My Favorite Books of 2020
The one positive about being in quarantine for the better part of a year is that I was able to get a lot more reading done than in year's past. I read a lot of great books this year, these are my favorites:
A murderous foley artist, a pedophile-hunting vigilante. Their paths cross at the precipice of an audio-induced apocalypse. I hadn't read any of Palahniuk's novels since 2007's RANT and it was nice dipping my toes back into the still-familiar prose of an author I once obsessed over. It was a pleasant experience to discover I still swooned for the way Palahniuk manages to turn the incredibly gross into a form of poetry. I look forward to spending part of 2021 catching up on the Palahniuk books I've missed over the last thirteen years.
A couple finds their relationship tested, children and parents are forced to exercise emotional demons, and the cities of Houston and Osaka are given loving spotlights in the debut novel from Bryan Washington. Reading MEMORIAL reminded me of the days when I would breathlessly consume new novels by Nick Hornby. Washington fills his characters - and cities - with the same loving empathy and emotional substance, the stuff that makes you feel like you are going through a journey with actual friends. Houston is a blessed city to have a writer with such a wonderful voice representing it to the world at large.
A young woman struggles to form a self-identity under the shadow of a co-dependent relationship with her just slightly older sister. Smart, sad, and utterly brutal in its execution - this is the kind of book that haunts you like a ghost. At the risk of reducing the book's unique voice but in the interest of getting some of you to read it, it's GINGER SNAPS without the werewolves.
Two BFFs cling to hope amid a rabies outbreak. I can't believe Paul wrote this book before this year we've just experienced! The book reads like a jam between David Cronenberg and Ian McEwan. Horrifyingly prescient, timelessly tragic. Plus, characters from one of Paul's previous novel appear, helping to build the Tremblayverse!
A group of American Indian men made a bad choice while on an elk hunt in their youth and now, a decade later - that choice has come back to haunt them, literally. The novel is a spooky story that takes the “rape-revenge” structure of ‘70s exploitation cinema and applies it to a socially relevant tale of Reservation life and the tight, unbreakable tendrils of tradition. The characters of THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS are hunted down by their past because not only do they believe the stories they were told in their youth, those stories are, in fact, real and deserve to be believed. Folklore and mythology aren’t just moralistic warnings, they are rules of society and to break these rules invites the worst kind of death.
A laugh-out-loud funny story about a misanthrope tasked with being a nanny to two children who have a habit of catching on fire when they're agitated. Sweet and raunchy in equal measures, the book is a wonderful read about damaged people learning to be slightly less damaged through the love of others. The funniest book I read this year, NOTHING TO SEE HERE is going to be a book I recommend to just about anybody and everybody going forward.
I didn't expect to find myself crying while reading a passage in which Jim Carrey, a character in his own book, is reunited with mentor Rodney Dangerfield when the late comedian's "essence" is resurrected as a CGI rhinoceros in a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPOS. Carrey's novel, co-written with Dana Vachon, is a wonderful surprise - part memoir, part fiction. The novel follows Carrey as he rebounds from a post-I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS career slump by finding love and battling an alien invasion alongside Kelsie Grammer and Nic Cage. It may be about mental illness. Or it may just be about an alien invasion. Either way, Carrey's book has a lot of satire against the Hollywood machine - fame and the pursuit of accolades - but more importantly, it has a lot of empathy. Even as he skewers his fellow actors, he does so lovingly, trying to find the humanity behind their outlandish, weird behavior and, in the process, showing his own humanity.
A wonderful novel about a young woman whose decision to live her life according to the philosophy of Robert Louis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND leads her down a glorious path of toxicity. Funny and sad in all the best ways, the novel perfectly balances quirkiness and raw, bleeding honesty about the way people all too frequently let their lives spin out of control for no reason other than their own self-chosen propensity for fucking up. I love TREASURE ISLAND!!! so much and I know for a fact that I'm going to keep reading this novel every few years until my eyes cease to work.
A breezy, dishy Hollywood memoir from an often overlooked filmmaker. Sonnenfeld got his start as a cinematographer on the Coen Brothers' early films and his memoir takes readers on a journey through his career ups and downs. There are some great anecdotes (working with historical reenactors on WILD WILD WEST sucked because of how anal and racist they tend to be, going out to eat dinner with Robin Williams was as stressful as you might imagine, Danny DeVito was originally meant to be the lead for GET SHORTY) but Sonnenfeld is a gifted storyteller and I found just as much enjoyment over reading him fret about how to describe how he likes his stakes cooked as I did reading about arguments with producer Scott Rudin.
Nightmares are effective when they start familiar before going off the rails. I don't know enough about the YA genre to know whether or not Daniel Kraus' BENT HEAVENS is considered YA but the teenage protagonists and sci-fi trappings reminded me of a William Sleater novel. Until it didn't. BENT HEAVENS, about two teenagers who find an alien similar to the one that abducted one of their fathers three years ago, plays out like an intense combination of FIRE IN THE SKY and PRISONERS. Until it doesn't. The book is dark, guys. So, so, so dark - and I loved every minute of it.
The prose - punchy and to the point - feels like you're being told a twisty tale by a new friend you've met at the bar as the two of you nurse your drinks. The plot involves an ensemble of characters either falling in love or getting over lost love who convene in Paris during the production of a VERTIGO remake (you knew there was going to be Hitchcock. Voyeurism via a cameraman, femme fatal, sexual taboos - De Palma at his best! God, I wish this was a movie.
A special honorary mention goes to Gregory McDonald's FLETCH series. I reread all the novels at the beginning of the year and fell in love with McDonald's prose all over again. McDonald knew how to write dialogue better than anybody else I've ever read and I will continue to re-read the novels every few years as a battery recharge for my own creativity. I wrote more about the novels here.