Books of 2020: My favorites

End-of-year-lists: So arbitrary and yet so satisfying! 

This year was a hard one for real reading. I would often sit down with a book and end up scrolling through the news on my phone in a daze for 45 minutes instead. So it goes without saying that there were a lot of books (too many books) that I wanted to read but failed to get to. But when I did manage to give a book my undivided attention this year, I was invariably rewarded. What a gift it is to be transported by good writing. 

Here’s to more good reading in the year ahead. And in case you’re looking for something to read, here are my ten favorite newly published books of the year.

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

The absurdity of work-life can take almost infinite forms; I loved Hillary Leichter’s debut novel Temporary for making room for so many of them. This wonderful, whimsical tale is loosely about the search for stable work—in whatever form that might take. The unnamed narrator of Temporary floats through stints as a short-skirted office grind, a window washer, a murderer’s apprentice, a substitute mannequin, and even a human barnacle—all the while searching for “the steadiness.” I don’t want to deploy the tired, hollowed-out phrases “late capitalism” or “gig economy” to describe the subject of this book: Temporary is interested in something more subtle than any familiar economic critique can articulate. But still, it’s fair to say this book’s sideways preoccupations are all too relevant to the times we live in. (Full disclosure: I used to sit near Leichter when she worked at The New Yorker—in a temporary gig.) 

Summer by Ali Smith

When I came to the end of Summer, I felt genuinely sad to have reached the conclusion of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, which has been a steady presence in my life since the release of Autumn in 2016. It feels like these books have managed to capture and distill something essential about the fragmented, disorienting times we’re living through. Is anyone else writing playful, searching, artistic novels about Brexit and Dominic Cummings and immigration detention centers and the coronavirus and the cratering British state? No, they are not. I wish we could find Ali Smith a few more seasons to meditate on.

The Street by Ann Petry

The Street sold 1.5 million copies when it was first published in 1946, but I’d never heard of it until Tayari Jones sang its praises in a 2018 The New York Times essay—citing its power both as a dramatic “tale of violence and vice” and an “uncompromising work of social criticism.” Recently republished in the U.K., the novel follows the travails of Lutie Johnson, a newly single mother in the prime of her life. After moving into an apartment of her own with her son, Lutie is hopeful about the chance to start a new chapter. But dangers lurk on every corner of her Harlem street: a creepy super, a scheming Madam, a sleazy nightclub owner (the list goes on). Watching the walls close in on Lutie—and seeing her defiance in the face of the odds—I was anxious and hopeful, gutted and enthralled. “I just can’t figure out why this work is not more widely read and celebrated,” Jones wrote. Me neither.

The Shadow King by Mazaa Mengiste

I knew next to nothing about the legacy of Italian imperialism in Ethiopia when I picked up this beautiful, poetic novel. The Shadow King takes place during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which began in 1935; as Mussolini’s troops invade Ethiopia, rural fighters boldly rush to Emperor Haile Selassie’s defense. Reading The Shadow King was an education for me—but also, an experience of pure art. As Mengiste recently explained on the FT’s Culture Call podcast, the book grew out of a chance encounter she had in Italy with a man who tearfully entrusted her with pages of his father’s photographs, diary entries, and letters about his time as a pilot in Ethiopia. Those documents sent her on a historical and imaginative journey. The resulting novel, which focuses in particular on the strong-willed women warriors who rose up to defend their country, and a Jewish-Italian soldier who photographs the war’s horrors, is a haunting masterpiece.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

When Anna Wiener started working in publishing, it didn’t take long for her to realize that the entire industry was slowly collapsing on itself. Her response was to flee to Silicon Valley. This is Wiener’s memoir of the series of the startup jobs she held in San Francisco in her twenties—a chronicle of her attempt to crack the rules of success in the tech industry. It might not shock you to learn those rules don’t actually make much sense, but that’s a key part of what gives this book its charm. Uncanny Valley is filled with sharp humor and well-earned ambivalence. The very act of writing suggests a kind of hopefulness too. We’ve given Big Tech so much power as a society—shouldn’t we all be able to muster the collective will to take that power away too?

The Cheapest Nights by Yusuf Idris, translated by Wadida Wassef 

This newly republished book of short stories by Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris is a fantastically vivid portal into the lives of 1930s working-class Egyptians. There are maids and prostitutes, imams and undertakers, most of whom are faced with ugly daily conundrums as they navigate poverty. As Ezzedine Fishere writes in the book’s foreword, Idris’s writing is “above all about the complexity—and individuality—of suffering.” And unsurprisingly, it’s women who bear the brunt of the suffering in these stories. But these are more than stories of surviving hardship—they’re lively tales of comic deception, innocence, passion, and all the little things that color daily life.  

