My Best Backlist Reads of 2020

Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 29 selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year. Five rereads made it onto my list.

 

Fiction

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working, and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was utterly rewarding.

 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision is made to quarantine it. Frustration with the pastor’s ineffectuality attracts people to religious extremism. Anna’s intimate first-person narration and the historical recreation are faultless, and there are so many passages that feel apt.

 

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin. Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? This is a book full of nostalgia and small-town atmosphere. All the characters wonder whether they’ve made the right decisions or gotten stuck. A lot of bittersweet moments, but also comic ones.

 

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A perfect time-travel novel for readers who quail at science fiction. Dana, an African American writer in Los Angeles, is dropped into early-nineteenth-century Maryland. This was such an absorbing read, with first-person narration that makes you feel you’re right there alongside Dana on her perilous travels.

 

Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Ana Canción is just 15 when she arrives in New York from the Dominican Republic on the first day of 1965 to start her new life as the wife of Juan Ruiz. An arranged marriage and arriving in a country not knowing a word of the language: this is a valuable immigration story that stands out for its plucky and confiding narrator.

 

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn: A book of letters in multiple sense. Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition = a rare combination that made this an enduring favorite. On my reread I was more struck by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text.

 

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Interlocking stories that span half a century in the lives of a couple of Chippewa families that sprawl out from a North Dakota reservation. Looking for love, looking for work. Getting lucky, getting even. Their problems are the stuff of human nature and contemporary life. I adored the descriptions of characters and of nature.

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale: Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of a bipolar artist and her interactions with her husband and children. Their Quakerism sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows family secrets to proliferate. The novel questions patterns of inheritance and the possibility of happiness.

 

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach: When Ella’s parents, East German art historians who came under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect, their children were taken away from them. Decades later, Ella is determined to find her missing brother and learn what really happened to her mother. Eye-opening and emotionally involving.

 

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend July at his school friend’s home, Brandham Hall. You know from the famous first line on that this juxtaposes past and present. It’s masterfully done: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches.

 

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Addie is a widow; Louis is a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to fretting about what they could have done better. Would he like to come over to her house at night to talk and sleep? Matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion. Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect.

 

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud: A 9/11 novel. The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up; now it’s time to get out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassess what is admirable and who is expendable. This was thoroughly engrossing. Great American Novel territory, for sure.

 

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki: A Japanese-American filmmaker is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems. Bold if at times discomforting.

 

Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields: An impeccable novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes. Something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, it’s laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life.

 

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields: The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story; Larry is really all of us.

 

Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout: Tyler Caskey is a widowed pastor whose five-year-old daughter has gone mute and started acting up. As usual, Strout’s characters are painfully real, flawed people, often struggling with damaging obsessions. She tenderly probes the dark places of the community and its minister’s doubts, but finds the light shining through.

 

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: On the way to Finland, where her genius writer husband will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. Alternating between the trip and earlier in their marriage, this is deceptively thoughtful with a juicy twist. Joan’s narration is witty and the point about the greater value attributed to men’s work is still valid.

 

Nonfiction

Winter Journal by Paul Auster: Approaching age 64, the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories: scars, accidents and near-misses, what his hands felt and his eyes observed. The use of the second person draws readers in. I particularly enjoyed the tour through the 21 places he’s lived. One of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read.

 

Heat by Bill Buford: Buford was an unpaid intern at Mario Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo. In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic sessions of food prep, Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London. Exactly what I want from food writing: interesting trivia, quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions.

 

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins: Collins moved to Hay-on-Wye with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. As he edited the manuscript of his first book, he started working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who crowned himself King of Hay. Warm, funny, and nostalgic. An enduring favorite of mine.

 

A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee: From a life spent watching birds, Dee weaves a mesh of memories and recent experiences, meditations and allusions. He moves from one June to the next and from Shetland to Zambia. The most powerful chapter is about watching peregrines at Bristol’s famous bridge – where he also, as a teen, saw a man commit suicide.

 

The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange: While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delves into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group – from the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall. An intricate interdisciplinary approach.

 

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott: There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. A college dropout and addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until her early thirties. Each essay is perfectly constructed, countering everyday angst with a fumbling faith.

 

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This has my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scene, gleefully does away with chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory, and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to interrogate her experience of same-sex domestic violence. (Second-person narration again!)

 

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat: Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. This is a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place (Cambridge from the 1880s to about 1909). Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, it is a funny and impressively thorough memoir that serves as a model for how to capture childhood.

 

The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr: I’d read two of the Franciscan priest’s previous books but was really blown away by the wisdom in this one. The argument in a nutshell is that Western individualism has perverted the good news of Jesus, which is renewal for everything and everyone. A real gamechanger. My copy is littered with Post-it flags.

 

First Time Ever: A Memoir by Peggy Seeger: The octogenarian folk singer and activist has packed in enough adventure and experience for multiple lifetimes, and in some respects has literally lived two: one in America and one in England; one with Ewan MacColl and one with a female partner. Her writing is punchy and impressionistic. She’s my new hero.

 

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas: A memoir in essays about her husband’s TBI and what kept her going. Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. It is one of the first memoirs I remember reading; it made a big impression the first time, but I loved it even more on a reread.

 

On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe: Explores the fragmentary history of the manmade Neolithic mound and various attempts to excavate it, but ultimately concludes we will never understand how and why it was made. A flawless integration of personal and wider history, as well as a profound engagement with questions of human striving and hubris.

 

(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Winter Journal by Paul Auster.

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

29 responses

  1. Lots of titles in your fiction list I remember enjoying, not least Shotgun Lovesongs. I’m going to come back and trawl through your non-fiction for my TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Often it’s the older books that make more of a lasting impression. I imagine you’ve found that with your Blasts from the Past. And yet we’re always attracted to the new stuff!

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      1. I know. Can’t resist the lure of those bright, shiny new titles.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Huge fan of On Silbury Hill here – what a book! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read it in the few days after I went to Avebury and Silbury Hill for the first time in July and it kept the magic of the places alive for me. I’ve not done it justice here!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved Americanah, Year of Wonders, Kindred, and Period Piece too. I keep meaning to read Our Souls at Night and you’ve added more votes to the pile. Interested in The Universal Christ too — a Christ that is not for everyone has never made any sense to me, so it’s odd how much theology does not not deal in universality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our Souls at Night is a rare one that my mother loved as well.

      I grew up with a narrow form of Christianity that emphasized personal salvation and escape from hell, not concepts that mean much to me now. Rohr methodically and with reference to relevant scriptures strips away all the cultural baggage we’ve loaded onto the gospel. Highly recommended if that sounds like something for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved Period Piece when I was a teenager – thanks for reminding me of it!

    My Year of Meats is in my top ten books of the year 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Especially with your fondness for Cambridge and research into childhood, I can see why it would be a perfect book for you!

      Ah, so you don’t limit yourself to 2020 releases. I’m greedy and spread my best-of over multiple days in different categories 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually read it before I ever went to Cambridge, so it would be interesting to re-read after spending so long living in the city!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d never heard of Shogun Lovesongs but I think I’d love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you like books about music. There’s a musician character in this (apparently based on a real person).

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      1. Excellent. Definitely going to check this one out

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I read Year of Wonders several years ago now, and used it in my teaching to illustrate the limitations of knowledge as it exists at any one time, to explain or help understand experience, and how easy it is to blame and exclude in response to not-knowing. So very relevant now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting! I reviewed it earlier in the year in a themed post on plague reading…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ll look it out Rebecca, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a great list! Americanah is one of my favorite books and I keep meaning to reread it. I intend to read the Haruf book as I’ve read two of his others and loved them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a big Adichie binge this year with four of her books.

      I started Plainsong after Our Souls at Night and set it aside after a while, but I’m going to get back into it in January.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A really interesting list! I tend to prefer books from longer ago too but I like to read a few newer ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mostly read from the current year due to review copies and new books from the library, but delving into older books often produces my more memorable reading experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I tend to get more out of older books too, and you seem to have quite a variety there. The Universal Christ is appealing to me, I’ve only come across Rohr through his work with the Enneagram of Personality, so I might try and look for this title.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The other one I read by him and really loved was Falling Upward, about developing spiritual maturity.

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  11. I still read a fair bit of older stuff even with all the Shiny and NetGalley reviewing so I don’t break things down by back-list and non; I think really the only two older ones that made my best of were Mr Loverman and Hidden Figures, if they’re old enough to count, and a Dean Street Press reprint.

    I loved Americanah and Dominicana and I want to reread the former. I remember loving My Year of Meats but read that waaaaay before my own medical struggles and am not sure I could face that now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You manage a great balance of old and new and you’ve done so well at consciously including diverse authors.

      The Ozeki was a great read but I do think the themes might hit too close to home for you (there’s also a slaughterhouse scene).

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  12. I haven’t been through my lists yet, but one of the best back-listed books I’ve read this year has to be Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just ordered a secondhand copy of that one to reread this year 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hmmm, we’ve already chatted about a number of backlisted favourites through the year, but one that I don’t think I’ve mentioned is Marion Shaw’s A Clear Stream, a biography of Winifred Holtby from 1999, which turned out to be a truly enjoyable read. The title is based on a statement by Holtby, who was talking to her friend, Vera Brittain about how she felt her life was best viewed through the perspective of other key people in her life, which is how Marion Shaw arranged the biography, so that each chapter is focused on Winifred and one of those key people (e.g. her mother, Vera, etc.). It creates a space for history and social change along with all the writerly bits that I expected to enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the idea of a life story as seen through the eyes of those who knew a person best. I’ve not read a biography that’s quite like that, though I know they exist, but I’ve loved a couple of novels written in that way (The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Kitchens of the Great Midwest). Someone is offering a free copy of South Riding on our community Facebook page. Do you reckon I’d enjoy it?

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