Overlooked books of 2020
10 books worth revisiting
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Has anyone checked on the debut novelists to make sure they’re all right? Amid a devastating pandemic, a steep recession and an attention-sucking black hole of a presidential election, authors that might otherwise have been amply rewarded for timeless brilliance were overlooked even in the casualty count. Publications and culture sites focused on politics, not prose. Visits to brick-and-mortar bookstores dwindled. Overworked printers reserved their rush orders for presidential memoirs. And a lot of smart, important, moving literature was lost in the chaos. Here are 10 books — memoirs, short stories, novels, essays — that deserved our attention and our readership in 2020; give them some in 2021.
Topics of Conversation
By Miranda Popkey
Knopf: 224 pages, $24
There is more than a dash of Rachel Cusk’s Faye trilogy sprinkled over Popkey’s debut novel, another story told entirely in — you guessed it — conversations. Each chapter follows the unnamed narrator into a new foray, first as a teenage nanny to a wealthy family, then into her eventual marriage to an “endlessly supportive” man whose loyalty smothers her and on into the relief and darkness of single motherhood. Popkey isn’t merely replicating Cusk’s formula and inserting her own experiences. This is a formal experiment gone very right, an artful mixing of the intimate and universal and a timeless story about female (dis)satisfaction.
Novelist Lynn Steger Strong on the revolutionary passivity of Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney — how we’ve misread them and what comes next.
Breasts and Eggs
By Mieko Kawakami
Europa: 448 pages, $27
Published in Japan in 2008, Kawakami’s novella won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. It was worth waiting 12 long years for the English release. Her determined exploration of the neuroses women carry about their bodies contains three stories: Natsu is single and hunting for a sperm donor; her sister Makiko researches breast augmentation; and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko crosses the lonely plains of puberty. These women push and pull on one another’s judgments and expectations. Kawakami, like her countrywomen Yoko Ogawa and Sayaka Murata, is a bright young star in her home country — and should be here, as well.
By Rachel Cohen
FSG: 304 pages, $28
There’s something unfashionable about admitting that novels offer lessons in how to live, but who cares? We all know that’s one of their manifold pleasures. In this memoir-essay hybrid, Cohen reads and rereads Jane Austen’s work and tells us not just what it all means but also what it does for us — how the author’s pin-sharp assessments and characters instruct us about the world. There isn’t an ounce of kitsch or flowery claptrap. Instead, Cohen overlays a personal account of grieving her father with the help of Austen’s fiction, emerging with one of the most emotionally astute understandings of the novelist’s work, period.
By Charlotte McConaghy
Flatiron: 272 pages, $27
If you push off “climate change novels” because you have enough cause for despair, this one will offer instant relief. “The animals are dying,” it begins. “Soon we will be alone here.” But from there it’s a story of remarkable hope. “Migrations” follows ornithologist Franny Stone as she joins with a crew of fishermen to sail up and down the unforgiving Atlantic, searching for the world’s last flock of migrating arctic terns. It’s a wily sea tale (definitely a descendant of Melville), in which the glories of the wild are celebrated and mourned in equal turn. McConaghy writes gorgeously of the world we’re losing.
In the beautiful if overladen “Migrations,” by Charlotte McConaghy, animals are vanishing and a troubled woman follows the last terns to Antarctica.
By Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas
FSG: 368 pages, $28
Election day 2020 was perhaps not the best moment to publish a collection of any kind, never mind this posthumous monument. These 28 stories by the wondrous Hazzard, who manages to write about heartbreak as if it’s never been done before, cover several distinct phases in her career. There are hilarious tales of bureaucratic ineptitude from her time working at the United Nations and sad ditties about ambivalent midcentury Americans abroad. But most poignant are the remarkable love stories, originally published in 1963 in her first book, “Cliffs of Fall.” “A Place in the Country,” for one, rivals any classic of the genre. “Love,” its protagonist thinks, “is supposed to be enriching; instead I am poisoned.”
By Katharina Volckmer
Avid Reader: 144 pages, $22
This book will make you squirm. In the form of one long confession, our unnamed German narrator lies back on an examining table and spills out her personal, political and emotional history to a doctor performing a vague procedure. There are jokes about sleeping with Hitler, jabs at her countrymen for pretending they’ve moved past the atrocities of the Holocaust and some sexual unbosoming that would make D.H. Lawrence blush. Which is (part of) the point. Volckmer, writing here in a second language, wants us to feel the correct amount of discomfort as citizens of this mad world.
By Celia Paul
NYRB: 216 pages, $30
Paul’s memoir will disabuse you of any notions about the glamour of being an artist’s muse. She met famous painter Lucian Freud in 1978, when she was 18 and he was 55. She fell in love with him, and he painted her for a decade; in the meantime, her own creativity dried up entirely. In “Self-Portrait,” she writes about that stalling out, and then of how she came to create her later portraits, creamy and alive. She explains her own needs as an artist — silence and solitude, even a separate apartment from her husband, who doesn’t have a key. It’s a captivating mix of memories, notebook pages and musings, proof that while Freud may have captured her on the canvas, she owns her image on the page.
By Kate Zambreno
Riverhead: 336 pages, $26
When writers aren’t writing, who are they? What cleaves and connects those two distinct parts of the creative brain? The too-often underestimated Zambreno has written a novel about the wanderings of a writer’s mind — her mind — as it tries to pin down a slippery new idea and turn pinballing mental ramblings into something as concrete as a hardback book. If this sounds distant and remote, do not fear: “Drifts” is as embodied as novels come, practically vibrational as its narrator snatches her ideas out of the air and turns them into, well, “Drifts.”
The painter known to many as Lucian Freud’s one-time muse writes of her own muse, her mother, and provers herself a masterful writer as well.
By Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
Archipelago: 160 pages, $18
In “Grief,” the final story in this trim collection, Mukasonga writes about a young woman very much like herself, abroad in France in the early 1990s when she receives a letter from her native Rwanda. It contains a long list of names, “her father, her mother, her brothers, her sisters, her uncles, her aunts, her nephews, her nieces.... This was now the list of her dead, of everyone who had died far away from her, without her, and there was nothing she could do for them, not even die with them.” Mukasonga has been writing autobiographical stories about her upbringing and Rwanda’s genocide for years, but “Igifu” may be her brightest, most eye-opening work yet.
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
By Olivia Laing
Norton: 368 pages, $27
I like to think of Laing as a tour guide into the little caverns of my brain where anxiety dwells. Her writing — a mix of memoir and biographical art history — never fails to elicit a little soul-searching about the quirks of one’s psyche that release or bind up creativity. This collection of essays and thoughts — about subjects as varied as the Grenfell Tower fire in London and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. — coheres into a soothing survey of what has collectively agitated us all over the last four years, a meditation on how art can keep up with, and respond to, even the worst of times.
Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.