My Favorite Books of 2020

You Know You Want This: Stories by Kristen Roupenian

Author Kristen Roupenian has penned a collection of contemporary feminist horror stories. The tone and styles are varied so that each entry feels fresh and unique. “The Mirror, The Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” is told like a traditional European fairy tale but degenerates in the most lovely of ways to a twisted allegory on obsessive love. “The Boy in the Pool” is about a woman uncomfortable with the ways her childhood friends have grown apart from her. To reunite them in a shared sense of nostalgia, she attempts to find the sex symbol from a film they repeatedly watched as teenagers. Her goal is to have this man show up at one of the friend’s bachelorette party but doesn’t seem to know what should come next. “Scarred”’s narrator discovers a book of spells and ends of conjuring a man into existence but struggles to figure out what to do with him. “Biter” is a hilarious dark comedy about a woman who has fought an urge to sink her teeth into everyone since she was a child. When she becomes aware of a workplace tryst between coworkers, the woman sees an opportunity to indulge in her desires.

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

This read like a great Steven Soderbergh or Coen Brothers’ style movie, the same quick pacing & snappy dialogue. Two auditors for the egg industry become fed up with seeing the way the chickens are treated, abused, and tortured. They hatch a plan to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night but will need a lot of help to get the job done. Of course, this isn’t going to go the way they plan, and the book delivers on great surprises and twists. Author Deb Olin Unferth doesn’t play things safe, and she gives the story to a host of different voices including a forest ranger who discovers a roving band for forty thousand feral chickens, a security guard who keeps patrolling an empty chicken warehouse farm for years after the birds have gone, and even these animals’ descendants twenty thousand years after the events of the story. If you enjoy the work of those directors mentioned above, I think you will love this novel.

How Long Til’ Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

This is a beautiful melange of fantasy & science fiction told from a black perspective. Some stories feel like a red hot bullet right between the eyes in our current context. There’s a story about the spirit of a city becoming aware she not merely a human walking its street with the idea that these city spirits travel and awaken their kin across the world over time. We’re presented with a Jim Crow-era story of a black witch and her children encountering a demonic fey-like entity posing as a beautiful blonde white woman. There are stories of secret agents from an alternate universe Haiti sneaking through New Orleans to take out a white cabal. You get the transformational narrative of a young chef introduced to alien ingredients and becoming a sorceress who can create food that radically affects her customers. The most resonant for me was the opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” where a beautiful utopia is described, a place where all prejudices are gone, and humanity lives in beautiful harmony and follows a path that parallels and reflects our own.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

I had heard about LeGuin and her science fiction novels for years, knowing they would be good but sort of tiptoeing around “classics” as I so often do, wanting to wait for the “perfect time” to read them. I think in the case of The Lathe of Heaven, I read it at a time in the world where it is matched up with what is going on so perfectly. The novel is set in Portland, Oregon, in the year 2002. The environment has collapsed, and now rain pours down on the city at all times. A large portion of the population is living in abject poverty, suffering from protein deficiencies. George Orr is a technical artist who abuses drugs to prevent himself from dreaming. He ends up getting caught and forced to go to “voluntary” psychiatric treatment. His psychiatrist is a sleep specialist named Haber. Orr reveals that when he dreams, he wakes to a world altered by those visions in his sleep. Haber is incredulous until Orr dreams of a change to the office, and it materializes. Haber begins to believe that he can “cure” Orr while harnessing this power and keep tweaking reality until it is perfect. However, the world starts changing in unpredictably volatile ways, and Orr works to remember what the world really is and decide what he should do with this gift. The Lathe of Heaven is a mind-blowing novel, not a very long but deeply impactful one.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I have not dug into Stephen Graham Jones as much as I should have, but the work I’ve read is fantastic. This is his latest novel and continues his blending of Jones’s indigenous background with his love of horror. The Only Good Indians centers on four Native men who took part in an elk hunt a decade earlier. During the hunt, they did something and witnessed a horror that haunted them to varying degrees. The plot is structured to move from man to man and see how the curse on them plays out. In that way, the book is sort of a mish-mash of linked short stories and novellas. The book’s core is Lewis’s story, a postal worker who has moved away from his hometown and is living with a white woman. There’s some cultural guilt there, especially when a Native woman a little younger than Lewis starts working at his job. He’s torn between his individual wants and the expectations of his culture looming over him. Through this triangle, the horror begins to manifest itself, culminating in the middle of the novel and creating ripples that shape the rest of the text. There’s no way this story could be recast in a different culture, especially not whitewashed. This is a specifically Native people’s horror story, yet Jones taps into universal themes that cause the novel to resonate on multiple levels.

