So, it’s been about a year since the world turned upside-down, and while I’m strictly a glass half-empty person, I can find one glass half-full thing to say about this crummiest of years: I read more books than usual, since reading is my favorite escape. I’m delighted to share this list of 10ish books that transported me far, far away as the calendar pages of 2020 drifted aimlessly by.
Being a writer myself, I’ve refrained from including on my list books by writers I know. This order is chronological, which basically means the order is random. And do I mean “best,” or do I mean “favorite,” or do I mean “a book that was exactly right for the moment I read it”? Maybe I simply mean, “a book I literally and truly recommended to others at least once over the year.”
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Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Linked stories (not a true novel, sorry publisher who claims it is) set in a remote peninsula of Siberia. Beautiful language, an austere setting…I was mesmerized.
You by Caroline Kepnes: Voice x 1000! Dark, funny, smart, New Yorky, bookish, creepy. I loved the TV show, but the book is even better.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: I ended up reading a lot of books about dire situations last year, and this (non-fiction) depiction of the working poor in the 1930s was one of the most dire. A disturbing, compelling book.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang: Here’s another very dire and very harrowing book, about two Chinese-American girls struggling to survive in the 19th century American West. You’ll rethink the myths of the west and the immigrant tale. Well-structured, gorgeously written, unforgettable. But DIRE x 1000!
Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge: She’s an under-appreciated writer in the U.S., I think, as I’ve admired several other books she’s written. Wonderful historical fiction, inventively told, about a surgeon and his circle of affiliated people. The sections in the Crimean War are (wait for it) incredibly dire. Also, a truly shocking ending that was, nevertheless, inevitable. Interesting to read for structure if you’re struggling with that in your WIP.
Among the Thugs by Bill Buford: A horrifying (and dire) immersion into 1980s British “football” hooligan culture. Lots to think about with regard to group think. A violent book but a thoughtful one. When I first read this book, I considered how we all like feeling certain we’d never fall sway to mob violence…but in light of the attack on the Capitol, well. It’s clear that mob violence is contagious.
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell: It’s rare these days to find a novel that sweeps through decades as this one does, starting with a fictionalized Emmett Till character and following the ripples and waves outward from that terrible murder. It’s also rare to see a novel tackle so many POVs, including that of the woman who incited this incident.
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford: Life is not entirely dire, and maybe there’s a reason this is my favorite book of the year; after finishing, I immediately crammed it into my “favorite books bookshelf.” I absolutely loved everything about these two companion books in one volume; I didn’t read them, I inhaled them! Funny, frothy, smart, provocative, zany…about a rich British family after WWI. Rabbit holes I traveled down after reading include researching Nancy Mitford and the Bright Young Things (be assured she’s not the Nazi Mitford sister); ordering a special marmalade mentioned; researching and baking a special walnut cake alluded to during a visit over tea; and watching the (delightful!) movie on Amazon Prime. Truly, for me, this was a magical reading experience, made more so by the fact that I’d randomly grabbed this book at least a year ago out of a Little Free Library, mistakenly thinking it was a memoir about the Mitfords. What a joyful discovery.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: So eerie and unsettling that I had to make sure I still had cell service several times. This book is about the (possible) end of the world, as seen through two very different couples who are ensconced in a luxury house beyond the reach of what we imagine must be mayhem and destruction, and who have no way of knowing what’s going on. (Nitpick: no one has a radio??) A good book to read if you’re into interesting POV, as I thought the omniscient narrative worked well to create a disturbing sense of distance.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: IMHO this book totally deserves the National Book Award that it recently won. It’s inventive, funny, dark, and on-point with regard to thinking about issues of race today. The book is told in the form of a screenplay, which I found easy to melt into, and on the surface is about a young Chinese-American male actor trying to get better roles in a police procedural called “Black & White.” So…clearly, it’s about much, much more than TV.
Two Rereads I’m Sneaking onto My List
Sometimes one just needs to comfort-read a beloved volume from childhood. These two still stand up for me.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: I was missing NYC, and this charming story about a brother and sister who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is about as perfect as a novel gets. I’m incredibly jealous if you’ve never read it and get to encounter it for the first time!
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I was missing NYC (a different time) so I returned to one of the books that changed my teenage life. This reading showed me that Holden’s struggles with the “phonies” are an extended meditation on unexpressed grief and loss. Maybe I’m smarter now, or, more likely, just older and possibly wiser. A brilliant book.
Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection of linked stories set in DC, Admit This to No One, is forthcoming in November 2021 from Unnamed Press, the publisher of her 2018 novel Silver Girl, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her first collection of short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in, among others, Ploughshares, Story Magazine, The Hudson Review, Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Washingtonian, The Sun, Salon, River Styx, Hobart, and The Washington Post Magazine. Awards include a Pushcart Prize in 2020. She interviews authors weekly at www.workinprogressinprogress.com and can be found at @lesliepwriter and www.lesliepietrzyk.com