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The 100 Must Read Books of 2020

The 100 Must Read Books of 2020

By TIME

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About the list

The fiction, nonfiction and poetry that deepened our understanding, ignited our curiosity and helped us escape

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Actress

2020 | Anne Enright

Katherine O'Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter, Norah, retraces her mother's celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother's and her own. Katherine began her career on Ireland's bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London's West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a performance, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine's past or the world's damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, Katherine's grip on reality grows fitful. Fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime. As Norah's role gradually changes to Katherine's protector, caregiver, and finally legacy-keeper, she revisits her mother's life of fiercely kept secrets; and Norah reveals in turn the secrets of her own sexual and emotional coming-of-age story. Her narrative is shaped by three braided searches--for her father's identity; for her mother's motive in donning a Chanel suit one morning and shooting a TV producer in the foot; and her own search for a husband, family, and work she loves. Bringing to life two generations of women with difficult sexual histories, both assaulted and silenced, both finding--or failing to find--their powers of recovery, Actress touches a raw and timely nerve. With virtuosic storytelling and in prose at turns lyrical and knife-sharp, Enright takes readers to the heart of the maddening yet tender love that binds a mother and daughter.

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Afterlife

2020 | Julia Alvarez

A Most-Anticipated Book of the Year: O, The Oprah Magazine * The New York Times * Vogue * Bustle * BuzzFeed * The Millions * The Lily * Goodreads * Library Journal * LitHub * Electric Literature The first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the internationally bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents “A stunning work of art that reminds readers Alvarez is, and always has been, in a class of her own.” —Elizabeth Acevedo, National Book Award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller The Poet X Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words. Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?

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Begin Again

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2020 | Eddie S. Glaude

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER - James Baldwin grew disillusioned by the failure of the civil rights movement to force America to confront its lies about race. In our own moment, when that confrontation feels more urgently needed than ever, what can we learn from his struggle? "In the midst of an ugly Trump regime and a beautiful Baldwin revival, Eddie Glaude has plunged to the profound depths and sublime heights of Baldwin's prophetic challenge to our present-day crisis."--Cornel West We live, according to Eddie S. Glaude Jr., in a moment when the struggles of Black Lives Matter and the attempt to achieve a new America have been challenged by the election of Donald Trump, a president whose victory represents yet another failure of America to face the lies it tells itself about race. From Charlottesville to the policies of child separation at the border, his administration turned its back on the promise of Obama's presidency and refused to embrace a vision of the country shorn of the insidious belief that white people matter more than others. We have been here before: For James Baldwin, these after times came in the wake of the civil rights movement, when a similar attempt to compel a national confrontation with the truth was answered with the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In these years, spanning from the publication of The Fire Next Time in 1963 to that of No Name in the Street in 1972, Baldwin transformed into a more overtly political writer, a change that came at great professional and personal cost. But from that journey, Baldwin emerged with a sense of renewed purpose about the necessity of pushing forward in the face of disillusionment and despair. In the story of Baldwin's crucible, Glaude suggests, we can find hope and guidance through our own after times, this Trumpian era of shattered promises and white retrenchment. Mixing biography--drawn partially from newly uncovered interviews--with history, memoir, and trenchant analysis of our current moment, Begin Again is Glaude's endeavor, following Baldwin, to bear witness to the difficult truth of race in America today. It is at once a searing exploration that lays bare the tangled web of race, trauma, and memory, and a powerful interrogation of what we all must ask of ourselves in order to call forth a new America.

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Big Friendship

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2020 | Aminatou Sow,Ann Friedman

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A close friendship is one of the most influential and important relationships a human life can contain. Anyone will tell you that! But for all the rosy sentiments surrounding friendship, most people don’t talk much about what it really takes to stay close for the long haul. Now two friends, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, tell the story of their equally messy and life-affirming Big Friendship in this honest and hilarious book that chronicles their first decade in one another’s lives. As the hosts of the hit podcast Call Your Girlfriend, they’ve become known for frank and intimate conversations. In this book, they bring that energy to their own friendship—its joys and its pitfalls. Aminatou and Ann define Big Friendship as a strong, significant bond that transcends life phases, geographical locations, and emotional shifts. And they should know: the two have had moments of charmed bliss and deep frustration, of profound connection and gut-wrenching alienation. They have weathered life-threatening health scares, getting fired from their dream jobs, and one unfortunate Thanksgiving dinner eaten in a car in a parking lot in Rancho Cucamonga. Through interviews with friends and experts, they have come to understand that their struggles are not unique. And that the most important part of a Big Friendship is making the decision to invest in one another again and again. An inspiring and entertaining testament to the power of society’s most underappreciated relationship, Big Friendship will invite you to think about how your own bonds are formed, challenged, and preserved. It is a call to value your friendships in all of their complexity. Actively choose them. And, sometimes, fight for them.

