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Our 25 can’t-miss books of 2020

Give your loved ones a present that puts our pandemic year in perspective

This list is, in part, an acknowledgement of the way 2020 wrecked our attention spans with its nonstop ghastliness. As such, it’s filled with selections that perform small miracles: They grab us, keep hold of us and allow us to disappear into worlds and ideas that ping with more resonance and stickiness than our nonstop phone notifications. A reminder as you choose where to buy your books: Independent booksellers are drowning this year.

NONFICTION

Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters by Helena Andrews-Dyer and R. Eric Thomas

An invigorating look at the career of Rep. Waters for the internet age. Andrews-Dyer and Thomas have provided a detailed accounting of her time as a California congresswoman that’s a speedy read for those running for student body president, and their parents, too. Who has time for cynicism when you could get things done instead?


Say It Louder!: Black Voters, White Narratives, and Saving Our Democracy by Tiffany D. Cross

We just survived a bruising presidential election cycle and yet there is more work to be done, and still more work after that. Cross, whose volume was published in July, could see it coming. She offers media criticism, rooted in history, that calls on her colleagues in the Washington press corps to recognize the outsize role that race plays in American life and voter decision-making, and challenges news organizations to do better.


Black Futures edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham

This anthology is a catalog of audacity, of possibilities already rendered by the many artists, thinkers, writers and dreamers who have created them. It prods the reader to look at the beauty we have created and imagine what is to come. Black Futures is an indispensable reader for the renaissance of Black creativity that has bloomed in the past decade, and a much-needed antidote to fatigue.


Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture by Anaïs Duplan

Duplan is a poet and the founding curator of the Center for Afrofuturist Studies in Iowa City, Iowa. His multidisciplinary book combines interviews, essays and poetry to examine how Black avant-garde artists use their work to create visions of a liberated future. Duplan, who is trans, culminates this collection with an essay about his own gender transition.


The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart by Alicia Garza

One of the founding mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement has taken the credibility she amassed since calling for justice in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and converted it into a memoir and an argument for believing in and participating in democracy, even when that democracy is deeply flawed. Garza provides a road map for converting passion and protest into tangible change in this memoir of a movement.


Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons For Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

One of the strange results of 2020’s summer of Black death is the way it made James Baldwin seem like a prophet. He wasn’t — he was simply a keen observer of the truth of America. Glaude, chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University, combines scholarship, social critique, memoir and biography in his analysis of Baldwin’s work and its modern resonance. Baldwin made America see itself. Glaude sharpens the focus.


Wow, No Thank You: Essays by Samantha Irby

Let’s just go ahead and crown Irby as the humorist of our time. Irby has a talent for alchemizing wretched circumstances into belly laughs, whether she’s writing about the various ways her body refuses to cooperate with her — depression, Crohn’s disease, and ovaries and a uterus that seem to have minds of their own — or more serious issues such as the poverty, neglect and the deaths of her parents. She also recorded the audiobook version, and Irby’s deadpan narration rivals the best of David Sedaris.


Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which effectively granted white women the franchise, it’s worth looking beyond suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose stories tend to dominate the history of how American women got the vote. Jones spotlights how Black women made good trouble and organized themselves, especially when forsaken by Black men and white women, their supposed allies in the quest for the franchise.


White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

You’ve likely heard the 1963 quotation, first uttered by Martin Luther King Jr.: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” How does that segregation of worship manifest in American life? How does dogma become weaponized in service of white supremacy, and why does it matter? Wedding personal experience with rigorous research, Jones delivers an exhaustive examination of where the interests of organized religion and whiteness converge.


Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall

Modern problems need modern feminism, and that’s what Kendall offers in this collection of sobering essays that critique the failings of white feminism. But Kendall also offers guidance for where would-be feminists can focus their attention: maternal mortality, food insecurity, poverty, housing and other issues that tend to hit women of color and trans women even harder.


Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan by Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson

Luther and Davidson are experienced sports writers who know what it’s like to feel alienated from and addicted to something at the same time. Here, they take on all sorts of topics that can make being a sports fan frustrating — not because you’re in love with a losing team, but more ethical, existential concerns. Among them: reconciling a love of college basketball with a desire for the athletes to be compensated, dealing with being the fan of a team whose owner you hate, and feeling unwelcome as a fan because the environment may be hostile to you because of your race, or gender or sexuality.


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

We published a whole children’s book about 44 incredible Black Americans, inspired by the historic achievement of the United States’ 44th president. You didn’t think we were going to leave the first volume of his new memoir off the list, did you? Whether you find him frustrating, inspiring or both, Obama’s memoir is an engrossing and surprisingly personal work.


Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

This book, like its author, defies easy categorization. It’s both poetry and essays, and also a curation of the less obvious instruments of whiteness, such as the “Shirley cards” used in photography. It’s a record of Rankine feeling her way through the darkness and complications of reality — a conversation rendered in book form. Rankine includes an essay about seeing the Jackie Sibblies Drury play Fairview with a white friend who refuses to join other white audience members onstage as the end of the play requests. She intercuts the essay with excerpts from a 1981 speech Audre Lorde gave about how white women respond to racism.


Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

If Trethewey’s name is familiar, you likely know her poetry — she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007, and has published five collections. In her memoir, Trethewey works her way through the death of her mother, murdered by her stepfather in 1985. It becomes clear that Trethewey’s writing isn’t just art, but a mode of survival, of asserting agency, of living when the going is stifling. It is a tribute to the freedom Trethewey’s mother created for her when she couldn’t create it for herself, and a graceful, haunting excavation.


