The Best Books We Read All Stinkin' Year

The Best Books We Read All Stinkin' Year

Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock, Amazon)

When the staff of Jezebel isn’t writing the blogs that you continue to read, we are occasionally reading books. Though it has been difficult to concentrate on much of anything this year, we were able to find the mental fortitude to read something other than our collectively hellacious Twitter feeds. These are not the “best books of the year,” as some of these on the list didn’t come out in 2020, but they are merely the things we read that managed to hold our attention long enough to think about them many months after the fact.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

It was a privilege to talk to Wiener earlier this year about her novel Uncanny Valley, a trippy memoir about leaving New York City’s publishing industry to work in Silicon Valley start-up culture. With a front-row seat to the industry’s shoddy morals, carelessly baked into platforms and websites that would soon be ubiquitous, Wiener takes readers along for the ride, artfully detailing the sometimes ridiculous habits of the bro-y tech industry and its competitive race for greater life and work “efficiency.” — Hazel Cills

 
Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS by Maria Sherman

The best book I read in 2020 is the one that I wrote and released in the midst of our covid-19 summer. It has been a nightmarish year for the publishing industry—like most industries that aren’t run by Jeff Bezos—and yet, my book came out during this horrendous time period, and it has been the greatest thrill of my young professional life. I’m proud to have not only produced a book but to have written one that challenges pre-existing musical canons by validating the boy band phenomenon and the fans who adore them. Sorry if this blurb sucks, but it is the truth! — Maria Sherman

Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel 

I never thought I would become so invested in the rise (and fall) of Thomas Cromwell, yet here I am. — Esther Wang

Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh

This year I mostly stuck with old familiars, the literary equivalent of comfort foods. I reread a bunch of Agatha Christie and read the book I consider to be the perfect novel, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, not once, but twice in 2020. And maybe that’s why Death in Her Hands, which is admittedly not anything approaching Moshfegh’s best work, kept popping back up in my thoughts. It’s a novel primarily about trying to think oneself out of one’s own loneliness with a main character trying to apply the rules of a murder mystery to real life. The Remains of the Day is a novel about reality imposing upon the fictions we’ve created in order to make ourselves the virtuous heroes of our own stories, and Christie often writes about outcasts and loners who pop up at just the right moment to solve rural mysteries. Moshfegh’s book combines both these elements, and reading it on the heels of these other books felt almost like it was me mixing them up in a weird fever dream, leaving me still thinking about key scenes at odd moments months after reading it.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

One of the more distressing things about the pandemic is that my attention span, which was admittedly very bad to begin with, is now completely obliterated. This has made reading any book at all quite difficult, but the one book that broke through my most recent drought is Writers and Lovers, a simple little book that’s beautifully written and reads a little bit like if Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler was actually good. The story isn’t fancy—just a girl in her 20s living in Boston in the mid 2000s, trying to figure out what the fuck to do with her life and the men in it. I know this sounds basic, but it is not, I assure you. —Megan Reynolds

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

I read this book in one furious stretch over the course of an afternoon—I don’t know how else a person could read it. it’s overwhelming, nasty, violent, tender, and completely mesmerizing. Former journalist Melchor’s first novel translated into English opens with a witch’s murder in a village outside a lightly fictionalized Veracruz; what a series of unreliable narrators say about the circumstance of her life and death make up the bulk of the narrative action, which unfolds in long and foul-mouthed sentences that are rarely punctuated in the traditional sense. Ricocheting through a town at war with itself, Melchor inhabits the extreme violence of damaged men in a way that would be impossible to stomach if it weren’t for the author’s skill in making a series of blistering and understated critiques. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s the best novel I’ve read in years. — Molly Osberg

Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the Word System by Christopher Chitty

A group of boys were imprisoned, then hanged in Amsterdam in 1689 for following around the sons of wealthy merchants and signaling that they were interested in sex. Similar tales played out again in 1735. In Sexual Hegemony, the late Christopher Chitty notes that “their stories indicate that the persecution of sodomy was carried out for the sake of class interest rather than religious sentiment.” The tales of these boys in Amsterdam is just one of the many narratives of state-sanctioned punishment of sodomy in the 15th century (and beyond) that Chitty weaves throughout Sexual Hegemony. It’s a brilliant text, one that illuminates a very present threat for the modern-day fag, and through a lens that often goes unannounced in studies of homophobic state violence. If one is interested in, say, class warfare and anal sex, then this is the book to pick up as soon as humanly possible. —Joan Summers

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

No book stuck with me this year the way The Undocumented Americans did—not just because it painted a portrait of the lives of different enclaves of undocumented people all over the United States with virtually unprecedented nuance, but because of the way Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes with such depth and urgency, conversational but also clearly focused on the notion that part of “survival” is also being alive. Formerly undocumented herself, Cornejo Villavicencio knows of the ingenuity and community this type of survival actually takes—in a system in which a life can be deemed “illegal”—and as she told me when I interviewed her in March, she thinks documented Americans should “be in awe of them a little bit.” A beautiful exploration that landed her as a finalist for the National Book Awards—the first undocumented person to do so—and I simply can’t wait to read everything she writes from now to forever. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture by Racquel Gates

Before interviewing Gates, a professor of cinema and media studies at College of Staten Island, CUNY, for my piece on film canon, I read her brilliant and provocative work of criticism from 2018. In it, she mines so-called “negative” depictions of Black people in pop culture (starting with Flavor Flav and the women ostensibly vying for his attention on the VH1 reality show Flavor of Love) for their revelatory worth (“These negative images engage in explorations of identity in a manner that is inversely proportionate to contemplations of identity in respectable media texts,” she writes). At a time when certain off-script signaling is all it takes for people to loudly dismiss texts on Twitter, cultivating a socially acceptable mass ad-hominem criticism, Gates encourages us to look deeper, think harder, and get used to being uncomfortable. This book tells us to be smarter, and it shows us how. —Rich Juzwiak

Inventing Latinos by Laura E. Gómez

This year I returned to a project I started two years ago, which is completing my family tree without having to actually talk to anyone in my family. I am obsessed with this family tree for a myriad of reasons but the main one being trying to gauge exactly what kind of Latina I am. Thanks to colonization, interracial marriage, some murky family history, and unclear birth certificates I’ve always wondered where my family is really from. In the process, I was introduced to Laura E. Gómez’s incredible book, Inventing Latinos, which seemed to be talking directly to me and to my recurring identity crisis. Gómez posits in her book that the Latine identity is so mystifying for some in the US because it has been purposely engineered to be that way as a result of hundreds of years of U.S. interference in Latin American countries and decades of the census trying fit Latine people into a singular box, at times against their will. Still working on that family tree, though. —Shannon Melero

An awful lot of fan fiction

Sorry, my years-long regression included getting really into fan fiction again. I read a lot of fan fiction, one very good one in particular that updated twice a week. This is my prestige TV, lads. That said, I planned on finishing Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul by Leila Taylor before interviewing her for the site and then covid-19 lockdown hit. I’m going to make it my goal to actually finish it next year! — Ashley Reese

DISCUSSION

I read for fluff & to shut my brain off, mostly fantasy and mysteries. My favorite books this year are

The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia Saenz de Urturi

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

The Nobody People by Bob Proehl

A Rising man by Abir Mukherjee

I hit my Goodreads reading goal of 75 books, which makes me happy.