It’s hard to believe that 2020 is almost over. As we look forward to the 2021, we’re also taking a moment to reflect on some of the books that got us through this year. Get one last great read in before the new year or start building your to-read list for 2021 with these 23 recommendations from Hugo House Winter quarter teachers.
The Living by Annie Dillard
In stressful times (you know, like 2020), I turn to historical fiction. I read and loved a lot of this year’s Big Books (runner-up shout-outs to both James McBride’s Deacon King Kong and Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea), but when I think about the book that lingered in my mind long after I put it down, I’m going all the way back to a 1992 release. As the pandemic closed in around us last spring, I started revisiting stories set close to home. If travel was out, I decided I wanted to fall in love with my own backyard. Which is how I happened to rediscover The Living by Annie Dillard. 150 years ago, European settlers washed up on the coast of Washington State, with their feather beds and cumbersome clothes and limited knowledge. They found a country full of resources and people, but inhospitable in a hundred other ways. In Annie Dillard’s incomparable way, The Living follows how the land molded the people, and how the people molded the land. It is an ensemble of stories, and a roller coaster of emotions. In Dillard’s typical style, her camera moves freely, and her language demands that we take our time.
Speaking of our own backyards, my nonfiction favorite, hands down, is Kelly Brenner’s Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World. It changed my daily walks and how I understood the details of the life growing around me. Read it, and you’ll never look at moss the same way.
—Beth Jusino, teaching Market While You Write: Building an Audience Before You Publish Your Book
The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast by John L’Heureux
A Public Space Books, 2019
Short story collections don’t always hold my attention, but this volume of new and selected stories by the late John L’Heureux is so revelatory, it stands out as the most astonishing book I read this year. The book itself is a gorgeous thing, a treasure to savor. L’Heureux was the longtime director of the creative writing program at Stanford, and before that, a Jesuit priest. His stories seem effortless because L’Heureux was such a masterful writer, but mostly, they’re bursting with heart and grace and sly, sardonic wit. These are stories to read for craft, for weird plot twists that make you laugh out loud, and for characters with emotional depth. What makes them unforgettable, though, is the way they weave the everyday with the profound.
Close ties: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit (what a great class on historical fiction this year!); Memorial Drive, by Natasha Trethewey; Apierogon, by Colum McCann.
—Kim Brown Seely, teaching The Art of Experience
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Grove Press, 2019 (Booker Prize, 2019)
Can a novel be a poem? Told from multiple viewpoints, this resplendent, lyrical novel about Black women converging on a feminist performance in the UK inspired me as a writer to continue exploring the joys and challenges of big narratives and a plethora of perspectives. The end of a big novel is always challenging, but Evaristo more than meets the moment, delivering an incredible resolution that sews together this tapestry of voices.
Runner up: Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (Ecco, 2019).
—Stephanie Barbé Hammer, teaching Writing Utopia
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Tin House Books, 2020
My mom is the reason I’m such a voracious reader. Once it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to see each other for at least a year, we decided to start a two-person book club of sorts and read one book set in each of the fifty states, using Heather John Fogerty’s United We Read project for the LA Times as a guide. Mostly Dead Things was our Florida book and we both absolutely loved it. I still dream about the taxidermy shop where most of this novel lives. And the push-and-pull between siblings Jessa and Milo felt both familiar and unlike anything I’ve ever read. Mostly Dead Things is a deeply emotional novel, full of joy and tension. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who’s missing their family right now.
Severance by Ling Ma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Somehow I missed this book when it came out in 2018 to rave reviews, but I’m glad I picked it up this past summer. While it might seem a little ‘too soon’ to read about a deadly virus that sweeps the country, dismantling life in New York City and around the world… it’s not! I fell so hard for this book, and not just because of the eerie parallels to our current world. Ling Ma is just a terrific, fun writer, and her sentences are reason enough to read this book. Her observations about the American workplace, consumer culture, and nostalgia had me thinking about this book months after I finished it.
