The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues
DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue

The Best of the Brooklyn Rail’s Books in 2020

Our stories tell us more about ourselves than about presidents, predators, or plagues. Our stories tell us how we endured those moments, those figures, those monsters.

On the morning of March 2, 2020, I watched my spouse kiss my children goodbye and leave for work at 6:45 AM. I finished a cup of green tea, dropped my kids off at school, conferenced in-person with students and advisees at my office at The New School in downtown Manhattan, worked on editing book reviews, and prepared for class. That afternoon I taught that class (in-person, again) and then, that evening, I attended, along with a colleague, the PEN American Literary Awards Ceremony at a sold-out Town Hall, on West 43rd St., in New York City’s Times Square. The event was hosted by Seth Meyers, who joked that it was sold out because writers have such a lonely, isolating job that they would jump at the chance to gather with a large group of people crowded together in one room—“even,” he added with a sly grin, “during a pandemic!” I looked at my colleague, who was sitting next to me in the front row, our elbows sharing the same armrest, and I offered a queasy smile. After the ceremony, a huge group of attendees repaired to a nearby bar and restaurant, where we all crowded toward the bar, elbow-to-elbow, back-to-chest, mask-less (of course), waiting a half-hour, four-people deep for service. Drinks finally acquired, we made our way to the long food buffet tables in the warm and stuffy rear of the establishment, where we politely handed each other plates and utensils and talked closely to each other’s faces because of the noise, and we sampled each other’s food and occasionally sampled this or that interesting cocktail.

On March 15, the mayor of New York City held a press conference and announced that he was closing all of the schools for the city’s one million students (my two children among them) with the hope of reopening them on Monday, April 20. As of that afternoon, five New Yorkers had died from the Coronavirus and 329 had been infected, the mayor said. Struggling to keep my anxiety at bay, I told my spouse, a public high school history teacher in NYC, that we and our children (ages three and five) would be able to handle a month of remote learning. It’s only for a month, after all. Alas, little did we know.…

On March 17, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the publisher and editor of The Brooklyn Rail, Phong Bui, shifted our operations online. While remaining dedicated to supporting our community of readers, writers, artists, and students more than ever before, Phong launched The Rail’s New Social Environment lunchtime conversations, daily at 1pm with special guests to discuss their creative lives in the context of our new social reality. This act of creativity and courage was the first moment when I felt that there was a reason not to lose hope, and even more so that there was a reason to cling closer than ever to the arts, and to the community of artists and writers that have sustained me throughout my whole life. Phong wrote the first words that helped me to situate my anxiety in a historical context: “As we go through this profound time together—a time of terrific uncertainty that will either connect and unite us or separate and divide us with a greater urgency than we’ve ever experienced in our collective lifetimes—we now have a need to remind ourselves that at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we were confronted with other kinds of fear. Be it the fear of indiscriminate terrorist attacks after 9/11 in 2001, or the fear of economic collapse as the stock market crashed in 2008, or the fear of natural disasters caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Here we should add that leading to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump on January 20, 2017, the world was already on edge due to the critical issues of climate catastrophe, economic uncertainty, mass migration, among other political and social crises.” The community that is The Brooklyn Rail has not only survived, it has thrived—continuing to offer critical perspectives on arts, politics, and culture.

As a Books editor, it’s been my experience that one of the most political forms of art that humans create is literature. For it seeks to present through language, in varied forms, the experience of being human, dramatizing personal encounters and conflicts with impersonal systems and life-changing events, often drilling down so deeply into a character’s interiority and exposing human consciousness that we understand things about characters that maybe those characters themselves aren’t aware of. This is the power—and privilege—of literature—offering an access that allows us to imagine lives that aren't our own. And, in the doing (and if done well) perhaps enlarging our understanding of the world and ourselves.

The year 2020 challenged language to capture it. And writers sought to meet that challenge. Our stories tell us more about ourselves than about presidents, predators, or plagues. Our stories tell us how we endured those moments, those figures, those monsters. 

To mark the end of this annus horribilis, we are sharing a list of the best books we read and covered in the past twelve months. Piece by piece, the list reveals what—and how—we have endured. (Please note that these titles have been deliberately listed in no particular order.)

Best Poetry Books Assigned in 2020

Same Faces, by Albert Mobilio, (Black Square Editions)

What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martín Espada (Northwestern University Press)

Cyborg Detective, by Jillian Weise (BOA Editions)

Story, by Jennifer Firestone (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Near, At, by Jennifer Soong (Futurepoem Books)

Set in Stone, by Kevin Carey (CavanKerry Press)

Cardinal, by Tyree Daye (Copper Canyon Press)

Passeggiate, by Judith Baumel (Arrowsmith)

Devil's Lake, by Sarah Sala (Tolsun Books)

Daddy, by Michael Montlack (NYQ Books)

Romance or the End, by Elaine Kahn (Soft Skull Press)

Brand New Spacesuit, by John Gallaher (BOA Editions)

What I Am Always Waiting For, by Malcolm Miller, Introduction by Rod Kessler (Grayson Books)

Toxicon and Arachne, by Joyelle McSweeney (Nightboat Books)

Seeing the Body, by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (W. W. Norton & Company)

Hold Me Tight, by Jason Schneiderman (Red Hen Press)

Audubon’s Sparrow: A Biography in Poems, by Juditha Dowd (Rose Metal Press)

Best Fiction Books Assigned in 2020

A World Between, by Emily Hashimoto (The Feminist Press)

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, Shokoofeh Azar (Europa Editions)

Silence Is My Mother Tongue, by Sulaiman Addonia (Graywolf Press)

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney (Penguin)

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, by Laura van den Berg (FSG)

The Silence, by Don DeLillo (Scribner)

Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor (New Directions)

How Fires End, by Marco Rafalà (Little A)

Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers, Edited By Joyce Carol Oates (Akashic Books)

My Red Heaven, by Lance Olsen (Dzanc Books)

Igifu, by Scholastique Mukasonga, Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Archipelago Books)

Silverfish, by Rone Shavers (Clash Books)

Where the Wild Ladies Are, by Aoko Matsuda (Soft Skull Press)

The Color Inside a Melon, by John Domini (Dzanc)

Earthlings: A Novel, by Sayaka Murata (Grove Press)

Collective Gravities, by Chloe N. Clark (Word West LLC)

Mannequin and Wife: Stories, by Jen Fawkes (Louisiana State University Press / Yellow Shoe Fiction)

Best Nonfiction Books Assigned in 2020

Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, by Cristina Rivera Garza (The Feminist Press)

Life on the Edge, by Sheila Weller (FSG)

The Mysteries of Haditha: a Memoir, by M.C. Armstrong (Potomac Books)

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth, by Benjamin Taylor (Penguin)

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, by Pankaj Mishra (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Born to Be Public, by Greg Mania (Clash Books)

Keith Haring's Line: Race and the Performance of Desire, by Ricardo Montez (Duke University Press)

Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication, by David Levi Strauss (MIT Press)

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars, by Kate Greene (St. Martin’s Press)

Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, by Ben Ehrenreich (Counterpoint)

Avoid the Day, Jay Kirk (Harper Perennial)

American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett (Graywolf Press)


Joseph Salvatore

Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens.  @jasalvatore


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues