Lockdown Literature, 2020

This year might have been like living in the longest, most boring bottle episode ever, but it was a good time for reading. Whether you were catching up on the TBR pile or staying up on new releases, there was plenty of time for both.

I quit social media last summer (except for Twitter, which probably should’ve been the first to go—a topic for a different piece), and I started keeping a list of books I read in the meantime. I don’t know if it was the keeping of the list or if I read more, but it seems like I read more books this year than in the recent few. Here are the best ones, new and kinda new.

All of the titles here are linked to IndieBound so you can buy them locally.

Charles Yu Interior Chinatown (Pantheon): Employing many of the conventions of screenwriting, Yu uses the discrimination of Hollywood casting to explore discrimination elsewhere. Roles like Generic Asian Guy, Old Asian Man, Dead Asian Guy, and the coveted King Fu Guy feel as familiar as they do foreign, which is exactly the point. On the set of Black and White—so named both for its cop-show aesthetics as well as its racial designations (Black Dude Cop and White Lady Cop)—the Asian characters are all on the periphery. For Interior Chinatown however, those are the main characters. Bringing the edges to the middle further highlights the differences. Since my full review, Interior Chinatown has won the National Book Award!

Here’s Yu talking about the book on The Daily Show back in February:

Elizabeth Hand Curious Toys (Mulholland): With its carnival setting and kid mystery, Curious Toys is kind of a noir Something Wicked This Way Comes with a cameo by Charlie Chaplin in old Chicago. Hand deftly blends these elements into something wholly new. And you have to give it to her mom who suggested she write Henry Darger as a detective… So good.

Lauren Beukes Afterland (Mulholland): Lauren Beukes’ last few books have been absolutely amazing, and 2013’s The Shining Girls (HarperCollins) is among my all-time favorites. Afterland tells the harrowing story of a mother and her son in a world without men. I won’t give it away, but it shines a bright little light in a very dark world.

Anna Wiener Uncanny Valley (MCD): Uncanny Valley is a memoir that shows just out of sync the goals of tech companies are with their human counterparts. I read it as kind of a follow-up to Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine (1997), which also explores the human relations between the codes and protocols of computers and networks. Wiener, like Ullman, is able to make this sound way more enticing than I can.

Will Wiles Plume (Fourth Estate): Even though I don’t drink anymore, I related a little too well to narrator Jack Blick’s alcohol-induced memory loss. As layers of changes make his London, his journalism career, and his home increasingly unrecognizable, Blick is betrayed by everything and everyone he knows. Watching his downward slide is a hilariously nail-biting ride.

Emma Cline Daddy (Random House): I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, and Emma Cline’s new collection contains some of the best I read this year. I don’t know that Bret Easton Ellis necessarily needs an heir, but we do need a young, incisive voice like his once was. Cline’s just might be the one.

Lavie Tidhar Unholy Land (Tachyon): My friend Peter Relic gave me a copy of this book, and it left me reeling. Tidhar takes his time, but once this story gets moving, it moves. I was fully swept up in its distorted reality and disorienting points of view. If China Miéville’s The City & The City were less social construction and more magical realism, it might exist in the same dream as Unholy Land.

Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon Memoirs and Misinformation (Knopf Doubleday): Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon start Memoirs and Misinformation with the line, “None of this is real and all of it is true.” Their book is full of some obviously veiled true stories and other obviously made-up scenarios contrived to make a point about real events. The main character is Jim Carrey, who has method acted his way through biopics and documentaries alike, so he knows the terrain well. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get lost every once in a while, but those burning valleys and coastal fractals are some of the best parts of the trip.

Rebecca Giggs Fathoms (Simon & Schuster): Subtitled, “The World in the Whale,” Fathoms is a deep exploration of those largest of Earthlings, from the abject despair of a whalefall to the yawning poetry of whale sounds. The whale collects our waste, the victim of both our shores and our metaphors, the giants of an invisible world adjacent to ours.

Bret Easton Ellis White (Knopf Doubleday): The subtle differences between reality and fiction have been the fulcrums of Bret Easton Ellis’s writing for decades. The problem with our current era is that without the difference, the irony doesn’t work. It’s just layers of fake facts and reposted untruths at best, and abject, unverifiable horror at worst. Ellis demonstrates this in fact and in fiction. Any attention is good attention. Twitter as theater. Vitriol as validation.

Charlie Kaufman Antkind (Random House): Well, if you thought Charlie Kaufman’s dreamlike adaptation of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things was enough for one person for one year, Kaufman released his own novel a couple of months prior. It’s everything you’re expecting and several things you’re not. You know exactly what I mean.

Colson Whitehead The Nickel Boys (Doubleday): This one is a Best Seller, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature (his second book in a row to do so!), and stacked up various other coveted accolades, and it deserves them all. There is that subtle thing that a writer does that puts you right in the time and place of a story, and Colson Whitehead has it mastered so well he is able to employ it at will, to play with it. It’s fascinating to witness the results of someone this good at something.

Molly Gloss The Dazzle of Day (Macmillan): I bought this book twice because of its cover, the newest by the inimitable Jeffrey Alan Love. As I wrote earlier, The Dazzle of Day is about a society escaping the depleted bonds of earth in search of a new planet of resources. While most of the book occurs on a craft in space, it doesn’t read like traditional hard science fiction. There’s a heart, a warmth, a depth that is often missing in such precise speculations. It’s not just the corporeal characters and their day-to-day activities and anxieties that make this book so deeply moving but the poetic way that Gloss describes all of this: maintaining the ship, doing the chores, exploring a new planet, experiencing a stroke, love, lust, loss… While reading it, I took pictures of whole pages and paragraphs and sent them to friends. It’s engaging at every scale.

Jeffrey Alan Love The Mountain of Smoke (Flesk): Speaking of Jeffrey Alan Love, his sketchbooks came out this year. His stark style is like no other, and seeing it emerge on the page in sketches and studies is fascinating. “What was happening on the pallet was more interesting than what was on the canvas,” he says of the evolution of his work. This hardbound edition of his pieces, like all of this others, is really something to behold.

Tim Maughan Infinite Detail (FSG): I read Maughan’s newest last year, but it needs to be mentioned again. Once in a while you read a book that you think everyone should have read. Infinite Detail is that book right now. It’s not about this moment, rather it’s about the one that might follow if we aren’t more careful with this one.