Honorable mentions: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart; Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue; The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett; Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine; and The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles.
—Becky Mandelbaum, teaching Making a Scene
The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones by Daven McQueen
Wattpad Books, 2020
Talking about race may be complex in 2020, but in the 1950s when the civil rights movement was becoming a topic most of the country could no longer ignore, blatant and subversive racism were the norm in American society. This is the background Daven McQueen’s debut YA book The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones unfolds within. In the foreground are characters so vulnerable—their emotional complexity mirrors the relationships we struggle with and cherish in own lives. McQueen’s writing also reveals the precarious balance between hope and sorrow, which still remains in the United States today, related to these controversial themes. How and when do we stand up to confront injustice? And how does a child confront a parent’s misguided—and harmful—perspective of another culture? A stellar historical fiction read for tweens and teens, plus educators looking to expand classroom libraries’ own voices material.
Honorable mentions: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman and There There by Tommy Orange.
—Rachel Werner, teaching Pitch Your Passions
DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi
Wave Books, 2020
This book of poems braided with photographs, drawings, and prose, feels like both a haunting and a homecoming. I read it in one sitting and could not let it go. This is a genre-defying account of US entanglements with Korean history—each time I try to describe this book, words fail me. Don Mee Choi is brilliant, integrating movements of poetry, translation, and the lyric alongside photographs, drawing it all together as a master conductor coaxes an orchestra into unforgettable song. This book is unflinching and stunning, and challenges everything you think you know about humanity and history and poetry.
—Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, teaching How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Algonquin Books, 2019
This summer, I interviewed Hugo Fellow Arianne True about her work as a WITS writer with Seattle Arts & Lectures. When I asked for a reading recommendation, Arianne said, “Anytime people ask what they should read, I say, ‘Read Ross Gay.’ No matter what. If you’re happy, read Ross Gay; if you’re sad, same thing.”
Feeling a little of both, I took Arianne’s advice and picked up a copy of The Book of Delights. I had heard positive things, but I held off from reading it when it first came out because delight felt too simple or cheerful—maybe too impossible—for how dire life seemed in 2019. (Such innocence!) What’s resonated with me is how deliciously complex delight is in Gay’s hands. His essays touch on joys that are easy to melt into—favorite songs, flowers, food, the plumage of a peacock—then he deepens the notion of delight with meditations on confusion, pain, racism, death, and loss.
The Book of Delights moves beyond daily observations to become a study of the human condition. Reading it made me examine the ways in which delight appears (or becomes lost) in my own writing and daily perception. Reflecting on delight has been such a pivotal experience that I’m teaching a class starting in February with The Book of Delights as a guide.
Honorable mentions: Underland by Robert Macfarlane; The Overstory by Richard Powers; Orange by E. Briskin; The Magical Language of Others by EJ Koh; OBIT by Victoria Chang; Exhalation by Ted Chiang; World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
—Gabriela Denise Frank, teaching Writing on Delight
In this year when the thought persists that there is little to delight in because of the very real suffering we face as a global community, listening to Ross Gay narrate his own audiobook of short essayettes about a personal delight he observed each day over the course of a year felt like a mini internal renaissance. As I wrote in a forthcoming essay: when I reached chapter nine, I sobbed so hard that I had to lean against the kitchen counter. I replayed it over and over again. Chapter nine is the one about getting a high five from a stranger (a teenage girl) in a coffee shop. That sweet unassuming description, in the context of prolonged quarantine, now provokes in me a profound sense of loss. And alongside it, a tangible wish for the future. I think that Gay’s focus on the cultivation of delight—identifying it as it shows up rather than waiting for it to arrive—connects to my own understanding of spirituality in a way I was hungry for this year. Gay does an amazing job of seeing delight in the small moments without discounting the larger societal issues of racism and oppression that surround those moments. Ultimately, delight is a practice. And what better time to re-engage with that practice than right now?
