Book Reviews · 12/14/2020

Recommended Reading 2020

Some of our editors share a few books read in 2020 that we’re still thinking about at the end of the year.

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Diane Josefowicz, book reviews editor

This year I gravitated toward books that gave shape to my dismay at our national shrug in the face of a grave and immediate existential threat. In You, Me, and the Violence (Mad Creek Books, 2017), Catherine Taylor explores how trauma warps autonomy by evacuating one’s moral sense, jamming our onboard navigation system until we gratefully turn decisions over to others, as evinced by the embrace of drone warfare by the US military and its elected and appointed enablers. Intriguingly, Taylor hints that this same weakness can also be a strength, as it also permits us to immerse ourselves in worlds created by storytellers who slip behind our eyes and help us see the world anew.

The twenty-one stories in Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda (Mad Creek Books, 2019) are nominally about water as a managed resource but altogether they paint a portrait of Americans’ indifference to collective action, exemplified this year by the mind-boggling selfishness of millions of Americans who defied simple public health recommendations like wearing a mask despite desperate pleas from frontline medical personnel and public health authorities. Svoboda’s stories suggest that this indifference conceals hostility toward people who actually care, perhaps because such caring does not clearly promise direct and tangible benefits like offers of sex or cash on the barrelhead.

By turns raucous and elegiac, Selling the Farm by Debra DiBlasi (CR Press, 2020) revisits the fractured terrain of the author’s childhood, an 880-acre Missouri farm ruled primarily by chaos. DiBlasi and her four siblings shoved and teased their ways into adulthood as their parents’ marriage disintegrated along with the farm itself, mismanaged by a grandiose man who seems to have specialized in making messes for others to clean up — a story truly for this moment.

After so much difficult reality, I was glad to escape into Jee Leong Koh’s deft and sophisticated Snow at 5 PM (Bench Press, 2020), a Nabokov-inspired novel in the form of a commentary on an anonymously authored pile of haiku rescued from a fireplace in Manhattan some fifty years before, in the midst of a plague and a reality-show presidency. I found something delightful on almost every page.

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Lacey Dunham, fiction editor

Siblings and space and the expansiveness of time. Love and life and death. Lindsey Drager’s slim novel The Archive of Alternate Endings (Dzanc Books, 2019) startled me for all it manages to encompass in beautifully compact sentences and threaded narratives. The love we might experience with our siblings; queer love and love for chosen family. The cyclical nature of time and space, the return of comets and the turning of our planet. How we shape our lives and histories through myth and storytelling. “It is a kind of magic that a story lives in those strange shapes,” a character reflects. It is a kind of magic the emotional spell Drager weaves, and the pieces that floated inside me for days after.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones, translations editor

The strangeness and the anxieties of 2020 had me more often turning to familiar favorites instead of new books in my reading this past year — something I only realized when I went to select my favorites for this round-up and a situation I look forward to remedying in the new year. However, I did read a handful of excellent new translations this year:

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Daunt Books, 2020 — UK; Open Letter, 2021 — US), translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Although quite slender, the novel accomplishes a deep dive into a chance encounter between two intriguing characters. The narrator is a recent university graduate now working at a run-down guesthouse in her hometown in the very north of South Korea. The person she meets is Kerrand, a troubled and older French artist from Normandy. Subtle and delicate, this is the kind of book whose tension comes from the way the two juxtaposed characters are both suffocating under the weight of their own lives and how their meeting creates a shift in that labored breathing, enough for each to somehow evolve.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (World Editions, 2020), translated from French by Roland Glaser, is quite possibly one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read. A very unsettling coming-of-age novel about an ostensibly ordinary suburban family, the book is essentially a meditation on predator and prey and it has the guns and stuffed trophy animals to suit. Despite this grim thematic content, the teenage narrator’s voice (the daughter) infuses the whole with a measure of fairytale magic — both the beautiful and the grotesque. An absolute page-turner.

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (The Overlook Press, 2020), translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, is a very difficult book to describe in only a few lines. Suffice it to say it’s about a young woman named Ayami, who is, in a manner of speaking, lost, and who goes on a quest that covers a single night and day. It’s about a handful of other characters, too, however, and through this cast it explores the threshold-like spaces between encounters and relationships, notions of blindness and sight, and the unsteady slide and twist of self-perception. It’s a complex book that echoes with other literatures and languages while also taking a few successful risks with its own prose. Surrealist, dreamy, fragmented.

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Steve Himmer, editor

I struggled to read this year, at least after March. Partly because my job went online so I was no longer riding the train where I normally do most of my reading. And partly because I couldn’t hold a thought in my head for more than three seconds. The books that gripped me were ones that could really hold onto a thought. Books that stared unblinking at a character’s life and reminded me what focus looks like. I had no stomach for big plots or fast action, but slow, steady books that paid careful attention to the everyday felt restorative to me.

Books like Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, a memoir by Nina Mingya Powles (The Emma Press, 2020) in which food evokes the excitement and loneliness of living and dining abroad and alone, and the way places and meals become layered with memories. Tiny Moons made me hungry, but it also reminded me when I needed it — the early isolated weeks of last spring — that there was plenty worth paying attention to already at hand.

Inlands by Elin Willows, translated by Duncan J. Lewis (Nordisk Books, 2020), follows a young woman who moves north from Stockholm to the small town where her boyfriend lives. They’ve broken up almost before she arrives but she stays despite having no other connections, taking a job at a grocery store and building a small life for herself. The willful stasis of the protagonist’s stubborn consideration of her next step, and her refusal to be defined by the relationship or its conclusion — or by the assumed cultural sense of the remote town where she’s now living being nowhere important — felt powerful and necessary.

The Shame by Makenna Goodman (Milkweed Editions, 2020) is another novel about a woman who resists being defined by her relationships and their constraints. She’s the wife of a college professor in Vermont, and the mother of small children, who can no longer resist the need to define herself for herself in her own right. It’s the voice that made this novel so good, the energy and the momentum even while narrating very small moments — which, perhaps we’ve all been reminded in these recent months of only small moments and every one of them looming large, have always been bigger than they get credit for being.

Finally, Vigdis Hjorth’s novels A House In Norway (Norvik Press, 2017) and Long Live the Post Horn! (Verso Books, 2020), both translated by Charlotte Barslund and between which I can’t choose just one. They’re each deceptively simple, straightforward depictions of women whose steady if not quite exciting lives are full of the contradictions and everyday complications of cultural politics, as all our lives are. A House In Norway gives us an artist trying to make work that speaks to the moment, and to feminism, while she herself comes up short as a property owner renting to an immigrant single mother. And Long Live the Post Horn! offers a PR consultant hired to prevent Norway privatizing its postal system and getting far more invested than she expects. By coincidence — or perhaps not, considering I enjoyed their books for such similar reasons — the above-mentioned Makenna Goodman wrote about Hjorth’s novels recently and captured the qualities I liked so much, too.

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