The DS Books staff are excited to recommend the books—some published in 2020 and other slightly older—that taught us what it means to find joy, to be terrified and uplifted, and to willingly get lost in the written world this year.
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LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND
Rumaan Alam (Ecco Books, 2020)
Selected by Sarah Anjum Bari
Out of all the books that I had to speed through for work this year, Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind and Avni Doshi's Girl in White Cotton (HarperCollins India, 2019) were exceptions. Written in sparse, tempered prose with incredible capacity for mood-building, both books were impossible to put down. Alam's novel captures perfectly the mood of 2020: the slow dread and unease of living in a world approaching collapse, while we try to distract ourselves with social niceties and consumption, and, unnoticed, our dormant prejudices and animal instincts to protect our own start kicking in. Avni Doshi's debut novel is a chillingly accurate depiction of mother-daughter relationships, the influence of blood ties, and the unreliability of memory. Though set in Delhi, the world of the novel feels very much like Dhaka.
A few months before reading these books, I was equally absorbed in Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age (GB Putnam's Sons, 2019), which begins with an African American young woman being accused of kidnapping a child that she was in fact babysitting. What ensues is a rare tale in which the protagonist—headstrong and full of spunk—stands up for herself in exactly the ways in which you want her to. It reminded me that stories of race relations can be uplifting and entertaining even as they pay homage to the project of challenging white supremacy.
Megha Majumder (Penguin India, 2020)
Selected by Shoaib Alam
Set in contemporary India, Megha Majumdar's debut novel feels blisteringly current with a razor-sharp focus on the rise of right-wing politics in the world's largest democracy. In the wake of a terrorist attack, a young Muslim woman condemns the government on Facebook from a Kolkata slum. She sets in motion a gripping narrative reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid's work in neighboring Pakistan, both in subject matter and storytelling. A Burning picks up speed with a dizzying economy as Majumdar trims away any extra narrative fat, leaving behind a taut, muscular narrative that will hook some readers and frustrate others.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF THE GREENGAGE TREE
Shokoofeh Azar (Europa Editions, 2017)
Selected by Shah Tazrian Ashrafi
I've read a many great books this year, but The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's The Discomfort of Evening (Faber & Faber, 2018; tr. Michele Hutchison) opened my eyes to new frontiers of literature and its endlessly expanding scope. The stories in these books brilliantly capture the terror and beauty of being alive.
A work of magic realism told through the perspective of a dead child narrator, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is about an Iranian family post-revolution, treading through the consequences of a brutal regime's rise to power.
The Discomfort of Evening is a darkly unfettered tale about lives coming apart at the seams following a tragedy. It is filled to the brim with horror, humour, wit, and grotesque excursions.
Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books, 2020)
Selected by Mehrul Bari
One of the year's greatest highlights was Daisy Johnson's Sisters, a Gothic-domestic drama which follows siblings September and July on their way to a house that has no option but to be haunted. Not paranormal by any means, there are ghosts aplenty—with even the prose, jarring, shifting often between its characters like crazed rattles. As much Martha Marcy May Marlene as 'Turn of the Screw", Johnson's Sisters presents 2020 with one of its most haunting tales this side of the television.
Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon Books, 2004)
Selected by Rasha Jameel
While I've had my fair share of reading autobiographies, nothing prepared me for Persepolis. Satrapi's bold words accompanied by her quirky illustration came together in a rather eclectic narrative set in Iran and Austria during the 1980s and the 1990s. I've re-read the book twice now, and fully intend to go back for another read because of how addictive the storytelling is. The relatability, dark humour, the unapologetically unfiltered nature of it all—all these elements complement each other to form an extremely intriguing graphic novel.
THE VANISHING HALF
Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, 2020)
Selected by Samira Ahmed
The Vanishing Half tells the story of twins Desiree and Stella, a timely, topical read that explores Black history and underscores the devastating, long-lasting effects of racism on marginalised groups. Bennett's writing pulls the reader right into the gripping events of her novel. No wonder HBO snapped it up for a seven-figure deal!
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER
Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)
Selected by Shehrin Hossain
In her Booker Prize-winner of 2019, Bernardine Evaristo charts the separate but interlinked lives of 12 Black characters—women and non-men of varying ages and socio-economic backgrounds—in Britain, told in a non-linear, unpredictably structured narrative with light and accessible yet distinctly lyrical prose. It is one of the most vibrant and fast-moving books I've read, yet Evaristo's studies of queerness, poverty, disease, trauma, family, love, and social mobility are deeply infused with compassion and sensitivity. This book is outwardly feminist, but it bears the responsibility of social commentary easily, so that its messages don't seem forced at any point. And yes, it's quite funny, too.
THE DEAD ARE ARISING: THE LIFE OF MALCOLM X
Les & Tamara Payne (Liveright)
Selected by Israr Hasan
My favorite book of 2020, which I read twice in two separate readings, is the latest fleshed out biography of Malcolm X. The book brings to life the vivid pageant of black resistance under oppression, and the will to confront the ideas of change and personal reinvention. It also charts the formation of one of 20th century's most charismatic civil rights activists, whose thoughts saturate the ongoing social justice movements across the globe.
WHAT CAN A BODY DO? HOW WE MEET THE BUILT WORLD
Sara Hendren (Riverhead Books, 2020)
Selected by Selima Sara Kabir
What Can a Body Do? will definitely be my go-to suggestion for anyone looking to learn more about disabilities, or even just for its thought-provoking storytelling. It also deserves to be added to college/university syllabi on diversity and inclusion.
Heinrich von Kleist (New Directions, 1808; transl. 2020)
Selected by Mursalin Mosaddeque
I am quite certain I run the risk of echoing two towering figures of Bengali literature, Buddhadeb Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, when I say I am not very fond of superlatives. Thus it's not easy for me to come up with the "best" book that I read this year. Among the ones that I read, here are two books that are worth mentioning.
Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, translated from the German by the brilliant Michael Hofmann and published by New Directions, which brought out many other great titles in 2020, is a tale of a man who gets carried away by his sense of morality and upends his life to get justice.
Annemarie Schwarzenbach's All the Roads Are Open: The Afghan Journey (Seagull Books, 2011) is a tale of two women who set out for the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan from Geneva in an old Ford. Schwarzenbach's famed lyrical prose finds a great rendition in the hands of the translator Isabel Fargo Cole. It easily transcends the scope of travel literature by juxtaposing a beautiful landscape with conflicts that are both internal and external.
Matt Kindt & Wilfredo Torres (Dark Horse Books, 2020)
Selected by Mir Zariful Karim
Few books can entice more than with a cover quote from Keanu Reeves. Likening it to James Bond and Tintin, and with an unprintable adjective about the graphic novel's mad-cap nature, the man wasn't wrong. BANG! is absolutely all those things and more. When within the first few pages the suave and punchline-ready secret agent gets fatally shot and dumped into the ocean by what would normally be a prototypical Bond Girl, you know that things are going to spin out of control soon.
Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books, 2020)
Selected by Yaameen Al-Muttaqi
Dawnshard is the bridging novella between books three and four of The Stormlight Archive series, so if you're reading it, you're probably already somewhat invested in the series and characters. This novella takes characters who were previously side characters, one having had only a handful of chapters in the series so far, and the other being a regular comic relief, and put them in a swashbuckling Tomb Raider style archeological expedition that was just plain Fun. It also helped that both characters got a lot of depth, and we see really good disability representation between the two of them too, touched by some darkly humorous banter.
WRITERS & LOVERS
Lily King (Grove Press, 2020)
Selected by Towrin Zaman
Reading this felt akin to being hugged by a close friend. A story about a 31-year-old writer grappling with the mess that is her life, it is a book about writing a book. The prose enchanted me and the character and her journey will stay with me for a long, long time.