The Paris Review Staff’s Favorite Books of 2020


Best of 2020

Don Mee Choi. Photo: © SONG Got. Courtesy of Wave Books.

It’s a cliché to say that reading transports you, but in a year in which I spent most of my days indoors, shuffling between my bedroom and my living room, the books I read really were a lifeline, a portal to an outside world. In the weeks before New York shut down, I luxuriated in my subway reading, laughing aloud at Alma Mahler’s antics in turn-of-the-century Vienna in Cate Haste’s biography Passionate Spirit, savoring the deceptively calm sentences of Amina Cain’s fabular Indelicacy, and texting photos of paragraphs from Abdellah Taïa’s sharp exploration of immigration, colonialism, and sexuality, A Country for Dying (translated by Emma Ramadan), to everyone I knew. I spent an exhilarating week attending a retrospective of the films of Angela Schanelec, a director whose work frequently features writers, including her early short I Stayed in Berlin All Summer, which contains a defense of fragmentation, of not making sense, that became something of a personal manifesto for my 2020. Nothing about my life or my country made sense once March hit, and I stayed indoors reading Annie Ernaux’s painful memoir about adolescence and abandonment, A Girl’s Story (translated by Alison Strayer); Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry (edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman), which should be required reading for anyone who owns an Apple product or a fast-fashion clothing item; and Marlen Haushofer’s peculiarly relevant dystopia, The Wall (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Kate Zambreno’s novel Drifts, which follows her narrator’s attempts to finish writing a novel, mirrored my own quarantined state of fitfulness, boredom, and bouts of obsession.

As the weather grew warmer, I kept thinking about the title story of Ho Sok Fong’s Lake Like a Mirror (translated by Natascha Bruce) and the precision with which it portrays contemporary Malaysian politics. Grenade in Mouth: Some Poems of Miyó Vestrini (translated by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig) electrified me, while Lyonel Trouillot’s Street of Lost Footsteps (translated by Linda Coverdale) proved haunting. Elisa Gabbert’s essay collection The Unreality of Memory sent me down a thousand Wikipedia rabbit holes. And I was delighted to read an early novel of Marie NDiaye’s, That Time of Year (translated by Jordan Stump), with its questions of surveillance and insiders versus outsiders.

Autumn came, and in my insomnia leading up to the November election, I turned to Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep (translated by Robin Moger), with its meditative look at sleep, revolution, and writing, and Elfriede Jelinek’s incisive Trump-themed play, On the Royal Road: The Burgher King (translated by Gitta Honegger). The poems collected in Choi Seungja’s Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong) shook me up with their raw criticisms of consumerism and love, as did the essays on publishing and immigration in Dubravka Ugresic’s The Age of Skin (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać). Don Mee Choi’s poetry collection DMZ Colony stayed with me long after it was over. And now it is somehow winter; now it is almost time to flip the calendar forward. In a year marked by a pandemic, nothing made sense to me, least of all the passing of time. —Rhian Sasseen 


Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Photo: Marc Ferrez. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


The clock and the calendar were both our allies and our enemies this year. I believe the books that stand out from my 2020 do so in part because they take an interest in this troubled relationship between time and our finite experience of it. The first of these is Machado de Assis’s 1881 novel Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, translated by William Grossman in 1952 as Epitaph of a Small Winner. (Two new translations of the book arrived this year: one by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, the other by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, both bearing the title The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.) In Grossman’s rendering, the story is a picaresque retelling of Dante’s Commedia with a wicked sense of humor. Rather than contemplating greatness and immortality, as Dante did, Brás Cubas reflects on his rather middling achievements, anecdotes brilliantly interwoven with hallucinatory digressions and philosophical meandering. Pale Colors in a Tall Field, by Carl Phillips, is a more demure ode to the passage of time, a rich and sensual book of poems that filters bucolic moments through memory’s nostalgic lens. How sharp that is at the end of this year, when memories of even the most miserable subway rides seem fit subjects for poetic attention. —Lauren Kane


Danez Smith. Photo: Tabia Yapp. Courtesy of Graywolf Press.


How many ways can I split 2020 in half? Recently I’ve been trying it, cataloguing my before-and-afters, counting the year’s different selves by each major event. What a heavy year, to be remembered in fractures. The most obvious break happened in March, but there are other shifts that feel significant, too—my virtual college graduation, my soon-setting tenure as an intern here at The Paris Review. Leaving college, for example, meant I no longer spent most of my hours immersed in twentieth-century fiction, making my way through the canon. I dove into a more contemporary backlog: only this year did I finally read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Bryan Washington’s Lot, and Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Dispatch. And this year, too, I sought the comfort of old favorites: Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Hilton Als’s White Girls.

