The 10 best books of 2020

NONFICTION

CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS By Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, 496 pages, $32 (hardcover list price)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) delivers a well-timed re-evaluation of American divisions. Wilkerson’s thesis is that the country’s current obsession with race is somewhat misplaced; there is a deeper and more intractable system that would more accurately be called American caste. Released amid the nation’s racial reckoning, the book immediately rocketed up bestseller lists with an assist from Oprah Winfrey, who called it her most important book club pick ever.

MEMORIAL DRIVE: A DAUGHTER’S MEMOIR By Natasha Trethewey, Ecco, pages, $27.99

The former U.S. poet laureate pays tribute to her mother, who was fatally shot at 40 by her second husband. Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being — a living, breathing dynamo, coming of age in the Jim Crow South, breaking out of the restrictions imposed on her as a Black woman. A political as well as personal book, it’s as much the story of a person cut down in her prime as an exploration of power in America.

UNWORTHY REPUBLIC: THE DISPOSSESSION OF NATIVE AMERICANS AND THE ROAD TO INDIAN TERRITORY By Claudio Saunt, W.W. Norton, 416 pages, $26.95

A National Book Award finalist, Saunt’s sweeping work candidly explores the horrors of Native American expulsion while illuminating the crucial role that Southern slaveholders — eyeing native lands to take over for themselves — played in shaping early 19th-century policy. This alone would make for an important study, but Saunt also manages to do something truly rare: destroy the illusion that history’s course is inevitable and recover the reality of the multiple possibilities that confronted contemporaries. Things could have been otherwise.

VESPER FLIGHTS By Helen Macdonald, Grove, 288 pages, $27

“So many of our stories about nature are about testing ourselves against it, setting ourselves against it, defining our humanity against it,” Macdonald writes in Vesper Flights.

In the 41 essays that make up this collection, the naturalist and author of H Is for Hawk seeks to tell another type of nature story, one that asks readers to see the natural world as something other than a reflection of themselves. Doing so, she believes, may just help us save it.


FICTION

THE COLD MILLIONS By Jess Walter, Harper, 352 pages, $28.99

Walter structures his book about two lovable, penniless brothers trying to make ends meet in Spokane, Washington, as a concoction of tales swirling around the violent repression of laborers in the early 20th century. The result could have been an earnest historical novel about the brutal struggle for fair wages, but Walter has instead created a rip-roaring work of harrowing adventures and irresistible characters, including the real-life Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a pregnant 19-year-old who’s also an indomitable union firebrand.

HAMNET By Maggie O’Farrell, Knopf, 320 pages, $26.95

This richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th- century English life is set against the arrival of one devastating event: the loss of William Shakespeare’s only son to the plague. O’Farrell is not intimidated by the presence of the Bard’s canon or the paucity of the historical record, and she makes no effort to lard her pages with intimations of his genius or cute allusions to his plays. Rather, she constructs a suspenseful and moving story about the way grief viciously recalibrates a marriage.

HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD: INSIDE THE MIND OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY By Robert Kolker, Doubleday, 400 pages, $29.95

The author of Lost Girls explores how 12 siblings — half of them diagnosed with schizophrenia — and their parents navigated illness, unspeakable violence, and the crushed promise of the American Dream during the 1960s and ‘70s. Interwoven with this harrowing familial story is the history of how the science on schizophrenia has fitfully evolved, from the eras of institutionalization and shock therapy, to the profound disagreements about the cause and origins of the illness and the search for genetic markers.

HOMELAND ELEGIES By Ayad Akhtar, Little, Brown, 368 pages, $28

Akhtar, a Pulitzer-winning playwright, blurs the line between fact and fiction with this autobiographical novel that speaks to the agony of trying to articulate a nuanced critique of faith and politics in an age of shrieking partisanship. The story’s sinuous plot concerns the lives of a playwright and his Pakistani immigrant father, assessing their attitudes toward the United States as their fortunes rise and fall. Personal episodes mingle with engaging disquisitions on the dilution of antitrust law and other arcane economic issues. Somehow, Akhtar makes it all work, brilliantly.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM By Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 264 pages, $27.99

The Homegoing author’s new novel works in a completely different register, following a young Ghanaian American neuroscientist pulled between the data-driven beliefs of her colleagues and the religious dogma of her family. A book of profound scientific and spiritual reflection, it recalls the works of Richard Powers and Marilynne Robinson, though it’s anything but derivative. Gyasi’s ability to interrogate medical and religious issues in the context of America’s fraught racial environment makes her one of the most enlightening novelists writing today.

WRITERS & LOVERS By Lily King, Grove, 320 pages, $27

The author of Euphoria breaks all the rules with her new book: It’s a novel about trying to write a novel, and it’s dangerously romantic, bold, and fearless enough to imagine the possibility of unbounded happiness. According to the penal code of literary fiction, that’s a violation of Section 364, Prohibiting Unlawful Departure from Ambiguity and Despair. And yet, this story of a grieving, struggling writer torn between two suitors delivers such pure joy that there may be no surer antidote to 2020’s woes.

Washington Post staff

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