Best fiction I read in 2020

It seems that I read less and less fiction every year, but I still love it and crave it in particular seasons. This was a year of tackling books that I had long owned and needed to get to (and was surprised to find that I loved) as well as discovering some (new to me) authors.

The Collected Stories

1. The Collected Stories, Grace Paley

What a thrill! I feel almost resentful that no one urged me to read Grace Paley before now. I can’t believe it took me so long to encounter her brilliant, febrile, wholly unusual fiction. Every story is wrapped with a radiant, wry humor, suffused with the diction of Brooklyn, and packed with tiny surprises. Let me now be the one to urge you: Your life will be a little brighter for having read Grace Paley. (Get a copy)

The Golovlovs

2. The Golovlovs, Mikhail Saltkov-Shchedrin

A profound (and at times darkly comic) parable of generational misery. Just brilliant: I am astonished that it is not better known or more widely read. I somehow ended up with this old 75-cent mass market paperback copy, and it gathered dust on my shelf for the better part of a decade. I always put it off, because I had never heard anyone mention it. But I am so glad that the pandemic urged me to read all of these forgotten books I own, because wow: This novel stings and dazzles. Arina Petrovna, the conniving matriarch of the Golovlov family, centers the story (and reminds one often of a Russian Lucille Bluth, particularly in her relations with her worthless sons), set when serfdom is overturned, leaving many hapless estates to languish and decay. As time rolls on for this deeply unhappy family, the story shifts to her son Porfiry, who becomes exclusively known as Judas the Bloodsucker, for reasons that become apparent, and his niece, the orphaned erstwhile actress Anninka. I was captivated, from beginning to end, despite it being a story with almost no redemption, no forgiveness, no hope. It is a strange, cold country, Mother Russia, and its people have suffered for many generations. (Get a copy)

Don Quixote

3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Saavedra Cervantes (translation by Edith Grossman)

Totally delightful! I should not have put it off for 10 years. (It only took being locked inside during a pandemic to get me to finally read it.) A sprawling and essential novel, and most of it is laugh-out-loud funny. A thoroughly fun escape. (Get a copy)

The Lying Life of Adults

4. The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante

“What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?”

A searing novel of adolescence from the inimitable, unflinching Elena Ferrante. All of the elements that made the Neapolitan Novels so transfixing are present here but reconfigured to focus on a different angle from the violent country of young womanhood: one’s fractured relationship with adults (specifically, parents and a persuasive, fearsome aunt), the attending breakdown in trust and authority, and the search for self amid the pressures of sex. Brava! (Get a copy)

5. My Struggle, Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt.”

A daring ending to a daring series. Knausgaard reckons with what he has written and wrought in this final installment, which I read hungrily, from start to the finish of its 1,230 pages. His long exploration of young Hitler, Nazism, and the dangers of collective identity (more or less) is also impressive, along with his typical blend of no-holds-barred self-loathing, domestic living, and rumination. It is an accomplishment. (Get a copy)

Sweet Days of Discipline

6. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy

“So there I was, with my beret and the initials, on the other side of the world, on that side where one is protected and watched over. I foresaw the pain, the desertion, with an acute sense of joy. I greeted the train, the carriages, the compartments, all split up, the burnished alcoves, the velvet, the porcelain passengers, those strangers, those obscure companions. Joy over pain is malicious, there’s poison in it. It’s a vendetta. It is not so angelic as pain. I stood a while on the platform of a squalid station. The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgment, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

Absolutely savage. A thrilling, gorgeous novella on the psychosexual machinations of teen girls. (Get a copy)

Mortals

7. Mortals, Norman Rush

A marriage novel that becomes an adventure novel and then a marriage novel again. It was just the right thing to get lost in, during quarantine, and I admit that I may have liked it less if I had read it at a different time and place, but Norman Rush’s energetic and wide-ranging vocabulary was a sustaining delight. His deep pleasure in words and in using them animates this fat novel, set in Botswana and concerned with the life of Ray Finch and his wife, Iris. A perfect distraction. (Get a copy)

Dept. of Speculation

8. Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

“There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”

This was just the thing; I am glad I reattempted this tiny book after abandoning it some years ago. It is a “novel” in the sense that Lydia Davis books are “novels,” but that is just what I love about it. Fragmentary, brilliantly spare. (Get a copy)

A Breath of Life

9. A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector

“I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own. Life is a kind of madness that death makes. Long live the dead because we live in them.”

