I didn’t read many books in 2020. Some of this may be because of post-MFA burnout, and some of it may be due to the mental fatigue of dealing with a pandemic. I started a lot of books—didn’t finish them. I read plenty of fan fiction; it is easier to delve into familiar worlds and see how others play with those characters than try to meet someone new. I did accomplish my goal of reading 24 books this year, which includes a few textbooks I taught with. In some ways, that made choosing my favorites incredibly easy and, in others, disappointing as there wasn’t much competition in some of the categories. I’ve still maintained a few rules:
- One ‘book’ per genre.
- The book need not be published in 2020 but did need to be read by me this year.
- I will write a brief review explaining why this is my choice.
Without further ado…
NOVEL: The Changeling by Victor LaValle
I read LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom in 2017 and he was one of the first names I pulled when it came time to put my comps list together. Not only was I excited because this was a book that seemed like it was really going to work with fabulism, but also with various themes as well. And it does. Apollo Kagwa, new father, must go on a journey to a world beyond his own after an unimaginable act tears his family apart. He must confront his past, his beliefs, and his will in order to recover all he’s lost. This is a moderately sizeable book, but the pages flew by as I eagerly joined Apollo in his quest. Additionally, the story transforms through various genres before the reader’s eyes with decent fluidity. It also contains one of the most horrific chapters of fiction I’ve encountered with little gore. While this is a novel that largely focuses on what modern fatherhood means, with nods to immigration as well, there’s enough of motherhood and its own unique cost to provide a semblance of balance. Also perhaps the most bizarre use of To Kill a Mockingbird ever.
NOVELLA: Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell
This is maybe a cheat as this isn’t one novella but six that compromise a series. Mentioned in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, I knew this Southern Gothic masterpiece about a shapeshifting river monster marrying into a wealthy family would be perfect for my comps list. What I didn’t expect was the sheer scope of McDowell’s epic. Like, imagine The Lord of the Rings and Dallas smooshed together and you kind of have this series. Each novella dives deeper into the mystery and growth of the Caskey family. I love how the story unspools like molasses but plays out like dominos—a small decision in the first novella has long-lasting consequences in the sixth. The Caskey women really rule this series and I love that so much of the drama takes place on porches over sweet tea, and then this is juxtaposed with the occasional violence. A man is literally cracked in half! There are ghosts and monsters and decapitation, but I’m here for the random baby-swapping and killing abusive husbands. The writing is also just gorgeous. This is easily one of my favorite books of all time.
SHORT STORY COLLECTION: Close Range by Annie Proulx
I’d read “Brokeback Mountain” previously, which is what made me decide to include this entire collection on my comps list, but I didn’t expect the variety of voices and stories I’d find. Proulx has this great way of describing barren landscapes and giving them life, and she does the same with people many others would find just as bare. While most of the collection focuses on Western masculinity and what that “means” in this landscape, the women flit about in the background, defining their own femininity just the same. “The Half-Skinned Steer” is a hell of a way to start the collection, “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” is full of a gentle kind of longing, and “A Lonely Coast” has some nice kinship to it. But, of course, notably, “Brokeback Mountain” really is the standout. This is a collection I could parse through in the future and probably pull something different from each time.
NONFICTION: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
My journalism professor told us the story about how Ruth Reichl chose to disguise herself to maintain her integrity as the food critic for The New York Times. When I discovered a copy of her memoir about the experience, I was excited to see her spin on things. This book delivers on the misadventures of her various disguises and the lives she imagined for them, but it also gives insight to how restaurants—especially in New York—may treat various patrons based on behavior, appearance, and age. She includes the reviews she wrote after her visits and includes recipes for foods mentioned. While this isn’t a book about food, per say, there is plenty of the savory language one would expect a food critic to use when describing their meals and restaurants. She also has a delightful sense of humor, and her dining companions, like beloved Carol, often add to the story she’s spinning for her audience. I’m hoping to read more of her work in the future.
POETRY: Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun
This was probably one of the books I was looking most forward to this year, and you really have to feel for the debut authors who didn’t get the attention, readings, or promotion they probably deserved. Well, I am here to sing the praise of Jihyun Yun! I knew from the get-go that I was going to enjoy this book because of its vivid and ongoing use of food imagery throughout, but her use of it is practically masterful. In some poems, such as “Caught”, food or food-animals become metaphors for other things, such as abuse. Additionally, there are a lot of amazing poems about immigration and the leaving of one country or culture and what is held onto in an attempt to connect with what once was (language, food). There’s an ongoing connection between the women/narrators, generational trauma, and an unending hunger that is passed down. The language is gorgeous, and some lines stuck on my tongue long past the reading. Particular favorites were: “Passage, 1951”, “Fish Head Soup”, “The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon”, “Benediction as Disdained Cuisine”, and “The Leaving Season.” I highly recommend this collection for those who are looking to expand beyond the classics or beyond the usual poetry of old white men.
GRAPHIC NOVEL/COMIC: Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
This is a series that came highly recommended from my friends who read comics, and for good reason. I was immediately enraptured by the story of an interspecies couple caught in the war between their peoples with their newborn caught in the crossfire. Not only does the world-building seem diverse—robot people, unicorn people, wings, insectoids, horns, ghosts, oh my—but there’s just enough straight forward plot and background in the first volume to carry everything forward without feeling too confusing or like too much of a plot-dump. The art is lovely, and I really like the character designs. It was hard to put it down or turn away for even a second because the action was fast and felt life or death as new parents try to escape the planet with their newborn. And weirdly enough I really like the lettering on the narrative font. I can’t wait to pick up the next volume (or more) and see where the story goes next.
COOKBOOK: Salt & Lavender by Natasha Bull
We’re going to go outside the realm of traditional ‘books’ here and include this cooking blog which has been a favorite of mine throughout 2020. While I do have plenty of hard copy cookbooks in my kitchen to choose from, it was the digital chefs of Instagram and Pinterest that continually kept my fridge and feed fresh with new recipes. Natasha is a particular favorite not only because of her high-quality photos, but because the recipes are easy to follow and use ingredients I didn’t have to search hard for (and many I already had). She also has a backlog of recipes that I continually save or look forward to adding to my own repertoire. Additionally, anyone with more than a little experience with cooking will be able to make their own substitutions and additions to her recipes without worrying too much about setting something on fire. I also love that she has plenty of pasta options—which is something I totally agree with.
FAN FICTION: The Confectionary Chronicles by cheshire_carroll on AO3.
I spent countless hours of 2020 reading fan fiction so it kind of deserves to be included on this list. And if any series should be my top pick it’s this unique crossover between two fandoms I enjoy—Harry Potter and Supernatural. Beginning before The Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in The Confectionary Chronicles details how Hermione Granger comes to meet Loki/Gabriel and how they save each other through various ups and downs of life. The second book, ongoing, is following her at Hogwarts in various non-canonical ways. While fan fiction may get a bad rap for whatever reason, the author here definitely falls into the ‘superior’ category as they blend two very different fandoms, mythology, and an original plot into one story with decent writing. I read the first book twice while I was waiting for the second to come out. It tackles friendships, grief, and love in surprising ways, and I can’t wait to see what the next update will bring.
While 2020 wasn’t my strongest year in reading, it wasn’t a total failure either. I can’t be hard on myself when I branched out, read some new things, and found quite a few I enjoyed. That said, I’m hopeful that 2021 will bring Reading Malone back to some version of its glory days, and that my To Be Read list will begin to shrink. Wishful thinking, I know.