells, a professor of geology and paleobiology, and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and, in the meantime, will slowly take away her speech and motor skills. Unable to do anything to help save his daughter, Zach instead heads out on a quixotic mission aimed at rescuing some women he imagines are being held captive in the New Mexican desert. Full review here.
Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis. A novel that poses as a memoir, This Tilting World is situated in Tunisia just after the beginning of the Arab Spring. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, grew up in that country, but has lived in France for many years. Her family of European origins suddenly felt unwelcome there after Tunisian independence in 1956. But she has just returned to Tunisia after a very close friend has died of a heart attack. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists on the beach not far from Tunis. So what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back over parent’s lives as Europeans embedded in Tunisian life, on her own wonderful childhood there, and then at her more complex relationship to the Tunisia of today. The power of this book lies in its vivid imagery, the immediacy of Fellous’s writing, and the intimacy of the self-examination of her narrator. The novel includes a number of photographs by the author. Full review here.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. If any book speaks directly to the year 2020, it is this one. Griffiths’s poems are tender and fearless and timely. Her grief is punctuated with anger over the killing of black men and the trauma of rape. This is both a deeply personal book of poems born out of the passing of her mother and a startlingly public book that is called into being whenever events happen and Griffiths knows she cannot be silent. “Threading the silver crust / of a nightmare with stars, I stitch / & pull my mother’s name / through white stones that do not burn / in the riverbed of blood / beneath my tongue. The moon / is a knuckle, the crown of a nightly fist / pressed against my mouth. Tears / pour from my mouth. In absentia / someone votes for my life.” (From “Good Night”) Full review here.
John Hawkes. The Cannibal. NY: New Directions, 1949. This is writing I would follow anywhere. In his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of a wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. He takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany, mostly during the final days of World War II. The novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. I haven’t read all of Hawkes’s subsequent novels, but I’m guessing that he never achieved the same intensity ever again. Full review here.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the German original of 1954 by Michael Hofmann. From the title page until the last words of the novel, Koeppen’s Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards it fatal end. In our era, when novels are often full of endless digressions, it is startling to read one which signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Not a sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. Like Koeppen’s first novel, Pigeons on the Grass, Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event, an evening performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after WWII. Unbeknownst to Siegfried, his extended family is assembling for a reunion in Rome, including a former SS general, currently in hiding, who has been convicted in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails for his role in the Final Solution against Jews. Family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will prove fatal.
Gabriel Josipovici. Forgetting. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2020. I debated for a while whether to chose this book or the two novels I read by Josipovici this year, Contre-jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard (1986) or Hotel Andromeda, (2014), which I just recently finished. But in the end, the choice became obvious. What a remarkable little book Forgetting is! Josipovici takes the subject of memory and forgetting across an incredible spectrum of subjects and writers, from Alzheimer’s to the Holocaust, from Homer to Hamlet, from Nietzsche to Donald Trump, from Laurence Sterne to Kafka. What I love about Josipovici is that he leaves little unexploded mind nuggets on nearly every page, little hints at things for the reader to go off and explore on her own. After reading Forgetting, my understanding of Hamlet is forever changed. And this is the first book I have read that coherently addresses the issue of American Civil War monuments and other relics of the “memory wars” that are currently taking place over who should be honored from our past. How Josipovici packs so much into small books never ceases to amaze me.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. While not as powerful as her 2017 novel River, I found this meditative, observational, understated novel made me continually meet her halfway and not just be a passive receptor. In Grove, a recently widowed narrator (not unlike Kinsky herself, whose husband died in 2014) goes to rural Italy to walk and reorder her life. In the process, she thinks deeply about death, nature, family, memory, and the role of art—most notably pondering the books of the Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and some of the paintings of Fra Angelico. For a novel in which literally nothing “happens” except that a woman goes on daily walks, there is exceptional richness to be had here.
