Viget's Favorite Books of 2020
A collection of staff favorites from 2020.
2020 has been a doozy. Sometimes we’ve been able to use books as an escape. At other times, we’ve had to set reading aside for a bit. But we still have some favorites from the year. These aren’t necessarily books published in 2020 — just books that we read and enjoyed this year. Fiction, nonfiction, memoir… you name it, we read it and our list includes a nice mix. Here are some of our favorite books from 2020:
This is the year I discovered Brit Bennett, and there's no going back.
The Mothers is Bennett's self-assured debut novel, centering on the lives of three young people growing up in a black community in Southern California, and narrated by a group of older women ("the mothers") from the Upper Room church.
As well as being a masterful character study and coming-of-age novel, it's a profound and layered meditation on motherhood—from unwanted pregnancy to infertility, from women who let their children down to those who over-reach on their behalf. It's a book about loss, longing, faith, and regret, about "learning the contours of another’s loneliness." It's also a book that eschews a neat, happy ending.
If you like Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I highly recommend you check out this book, or Bennett's triumphant second novel, The Vanishing Half.
Recommended by Becky Radnaev
This is a book is an escape of reality. It feels reminiscent of watching movies like Inception or reading a book like The Martian. It's a great book to pick up if you want to pick up reading again and tear through 300 pages while envisioning a sci-fi action in your head. It's hard to describe the book without giving too much away, so I just recommend reading it.
Recommended by Angela Nguyen
Why Fish Don't Exist
The book is part science biography, part memoir, part meditation on life, and completely unique.
Recommended by Paul Koch
Published (and initially despised) in 1957, No-No Boy is a book about doubt — and what happens to those who struggle to believe in the things society holds dear.
The book follows Ichiro, a Japanese American man who returns from two years in federal prison (following two years in a concentration camp with his family) after refusing to serve in the US military during WWII. Throughout the book, Ichiro struggles with doubts about his identity, his duty to his family, and the righteousness of loyalty to one’s country. I think Ruth Ozeki describes it best in the forward (which is a must-read):
“It’s Japantown noir, a demimonde of broken dreams, fallen heroes, and brawling drunks, threaded together by the urgent jazz ref of Ichiro’s perseverations.”
Recommended by Elyse Kamibayashi
This book is like the forest floor; living and layered. On the surface, it's about people; their loves, losses, imperfections and beliefs. But as you dig down deeper, you find miles and miles of intertwined roots. This is not a light romp in the woods, but a deliberate intentional journey through the wilderness of fictional human history and actual natural history that will leave you contemplative, angry, and perhaps a little bit inspired.
Recommended by Emmi Laakso
Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa
Nature documentarians, gorillas, true crime, bongos (the animal not drum type), African safaris, the Queen, the BBC, what more can a guy ask for in a book? I really enjoyed learning about the life and legacy of the amazing Joan Root.
Recommended by Aakash Tandel
I finally picked up the third book in Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series in preparation for the release of the fourth book last month. This is a great series; the first two were some of the most fun I've had reading fantasy, and the third is more of the same, with great character arcs, deep magic and lore, and some interesting commentary about real-world social issues. What's more, Sanderson is a machine and seems committed to actually seeing this series through.
Recommended by David Eisinger
A Kid's Book About Failure
DR. LAYMON HICKS
It’s not only likely that kids will experience failure at some time in their life, but it’s a 100% certainty. Grownups, it’s up to you to teach them how to embrace it. This book doesn’t paint a pretty face on failure. It rethinks what it means and how to help kids live their lives not trying to avoid it.
Recommended by Elliott Muñoz
Sing, Unburied, Sing
This book weaves a lot of challenging topics – drug addiction, incarceration, poverty, racism, violence – into a rich, beautiful story. The author helped me feel intimately familiar with a family, location, history, and belief system I'd have a hard time getting to know otherwise. I love when a book transports you and in this case I felt transported in time, space, and culture.
Recommended by Emily Bloom
The character development in this book is a triumph. Theo, the Barbours, Hobie, Boris and others feel like real people and the depth to which they are explored convinces you that they must exist beyonds the pages of this book. At 784 pages, The Goldfinch is a commitment and can at times feel a little tiring. However, there is magic in this story and is best enjoyed (I think) via audiobook. And, don't think you can skip the long read and watch the movie instead. You can't.
Recommended by Stephanie Fois
Where the Crawdads Sing
This book is a captivating coming-of-age tale for a young girl, Kya Clark, who grows up in the marshes of North Carolina. Known as "Marsh Girl," we follow along with her struggle for survival when she's abandoned by her parents, forsaken by her community, and is forced to live off the unforgiving land. Later, Kya becomes a suspect in the apparent murder of a popular local high school boy, at the hands of whom she was a victim of unforgivable crimes.
While pretty much universally adored (although opposed with passion to the few who didn't fall in love with it), I hold this book up as one of my all-time favorites, alongside The Road, All the Light We Cannot See, and The Goldfinch. It's perfectly paced, evocative, and completely immersive. Part mystery, part love story, and partly an ode to nature, I recommend this book to any fan of literature.
Recommended by Ryan Schaefer
"Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview."
Rosling, a professor of global health and statistics, takes a deeper look at why people tend to have a negative worldview. His book helps us to better rationalize the world around us and to analyze the information fed to us by the media.
This book will always be relevant, but I found it especially enlightening in an election year during a global pandemic.
Recommended by Jess Spoll
The House in the Cerulean Sea
When the Department in Charge of Magical Youth sends Linus, a case worker, to check in on six potentially dangerous magical children and their caretaker, he’s not sure what to expect. As he starts uncovering their secrets and building connections, he must decide whether he’ll do what’s been asked of him or if he’ll stand up to Very Official Management. This enchanting tale with a dash of magic was uplifting, hopeful, and full of love — exactly what I needed in the midst of a global pandemic.
Recommended by Laura Sweltz
Nothing to See Here
I read this book like I eat a plate of cookies - fully intending to spread it out over a few days, but unable to stop. I sat by a window, time disappeared, and a read this quirky, compelling story that was irrelevant to my life. How lovely.
Recommended by Emily Bloom
If you’re interested in purchasing one of these books, we encourage you to order it from an indie bookstore. If you don’t already have a go-to indie, you can check out some of our favorites here. Feel free to share your favorite books from 2020 in the comments. Happy reading!