There are moments when one can dive into the sustained dream of a book and stay there for hours. The spring of 2020 was not one of those times. If you weren’t actively battling COVID-19 or grieving a loved one, your life was likely all of a sudden relentlessly logistical: the sudden evaporation of childcare, the Tetris of fitting multiple working adults inside one tiny apartment, the paranoid wiping down of groceries. Reading often felt impossible, even for those of us who love to read. How could anyone focus long enough, amid all the chaos and grief, to absorb complex ideas? Instead, I found myself flicking through the latest headlines and my multiple email inboxes, or obsessively checking COVID-19 case statistics in my area. The world was on fire, and it was hard to tear my eyes away.
It wasn’t just bad for readers. Early 2020 was simply a very bad time to publish—and publicize—a book. First-time author and Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan, whose book Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World came out on April 7, reflected on the experience of releasing a book into “a giant dumpster fire” on Twitter a year later: “I realized I felt guilty for feeling so robbed, and honestly just acknowledging the guilt and frustration was a good step forward.” The publishing industry mostly moved online, and suddenly publicists couldn’t easily send out physical review copies, whether because of supply-chain issues or because the books were trapped in offices that were now inaccessible. Libraries and physical bookstores closed, launch events were canceled, and publishers hadn’t quite figured out Zoom yet.
Still, once I was finally able to focus, sometime in the fall, I found that among the galleys and not-so-new releases I had packed into boxes were titles that I immediately longed to talk to someone about. The nine works below, a selection of excellent books released between March and June 2020, include some of those gems. Each illuminates some underappreciated aspect of contemporary life or allows us to see the greater context beyond our own circumstances—perspective that the early days of the pandemic swept away.
Fiebre Tropical, by Julián Delgado Lopera (March 4, 2020)
What makes this novel is the swaggering, vulnerable, bilingual voice of Francisca, the 15-year-old narrator newly arrived in Miami, much to her chagrin. “This wasn’t a Choose Your Own Migration multiple-choice adventure with (a), (b), and (c) laid out at the end of each page and you could simply choose (b) Stay in Bogotá, you idiot. Cachaco, please,” she thinks. She’d rather wear all black and listen to the Cure than get involved in the youth group at the evangelical church that forms her relatives’ social and emotional world. That is, until she catches the interest of Carmen, the pastor’s charismatic daughter. As the two become more intimate, Francisca can’t tell whether she’s feeling Jesus or falling desperately, confusedly in love. There are gorgeous interludes depicting her mother and grandmother at around Francisca’s age, in 1970s Bogotá and 1950s Cartagena, filled with the same yearning and stubbornness. It’s a coming-of-age story in triplicate, where dreams don’t quite pan out in messy reality—including the glamorous vision of the U.S. that draws the family there in the first place. But the longing that suffuses the writing has its own beauty.
Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, by Neil Shubin (March 17, 2020)
Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin wants us to know that feathers didn’t in fact develop specifically to help animals fly, nor did lungs or legs appear to help animals walk on land. This absorbing book traces how monumental evolutionary changes actually happen, and Shubin’s answers are illuminating even to people who think they know how evolution works. Life as we know it, the reader learns, was actually formed by a grand process of bricolage, where body parts like feathers and lungs appeared, then eventually conferred advantages on their owners to serve different purposes than what they initially arose to do. (Evolution, in other words, is kind of like MacGyver.) Our own genomes are littered with randomly duplicate genes and the viruses that once infected our ancestors; we now use that DNA to make proteins crucial for pregnancy and the formation of memories. Through the stories of scientists like Susumu Ohno, who used cardboard cutouts to theorize about gene duplication, and Barbara McClintock, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering that certain genes move around within a genome, one gets a sense of how quickly our understanding of genetics has progressed—and how human the scientific endeavor is.
The Everlasting, by Katy Simpson Smith (March 24, 2020)
This time-skipping novel tells the stories of four characters living in Rome at vastly different historical moments: an aquatic biologist named Tom in 2015; Giulia de’ Medici, self-conscious of her African heritage, in 1559; Felix, a closeted monk in 896; and Prisca, a 12-year-old girl who becomes a Christian martyr in 165. All come to Rome from elsewhere, all are haunted by unattainable love, and all are desperately lonely. A metal fishhook performs a decisive role in each arc. And Satan himself interjects throughout, responding to the characters’ rhetorical questions with snark and affection—he can relate to their romantic anguish; he's never gotten over his breakup with God. The Everlasting meditates on faith, contingency, and human longing through a wealth of period detail in each setting: Who knew that spending time in a putridarium, a room beneath monasteries where the corpses of monks were seated on toilets to rot, could be so riveting? From seeing what changes and what stays the same in these glimpses of the Eternal City, an intimate sense of history arises.
Afterlife, by Julia Alvarez (April 7, 2020)
Alvarez’s first book for adults in 14 years is a quiet, philosophical novel, fraught with questions of what we owe to others and to ourselves. It also happens to be a page-turner. Antonia is a recently retired English professor whose beloved husband died nine months ago, and all of her instincts are to practice self-care and hold herself apart from others—which, throughout the story, can seem necessary, selfish, or both. That slippage is the central point of the novel. Antonia is always piously lecturing her three sisters about personal responsibility: “Take care of yourself so you don’t become a burden on others,” she says, and they set their phones to play the sound of church bells when she calls. But then her erratic sister Izzy goes missing and a pregnant 17-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant named Estela takes shelter in Antonia’s garage, and Antonia is caught between her own inclinations and the memory of her husband, Sam, who would likely help others in need even at a cost to himself. “A bleak world of self-protections,” she thinks close to the end. “Did she really want to live in it?” Antonia’s constant self-questioning anchors this deft work, showing readers the thoughts of a woman who decides to do the right thing despite herself.