—Jordan Alam, teaching Finding the Power in Your Piece
Blizzard by Henri Cole
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
Any year that Henri Cole publishes a new book is a good year—even 2020. This new collection bears all the hallmarks I expect of Cole: elegantly rendered images of wonder, sensuality, retribution, and greed. The book speaks of the pleasure of a cloistered life, a well-made meal during a time of turmoil and heartbreak. This pleasure seems to take him by surprise. Why do I feel happiness? is the peculiar question that animates many of the poems. In “To a Snail,” Cole writes:
Contemplating your tentacles and house,
gliding on a trace of mucus from some
dark stone to who knows where,
why do I feel happiness? It’s a long game—
the whole undignified, insane attempt at living—
so I’ve relocated you to the woods.
And wouldn’t this be the best-possible question we could ask ourselves? After all, I, and many other writers, I’m sure, firmly believe in the sentiment: “I think maybe my real subject is writing as an act of revenge / against the past.” (This is from another superb poem, “Gay Bingo at a Pasadena Animal Shelter.”) Late in the year, when news of a vaccine and new administration come bounding, confused optimism is a fitting theme.
—Esther Lin, teaching Writing Poems on Family
The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction, edited by Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore
Rose Metal Press, 2020
Here’s a rare thing: high expectations met, and exceeded. Anyone who has taken my Micro Essay class over the years knows my obsession with the flash nonfiction form, and my love of Brevity magazine. My anticipation was high for this anthology of best-loved, genre-defining essays collected in celebration of the magazine’s twentieth anniversary. The book is a compendium of tiny masterpieces. See Josey Foo’s “So Little,” which lasts exactly one breath—a single-sentence gesture, a walk across a room. Or Julie Hakim Azzam’s “How to Erase an Arab,” constructed of New York Times headlines. Reading, I felt like a moth before 84 tiny flames, from Brenda Miller’s opening homage to the writing classroom (“The boy stands aside and begins to read, his voice soft at first then growing more forceful. He asks us: What is the shape of emptiness?”), to Roxane Gay’s closer, “There are Distances Between Us,” a looping, lyric edifice of connection, of all we must reach across. The Best of Brevity is for everyone: essayists and poets; teachers and students; lovers of literature and those who lament “I never have time to read anymore.” The shortest attention span holds here. In 2020, that’s a gift.
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf Press, 2019
This book is from 2019, but it haunts me still—its beauty, sparseness, and incredible impact. As a writer, I’m fascinated by the interplay of the personal and political in the poems that Kaminsky weaves. As a reader, I find the deep empathy and expansive imagination of Kaminsky’s work stunning. This book is challenging, moving, and authentic in its portrayal of violence, resistance, and love.
—Dilruba Ahmed, teaching Hermit Crab Forms for Poets & Prose Writers
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Riverhead Books, 2020
This year, I’m grateful for Danielle Evans’s new collection, The Office of Historical Corrections, for its hard, loving, gorgeous look at America. For books with big hearts we can only aspire to, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders and Ross Gay’s Book of Delights (which offered so much hope that I stretched my first read of it long into 2020, it was published last year). This was the year I finally read Tracks by Louise Erdrich, with its duet of narrators and fates, a masterpiece about two kinds of drowning. We lost Randall Kenan this year, a year when he published the incredible new collection If I Had Two Wings. Wishing for more, I went back to his story “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” for its own sort of historical corrections.
