You know what didn’t fail in 2020?
Books. The publishing industry had rough spots, like everyone. Bookstores closed, most struggled. But the medium — unlike the movie business, live theater and the art world — never quite stopped moving. Ancient technology, like jigsaw puzzles and journalism, trudged on. Which was good. We needed to understand politics, race and apocalypse fast — or so said best-seller lists. In fact, as I glance at my favorite books of 2020, I see: We didn’t turn to books for escape. Or at least, I didn’t.
“Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” by Kerri Arsenault: Ever driven through an industrial nook — say, a Northwest Indiana, or anywhere the vibe is smokey and lonesome — and wondered how people live there? The town of Mexico, Maine, the small remote spot in Arsenault’s hybrid of memoir, history and investigation, is not ugly. It’s bordered by the green mountains and epic wilderness of central Maine. Arsenault grew up there, her father worked in its paper mill for decades, as did extended family and much of the town. Her father also retired with toxins in his lungs. Though you assume another hand-wringing over environmental deregulation, what unspools is much richer and more affecting. Using her father’s death as catalyst, she digs into state history, the town’s decline and the mill’s legacy. She brings the outrage of a furious native, tearing down years of “Vacationland” tourism, yet deeply homesick for the place she once knew. What gave her hometown its meaning once — industry, deregulation, community — is precisely what devoured it.
“Stateway’s Garden” by Jasmon Drain: There have been a lot of good books from Chicagoans (and former Chicagoans) lately — far more than in a typical 12 months. And yet the story collection from this Kenwood resident, overlooked and unassuming, would be an understated gem most years. Because here’s nothing overtly surprising: He links together characters who share an address, the long-demolished Stateway Gardens housing project in Bronzeville. (Raymond Carver’s interlocking stories come to mind.) Even the mid-1980s setting is a touch familiar. It has been ages since fiction recreated an overcast workaday Chicago so evocatively, without sentiment or piety. Drain’s specificity has a palpable heartache for a place and time, with clear-eyed understanding of opportunities and limitations. It’s also, line for line, beautiful, exacting: “Mother clenched me with her left arm and used her right to pull out her keys.” Even that apostrophe in the title, easy to look past, plays like a nod to Stateway’s origin as a planned utopia, and the sad result.
“Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.: The author didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election. Critical of Obama Democrats and a failure to connect with many in Black America, he left the line blank. In this bracing mash of moral reckoning and literary biography, he writes: “I was stupid enough to overestimate white America.” Like others in the zeitgeist — the Oscar-winner “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the landmark “Between the World and Me” — he turned to Baldwin for a roadmap to Trump’s America. But what Glaude Jr. found was more than a bunch of prescient quotations. He found an argument for “re-envisioning” the nation, and a provocative reminder of what bearing witness means. Like with Baldwin, there’s a lot to argue with here. And that’s the idea.
“The Abstainer” by Ian McGuire: One of our best-kept literary secrets has been masquerading as a virtuoso of a long-snubbed genre, the historical novel. McGuire, a British champion of soot-covered 19th century realism, is too nimble for such leaden shoes. His latest propulsive tale focuses on a haunted police officer who watches the execution of Irish nationalists and knows revenge is coming: “A clever man will never underestimate the motive power of dust and bones.” Like McGuire’s other masterpiece, “The North Water,” a 19th century Arctic Circle adventure from 2016, all roads here point to blood. Specifically, a veteran of the U.S. Civil War, who returns to Ireland to avenge the executions. What follows has a Hollywood-y cat-and-mouse certainty. McGuire, though, has the irony of Dickens and grim leanness of Cormac McCarthy, and uses them so confidently, it’s hard not to remind yourself: Dickens was once pop culture, too.
“Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Tale of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life” by Lulu Miller: It’s better to not explain the title, but fear not: Before it’s over, you’ll understand. Miller, a fixture of “Radiolab” and “This American Life,” tells a story as eclectic and diverging as the best storytelling from public radio, beginning with science but veering into thoughts on stubbornness, the psychology of self-doubt and the good old meaning of life. Her main subject is obscure, David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University and an influential ichthyologist. He cataloged thousands of fish species and believed, before it was widely accepted, that Darwin’s theory of evolution (not the fixed hand of God) was the truth. He was also a proponent of eugenics and a probable murderer. His research was destroyed so often that, in Miller’s effortless prose, his story is a rabbit hole of ideas on how far we will go to create order out of the inevitable disarray.