The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast by Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn

This looks at how Spencer Haywood’s 1971 lawsuit against the NBA weakened the bond between the league and the NCAA. Before Haywood’s lawsuit, the NBA stipulated that players entering its draft were eligible to do so four years after graduating from high school, basically making college basketball an obligation for anyone hoping to go pro. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated and Washburn is an NBA reporter for The Boston Globe. The two experts offer a biography of Haywood’s life and the circumstances that informed his lawsuit. His decision opened doors for generations of precocious, exciting talents, including Allen Iverson, Dominique Wilkins and LeBron James.


Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

Before they wrote this book, the co-hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend found themselves in an uncomfortable place. They were publicly living their lives as besties, but behind the scenes they were struggling to overcome an obstacle that kept growing the more they tried to ignore it. Sow and Friedman eventually entered therapy — together — to address their unsaid stuff. Among the issues, even in this relationship that seemed to be an exemplar of candid openness, was race. With more adults choosing to live unmarried than ever before, Big Friendship offers guidance on tending the most important non-familial relationships in our lives, because they don’t just work on autopilot.


I Came as a Shadow by John Thompson with Jesse Washington

The celebrated Georgetown University basketball coach, the first Black head coach to win an NCAA title, died on Aug. 30. Before he did, Thompson wrote his autobiography with The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington. It’s a story of hard-won mobility and triumph — Thompson was born to a father who could not read and a mother whose career as a teacher was limited because she was Black. With Washington, Thompson traces the foundational experiences of his youth and how they informed his decisions as a coach, leader and advocate for college athletes, including the controversy over paying athletes. Thompson’s thoughts on the issue evolved. Once against it, he came around to the other side, unwilling to let the NCAA’s myth of amateurism remain a tool for exploitation. Just like its subject, I Came as a Shadow is smart, plainspoken and principled.

FICTION

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Thematically, Alam’s third novel may be the most spot-on choice for hellscape 2020 because it is relentlessly foreboding. It begins by following a white, polite-enough advertising account director, her husband, who is a professor and book critic, and their two children decamping to the Hamptons for a holiday. They rent a house from a Black family, the Washingtons. While the family is vacationing, a disaster takes down New York and the family’s connection to the outside world. The Washingtons come seeking safety in their rental. As everything gets weirder and more opaque, the family doubles down on a cocoon of normalcy and domesticity, a blissful bunker separated from the reality of a broken world.


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Bennett made a splash in 2016 with her debut novel, The Mothers. Her follow-up indicates a talented artist who has refined her skills. The Vanishing Half is a tale of twin Black sisters, and the chasm that develops when one leaves their small Southern town and creates a new existence for herself as a white woman. The subject matter invites facile comparisons to Nella Larsen’s Passing, but it feels more like a descendant of Toni Morrison’s Sula.


The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

This is one of two short story collections on this list — Historical Corrections also includes a novella — for those who are craving great prose but find their ability to sit still for a whole novel diminished. My favorite of these from the author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, is Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want, a brief and clever look at the domino effects of the bad behavior of one brilliant, wounded artist trying to make amends, and the danger of assuming absolution is guaranteed.


The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

If you found yourself unable to turn away from HBO’s Lovecraft Country, even when it made you cringe, chances are you will find much to love about the work of Hugo Award-winning Jemisin. Like Lovecraft, Jemisin runs straight ahead at the bigoted author’s villains and legacy, as each borough of New York is anthropomorphized into a human avatar, all of whom fight an antagonist Jemisin calls “the Enemy.”


Luster by Raven Leilani

Leilani’s debut novel is dangerous, sexy, messy and exciting — perfect for the reader who grew up reading Judy Blume’s young adult novels and is craving a next step. In Luster, a 23-year-old assistant book editor named Edie decides to move in with a white man in his 40s, and his wife (they have an open marriage). Though this pulpy circumstance is the attention-grabber, Leilani balances it out with wry barbs and stinging observations about the particular sort of whiteness of the publishing industry and its mealy overtures toward racial inclusion. Luster hurts so good — just the way its protagonist likes it.


Deacon King Kong by James McBride

McBride, a historical novelist, is best known for his 2013 National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird — Showtime recently concluded its seven-episode run of the witty, rollicking tale of John Brown. In Deacon King Kong, McBride trades century-plus-old history for something more recent: the Brooklyn, New York, projects where he grew up, circa 1969. The book, which centers on an attempted murder and the mysterious whereabouts of the Venus of Willendorf, is dense with characters, prose, action, you name it. Just be prepared to hold all of it in your head and appreciate the pieces as they come together as you get lost in the lives of Sportcoat, Elephant, the governor and a host of others.


The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

Four generations of Black Good Girl Lust unite across the nine stories in Philyaw’s debut collection, which was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. Philyaw’s ladies are a range of ages, but they have something in common: They’re all struggling with internal conflicts regarding sex and sexuality that are at odds with their spiritual practice. Philyaw’s portraits of these women are generous, direct and humanizing, offering grace in the face of taboo.


African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song edited by Kevin Young

Leave it to the poetry editor of the New Yorker and the incoming director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture to deliver a masterfully curated anthology, filled with eclectic selections and classics alike from the country’s great Black poets. Beginning with Phillis Wheatley, Young traces the evolution of America with a North Star always pointed toward freedom — freedom of body, mind and spirit.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.