*Our best books list includes any book we read in 2020, regardless of release date*

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fantastic. It helped to for me to have seen, in the interim between Bring Up the Bodies and this final installment of the trilogy, both the televised Wolf Hall adaptation of the first and second books and The Tudors series. Even so, I had to keep flipping to the cast of characters listed in the book’s front to remember who’s who among all the Thomases and Lords of this and Earls of that shire. That being said, Hilary Mantel provides a vivid, convincing and gripping finale to the saga of Thomas Cromwell. The span encompasses the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution up through the pending marriage of King Henry VIII to his fifth wife, young Katharine Howard.

Cromwell engineers the occasional rise of his proteges or the frequent fall of his rivals. However, power struggles as moderate and reformist factions of Protestants clash will place Cromwell under suspicion for his radical Lutheran sympathies. Mantel, using deft renderings of an indirect first-person narration as if burrowed inside her protagonist’s consciousness, delivers a relentless, compelling evocation of a crafty consultant to the Crown who must survive machinations of a religious revolt and a political subversion he has long planted. This voice churns on, sardonic, sharp and ultimately self-consuming, as Cromwell reckons with his fate. The author immerses you into deadly tumult, where intelligence battles against emotion, and idealism against revenge.

Hilary Mantel deserved her third Booker Prize in 2020—she won back-to-back for her first two titles—for her culmination of a decade’s love and labor spent convincingly conjuring up the scenes, smells and sensations of early 16th-century England. Hindsight may well show the award went to a less qualified contender than this harrowing, intricate portrayal of pride and payback. – John L. Murphy

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

A life spent covering genocide and then working in politics should knock the shine off most idealists. Samantha Power, best known as a former US Ambassador to the United Nations, isn’t most idealists. The title of her memoir, The Education of an Idealist, suggests she finally gets some sense knocked into her head, but it turns out to be a whole other story, “one of sorrow, resilience, anger, solidarity, determination, and laughter, sometimes jumbled together,” as she describes it. Power’s life runs from her childhood in Ireland through her work as a war correspondent/gadfly through her multiple roles in the Obama administration. The work changes, but Power’s vision persist, and whether she recounts her own struggles, her family life or details from inside the White House, she maintains a humility and charm that make the book a wonderful read.

But it’s that vision that matters, because Power leaves her time in government with the belief that people can make valuable change, if not across the world, then at least for other individuals, and her persistent brand of optimism offers learned encouragement. Early on, she learns to convert her idealism into action (“Act, Power,” she tells herself), and we watch her put herself into dangerous places so that change can happen. “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” her husband tells her, and the motto serves her family well. Power’s doggedness and drive are overshadowed by her empathy, and the combination of concern and work ethic launch her into the war in Bosnia Ebola hotspots in West Africa. She’s seen enough to turn cynic, but she continues to find victories in the small things, to understand that we don’t always see the immediate effects of our work and to “believe that dignity is an underestimated force in politics and geopolitics.” These are reminders we need right now, but the book’s value should endure in any era. – Justin Cober-Lake

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson has an extraordinary gift for queering the mundane: in his writing, seemingly typical people and situations are revealed to be more complex than expected, sometimes in magical ways. Nothing to See Here is fundamentally about twin children who catch on fire when they are flustered. Yet it is also a book about salvaging broken relationships and having faith in other people.

Our narrator, Lillian, is sarcastic and skeptical. Her position is unsurprising, as a former private school scholarship student was kicked out in a scandal and now, in her late twenties, works two service industry jobs and lives in her mother’s attic. The scandal also involved Lillian’s then-roommate, Madison, who has sent her letters every few months over the years. The story begins as Madison unexpectedly invites Lillian to visit. Madison asks Lillian to be caretaker for her stepchildren, Bessie and Roland, who can burst into flames. The twins are coming to live with Madison and her husband, Senator Jasper Roberts. The striking class disparity between Lillian and the Robertses is the root of much humor, as well as being a source of connection between Lillian and the twins.