Starting at the Review was another shift. Though virtual, my time here has immersed me in the deep waters of contemporary fiction. The past few months have felt like the most fruitful game of catch-up ever played, in which even transcribing interviews and filling in spreadsheets led me to some of my favorite reads of the year. Wasn’t it over Zoom that I was compelled to read Bryan Washington’s Memorial, a patient, deft novel that left me awash with tender feeling? Wasn’t it for the Daily that I read Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, a meditation on personhood, and a confrontation with my own tendency to hide, to burrow away, to withhold?

Each split, then, has come with a seeking feeling, and what I loved in the wake of June and November was work that felt immediate—an invocation of place, a celebration of who we are, where we are. Nothing I read this year carries that vital cadence more than Danez Smith’s Homie. A collection by one of my favorite poets that includes “dogs!,” one of my favorite poems, was bound to make this list, but Homie, an ode to Blackness and community, was everything I needed in a year defined by sadness, stress dreams, and skin hunger. The poems become weapons in “my poems” but turn to tributes in “acknowledgements” and are maybe both all the time. “this ain’t about language,” Smith says in the title poem, “but who language holds.”And if Homie centers me in the present, then Black Futures, edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, feels like being held by a future self, one happier and more healed. Black Futures arrived earlier this month as the universe’s apology for the harshness of the year preceding—here, have an anthology of beauty, of joy. The book is an immaculately edited collection of old and new favorite writers and artists encased in gorgeous glossy pages I’ve pored over for hours. In the section titled “JOY,” Hanif Abdurraqib appears, as does Danez Smith, as does Ziwe Fumudoh. And just looking at it, the black hardback cover adorned with the iridescent block letters that read BLACK FUTURES, gives me happiness and hope, makes me feel inspired, excited, alive alive alive—which I think we need. —Langa Chinyoka


Karen Russell. Photo: Dan Hawk.


Within the first ten pages of Joel Townsley Rogers’s bonkers whodunit The Red Right Hand, reissued this year in Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series, the surgeon Dr. Henry Riddle says he must “set the facts down for examination.” On page 190, forty from the end, he declares, “I have got all the facts down.” To the character’s credit, his situation requires a bit of set-up. The task at hand is to explain everything leading up to the moment a Cadillac with a crazed devil of a drifter behind the wheel and a well-dressed dead man in the passenger seat supposedly screamed past him on a narrow dirt road before disappearing. The only problem is that Riddle never actually saw the car go by; he learned about the incident from the handful of other characters who populate that lonely stretch of New England countryside. Further, his own car was blocking the road at the time the murderer allegedly passed. This is the kind of book that, though brief, stretches its limbs like a cat in the August sun, padding slowly around the action, allowing only glimpses of the truth, all the while setting the reader’s crackpot theories to boiling. It’s a neat structural trick, one that invites the creation of a mental corkboard cataloguing suspicions and coincidences. The exposition accumulates in drifts, never quite cohering into an easy solution, and the author fills out his corner of the Connecticut woods with a memorable cast: the dorky, loquacious Postmaster Quelch; the sequestered surrealist Unistaire; the cranky retired Professor Adam MacComerou, who literally wrote the book on murder; and a portrait in negative of Corkscrew, the hitchhiker behind the wheel, with his “scalloped hat,” red eyes, and murderous cackle. By the time the final pages swing by, snapping out of the expository slackness to deliver a series of revelations that completely upend the story, the reader is liable to feel as though they’ve been taken for a ride in that Cadillac themselves. But it’s well worth the bewilderment; the desperate calculations and dogged attention I paid The Red Right Hand culminated in the most enjoyable reading experience of my year.

Elsewhere, I had trouble sticking to one book. Collections helped. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time with Karen Russell’s latest batch of stories, Orange World, which sparkles with the caliber of sentences most writers spend decades hoping to summon. In Russell’s capable hands, I let reality dissolve around me like a meringue, blanketing myself instead in her rich, unmistakable voice. Each of the pieces I read in Lydia Davis’s Essays One grounded me—a welcome feeling. Her essays are like little pinned butterflies, pristinely preserved behind glass. In a year of painful ambiguity, it was a joy to rattle around inside the head of someone so certain and clear. And to the books I missed this time around: I’m sorry. Better luck next year. I know I’m certainly counting on it. —Brian Ransom


Elisa Gabbert. Photo: © Adalena Kavanagh.


