Much like everything else this year, 2020 was an upside down time for literature—with countless publishing dates changed or pushed back as in-person promotion suddenly no longer became an option. But some new books did manage to fight their way into our lives, attempting to bring us some of the inner peace we might not even have known we needed.
From Jessica Simpson’s beautiful memoir to Anne Helen Petersen’s illuminating research on the burnout generation, here are my picks for the 10 best books of 2020.
Open Book by Jessica Simpson
In this compelling memoir, Jessica Simpson reveals for the first time her inner monologue and most intimate struggles. Guided by the journals she’s kept since age 15, and brimming with her unique humor and down-to-earth humanity, Open Book is as inspiring as it is entertaining. This was supposed to be a very different book. Five years ago, Jessica Simpson was approached to write a motivational guide to living your best life. She walked away from the offer, and nobody understood why. The truth is that she didn’t want to lie. Simpson couldn’t be authentic with her listeners if she wasn’t fully honest with herself first. Now, America’s Sweetheart, preacher’s daughter, pop phenomenon, reality TV pioneer, and the billion-dollar fashion mogul invites listeners on a remarkable journey, examining a life that blessed her with the compassion to help others but also burdened her with an almost crippling need to please. Open Book is Jessica Simpson using her voice, heart, soul, and humor to share things she’s never shared before. First celebrated for her voice, she became one of the most talked-about women in the world, whether for music and fashion, her relationship struggles, or as a walking blonde joke. But now, instead of being talked about, Simpson is doing the talking.
Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies by Tara Schuster
By the time she was in her late twenties, Tara Schuster was a sought-after TV executive who had worked with Jon Stewart and launched Key & Peele to viral superstardom. By all appearances, she had mastered being a grown-up. But beneath that veneer of success, she was a chronically anxious, self-medicating mess. No one knew that her road to adulthood had been paved with depression, anxiety, and shame, owing in large part to her minimally parented upbringing. She realized she’d hit rock bottom when she drunk-dialed her therapist pleading for help. Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies is the story of Tara’s path to re-parenting herself and becoming a “ninja of self-love.” This is the book Tara wished someone had given her and it is the book many of us desperately need: a candid, funny, practical guide to growing up and learning to love yourself in a non-throw-up-in-your-mouth-it’s-so-cheesy way.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
In 2000, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and she suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed? Such an important and relevant story in the age of #MeToo.
Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit describes her formation as a writer and as a feminist in 1980s San Francisco, in an atmosphere of gender violence on the street and throughout society and the exclusion of women from cultural arenas. She tells of being poor, hopeful, and adrift in the city that became her great teacher; of the small apartment that, when she was nineteen, became the home in which she transformed herself; of how punk rock gave form and voice to her own fury and explosive energy. Solnit recounts how she came to recognize the epidemic of violence against women around her, the street harassment that unsettled her, the trauma that changed her, and the authority figures who routinely disdained and disbelieved girls and women, including her. Looking back, she sees all these as consequences of the voicelessness that was and still is the ordinary condition of women, and how she contended with that while becoming a writer and a public voice for women’s rights.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb
Bess Kalb, Emmy-nominated TV writer and New Yorker contributor, saved every voicemail her grandmother Bobby Bell ever left her. Bobby was a force—irrepressible, glamorous, unapologetically opinionated. Bobby doted on Bess; Bess adored Bobby. Then, at ninety, Bobby died. But in this debut memoir, Bobby is speaking to Bess once more, in a voice as passionate as it ever was in life. There’s Bobby’s mother, who traveled solo from Belarus to America in the 1880s to escape the pogroms, and Bess’s mother, a 1970s rebel who always fought against convention. Then there’s Bess, who grew up in New York and entered the rough-and-tumble world of L.A. television.
