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.

we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

I can’t figure out why YouTube wants me to watch Carpool Karaoke and segments from the Ellen Show so badly. Most days, I watch two videos on YouTube: a yoga video from one of a few channels that I like, and one of two videos with a sequence of exercises for unlocking your lockjaw, both from a movie-handsome chiropractor who wears a wedding ring the size of a cuff scrounged from antiquity.

I know I should relax and learn to love the algorithm, but I don’t get it. I watched the Carpool Karaoke episode where they acted out “The Sound of Music” on the streets of L.A., and obviously I’ve watched every Taylor Swift interview Ellen has conducted, but beyond that, it’s all yoga and that chiropractor teaching me how to massage my suboccipitals, all the time.

(Pause to acknowledge how how precisely on-brand my YouTube tastes are. Second pause to glowingly recommend Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, which you should absolutely catch before it wins Best Picture in a few hours.)

Current working conspiracy theories:

  1. Nobody binge-watches yoga classes or chiropractic instruction videos (though I did unearth what might be a subculture for watching videos of other people having chiropractic adjustments; just leaving that nugget there for you all to chew on so I don’t have to keep doing it alone) and the algorithm is trying to point me to videos that I’m likelier to binge-watch. Counterpoint: The algorithm isn’t pointing me to videos from Tony Awards performances from the ’70s and ’80s, so why is it even bothering?
  2. The chiropractor’s channel is several helpful videos on at-home exercises to alleviate various ailments, from TMJ syndrome (the technical term for “I can’t open my mouth because I grind my teeth so ferociously that I’ve nearly bitten through my night guard”) to tennis elbow, and… a video hawking the benefits of not vaccinating your children. The algorithm, which resents my affinity for woo-woo, is subtly trying to point me back toward science. If only the algorithm could see the look on my disgruntled face right now as I listen to a child cry in my vicinity.
  3. If you seek relief through stress through yoga and movie-handsome chiropractor videos, and also you’ve watched the original Broadway cast of Les Mis perform “One Day More” at the 1987 Tonys more than three times, your innate character is one that wants to watch Carpool Karaoke. Lie back and think of England (James Corden’s accent will help).
  • The problem with #3 is my niggling paranoia that one day the Internet is going to disappear and I won’t be able to do anything anymore. I usually think about this when I’m spinning around in a circle on the sidewalk trying to figure out where the blue dot is telling me to walk, but sometimes I wonder whether I could even choose my own reading material if left to my own devices (or, more precisely, without them).
  • Do I even know what I like anymore? (I guess I’ve been pondering this for a while.) I immediately forget most of what I read. I’d been blaming it on my attention span, but it occurred to me recently that maybe I just hate most of what I read. I slept terribly all last week because I started Tana French’s latest on Monday and I kept staying up long past my bedtime — reading, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, what seemingly insignificant incident from my childhood triggered their presence? Also, are all murder detectives shrewd and pithy calculators who can sniff out human weakness like the tasting notes in a fine wine, or just Irish ones? Also, how do you pronounce Gardai?
  • Anyway, it’s been nice to remember that books can be good. There are also only fifteen or so albums that have been released in the past decade that I actually want to listen to over and over again. (All of them are “1989.” Kidding! Maybe! See footnote [1].) I dutifully listen to my Spotify New Release Radar every Friday, but little speaks to me.
  • I guess the problem is that taste is eclectic. I was going to say that my taste is eclectic, but that seems unfair to everyone else who is more mercurial than predictable about what they like and don’t, which I assume is most people. How do you square that with predictive recommendation algorithms?
  • I read the first four Harry Potter books upwards of 40 times each as a child and then, while I waited for the next three, tried and discarded the canon of derivative books about boy wizards (sorry, Artemis Fowl), then gave up entirely on fantasy as a genre until I read The Night Circus, following which I wrote an honest-to-God fan letter to Erin Morgenstern. I love Tana French, yes, and I loved Gone Girl, but every subsequent entry into the unreliable-female-narrator genre is trash and I won’t be convinced otherwise. I am over misogyny as an artistic technique but I can’t stop reading Murakami, except 1Q84, which is a doorstop, not a novel, and I loved Super Sad True Love Story, though I hated Lake Success. I hit peak dystopia after the first Hunger Games and slogged through not only the rest of the trilogy but also the abominable Divergent series, which offended me so badly I swore off anything set in a future; but then the genre went highbrow, and I rolled my eyes but can’t say I wasn’t unmoored by Station Eleven (a book nobody should read until all cruise ships have been released from their coronavirus quarantines. Trust me) and Severance. I’ve already forgotten every novel I read in 2019 except Trust Exercise, even the ones that are also about bad people in positions of power, with and without clever plot devices. I’m a little devastated to admit that I think I’ve outgrown YA, though excited to eventually be ready to read Mrs. Dalloway.
  • TL;DR: My tastes are mercurial. I like books that speak to me. If I were to draw a thread between my favorite books, it’s protagonists that exist at a slight but impassable remove from reality: friendless boy wizards who make friends only to discover that friendlessness hardens into a character quality (cf. Harry Potter but also The Magicians), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition (Sweetbitter), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition even as they flee a global pandemic (Severance). I like books where the slight but impassable remove from reality is incidental, not the plot itself (ergo my dislike of Divergent, although I also prefer my books to read like they were edited at some point).
  • I’m not sure that’s a quality you can write into an algorithm. I like what I like.
  • So — where was I? YouTube’s seemingly baseless recommendations. I completely lost the plot there, didn’t I? How do I sew this back up into something? Conclusion: Art doesn’t need to be a buy-one-get-one situation; anomalies are precious. Half the reason I liked the Carpool Karaoke “Sound of Music” video was its sheer weirdness. No book that sets out trying to be Gone Girl can be as audacious. Dystopias were over before we entered into one. I’ve even developed an affinity for my anti-vax chiropractor and how he stares into my soul while he teaches me how to massage my masseter muscles. I don’t want YouTube to find me another chiropractor; I want YouTube to find me something radical that I can’t unsee. Is there a setting for that?
  • [1] 1989, yes, but also Badlands, 1000 Forms of Fear, Strange Desire, By The Way I Forgive You, Queen of the Clouds, 3 Rounds and a Sound, The Fool, Blue Neighbourhood… I’m sure there are a few more, but I can’t think of them now.

an office of one’s own

I was sour all this week. Logically, I knew it was because it’s January and there’s nothing good about January, especially not in this year of our lord 2020 when the next ten months are going to be an even more arduous slog toward inevitable disappointment than usual. Emotionally, I decided to blame it on “hot-desking,” a lesser-known scourge of work in the age of lifehacking wherein one isn’t assigned a desk but is instead invited to share a “pod” with their teammates. To me, this is a nightmare on par with weddings without seating charts, and I yearn for my past life as a dancer when barre spots weren’t assigned, per se, de jure, but God help you if you stood at the spot furthest from the mirrors on the barre nearest the courtyard because everyone knew that was my spot.

I was also sour because I’ve been trying to read more twentieth-century classics and so I’m gnashing my teeth through Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. It’s a sendup of postwar England in which the hapless protagonist suffers, among other indignities, the hysterics of his would-be ex-girlfriend upon trying to dump her. Actual hysterics. Screaming, sobbing, frothing at the mouth until someone slaps her in the face. I’m too humorless and militant a misandrist to abide tired stereotypes, even in the context of satire.

To be fair, I was predisposed to dislike Kingsley Amis, the second husband of Elizabeth Jane Howard, my favorite literary discovery in 2019. She wrote the popular Cazalet Chronicles, five volumes of family saga that span pre- to postwar England, among other well-reviewed novels, but during her marriage to Kingsley her career took a backseat to his because that’s what was done then, and so I hate him out of allegiance to “Jane.” Sorry, Kingsley. (Besides, who the fuck names their kid Kingsley? Honestly. Brits.)

At the beginning of 2016 I decided to spend the year reading only books by authors who weren’t straight white men. It was a terrific experiment that took on unexpected poignance that November (I watched the election returns in front of a literal shrine to women leaders in history that my friend built for us to celebrate in front of, in case you were somehow confused about where my loyalties lay) and one that’s stuck with me, in terms of both the books I select now and my view on books I’ve read in the past. In my early twenties I read a lot of Philip Roth and John Updike and I couldn’t figure out why I felt so dejected every time I finished an American Pastoral or Rabbit, Run.

I obviously appreciate erudite writing that captures a time and place indelibly, and I love to read about socially unacceptable human foibles, but it’s only been in recent years — after immersing myself in voices from the margins, and in the era of #MeToo — that I’ve realized that I just don’t really like misogyny as a literary technique. God help me if I have to wade through another gratuitous description of the hysterical wife of a put-upon man chafing at the bonds of corporate servitude and his milquetoast children. Give me Eileen and her constipation any day.

I didn’t have the energy to deal with hot-desking this week, so instead of a desk I sat at a countertop between the video games and the pool table (recall that I work in Silicon Valley, where employment contracts are Faustian bargains, though it turns out the eternal youth gets old once you hit thirty). Fortunately, I joined the London location of The Wing in November, where I can leave behind the animal screams of post-adolescent coders taking breaks from “deep work” to hear women dressed in the millennial British uniform of that Zara dress over Chelsea boots under a boxy pastel car coat use the phrase “side hustle” in a sentence.

I felt especially grateful for The Wing during a week that felt spectacularly male with Kingsley Amis prattling on about the unbearable lightness of women who don’t follow recommendations on what lipstick to pair with your pallid skin tone and the only Bernie bro I know tweeting prolifically. It feels extravagant to pay for a coworking space when I already have a home and an office, but I have to spend the rest of 2020 and also, probably, my life catching up on the great misogynists of twentieth-century literature and being governed by the great misogynists of twenty-first-century politics and riding the Tube to work underneath male armpits. If shelling out an arm and a leg to sit underneath an oil portrait of Phoebe Waller-Bridge gets me through paying taxes to two governments led by men who have single-handedly inspired white women to rage-knit more performatively than ever, then it’s money well spent.