Taking care of Bessie and Roland, and building a relationship with them, leads Lillian to take risks and let herself be vulnerable. The twins gradually open up to Lillian as well, yet as their relationship becomes closer, it is threatened by external circumstances that are, again, strange and extreme. Nothing to See Here is at once a pleasurable escape into a peculiar world and an ordinary story of developing trust and love between people who are easy to cheer for despite their faults. – Linda Levitt

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This is a book that is difficult to describe, both in terms of its plot and in terms of evaluating its effects. Women Talking is the fictional record of a series of informal meetings held by Mennonite women in a secluded religious colony in Bolivia. The women have discovered that they were systematically, over the course of many years, raped at night by male members of their colony with the aid of veterinary anesthesia. At their meetings, they are trying to decide on a course of action regarding how they will respond to these revelations. Will they leave? Will they forgive and forget? Will they stand and fight the men?

Through their discussions, Toews describes their religious colony and shows the way that institutionalized misogyny not only causes women physical harm, but also limits their horizon of possibility, prevents them from having even limited autonomy and stifles their creativity and critical thinking. The women who are talking are not dupes or rubes; they know more about social situations and interpersonal relationships then they may appear to on the surface. But they know almost nothing of the world; few of the women have ever ventured beyond the boundaries of their colony. They have no concept of the real world or anything that exists outside their tiny enclave.

The effect of the book is immediate, visceral and eternal. Women Talking is not the sort of book a reader is ever likely to forget. – Ryne Clos

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

In a year where history seemed both like it was happening at an accelerating rate and, also, not at all – given the literal stasis many of us have endured – it seems more important than ever to gain a broader view of time and politics and of the possibilities for radical transformation. History – a subject horribly underserved by American education – is actually a thrilling subject once one finds the right books, and there are few better than C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins.

The Haitian Revolution is perhaps the most consequential and modern of the revolutions that took place in the late-18th and early-19th century. You probably do not know anything about it, though. And you probably know even less about C.L.R. James, the brilliant Trinidadian writer and revolutionary who penned this essential history. Far from dry, the prose is gripping and insightful – James has a great mind for laying bare the motivations of people in their time and for elucidating the complexities of the historical narrative. He knows, too, how to hammer home the kinds of lines that stick in your head, like “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” That’s good to read any year, but especially this one.

The Haitian Revolution – like so many others – did not end in a clear victory or defeat, but it is a dramatic turn in the wheel of history. James does not make mythic heroes out of the revolutionaries, but he does, ultimately, find reason for hope in the end. He writes, “When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.” The Black Jacobins is a much-needed reminder that things can change very quickly – and that people can only take so much before come together and turn the wheel again. – Ian Maxton

Her Birth by Rebecca Goss

Rebecca Goss’ first daughter was born with a rare and incurable heart condition. Her second poetry collection, Her Birth (2013), addresses her short life and the author’s hopes for the future with the arrival of a second child. The pieces form a narrative sequence that are variously painful, jealous, hopeful, and tender. She writes with a brevity and simplicity that connects with readers who have no knowledge of the stress of having a young child, let alone one who’s going to die prematurely.

In striking, unfussy imagery she details experiences that range from arranging a funeral (“Sixteen months/ after the effort of her birth,/ we collect a faux-walnut/ box from Jenkins & Sons”) to the simple, animal joy of becoming a mother again (“I turn you upright, pat you/ till you purr. It’s visceral, this love”). Drawing on personal experience in this way places the collection broadly within the confessional. The way in which she represents grief and loss, however, is outward looking rather than the insular nature that’s usually associated with the style. No matter how painful the subject, she applies a restraint that in less talented hands could appear brittle.

This fine balancing act between emotional and cathartic resulted in the collection being nominated for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection of Poetry. Yet beyond any industry accolades, Her Birth is all about feeling and the grace to accept and move on with life. – Susan Darlington

Wolves Evolve (edited by Tore Engelsen Espedal)

Ulver has long been shrouded in mystery, both personally and artistically. The most intense fans of the Norwegian collective have long wondered and debated as to why and how Ulver did what they did—from their transition out of their country’s black metal scene, to the nebulous nature of their lineup. That’s exactly why Wolves Evolve: The Ulver Story is such an important book. All of a sudden, the band’s complex, unorthodox history is given the reveal listeners have been waiting for.