Her grandma Bobby was with her all the way—she was the light of Bess’ childhood and her fiercest supporter, giving her unequivocal love, even if sometimes of the toughest kind. In Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bobby reminds Bess of the experiences they shared, and she delivers—in phone calls, texts, and unforgettable heart-to-hearts brought vividly to the page—her signature wisdom: “If the earth is cracking behind you, you put one foot in front of the other.” Recounting both family lore and family secrets, Bobby brings us four generations of indomitable women and the men who loved them. With humor and poignancy, Kalb gives us proof of the special bond that can skip a generation and endure beyond death.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
In this new essay collection from Samantha Irby, she tackles aging, marriage, settling down with step-children in white, small-town America. Irby is turning forty, and increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin. She has left her job as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, has published successful books and is courted by Hollywood, left Chicago, and moved into a house with a garden that requires repairs and know-how with her wife and two step-children in a small white, Republican town in Michigan where she now hosts book clubs. This is the bourgeois life of dreams. She goes on bad dates with new friends, spends weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “skinny, luminous peoples” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” and hides Entenmann’s cookies under her bed and unopened bills under her pillow. While it wasn’t anywhere near as funny as We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Irby’s frankness about modern life and culture is more than necessary in a year and era like this one.
The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I’ve Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance by Matt Ortile
When Matt Ortile moved from Manila to Las Vegas, the locals couldn’t pronounce his name. Harassed as a kid for his brown skin, accent, and femininity, he believed he could belong in America by marrying a white man and shedding his Filipino identity. This was the first myth he told himself. The Groom Will Keep His Name explores the various tales Ortile spun about what it means to be a Vassar Girl, an American Boy, and a Filipino immigrant in New York looking to build a home. As we meet and mate, we tell stories about ourselves, revealing not just who we are, but who we want to be. Ortile recounts the relationships and whateverships that pushed him to confront his notions of sex, power, and the model minority myth. Whether swiping on Grindr, analyzing DMs, or cruising steam rooms, Ortile brings us on his journey toward radical self-love with intelligence, wit, and his heart on his sleeve.
The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America by Eric Cervini
The secret history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before Stonewall. In 1957, Frank Kameny, a rising astronomer working for the U.S. Defense Department in Hawaii, received a summons to report immediately to Washington, D.C. The Pentagon had reason to believe he was a homosexual, and after a series of humiliating interviews, Kameny, like countless gay men and women before him, was promptly dismissed from his government job. Unlike many others, though, Kameny fought back. Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War is the story of what followed. This book is an assiduously researched history of an early champion of gay liberation, one who fought for the right to follow his passion and serve his country in the wake of Joseph McCarthy’s Lavender Scare. We follow Kameny as he explores the underground gay scenes of Boston and Washington, D.C., where he formulates his arguments against the U.S. Government’s classification of gay men and women as “sexual perverts.” At a time when staying in the closet remained the default, he exposed the hypocrisies of the American establishment, accelerated a broader revolution in sexual morals, and invented what we now know as Gay Pride.
Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
An incendiary examination of burnout in millennials—the cultural shifts that got us here, the pressures that sustain it, and the need for drastic change. Do you feel like your life is an endless to-do list? Do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram because you’re too exhausted to pick up a book? Are you mired in debt, or feel like you work all the time, or feel pressure to take whatever gives you joy and turn it into a monetizable hustle? Welcome to burnout culture. While burnout may seem like the default setting for the modern era, in Can’t Even, BuzzFeed culture writer and former academic Anne Helen Petersen argues that burnout is a definitional condition for the millennial generation, born out of distrust in the institutions that have failed us, the unrealistic expectations of the modern workplace, and a sharp uptick in anxiety and hopelessness exacerbated by the constant pressure to “perform” our lives online. Utilizing a combination of sociohistorical framework, original interviews, and detailed analysis, Can’t Even offers a galvanizing, intimate, and ultimately redemptive look at the lives of this much-maligned generation, and will be required reading for both millennials and the parents and employers trying to understand them.
Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by Maggie Smith
When award-winning poet Maggie Smith started writing daily Twitter posts under the title “Keep Moving” in the wake of her divorce, they unexpectedly caught fire. People around the world connected to her short, inspiring quotes which brilliantly captured the complexities of the human heart. Funny, wry, and profound, Maggie’s writing has been and continues to be a form of healing for herself and countless fans. Now, you can experience her outstanding and healing prose with this powerful and evocative collection. Featuring some of her most popular posts and essays, Keep Moving also includes new and never before published writing. Gorgeously and lovingly wrought, this is the perfect gift for anyone looking for a daily dose of optimism and spiritual nourishment.
Which were your favorite books from this year?
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