I can’t recommend highly enough the unclassifiable triptych of books by Nathalie Léger, put out by the extraordinary publishing group called The Dorothy Project. This trio of smart, short books by Léger, which blur the boundaries between novel, documentary, contemporary art, art history, and memoir have all have been translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer. Asked to write a short entry for a film encyclopedia about American actress and film director Barbara Loden’s only film Wanda, Léger “got carried away,” studied everything she could about Loden and her film, and in the end created this book, Suite for Barbara Loden (2016), a rather amazing book about identity, biography, and so much more. Is it a novel? Is it a piece of documentary writing? Whatever, it’s brilliant. Exposition (2020) is about the Countess of Castiglione, supposedly the most photographed woman of the nineteenth century, and a museum exhibition that the author failed to create. And The White Dress (also 2020) is a powerful dual story about the Italian artist Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother. To create an art performance piece, Bacca decided to hitchhike through mostly war-torn countries in Europe wearing a wedding gown, but part way through she was raped and killed in Turkey. Léger pairs Bacca’s story with revelations she learns about her own mother to create an unforgettable story about two women.
Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven. NY: Penguin Random House, 2014. Mandel gives us the interwoven stories of a handful of people before, during, and after a pandemic that kills nearly everyone on Earth. (And you thought Covid-19 was dire?) Although the core of the book is about theater and a troupe of traveling actors and musicians who manage to perform Shakespeare’s plays to groups of survivors twenty years after the pandemic, I was just as fascinated by the role that the comic book series titled “Station Eleven,” which was created by one of the novel’s characters, also manages to impact the lives of so many of the book’s characters. This is a very good story, told well and tightly, not unlike watching a Hitchcock thriller.
Liam McIlvanney. The Quaker. NY: Europa Editions, 2019. I’m a sucker for a great police procedural or detective story or mystery or any creative mashup of these ingredients. I want a good mystery and I want solid writing—in other words, a guaranteed page-turner. My gold standard is a book like Laidlaw by William McIlvanney, who happens to be Liam’s father. (Who knew that writing great police procedurals was genetic?) Sometimes, the internal dynamics of the police station can be just as interesting as the actual search for a serial killer. That’s the case in this well-written police procedural, when Duncan McCormick. an outside detective, is assigned to an already grim 1969 Glasgow police station after the crew there have failed to make any progress on a case. The local cops aren’t happy. Well-written, with (to my American ears, anyway) great Scottish dialogue.
David Salle. How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. For true enlightenment about what is really going on in an artist’s work, I would always want to turn to painter David Salle, who writes brilliant, jargon-free pieces from an artist’s perspective. Salle does not write as a critic, but I think of him as an ideal writer of the kind that I aspire to here at Vertigo. “I think the task is to describe how the sensation evoked by a work of art emerges from the intersection of talent, formal decisions, and cultural context.” These are mostly reviews gathered from magazines and exhibition catalogs, but you can tell from the book’s four sections what Salle is up to: 1. “How To Give Form to an Idea,” “Being an Artist,” “Art in the World,” “Pedagogy and Polemics.”
Olga Tokarczuk. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. NY: Riverhead Books, 2019. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. A wise and often funny novel that makes great use of the work of William Blake. The narrator, Janina, dabbles in astrology and speaks up for the rights of animals. In an obscure Polish village that is filled with wonderful characters, she is looked upon by many of the locals as the crazy lady. The village becomes roiled when, one by one, a series of important local officials become murder victims. Every time that I was about ready to think that the quirkiness was getting to be over-the-top, a brilliant piece of writing pulled me right back. I can see why it won a Man Booker International Prize last year. I liked this much better than her book Flights.
Francesca Wade. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. Despite being perhaps a bit overlong for my taste, Wade’s fascinating collective biography of five prominent women writers focused on how each dealt with the challenge of being female in world where females were not meant to succeed. Between the two World Wars, each of these writers lived on London’s Mecklenburgh Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), and Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer). Wade uses this fact to weave a story of central London’s intellectual history over several decades.
Andrew Zawacki. Unsun:f/11. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2019. Unsun is a book of poetry that will force you to look at things differently, more precisely. Zawacki pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from, whether that’s from chemistry or metallurgy or wherever, no problem. I couldn’t grasp most of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through, but I knew I was reading something astonishing. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing.” Full review here.