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The Book of Eels

2020 | Patrik Svensson

A Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize National Bestseller Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction A New York Times Notable Book One of TIME's 100 Must Read Books of the Year One of The Washington Post's 50 Notable Nonfiction Books of the Year One of Smithsonian Magazine's 10 Best Science Books of the Year One of Publishers Weekly's Best Nonfiction Books of the Year A New York Times Editor's Choice Part H Is for Hawk, part The Soul of an Octopus, The Book of Eels is both a meditation on the world's most elusive fish--the eel--and a reflection on the human condition Remarkably little is known about the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. So little, in fact, that scientists and philosophers have, for centuries, been obsessed with what has become known as the "eel question" Where do eels come from? What are they? Are they fish or some other kind of creature altogether? Even today, in an age of advanced science, no one has ever seen eels mating or giving birth, and we still don't understand what drives them, after living for decades in freshwater, to swim great distances back to the ocean at the end of their lives. They remain a mystery. Drawing on a breadth of research about eels in literature, history, and modern marine biology, as well as his own experience fishing for eels with his father, Patrik Svensson crafts a mesmerizing portrait of an unusual, utterly misunderstood, and completely captivating animal. In The Book of Eels, we meet renowned historical thinkers, from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud to Rachel Carson, for whom the eel was a singular obsession. And we meet the scientists who spearheaded the search for the eel's point of origin, including Danish marine biologist Johannes Schmidt, who led research efforts in the early twentieth century, catching thousands upon thousands of eels, in the hopes of proving their birthing grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Blending memoir and nature writing at its best, Svensson's journey to understand the eel becomes an exploration of the human condition that delves into overarching issues about our roots and destiny, both as humans and as animals, and, ultimately, how to handle the biggest question of all: death. The result is a gripping and slippery narrative that will surprise and enchant.

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Breasts and Eggs

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2020 | Mieko Kawakami

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The story of three women by a writer hailed by Haruki Murakami as Japan's most important contemporary novelist, WINNER OF THE AKUTAGAWA PRIZE. "Breasts and Eggs took my breath away."--HARUKI MURAKAMI A BEST BOOK OF 2020 TIME Magazine・The Atlantic・Book Riot・Electric Literature・The New York Times (Notable Book of the Year) Challenging every preconception about storytelling and prose style, mixing wry humor and riveting emotional depth, Kawakami is today one of Japan's most important and best-selling writers. She exploded onto the cultural scene first as a musician, then as a poet and popular blogger, and is now an award-winning novelist. Breasts and Eggs paints a portrait of contemporary womanhood in Japan and recounts the intimate journeys of three women as they confront oppressive mores and their own uncertainties on the road to finding peace and futures they can truly call their own. It tells the story of three women: the thirty-year-old Natsu, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko's daughter, Midoriko. Makiko has traveled to Tokyo in search of an affordable breast enhancement procedure. She is accompanied by Midoriko, who has recently grown silent, finding herself unable to voice the vague yet overwhelming pressures associated with growing up. Her silence proves a catalyst for each woman to confront her fears and frustrations. On another hot summer's day ten years later, Natsu, on a journey back to her native city, struggles with her own indeterminate identity as she confronts anxieties about growing old alone and childless. Kawakami's first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, published in Japan in 2007, was awarded the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. The following year, she published Breasts and Eggs as a short novella, and won praise from Yoko Ogawa and Haruki Murakami. The newly expanded Breasts and Eggs, already hailed as a "feminist masterwork" (Entertainment Weekly), is her first novel to be published in English. "Mieko Kawakami's first full-scale novel to be translated from Japanese into English reveals what a Catherine Wheel of talent she is, how unplaceable and unique. How forceful. [...] The way she moves among her characters here will make clear why Breasts and Eggs is the Makioka Sisters of its time."--John Freeman in Literary Hub "Mieko Kawakami lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction with Breasts and Eggs."--The Economist

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Brown Album

2020 | Porochista Khakpour

*A Vintage Original* From the much-acclaimed novelist and essayist, a beautifully rendered, poignant collection of personal essays, chronicling immigrant and Iranian-American life in our contemporary moment. Novelist Porochista Khakpour's family moved to Los Angeles after fleeing the Iranian Revolution, giving up their successes only to be greeted by an alienating culture. Growing up as an immigrant in America means that one has to make one's way through a confusing tangle of conflicting cultures and expectations. And Porochista is pulled between the glitzy culture of Tehrangeles, an enclave of wealthy Iranians and Persians in LA, her own family's modest life and culture, and becoming an assimilated American. Porochista rebels--she bleaches her hair and flees to the East Coast, where she finds her community: other people writing and thinking at the fringes. But, 9/11 happens and with horror, Porochista watches from her apartment window as the towers fall. Extremism and fear of the Middle East rises in the aftermath and then again with the election of Donald Trump. Porochista is forced to finally grapple with what it means to be Middle-Eastern and Iranian, an immigrant, and a refugee in our country today. Brown Album is a stirring collection of essays, at times humorous and at times profound, drawn from more than a decade of Porochista's work and with new material included. Altogether, it reveals the tolls that immigrant life in this country can take on a person and the joys that life can give.

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