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29 Best Books of 2020 (So Far)
Is there any better time to read than summer? Winter gets all the credit, what with cold nights, cozy blankets, and warm beverages, but we readers here at Esquire admittedly have a soft spot for summer. As you venture out with your hammock or your picnic blanket—or even as you beach out on the couch in front of your air conditioner—there’s no better companion than a great book. Instead of giving in to the torpor of long, hot days, why not use this season to expand your mind?
Our favorite books of 2020 are the ideal accompaniment to your summer adventures, whether you’re exploring the great outdoors or sticking close to the A/C. Whether you’re looking to lose yourself in a novel that will transport you to another place or explore the multifaceted world of short stories, there’s something here for you. Our favorite reads of the year range from incisive reporting on hot button subjects like Silicon Valley and the housing crisis to exemplary, absorbing fiction about such diverse subjects as family, identity, and romance. With a slate of books this good, your dance card will be full in no time. Watch this space—we’ll be adding more as the year progresses.
A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet
From one of our finest writers of climate fiction comes a harrowing novel of environmental dystopia, wherein a group of families summering together at a vacation home are stranded by the climate apocalypse. When the storm to end all storms descends on their remote rental, the teenagers conclude that their debauched parents are unfit to care for them and strike out on their own, only to encounter all manner of biblical calamities in the wilderness. In an age when the dispossessed young generation blames the pillaging older generation for their ravaged environmental inheritance, Millet’s work has never been more timely.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold, by C. Pam Zhang
In this glittering debut, Zhang sets the scene in the dying days of the gold rush, where two orphaned children of Chinese immigrants roam the ravaged American west in search of a new home, only to meet hostility everywhere they go—not just from the unforgiving landscape, but from the racist and inhospitable locals. As these siblings form their nascent identities under the colossal weight of their loss, they reimagine their own history and their own heritage. This novel is at once a thrilling adventure, a tender coming-of-age story, an excavation of the corrosive mythmaking surrounding the American west, and the arrival of a major literary talent.
Drifts, by Kate Zambreno
One of our most formally ambitious writers returns with a sublime new fiction about a woman struggling to finish her overdue novel, as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the challenge of writing in the present tense and capturing the slippery nature of time. Her creative blockage leads her to take up lengthy correspondences with her friends, as well as lose herself in the works of the dead greats, whose creative crusades shed light onto her own. Give yourself over to the undulant music of this bold novel, and let yourself be buffeted along restless journey of the narrator’s creative awakening.
If I Had Your Face, by Frances Cha
In Seoul, South Korea, four young women living in the same apartment complex stumble through a K-pop-soaked cultural miasma of misogyny, consumerism, and unattainable beauty standards. Come for the tender portrait of female friendship in all its tears and triumphs, but stay for the sharp dissection of contemporary life for women, mired as it is in demeaning cultural norms, male primacy, and dwindling economic opportunities.
Sansei and Sensibility, by Karen Tei Yamashita
In these daring and delightful stories, Yamashita remixes Jane Austen’s classic novels with the Japanese American immigrant experience, as seen through the lives of SoCal families in the sixties and seventies. With Mr. Darcy captaining the football team and public school bake sales replacing Austen’s mannered countryside balls, Yamashita questions the wisdom of generations and the meaning of inheritance in these bold stories that transcend race, place, and time.
Godshot, by Chelsea Bieker
Religious zealotry meets environmental meltdown in Godshot, Bieker’s spectacular novel about a teenager abandoned to a local cult upon her troubled mother’s exile from the community. In drought-stricken Peaches, California, a charismatic cult pastor promises to bring rain―so long as his brainwashed followers complete the “assignments” he asks of them. When fourteen-year-old Lacey learns the truth of this community, built as it is on patriarchal norms and sexual abuse, she skips town on a quest to retrieve her mother. What follows is a gritty, gripping tale of girlhood, spirituality, and how salvation comes from the unlikeliest of places.
Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan
In this wry, stylish debut, Dolan sets her sights on Ava, an Irish expat teaching English to the wealthy children of Hong Kong. Ava soon becomes romantically entangled with Julian, a rich banker who can’t commit, as well as with Edith, a lawyer who inspires both envy and desire. In this witty satire of the haves and have nots, Dolan explores tender, insightful truths about the vagaries of modern love.
