DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says even she sometimes has trouble focusing on reading this year, but not with these books. Here's Maureen's list of 10 top books for 2020.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's an underlying quality of solitude about this pandemic experience. Sealed into our little Zoom boxes, masked when we're in contact with others, many of us feel separated from the world by split-second time delays and a thin layer of lint. Books break through. They enter directly into our heads, occasionally our hearts. Here are 10 of the books that broke through for me during this tough year.
Rumaan Alam's "Leave The World Behind" is an extraordinary, shape-shifting novel that begins, as so many stories do, with a journey. A white family is driving out to an Airbnb in the Hamptons on Long Island for vacation. What begins as a domestic tale soon morphs into a comedy of manners about race when the Black couple who owns the Airbnb unexpectedly turns up. Slowly, that comedy of manners sours into a vision of global disaster that Alam's characters and readers alike will keep denying. Sound familiar?
James McBride is such a buoyant poet of a novelist that he could write a book about paper clips, and I'd read it. Fortunately, his novel "Deacon King Kong" is about so much more. Set in a Brooklyn housing project in the 1960s and focused on the apparently random murder of a neighborhood drug dealer, the novel captures the rough-edged communal life of a vanished New York.
Two vivid historical novels carried me away this year. Jess Walter, who's one of my favorite novelists, brought out "The Cold Millions," about free speech demonstrations that erupted in Spokane, Wash., in 1910 and 1911, pitting police against transient workers, many of whom identified as Wobblies. Walter's story is reminiscent of sweeping novels by the likes of Herman Wouk and Howard Fast, tellers of big tales about the forgotten foot soldiers of the past.
"The Pull Of The Stars" by Emma Donoghue is set in a Dublin maternity ward in 1918, a city hollowed out by the Spanish flu, the First World War and the 1916 Irish uprising. She gives us a cityscape of empty schools and cafes and the ubiquity of masks, here quaintly described as bluntly pointed like the beaks of unfamiliar birds. This is an engrossing and inadvertently topical story about health care workers inside small rooms fighting to preserve life.
"Interior Chinatown" by Charles Yu, which just won the National Book Award, is also a story set in small rooms as well as an inventive satire about racial stereotyping, particularly of Asian Americans. His main character Willis Wu lives in a rooming house and has a bit part in a TV cop show called "Black And White." About his career in show business, Willis tells us that first you have to work your way up starting from the bottom. It goes background oriental male, dead Asian man all the way up to the pinnacle - kung fu guy.
Casey Peabody, the 31-year-old main character of Lily King's novel "Writers And Lovers," also aspires to something more. Casey wants to be a novelist. In this story, King captures the chronic low-level panic of taking a leap into the artsy unknown and the cost of sticking with the same dream for perhaps too long.
Mysteries, as always, kept me sane-ish (ph) this year, and the best one I read was Tana French's standalone suspense tale "The Searcher." A Chicago police detective moves to the rural west of Ireland and finds that evil follows wherever he goes. The beautiful and menacing landscape of "The Searcher" may make you feel better about spending more time indoors.
On to nonfiction, "Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson is deservedly one of this year's big books to ruminate over and argue about. Wilkerson's central insight, that possibility in America is largely predetermined by a racial caste system, is dramatized through what's become her signature style of argumentation through vivid anecdotes and charged metaphors.
"We Keep The Dead Close" is the title of Becky Cooper's meticulously researched account of the murder of a female grad student that took place at Harvard in 1969 and remained unsolved until two years ago. In Cooper's narrative, the sexism and elitism of academia are the culprits that still remain at large.
The violent death that poet Natasha Trethewey writes about in her harrowing memoir, "Memorial Drive," is that of her own mother, who was murdered by her stepfather. Trethewey was 19 at the time. "Memorial Drive" is about memory, race and the phantom aches that can't be laid to rest. Of all the books I read this year, this one was emotionally the hardest and the one that felt most crucial to take in. Here's to more good books and better times in 2021.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find all of Maureen's year-end recommendations on our website, freshair.npr.org. And to browse more than 380 titles recommended by NPR staff and critics, visit the Book Concierge at npr.org/bestbooks. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Your Honor," the new Showtime miniseries starring Bryan Cranston. This is FRESH AIR.
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