The transition from an old year to a new one carries with it many benefits. A chance to reflect. A chance to try new things. A chance to pretend that you’re going to start exercising and stop eating all-cheese meals.
But one advantage of the new year too often goes overlooked: it’s also a chance to read some of the books that won prizes and topped best-of lists last year. I mean, sure, you could read brand new books as they come out, but then you run the risk of discovering later that the books you read didn’t get singled out by any prize-granting institution or accredited gatekeeper. And then there you are, sitting there, having enjoyed all the wrong books like a chump.
But if, in January, you turn your attention instead to acclaimed books of the previous year, you’re secure in knowing that you’re enjoying something that other people have said it’s okay to enjoy. Or, failing that, you get to rage against how wrong the critics were for praising such a rotten piece of garbage. And that’s almost as fun.
To help you along, here are some selected recipients of just a few 2020 literary praise and prizes.
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
The winner of the fiction prize from the National Book Award is Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, which appropriates the format of a screenplay and the conventions of a TV police procedural to explore, to alternately hilarious and devastating effect, the ramifications on its Asian-American characters of being marginalized as outsiders in their own country. Some other winners and finalists are below.
The top fiction prize from the folks at Kirkus this year goes to Raven Leilani’s Luster, which might seem like just another novel of sexual misadventure – paging Emma Bovary! – until you notice it’s also a brilliant investigation of race, class, and gender politics, with additional commentary on the suburbs, art, the publishing industry, and popular music, all embedded in a briskly readable story with a savage sense of humor and a cutting way with language.
The top prize from the Booker judges goes to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, which is reportedly a wrenching and unsentimental novel about growing up working-class in 1980s Glasgow. The only titles on the Booker shortlist I can vouch for are Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, a Kafkaesque story of an unemployed woman confronting poverty and the effects of colonialism in 1990s Zimbabwe; and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, a campus novel about race, sexuality, and experimental biochemistry. Both are remarkable.
THE END-OF-YEAR BEST LISTS
The only thing a book critic loves more than eviscerating a bad book is showering attention on a bunch of good ones, and the end of 2020 brought the usual proliferation of superlatives not only from the usual suspects like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and NPR’s Book Concierge, but also assorted websites, blogs, bookstores, public libraries, pancake houses, accounting firms, and garden centers.
What follows is an unscientific assortment of the titles that keep popping up on these lists again and again. Reading even a few of these should give you ample conversational fodder for your next Zoom-based social gathering, especially if it’s with people who work at NPR.
There’s probably enough reading material here to keep you busy until January of next year, when – good news! – we’ll officially know what the best books of this year were.