I read Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory in May, when we were all uncertain and pretty scared of what the pandemic was about to do. The prescience of the book unnerved me in a way that heightened the reading. It’s a wonderful collection of essays—I’ll have to return to it at a different time and see how I respond.

“Since that moment,” writes Zadie Smith in Intimations, “one form of crisis has collided with another.” This book was one of the first sustained literary engagements to emerge from the crises of 2020—certainly it was the first that I read—and, though slight, it began the process of assembling our collective troubles into a cogent and familiar form. The book isn’t really a direct engagement with the pandemic or with the Black Lives Matter movement; rather, it’s a setting of Smith’s thoughts within the context of those realities. “Talking to yourself can be useful,” she writes. “And writing means being overheard.”

But most often, rather than engage with the uncertainty of this year, I allowed it to lead me back to familiar titles for comfort and comradeship. A lot of my reading this year has been rereading. Recently, though, I was consoled to find Richard Holloway’s latest, Stories We Tell Ourselves, waiting for me on the doormat. His is a reassuring voice. A former Bishop of Edinburgh who fell out of love with his church and with God, he is good company on the page. I read him for his doubts and insecurities, for his willingness to acknowledge both the starkness of life with God and the starkness of life without. But mostly I read him because I hear the accent and cadences of home in everything he writes. To borrow from Smith, I enjoy overhearing him talk to himself. —Robin Jones


Gina Apostol. Photo: Margarita Corporan.


This year I read and watched and listened to the news in a way that would make my junior high civics teacher very proud, even yelling at the television like my dad does. But while the sensitive stoicism of reporters was a kind of cool comfort, the feat or miracle of imagination, craftsmanship, and perseverance known as the novel was cause for genuine, happy hope. Early in the year I had my mind exploded by Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, the kind of book that makes one think, You can do that? That is, tell one story from so many divergent, imaginative points of view that the reader is left with a feeling of infinity, toss linear time to the winds, and talk frankly about the act of storytelling without sacrificing the joy of it. Yes, if you are Gina Apostol, you can do this, and it is beautiful. I read Insurrecto like some dogs destroy a stuffed toy; it was my favorite thing to do. In other words, it expanded the possibilities of the form—but this isn’t to discount the form’s preexisting possibilities. I loved, too, Brandon Taylor’s classical ideal of a novel Real Life. Every scene, every dialogue, fits perfectly over a hall-of-famer first sentence (“It was cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all.”)—delicate interlocking layers of story that build satisfyingly up and out around Wallace, his father, and his friends. In autumn, I settled into Claire Messud’s essay collection Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write, the through line of which is that writing, in that it enables one human being to understand the experience of another, is magic. Each successful sentence, Messud asserts, is “a seizing of power away from fear and desire.” Of course she’s right. In this year that has seemed like it might actually end all years, books are medicine for the human condition. —Jane Breakell


N. Scott Momaday. Photo: Darren Vigil Gray. Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.


Considering the first half of 2020 was my last semester of undergrad, much of my reading this year was retrospective. Michel Foucault, Saint Augustine, and Carlos Monsiváis acted as the theoretical lenses for my school work while Mexican films, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor formed the meat of my research, all while I inhaled Paradise Lost, John Donne, and Edward Said through Zoom classes after quarantine began. Upon graduating, I still found myself looking back in my reading. I reread Between the World and Me and The Sound and the Fury while checking out Northanger Abbey, Sula, Tommy Orange’s There There, and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy for the first time; I found myself floored by each one. But upon joining The Paris Review, I immediately felt my reading horizons expand with the plethora of new books constantly being thrown my way. As I’ve discussed before, F*ckface, by Leah Hampton, made me sick with longing for the Appalachia of my undergrad, in all its humor and tragedy. Later, César Aira’s Artforum (translated by Katherine Silver) drew me back into the theory to which I dedicated so much time last year, but all with a smooth, smart satire that made for an effortless read and an intellectual earworm at the same time.

