The Best Books to Elevate Your Reading List in 2020
It's a banner year for books, friends. In 2020, a year bound to decide the fate of our self-immolating planet as we know it, nonfiction about the world at hand has never been more essential. At the same time, one could argue that fiction has never been more essential, won't as it is to provide escape and build empathy. Our favorite books of the year report on issues ranging from teenage sexuality to Big Tech, while also telling deeply human stories of identity, romance, and family. Watch this space??—we'll be adding more as the year progresses.
1| Topics of Conversation, by Miranda Popkey (out 1/7)
Formally adventurous and blisteringly current, this debut novel spanning almost two decades of conversations between women wrestles with the stories women tell about desire, friendship, and violence, among other subjects. In glittering prose, Popkey illuminates the performative nature of storytelling, assessing the degree to which the stories we tell about our lives are fictions.
2| Boys & Sex, by Peggy Orenstein (out 1/7)
In this follow-up to her groundbreaking Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein turns her reportorial lens to young men, who, in compassionate, candid interviews, reveal the fears, pressures, and longings that shape their burgeoning sexual identities. Combined with testimony from psychologists and academics, what arises from Orenstein’s thorough, sensitive exploration of the subject is a clear-eyed portrait of how toxic masculinity takes root—and how we must course-correct in raising our boys before it’s too late.
3| Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell (out 1/14)
In Cleanness, Garth Greenwell returns to the stark Eastern European landscape of What Belongs to You, his sensational 2016 debut novel. In post-Soviet Bulgaria, an American teacher sifts through the romantic entanglements of his years abroad, with bruising vignettes of love and brutality coalescing into an evocative portrait of desire’s vagaries. Melancholy and lyrical, this slim volume confirms that Greenwell is among our finest writers on sex and desire.
4| Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener (out 1/14)
In this hyper-detailed, thoroughly engrossing memoir, tech journalist Anna Wiener narrates her coming-of-age in Silicon Valley during the early years of the startup boom. Yet Uncanny Valley is so much more than a memoir—it’s a vivid, unflinching portrait of a changed San Francisco, a onetime haven for artists and dreamers now dangerously in thrall to the capitalist chokehold of tech monoliths. At the intersection of exploitative labor, entitled men, and ungodly amounts of money, Wiener bears witness to the fearsome future as it unfolds.
5| A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende (out 1/21)
From a titan of literature comes a new novel that opens in 1930s Spain, where a pregnant widow makes a harrowing pilgrimage over mountains and oceans to escape civil war. Bound to her deceased lover’s brother in a marriage of convenience, she settles in Allende’s native Chile, where she builds a new home while reconsidering her relationship to the home she left behind. In this transporting novel, Allende is as transcendent and life-affirming as ever, locating joy even in the refugee experience and light even in the darkness.
6| The Third Rainbow Girl, by Emma Copley Eisenberg (out 1/21)
In this exhaustive investigation of a brutal double homicide in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, Eisenberg unravels the surprising story of a wrenching crime. However, The Third Rainbow Girl is also so much more—it’s a deeply felt exploration of Appalachia, a land where fault lines of race, gender, and class run deep. Eisenberg, a one-time resident of Pocahontas County, never lets her former home off easy, but instead evokes a portrait at once generous and devastating.
7| Weather, by Jenny Offill (out 2/11)
Compact and wholly contemporary, Jenny Offill’s third novel sees a librarian find deep meaning and deep despair in her side gig as an armchair therapist for those in existential crisis, including liberals fearing climate apocalypse and conservatives fearing the demise of “American values.” As she attempts to save everyone, our protagonist is driven to her limits, making for a canny, comic story about the power of human need.
8| In the Land of Men, by Adrienne Miller (out 2/11)
In this riveting memoir, the first female literary editor of Esquire, appointed at twenty-five years old, narrates her remarkable experience as a cultural gatekeeper in a rarefied, male-dominated world. Miller’s recollection of that formative chapter of her life explores her complicated friendship with David Foster Wallace; meanwhile, she also reckons with power, and the dark truth about who gets to have it.
9| The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams (out 2/11)
In this thrilling work of historical fiction, adolescent girls at a school in 1870s New England are subjected to an outrageous medical treatment at the hands of paternalistic doctors. Frightening, suspenseful, and timely, The Illness Lesson explores the crushing weight of oppression and the indefatigable power of female defiance.
10| Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong (out 2/25)
In this radical exploration of the Asian American psyche, Hong writes masterfully about her experience of “minor feelings”: the painful cognitive dissonance you feel when the cultural messaging you receive contradicts the lived experience of your identity. Through cultural criticism, memoir, and historical investigation, Hong names and illuminates issues of race and gender that long went unnamed, creating a blistering new handbook to the state of race in America.
11| My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (out 3/10)
My Dark Vanessa is a singular achievement—a masterpiece of tension and tone that will simultaneously grip you, horrify you, and move you. In 2000, teenage Vanessa Wye is drawn into an affair with her much-older English teacher; in 2017, when her teacher is brought to account for his abuses of underage girls amid a widespread cultural reckoning, Vanessa must reassess her mythology of their years-long relationship. With utmost sensitivity and vivid, gut-churning detail, Russell illuminates Vanessa’s struggle to see the story of her life for the tragedy it truly is. Before you start My Dark Vanessa, clear your schedule for the next few days—this harrowing account of sexual abuse and its lifelong aftershocks will utterly consume you.
12| Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony (out 3/24)
Weird, wonderful, and very much of the moment, Enter the Aardvark is a landmark political novel of the Trump era. Anthony bridges political and temporal divides through a time-traveling taxidermied aardvark, which shuttles between Victorian England, where it was hunted and stuffed, and present-day Washington D.C., where its appearance on a young Republican congressman’s doorstep threatens to upend his career. With heart and humor, Enter the Aardvark expertly skewers our current political climate.
13| Perfect Tunes, by Emily Gould (out 4/14)
The author of Friendship returns with a second novel about the intricacies of relationships between women, this time centered on a mother and daughter searching for answers across the mysterious gulf of the mother’s past. As Marie asks questions about her mother’s youth as a songwriter in New York City, Laura must open the door on a time in her life that she sought to forget. Brimming with gemlike insight and humor, Perfect Tunes is a moving investigation of love, loss, and parenthood.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.