2020 Booklist

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):

  1. Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life
  2. Liz Phair, Horror Stories
  3. Alex Prud’homme, The French Chef In America: Julia Child’s Second Act
  4. Dylan Jones (ed.), David Bowie: The Oral History
  5. Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
  6. Tegan and Sara Quin, High School
  7. Augusten Burroughs, Toil and Trouble
  8. Brian Rea, Death Wins A Goldfish
  9. S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming
  10. Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool*
  11. Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
  12. Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, Legendary Children
  13. Kate Atkinson, A God In Ruins
  14. Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again*
  15. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
  16. Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser
  17. Zadie Smith, Feel Free
  18. Dale Peck, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye*
  19. Carol Burnett, In Such Good Company
  20. Samantha Irby, Wow, No Thank You
  21. Jean Shepherd, A Fistful of Fig Newtons*
  22. Bill Bryson, The Body
  23. Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament*
  24. Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood
  25. Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
  26. Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker
  27. Paul Murray, Skippy Dies*
  28. Stephen Rebello, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!
  29. Jennifer Finney Boylan, Good Boy: My Life In Seven Dogs
  30. David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue
  31. Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye
  32. Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
  33. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls*
  34. Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool
  35. Andy Greene (ed.), The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s
  36. Jennifer Finney Boylan, I’m Looking Through You
  37. Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices
  38. David Rakoff, Half Empty*
  39. Debbie Harry, Face It: A Memoir
  40. Billy Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World
  41. Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More*
  42. Marilynne Robinson, Home
  43. Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint: Stories
  44. Russ Giguere and Ashley Wren Collins, Along Comes The Association
  45. Lindy West, Shit, Actually
  46. Soseki Natsume, I Am A Cat
  47. MFK Fisher, The Art of Eating
  48. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories
  49. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
  50. Caitlin Moran, More Than A Woman
  51. David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames*

Liz Phair, “Exile In Guyville”


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #39 – released June 22, 1993)

Track listing: 6’1″ / Help Me Mary / Glory / Dance of the Seven Veils / Never Said / Soap Star Joe / Explain It To Me / Canary / Mesmerizing / Fuck and Run / Girls! Girls! Girls! / Divorce Song / Shatter / Flower / Johnny Sunshine / Gunshy / Stratford-On-Guy / Strange Loop

Like Brian Eno, Gordon Gano (of the Violent Femmes) or maybe even Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Liz Phair’s voice is all wrong. At times, she can just barely hold a tune, and she avoids vibrato as if it was a skunk crossing her path. Rob Sheffield once wrote she sounds like “Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag”, still the best assessment of her tone I’ve ever read. But like the other artists mentioned above, Phair succeeded despite her vocal limitations, getting by on her wits, her moxie and most of all, her singular perspective.

When this 26-year-old Chicagoan made Exile In Guyville, the world recognized it as low-fi, guitar-based indie rock, but it didn’t sound exactly like anything else at the time; arguably, two-plus decades on, no one has ever fully replicated its particular, driving, disarming allure (not even Phair herself). As debut albums go, it’s one of the all-time best, up there with Songs of Leonard Cohen, Little Earthquakes, The Modern Lovers, etc. (plus a handful of records I’ll cover later in this project); however, it’s also one of the most misunderstood albums in some circles, both then and now. Phair and Exile were loathed as much as they were loved, for many reasons—some fully plausible, others regrettably inevitable.

What first caught most people’s attention about Exile was its explicit sexual content. After all, the record’s catchiest song is called “Fuck and Run”, where, over crisply strummed chords, Phair reminisces about a decade-plus of casual hook-ups, plainly lamenting, “Whatever happened to a boyfriend, the kind of guy who makes love ‘cause he’s in it?” The repeated line, “I didn’t think this would happen again,” provides the song’s hook and if the word “fuck” weren’t in the title and lyrics, it might’ve been a radio hit. Elsewhere, it was hard to ignore such tracks as “Glory” (a folkish ode to oral sex) or the infamous “Flower”, where Phair recites both a singsong melody and countermelody of smut talk (“I want to be your blow job queen” being a typical example). I’m guessing Phair wasn’t the first woman to ever sing such graphic lyrics, but she was undoubtedly the first that most people ever heard doing so, and she achieved instant notoriety for it.

But here’s the thing about Exile’s sexual content—the real, raw, explicit stuff only comprises a teeny tiny fraction of the album. Most Exile tracks are clean enough to get unedited radio airplay, and the hoopla over Phair’s occasionally dirty mouth overshadowed other capabilities—namely that she was a gifted singer/songwriter. MTV even aired videos (albeit almost exclusively on 120 Minutes) for two of Exile’s singles: “Never Said”, where in the chorus, Phair repeats a simple phrase (“I never said nothing”) over a remedial riff but does so with enough gusto and variation (often stretching the word “I” out to six or eight syllables) that she justifies sustaining it past three minutes, and “Stratford-On-Guy”, a tune about “flying into Chicago at night” which weds her most poetic lyrics (“As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid / The plan of a city was all that you saw”) to her most effective, sparkling, propulsive chorus.

In actuality, Phair pissed a lot of people off for reasons other than content. Some questioned her genuineness as an artist due to her roots (she grew up in Winnetka, a tony Chicago suburb), her good looks (she’s topless on Exile’s cover, which was taken in a photo booth) and her connections within Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood scene, unofficially dubbed “Guyville” by its insiders (which most notably also included the band Urge Overkill). Add to that Phair’s rudimentary vocals and shakiness as a live performer, and you can see why some dismissed her as overrated once Exile received increased media attention. Blame jealousy, classism or, as Gina Arnold eloquently does in her 33 1/3 series book on the album, sexism; also consider the mere notion that Phair would have the balls to suggest the whole LP was a song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stones’ revered 1972 opus Exile On Main Street. You could practically see hundreds of (mostly male) rock critics rolling their eyes at such a claim (some have suggested Phair simply made that shit up and I’m not interested enough in the Stones’ album to try to link it up with Exile On Guyville, although in her book Arnold makes a decent effort.)

The point missed by all these naysayers was that Phair, while an unconventional, shit-stirring talent, was nonetheless a real talent: that Exile in Guyville holds together so well and mostly sounds timeless is vindication of such. On opening rave-up “6’1””, she instantly wins you over with her underdog persona, her declaration of empowerment not necessarily dynamic, but certainly relatable and affecting. From there, she maintains that camaraderie through tales of roommate troubles (“Help Me Mary”), succinct denouncements of hero worship (“Soap Star Joe”), earned assertions of self-worth (the softly churning “Mesmerizing”, which musically could be bedsit bubblegum) and affably candid self-awareness (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”, where she comments on her confession that she gets away with “what the girls call murder” via her own sarcastic backing vocal). She’s so effortlessly good at appearing conversational that every phrase of the exquisite “Divorce Song” not only registers but resonates long enough to have a life of its own—what other 26-year-old you know could come up with something as damning and wise as, “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead / but if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am”?

At eighteen tracks, Exile In Guyville is technically a double album (at least on vinyl), but at 55 minutes, it easily fits on one CD so superficially it doesn’t have the scope or breadth (not to mention length) of, for instance, English Settlement. Still, the album’s not all precise pop like “Fuck and Run” or “Never Said”. Its intimate swagger often cannily gives off the impression of being recorded in Phair’s bedroom (although it wasn’t); further underlining this aesthetic are tracks where she deviates from the indie pop ideal and aims for something darker, moodier, stranger—sides of Phair’s persona not as outwardly apparent or sensational as the aspiring Blow Job Queen. There are multiple stripped-down, guitar-and-voice numbers (“Glory”, “Dance of the Seven Veils”, “Gunshy”), a reverb-drenched piano-and-voice mood piece (“Canary”), a song made to seem comparatively lush by a backing, omniscient electronic hum (“Explain It To Me”) and another song (“Johnny Sunshine”) broken into two disparate parts, shifting from bluesy grit to dreamy psychedelia.

“Shatter” opens with a guitar strumming at waltz-tempo, the same four bars repeated until they take on a certain majesty. Feedback and other muted layers of noise come in one by one; then, Phair’s vocal finally appears at 2:30, her words cutting right to the bone (“And somethin’ about just being with you / slapped me right in the face, nearly broke me in two”). It’s the longest song on Exile, lasting over five minutes, with Phair pensively concluding, “Honey, I’m thinking maybe, you know just maybe, maybe,” off into a growing feedback ether. It’s all as frank as “Flower” (which happens to be the next track), but with a vulnerability that’s somewhat unexpected and almost revelatory.

Exile won that year’s Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” critics poll, and Phair was wise enough not to even try to replicate its sound (if not further its success). Her subsequent albums were much more polished and professional sounding, to the point where she worked with mainstream producers The Matrix on her fourth album, 2003’s Liz Phair and got an actual top 40 hit out of it (“Why Can’t I”); while I like some of Whip-Smart (1994) and a lot of Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), neither are as special as Exile. Perhaps Exile’s essence was simply impossible for Phair to replicate once it brought her her success. Now middle-aged, she has stayed out of the limelight for most of the past decade. I’d like to think Phair has another Exile lurking within her, but even if she doesn’t, she remains that rare artist whose legacy will always be firmly secured by one heck of a debut album.

Up next: We’ll be who we want to be.

“Divorce Song”