Books & Art

The Best Books of 2020 (So Far)

Transportive historical fiction and compelling takes on power, race, and relationships.
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Here's a piece of advice that will set you free: give up on the book that you keep telling yourself you're reading, but will take any opportunity to avoid for Netflix or refreshing your Twitter feed. You don't have to finish a book because you started it. Swap it for something you'll actually enjoy and reap the mindful and enlightening benefits of reading by, you know, actually reading.

There's plenty of things in the world that can be avoided by bunkering down with a good novel, and the best books of the year so far offer reckonings on racial identity, anxiety about climate change and fears about the cult of Big Tech. OK, so maybe those don't sound like escapism, but that's why we've also found some transportive historical fiction and compelling looks at power in relationships.

Remember, to be a reader you actually have to read.

In the Dream House: A Memoir

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Her Body and Other Parties author Carmen Maria Machado examines her past in this memoir, from a religious upbringing to abusive lesbian partners. With each chapter given over to a different literary genre—the haunted house, erotica, the bildungsroman—Machado reflects on the time where she was trapped in a house, trapped in a relationship, and how her body became a haunted house itself.

Such a Fun Age

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Kiley Reid's brilliant debut flits between the perspective of white feminist influencer Alix and her young black nanny Emira, using their perspectives to create a powerful narrative about race and privilege. The story is a fascinating look at how we judge people and demolishes the woke white man as being a dangerous ally.

Topics of Conversation

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What stories do we tell our friends, and what stories do we tell ourselves? With the same dazzling clarity as Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill, Popkey tells a story about motherhood, grief, anger, sex, and self-loathing through 20 years of an unnamed narrator's life. A Sally Rooney-esque plunge into the fishbowl of someone else's mind.

Cleanness

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Sex and violence are also explored in poet and author Garth Greenwell's follow-up to his beautiful 2016 novel, What Belongs To You. Cleanness again follows a gay American man teaching in Bulgaria, but now it looks back on the encounters that have marked his time away as he looks to return home.

The Crying Book

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The rarely examined subject of tears is the focus of this fascinating book, which looks at the purpose of crying, its cultural implications, and even what tears are made up of. Christle tells a story that is both universal and personal, touching on what tears have come to mean for humanity, as well as exploring her own personal grief and traumas.

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

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Former Silicon Valley insider Anna Weiner dismantles the wild west of big tech in this memoir which draws on her time at a data analytics startup. Weiner looks at how tech giants have strangled the art haven of San Francisco and dismantles our “blind faith in ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men” in this searing memoir.

Strange Hotel

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The Goldsmiths prize-winning author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing turns her stream-of-consciousness style to the story of a woman who occupies a series of hotel rooms around the world, from Auckland to Austin. Amongst the keycards and matches we learn about the men she meets and what she is escaping in her constant checking in and checking out.

Weather

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The mammoth threat of climate change looms large over the ephemera of modern life in this novel filled with dread and humor. In it, Lizzie is a librarian navigating her curious son, distant husband, and addict brother all the while googling how to make candles from cans of oil-packed tuna as the world always teeters on the edge of ruin.

Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition

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Cathy Park Hong's scorching collection of essays documents the everyday “minor feelings" she encountered while growing up, when American optimism contradicted her own experience as a second-generation immigrant. A mixture of memoir, cultural criticism, and historical analysis, Hong's poetic writing makes powerful statements about race and the meaning of identity.

The Mirror & the Light

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The third installment in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy sees the British writer hit the same form that earned its predecessors two Man Booker prizes. The concluding installment finds Cromwell in 1536 with Queen Ann Boleyn's head freshly severed and his master, Henry VIII, in need of a new bride. Mantel completes her portrait of him against a backdrop of paranoia and power grabs, showing how a ruthless outsider has risen to the precarious top.

In the Land of Men: A Memoir

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When Adrienne Miller was 25 she was named the Literary Editor of Esquire, a role which plunged her into the male-dominated home of famed writers such as Hemingway, Mailer, and Carver. More than 20 years later her memoir recounts her experience of witnessing a new literary movement begin, as well as her complicated friendship with David Foster Wallace. Like Lisa Halliday's excellent novel Asymmetry, Miller's writing illuminates the female experience of navigating the male stage of literary writing.

My Dark Vanessa

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As Lisa Taddeo's Three Women did last year, this debut novel is sure to ignite conversations about consent, psychological abuse, and the power dynamics of sex and love between men and women. In My Dark Vanessa, we follow the story of a teenager whose affair with a teacher dominates her life for years. The insidious way she is manipulated makes for uncomfortable yet important reading.

Exciting Times

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Dubbed the next Sally Rooney, Irish writer Naoise Dolan's work does have echoes of the Normal People author's electric prose and astute social observations, but Exciting Times is told in a voice that has arrived full-formed and totally unique. Set in present-day Hong Kong, the story is a love triangle between Oxford banker Julian, English teacher Ava, and lawyer Edith, told from a perspective deep inside Ava's mind. Dolan's caustic humor will have you wanting to underline her musings every few pages.

Stray

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In Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler conjured the fast, hungry, and lustful whirlwind of restaurant life, based on her time as a server working in New York. Here she goes more personal still, with a memoir about how the success of her novel opened the wounds of her past, from her alcoholic father to her ill mother and a long-standing affair with a married man. Told between the deserts and mountains of California, and telling the stories of their history intertwined with her own, Stray is a powerful look at the parts of our past that define us and which we can choose to let go.

The Vanishing Half

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Brit Bennett, author of the New York Times best-seller The Mothers, here tells the story of two identical twins who grow up in the South together, their lives later diverging when one lives with her black daughter in the same town while the other passes for white. The Vanishing Half looks not just at how race defines us, but how the lives of those who have come before us can too.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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