These are some of the best books I read this year: I worked hard to winnow the list down to seven fiction and seven nonfiction titles. Not all were published in 2020. If I wrote a post about a book, I’ve provided the link. They’re just in order by title.
The Abstainer by Ian McGuire
A very literate historical thriller about an Irish policeman in Manchester, England in 1867. See my post here.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
An immersive, frightening, and all-too-realistic story about a mother and son on the run from a Mexican drug lord. Will they reach the U.S. border before the cartel’s henchman catch them?
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
This is auto-fiction with a raw, hungry immediacy. Akhtar’s linked stories about life in the U.S. as a Muslim, the son of immigrant parents, are unforgettable, often shocking. He writes about the bigotry he experiences as a Muslim, the narrowmindedness in his own community, and and the way those things affect his feelings about living in the U.S. It’s the right book for this time.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The third and final volume in Mantel’s brilliant fictional life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from the son of a blacksmith to Henry VIII’s confidant and enforcer. See my post here.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Eerily prescient, Donoghue’s latest claustrophobic novel is set in a hospital during the influenza pandemic of 191x and follows a nurse who cares for pregnant women who have the flu. I found this riveting for its carefully drawn characters and emotional content.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
A coming of age novel, a trenchant commentary on the lives we live today, full of brilliant set pieces, Lerner’s novel delves into many aspects of our cultural dysfunction. See my post here.
Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling
Powell is often called the English Proust; I read his magnum opus, the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time years ago and loved it. A trenchant picture of English society in the first half of the twentieth century. See my short post here.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson makes the case that caste not racism accounts for the way Blacks have been treated in our society. India and Nazi Germany provide other examples of caste-based systems to make the argument clear. An important book to read now.
Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions by Annik LaFarge
A short but pithy life of Chopin and his music. See my post here.
Georgia O’Keefe: A Life by Roxana Robinson
I am sure this is the best biography about O’Keefe and a model of biographical writing. I love Robinson’s fiction, too: Cost and Sparta are among my favorites.
God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail
Mikhail explores the fraught relationship between the Ottoman Turks and Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. See my post here.
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
Mendelsohn, a classics scholar writes about the Odyssey and his father, joining their stories together in remarkable ways. Read my post here.