The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, by Deirdre Mask (April 14, 2020)
Addresses are sort of like flush toilets, I concluded after reading this wide-ranging exploration of the subject: an assumed part of modern life you only really see once you go somewhere without them. Mask traces the origins of addressing systems beginning in Enlightenment-era Europe, when burgeoning nation-states were eager to collect more detailed information about its citizens in order to provide them with services, but also to tax, conscript, and surveil them. Today, simply giving someone an address—a resident of a Kolkatan slum, or a homeless person in the U.S.—could help lift them out of poverty by allowing them to open bank accounts and apply for jobs. Charming historical facts abound, including a chapter describing the way ancient Romans likely navigated a city largely without street names. But the book’s most striking point is how passionately people throughout history have felt about the names of their streets, from reunified Berlin to Tehran, South Africa, and Hollywood, Florida. They invite such heated debate, Mask writes, because “they are about power—the power to name, the power to shape history, the power to decide who counts, who doesn’t, and why.”
Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose, by Kay Ryan (April 14, 2020)
In 1976, when she was 30, Kay Ryan bicycled across the United States in order to decide, once and for all, whether to become a poet. Today she’s about as decorated as a poet can be—a Pulitzer Prize winner, two-term U.S. poet laureate, and a MacArthur fellow. Synthesizing Gravity is the first collection of her prose, written over three decades; it includes an essay that tells the story of that cross-country bike ride, as well as ones that dissect her favorite poets: Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Stevie Smith. It’s a little ironic that I have so many quotes from this book dutifully recorded, considering that one essay elaborates on the danger of notebooks. (“Almost everything is supposed to get away from us,” she argues.) Even her criticism inspires envy and an urge to jot down everything she writes: “Nobel Prize–winning poet Joseph Brodsky was born to be posthumous,” she tells us, and Annie Dillard “could get high C out of a potato.” What she advocates for is a life of simplicity, repetition, and solitude, and her insights are so bracing that the collection feels like a palate cleanser for everything that’s overwhelming about our world.
Sansei and Sensibility, by Karen Tei Yamashita (May 5, 2020)
In this collection, Yamashita’s characters are all growing up as sansei, the relatively pampered children of a generation of Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II. They’re grappling with the weight of a history their parents never talk about. One protagonist considers what it means to apply the KonMari method to artifacts from the camps; a woman locked in her dead aunt’s apartment becomes interested in the Japanese antiques and old groceries she left behind. Throughout, there’s a pleasingly casual sense of intimacy. One of the “stories” is, in fact, a timeline of important events in Los Angeles’s Japanese American community, while another incorporates recipes from Yamashita’s friends and family, with directions like “Toss, and serve with sake and beer. Play cards.” Oh, and the book’s latter half consists of extremely witty sendups of all of Jane Austen’s completed novels—yes, even Lady Susan—set in the Southern California of Yamashita’s childhood. Eligible teens attend prom instead of fancy balls and Emma is now Emi, afire with plans to “start the Japanese American revolution.” The transplanted stories are fun (who doesn’t love an Austen adaptation?) and also revealing, as this particular milieu is rife with unspoken expectations about what station in life the young protagonists are meant to attain.
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965, by Jia Lynn Yang (May 19, 2020)
“For most of this country’s past,” Yang points out, “it had been firmly established that being an American was inextricably tied to European ancestry.” Her book charts the long, agonizing fight to recast the U.S. as “a nation of immigrants,” in which lawmakers and activists created a story about the country’s core values that became popular more recently than one might expect. This history is bookended by two laws: the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred nearly all new Asian immigrants and established national quotas based on eugenics and white nationalism, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eliminated these quotas and banned discrimination against immigrants based on race or ethnicity. It’s a fascinating and often sobering picture of how immigration in America has been shaped by a host of factors—foreign affairs, political expediency, anti-Communist hysteria, and principled, determined lawmakers—and valuable context for the still-roiling battles over what it means to be an American. In the end, Yang argues, those of us who believe in multiculturalism as one of our country’s fundamental values have “unfinished work” if we’re to create a vision that recognizes and actively embraces our country's unprecedented diversity.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women, by Wayétu Moore (June 2, 2020)
It feels nearly impossible to write about one’s experiences as a 5-year-old with the clarity and narrative surety of a novelist, and yet that’s exactly what Moore does in this memoir, which chronicles her family’s escape from Liberia to the United States after civil war breaks out in 1989. The hardship itself commands attention—the family, including three children, walks for weeks, passing through checkpoints surrounded by volatile soldiers and dead bodies. But Moore’s storytelling abilities and structural ingenuity are what made this one of my favorite books of 2020; after reading it I felt, despite everything that was going on, mildly outraged that people weren’t gushing about it on every platform. As Moore’s family flees, we feel her father’s and grandmother’s terror and, simultaneously, the confusion of a child who weaves her own mythology of princes and dragons to make sense of the chaos. And, at a crucial juncture in their escape, the memoir leaps in time to Moore as a young woman in America, adjusting to racism and her identity as a West African immigrant, not to mention the buried trauma of her childhood. Her search for the female soldier who helped smuggle them out of the country brings her back to Liberia and a conclusion that moved me to tears.
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