There’s a reason this book dropped alongside Ulver’s 2020 album Flowers of Evil. Wolves Evolve is a loving, personal biography, as editor Tore Engelsen Espedal worked very closely with the band. It’s very much an extension of Ulver as veterans of independent music, compiled by a genuine aficionado.

This book is more engaging than the usual band biography, in that it centers around a specific series of interviews conducted by Espedal over the past few years. Rather than compile various archival interviews (which, the band admits, were purposely unclear in nature), Espedal framed the book’s narrative around him sitting with band mastermind Kristoffer Rygg and several other members to revisit Ulver’s evolution from its inception to the present day. He lets the band tell the story themselves, with the wiser perspective they’ve cultivated nowadays.

Ulver has remained prone to secrecy up until now, so the archival photos provide much needed insight into the band’s life—as well as its numerous visual aesthetic changes. Beyond the historical analysis, reading this book will also deepen the appreciation fans have for certain Ulver songs and albums. Certain music finds the spotlight, as the band explains the underlying significance and influence. There’s also some in-depth reviews about key Ulver albums that provide unique and informative commentary for listeners new and old.
Ulver has been long overdue for some explanations, a need Wolves Evolve meets tremendously. – Max Heilman

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz

The best oral histories are those that end up reading like an extended interview transcript from the individuals directly involved in whatever the topic at hand may be. This is, of course, by their very nature, the purpose of an oral history. But credit must be granted to the interviewers who manage to piece together countless unrelated conversations into a coherent, linear narrative that is at once engaging, insightful and hopefully ultimately entertaining. Such is the case with Melissa Maerz’s engrossing Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Here we are granted all the requisite behind-the-scenes gossip and stories present in all the best oral histories – stories often contradicting or backing one another up – while also afforded a look at the creative process of filmmaking and how it more often than not clashes with the business end of the industry.

This latter point somewhat bookends the narrative, placing the focus, as indicated by the book’s title, on Linklater and his struggle to get the film made on his own terms. Coming from the vibrant, creative Austin scene of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and the indie accolades earned with his debut film, Slacker, Linklater finds himself at a crossroads in which he must learn to play by the major studios’ rules, while also attempting to remain true to his roots and those who assisted him along the way. As to be expected, little goes to plan and few individuals along the way are completely satisfied with the results. But it’s the mutual respect and awe each holds for that particular period in their lives that makes Alright, Alright, Alright so engrossing. By the end of it, you not only feel like you were a part of the original creative process, but that you’ve made a handful of new friends along the way. Such is the hallmark of a truly effective oral history: not only is the story told in earnest, but we gain greater insight into all parties involved as well. Alright, Alright, Alright is much more than that. – John Paul

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

In Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Nainoa Flores grows up manifesting magic abilities, of which he and his family bear the responsibility in a mythic ripple effect. Existential crisis and tragedy befall one of their own, and the rest erupt in repressed emotion and clash as they grieve in their respective fashions. Are they forever broken, or do destined purpose and the higher powers their matriarch upholds have a final say?

Author Kawai Strong Washburn tasks each character with telling their part of the story within the collective narrative. As Noa and his siblings leave Hawaii for the mainland and, in their own ways, come into a new sense of home after hardship, love and spirituality bind them and their parents together. Family rings true as an encompassing theme. Though in many ways fractured, guilty and imperfect, the Floreses show each other compassion in the ways they work to support and understand each other despite grating differences.

Instead of mirroring kitschy American perceptions of Hawaii, Washburn reveals through his central players how the island’s people are rendered outcasts in their own home, forced from their fields and culture for concrete, corporate development, then left to fend for themselves or adapt to Westernization. Invocations of native deities permeate the book’s pages and drive the Flores family’s journey forward. This magic realism may not be readily accessible to cultural outsiders, but it’s an exercise in empathy and enrichment to follow along without giving into the ethnocentrism of having everything spelled out in English words and Eurocentric ideology.

