New York Times Critics on Their Favorite Books of the Year

From a New York Times story headlined “Times Critics Discuss 2020 in Books”:

Each year around now, The New York Times’s daily book critics — Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai — choose their favorite books from among those they reviewed over the previous 12 months. But they also read far more than can fit on such lists, and so they’ve come together to discuss the rest of their thoughts about 2020. Below, they talk about reading and doing their jobs under strange new conditions, authors who inspired and disappointed them, and more. — John Williams, Daily Books Editor and Staff Writer.

It was a year when the best-seller lists often directly reflected what was going on in the country, from the halls of government to protests in the streets. How much of your own personal reading these days — or ever — is “pegged to the news,” to use a reductive phrase?

GARNER I made a pledge: No Trump books unless I’m paid to read them. When I wasn’t on the clock, I escaped. I enjoyed rereading Harry Crews’s “Car,” about a man who eats an entire Ford Maverick. I finally read the entirety of Jonathan Gold’s “Counter Intelligence,” about eating in the “real” Los Angeles, and I now realize the immensity of our loss when he died. God, he was funny. . . .I also read, among other things, the undervalued novels of Mary Lee Settle, Audre Lorde’s smart and moving “Cancer Journals” and Maud Ellmann’s “The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment.”

SZALAI I do tend to read a lot of political books, even outside of what I review, but I have to say that this year has severely tested my patience for extracurricular reading about the Trump administration. The latest tweet, the latest outrage, another impetuous firing, another bumbling betrayal — the human brain can only bear so much of this stuff.

Some of the personal reading I did included books that happened to shed light on our current moment, but they turned out to be older and therefore not beholden to it. Collections of essays by Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin, John Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America.” Barry’s book, about the 1918 flu pandemic, was maybe as newsy as it got.

SEHGAL Novels are news, style is news. (Sometimes even more so than the surfeit of unutterably dull Trump books, each more repetitive than the last.) I have never read anything quite like the brilliantly pessimistic fiction of the Croatian writer Dasa Drndic; her treatment of historical amnesia, of political despair and shame, felt blazingly new. When it comes to watching writers metabolize “this moment,” I was impressed by Megha Majumdar’s novel “A Burning,” on rising extremism in India. I was also moved by novelists grappling with how to write most effectively about climate change — Emily Raboteau, Lydia Millet, Amitav Ghosh and Jenny Offill come to mind.

What were some of the books published this year that you didn’t review but admired?

SEHGAL I had my head turned a thousand times. Brian Dillon’s stylish celebration of close reading, “Suppose a Sentence,” has taken up permanent residence on my night stand. I keep loaning out copies of Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” and having to order replacements. As an obsessive rereader, I feel like Vivian Gornick wrote “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader” with only me in mind. Namwali Serpell’s “Stranger Faces” is breathtakingly smart and original. Garth Greenwell’s “Cleanness” contains some of the most sublime writing on desire I’ve read in years. . . .

GARNER Kevin Young’s anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song” is a must. I miss Christopher Hitchens (his memoir, “Hitch-22,” is a near-perfect audiobook) and thus pounced on Martin Amis’s new novel, “Inside Story,” which I liked very much. Two other books I admired, out of Appalachia: Christa Parravani’s memoir “Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood” and Emma Copley Eisenberg’s “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia.”

SZALAI I thought Kim Ghattas’s “Black Wave” was fascinating and so elegantly done — a readable history of Saudi Arabia and Iran over the last few decades that also carefully elucidates the regional politics of the Middle East. Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland” was terrific, a fitting capstone to his quartet about American conservatism. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s “The Undocumented Americans” explores the most difficult and least talked about parts of people’s lives, including her own. I inhaled Danez Smith’s “Homie” after Parul, in her review, recounted her desire for new adjectives to describe the startling originality of what she’d just read.

What’s the book on each of your lists of 10 favorites that most surprised you, in terms of how much you enjoyed it or why you enjoyed it?

GARNER Philippe Lançon, who wrote criticism for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was in its offices on the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, when two gunmen claiming allegiance to ISIS forced themselves inside and slaughtered 12 people. Eleven others were wounded, including Lançon, who essentially had the lower part of his face shot off. His memoir, “Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo,” is extraordinary. It’s about his long road to recovery, but it’s also about his life and loves and his wide-open senses. Lançon is learned, plain-spoken and has a way with a phrase. About a girlfriend, he writes: “I watched her leave for the airport, and said to myself that nothing resembled an ambulance more than a taxicab.”

SEHGAL “The Discomfort of Evening,” by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated by Michele Hutchison, is one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read — just relentless violence, loss and confusion. And yet I went to it every day with an odd feeling of gratitude. As I wrote in the review, it was the relief of not being condescended to. So much culture coverage this year emphasized comfort or escapist reading. I was surprised by how much I wanted the opposite — something very stark and truthful on the nature of grief.

SZALAI I loved Marcia Chatelain’s “Franchise,” an examination of McDonald’s and its long, complicated history with Black communities across the country. Even though the book is a rigorous work of scholarship, it’s also wonderfully readable. Chatelain looks at big, systemic issues like nutrition, racism, labor unrest and Black capitalism through the lives of people who often faced difficult choices. Sometimes the interests of individuals and the corporation aligned; sometimes they were clearly at odds. A lot of the time it was a bit of both, and Chatelain navigates that fraught space with clarity and compassion.

What are some books you each reviewed, beyond the 10 you each chose, that almost made your lists?

EHGAL I’m bereft that the following books couldn’t make my list; each of them is so singular, beautiful and instructive: Wayne Koestenbaum’s glorious essay collection “Figure It Out”; Helen Macdonald’s “Vesper Flights”; Hugh Raffles’s “The Book of Unconformities,” on grief and geology (and one of the strangest books published this year).

GARNER I admired three biographies this year that didn’t make my final list: Philip Gefter’s life of Richard Avedon, Madison Smartt Bell’s of Robert Stone and Ian Zack’s of Odetta. In terms of fiction: Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories,” Ali Smith’s quartet-ending “Summer,” Lawrence Wright’s prescient pandemic novel, “The End of October,” and Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty.” For nonfiction, here are three I hated to cut: Ben Katchor’s “The Dairy Restaurant,” Chris Atkins’s prison memoir “A Bit of a Stretch” and Fang Fang’s “Wuhan Diary.”

SZALAI I complain about making this list every year, and one of the reasons for my crankiness has to do with the great books that can’t fit on the list. To name a few: Talia Lavin’s “Culture Warlords,” Barton Gellman’s “Dark Mirror,” Martha Jones’s “Vanguard,” Volker Ullrich’s second (and final) installment of his enormous Hitler biography. I also found so much to enjoy in Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life,” a book about all the amazing things that fungi can do, that I purchased a bag of mycelium so that I could grow some mushrooms at home. If that isn’t a book recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Dwight Garner is a book critic for The New York Times. He was also, for many years, an editor for the Book Review. His essays and criticism have also appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, Slate and elsewhere.

Parul Sehgal is a book critic for The New York Times. She was previously a columnist and senior editor at the Book Review. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, Bookforum and The New Yorker.

Jennifer Szalai is a book critic for The New York Times. She was previously a columnist and editor for the Book Review. Her work has also appeared in Slate, New York, The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, where she was a senior editor until 2010.

Speak Your Mind