NYPL Librarians Pick Their 2020 Favorites | The Reader's Shelf

What books were read and remained memorable and meaningful in the light of the nightmare of COVID-19? In keeping with the December tradition of the Reader’s Shelf, we asked NYPL librarians to share a favorite title from a year no one will ever forget.

What books were read and remained memorable and meaningful in the light of the nightmare of COVID-19? In keeping with the December tradition of the Reader’s Shelf, we asked NYPL librarians to share a favorite title from a year no one will ever forget.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a historical Gold Rush saga by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead. Apr. 2020. ISBN 9780525537205), follows a Chinese immigrant family as it struggles to survive in the harsh landscape of the hills and coal mines of the unsettled West. With remarkable nuance, especially for a debut novel, Zhang highlights differences in experience between immigrants and their first-generation children, the aspects of their personal history and culture that are preserved or cast away, and the ways that families support or reject a gender-nonconforming child. The novel has a complex, nonlinear narrative structure with echoes of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each episode unfolding with a dreamlike urgency. It offers world-building at its finest, is focused on family, and infused with heart and empathy. Suggest next: The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar.

With Temporary (Coffee House. Mar. 2020. ISBN 9781566895668), Hilary Leichter takes the concept of work as a higher calling and gleefully makes it literal. Leichter uses a deadpan corporate-speak, further conflating the work/life balance, to narrate the mythic hustle of her nameless Temporary in a modern-day, gig-economy fairy tale. In a quest for “the steadiness,” her protagonist whips through a series of job placements, each more eccentric than the last, creating a landscape of absurdist magical realism. Leichter’s titular Temporary is cool, confident, and resolute, whether she is filling in as Board Chairman or negotiating her coterie of boyfriends, who are likewise fragmented into assigned roles: the tallest boyfriend, the earnest boyfriend, the criminal boyfriend. Such a high-concept plot and breakneck pace could turn twee, but Leichter grounds her character with a refreshing vulnerability as she searches for emotional connection and constancy beyond the office. Suggest next: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes (New Directions. Oct. 2020. ISBN 9780811230735) is ferociously good. Inspired by the murder of a woman in rural Mexico, Melchor set out to write the story as true crime. The region was so violent, however, she could not safely travel around asking questions, so she turned the events into a novel instead. A Witch lives in a shack in a sugar cane field. She provides the women of the town with positions and hosts wild orgies for the men. The story opens with a group of boys discovering the Witch’s body in a canal. Each chapter is structured as a single paragraph with no breaks; reading it is like scaling a featureless mountainside. The language, especially the frequent diatribes, is so propulsive the reader feels as if they are running too fast down a hill. The novel is a vortex of grit, thick atmosphere, and unreliable narrators. If this sounds good, you will love this book, but the violence and sexual material may not be for everyone. Suggest next: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon. Nov. 2020. ISBN 9780307948472) opens on ACT I: GENERIC ASIAN MAN with scene location INT. GOLDEN PALACE. From there, the action follows actor Willis Wu as he carves a path for himself into the unwelcoming arms of Hollywood. Relegated to stereotypical bit parts like “Disgraced Son” and “Background Oriental Making a Weird Face,” Wu strives to reach the only kind of success open to him, the role of “Kung Fu Guy,” before realizing that maybe there’s something more out there. Written as a screenplay—replete with character descriptions, flashbacks, and dialog, all in classic Courier font—Interior Chinatown talks about the roles we all play, the identities we put on, and asks, what happens when that is no longer enough? Yu writes with invention and verve, satirizing Hollywood while unflinchingly spotlighting the complex roles Asian Americans play in the larger American story. Suggest Next: The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin.

The poems in Wild Peach by S*an D. Henry-Smith (Paperback Poetry. Fall 2020. ISBN 9781733038423) offer an atmospheric portrait of human-as-nature and sketch modern life against a primordial past. Poems are built from the inside out, focused on an internal rhythm that gives Henry-Smith freedom to explore capitalism, identity, and more. Delicate images and surprising formatting—for example minimalist but impactful colors—are used directly in the text. The subjects of Wild Peach are diverse and the narrator’s perspective shifts constantly, but the tone is always sensuous and attuned to the natural landscape and the human body alike. Some poems observe humans and their habitat as nature itself might, small or confusing against the swamp-like universe. Others celebrate the ordinary wonderfulness of community, like the first picnic of the summer. Full of tactile language, this volume is rich in life-affirming imagery and energy. Suggest next: Gut Botany by Petra Kruppers.


This column is contributed by librarians working across the New York Public Library: Emily Pullen, Reader Services; Meredith Mann, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books; Lynn Lobash, Reader Services; Crystal Chen, Woodstock Library; and Grace Yamada, Jefferson Market Library. Annotations are in the order given.

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