Great Books That Got Lost In The Noise Of 2020

Topics of Conversation
By Miranda Popkey

There is more than a dash of Rachel Cusk’s Faye trilogy sprinkled over Popkey’s debut novel, another story told entirely in — you guessed it — conversations. Each chapter follows the unnamed narrator into a new foray, first as a teenage nanny to a wealthy family, then into her eventual marriage to an “endlessly supportive” man whose loyalty smothers her and on into the relief and darkness of single motherhood. Popkey isn’t merely replicating Cusk’s formula and inserting her own experiences. This is a formal experiment gone very right, an artful mixing of the intimate and universal and a timeless story about female (dis)satisfaction.

Breasts and Eggs
By Mieko Kawakami

Published in Japan in 2008, Kawakami’s novella won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. It was worth waiting 12 long years for the English release. Her determined exploration of the neuroses women carry about their bodies contains three stories: Natsu is single and hunting for a sperm donor; her sister Makiko researches breast augmentation; and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko crosses the lonely plains of puberty. These women push and pull on one another’s judgments and expectations. Kawakami, like her countrywomen Yoko Ogawa and Sayaka Murata, is a bright young star in her home country — and should be here, as well.

Austen Years
By Rachel Cohen

There’s something unfashionable about admitting that novels offer lessons in how to live, but who cares? We all know that’s one of their manifold pleasures. In this memoir-essay hybrid, Cohen reads and rereads Jane Austen’s work and tells us not just what it all means but also what it does for us — how the author’s pin-sharp assessments and characters instruct us about the world. There isn’t an ounce of kitsch or flowery claptrap. Instead, Cohen overlays a personal account of grieving her father with the help of Austen’s fiction, emerging with one of the most emotionally astute understandings of the novelist’s work, period.

Migrations
By Charlotte McConaghy

If you push off “climate change novels” because you have enough cause for despair, this one will offer instant relief. “The animals are dying,” it begins. “Soon we will be alone here.” But from there it’s a story of remarkable hope. “Migrations” follows ornithologist Franny Stone as she joins with a crew of fishermen to sail up and down the unforgiving Atlantic, searching for the world’s last flock of migrating arctic terns. It’s a wily sea tale (definitely a descendant of Melville), in which the glories of the wild are celebrated and mourned in equal turn. McConaghy writes gorgeously of the world we’re losing.

Collected Stories
By Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas

Election day 2020 was perhaps not the best moment to publish a collection of any kind, never mind this posthumous monument. These 28 stories by the wondrous Hazzard, who manages to write about heartbreak as if it’s never been done before, cover several distinct phases in her career. There are hilarious tales of bureaucratic ineptitude from her time working at the United Nations and sad ditties about ambivalent midcentury Americans abroad. But most poignant are the remarkable love stories, originally published in 1963 in her first book, “Cliffs of Fall.” “A Place in the Country,” for one, rivals any classic of the genre. “Love,” its protagonist thinks, “is supposed to be enriching; instead I am poisoned.”

The Appointment
By Katharina Volckmer

This book will make you squirm. In the form of one long confession, our unnamed German narrator lies back on an examining table and spills out her personal, political and emotional history to a doctor performing a vague procedure. There are jokes about sleeping with Hitler, jabs at her countrymen for pretending they’ve moved past the atrocities of the Holocaust and some sexual unbosoming that would make D.H. Lawrence blush. Which is (part of) the point. Volckmer, writing here in a second language, wants us to feel the correct amount of discomfort as citizens of this mad world.