The 20 reads book people actually want this year

Lead art for 2020 gift guide lists
(Jillian Goeler / For The Times

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Even under quarantine, it isn’t always possible to get through all the books you want to read — not with so much Zoom schooling and doom-scrolling to do. As the holidays start creeping up and leisure time starts to stretch, it’s the perfect time to give the right person just the right book, or five or 10. Herewith, a carefully curated list of the most engaging, funniest and most urgent work of the year.

See the full L.A. Times 2020 gift guide here.



‘The Vanishing Half’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
(Riverhead Books)

In Brit Bennett’s first book since her acclaimed debut, “The Mothers,” twin sisters born in a Deep South town, light-skinned and Black, both flee as teens in the ‘60s. One of them later passes as white. It’s a tricky story to get right, and as Times reviewer Bethanne Patrick wrote, “Bennett pulls it off brilliantly.”

$27 | 👉 Purchase here


HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Raven Leilani debuted with the book of the summer: The acidly funny, torrid and hyper-real tale of a 23-year-old publishing assistant clawing her way up from the bottom and pawing her way through New York’s men, with a fraught threesome becoming the focus.

$26 | 👉 Purchase here


‘The Old Drift’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book The Old Drift: A Novel by Namwali Serpell.

Now out in paperback, Namwali Serpell‘s 2019 epic has clearly established itself as the Great Zambian Novel. Tracking four generations of three families across the spectrum of color and caste as the landlocked African nation changes seismically, Serpell uses magical realism in perfectly calibrated doses to dazzling effect.

$18 | 👉 Purchase here

‘The Story of a Goat’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book The Story of A Goat by Perumal Murugan.
(Grove Atlantic)

There’s a long tradition of coded pet parables (“Animal Farm” anyone?), but few are as heartrending Perumal Murugan‘s story of a runty goat subject to all the forms of suffering and solace that visit modern India. Its author turned to allegory only after being persecuted for writing about India’s ills more directly.

$16 | 👉 Purchase here



Jacket cover for "Bestiary," by K-Ming Chang.
(Random House Publishing Group)

K-Ming Chang’s gorgeous debut is narrated by Mother, Daughter and Grandmother — a polyphonic novel bringing together a queer coming-of-age, a Taiwanese American immigrant tale, a document of family abuse and the mythical journey of a girl who grows a tiger’s tale. This is magical realism at its realest.

$27 | 👉 Purchase here

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HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Jack: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The fourth of Marilynne Robinson‘s earthy, philosophical and very American Gilead novels focuses on the titular son of a reverend, who in the 1950s Midwest decides to marry a Black woman and suffer whatever consequences may come. Above all, it’s a soulful and transcendent love story.


$27 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Leave the World Behind’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Leave The World Behind: A Novel by Rumaan Alam.

Buckle up. When a family of New York bobos sets off for a weekend in the Hamptons, and the writer is Rumaan Alam, you expect a social satire — and get it. But then the world falls apart, quite literally, laying bare our desperate desire to cling to Normal in the teeth of apocalypse. It’s the more-or-less flawless end-of-world novel 2020 requires.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

‘The Lying Life of Adults’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante.
(Emanuele Ragnisco / Europa Editi)

Can Elena Ferrante‘s latest match up to her globally adored Neapolitan novels, a quartet about two very different girls coming of age? No matter: “Lying Life” is a masterwork in its own minor key, featuring a teenager who reacts to her family’s dissolution in ways both expected and bracingly strange.


$26 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Red Pill’

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru
(Knopf / Penguin Random House)

Anyone baffled by America’s descent into conspiracy mania would get a dark kick out of Hari Kunzru‘s latest, featuring an American scholar in Germany who falls down a rabbit hole over an obscure right-wing cabal related to a TV cop reality show.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Winter Counts’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Winter Counts: A Novel by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s native Noir, about a vigilante-for-hire on the trail of a gang importing heroin onto his Lakota reservation, is so organic and tonally captivating it makes you wonder why it took so long for such a mashup to evolve.


$28 | 👉 Purchase here


‘Conditional Citizens’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami.
(Penguin Random House)

A writer of observant novels on the lives of American immigrants like herself, Laila Lalami turns to nonfiction in revealing, through personal experience and broader research, exactly how citizenship is tiered in the U.S., notwithstanding its Statue of Liberty bromides.

$26 | 👉 Purchase here


HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Intimations by Zadie Smith.
(Penguin Books)

Zadie Smith has always been at least as phenomenal an essayist as she is a novelist. This slim, flash-published volume of reflections on life under quarantine rides the waves of dread, loneliness, community, loss and self-refection we all went through — and still are.

$11 | 👉 Purchase here


GIFT GUIDE - Cover of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato.

Roberto Lovato has been a poet and activist for a long time, but he’s never written with as much candor or scope as he does in this memoir of his more militant days, which doubles as a sweeping history of the Salvadoran diaspora in California, tracing the vicious cycle of violence to its source in American policy.

$27 | 👉 Purchase here


HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
(Random House)

Isabel Wilkerson’s study surpasses many books on institutional racism by reframing the problem as something more vast and more concrete than that. We suffer under a caste system, with a dominant, shrinking group fighting for continued supremacy and the lower caste fighting, still, for full human rights.

$32 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Too Much and Never Enough’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump.
(Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster)

In a year teeming with Trump exposés, the strongest came from an unexpected place: a Trump niece with a personal grudge. Mary Trump uses her firsthand knowledge and expertise in psychology to paint a damning and ultimately tragic portrait of a man who was bred to bully and abuse.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Uncanny Valley’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener.
(MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux/MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Having started out in the publishing world in New York before moving West to follow the tech boom, Anna Wiener is uniquely suited to turn a personal memoir into an insider’s whistleblowing indictment of Silicon Valley, perfectly timed to a moment when we’re questioning its utopian promises.

$27 | 👉 Purchase here

‘The Undocumented Americans’

Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
(One World/Penguin Random House)

An implicit rebuke to novels that purport to “humanize” undocumented immigrants, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio heavily reported collection of essays gets deep into the actual lives of the undocumented as well as her own upbringing. They suffer from a raft of social ills, but they are not statistics, simply (and powerfully) people.

$26 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Figure It Out’

GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Figure It Out: Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum.
(Soft Skull Press/Designed by Mic/Soft Skull Press/Designed by Mic)

In probably the oddest and most delightful book of the year, Wayne Koestenbaum is an essayist and artist at play, remarking on everything from butterflies to Susan Sontag, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackie O with sharp writing but little overt sense of direction — beyond a wildly contagious curiosity.

$17 | 👉 Purchase here

‘A Promised Land’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book A Promised Land by Barack Obama.
(Pari Dukovic / Crown)

Will President Barack Obama’s two-volume account of his time in office stack up with the greats? On the evidence of “Dreams from My Father,” Ulysses S. Grant might get a run for his money. The first volume will end with Bin Laden dead and General Motors alive. Due out Nov. 17.

$45 | 👉 Purchase here

‘Memorial Drive’

HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry has always plumbed the pain of Southern Black history. In this memoir she delves into something even more personal — her mother’s murder by her stepfather. With lyricism and documentary precision, she builds an indelible memorial to her mother.


$28 | 👉 Purchase here

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