—Laura Lampton Scott, teaching Voice Lessons
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris
Da Capo Press, 2001
I love to travel, and since I live alone and have no dependents and there is no one around to object, when I have time off, I can usually be found packing my bags and heading to some new destination. Half of the pleasure I derive from travel comes from planning the trip, and even the most mundane details fill me with happy anticipation. This year, of course, changed all that, and for the past nine months, I have barely left my rural upstate county. Often, many days have gone by during which I have not left my house or yard. To counter these new circumstances, I turned to books about travel, and here I rediscovered some of the classics of travel literature by the now late author Jan Morris. My favorite of these was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, about the lovely, slightly shabby and shifting history of that city on the Adriatic which Morris names “The Capitol of Nowhere.” Morris provides history, anecdotes, lavish descriptions of cultural icons, recommendations, personal encounters and conversations, and creates a portrait of a city that is complex, varied, free of prejudices, and for this reader, utterly transporting. I was grateful to have this book and Jan Morris’s mind and sensibility as a companion this long and sedentary summer.
—Mark Wunderlich, teaching Meditative Expectancy: Poetry as Daily Practice
We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love
Beacon Press, 2019
This is my pick for the year, in part because of what kind of year it’s been. In the quest to dismantle white supremacy in the US, we need more voices like Bettina Love’s. Sure, this is an academic book, a book about teaching. It’s also memoir and informed by Love’s hip-hop background and a commitment to rhythm and authenticity in language that help the concepts enter the body, not just the mind. My last two books are also part-memoir, part-social analysis and Bettina Love gives us an admirable blend. As bell hooks said about the book, “Using both the language of critical thinking and radical resistance, this book challenges and dares us all to teach for justice.”
Honorable mentions: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson; When they Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan Cullors; and The Fire this Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward.
—Kimberly Dark, teaching Using Fabulism in Memoir
Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison
In my efforts to edit a novel that I drafted in 2018, I kept coming up against a problem with structure. After reading abundantly on the narrative arc and the hero’s journey, I realized that my story refuses to conform. I put the project away and then a friend in my writing group recommended that I read Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison. This beautifully written book gave me new perspectives on alternative shapes in storytelling. It allowed me to think of stories in a different way and inspired an article that I wrote for YES! Magazine. It was also the inspiration behind my upcoming Hugo House class, “The Hero Saves the Planet.”
—Rena Priest, teaching The Hero Saves the Planet
Working by Robert Caro
I revere Robert Caro as much for the majesty of his sentences as for his commitment to uncovering and verifying facts, no matter how difficult or long the process. In this slim book—quite a contrast to his doorstop-sized biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson—Caro explains the principles that guide his work.
Other books that I held close to my heart this year are The Overstory by Richard Powers (who knew trees could become a collective character in a novel?) and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking (whereby I discovered an interest in theology).
—Geraldine Woods, teaching Writing Great Sentences
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader Press, 2019
Taddeo draws intimate, deeply reported portraits of three women trying to navigate between exploitation and their own desires. In its structure and style, this book expanded my idea of what narrative nonfiction can and should be.
Some other new nonfiction favorites: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr (Abrams Press, 2020), which explains from a neuroscientific perspective why humans are so hooked on stories. I found it fascinating and helpful for thinking about craft. Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair (Nan A. Talese, 2019), a longtime biographer who recounts her years writing about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. It’s a manual for anyone writing nonfiction or biography, and a glimpse of working in another era.
—Elisabeth Eaves, teaching Launch Your Longform Journalism Project
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
My favorite book of 2020 was A Burning by Megha Majumdar. I was so blown away by this debut novel that I wrote an entire essay about it. The book is beautifully written, and offers a piercing vision of what happens to the individual in a nation where corruption is the coin of the realm, where violent bigotry and calculated deception are essential political tools, where social media foment and surveil, where social justice is seen as sedition, and where the acquisition of fame and power make the conscience expendable.
In other words, America circa 2020.
Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl by Uwe Johnson (tr. by Damion Searls)
NYRB Classics, 2018
In the spirit of 2020, a year that truly deserves the usually misapplied adjective “unique,” I’m going to do something I normally wouldn’t and say that the best book I’ve read this year is one I’m only halfway done with. If that sounds like the start of an unreliable recommendation, let me assure you that the circumstances are, like our year, pretty singular: the book is Anniversaries, a novel by the German author Uwe Johnson, and it’s 1,700 pages long! So half’s enough for me to feel very sure.
