2019 was a great year for reading, and 2020 is shaping up to be just as exciting, but sometimes we fall in love with books that aren’t necessarily new releases. Below, 10 authors—including Bernardine Evaristo, Emma Straub, and Anna Wiener—tell us about the books that captured their literary hearts this year.
Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie: This year I was totally smitten with How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs. It’s not a handbook, but a collection of stories around lust, love, and sexuality about characters of Jamaican descent both living on the island, or who have made their way to pastures new. It’s the only book I’ve read more than once since it was published. Alexia Arthurs is a a true voyeur when it comes to human nature.
Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other: In Don’t Touch My Hair, Emma Dabiri has written a fantastically interesting and original book which explores black hair through the prism of history, culture, feminism, and philosophy. (Note: The U.S. edition, Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture, will be published by Harper Perennial in May 2020.) Runner-up: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, a historical thriller about an enslaved Jamaican woman who is sent to live in Georgian London, where she is eventually accused of murder. Collins brilliantly reinvents the gothic novel through the eyes of a black woman.
Emily Gould, author of Perfect Tunes (out April 14): Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund, was my favorite book I read this year, not just for its spare Scandinavian style and gripping substance, but also because it gave me a new framework for thinking about our current political moment. This book made vivid to me the way that an abuser can wield family loyalty against his victim, because scapegoating any powerless individual is always much easier than changing the structure of power. This sounds like such a downer but somehow I felt lighter after reading it—more clear-minded and less alone.
Myriam Gurba, author of Mean: Mona Eltahawy’s womxnifesto, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, thrills me. Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American writer and activist, is serious about revolutionizing reality. I love serious women, especially when they champion fun and vital things like ambition, lust, and violence, and Eltahawy practices intersectional feminism, meaning that she speaks directly to women like me, who experience multiple marginalizations. One of the most provocative turns taken by Eltahawy’s rhetoric draws on the work of American legal scholar Mary Anne Franks. Franks insists that the gendered distribution of violence in modern societies remains intentionally suboptimal. Men hold and maintain a monopoly on it and to correct this asymmetry, women’s violence should not only be encouraged; it should be protected and publicized too.
Lily King, author of Writers & Lovers (out March 3): I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again slowly, one chapter a day for nearly two weeks, to stretch out the pleasure and exhilaration of it. Don’t expect Olive redux. Don’t expect Strout to tell more of the same Olive stories. Olive, like most humans—and can we name a fictional characters from this century who is more excruciatingly human than Olive Kitteridge?—is morphing. She is molting. Old words are bitter in her mouth. Old scenes replay themselves. Self-awareness comes in brief flickers. How Strout has managed to write an unsentimental and razor-sharp portrait of this iconic curmudgeon letting down her guard and learning from her mistakes I do not know. But she has, and it is an exquisite experience.
Trisha Low, author of Socialist Realism: Amidst widespread structural violence and inequality, I’ve found a beacon in Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, a speculative novel that doesn’t serve us blind political hope, but refuses futility by multiplying representations of ourselves—indeed, our world—into a funhouse of feints. First, an origin story plucked right out of authenticity literature: Two Asian-American boys in small-town Ohio sequester themselves in the universe of comic books. But Lim uses this narrative epicenter as a way to detonate a complex network of events and characters. Superheroes live in plain sight, attending protests at Zuccotti Park and performances at Zinc Bar alike. In Lim’s work, nothing makes sense except for the sharp absurdity of living within capitalism, and the real threads of resistance that worm their way out of our fantastical, perhaps even delusional visions for a better world. Built out of the crime scene of our past decade, Dear Cyborgs is a book of perfect illogic that I’m grateful will sustain me through the next.
Lauren Mechling, author of How Could She: I loved Why Not Say What Happened?, Ivana Lowell’s juicy and perfectly dissolute memoir of growing up in an aristocratic British family (it’s a great companion piece to The Crown). I’ve also been on an Alice Adams kick. Vintage just released a mega collection of her short stories, and if you like your women’s fiction cool and dry, you’re welcome for this recommendation.
Emma Straub, author of All Adults Here (out May 5): I almost never start a book totally blind, but when I opened Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here (or hit play, actually, because I listened on audio first), I had skipped the letter from the publicist, the jacket copy, everything. And so I was able to just let him tell the story. The novel is hilarious, moving, and never goes where you expect. It is, as the young people say, fire.
Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Verge (out Feb 4): Hands down, the book that carried me through the year was Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I’m willing to bet this book carried legions of us, with the brutal and yet also tender beauty of the poetics, the intimacy between bodies, the weight of the heart suspended inside longing. This is a book that multiplies meanings, but at the center is a queer coming-of-age story as well as a bicultural family history. The shadow of a mother-son relationship and the shadow of the America-Vietnam relationship haunts the story. I fell in love with the narrator a hundred times over. I also felt suspended between the atomized mother who cannot fully understand the language of her son, a son’s attempt to both inhabit as well as break free from his own family history, and the force of nature it takes to wrestle the gap. The language went into my body.
Anna Wiener, author of Uncanny Valley (out Jan 14): What a pleasure it was to read Caleb Crain’s Overthrow, a novel about political crisis, political optimism, technology, divination, surveillance, queerness, digital subversion, and the profound possibilities of empathy. The book, which is set in the near past, follows a small group of friends—all young, all attempting to carve out a life—who refer to themselves as the “Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings.” The group lives in an unnamed but familiar city, where there is growing excitement and energy around a particular public, collective political action, à la Occupy Wall Street. Some members have telepathic powers—maybe—which lead to an unusual style of digital exploitation. All are struggling for selfhood, connection, privacy, and intimacy, in a time when such pursuits can feel nearly Sisyphean. Perspectives shift, as do individual commitments. The reader begins to question certain narrative realities; this is part of the fun.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue