2020 in books

I thought this might be the year I beat my 2015 reading record: 89 books, 32,379 pages (thanks, Goodreads). Even a pandemic is no match for commuting from Astoria to the Meatpacking District, I guess.

I came close this year with 79 books, 31,284 pages. That mismatch between books and pages relative to 2015 is because my biggest reading accomplishment this year was the combined doorstops of Robert Caro: The Power Broker and the first three volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. (The fourth volume just arrived on my doorstep. Yes, I feel unworthy for knowing I can’t finish it in the next 13 hours.)

Reading Robert Caro makes me feel much as I did after I read Moby-Dick my sophomore year of college: like a nether layer of the world has revealed itself to me as a playground where obsessions are to be conquered. Only when I read Moby-Dick I thought it was a playground where everyone conquered their obsessions aside one other, and it turns out that the playground is for megalomaniacs. The rest of us are just equipment.

My other great lesson this year, upon reviewing what I read, is that most of my three-star reviews on Goodreads are really two stars, and most of my reviews on Goodreads are three stars, only I feel guilty rating something two stars or fewer unless it’s bad enough to make me angry.

Anyway, here is a selection of my favorite and least favorite reads this year.

Books I enjoyed not by white ladies

  • Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Pitchaya Sudbanthad): I visited Chiang Mai after a business trip to Bangkok in 2018 and signed up for what I thought was a hiking tour of a nature reserve outside the city. It turned out to be a visit to this mountainside village where we were meant to take photos of the residents, and I watched this pasty British girl find a puppy that she carried around until her tour group left, like it was a purse. I felt dirty. I’ve also read a lot this year, mostly from the New York Times’ Hannah Beech (of the infamous exotic fruit beat), on the political situation in Thailand. It’s weird to realize that you waltzed into and out of a country without noticing that it was a repressive graveyard for human rights. This book is entertaining in its own right, and beyond that, enlightening on Thailand’s past, present, and likely future.
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors (Kawai Strong Washburn): This book was written by a former colleague, a quiet guy whose office was down the hall from mine for a couple years in 2013-14. Who knew he had this whole rich world percolating in his head?!
  • Trick Mirror (Jia Tolentino): I would be lying if I said I haven’t fantasized about meeting Jia Tolentino at some publishing industry event one day when I become a bestselling author and we hit it off and become besties.
  • The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett): Forgive me for hyping something that’s already super buzzy, but I actually really liked this one (more so than The Mothers, which I was lukewarm on).
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson): As it turns out, everyone who’s been recommending this book for the past decade was right! Check back in 2030 for my timely review of Caste.
  • We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (Samantha Irby): I had ignored Samantha Irby for years because I thought that she was a Sloane Crosley type (see “Books that made me resent the publishing industry,” below). What a mistake! She is a goddess!

Books I enjoyed by white ladies

  • The Glass Hotel (Emily St. John Mandel): It’s not quite as good as Station Eleven, but will anyone ever be emotionally stable enough to read that again, anyway?
  • How Should a Person Be (Sheila Heti): There are about two people in the world to whom I would recommend Sheila Heti and one of them recommended her to me, so I’m mostly just yeeting this recommendation into the void, but there it is.
  • The Witch Elm (Tana French): Tana French continues to do no wrong.

Zoom background books that were actually good

  • Age of Ambition (Evan Osnos): I read this New Yorker-style review of modern China — i.e., close-ups on characters whose lives exemplify themes — in April against a backdrop of chaos spiraling out from Wuhan. It was timely.
  • The Man Without a Face (Masha Gessen): Russia! Yikes!
  • MBS (Ben Hubbard): Saudi Arabia! Yikes!
  • Our Man (George Packer): Further fodder for the “Ban Men” cannon, told in juicy detail.
  • The Power Broker (Robert Caro): Fuck yeah, I actually read The Power Broker! If you’ve ever ground your teeth in an endless wait for a) the G train to arrive, b) the G train to move between 21st Street and Court Square, or c) the Van Wyck to not be a parking lot, well, get ready to grind your teeth again.
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vols. 1-3 (Robert Caro): Fuck yeah, not only did I read The Power Broker, but THREE other Robert Caro books! This one is great for anyone who wants to feel more erudite in their rage when reading about Mitch McConnell’s Senate maneuvers.

Books I’m ashamed to have liked as much as I did

  • Apartment (Teddy Wayne): A book by a white male MFA grad about white male MFA students? I mean, on principle, I should have set it on fire, but I’m glad I didn’t.
  • Dear Edward (Ann Napolitano): God, I love reading about plane crashes.
  • The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani): The perfect page-turner, and it’s French, which means it’s automatically not trashy, right?
  • Utopia Avenue (David Mitchell): And here I thought I hated plot contrivances and deuses ex machina! I guess as long as it’s a fable about musicians in the swinging ’60s, I can forgive anything.

Books that hit extremely close to home

  • The Groom Will Keep His Name (Matt Ortile): Never did I ever think that the Burger King down the street from my high school would be immortalized in literature, then my old friend and classmate got a book deal. (This elegant book is about more than eating French fries in the back of someone else’s minivan. Read it!)
  • My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell): Okay, dating someone a decade older than you when you’re a fully grown adult is hardly comparable to a high school teacher dating their student, but wow, it’s weird to see a character in a book say almost verbatim things that were said to you in your salad days!
  • Uncanny Valley (Anna Wiener): I was lukewarm on this book about an English major who tripped into the technology industry in 2012 because I tend to roll my eyes at all the English majors pontificating about the evils of Silicon Valley, and then a couple months after I finished it I realized I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since and began to notice all of the evils she called out that I’ve been ignoring for the past 8 years since I myself tripped into the technology industry in 2012, a year after completing my English degree. Yikes!

Books that were almost, but not quite

  • In Our Mad and Furious City (Guy Gunaratne): I truly would have had no idea what this book was about were it not for the back-cover blurb (“…after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city”). Not because I couldn’t follow the vernacular, either.
  • In Pursuit of Disobedient Women (Dionne Searcey): I feel like a memoir of your time as the New York Times West Africa correspondent, published in the year of our Lord 2020, rings a little hollow if you don’t even try to grapple with the fact that you’re white.
  • The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern): I decided to finish out this year by rereading The Night Circus in hopes of washing the taste of this one from my mouth, though I was afraid I might discover upon revisiting Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel that I had romanticized it. It holds up, though I can see how fine the line between stylized and twee is now, having seen her cross it.
  • Transcription (Kate Atkinson): You know how the magic of Kate Atkinson is how she finds the humor in bleak situations? Well, I guess she can’t always find the humor. (I did also read her debut this year, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which was a five-star gem. She remains a goddess, albeit a flawed one.)

Books other people liked more than I did

  • The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (N.K. Jemisin) series: Every so often I think I might like fantasy, but I can’t help it if people going on endless journeys or stabbing each other with obelisks for a thousand pages just bores the shit out of me.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson): Like, it was cute, but also… kind of offensive?
  • Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie): I’m not smart enough for literature. Sorry.
  • Normal People (Sally Rooney): I liked it, but everyone who says it’s better than Conversations With Friends is wrong.
  • Three Women (Lisa Taddeo): This book was VERY SERIOUS!!!!!

Books that made me resent the publishing industry

(You could also call this category the “Sloane Crosley Award for Talentless Hacks With Connections.”)

  • Brother & Sister (Diane Keaton): Diane Keaton did not miss her calling.
  • The Burning House (Ann Beattie): Does anyone actually like short stories? Would I feel differently if I were in the ’80s doing a lot of coke?
  • The Recovering (Leslie Jamison): Imagine if you wrote a book, and then you went back through it and wrote every sentence two more times in increasingly ornate language, and then someone let you publish that.

a very covid christmas

I’m a bad but cowardly driver. It’s a useful combination — I’ve never merged so confidently into someone’s blind spot that I can’t swerve back at the last minute — but it means I’ve felt my heart stop more often than I’d prefer. Once in high school, en route to a party hosted by the crush who told me he liked to talk to his girlfriend about fun things and to me about serious things, I was jamming to “Creep” (Radiohead, not TLC. I’m the serious one!) and in my agony started to exit straight into another grey Honda. Its driver blasted me out of my communion with Thom Yorke and I had to pull in the shoulder for a minute to recover.

God knows why that’s the dodged bullet that’s come to mind this week as I recover from the coronavirus.

Yes, reader, I caught the creeping crud. My case is mild. I had a sore throat for a day or two, then what felt like the kind of sinus infection I always had during finals at Vassar that makes you cough when you lie down. It seemed likelier that it was the highly contagious illness infecting millions worldwide than a cold, so though I didn’t have the most common symptoms, I sent in for a test.

The NHS mailed me a shrink-wrapped Q-tip, and following this handsome doctor’s instructions, I stuck it into my brain. Two days later, they told me that I had it. I told a kind Scottish contact tracer about all the grocery stores I visited before I took ill and added another bottle of cough syrup to my Sainsbury’s delivery.

I’ve wondered a few times this winter whether I had died without noticing. Every morning I wake up and then I click buttons and talk into a pile of metals extracted from someone else’s backyard until it’s time to go to bed again. One of my best friends gestated and birthed a baby between the last time I saw her and now. I don’t know if there’s any gray left in my father’s hair or if it’s all gone white.

I got my results the Friday afternoon before our office “shut” for the holidays. It felt sinful to skip out for a mere cold, so I’d canceled only one meeting in the days prior and muted myself while I coughed during the other ones.

I don’t have the stomach for the hardcore self-sacrifice you need to document on LinkedIn to really make it in Silicon Valley, but I do dabble in performative masochism. I took a flight once with pink eye in both eyes. I’ve bought numbing sprays and cough syrups with labels I can’t read in a few foreign countries so I could show up to align the boxes on a PowerPoint that the speaker would forget to click forward on anyway. The rhetoric of “self-care” grates on me as much as calling someone out for “beating” their illness, as if not dying is anything but random or, if you prefer, divine, or as if I have a legitimate claim to skip out on clicking buttons on my computer because my throat’s a little sore. I’d be sitting either way.

Is illness next to godliness? I felt holy the last time I recovered from an illness that other people die from, too. That’s vile, but no more so than wallowing in my air-conditioned apartment because I don’t like Webex. I don’t feel guilty for not being dead. I feel lucky, and seen. I’ve dodged plenty of bullets in my incautious lifetime and as grimy as it feels to admit it, I like the praise. If I don’t get a gold star for getting out of bed in the morning, I’ll take one for getting over my mild cough.

The thing about covid that reminds me of not combusting on the side of the 215 highway near Henderson is that I can tell, viscerally, how much worse it could have been. I can feel in my lungs where the death rattle could form. Maybe I’d have noticed the same during my sinus infections if I hadn’t been busy crafting a harebrained argument from reading I only skimmed. Maybe it’s more natural to contemplate death the less life there is to distract you from it.

That sounds bleak. I don’t mean for it to. Having not died, I’m eager to get on not dying as I have since I first came on the scene of dying-or-not some three decades ago.

I keep telling people that I’m looking forward to looking back on this. I like to think about telling my friend’s daughter one day about the year we tried to keep scallions alive in glasses of water on the windowsill, because there’s no use in trying to land the weight of caprice on someone until they feel it themselves, sitting shaken in the driver’s seat on the highway shoulder or learning the news of a death — or a birth — in the tiny screen. Things happen or they don’t and yes, I still resent those people in charge who won’t make the decisions they’re supposed to and those people not in charge foaming at the mouth over something that Ben Franklin of the key and the kite probably wouldn’t have worried about. I’ve done what I can to hedge against all that. Now, I wait.