Years ago, Neil Gaiman delivered a lecture in which he shared a story about one of his cousins who survived the Holocaust while living in a Polish ghetto. Risking her life, she gathered a group of young girls daily under the pretense of a sewing class to teach them math, Polish, writing, and other illegal skills. During that time, books were illegal, but she hid a translated copy of Gone with the Wind in her room, read a chapter each night, and told the story to the girls the following day, a routine she repeated until the book was finished.
Gaiman once asked her, “Why? Why would you risk death—for a story?” She replied, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto—they were in the American South; they were having adventures. They got away.”
Between a global pandemic, social unrest, and a contentious presidential election—not to mention the tragedies and suffering experienced on a personal scale—none of us will begrudge the new year. 2020 has not been a kind year, but it gave us stories. They offered escape, and the best of them, as Gaiman would later say, furnished us with “armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools [we] can take back into [our] life to help make it better.”
With that in mind, here are the ten books of 2020 that granted me that brief escape, brought me back better, and, I hope, will do the same for you.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Best known for her remarkable book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Wilkerson’s follow up is no less a marvel. Caste surveys the divisions within America through the lens of caste, arguing that the nation contends to this day with a social hierarchy codified in its founding. While contemporary readers may balk at such a claim, Wilkerson likens our moment to that of moving into an old house—we may not be personally responsible for the mold within its walls or the cracks in its foundation, but we are responsible for the consequences of refusing to tend to the needed repairs. With seeming ease, Wilkerson melds copious research with immersive storytelling to produce yet another must-read.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
When it comes to experimental fiction, I tend to avoid it. Rarely does it work unless you’re dealing with an author who knows the rules well enough to break them. Fortunately, Charles Yu is one of those authors. Interior Chinatown follows Willis Wu and his dream of becoming “Kung Fu Guy”—the pinnacle, in his mind, of a cinematic role. Nearly the entire book is written in second person present—yes, second person present—and formatted like a screenplay. Yu cleverly places his protagonist in a “part,” a style choice that disarms readers and allows him to smuggle in poignant reflections on identity and humanity as the lines begin to blur between film and reality. Winner of this year’s National Book Award in Fiction, Interior Chinatown imparts a complexity defiant of its page count and deserves every ounce of praise it receives.
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund
Contemporary theology tends to either emphasize doctrine at the expense of the writing craft or embrace creativity at the expense of sound theology. Gentle and Lowly is one of those rare exceptions that manages to achieve both doctrinal clarity and a pleasant reading experience. Drawing on Jesus’s description of himself as “gentle and lowly” in Matthew 11:29, Ortlund endeavors to draw the gaze of readers to who Christ is rather than simply to what he has done. Each chapter of the book follows the Puritan tradition of selecting a text and wringing it of every drop of meaning. It’s a timely reminder of how God has drawn near in Christ, our gentle and lowly savior whose mercy can overtake our sin, our doubts, and our fears. Gentle and Lowly is sure to be a modern classic.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Set in Odessa, Texas, Valentine takes up the varying experiences of multiple women following a local man’s assault of a teenage immigrant girl on a remote oil site. With oil production booming throughout the Permian Basin, men from all over the country have flooded the area looking for work, many of them carrying violent bents in tow. On paper, the plot sounds rough enough, but Wetmore’s prose makes it all the more so. It’s gritty and spare, like a fresh layer of caliche dust on the teeth, and patiently paced, provoking readers toward a maddening craving for justice and attempts at parsing fact and fiction. Like the west Texas sun, Valentine rises bright and scorching and leaves behind a singe that lingers long after the final page.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley
The African American interpretive tradition is an exercise in hope, so argues Esau McCaulley in this illuminating study of how the Black church’s treatment of scripture contributes to a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. Beginning in the shackles of slavery and the plantations of the antebellum South, McCaulley traces this tradition through its weathered centuries of oppression and up to the present day to demonstrate how it helps address topics like protest, police brutality, and ethnic difference, all of which lack felt experience within white ecclesial traditions. Melding history with orthodox theology and his own unique background as a Black, southern Anglican, McCaulley offers a model of interpretation that invites curiosity, diversity, and charity so as to encourage the body of Christ toward greater unity.
If you grew up in church during the eighties and nineties, you were steeped in purity culture. And while much of it was well-intended and even helpful at times, it also included a significant bent toward idolatry and overly simplifying God’s design—all of which has had effects on the generation raised in it. Thankfully, we now have Rachel Welcher’s new book to bring some much-needed levity to the topic. While it’s meticulously researched and beautifully written, what makes Talking Back to Purity Culture special is that it’s not a hit job. Welcher cares about the church and biblical teaching such that she’s willing to do the hard work of parsing a tangled topic like purity to highlight the good and reject the bad. To say it simply, she offers a better way, one committed to rejecting both legalism and license in pursuit of God’s good design and the grace of Jesus.
Eat a Peach by David Chang
Whenever we travel, my wife and I map out our plans around where we want to eat. If we ever book a trip to New York City, the Momofuku Noodle Bar will sit among the top of the list. Launched in 2004 by chef David Chang, the restaurant has since morphed into a brand that encompasses over a dozen restaurants, a culinary lab, a Netflix show, and a hit podcast. But make no mistake, the journey was never an easy one. Rich with humor and humanity, Eat a Peach is much more than the story of Momofuku. It’s a daring account of Chang’s upbringing, his struggles with mental health, and his attempts at confronting his demons. In many ways, Eat a Peach mirrors Chang’s approach to cuisine, charting its own course, skating beyond the boundaries of its genre, and inviting readers to the table for something bold, new, and unexpected.
The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power by D. L. Mayfield
I’ve long admired Mayfield for her beautiful writing as well as her willingness to challenge the cultural assumptions we often take for granted as Americans. And this book is no exception. Broken into what she considers the four pillars of the American Dream—affluence, autonomy, safety, and power—she devotes a collection of essays to each, reflecting on what they mean to different demographics and examining the practical effects they have on society when put into practice. As someone who has devoted her life to ministering to refugees and the poor in her community, she brings a unique voice to the conversation that demonstrates life as an act of dependence. The Myth of the American Dream is a needed reminder of the importance of neighborliness and a charge to pay attention to how our values affect those around us.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Following her widely praised debut novel, The Mothers, Brit Bennett returns with a wending tale of twin sisters who run away from their Black community in Louisiana at the age of sixteen. Though they share a blood bond, the girls pursue drastically different paths, one of them returning to her hometown with her daughter and the other passing herself off as white with a white husband and child who are none the wiser. But while they remain separated geographically, their past sets their futures, and that of their children, on a collision course that cannot be avoided. With The Vanishing Half, Bennett has established herself as a powerhouse in the world of fiction with a bright career we can all look forward to.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Midway through her twenties, Anna Wiener quit her publishing job in New York and set out for Silicon Valley. There she found employment at a big-data startup that delivered a hefty pay raise and the promise of a role in shaping the future—one that swept her into a world of extravagance, wealth, and a ferocious commitment to progress. But it was also a world trying to outrun the inevitable consequences of ignoring the dangers posed by unchecked technological advancement. Uncanny Valley blends a coming-of-age memoir with tech-savvy journalism to give an insider’s look into the rise of the digital economy and challenges readers to consider their own digital habits—before it’s too late.