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The 10 best books of 2020

Authors Lily King, Rumaan Alam and James McBride with their book jackets.
(Photo illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times; Grove Press; Winky Lewis; David A. Land; Ecco Press; Chia Messina; Riverhead Books)
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The Year's Best Books

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This was supposed to be a banner year for big literary names — an apocalyptic DeLillo, a gossipy Amis, the grand finale of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. And yet the brightest, most invigorating work came from outside the aristocracy. Authors from across the spectrum of notoriety and experience turned up with writing that cut particularly deep in this most horribilis of all the anni. Quiet debuts crept out and captured top prizes. Heavy hitters returned after almost a generation away from publishing. Legends in the making pushed themselves into uncharted territory. The lesson here? Trust your gut and not the dazzle of a fancy persona, and you’ll be amply rewarded. Or just read this list of the best books of 2020, in alphabetical order.

In a noisy 2020, it was too easy to overlook these 10 literary gems, from Miranda Popkey’s “Topics of Conversation” to Mieko Kawakami’s “Breasts and Eggs.”

Deacon King Kong
By James McBride
Riverhead: 384 pages, $28

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Shouldn’t we just get it over with and declare McBride this decade’s Great American Novelist? Following up a radiant hit like “The Good Lord Bird” could have proved tricky for a writer with a more limited repertoire, but this one can apparently shift like the wind. “Deacon King Kong” bursts with energy in the story of Sportcoat, a church deacon and a drunk, who shoots a drug dealer and accidentally sets off a chain of desperation and absurdity. McBride has a way of inflating reality to comical sizes, the better for us to see every tiny mechanism that holds unjust systems in place.

Cover of "Leave the World Behind: A Novel" by Rumaan Alam.
(Ecco)

Leave the World Behind
By Rumaan Alam
Ecco: 256 pages, $28

Remember that scene in “Pulp Fiction” when John Travolta’s character jams a syringe of adrenaline straight into Uma Thurman’s stopped heart? She shoots up and gasps: hhhhhhuuuu! That’s how it feels, approximately every 15 pages, as you pick your way through the artful wreckage Alam has sculpted in “Leave the World Behind.” A family on a Hamptons vacation is surprised when their Airbnb’s owners show up, relaying news of a blackout across the East Coast. Then cell service disappears and a series of otherworldly events punctuate the story — massive herds of roaming deer, unexplained ailments, a piercing sound in the sky. This isn’t an apocalypse novel (2020 is too complicated for that); it’s a high-RPM meditation on how it feels to experience collapse.

Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” starts as satire and becomes the anatomy of “normal” life during global disaster — and a dire warning to us all.

Luster
By Raven Leilani
FSG: 240 pages, $26

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In a year when the “Bad Sex Award” was mercifully canceled, it’s time to start thinking about rewarding the rare feat of good sex writing. It’s far too easy to go overboard on the groans and the stickiness, but in this simultaneously horny and contemplative debut, Leilani takes the awkwardness of clanking genitals as a given and runs with it. Edie, a struggling painter and publishing grunt who has slept her way through the office, meets Eric, who is twice her age and in an open marriage. This isn’t some paint-by-numbers plot of romance and rejection; Edie eventually moves in with Eric, his wife and their adopted daughter, and begins to wonder what exactly makes her such a sop for touch, need, desire. Leilani knows how to talk about wanting in ways that make you sweat.

Bryan Washington, author of the novel "Memorial."
(Dailey Hubbard)

Memorial
By Bryan Washington
Riverhead: 320 pages, $27

There’s something to be said for quiet writing, sentences that breaststroke forward, making only the softest waves. “Memorial,” Washington’s debut novel, hums along softly like a symphony preparing to perform. It revolves around a couple who are on the verge of disintegration when we meet them: Ben is Black and Mike is Japanese American, and time has opened up a chasm between them and the ways they each relate to the world. While Mike heads to Japan to sit with his dying father, Ben plays host to Mike’s visiting mother; all of them navigate feelings of displacement. Washington is one to watch.

Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.

Memorial Drive
By Natasha Trethewey
Ecco: 224 pages, $28

This makes the top 10 for my entire reading life. When former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey was 19, her stepfather shot and killed her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, outside their Atlanta apartment. Trethewey repressed memories of the murder, and the years of bruises and verbal lashings that preceded it, for decades. But this slim, transcendent memoir — covering her childhood as a biracial girl in the Deep South, the tension inside her mother’s house and the gut punch of the killing — gracefully brings the poet closer to something that looks like acceptance. Truly a work of genius.

Book jacket for "Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke.
(Bloomsbury Publishing)

Piranesi
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury: 272 pages, $27

Fifteen years after the magnificent “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” reminded readers that fantasy belongs on the mainstream shelf, Clarke is back with a slimmer but equally riveting story about the cost of power. Piranesi lives in a never-ending colonnaded building with an Uffizi Gallery’s worth of statuary lining the walls. He visits the busts and occasionally sees The Other, an enigmatic man and the only other living being he knows. But has he always lived there? Why doesn’t he recall his young life? And what is he to make of his own diary entries, which tell a very strange tale about another world he’s never seen? “Piranesi” is vibrant, original, a true book lover’s novel.

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Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey always wrote of public pain and private struggle. Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” lets her mother speak.

Shuggie Bain
By Douglas Stuart
Grove: 448 pages, $27

I admit it: Though this novel was published in February, I only noticed it early this fall when it showed up on shortlists for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award and suddenly its debut author was everywhere. All for very good reason. “Shuggie Bain” is astonishingly good, one of the most moving novels in recent memory. The title character is a young boy in 1980s Glasgow shuttled from one public housing unit to another, starkly alienated from his already fractured family by his suppressed gay identity. Stuart writes so candidly, you’ll practically hear Shuggie’s mother’s beer cans clanking in her handbag, shiver from the chill of a childhood underheated in every way.

Lynn Steger Strong, the author of "Want."
(Nina Subin)

Want
By Lynn Steger Strong
Henry Holt: 224 pages, $26

Things weren’t so great in America before the pandemic, either. Reading Steger Strong’s swirling, incisive “Want” is like being caught in a windstorm of American familial crises: overpriced childcare, overlapping jobs, overreaching men. Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two small children; they’re filing for bankruptcy and constantly on the brink of financial collapse. They’d expected life to be … better than this, and therein lies the cruel slap so masterfully delivered in this novel. “Want” brilliantly exposes the daily exhaustion of generational decline.

Weather
By Jenny Offill
Knopf: 224 pages, $24

Offill’s fragmentary novels are like stepping-stones: You jump from one isolated phrase or anecdote to the next, sometimes sure-footed but occasionally thrown off balance. In “Weather,” a librarian named Lizzie is weighed down by the torrent of information she keeps encountering about our doomed planet. Slipping into what Offill calls “a kind of twilight knowing,” she confronts the fact that flooded New York streets and barren apple trees aren’t a possibility but a certainty. “Weather” isn’t a comfort or a little packet of wishes for a healthy planet — it’s a meticulously constructed (often hilarious, sometimes disconsolate) lament for our old modes of thinking.

Perhaps no other medium has better helped us process 2020. Our fall books special brings you the books and authors who’ve helped make sense of it.

Writers & Lovers
By Lily King
Grove: 320 pages, $27

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Some novels are simply beautiful. That’s the word you exhale as you finish them. King’s fifth novel, a year-in-the-life of a waitress and almost-novelist in 1990s Cambridge, Mass., is one of them. Casey cycles around town, folds napkins for the dinner service, lingers awkwardly at literary parties — and parcels out her energy among two smitten men and her manuscript. It’s a traditional story, and it works on every level. There is nothing extraneous in the writing, just quiet dedication to shaping the story of a young woman adrift from herself.

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