In which Clarice Lispector, herself dying of cancer, imagines a metaphysical dialogue between an author and a character, called Angela Pralini. Beautiful and aphoristic, unfinished and raw. (Get a copy)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

10. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk

A Polish murder mystery for vegans! It’s fun. The voice of the narrator is delightful and unique. Tokarczuk has many pretty turns of phrase, I presume, as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. An enjoyable end-of-winter book with a great title and a memorable narrator. (Get a copy)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole
  2. Weather, Jenny Offill
  3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
  4. Independence Day, Richard Ford

Books I own that I will probably never read

I own a lot of books. It is dismaying, however, that I own so many that I have little to no interest in reading. I haven’t given them away yet, because I am suffering under this delusion that I will wake up one day with nothing I want to read and gamely pluck Beowulf or The Tale of Genji off the shelf. I doubt this will ever happen. I doubt I will ever be in a mood to read Don Quixote. So, these books are going to probably stay, unloved and unread, on my shelves for another decade or two.

To name a few of the neglected:

  • Beowulf. Should read it; Guion even has the sexy Seamus Heaney translation with the creepy/awesome cover. But… ugh… man. It sounds like zero fun times.
  • The Gulag Archipelago, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. Talk about zero fun times!
  • The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu. I really should read this: It is the first true novel ever written and it was by a Japanese woman. Why haven’t I read this?
  • Vanity Fair, William Thackeray. Also looks long and boring.
  • Don Quixote, Miguel des Cervantes. Did anyone actually enjoy this novel?
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi. Someone told me the title is a lot more interesting than the book itself. Sounds plausible. I can’t bring myself to toss it.
  • The Longest Journey, E.M. Forster. Is this one of your bad novels, Forster? Is it? No one ever talks about it, so I’m guessing that it is.
  • Germinal, Emile Zola. Never read Zola; don’t even know what this is about; looks and sounds dry.
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy. I got over my Hardy phase when I was in high school.
  • North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell. I watched the great BBC adaptation of this with Emily, but that novel looks so dauntingly long. And I already know how it ends.

Have you read any of these? Are they worth changing my opinions about?

Books I have not read that I am supposed to have read

A List of Books I Should Have Read by Now, But I Am Either Too Lazy to Remember or Their Statute of Limitations of Interestingness Has Expired, and My Pertinent Excuses.

  1. Beowulf, Anon. I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I’m strong enough to wade back into the swamp that is pre-medieval literature to me. But Guion has Seamus Heaney’s translation, so maybe I will read it one day. Only for Heaney.
  2. Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, all those English history plays with the names of kings, Shakespeare. See also: Laziness.
  3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. Supposedly it’s 1,000 pages long. Who has that kind of stamina anymore? I’ve exhausted mine with Proust and the Russians.
  4. Vanity Fair, William Thackeray. It looks… so… long. Plus, Reese Witherspoon already ruined it for me. Boo.
  5. The Stranger, Albert Camus. I’m not really into existentialism right now.
  6. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu. There are about 596 reasons why I should have already read this book. First novel ever recorded! By a woman! A Japanese woman! But… why? I don’t have any legitimate excuses. I even own it. I just haven’t read it.
  7. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. A hundred people have told me to read this. That means I probably never will.
  8. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has never sparked my curiosity, but I have no good reason why.
  9. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. I’m actually planning on reading this after I finish all of In Search of Lost Time, so, three summers from now.
  10. Harry Potter. I know. This is a “statute of limitations” one. Just not interested.

How about you? Any books you “should” have read but probably won’t?