2020 has felt like an eternity. We’ve held on tight as the year careened from a deadly pandemic to mass protests demanding racial justice, to wildfires and hurricanes. But even amid the darkness, there have been sparks of light.
People are still falling in love, having babies, rescuing pets and walking out of hospitals as triumphant survivors. They’re also finding refuge in the transformative power of books that make us laugh, enlighten us, help us grieve and teach us how to be brave, even in the most hopeless and helpless of times.
If you resolved to read more in 2020, it’s not too late to make good on that resolution. Here are the six books we think you should pick up before the clock strikes midnight on December 31.
On May 12, 2010, an Afriqiyah Airways flight with 104 people on board crashed while making its final approach at Tripoli airport in Libya. A 10-year-old Dutch boy was the only survivor. The story captured writer Ann Napolitano’s imagination, as she shared with the New York Times: “I could not imagine how the boy would be O.K. –and I could feel from the stickiness of my obsession that I was going to have to write a book that created a set of circumstances to make him O.K.” The title character of her third novel, “Dear Edward,” is just 12 when the Los Angeles-bound flight he’s on crashes in Colorado, killing his parents and his only sibling, along with every other person on the plane. Napolitano’s portrait of Edward is so vivid, his misery flows off the page. The emotional drama becomes even more gripping when the novel flashes back to the inner lives of the passengers and crew before the doomed plane crashes.
Here’s why we like it: This novel is an especially timely read during a global pandemic. Like Edward, each one of us is trying to find our way forward in the face of unimaginable loss. “What happened is baked into your bones, Edward,” his therapist says. “It lives under your skin. It’s not going away. It’s part of you and will be part of you every moment until you die. What you’ve been working on, since the first time I met you, is learning to live with that.”
‘Sex and Vanity’
He struck gold with “Crazy, Rich Asians,” and Kevin Kwan’s latest novel returns to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But readers will be excited to learn that “Sex and Vanity” is the start of an entirely new trilogy again featuring a diverse set of characters, including the biracial Lucie Churchill. If the name Churchill sounds familiar, it’s because Kwan took his cue for the novel from the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film “A Room with a View,” (based on the E.M. Forrester classic) in which Helena Bonham Carter played Lucy Honeychurch. In Kwan’s decidedly modern update, Lucie falls for the mysterious George Zao at an over-the-top wedding in Capri. But when potential scandal looms, Lucie buries her true feelings about George and years later ends up engaged to another man. When George comes back into the picture, the life Lucie thought she wanted begins to implode.
Here’s why we like it: Juicy, dishy and downright hilarious, this rom-com provides the perfect literary escape. It will transport you straight from quarantine to the island of Capri. One day we’ll all be able to travel again, until then, we have “Sex and Vanity.”
‘Dancing at the Pity Party’
When she was a sophomore in college, illustrator Tyler Feder’s mom, Rhonda, died at just 47 of ovarian cancer. Feder traces her journey through the ups and downs of grief with honesty and humor in her debut graphic novel, “Dancing at the Pity Party.” Feder, the oldest of three daughters in a tight-knit Jewish family, pays tribute to the woman who “taught her how to speak (her) mind” and “to spread the cream cheese all the way to the edges of the bagel.” Her mother’s death is devastating, especially for a young college student struggling with anxiety. But as the years pass, Feder finds support from what she calls the “Dead Mom’s Club,” saying if it was up to her there’d be a “clubhouse” where members could gather to “vent and swap stories about (their) cool moms.” Mother’s Day, she writes, would be their Super Bowl!
Here’s why we like it: Mourning can be a lonely process, especially now. This book, Feder writes, is for “… anyone struggling with loss who just wants someone to GET IT.” Feder definitely gets it. “Dancing at the Pity Party” is a bittersweet refuge, almost like reading the diary of an old friend.
“Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home,” Isabel Wilkerson writes in her sweeping new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Race is the “visible agent of the unseen force of caste” in the United States, one of the three caste systems she examines in her second book, which The New York Times branded “an instant American classic.” In one compelling passage, the journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner writes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India, where the civil rights leader is introduced as a “fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” King, Wilkerson explains, had never considered the connections between India’s millenia-old caste system and his status as a Black man in the US, and “… he realized that the Land of the Free had imposed a caste system not unlike the caste system of India and that he had lived under that system all his life.” In chilling detail, Wilkerson examines how decades before King led his non-violent revolution for change, America’s treatment of its Black population inspired the Nazis as they plotted the extermination of the Jews.
Here’s why we like it: The protests against racial injustice that erupted after the murder of George Floyd have rocked the US and the globe for months now. It seems unbelievable, 165 years since the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, that we are still contending with the question: do Black lives matter? That question is why “Caste,” an Oprah’s book club pick, is essential reading for this moment in history. It challenges all of us to confront the way things have always been and why they need to change.
In her third memoir, philanthropist and thought leader Glennon Doyle describes how she found her “wild” after spending most of her life fitting into the cages of “others’ expectations.” “Untamed” is the 43-year-old’s guide to being brave. And Doyle, who married soccer star Abby Wambach in 2017, knows a bit about being brave. The writer, who first became known for her Christian parenting blog, Momastery, met Wambach while she was married to her-then husband. She’d just recommitted to her marriage after he confessed to infidelity when she found herself falling head over heels for someone else. A woman.
Here’s why we like it: Without sounding like a typical self-help book, Doyle illuminates the steps she took to find her inner cheetah in a series of lyrical, poetic essays that are filled with guideposts for living bravely. Ultimately, the memoirist describes being brave as forsaking “all others to be true to yourself.” A challenge, certainly, but the rewards could make it all worth it.
Former US poet laureate Billy Collins released his 13th volume of poetry, “Whale Day: And Other Poems” on Tuesday. He’s been reading a poem a day live on Facebook since the pandemic started. Tens of thousands of people from around the world have tuned in, and it’s not especially hard to see why. As he writes in “Objectivity,” “Call it a compulsion, but every time I give someone a new poem to look at, I feel compelled to hide somewhere and read that poem as if it were that other person. Pretending to be someone else brings a new sense of objectivity, revealing the poem’s many flaws …” That humility is what makes his poems appeal to almost anyone who picks up a volume. Collins, who wrote his first poem at 10, covers a lot of ground in his latest book. He writes about diverse topics like the beauties of the Arizona desert, his aging dog, Tennessee Fainting goats, even his own funeral. “Love and death are … the two towers that hold poetry up,” Collins says in a recent Facebook broadcast. “You just have to come up with new metaphors.”
Here’s why we like it: At a time when so much of life is out of control, Billy Collins’ poems feel like a warm, fuzzy blanket accompanied by a steaming mug of tea. “Whale Day” will awaken your spirit, stir your imaginings and make you feel less alone.