Monday, December 14, 2020

New Dork Review's Top 10 of 2020

So...that was an unusual year, right? Thankfully, there were still plenty of great books! 

Here are my 10 favorite of the year (in no particular order):  

10. The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter — Jess Walter really hits the mark here — fascinating characters, a well-told historical story with plenty of resonance to today, and just a lot of fun. There are gangsters and anarchists, labor warriors and dirty cops, bums and even dirtier rich guys...and a whole lot of anger, I couldn't turn these pages fast enough. 

9. Cher Ami and Major Wittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney — Yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon. And yes, she's one of the two alternating narrators. But it works! And this inventive, smart historical fiction about a little-known episode of World War I is all the better for it. Like Jess Walter, Rooney is such an adroit storyteller, she got me to care a lot about something about which I knew nothing before picking up this novel. And truly, pulling off a pigeon narrator — even though the human Major Wittlesey does his duty of narrating parts, as well — is a high risk, high reward prospect. Here, it worked, and the reward to readers is indeed very high. 

8. Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru — Pure and simple, Kunzru is a genius. I didn't review this one because I couldn't — it fully blew my mind too much to write coherently about it. But I still can't stop thinking about this novel, its construction, its ideas, its terrifying timeliness. The story is about a writer who goes to an artist retreat in Germany, and winds up basically losing his damn mind. But the how and why here are just so fascinating. This is the first novel I've read of what will sure be many that deals with the unique psychological and long-lasting issues of the Trump era. This novel also includes my favorite quote of the year (it's about the protagonist visiting a psychiatrist): "Their work was predicated on the assumption that the world is bearable, and anyone who finds it otherwise should be coaxed or medicated into acceptance. But what if it isn’t? What if the reasonable reaction is endless horrified screaming?" That's how 2020 felt, didn't it? That the only natural reaction is endless horrified screaming? 

7. Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar — Inventive, passionate, and heartbreaking. This novel that blends memoir and fiction in a way I’ve never read before is about the immigrant experience and how Trump and his cult have put a hard stop on the American dream for so many. It also presents a fascinating take on how Trump and Cult 45 could possibly have happened — a combination of American greed, anti-intellectualism, and truly a desire to stick it to big city liberals. And finally it’s about what it really means to be an American and how fraught being a Muslim American (or even just an American with a “Muslim name”) can be. I intensely loved this book. 

6. Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell — Duh. Naturally a new Mitchell would be on my list. And this one, like all else of his brilliant oeuvre, is pure reading joy. Ostensibly about a 1960s folk band, really it's about music, art, and inspiration as only David Mitchell could portray them. It almost seems like a slight to call this more conventional, but don’t worry, he’s still got some Mitchell-ness waiting for you here (#horology). This might be my second favorite of Mitchell's novels, after The Bone Clocks. 

5. American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins — Everyone who puts this novel on his/her year-end list would be wise to acknowledge two things: 1) There was considerable controversy in early 2020 about the authenticity and accuracy of this novel, and 2) Remember when that controversy was the biggest of big deals? And then the world went nuts, and a literary fiasco seemed like a tempest in a teapot. Anyway, controversy aside, I really loved this tale of a mother and her son's escape from Mexico. I thought it was riveting and heartfelt, and shined an important spotlight on the plight of the migrant. 

4. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, by Christopher Beha — This long, immersive novel was a surprise inclusion on the National Book Award longlist this year. Because of that, and because it's partly about baseball, I gave it a shot. And I was immensely rewarded. In baseball, as in life, one should never underestimate one's ability to screw up. That's essentially what this novel's about. So if, like me, you like watching otherwise smart people do dumb things, this novel's for you too. It's early 2009, the excitement of Obama's election has warn off, and the grim reality of the financial crisis has set in. Set in New York City, this is the story of several characters whose lives intertwine and whose decisions (usually poor) affect each other, often in devastating ways. It's one of those terrific literary trainwrecks from which you can't look away. But I kept reading precisely because I was hoping any of them would be redeemable, that they'd learn lessons. Do they? You should check it out to find out. 

3. Deacon King Kong, by James McBride — I quick search reveals I only used the word "rollicking" one time on the blog this whole year (which is a damn shame — but 2020 didn't feel very rollicking did, it?), and it was in reference to this amazingly entertaining read. I mean, how could you not LOVE a novel with a character named Hot Sausage. Set in a Brooklyn housing project in the late 1960s, the sometimes goofiness here belies a series of serious themes of racism, injustice, and drug abuse. McBride is as good a pure storyteller as we have writing right now. 

2. Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi — Science vs. religion: The debate continues in this fantastic novel from Gyasi, who scored huge with her debut novel Homecoming. There is no sophomore slump here! You wouldn't expect a novel about such a heady subject to be so entertaining. And there's a lot going on in this novel: It's about the immigrant experience, substance abuse, family loyalty, and a lot more. But it all comes together deftly.   

1. Hollywood Park, by Mikel Jollett — This is the only non-fiction book on my list, and actually it's also the only book that IS in particular order — it's hands-down my favorite book of the year. I'm not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears reading this sad, very introspective memoir about Jollett growing up in California, being emotionally abused, struggling with substance abuse, and so much more. This is one of the more self-assured, self-aware, and well-written memoirs I've ever read. REALLY loved this book. (Oh, and the album of the same name is pretty good, too.) 

(Note: I haven't finished A Promised Land yet, but if I had before this post, it SURELY would've been on this list.)