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

A novel concerned with the constraints and opportunities offered by the shade of one’s skin felt, oh, particularly apt this year. The Vanishing Half follows the fates of twin sisters Stella and Desiree, descendants of the founder of Mallard, Louisiana, a town for light-skinned blacks. Inseparable in childhood, the sisters’ fates splinter in early adulthood, with profound consequences for the next generation. There are obvious lessons here about skin color and destiny in America, but also equivocal reflections on what it means to claim your own identity and forge your own path. Ultimately this book is a bittersweet, deeply absorbing fable about belonging, violence, and the myth-making we all engage in. 

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

The title of this book of interconnected biographies comes from a diary entry Virginia Wolf made in 1925 on the joys of “street sauntering and square haunting.” Here, the square in question is Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, a place where single women could safely rent affordable rooms, giving them the opportunity to live and work independently.  The brilliant and complicated women Francesca Wade profiles (who all spent time living in the square) are poet H. D., broadcaster and detective novelist Dorothy Sayers, classics scholar Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and novelist Virginia Woolf. Their paths and passions varied enormously, but what these women shared was a steadfast commitment to defying the conventions of their times in pursuit of the chance to do meaningful artistic and intellectual work. We could all learn a thing or two from their tenacity. 

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Italian master’s latest compact novel has all the signature elements her readers have come to expect: Intense adolescent friendships, too-heavy infatuations, disorienting sexual discoveries, searing betrayals, uncomfortable intellectual awakenings, and of course, the raw vitality of the city of Naples itself. I gobbled it up like candy. At the heart of the novel is an exploration of the art of the lie, because, as critic Merve Emre puts it, “growing up also involves learning how to cultivate a talent for deception.”

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell

“What if now it’s especially the end of the world, by which I mean even more the end of the world?” Mark O’Connell writes in this well-timed essay collection. To be honest, I didn’t think I needed to read another book about the end of the world—I’d already read about bunkers in New Zealand, tourists in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, preppers of all stripes, and so on. But this isn’t strictly a book of journalism—O’Connell’s reportorial journeys, instead, serve as a kind of vehicle for reflecting on our collective obsession with the end, and what it means to face a world that has been ending for a very long time. Wry yet earnest, these essays startled me with their humor and humanity. No book cheered me up and consoled me more this year. 

Other new books I particularly appreciated in 2020: Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire by Tom Zoellner, for its careful, remarkable account of an important chapter in history; The End of October by Lawrence Wright, for serving as a lively reminder that this year really should have just been fiction; A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher, for its intriguingly unsatisfying portrait of an impossible-to-define woman; and Zadie Smith’s essay collection Intimations for its friendly companionship.

(And here are more previous lists: 2019, 2015, 2014, 2013,  2011 and 2010).

British Podcast Awards

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 11.19.51 PMLast weekend, Today in Focus took the gold award for Best Current Affairs Podcast at the British Podcast Awards. Our team couldn’t be more delighted; it’s been a journey! The show also took silver awards in the categories of Best Interview and Best Daily.

Last year Hacks/Hackers invited me to talked about some of the things that go into launching a new daily podcast at one of their monthly meet-ups at Twitter’s London headquarters. They wrote about my presentation here. I’m not used to seeing myself quoted but I do stand by this: “In all creative processes, you don’t really know what you are doing until you dive in.”

Books of 2019: My favorites

In the years when I was reviewing books regularly, I got into the habit of compiling a list of favorites at the end of each year. (Some previous lists: 2015, 20142013,  2011 and 2010.)  

When you’ve been writing about books all year, it’s an easy thing to do. When you haven’t been keeping detailed notes on your own reading, it’s a little harder. My review output has slowed in the last few years, so list-making is more of a challenge, but this year I decided to try to sum up 2019’s books anyway. 

This year’s reading was Anglo- and Euro-centric: I read Jean Rhys and Sam Selvon for the first time, worked through Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, and picked up new fiction from Guy Gunaratne and John Lanchester. The basic idea was to get to know my new country of residence a little better through some of its writers. (Did it work? Maybe. To better understand this country I should probably just watch more television.) 

Anyway: Here’s my stab at this year’s best-of list, featuring, in no particular order, my ten favorite books published in 2019. 

TheCapitalThe Capital by Robert Menasse, translated by Jamie Bulloch 

About a decade ago, Robert Menasse had a thought: “It’s a scandal that I know far too little about how the EU functions, and why it doesn’t function, when it’s the most important topic of my lifetime.” To remedy this, Menasse moved to Brussels, immersing himself in the bureaucratic grind of the European Union. The resulting novel is an acerbic office satire, replete with roller suitcases, failed workplace affairs, and aimless ambition.  But it’s more than that: The Capital also offers a powerful moral defense of the EU. If a thoroughly entertaining and frighteningly perceptive look at the failures of European politics is what you’re after, this is your book.