Most recently, I finished N. Scott Momaday’s latest collection of poems, The Death of Sitting Bear, which, frankly, took me some time to process and appreciate. It’s a delicate book that draws from a tradition dynamically opposed to the hyperintricate wordplay and referentiality of the contemporary poetry with which I most often engage. Instead, The Death of Sitting Bear loads its lines with a heritage and history that commune with the body and the soil of the planet, invoking a sort of contemplation that points away from the bare bones of language and into the lifeblood that is memory. In particular, Part III of the book, which recounts the life of Sitting Bear, contextualizes the collection as an exercise in remembrance.

Now I’ve started Yaa Gyasi’s excellent novel Transcendent Kingdom, and I find myself—after a year in which much of my reading was slow and distracted—fully enthralled by Gifty’s narrative and all the intricacies of how she relates to the world. As I extend myself into more contemporary works than those of my undergrad, I find it all pleasantly circular. Every book I read feeds back into what I’ve read before and how I’ll read what’s next. That’s growth. And even if it’s stunted by the insanity of 2020, I think that’s still something to be proud of. —Carlos Zayas-Pons


Jenny Erpenbeck. Photo: Nina Subin.


This has been a strange year for reading, and I am not sure what I will remember most when I look back on 2020, or even what I was looking for in the books I read when I could pull myself away from the news. Machado de Assis’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, brought me more joy than anything else I read this year; a sparkling stiletto of a book, its deftness and light touch leave you open to its blade. Magda Szabó’s Abigail, translated by Len Rix, came out in January, but I returned to it more than once as the year went downhill—not just for a retreat into the past and a foreign land, but also for its simplicity, the uncomplicated black and white of its morality. Azadi, a collection of very recent essays by Arundhati Roy, was the one that shook me, a reminder that while after a disaster we have the chance to improve on what was there before, doing so is an effort that requires work and imagination. But ultimately, in this year of storms, the book that gave me what I needed, even if it wasn’t something I knew to look for, was Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel, translated by Kurt Beals. Perhaps because it is a memoir, in which ultimately the center is one person and that person’s relationship with herself, it felt to me like an eye-of-the-hurricane book: aware of what has just passed, aware that more is on the horizon, but standing in the momentary stillness and reassembling itself to face whatever is coming next. —Hasan Altaf


Dan Gemeinhart. Photo: Kathryn Denelle Stevens.


As the pandemic fell heavy upon us this spring, I thought, Finally, the opportunity has arrived to read those long books for which life rarely affords the time. I came up with a scheme: I would alternate between two series. And so over the past several months, I tackled Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, cleansing my brain after each Ferrante with one of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy books. I am unduly proud to report that just this week, I finished my Herculean task and have now read seven books! All by myself! I found Ferrante utterly mesmerizing, and Lena and Lila were essential company during these dark months. I must admit less enthusiasm about Cusk’s cast of unpleasant characters, though I always found myself grateful for the kind of replacement consciousness that Cusk provides.

I read a few other books this year, but I will recommend only one more at this juncture: The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, a middle-grade novel by Dan Gemeinhart, which my wife, my daughter, and I read aloud together before bedtime over a few weeks. It is, truly, an incredible book, the harrowing and funny story of a girl and her father, who, following the death of the girl’s mother and two sisters, take to the open road and live in a modified school bus. The book is full of misadventures, including but not limited to an interval in which a goat becomes a fellow passenger. Near the end of the book, at its emotional climax, my wife and I found ourselves subject to a veritable orgasm of sweet sorrow—the two of us cried mightily with our bewildered daughter between us. If you would like to have your heart’s guts scraped out and replaced with … better guts, I highly recommend this book, which will indeed leave you purified and changed. Despite this description, I assure you it is a great family read. —Craig Morgan Teicher


Desus Nice and The Kid Mero. Photo: Greg Endries / Showtime.


