It’s been awhile. It’s been a hell of a difficult year. And while I could spend, well, what’s left of 2020 recounting and analyzing all of the ways in which my life has changed, I would rather look back on the books that I read this year and share my favorites with you.
My reading habits fluctuated a lot this year. I spent much of 2020 unemployed and part of it in lockdown, and I thought that this would lead to me reading far more. Sometimes it did, but sometimes I found my anxiety and depression so distracting that I could barely focus all the way through a page. I listened to a lot more audiobooks than usual, because I could do so while going for long drives, or crocheting, or playing Animal Crossing. At other times, my need for escapism and something to challenge and engage my mind led me to read 10+ books a month and reach for titles that had seemed intimidating or too complex to me in the past.
Despite those challenges, I read some great books this year. These are the ones, in no particular order, that stand out to me as noteworthy.
Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty
I read several Maggie Nelson books this year. I started with The Argonauts because of course I did, but rather than include it as the obvious choice, I selected The Art of Cruelty instead. Nelson’s examination of the use of cruelty–against the self, the audience, and others–specifically in relation to performance art fascinated me. I knew little about performance art, but Nelson’s ability to describe performances that are by their nature ephemeral and to evoke a visceral response was engrossing. I finished the book without definitive answers, but something I think is better: more and better questions to ask.
Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
As I read through as many Maggie Nelson books as I could find through my local libraries, Anne Carson kept coming up as one of her influences. Naturally, I segued into a binge of her work, as well. Although I got a nasty shock when I remembered that Eros the Bittersweet is beloved of Jenny, The L Word’s least beloved character, I can’t hold that against this brilliant book. Carson is a translator and an academic, but she is also a poet, and her poetic sensibilities shine in her prose as she picks apart Greek depictions of romantic love, starting with Sappho. It’s a gorgeous piece of scholarship that engaged my intellect and induced many a wistful sigh; not a commonplace achievement of academic writing, in my experience. I read this a handful of months before it became personally relevant, and I’ve since revisited portions of it; I believe it to be a book that will not quite finish with me for years, if ever.
Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven
As 2020 wore on, I found myself unwilling to read any book dealing with plagues, pandemics, or disease, which makes it a lucky thing that I read The Monster of Elendhaven near the beginning of the pandemic. It’s short, dark, and nasty in the best ways, with a grimy setting, an antihero bent on unleashing a biological weapon, and of course, a monster. I gulped it down in a single day, and would have been happy with more. Also, judging from Giesbrecht’s twitter, I would probably like hanging out with her.
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
I originally tried to read House of Leaves something like ten years ago, as I house-sat for one of my professors. Predictably, reading a book about a weird house that grows rooms and shifts its shape without warning did not combine well with staying in an unfamiliar house. I also lost patience with the more challenging elements of the text: the dual narratives, the labyrinthine footnotes, and the moments when the text in general goes all kinds of cattywampus. But this time, I was better equipped to appreciate the way this book is built, and I was in dire need of something in which to lose myself. House of Leaves provided the escape that I needed, though I should advise that it’s not the kind of escapism for everyone. (I found that my reading was enhanced by listening to the podcast Wound & Stab, which discusses the book in chunks. I listened to episodes as I finished each chunk, to see if my interpretations were on track and to note if the podcasters caught things that I had missed.)
Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
Reading books about houses seems appropriate in 2020, when so many of us were confined to our living spaces, but unfortunately I cannot say that it was an intentional theme on my part. In the Dream House relates the story of Machado’s abusive relationship with her ex in a series of vignettes, conceptualizing the abuse as a disorienting physical space. Though it’s an emotionally intense and troubling book, it’s also one that I struggled to stop reading because it is just so well-written and compelling. I recommend that you get your hands on a physical copy, if possible, solely for the choose-your-own-adventure section.
Laura Jane Grace, Tranny
I came to like and respect Laura Jane Grace in a slightly backward way, reading her memoir before I listened to any of her music, with only a vague secondhand familiarity with her based on having a high school friend who listened to Against Me!. I wonder how my experience of Tranny would have differed if I had come to it with as a fan, with a fan’s expectations. I suppose it would mainly have been a trade-off of the music recommending the book rather than the other way around: While I lacked the musical context, I’m finding that I can now pick up on the themes and stories within the songs that she discusses in the book. I listened to it on audio, and liked her voice both in the narrative and aural sense, and I liked how she doesn’t strive for a sterile, practiced likability that characterizes some celebrity memoirs. Tranny isn’t a book that comforts cis people or holds our hands and tells us we’re good allies while presenting an idealized image of a trans woman (if the clutch-your-pearls title didn’t tip you off), which is why I think more cis people need to read it. (I also think that everyone should listen to her 2020 album Stay Alive, simply because it’s wonderful.)
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves
For the first quarter to half of 2020, I made it a goal to read more books that I owned, rather than depending as heavily on library checkouts. While I’ve since weeded my personal collection drastically, at the time I was surrounded by unread books that I had hoarded, some of them following me through multiple moves and languishing on the shelf for years. One of them was Women Who Run With the Wolves, which analyzes fairy and folktales through a feminist and psychoanalytic lens, and which I had always viewed as dense, long, and intimidating. Once I dug into it, I found my previous assumptions a bit silly, but I was also glad that I put off reading it until I did, because the examinations of powerlessness and suppressed wildness resonated with me more than I believe they would have in the past. A book to revisit. (Note: There are a lot of references to ovaries that struck me as a bit gender essentialist; however, I was expecting far worse from a feminist book published in 1992, and I don’t think that the experiences Estés describes only apply to cis women.)
Sara Gran, Come Closer
I love a good possession narrative. I find them to be powerful metaphors for how women and girls are treated by cisheteropatriarchy, for the changes that our bodies and relationships undergo, and for vilified sexual desire. But as a horror fan, I also think that they are deeply scary and, therefore, very fun. Come Closer differs from a lot of possession stories I’ve consumed in that the victim is not a teenage girl, but a grown woman, whose life is irrevocably transformed by the demon that possesses her. Gran writes some eerie and gorgeously atmospheric dream sequences in this book, something I admire as a writer, because it’s difficult to write a dream sequence that doesn’t burden the reader by making them suspend disbelief twice. I also admire how smoothly she transitions her narrator into unreliability, as she becomes more and more dangerous to those around her, while maintaining the reader’s sympathy for her. The idea of losing control of oneself and being unable to prevent your world from unraveling is a compelling fear, and one that Come Closer dives into headfirst.
Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires
It occurs to me that perhaps this list is a bit heavy, a bit dour, so here’s a lighter book for you. It’s got a weird take on vampires, a Designing Women vibe, and a great cover design. Maybe I’m tempted to do a tiny bit of analysis of how Hendrix depicts race and the way it plays into whose problems are viewed as important right here, but I’m not going to, because you can just read this one for fun if you want to! I’m told that people read for fun, sometimes! I swear that I read books for fun, despite how it might seem! (But also, pay attention to race when you read this book, because it’s interesting and relevant, and because reading is more fun when you’re thinking about it.)
Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
Okay, my beloved Mina recommended this one to me, and I’m aware that its inclusion on my “best of 2020” list runs the risk of looking like I’m trying to impress her, or that my enjoyment of the book is unduly influenced by her recommending it. And I mean, I am always hoping to impress her, true enough, and I do have nice memories of reading it sitting beside her and taking breaks to comment on a passage or read a quote aloud and discuss it, memories that are inextricable from the text for me. But I would have liked Under the Net even had I read it without her influence. It’s a joyful experience to read a narrator who is unreliable not because he’s lying or a bad person, but because he is comically self-involved and convinced of the accuracy of his own perceptions of the people in his life, which leads him astray repeatedly. There are questions to ponder about the nature of love and friendship and how we seek to understand one another, but there’s also dog kidnapping and explosions, and stunningly perfect writing. Murdoch earned her own spot on this list.