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  • Writer's pictureBill

Best Novels of 2020

Why this topic? Because Baby Doe probably won't be one of these. Maybe 2021. I may feel like a pregnant woman in late pregnancy: wanting the baby to be born, fearful the birth and the baby may be problematic, and not wanting to let go of the pregnancy, uncomfortable yes, but familiar for sure, and fearful of how to raise a baby, A stew of conflicting feelings. Hoping for good and not insisting on perfect. I'm waiting for final proofs and a couple more blurbs that may or may not be forthcoming.

The following are not my choices, I'm still reading novels and such from previous decades. My last two recent favorites were Where the Crawdads Sing (great book, bad title), and Little Fires Everywhere (great title, good book).

Commonalites of the lists below appear to be a paucity of old white males (not necessarily a bad thing) and books from big publishers with price points encircling $28. My first pick from the lists is Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Why? Because it touches on the themes of Dibene, the novel that will follow Baby Doe. (Not enthralled by first fifty pages--a sensitivity so hyped up, that it seems precious).

The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist:

Diane Cook (USA), The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications)

Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe), This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber)

Avni Doshi (USA), Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)

Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/USA), The Shadow King (Canongate Books)

Brandon Taylor (USA) Real Life (Riverhead Books) This is the one I'm reading now. Not

Douglas Stuart (Scotland/USA) Shuggie Bain (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

The 2020 National Book Award shortlist (copied from their website):

In Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay head out on a family vacation to Long Island, but their trip turns uneasy when the homeowners seek refuge following blackouts in New York City. As the world outside moves towards greater unrest, the group faces their perceptions about each other and the very concept of safety. Civilization’s future is at stake in A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, who holds a master’s degree in environmental policy. The cast of young characters in Millet’s novel easily fend for themselves as their parents remain indifferent to the devastation of the world around them in allegorical tale that defies rationalizations about climate change. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw draws us into the multifaceted lives of Black women across several generations as they engage in self-discovery and seduction. In Philyaw’s first work of fiction, her characters push the boundaries of thought around morality, Christianity, and their community’s expectations. Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is an epic portrayal of a working-class family haunted by alcoholism. Each of their experiences are portrayed with great care through the eyes of lonely Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, who finds himself at the margins of his own family. Everyone embodies a role in Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu and protagonist Willis Wu strives to land the best one available to an Asian-American man: Kung Fu Guy. Yu’s novel takes the concept of allegory and uses the familiar landscape of Hollywood tropes to create a nuanced, heartfelt, and stylistically unique portrait of Asian-American identity.

The NY Times lists five novels which I pasted below, and five nonfiction books, which I ignore. The 10 Best Books of 2020

1. A Children’s Bible By Lydia Millet In Millet’s latest novel, a bevy of kids and their middle-aged parents convene for the summer at a country house in America’s Northeast. While the grown-ups indulge (pills, benders, bed-hopping), the kids, disaffected teenagers and their parentally neglected younger siblings, look on with mounting disgust. But what begins as generational comedy soon takes a darker turn, as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. The ensuing chaos is underscored by scenes and symbols repurposed from the Bible — a man on a blowup raft among the reeds, animals rescued from a deluge into the back of a van, a baby born in a manger. With an unfailingly light touch, Millet delivers a wry fable about climate change, imbuing foundational myths with new meaning and, finally, hope. Fiction | W.W. Norton & Company. $25.95. | Read the review | Listen: Lydia Millet on the podcast.

2. Deacon King Kong By James McBride A mystery story, a crime novel, an urban farce, a sociological portrait of late-1960s Brooklyn: McBride’s novel contains multitudes. At its rollicking heart is Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, a.k.a. Sportcoat, veteran resident of the Causeway Housing Projects, widower, churchgoer, odd-jobber, home brew-tippler and, now, after inexplicably shooting an ear clean off a local drug dealer, a wanted man. The elastic plot expands to encompass rival drug crews, an Italian smuggler, buried treasure, church sisters and Sportcoat’s long-dead wife, still nagging from beyond the grave. McBride, the author of the National Book Award-winning novel “The Good Lord Bird” and the memoir “The Color of Water,” among other books, conducts his antic symphony with deep feeling, never losing sight of the suffering and inequity within the merriment. Fiction | Riverhead Books. $28. | Read the review | Listen: James McBride on the podcast

3. Hamnet By Maggie O’Farrell A bold feat of imagination and empathy, this novel gives flesh and feeling to a historical mystery: how the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, in 1596, may have shaped his play “Hamlet,” written a few years later. O’Farrell, an Irish-born novelist, conjures with sensual vividness the world of the playwright’s hometown: the tang of new leather in his cantankerous father’s glove shop; the scent of apples in the storage shed where he first kisses Agnes, the farmer’s daughter and gifted healer who becomes his wife; and, not least, the devastation that befalls her when she cannot save her son from the plague. The novel is a portrait of unspeakable grief wreathed in great beauty. Fiction | Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95. | Read the review.

4. Homeland Elegies By Ayad Akhtar At once personal and political, Akhtar’s second novel can read like a collection of pitch-perfect essays that give shape to a prismatic identity. We begin with Walt Whitman, with a soaring overture to America and a dream of national belonging — which the narrator methodically dismantles in the virtuosic chapters that follow. The lure and ruin of capital, the wounds of 9/11, the bitter pill of cultural rejection: Akhtar pulls no punches critiquing the country’s most dominant narratives. He returns frequently to the subject of his father, a Pakistani immigrant and onetime doctor to Donald Trump, seeking in his life the answer to a burning question: What, after all, does it take to be an American? Fiction | Little, Brown & Company. $28. | Read the review | Listen: Ayad Akhtar on the podcast

5. The Vanishing Half By Brit Bennett Beneath the polished surface and enthralling plotlines of Bennett’s second novel, after her much admired “The Mothers,” lies a provocative meditation on the possibilities and limits of self-definition. Alternating sections recount the separate fates of Stella and Desiree, twin sisters from a Black Louisiana town during Jim Crow, whose residents pride themselves on their light skin. When Stella decides to pass for white, the sisters’ lives diverge, only to intersect unexpectedly, years later. Bennett has constructed her novel with great care, populating it with characters, including a trans man and an actress, who invite us to consider how identity is both chosen and imposed, and the degree to which “passing” may describe a phenomenon more common than we think. Fiction | Riverhead Books. $27. | Read the review | Read our profile

There you go, folks. Happy reading

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