GirlWomanOtherGirl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo 

You may have heard about the controversy over the Booker judges’ decision to award this year’s prize to both Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s Testaments this year. In all likelihood that was all you heard about this book—which is a shame. I wish more had been  written and said about the book itself and its contribution to a long-running literary conversation about race in England. Girl, Woman, Other is a lovely, life-affirming novel, a celebration of contemporary black British female experience told through the eyes of a dozen characters from all walks of life—playwrights to house cleaners, teachers to investment bankers. I found its cheerful fearlessness completely refreshing.

VoicesintheEveningVoices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low

It took me several attempts to get past the first few pages of this newly issued translation of Ginzberg’s 1961 novel, which begins with the young narrator, Elsa taking a walk with her mother through their Italian village. Her mother does all the talking; in the entire first chapter, Elsa speaks barely a few sentences. “Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?” her mother asks. The imbalance of the exchange is the point: Ginzburg’s narrator is always off to the side, observing. What does fascism to do ordinary people—to their family histories, to the fabric of their small towns, to their understanding of their own place in the world? This is the question that Ginzburg tries to whittle away at through her account of Elsa’s family. In his introduction to this new edition, Colm Tóibín describes the book as a sepia photograph, which is accurate, but which also suggests a certain sentimentality. This sells the book short. Voices in the Evening is as elegantly melancholic as it is darkly instructive.

TopekaSchoolThe Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The career of Ben Lerner’s mother, feminist psychotherapist Harriet Lerner, looms large in this novel. The fictionalized Harriet is a therapist and best-selling author Jane Gordon—a woman whose work has made her the subject of a campaign of hate from abusers Lerner simply calls “the Men.” Will Jane’s son Adam grow up to be one of them? Adam is a strident but sensitive nerd, a weight-lifting poet and Kansas debate champion. Sometimes he does his mother proud. Sometimes, she’s not sure if she can save him. This is a book about masculinity—its fragile side, its toxic side, its vulnerable side. But what I enjoyed most were Lerner’s ruminations on the 90s. His depiction of competitive extemporaneous speaking tournaments is spot-on (as a former high school extemper, I smiled and cringed!), as is his portrait of white suburban middle-class high school life of that era. But his sketch of a creepy young Kris Kobach-like character—Adam’s speech coach—stayed with me most of all. 

MySisterSerialKillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite 

Korede knows the drill all too well: Another frantic phone call from her little sister, another heavy dead body, another cover-up for her to be complicit in. Seductive Ayoola attracts all the men—and then she stabs them with her father’s ornate nine-inch curved-blade knife. But when her sister goes after Korede’s handsome, gentle colleague, Tade, something shifts. Simple and sharp, pulpy and fast-paced, this book from 31-year-old Nigerian-British rising star Oyinkan Braithwaite is all murder and little mystery. Its charm lies in the girlish directness of Braithwaite’s narrator Korede, and its messy sisterly amorality. 

SayNothingSay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

This brilliantly-researched history of the Troubles centers around the death of 38-year-old Jean McConville, a Protestant-born Catholic-converted widowed mother of ten who was marched out of her home by masked men one night in 1972 while her children watched in horror. She was never seen again. Keefe is a gifted storyteller—and, as it turns out, a capable detective, too. Mining the controversial Belfast Project interviews at Burns Library in Boston College, he slowly pieces together the shadowy events surrounding McConville’s disappearance. He also lays out a complicated but compelling portrait of  IRA firebrand Delours Price. These two women couldn’t be more different from one another, and their stories couldn’t be more painfully intertwined. 

Granta147Granta 147: 40th Anniversary Special edited by Sigrid Rausing

I bought this on a whim—the sight of its cover made me nostalgic for the summer I spent lurking in the shelves of Granta’s back-catalog in London as a college intern at the magazine. But picking it up was a fine idea: Every single story in here is very, very good—a profound reminder of just how much world-class talent Granta has published in the last four decades. Kazuo Ishiburo tells the tender story of a Japanese boy and his aging grandfather in “The Summer After the War”; Amitav Ghosh arrives at a surprising consideration of colonialism in “The Imam and the Indian”; Philip Roth pays wistful tribute his father in “His Roth.” But my favorite might be “The Snow in Ghana,” in which Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński considers the futility of trying to make one’s experience known: “Something, the most important, the most significant thing, will remain unsaid.”