I used to love a production. Force-feeding my gentleman New York soundstage classics like Guys and Dolls near the beginning of quarantine reminded me that reality never had a chance. There’s gotta be lights and music, dance and costumes. I wanted the right book for 2020 to come leaping through the air bathed in spotlight, to land in my hands, sing a little tune, and open things right up for me. But there’s a reason I strayed from musical theater: real life doesn’t follow such a tidy grand jeté. Many books arrived when I needed them this year, almost none of them new or undiscovered. I read Barbarian Days, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning surf memoir, which reminded me that even New Yorkers can feel small beside the ocean and that many, many men before me have married the sea. I read Joan Didion’s The White Album, which can indeed be read as social criticism on whiteness, though that is not the whiteness to which the title refers. I read Milkman on the recommendation of an advisory editor for this magazine. It was so stupefyingly original and sharp that I wanted it to win the Booker all over again. I bought several magazines off of the newsstand. The New Yorker always has something—how is that? I lingered on Vanity Fair’s beautiful September 2020 issue, which was guest edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and its December 2020 issue, which features a galvanizing interview with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a woman so smart she need only wash her face in the morning to set the patriarchy quaking. And then there were Desus and Mero. They’ve written a book, God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons from the Bronx, and I recommend it, but everything this duo touches turns to comedy gold. The gents go by Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, friends from the Bronx who tell stories in a way that made me rethink comedy and the 2 train. Often Desus leads the narrative while Mero gets into character, but in a way that is so subtle it resists analysis, transcends being a bit, and gets me laughing till I’m physically exhausted on days I have no business even cracking a smile. I’m not saying it’s a vaccine; all I’m saying is I have the feeling that Desus and Mero are peeling 2020 off the ground, one scalding pepperoni slice at a time. —Julia Berick


Jill Lepore. Photo: Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard University.


At the start of the year, filled with big plans for my new self, I began a list in the back of my journal with small annotations on each book I read. Next time I have to write about my favorite books of the year, I thought, I’ll be prepared. That list, of course, ends abruptly in March. An addiction to breaking news alerts frayed my attention span so completely that the thought of finishing a novel became laughable. I was unable to get lost in fictional worlds when the real one had become so surreal. Reading was the thing that had once brought me the most joy, but for much of this pandemic, not to mention that moment when it felt like we might be on the brink of civil war, not to mention the months when America’s fundamental white supremacy rushed to the fore, I could not pick up a book. When it came time again (how?) to put this list together, I thought seriously about simply writing in, “I was supposed to read books this year?!?!” But the truth is, despite myself, I did. Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, which I read back when I still knew how, gives the act of sex the attention it has always deserved from a great novelist, unfurling across whole chapters what usually happens in the jump cut. Anna Burns’s Little Constructions, which I was reading in mid-March, turns the darkness of humanity into the best joke you’ve ever heard. Her morbid surrealism is perfect for our times, but in this book all the characters have essentially the same name, and when my mind went, so did my ability to follow hers. Lily King’s Writers and Lovers and Kate Reed Petty’s True Story were able to remind me of the pleasure of reading when I was certain I had lost it forever. Both are that surprisingly hard-to-find gem, books I will stay up all night for, books that will make me forget where I am, and yet the sentences are also nice, and the mind behind them very sharp. For a long time the only thing I could read, and very slowly, was Jill Lepore’s brilliant These Truths, a history of America I desperately needed, and almost unfairly, overwhelmingly, eloquently told. Now, finally able to read normally again, I find myself immersed in Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, the perfect book for a cold winter month in which all you want to think about are, please, just let me focus here, the small interpersonal dramas of a dysfunctional family. —Nadja Spiegelman


Joy Harjo. Photo: Shawn Miller.


As history is being made, it feels important to also acknowledge history built—and this year, that (re)construction of our nation’s literary past came in the guise of two remarkable anthologies: When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, a collection of Native nations poetry edited by Joy Harjo with LeAnne Howe and Jennifer Elise Foerster, and African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, edited by Kevin Young. Of course, brilliant new work was published this year, and for this reader the bleakest of years was made better by encountering Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, Gabriel Bump’s Everywhere You Don’t Belong, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, and Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, to name a few authors whose writing grabbed me firmly by the shoulders. But to step out of the news cycle (and I include book press in that), to contextualize today by looking beyond the contemporary moment’s triumphs and injustices (an accounting slanted steep toward the latter this year), is akin to opening a door from a small room into an infinitely larger one. I found myself exploring these histories with the guidance of generous, adept editors—but also feeling sufficiently equipped by their thoughtful methodologies that I could develop my own path through. This idiosyncratic wayfinding led me to remarkable line and language, and each page affirmed the injustice and exclusion of earlier versions of American poetic history. But I found myself perhaps most drawn to the narratives herein, gripped by their potency. Here, too, was triumph and injustice, both inextricably bound to what we call America. Here was history and a version of possibility unique to this land. And here, within the struggle, was hope. As Peter Blue Cloud’s “Rattle” begins: “When a new world is born, the old / turns inside out, to cleanse / and prepare for a new beginning.” —Emily Nemens