I’M HAVING A LOT OF FEELINGS, or why I love YA

Allow me to regress to a younger age for a few minutes.

I have a deep and abiding passion for young adult literature. The vast majority of the crap glutting the shelves in the YA section at Barnes and Noble isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Nobody needs to read “The In-Crowd” or “Gossipy Bitches” or whatever the hell else is selling thousands of copies in mass-market paperback. (Nobody needs to read “50 Shades of Grey,” either, but let’s not go there because I don’t want to talk about handcuffs on the Internet.)

There’s a reason that I majored in English in college, and it wasn’t a deep-seated wish to be totally unqualified for every job ever. Books were my salvation when I was a kid, and children’s literature is a downright majestic genre filled with all kinds of gems. (Mr. Popper’s Penguins! The Ramona books! Everything by Roald Dahl, except maybe Fantastic Mr. Fox, because that was kind of weird and unnecessary, but you win some, you lose some!) Children who read books learn to be adventurous and sassy and to question authority. We know all this.

But when you get to a certain age, you start to realize the inevitability of reality. “Spunky detective” is not a viable career path. You KNOW what will happen if you squeeze out a whole tube of toothpaste. There are more interesting things: boys, and science projects, and boys, and mean girls, and boys. I was once a teenage girl and if it hadn’t been for my obsessive consumption of books, I think I would have forgotten about everything except for… boys. I was no longer interested in the madcap adventures of Sally J. Freedman or Ralph S. Mouse. In fact, I was no longer interested in anything except gazing at my own navel. Such is the life of the American teenager. (Totally not referencing that ABC Family show because I’ve never seen it.)

The problem with most young adult fiction is that it caters to the mentality of teenage girls who only want to think about boys and popularity. (And it’s as heteronormative as I’m making it sound. There are as few books about teenage lesbians as there are about, like, teenage computer geniuses. I actually own a book about teenage lesbians, even though I wasn’t one, just because I was so committed to the cause of supporting counterculture teen lit. It wasn’t even that good, but HELLO, IT WASN’T ABOUT BOYS.)

The best young adult authors are still writing about love and sex and popularity and the social strata of high school. (I, personally, could never relate to this, which is why I want to write a young adult book about a high school like mine one day. The most popular kids are the most popular because they get the most stage time!) But they take it to a higher level, exploring the intensity of teenagers’ feelings, transforming the flights of their imagination into art, and leaving us with some kind of realistic moral, some reminder of how teenagers can become better people.

Gossip Girl and all that crap is designed to give teenagers who are unhappy with their lives a glimpse into the lifestyle they think they want. Quality young adult literature teaches teenagers who are unhappy with their lives (which is, let’s be real, all of them) that they are surrounded by beauty and adventure, even at, like, the lunch table in the corner or wherever it is that the uncool kids sit in real high schools. (At LVA, we had dance-offs on the quad and people wore cat ears. I’m not kidding when I say that I don’t understand the “popularity” thing.) John Green, Sarah Dessen, and Meg Cabot, etc., etc., write about teenagers changing their OWN perspectives on their lives.

I think it’s so valuable to teach teenagers that their feelings have merit and how to deal with them healthily. I’ve kept a journal since I was young and it is the ONLY reason that I’m still here and kicking today — not being facetious. (I probably could have also taken up boxing, but nobody presented that as an option…) It’s so easy when you’re young and hormonal and miserable to convince yourself that you’re drowning in your own emotion and that there is no way out and that there WILL be no way out. To read a book where someone else is feeling THE SAME THING and then DOESN’T COLLAPSE IN A PILE OF DESPAIR is to know that you, too, will be okay.

Escapism is valuable, but learning to extract the beauty and joy and meaning from your own life is priceless.

Also, none of those escapist teen authors can write worth a damn. Go escape into something like Artemis Fowl wherein the author is actually capable of crafting an elegant sentence. Learn about prose while rotting your brain!

This originally started out as a post about how bummed out I was about the trailer for “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Emma Watson’s horrible American accent! (I LOVE Emma Watson. She is a phenomenal British pixie-cut diva and I totally would not have taken covert cell phone pictures of her had I gone to Brown.) The indiscriminate changing of verb tenses! (We ARE infinite? We WERE infinite. Nobody thinks about being infinite while feeling infinite.) So stay tuned in the future for a diatribe about how much I hate it when books that aren’t “The Devil Wears Prada” are turned into movies. (It was okay with “The Devil Wears Prada” because that book is an insult to the written word, and Meryl Streep is a goddess.)

Also, I’d like to take this moment to thank my high school dance teacher, Jeneane Gallo Huggins, for teaching me that teenagers are valuable contributors to society when you let them speak.