2020 In Review: The Best of the Rest

on Monday, December 28, 2020
Have I mentioned that 2020 was a bloody excellent year for books? I mean, holy crap, it was the worst year for just about everything else but when it came to the books that sustained us through this clusterfuck pandemic lockdown life we really scored big. More than ever I've suffered a crushing dose of existential literary angst trying to narrow my favourites down to ten (spoiler alert: I've cheated). Having finally settled on which books I want to include, I thought I had to do an extra post about the ones I wish I could have included. In an alternate universe, all these books would have been in my Top Ten for 2020. They are that great. Then again, in an alternate universe I'd be at crowded punk shows in a New York basement without fearing for my life (I'm talking Covid, not, ya know, the usual crowded punk shows in a New York basement fear). So, here you go. These were the best of the rest of the 141 books I read in 2020:

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson
Unrelentingly brutal, rife with injustice and rage, and yet brimming with compassion, hope and beauty, Nardi Simpson's magnificent debut absolutely floored me. Stitched together with rich threads of Aboriginal mythology (realised beautifully with magical-realist flourish), this multi-generational saga is hefty in both size and substance, full of memorable characters and powerful set-pieces. And, strange as it feels to say it, I don't think I've ever felt so warmly invited into aspects of Aboriginal culture, made not only witness but welcome participant. I loved every page of Song of the Crocodile but, moreover, felt grateful to Simpson for all that I came to learn and appreciate through the wonder of her storytelling.

Ghost Species by James Bradley
Some writers are just a class above. With Ghost Species, Bradley proves himself once again to be one of them. Here his deep dive into ecological catastrophe continues but mostly in subtle undercurrent. Centre stage is a perfectly-honed speculative meditation on human evolution: what if we could reboot humanity by cloning a neanderthal from DNA? It is an immensely satisfying thrill ride of a novel both intellectually and in terms of pure entertainment. In a crowded literary landscape, Ghost Species is an astonishing masterwork of speculative fiction - plausible, utterly compelling and, as it progresses, eerily prophetic.

The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross
Sometimes a book comes along with a premise so hilarious, so audacious and so up your alley that you kick yourself for not thinking of it first. Well, kick I did, but I'm glad Gross was the one to conjure this small Polish village lost to time, suddenly discovered and introduced to the modern world, because oy did I love reading this book. Of course, there were the expected stranger-in-a-strange-land gags (I could kind of imagine Peter Sellers and Mel Brooks tag-teaming on bits of it), but Gross took the idea to some very interesting, unpredictable places. With generous schmears of shmutz and shmaltz, Gross struck a fine balance of the hilarious, sacriligious and thought-provoking!

The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss
Speaking of an audacious premise, Strauss's latest novel was about as uproariously chutzpadik as they come: an act of autofiction melded with an imagined affair between the author's grandfather, Isadore Strauss, and America's darling, Lucille Ball. In a year that we mostly felt shit about our lives, The Queen of Tuesday had me smiling more often than any other book I read. Strauss conjured TV's golden era with such love and gusto, and peppered his narrative with so many joyously sly sleights of hand, that I bought into his crazy conceit with absolute conviction. I also had the great privilege (and thorough enjoyment) of interviewing Darin for Detroit Jewish Book Fair.

At Night's End by Nir Baram
I've been a fan of Baram's writing since Good People, his first novel to be translated into English. Those familiar with his books might be accustomed to a certain bluster or swagger and so, like me, will be taken aback - in a suprisingly pleasant way - by the introspective air of At Night's End. This is a pained and deeply personal book, one in which Baram lays bare his soul in the wake of his best friend's suicide. In it, an author wakes up in an unfamiliar city, dishevelled, confused, desperate. Trying to work out what's happened, he suspects the answer might lie in the fate of his best childhood friend. He soon slips down the rabbit hole of fractured memory as he reflects on his younger days, and the bond the two shared. There's a lot to unpack in this novel but, ultimately, At Night's End will have you questioning the foundational myths of your carefully curated identity.

The Silence by Don Delillo
The weight of technology seems to be sitting heavily on many of our great writers because, recently, a fair few books have been pondering the question of what would happen if all technology that we've come to rely on just suddenly stopped. Delillo's slim take has a man on a plane, hoping to get back in time for a sports match, when the cataclysm goes down. The plane crash lands and he survives. It is a story in two parts, the first vintage Delillo at his prophetic best, the second a disaster of confused monologues. I just went with the theme and pretended the printing press failed at the end of Part One.

When We Cease To Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
Probably the strangest book I read this year, When We Cease To Understand the World is neither novel nor a collection of stories nor essays nor... Shit, I don't know what it was. Whatever. In it Labatut imagines many of the greatest physicists caught up in the spell of their discoveries. The writing is explosive, the collision of creativity and intellectual rigour devastantingly brilliant. I still can't work out what to make of it, nor could I distinguish between fact and fiction (my scientific literacy is... um... a little lacking) but I can say without reservation that this is a work of strange and singular genius.

Thanks for reading. Hope to see you tomorrow when I begin my final countdown.


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