“A Children’s Bible” by Lydia Millet: It begins with the idyllic hush of a young-adult classic: “Once we lived in a summer country.” A group of teenagers and their neglected siblings wile away vacation at a lakeside rental, ignored by parents preoccupied with liquor and liaisons. After a climate cataclysm upends the landscape, the kids leave for an adventure marked by strange arks full of animals and odd infants found in mangers. The adults, meanwhile, study the fine print on the vacation lease and drink themselves numb. Rather than a howl of realism and reproach about a fast approaching future, Millet, an almost-winner of National Book Awards and Pulitzers, settles into an ageless, old-fashioned tone, marrying a parable of complacency to something surreal and hilarious — the weirdness of watching your world end. It’s just what you’re looking for: A light lift, yet so sharp you never fortify yourself for an endgame of mythic profundity.
“Nothing is Wrong and Here Is Why” by Alexandra Petri: There has been a library of books about the chaos unleashed by the Trump years, and someday, when the president is honored with a library, let’s hope Washington Post columnist Petri is quick with a card catalog of its contents. As for her book: Are these original, stinging essays shelved in nonfiction? Or everyday surreality? Non-magical realism? Her pieces veer from funny funny to sad funny to furious funny — better known as Tuesday in America. The subjects — #MeToo, guns, family separation policies, Melania Trump’s holiday decorating (“Nightmare Forest of Cursed Trees”) — are rendered as snappy satires of contemporary jargon and official evasion. The Mueller Report receives a book report: “One way in which this book did not succeed was its lack of female characters.” A Deep State FAQ explains its aim as “a very clear and secret thing, only known to Deep Staters and people who leave comments on conspiracy websites online.” How spot-on is Petri? Her piece about Trump’s federal budget was (mistakenly, I guess) included in a White House newsletter. Among its lines: “Affordable housing is a luxury and we are going to get rid of it.”
“Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” by Alex Ross: Grandiose and sprawling as Wagner’s masterworks, here is cultural history that ties together politics, philosophy, sex, war and race, making pitstops for Virginia Woolf and “Star Wars.” “The highest and the lowest impulses of humanity” found a home in the composer’s voice, writes Ross, classical critic for the New Yorker, and the result flooded the culture forever after, a kind of “chaotic, posthumous cult” flowing through architecture, literature and, of course, fascism. Ross is particularly good at picking apart contradiction — and the legacy of anti-Semitism — infamously embodied by Wagnerian ideas. But this is not a biography of a man. It’s a tracing of an aesthetic, one overwrought and foundational, and Ross chips away geologic layers to identify the rot. You’ll see your world differently.
“Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang: I suppose this was intended for kids; it’s colorful and rendered (by artist collective Gurihiru) with the doe-eyed cheer of Japanese manga. The title alone suggests an elemental explainer of bigotry. Yet Yang, a MacArthur “genius” whose parents immigrated to the United States from China and Taiwan, uses pop culture to explain the generational tug of systemic racism with more complexity than a newspaper worth of think pieces. It’s a dual narrative: A Chinese-American family moves from Chinatown to Metropolis and attracts the cold glare of a KKK chapter. Among their supporters is Superman, here (in the 1930s) still a relative newcomer whose powers are welcomed by some as an argument for white supremacy. But Clark Kent, not unlike the Lee family, has learned to downplay his origins and abilities. Yang is riffing on a footnote: A popular 1946 Superman radio show sometimes credited with mainstreaming the Klan’s image as dangerous fools wearing silly costumes. What he lands on, though, is a very 2020 take on influence, money and families.
“African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song,” edited by Kevin Young: Simply, a landmark. It’s easy to read that as hyperbole, and yet Young, a major poet himself (not to mention incoming director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture), spent six years assembling what amounts to an overwhelming, and often fun, thousand-page refocusing of our literary legacy. Legends and laureates are well represented — Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Tracy K. Smith — but where this collection excels is adding centuries of the lesser-known greats whose work was steady and remarkable, sometimes made furtively, sometimes with a touching thankfulness for ancestors. Together, it’s a kind of history of American history — jazz, Emmett Till, slavery — but also a celebration of arts movements (the Chicago Renaissance gets its due) and a lively conversation across decades. You hear, for instance, Chicago’s Brooks resonate in Chicago’s Eve Ewing. You hear both schoolyard rhyme and modernism. You hear wordplay on food and lyrics on boredom and acts of witness written against the backdrop of police shootings. It’s addicting, and refreshing, and no doubt, the sort of holiday treasure a family hands down for generations.
Christopher Borrelli writes for The Chicago Tribune.