Memorial Drive, by Natasha Tretheway
For Natasha Trethewey, the end is very much the beginning, for both her startling new memoir and, as we learn across its pages, the second iteration of herself. The work opens in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s murder—committed by Trethewey’s former stepfather when the author was just 19—before confronting the years preceding the event, which she admits she’d long treated with “willed amnesia buried deep in me like a root.” Propelled by the Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. poet laureate’s remarkable command of language, it’s a story that burrows deep in your emotional center. And often, as the nonlinear retelling dances between years, dreams, and hazy memories, the work enraptures like a thriller, unraveling as it races against the inevitable. —Madison Vain
Last Couple Standing, by Matthew Norman
When Jessica and Mitch Butler were first married, they were one of four best friend couples—aka The Core Four—from college who’d all paired up. 15 years later, they’re the only set still together. Stuck in a rut but desperate to avoid divorce, Jessica suggests they try an “evolved” marriage, where one-night stands and random hook-ups with strangers are pitched as potential ways to light a spark back home. It’s an idea that spars with their relationship as much as reality, but Norman’s funny and feeling writing makes for an irresistible read. —Madison Vain
The Jetsetters, by Amanda Eyre Ward
In Eyre Ward’s (How to Be Lost, The Same Sky) The Jetsetters, everyone is, to put it mildly, a colossal wreck. Lucky for us, they each—all three Perkins children, plus their widowed matriarch Charlotte—also get a say. Told in alternating chapters, Eyre Ward’s genuine, hilarious writing rotates between each character’s perspective over the course of a week-long European cruise, producing a story of deep-seated familial discord and desire that falls apart as spectacularly as it wills itself back together. If you’re in the market for an escape, look no further. —Madison Vain
Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, by Conor Dougherty
What could be a dry narrative of the housing crisis is utterly gripping in Dougherty’s hands, told as it is through the lens of individuals in San Francisco struggling with rising rents, housing scarcity, and poverty. Through zippy prose and deep reporting, Dougherty, a former housing reporter for The Wall Street Journal, explains why housing has become unaffordable and how we can solve the problem–that is, if we want to.
American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise, by Eduardo Porter
In this fascinating book, Porter sees the matrix of race in America. Weaving together social science research and historical context, he dissects how racism infects every stratum of American society, from unions to public education to immigration policy. Porter, a New York Times economics reporter who has covered the intersection of race and economics around the world, is uniquely conversant and globally-minded on these issues.
Had I Known, by Barbara Ehrenreich
This compendium of Ehrenreich’s newspaper and magazine columns spans such diverse topics as cults, health food crazes, housework, welfare programs, and O.J. Simpson. In the age of late capitalism, Ehrenreich’s prophetic eye for the brokenness of systems has never been more timely.
This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World–and Me, by Marisa Meltzer
Little, Brown and Company
At once a biography and a memoir, this heartfelt, incisive book layers the story of Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch with the author’s own lifelong journey through various fad diets. What emerges is a surprising portrait of a remarkable but little-known life in business, as well as a thoughtful critique of America’s obsession with thinness. Meltzer, who has herself subscribed to Weight Watchers, brings a personal angle to this fascinating, far-reaching story of a phenomenon that has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of women.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, by Mark O’Connell
In this funny, life-affirming book, O’Connell travels the globe in search of a balm to his anxieties about the impending climate apocalypse. He interviews everyone from doomsday preppers to conspiracy theorists, crafting detailed portraits of unique subcultures, each one characterized by different practical and spiritual perspectives on the end of days. With a warm, humorous outlook, O’Connell posits that even if we’re going down, we’re going down together.
, by Joanne McNeil
In this brilliant book, McNeil charts roving personal histories of the internet, tracing the path from forums and Friendster to today’s caustic cesspool. Lurking is far-reaching and ferociously smart, told from the hearts and minds of users rather than the profit and loss statements of tech conglomerates. In centering her research on the user experience of an ever-changing internet rather than the theatrics and myth-making of Big Tech, McNeil weaves a people’s history of the internet, making for a humane, big-hearted narrative of how the internet has changed–and how it changed us.
Topics of Conversation, by Miranda Popkey (out 1/7)
Formally adventurous and blisteringly current, this debut novel spanning almost two decades of conversations between women wrestles with the stories women tell about desire, friendship, and violence, among other subjects. In glittering prose, Popkey illuminates the performative nature of storytelling, assessing the degree to which the stories we tell about our lives are fictions.
Boys & Sex, by Peggy Orenstein (out 1/7)
In this follow-up to her groundbreaking Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein turns her reportorial lens to young men, who, in compassionate, candid interviews, reveal the fears, pressures, and longings that shape their burgeoning sexual identities. Combined with testimony from psychologists and academics, what arises from Orenstein’s thorough, sensitive exploration of the subject is a clear-eyed portrait of how toxic masculinity takes root—and how we must course-correct in raising our boys before it’s too late.
Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell (out 1/14)
In Cleanness, Garth Greenwell returns to the stark Eastern European landscape of What Belongs to You, his sensational 2016 debut novel. In post-Soviet Bulgaria, an American teacher sifts through the romantic entanglements of his years abroad, with bruising vignettes of love and brutality coalescing into an evocative portrait of desire’s vagaries. Melancholy and lyrical, this slim volume confirms that Greenwell is among our finest writers on sex and desire.
Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener (out 1/14)
In this hyper-detailed, thoroughly engrossing memoir, tech journalist Anna Wiener narrates her coming-of-age in Silicon Valley during the early years of the startup boom. Yet Uncanny Valley is so much more than a memoir—it’s a vivid, unflinching portrait of a changed San Francisco, a onetime haven for artists and dreamers now dangerously in thrall to the capitalist chokehold of tech monoliths. At the intersection of exploitative labor, entitled men, and ungodly amounts of money, Wiener bears witness to the fearsome future as it unfolds.
A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende (out 1/21)
From a titan of literature comes a new novel that opens in 1930s Spain, where a pregnant widow makes a harrowing pilgrimage over mountains and oceans to escape civil war. Bound to her deceased lover’s brother in a marriage of convenience, she settles in Allende’s native Chile, where she builds a new home while reconsidering her relationship to the home she left behind. In this transporting novel, Allende is as transcendent and life-affirming as ever, locating joy even in the refugee experience and light even in the darkness.
The Third Rainbow Girl, by Emma Copley Eisenberg (out 1/21)
In this exhaustive investigation of a brutal double homicide in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, Eisenberg unravels the surprising story of a wrenching crime. However, The Third Rainbow Girl is also so much more—it’s a deeply felt exploration of Appalachia, a land where fault lines of race, gender, and class run deep. Eisenberg, a one-time resident of Pocahontas County, never lets her former home off easy, but instead evokes a portrait at once generous and devastating.
Weather, by Jenny Offill (out 2/11)
Compact and wholly contemporary, Jenny Offill’s third novel sees a librarian find deep meaning and deep despair in her side gig as an armchair therapist for those in existential crisis, including liberals fearing climate apocalypse and conservatives fearing the demise of “American values.” As she attempts to save everyone, our protagonist is driven to her limits, making for a canny, comic story about the power of human need.
In the Land of Men, by Adrienne Miller (out 2/11)
In this riveting memoir, the first female literary editor of Esquire, appointed at twenty-five years old, narrates her remarkable experience as a cultural gatekeeper in a rarefied, male-dominated world. Miller’s recollection of that formative chapter of her life explores her complicated friendship with David Foster Wallace; meanwhile, she also reckons with power, and the dark truth about who gets to have it.
The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams (out 2/11)
In this thrilling work of historical fiction, adolescent girls at a school in 1870s New England are subjected to an outrageous medical treatment at the hands of paternalistic doctors. Frightening, suspenseful, and timely, The Illness Lesson explores the crushing weight of oppression and the indefatigable power of female defiance.
Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong (out 2/25)
In this radical exploration of the Asian American psyche, Hong writes masterfully about her experience of “minor feelings”: the painful cognitive dissonance you feel when the cultural messaging you receive contradicts the lived experience of your identity. Through cultural criticism, memoir, and historical investigation, Hong names and illuminates issues of race and gender that long went unnamed, creating a blistering new handbook to the state of race in America.
My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (out 3/10)
My Dark Vanessa is a singular achievement—a masterpiece of tension and tone that will simultaneously grip you, horrify you, and move you. In 2000, teenage Vanessa Wye is drawn into an affair with her much-older English teacher; in 2017, when her teacher is brought to account for his abuses of underage girls amid a widespread cultural reckoning, Vanessa must reassess her mythology of their years-long relationship. With utmost sensitivity and vivid, gut-churning detail, Russell illuminates Vanessa’s struggle to see the story of her life for the tragedy it truly is. Before you start My Dark Vanessa, clear your schedule for the next few days—this harrowing account of sexual abuse and its lifelong aftershocks will utterly consume you.
Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony (out 3/24)
Little, Brown and Company
Weird, wonderful, and very much of the moment, Enter the Aardvark is a landmark political novel of the Trump era. Anthony bridges political and temporal divides through a time-traveling taxidermied aardvark, which shuttles between Victorian England, where it was hunted and stuffed, and present-day Washington D.C., where its appearance on a young Republican congressman’s doorstep threatens to upend his career. With heart and humor, Enter the Aardvark expertly skewers our current political climate.
Perfect Tunes, by Emily Gould (out 4/14)
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
The author of Friendship returns with a second novel about the intricacies of relationships between women, this time centered on a mother and daughter searching for answers across the mysterious gulf of the mother’s past. As Marie asks questions about her mother’s youth as a songwriter in New York City, Laura must open the door on a time in her life that she sought to forget. Brimming with gemlike insight and humor, Perfect Tunes is a moving investigation of love, loss, and parenthood.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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