Daddy: Stories by Emma Cline

Here’s a writer whose name I’d seen attached to an acclaimed novel for the last couple of years. I find it interesting that reviews of people who read her book The Girls don’t have very positive feelings about this collection. I found it very enjoyable and reminded me of some great grounded writers I’ve read over the years. As the title implies, there is a theme of parenting and especially fatherhood woven throughout the selections here. The opening story is from the point of view of an older dad whose adult children are returning home for Christmas. There’s a lot of dysfunction and complications in people’s lives, but so much of what happens rang true. Everyone is either happy to forget their childhood or hung up on the present, not feeling like the nostalgic past. There’s another entry about a father picking up his son from boarding school after the child commits a horrific act of violence. The tension between them builds to an explosive conclusion. We also have stories about those affected by fathers, in one story the nanny of a famous Hollywood couple has an affair with the husband and is thrown to the media wolves, the man refusing to respond to her communications. I see Cline as pointing out the manufactured nature of families in the 21st century, the idea that culture imposes expectations of behavior and structure in this institution, and how unrealistic and unsustainable these are.

Pew by Catherine Lacy

Author Catherine Lacey has penned a parable about modern American society, using the outsider Pew to make observations on our culture’s endless contradictions. Laws and morality are fluid yet spoken about as if written in stone. The characters around Pew cannot see beyond the surface level, so Pew’s ambiguity frightens and angers them. The story never devolves into dark violence; Lacey is more creative than that. She trails us along and delivers a powerful but enigmatic conclusion that leaves us pondering what it all meant. Pew is the perfect character for this story; their silence is like a dagger in the endlessly chatting, yet never saying anything to the small-town residents. Through silence, these people are forced to face truths about themselves they would rather ignore. There’s no privacy for Pew, though, always watched as everyone is, judged just like everyone else. The growing mob begins to start deciding what is true about Pew and what isn’t without any evidence because they need to fit things inboxes. It’s a very potent fable that rings true and likely will be true fifty years from now.

Why You Should Be A Socialist by Nathan J. Robinson

Nathan Robinson is the founder & editor-in-chief of the fantastic Current Affairs website, an excellent place for left takes on the news. This particular book is targeted at someone who is moderately informed about day to day life and politics in America but likely turned off by the party system we have at the moment. I don’t think this will be a persuasive text for someone who has pledged allegiance to Fox News and drinks their Kool-Aid. If a person sees “socialist” as a word infused with evil, they are sort of beyond reasoning with. Robinson does an excellent job of outlining the deeply inherent flaws in both conservatism and liberalism, but to call his ideology “pure socialism” is a little finicky. Robinson is most definitely a social democrat more than a Marxist style socialist. He is an excellent writer and presents these often touchy ideas with friendliness and charm. If you have been intimidated by other books on socialism because of the dense theory, they often bring this text works as a great introduction to socialist thinking.

Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene by Adolph Reed, Jr.

I’ve been leaning more into fiction these last two months, which lets the few non-fiction texts I read get better absorbed. This is a must-read for anyone interested in really getting deep with issues brought up by Black Lives Matter. Adolph Reed, Jr wrote the essays in this collection during the Clinton administration, so while the topics may be historical, the ideas he is presenting are universal. Reed is a Black American and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. His focus is on the intersection of race, cultural, and economic politics in America. He has a particular interest in deconstructing the arguments made by Black political leaders who are on the liberal/centrist area of the spectrum as ignoring the roots of and material solutions to problems experienced by Black people living in poverty or working poor. There is an excellent essay in this collection that differentiates Black people’s experience who grew up middle class during Jim Crow and those who grew up poor and how within the Black community there was an oppressive economy. Middle-class Blacks exploited the labor of their poor brethren who were trapped because of Jim Crow. Reed also details how Christianity has been soaked into the Black culture in extremely toxic ways making certain regions more intolerable to LGBTQ people and more accepting of open misogyny and the shaming of poor Black people. What Reed does is outline how homogenizing “the Black community” as a single-minded clump of people is a racist act and benefits both the exploitative agenda of White leaders and particular bad faith Black leaders. Reed makes no bones about despising the libertarian-leaning Louis Farrakhan, Rainbow Coalition era Jesse Jackson, and showboating pastor Al Sharpton as individualists more interested in promoting their personal brands and supporting the exploitative economic structures already in place. Reed is such a compelling voice in the discourse, and everyone would benefit from reading and absorbing his ideas.

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