A Debut Novelist's 2020 Reading that Mirrors Our Timeline

Posted by Cybil on December 9, 2020
 
Mateo Askaripour is a Brooklyn-based writer whose debut novel, Black Buck—which Colson Whitehead calls a “mesmerizing novel, executing a high wire act full of verve and dark, comic energy”—is coming out in January.

He was a 2018 Rhode Island Writers Colony writer-in-residence, and his writing has appeared in Entrepreneur, Lit Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s bingeing music videos and movie trailers, drinking yerba mate, or dancing in his apartment.
 
2020. What a year. When I was asked to write this column, my first thought was, “Hell yeah I will!” Which was followed by, “S---. Does this mean I need to change up my literary tastes to make myself seem more [insert all of the endearing traits we want others to say when they think of us]?”

After giving it some thought, I realized that to alter what I read, and the process—process is a strong word, I just scan my shelf of unread books and pick whatever speaks most to me at that moment—I use to select what I read, would be inauthentic and insulting to you, my reader. 

So what are you going to find in my picks below? Well, some older books, for sure. I’m drawn to works from the '50s and '60s, a few of which I’ve included here. Being a writer, I also make sure to read contemporary novels of all stripes—the current talks of the town, books that seem interesting yet aren’t at the forefront of the literary landscape, and everything in between—to sharpen my own creative sword.

But if there’s one unifying theme across all of the books I selected—crossing time and space—it’s that most of them act as mirrors of the times we’re living in, with a few off-the-beaten-path reads thrown in for good measure. 

Many of us read to escape the pressures of our current realities, which I also do, but this year was one that I wanted to see reflected back to me—with some escapes built in—so that it didn’t feel as heavy, and it was in those reflections that I found ways to make sense of what we’re experiencing, to know that despite how rough things can get, none of it is new, and to continue cultivating hope for a better tomorrow. If you read some of my picks, maybe they’ll do the same for you.

In these books, you will meet characters battling external forces that thrive on stripping them of that which makes them most special, you will see the concept of opportunity—who receives and who dispenses it—thrown into harrowing relief between what we want it to be and what it actually is, and you will also, hopefully, be led to reexamine who you are, what you believe in, and your own place within the world. Let’s begin.

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Imagine a world where a conservative celebrity wins a pivotal election, giving rise to Nazism and the far right, all while subjugating those who are different. Sound familiar? Well, this book was written in 2004 and takes place in the 1940s, but feels more relevant than ever.


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A husband and wife, living in a war-torn country, encounter a mute boy right before they’re all forced to migrate to a new city, where literally everything from buildings to roads are transparent, except the reasons for why they’re there. Just about every single sentence in this book is perfect.


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There’s no way to encapsulate this collection of short stories in a few sentences, but all I’ll say is that you have likely never read anything like it before. To call it “ferociously imaginative” doesn’t even do it justice, but that is exactly what Cross River—the fictional town founded after America’s only successful slave rebellion—exactly is. 


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Family. The frontier. Gold. Adventure. Loss. Gain. All of that and so much more. Written in prose as poetic and brutal as the western territory itself, How Much of These Hills Is Gold honestly made me believe, if only for a second, that tigers once roamed the West Coast of America. This was one of the best novels I’ve read in 2020. Nothing and no one are ever as they seem.


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Reid delivers a masterclass in tension with her debut novel, Such a Fun Age. If you enjoyed Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, I think you’ll also love this, since it shows just how dangerous Well-Meaning White People (WMWP) can be when blinded by their own self-righteousness.


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You need to read this book. Double agents, protesting, police brutality, and a plan for stickin’ it to the man all told in a narrative that makes you feel like you’re sipping an expensive glass of whiskey with a hand-rolled cigar burning in the ashtray and Coltrane spinning symphonies in the background.
 


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An innocent young man, Jefferson, is sentenced to death. Another man, Grant, returns home to be a schoolteacher and is tasked with preparing Jefferson for death but ends up learning more than he teaches. Gaines allows us to sit in Jefferson’s cell with the two of them, and the experience is unforgettable.


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What I enjoyed most about Leilani’s debut, aside from the spartan, minimalist writing, is how the main character, Edie—who enters into a wild relationship with a married man—never does the expected, which is rare and refreshing. This book was one of the books of 2020 for good reason.


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This s--- is crazy. The stories in this collection, including the novella, are so inventive and engrossing that their twists hit you twice as hard, as does their humanity and humor. One of a kind that also served as a reminder of how much we have to gain when we read outside of the mainstream.
 


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A tale of three generations of women, all with different ideas of what it means to live to the fullest. Rosie, the youngest, wants the finest things in life for her family. Her mother, Queenie, wants a husband and for Rosie to slow down. And Mrs. Baxter Lourinda Huggs, or “Granny,” is convinced that clinging to the decorum of white people is the surest way to success, forcing us to question the cost of opportunity and who pays the highest price.

There are quite a few gems on my 2021 radar, including:


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A book I’ve been waiting for someone to write for a long time. The story of two enslaved men in love on a Southern plantation, and the consequences of their union. I have a feeling this book is going to break the world apart and put it back together again.

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What does it mean when you’re the “only one?” Harris creates a workplace thriller, set in the world of publishing, where the concept of a “token” is held up to the light for all to see and contend with. With a TV deal already in place, we’re going to hear a lot about this book for years to come, and I can’t wait.

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I can’t lie, I love any story that focuses on ambitious young people and the almost inextricable webs their desire for success lands them in. Yes, Daddy is just that and more, with New York City and the dreamlike Hamptons as the perfect backdrop for chaos. My hands are sweating.
 

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I can already tell that this is the type of book people will devour within days. Caul Baby, Jerkins’ debut novel, interweaves tradition, the power of family, and magic—yes, magic—to tell a truly original story that I’m sure will leave us all thinking about long after reading the last page.

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I'm someone who fell in love with Behold the Dreamers, and Mbue’s new novel is a year-defining event. A dictator and a ruinous American oil company threaten to destroy the fictional African village of Kosawa, but one young woman will do everything in her power to fight back.

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History is such a fleeting concept, yet many of us try, and fail, to touch that that we’ve come from. Of Women and Salt’s characters are no different, with Jeanette, a young woman living in present-day Miami, traveling to Cuba to unearth the choices her family made that resound in her very being. Honestly, this one had me at travel, cigar factories, and looking into the past for a way forward, but I’m also excited for everything else it holds.
 


See more Reading Year in Review book recommendations in the following genres: Mystery, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Romance, and Young Adult.


Fellow fans of literary fiction, what are some of your top reads of 2020? Share your picks with us in the comments.

Check out more recent articles:
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Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Leanne (new)

Leanne This post was everything I needed to start my day! ❤❤


message 2: by Larissa (new)

Larissa Your recommendations are irresistible! My want-to-read's and request to the library system have expanded by half a dozen books which I can now also delightfully anticipate. Thank you♥️


message 3: by Justyna (new)

Justyna Loved these recommendations! I've added so many to my tbr :)


message 4: by Nikki (new)

Nikki You clearly have a love of the written word and you've made every single one of these books sound amazing. Your excitement is contagious!


message 5: by Allen (new)

Allen McLean Justyna wrote: "Loved these recommendations! I've added so many to my tbr :)"

Me too!


MK ( Makayla) I wasn't aware that Goodreads sensors the opinions of thier users .


message 7: by Sage (new)

Sage North These books look like fun. They could also awaken my senses. I have a couple down.


message 8: by Poppy (new)

Poppy Gee These recommendations are great. I hope you work for PR for a publishing house because you just made me want to buy all those books!


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