TheAnarchyThe Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

How did corporations become all-powerful, and will their unchecked dominance be the ruin of us all? This comprehensive investigation into the rise of the East India Company heads back to 1599 to try to answer that question, as well as a few others about state-sanctioned greed, political violence, and the underpinnings of the British Raj. After outlining the conditions that made the birth of the East India Company possible in the first place, Dalrymple moves region by region, trade agreement by trade agreement (and then, battle by battle) charting how—one nawab after another—the Indian sub-continent fell under its sway. It’s a fascinating study in the many ways in which power can be abused. Every historian of India has his or her biases and the second time I saw the word “effete” used to describe a Mughal Prince I had to roll my eyes. But to his credit, Dalrymple is unsparing of British elite too: One military commander’s son is described simply as “the notably unintelligent Governor Madras.” 

SpringSpring by Ali Smith

The third installment in Ali Smith’s quartet of seasonal novels reads like a lucid dream. The plot circles around the adventures of Brit, a young employee of an Immigration Removal Center, and a mysterious little girl named Florence who takes Brit on a journey of discovery. As in the other books in this series, Spring fuses its powerful political indignation with a blurry magical realism. The result is a reading experience nearly as disorienting as the times we live in. 

HeroicFailureHeroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain  by Fintan O’Toole

There is a long tradition of heroic failure in English history: The Charge of the Light Brigade is just one of the many examples Fintan O’Toole cites in this sharp critique. “Someone had blundered,” obviously, as the Tennyson poem notes— but that’s not the point, is it? O’Toole is an astute political observer of British politics; his political and psychological analysis of the Brexit mess is essential reading. He’s also very funny, and not afraid to push a riff a little too far (I’m thinking here of the extended bit on Fifty Shades of Gray). This was technically published in late November of 2018, but it’s too good to overlook, and just as relevant a year later. 

Honorable mentions: She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey;  The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson

Biggest disappointment: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The book I’m most annoyed I didn’t get around to yet: The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya

Introducing: ‘Today in Focus’ from The Guardian

TIFIn September, I moved to London and began working with a fantastic team of radio producers to create a new, daily, current affairs podcast for The Guardian. We launched this week! The show is called Today in Focus and it’s hosted by former political editor Anushka Asthana. Our first episode is all about Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro; in our second episode, we travel to Racine, Wisconsin with reporter Gary Younge ahead of U.S. midterm elections.  Listen, subscribe, and enjoy (and send feedback!).

What to Read This Summer

Screen Shot 2018-06-12 at 10.50.41 PMI was on The Takeaway today sharing my summer reading recommendations with host Tanzina Vega.  My picks: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, There There by Tommy Orange, Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, Banthology, edited by Sarah Cleave, Air Traffic by Gregory Pardlo, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Listen here for more about what makes these books so great.

Writing and Resistance Today

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 12.03.13 PM.pngI recently had the chance to sit down with Abdellah Taïa and Chiké Frankie Edozien at the CUNY Graduate Center for an evening of discussion put together by Words Without Borders, Belladonna* Series, and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. It was an absolute honor––Taïa and Edozien are talented, fiercely passionate writers whose work challenges political and social boundaries.  Video of the event is now available and you should also check out their work!

In Secret, a North Korean Writer Protests the Regime

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 8.37.02 PMThis week on The New Yorker Radio Hour, I interviewed Heinz Insu Fenkl. Fenkl is in the process of translating the poems included in that mysterious manuscript said to have been smuggled out of North Korea.  He talked about the unusual, propaganda-inspired poetic devices at work in “The Red Years,” and explained what the poems reveal about the North Korean dream of reunification.

Varieties of Matrimony

 

My review of The Heart is a Shifting Sea by Elizabeth Flock ran in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review– the Pleasure Reading issue. A snippet:

The journalist Elizabeth Flock was in her early 20s when she moved to Mumbai. Though she was wary of overromanticizing India, she was immediately taken with what appeared to be an Indian attitude toward romance itself. “In Mumbai, people seemed to practice a showy, imaginative kind of love,” she writes in “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea.” She wondered if there was wisdom to this brand of passion: “When I arrived in Mumbai after my dad’s third divorce, the city seemed to hold some answers.”

“The Accusation: Dissident Fiction from North Korea” at NYPL

DTs4mNZWsAA9FtrEarlier this week, I interviewed South Korean human rights activist Do Hee-yun– the person said to be responsible for helping the manuscript of “The Accusation” escape North Korea– at the New York Public Library.  He told me that he hoped to make contact with the author, Bandi again this spring, and– incredibly– that he believed the stories in “The Accusation” may actually have been the work of not just one writer, but a group of writers (!). That conversation was part of an extraordinary evening, with readings from Min Jin Lee and Heinz Insu Fenkl, and a performance from the opera-in-progress based on one of Bandi’s stories. (UPDATE: Audio and video of the event are now online.) Here’s my original piece on “The Accusation” for The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-collection-of-north-korean-stories-and-the-mystery-of-their-origins