Though the plot isn’t cinematic in its twists despite conjurings of gods and miracles, Washburn’s spellbound, wrenching debut rout delivers five people trying to find themselves and each other across physical and spiritual impasses, with the essence of Hawaii and “ohana” as their guide. – Ashley Pabilonia

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Equally feared and revered for his challenging style and experiments with the building blocks of syntax and the malleability of a sentence, Henry James is perhaps best understood in chronological order. Or at least, that’s how I’ve been making my way through his novels over the last few years, and the clear, gradual growth in his writing allows one to ease into his bibliography. I’d counted a few masterpieces in his work so far, but there’s no denying that The Portrait of a Lady is the turning point in his career. Where James heretofore focused on the external tells of characters to give away the inner turmoil beneath their composed outward etiquette, here he makes his first major attempt to use his writing to communicate that mental space. The shift happens over the course of the novel, in which we are first presented the puzzle of the amenable but defiantly independent Isabel Archer via her increasingly baffling social decisions before ultimately sinking into the morass of her contradictions when her distaste for the conventions and limited fates afforded to women ultimately sees her exploited by the one man even lower and more abhorrent than the status quo.

It all comes to a head in Chapter 42, which must rate with Moby Dick as one of the first clear glimpses into what would become modernism. In it, Isabel, trapped in a loveless and spiteful marriage that would seem right out of a Brontë gothic tale were the circumstances not so harrowingly grounded and plausible, thinks upon all of the life choices and philosophies that led to this moment. Though written in the third person, James navigates the contradictions, asides and overlapping thoughts of Isabel in a way that hedges closely to stream-of-consciousness. When you emerge on the other end it feels like you’ve just swam the Channel, and it marks the moment James went from being a supremely talented author to one of the great masters of the novel. – Jake Cole

So Much Blue by Percival Everett

Early on in the pandemic, anyone with extra time on their hands likely discovered a writer (or several) that was new to them. In the case of Percival Everett, readers just finding out about this prolific, unpredictable writer have a lot of catching up to do, and plenty of time to do it. His 2017 novel So Much Blue begins with an inner conflict: abstract artist Kevin Pace, facing a creative block and a kind of mid-life personal and marital crisis, describes his paint, his canvas, and his body in the most clinical of ways.

There’s a reason for that ironic distance, and Everett charts it by way of three interlocking narratives that span decades, through a tryst in Paris and a harrowing misadventure in El Salvador as Pace helps a friend try to locate his missing, drug-dealing brother. With a jaded artist at its center, the plot in part loosely echoes Charles Willeford’s 1971 crime novel The Burnt Orange Heresy, but Everett is a complete original, his uncategorizable novel navigating unexpected paths with equal parts sardonic humor and bitter pathos.

After So Much Blue, you’ll want to eat up whatever he’s written, and nothing else is quite like this, but his latest, Telephone comes with its own fascinating twist: the book has been printed with three different endings. Wherever Everett takes you, you’ll follow. — Pat Padua

Dialectic of Pop by Agnès Gayraud (trans. Robin Mackay, Daniel Miller and Nina Power)

Agnès Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop isn’t the first academic treatise to engage with the complexities of popular music but it may be the most ambitious. It offers readers a new definition of pop, one that includes all recorded songs invested in the sound of their recording. For Gayraud, if “pop” is short for “popular,” it’s “popular” in the “of the people” sense: it’s got little to do with numbers and charts and everything to do with its ability to speak to us, to promise us something far more freeing than our current sociopolitical realities allow. There’s a necessarily subjective element here that emphasizes the stakes of our musical tastes (and the better parties to which they lead). Gayraud suggests that when we talk about the music that matters to us, we’re immersing ourselves in its peculiar liberation and finding textures for inhabitable utopias.

But the book wouldn’t have “dialectic” in its title if it didn’t also get at our rightful distrust of pop. With the patience of a saint, Gayraud takes up Theodor Adorno’s delineation of an oppressive culture industry and puts that industry’s repetitive, commercialized logic in uneasy tension with pop’s most admirable ambitions. Moreover, instead of writing off Adorno as a pop hater, she takes a deep dive into his work to reveal, against all odds, the presence of this tension in his curmudgeonly thinking. For Gayraud, it’s this contradictory positioning of pop that keeps it alive: “Pop is immediate and challenging, entertaining and a spoilsport, romantic and modernist.”

It’s been a wonderful thing to spend time with her thinking this year, to take into account both the way that music’s both failed us (cue Drake Toosie sliding through his marble-ass mansion) and—citing one of the year’s best records—offered heaven to our tortured minds. – Jeff Heinzl

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