The book begins August 20, 1967, and ends on the same date in 1968, with a chapter for each day. It follows Gesine, a German woman living on the Upper West Side in New York City and raising her ten-year-old daughter Marie on her own. But the novel’s not just “about” Gesine and Marie, nor is it just about the span of time it covers. We experience Gesine and Marie’s daily routines and rovings around the city, but we also listen along with Marie as Gesine tells her about growing up in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s—and, too, we take in present-day news along with Gesine, who is a daily and skeptical reader of the New York Times. The juxtaposition of all these things echoes what living through our own era feels like: the prosaic’s right up next to the world-historical, experience is mediated and distorted by various iterations of power, and compromise and guilt live alongside daily happinesses. So, yes—this probably isn’t the book to read if you need some light fare to assuage the sting of 2020. (For that, may I suggest the Netflix miniseries Dash and Lily?) But if you’re looking for a project to structure your pandemic winter or a chance to watch the bounds of fiction stretch, I don’t think you could ask for anything better or more exhilarating than Johnson’s book. It’s been reminding me that attention to detail and language, though not a panacea for any trouble or injustice, can’t help but affirm how myriad any given time or place or lived experience is. That reminder’s a gift anytime—in itself it expands my days—but its presence in Anniversaries and the brilliance of the book have felt especially worth treasuring as we close out this claustrophobic year.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
It’s impossible to describe The Sisters Brothers without selling it short. The novel was released in 2011, but I just discovered it this year, and I’m so glad I did. Imagine if Cormac McCarthy and the Brothers Grimm teamed up to write a story set in the Old West, but not quite. The novel is about two brothers—infamous guns for hire—who are paid to kill a man, but not quite. It’s about how one of the brothers begins to interrogate his path and reorient his moral compass, but not quite. Basically, it’s the hilarious, cerebral, violent, secretly heartbreaking, cheerfully nihilistic story we all need right now.
—Evan Ramzipoor, teaching Wait a Minute, What about Dialogue?
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press, 2014
I never in a million years would have read this book unless Lit Hub had chosen it as a best book of 2014. If you love wacky narrators who accidentally dye their hair blue, quote Rilke and Spinoza in equal measure, that can hear all the gossip through their thin apartment walls, you will love this book. Alameddine’s Aaylia had me crying and laughing, absorbed in the human drama of lost friendship and the civil war in her native and beloved Beirut.
Honorable mentions: Spillover: Animal Infeections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen; The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Paris: the Novel by Edward Rutherfurd; Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe; Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin; The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen; Severance by Ling Ma; Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush; and The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World by Amanda Little.
—Martha Silano, teaching Advanced Poetry Workshop
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Do you love a good mystery? How about a strong female character? Or two? Oh, and how about rare books and secret manuscripts? Well, if you’ve ever wondered about the mysterious origins of any of your favorite classic novels, then you’ll also love this new one, as well. Lara Prescott’s bestselling debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, is more than just a spy thriller (though it’s that, too!), it’s also a bibliophile’s forensic dream (among other things) as it gradually unravels the long-forgotten history of the writing and publishing of Boris Pasternak’s beloved novel Doctor Zhivago—and how it was originally smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain to the rest of the world. Delving into the imagined pasts of Pasternak’s mistress and muse, along with that of a budding young female CIA agent trying to make her way professionally—and romantically—in the still male-dominated workforce of the 1950s, it’s a fascinating retelling of twin histories that will never let you look at classic books (or government secrets!) in the same way again.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
Riverhead Books, 2020
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez was my favorite read of the year. Nunez’s novel is so funny, sad, suspenseful, and it seems to have been written exactly for the strangeness, insanity, and loneliness of 2020.
Honorable mentions: Summer by Ali Smith; A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez; Underworld Lit by Srikanth Reddy; Nightboat to Tangier by Kevin Barry; and Weather by Jenny Offill.