My eleven favorite books I read in 2020 (in alphabetical order by author’s last name):
Jennifer Finney Boylan, Good Boy: My Life In Seven Dogs and I’m Looking Through You
I’m highlighting eleven books instead of the usual ten in order to include both of Boylan’s that I read this year: her latest (and fourth) memoir, in which she reflects on different phases of her life by way of her canine companions for each one, and her second memoir, an arguably superior, immersive account of growing up as a boy in a haunted house and how it fortified an extensive search for her true self.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
Chiefly known for her great historical fantasy epic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Clarke reemerges after a long absence with a far more condensed tale than nonetheless contains multitudes. A narrative that initially presents as one thing but gradually reveals itself as entirely something else, it’s the most original novel I read this year; in this case, the act of piecing together what was actually going on was a real thrill.
Andy Greene (ed.), The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s
Having watched the entire series mostly in real time and even after breezing through this oral history, I’m still not convinced the US version of The Office is the greatest sitcom of its decade (the original UK series might be); however, I can’t deny that it’s the most influential and perhaps emblematic TV show of that time, not to mention a blast to read about, even in such intense, nerdy detail.
A.S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming
I’d never read Hamrah’s film criticism until someone shared his latest annual summation of the year’s Academy Award-nominated titles, upon which I purchased and devoured this collection of pieces from 2002-2018. One of the last books I finished before the shutdowns began, I now remember it as something from another time—especially in Hamrah’s devotion to seeing movies on a big screen and as part of a communal experience.
David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue
I’m not ranking my top books this year, but if I had to single out a clear favorite, it might be this ambitious alternate-history portrait of a short-lived British psych-rock quartet in the late 1960s. Backing away from the sci-fi elements of The Bone Clocks, this is easily my favorite novel of Mitchell’s since Black Swan Green, if not Cloud Atlas. Not everyone will love the imagined interactions with now-deceased real-life celebrities, but Mitchell’s willingness to go there, unironically is an endearing feat in itself.
Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood
I was skeptical of Noah when he took over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show—who wouldn’t be with such an iconic role? But he’s proved himself a worthy and wholly different successor, and the disarming straightforwardness in which he tells his extraordinary life story is a testament as to why. He makes what is often a horrific upbringing sound as harrowing as it needs to be, but also utterly human as he injects humor and wry commentary whenever appropriate.
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
The first book I read after everything shut down in March and one I can imagine returning to every five years or so. Spanning decades and coasts, Patchett’s mosaic of two families who become forever intertwined when the father of one sleeps with the mother of the other, Commonwealth updates the conceit of The Great American Novel for post-JFK assassination culture, packing a lot into its 300+ pages but never feeling bloated or boring.
Liz Phair, Horror Stories
I’m not surprised that Phair, as far as musicians go, has written a great memoir; however, I didn’t expect such an original and finely executed take on the format. Picking and choosing various anecdotes from her life and career in non-chronological order, the one common thread is an almost literal interpretation of the book’s title: horrible things happen in each tale, but Phair has the wisdom and talent to put them in perspective so that horror is far from the only emotion she’s eliciting.
Tegan and Sara Quin, High School
As for this musical memoir, the Quin twins have co-written a warts-and-all account of being teenagers in mid-90s Alberta. Each one’s discovery of their homosexuality is mirrored by their unearthing of a talent for making music together. By alternating chapters between the two, they also often mirror their experiences and struggles, but it’s even more fun when they diverge, allowing for a unique overview of two lives coming of age both together and apart.
Stephen Rebello, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!
Rebello co-wrote Bad Movies We Love (1993), one of the all-time best (and bitchiest) books on cinema; while this extensive behind-the-scenes account of the making of the exquisitely campy pill-popping 1967 melodrama Valley of the Dolls is only half as bitchy, it’s still a fizzy read in how meticulously it charts everything from the film’s troubled production to why it genuinely endures as a cult classic today.
Here’s my complete 2020 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):
- Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life
- Liz Phair, Horror Stories
- Alex Prud’homme, The French Chef In America: Julia Child’s Second Act
- Dylan Jones (ed.), David Bowie: The Oral History
- Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
- Tegan and Sara Quin, High School
- Augusten Burroughs, Toil and Trouble
- Brian Rea, Death Wins A Goldfish
- S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming
- Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool*
- Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
- Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, Legendary Children
- Kate Atkinson, A God In Ruins
- Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again*
- Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
- Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser
- Zadie Smith, Feel Free
- Dale Peck, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye*
- Carol Burnett, In Such Good Company
- Samantha Irby, Wow, No Thank You
- Jean Shepherd, A Fistful of Fig Newtons*
- Bill Bryson, The Body
- Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament*
- Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood
- Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
- Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker
- Paul Murray, Skippy Dies*
- Stephen Rebello, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!
- Jennifer Finney Boylan, Good Boy: My Life In Seven Dogs
- David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue
- Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls*
- Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool
- Andy Greene (ed.), The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s
- Jennifer Finney Boylan, I’m Looking Through You
- Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices
- David Rakoff, Half Empty*
- Debbie Harry, Face It: A Memoir
- Billy Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World
- Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More*
- Marilynne Robinson, Home
- Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint: Stories
- Russ Giguere and Ashley Wren Collins, Along Comes The Association
- Lindy West, Shit, Actually
- Soseki Natsume, I Am A Cat
- MFK Fisher, The Art of Eating
- Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories
- Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
- Caitlin Moran, More Than A Woman
- David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames*