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  • Russell Magee

Top Ten Best Reads of 2020

Updated: Dec 30, 2020



Of the 91 books I read this year, here are my favorites. Indeed it was difficult to narrow them down to ten, and truth be told the ranking order of these books is arbitrary; nonetheless, these are the books that made the strongest impression on me.




10. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

This novel is a masterpiece of realism, an exemplum of the Western tradition. A moving account of the conflict between man and nature, Butcher’s Crossing completely captivated and enthralled me from the very beginning. The story follows Will Andrews, a 23-year-old Harvard student who leaves behind his life of academia in search for meaning in the great American west during the 1870’s. Andrews joins a hunting expedition led by the indomitable Miller, and they set off into the vast country after an elusive herd of buffalo. However, their trip proves to be quite a perilous one. Forced to confront worsening conditions and innumerable obstacles, Andrew and the team undergo a transformation unlike any other and return to a world that is irreparably changed as well.

I remember reading this one back in March, specifically outdoors. Every time I opened it, I longed to be outside, in the fresh, green foliage and clears skies, the wind tousling my hair and ruffling the pages. The novel itself invokes such a scene; the descriptions of nature, of the vegetation, the mountainous scenery stretching into pastures, the various genera of animals and woodland creatures that scatter and inhabit the landscape. Not only is Williams’s uncanny craft for description remarkably detailed in this novel, but so is his insightful character study: an examination of the human condition, what draws an individual out of themselves and society back into their primitive instincts and connection with the natural world. Such a portrait is the essence of this beautiful novel. Next to Stoner, it is John Williams’s best novel, though I have yet to read Augustus which I may have to tackle in the new year.




9. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

This novel changed the way I see the world and myself. It is the story of Larry Darrell, a young man and recent veteran who, discontent with the materialistic, capitalist mentality of highbrow society, seeks out a life of intellectualism and worldliness. He refuses to go into his fiancé’s family’s business, refuses to dedicate his life as a working man to provide for her and for a family, and denounces all wealth, status, highfalutin, bourgeois life and chooses to, in his words, “loaf.” He travels across Europe, staying for various amounts of time in dilapidated, cheap apartments and tenant housing, and works menial jobs, all the while reading book after book after book after book and learning various languages, philosophies, and skills in order to attain an enlightenment that he believes exists in education, experience, and the arts.

This was my fourth read of the year, and even these many months later, I still remember vividly various aspects, scenes, lines, and parts of the novel; it had such an effect on me. The questions, confrontations, puzzlements, and quandaries that arise in the novel had me questioning my own convictions, morals, and values. The relationships between characters, both the main cast and the plenteous minor ones, each illuminated a new and insightful understandings of my own relationships. More than anything, this novel expounded the significance of art and knowledge over materialism as means of finding fulfilment in life which struck such a deep chord within me. This is a novel that I will forever attribute a true and lasting revelation: that the meaning of life is found in experience and learning.




8. Sanctuary by William Faulkner

This book is a tempest of emotion. It is the horrifying tale of the abduction of Temple Drake. Set in the Prohibition era Deep South, Temple Drake is a beautiful, young college student from a wealthy family whose date plans with a young local go awry. Having picked her up from the train station, Temple’s date crashes his car on his way to score some moonshine forcing them to seek refuge with the bootleggers at their dilapidated estate way out in the middle of the woods. Temple is taken hostage by the devious crew of psychopathic criminals and is subjected to a litany of unspeakable horrors. But, cunningly, she begins to navigate the hellish waters of the crime-ridden underworld; where morality is increasingly muddled; the psychology of man dismantled, defiled, redefined; and the true nature of evil revealed in its grotesque, corrupt abundance.

I read this one back in June, and still I can picture the unspeakable scenes that make this novel one of Faulkner’s most controversial. It was novel that left me speechless, aching in ways that I was unused to, and wondering what the hell did I just experience. The story itself is explosive, but the ways in which the various plotlines diverge and coalesce elevate this novel into the stratosphere of masterful works. Faulkner is truly one of the greatest writers in history, and this novel stands to prove that. Every page I turned, I was floored by Faulkner’s prose; and beyond his dictionary and syntactical craft is his astounding ability to structure a story. I also read As I Lay Dying this year, and that one too surely deserves a place among the best of these reads; however, Sanctuary left me pondering my own existence and the iniquity of man in ways that no other novel has spurred.




7. American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This novel is modern rendition of one of most important stories and a truly bewildering rendition at that. Seymore Levov has done everything right in his life; he was the hometown hero, the high school star athlete, the charming, intelligent, good-looking envy of his classmates and their parents, and after school, married a pageant queen, took over the family business and was wildly successful. However, his successes, innumerable achievements, good-intentions, and right decisions couldn’t prevent his own daughter growing up to become a terrorist. Captured in a frame narrative that meanders over the span a lifetime, it is a searing account of one man’s attempt to do everything right, tragically failing in the face of the indiscriminate, brutal force of circumstance, and the resulting consequences that ruin a picture-perfect household.

This my last read of April and the second longest one of this year. It was an investment, an experience, spanning nearly two weeks, that kept me enthralled from beginning to end. The scope of this novel is astonishing; Roth’s attention to detail is exhaustive and yet beyond interesting. Every tiny detail works to construct a vivid and moving portrait of modern America and a family broken apart by unforeseeable circumstances. It is a modern retelling of the Book of Job, however, with a biting critique of the systems, traditions, conventions, politics, and culture that have come to define this country. It is considered Roth’s magnum opus, and it is easy to see why. This novel moved me in so many ways; the prose, the plot, and the implications that extend far from the pages exemplify the novel’s status of one of the greatest American novels.




6. The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

This novel made me laugh and cringe more than any other read this year. It is the biographical story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. The two men, both wildly different – Michel is an impotent biophysicist on the verge a major scientific discovery who leads a sad life of near-total solitude; Bruno is an overweight sex addict whose failures trounce his triumphs – have lived and grown up concurrently, both experiencing the awkwardness, pain, and at times cruelty of life albeit in very different ways. However, it isn’t until they are both middle-aged men, with absolutely zero passion in life, that their individual despondencies, tribulations, and protests against society are mutually recognized and no longer tolerable. What unfolds is a searing, tragic, and yet slightly hopeful story that explores what happens when the darkest parts of the human condition are chanced with a glimpse of redemption.

I struggled to rank the five Houellebecq novels I read this year; considering all of them, which their differences and similarities, weighing their unique aspects and remembering the individual reading experiences I had with each, this one kept coming back. With biting, unapologetic, and at many times, absolutely cringe-worthy description, Houellebecq paints a portrait of the modern man in all his truly disturbing, depressing, and upsetting detail. The reason this one won over the rest is the scope of the story, or rather, stories. There is so much packed into this novel; its length deceives the eye. And the ways in which Houellebecq strings along the wavering trajectories of the two main characters is brilliantly rendered. It was absolutely one of the most entertaining I read this year. His prose is astounding, his imagination wild and unpredictable, and his ideas provocative and interesting. There are only two more of his that I have left to read, which will likely happen this coming year.




5. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

This novel has been called “the incarnation of evil” and I’m inclined to agree. The story follows brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy Holmes. Set in the dark back-wood of Appalachia, the novel begins with Rinthy giving birth to a child that is the product of incest with her brother, and Culla, lying that the baby died of natural causes, takes the baby into the forest and leaves it there to die. Much to his dismay, the newborn is found by a bumbling tinker who takes the baby and keeps the infant for himself. Rinthy discovers the baby is still alive, and she sets off in search for the lost child. At the same time, Culla, in search of work, becomes entangled in a string of murders, the actual culprits of which are a devious band of serial killers out on the prowl. These three storylines–of Rinthy, of Culla, of the murderers–veer, zigzag, and entangle across a wide cast of wild characters and events, ultimately coalescing in a disturbing and deadly denouement.

This book ripped through me; it is a not a book that one reads lightly, but rather one that obliterates any sense of optimism or hope for goodness in the world. So obviously it was one of my favorites. I read four McCarthy novels this year, and this one, which I read back in February, wins over the others because of the sheer imagination of the story, its prosaic execution, and the form of its rendering. The structure of the novel, how various plotlines run concurrently and interweave, was absolutely bewildering; not to mention, McCarthy’s literary virtuosity, his trademark terse-but-grandiloquent prose that comprises his early novels, persists through his one, shining in its everlasting impressiveness. This novel is as perfect as I can imagine; a psychologically deviant, demoralizing, and captivating piece of work that, in my opinion, forces McCarthy into a literary space all his own. It is an absolutely unforgettable read.




4. The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is a story of unspeakable tragedy and the extraordinary triumph in its wake. This memoir is a searing account of one woman’s struggle. Lidia, from young age, was a promising swimmer, receiving scholarship offers left and right and destined for the Olympics. But just before she reaches the apex of her career, the horrors of her past finally catch up with her–the abuse from a sadistic, raging father and the residual effects of an alcoholic, suicidal mother. Lidia turns towards drugs and succumbs to long-suppressed sexual proclivities that come to dominate her life. What follows is a memoir unlike any I’ve ever read. Filled with tale after wild tale, intense and complicated relationships with both men and women (even one with Kathy Acker), and the deepest and most heart-wrenching tragedies, it is an overwhelmingly moving portrait of one woman’s journey in overcoming the harshest of obstacles and finding hope and love while also a contemplation into the meaning of memory and art.

Seldom has a memoir affected me in ways like this one. Yuknavitch’s story is a remarkable, moving, and completely captivating account of both hardship–abuse, addiction, deprivation, loss–and everlasting prosperity–passion, hope, happiness, and love. However, it is her prose that gives this book its rank. Yuknavitch fluctuates from free-flowing prose and intermittent stream of consciousness with minimal punctuation, description ranging from laconic to loquacious and tones light-hearted to somber. She leaps from memory to memory nonlinearly with illuminating fluidity, imbuing the spaces with conversational musing and descriptions. At times, she is unapologetically crass, yet still stoic and resolute; graphically honest; and she paints the details of her life with such color that her words cut straight to the core. Emotion pours from the pages, forcing a degree of empathy in the reader that I could never have foreseen. I read it back in May and I still remember parts of it that left me speechless. It was truly an emotional experience reading this one.




3. The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk

Yes, I’m putting the whole trilogy in one rank; they’re all that damn good. Outline, Transit, and Kudos are the three autobiographical novels by English contemporary writer Rachel Cusk, each one detailing a different chapter in her life. Each book is structured by various sections wherein Cusk describes an encounter, conversation, or event with another person or persons; and these various people with whom she converses comprise a large cast of different individuals, each with a litany of experiences, quandaries, issues, thoughts, and memories. The first book Outline centers around Cusk’s trip to Athens wherein she lead a creative writing course; the second Transit around Cusk’s recent divorce and subsequent move into a dilapidated apartment with her two sons; and the third around a retreat for a writer’s conference wherein she is a speaker.

These books combat description; it is difficult to pinpoint why I love them so much. Outline was my first read of the year; Transit, I read in March; Kudos, in April; and each read was something completely different, a unique and enthralling experience. Reading Cusk is like meeting a person and learning the most intimate details of their lives, along with their thoughts, their reasons and rationale, and their emotions; and this experience is two-fold: in the external

encounters with others, as well as in the internal, the thoughts of the narrator herself. Like Knausgaard, Cusk writes in the first-person with extensive clarity and with an insight and intelligence unfound in contemporary literature. She paints the world, via experience, in all its bewildering, contradictory nature, and in doing so, reveals the invisible connections that bind one another together; the idiosyncratic, quirky, strange, yet compellingly beautiful parts of people. These books opened my eyes not just to a new type of writing, a mode of expression that strips life down, exposing its barest parts, and reconstructs it in a lucid and strikingly honest form, but also to people, to the human condition as a whole. These books contain intimacy, connection, empathy, and wonder in people and our everyday experiences. I will continue to read these over and over again throughout my life.








2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This book ripped my heart from my chest and shattered it. It is the story of a group of four friends. Spanning the years from their mid-twenties to late forties living in New York City, it follows: Willem, a handsome, aspiring actor with a painful past; Malcolm, a despondent and confused architect from a wealthy family; JB, an outspoken gay painter with an addictive personality; and Jude, an enigmatic, reticent, genius lawyer whose horrific childhood–growing up without parents and in the care of priests, one of whom may as well have been the devil, then foster parents–has irreparably scarred him, emotionally, mentally, and physically. And it is with Jude that the rest seem inexplicably tied throughout the many years, connected in a brotherly and otherworldly bond that transcends the boundaries of friendship and love, and which reveals the intimacy and unfathomable complexity of human relationships.

Heart-rending, impressive, intimate, dense, beautiful–these adjectives do not do justice to this book. It was an August read and the longest of the year, clocking in just above eight hundred pages. Such scope and density drew me in from the very start; the attention to detail, the meticulous description, and fluid movement roped and kept me in a stranglehold. Yanagihara’s prose was accessible, brilliant at times, but most noticeably illuminating, never missing a single detail. The novel itself is arguably plotless, as it depicts the collective life and the individual lives of the four characters, as well as the many other characters in the past, present, and future. The effect, and in turn its reputation, derives solely from the characters. Never have I experienced such depth, detail, and duration of characters, as well as the span of themes addressed, many of which are unspeakably horrific. As I write this, the novel is the saddest, most emotionally exhausting read I have ever had. And it is for this reason that it is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. This one will stick with me forever; I’ll always look back on this year as the year that I read A Little Life.




1. Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

It is a masterpiece of form and content, a literary monument and artistic achievement. This debut novel by contemporary Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was the best novel I read this year. It is the wildly bizarre and phantasmagorical tale of the sudden reappearance of a man thought to be dead. Irimiás, a charismatic young man with an interesting and infamous past, returns to a small, dilapidated unnamed village in the desolate Hungarian countryside with his companion Petrina. The few inhabitants of the town, who in themselves are already beset with innumerable issues–greed, crime, betrayal, vice, ennui, disease, dereliction, and even death–are bewildered by this man’s return from the dead. Some believe Irimiás to be a prophet with the powers to save them from their troubles, to some he’s nothing but a conman, and to others his return marks the end times. What unfolds, just over the course of a few stormy days, is the unusual, tragic, at times hilarious, and unwaveringly bleak portrait of a sad, gray, spider-infested town where even the glimmer of hope is enough to drive people mad.

It was the hardest novel I read this year, but certainly the most rewarding. While the content of the novel is bewildering–something dark and mysterious, at times, even senseless, but all the while endlessly entertaining and fascinating from start to finish–it was how the novel was written that floored me the most. Krasznahorkai’s prose is something unlike anything I had ever encountered. In my original review, I wrote: his prose is a blend of exhaustively descriptive streams of consciousness imbued with dialogue that fluctuates from internal to external, direct to indirect to free indirect speech seamlessly, carved in diction stained with a deadened cinematic quality that seems to mute, obscure, and distance the reader from the words, as if there were a viscous film invisibly veiling the verbal film. Single sentences run from page to page, unending sequences of description, motion, events, and dialogue. There are no indentations; each page is a solid wall of words, making each chapter a single paragraph, a style reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard. Beyond the prose, the structure of novel’s form is something I had never experienced before either. It is split into two parts, each with six chapters that form a chiastic structure (ABCDEF FEDCBA); each episodic chapter follows the perspective of a different character, each subsequent one concurrently overlapping with the previous. And, possibly my favorite part about this novel, it ends where it begins; the narrative is one big circle, a Joycean cycle of events. I remember after I finished it, I sat back in awe, just absolutely stunned, and thought to myself, “I didn’t know you could do that with literature.” It left me both speechless and puzzled in the best way. And that is why I put this one at the very top of 2020.




Honorable mentions include:


Beloved by Toni Morrison

All That Man Is by David Szalay

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

A Heart So White by Javier Marías



Most Read Authors:

Michel Houellebecq (5)

The Map and the Territory

Submission

Whatever

The Elementary Particles

Serotonin


Cormac McCarthy (5)

Child of God

The Orchard Keeper

Outer Dark

No Country for Old Men

All the Pretty Horses


Rachel Cusk (4)

Outline

Transit

Kudos

Coventry


Knut Hamsun (3)

Growth of the Soil

Pan

Victoria

Karl Ove Knausgaard (3)

So Much Longing In So Little Space

Autumn

Winter


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