We are leaving 2020, the strangest year our generation has ever seen, behind. This is good news… Right?
While we may not know for sure how long it will take for life to return to normal in the following months, it is good news that the year-when-it-all-started is actually ending. Purely psychological, but I’ll take it.
As we bid adieu to 2020, I’d like to acknowledge the books that have made this year bearable for me. Change has been the theme for my year as I moved across the ocean, and I’m grateful that books, as always, have been my constant.
Here are all the books I’ve read in 2020, courtesy of Goodreads, and down below I share my favorites.
Favorite Books Read in 2020:
You Exist Too Much (2020) by Zaina Arafat
2020 has seen the publication of many exciting debuts–one of which is Palestinian American writer Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much.
Arafat’s novel follows the curious trajectory of an unnamed queer Palestinian American woman who crosses and straddles cultural, social, religious, and sexual boundaries. As the narrator moves back and forth through time, telling her story in vignettes, we learn about the root of her destructive relationship(s) with herself and others. You Exist Too Much not only deals with the challenges of having a hyphenated, queer identity but it also delves deep into how such difficulties affect one’s mental health as well as emotional and physical well-being.
You should add this novel onto your to-read list, since it’s a valuable contribution to contemporary Middle Eastern/Arab/Transnational literatures.
Migrations: A Novel (2020) by Charlotte McConaghy
Okay, please add this novel to your to-read list because I don’t even know where to start with this masterpiece.
Although Migrations: A Novel been on my list since it came out in August, I was able to get a copy only a few weeks ago, and I just finished it last night. I’m still processing the story and its effect on me, but Australian writer Charlotte McConaghy proves that she will be one of the greatest 21st century novelists.
Migrations: A Novel follows its narrator Franny Stone on her journey across oceans to track the last Arctic terns as they’re predicted to go on their last migration. McConaghy takes us to an Atwoodian future, where the effects of climate change are imminent; most of the animals, from seagulls and fish to wolves and owls, have become extinct. As Franny embarks on her quest to hopefully see Arctic terns survive their, what scientists call, last migration, the narrative reveals Franny’s past.
The novel tackles loss, death, love, and hope through an eco-focused lens, but it doesn’t end there. Through Franny’s secrets that unfold gradually throughout the narrative, we are also compelled to face our own fears and prejudices. I couldn’t take my hands off this book, and I already cannot wait to read it again.
P.S.: As I was reading the novel, I kept thinking how it has to be adapted for the screen, and lo and behold, the process has already begun! You can click here to read more about the upcoming movie.
Conditional Citizens (2020) by Laila Lalami
Another gem 2020 has offered is Moroccan American writer Laila Lalami’s collection of essays Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.
Lalami reflects on what it means to be an immigrant Muslim woman and an American citizen within the current sociopolitical climate. She draws on her personal journey from Morocco to the U.S. as she interrogates the difficult concepts of identity, belonging, Americanness, and contemporary citizenship.
In my dissertation on Muslim authorship, I wrote a chapter on Lalami’s novel The Moor’s Account (2014), and I did extensive research on the critical pieces she’d written, as well as on her interviews and experiences with readers in book readings. So, I was familiar with some of the anecdotes she retells in Conditional Citizens, which made it feel as though I was having a chat with her.
You should add this novel to your to-read list if you don’t want to miss out on one of the most relevant books of 2020!
A Door Between Us (2020) by Ehsaneh Sadr
An inspiring work of political fiction, A Door Between Us brings together the powerful Hojjati family and the Rahimi family whose ideological differences are highlighted amid the chaos that followed the 2009 elections in Iran.
As the plot unfolds and the two families’ stories intertwine serendipitously, Sadr gracefully moves beyond the sensational headlines that drew global attention to the political crisis in Iran.
You should add this novel to your to-read list because the narrative focuses on familial bonds, tradition, religion, resistance, and fear, allowing for a fascinating exploration of the struggle to love, parent, and build/sustain a meaningful life in a society that is deeply polarized.
Nothing to See Here (2019) by Kevin Wilson
A curious character with dark humor? Kids bursting into flames when agitated? Dysfunctional families? Political Rivalry? All in this short little novel by American writer Kevin Wilson. Nothing to See Here is one of those books you cannot wait to get to at the end of each day after work.
The novel begins when the narrator Lillian receives a letter from her high school “bestie” Madison asking urgently for her help on a matter that can only be discussed privately. As Lillian packs up and leaves to meet her friend whom she hasn’t seen for years, we get to learn about the relationship between Lillian and Madison, as well as Lillian’s mysterious past. This is an endearing story about parental love, friendship, politics, abandonment and more.
You should add Nothing to See Here to your to-read list if you are into quirky, heartwarming stories, and of course, if you’re interested in children combusting? Why not, right?
A Place for Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirzah
A Place for Us tells an intergenerational story of a Muslim Indian American family who live in California. Fatima Farheen Mirza presents a beautifully written narrative about what it means to be home and about finding out one’s sense of self straddling two cultures.
The novel opens with the family gathered at the eldest Hadia’s wedding, the parents Rafiq and Layla, and Hadia’s siblings Huda and Amar who has left home due to his strained relationship with his father. The narrative then moves back and forth in time and delves deeper into the struggles of the parents as Muslim immigrants in the U.S. and into the personal experiences of the siblings. What does it mean to question your faith, unlike your parents? What does it mean to choose your own values? What does it mean to be a Muslim American Indian and define what “the label” means to you? The siblings in the novel grapple with such questions and more, as they struggle to find out who they are.
You should add this novel to your to-read list because this is not only a relevant story of immigration but also a poetic family saga written by another successful 21st century novelist.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (2019) by Elif Shafak
I was able to catch up with The 2019 Booker Prize shortlist a bit later last year, and I was particularly looking forward to reading Shafak’s latest novel whose release had caused quite a stir in Turkey.
So, in January 2020, I found myself in our local bookstore downtown one afternoon and grabbed a copy of Elif Shafak’s 10 minutes and 38 seconds in This Strange World.
10 minutes is Shafak’s eleventh novel–and is as mesmerizing as her debut The Saint of Incipient Insanities (2004).
Shafak narrates the story of Tequila Leila, a retired sex worker, whose brain remains active for ten seconds after she has been brutally murdered one night. During those “ten seconds,” Shafak not only tells us the harrowing journey Leila takes to Istanbul from Eastern Turkey, but she also brings to focus the complex interweaving of religion and politics, the question of polygamy, and the problematic notion of family honor. More importantly, the disenfranchised –women, sex workers, LGBTQ, immigrants– who live on the fringes of a patriarchal society take center stage in the novel.
Leila’s is a familiar story for most Turkish people: The story of an innocent girl, a victim of dogmatic traditions, from the east escaping to the west, Istanbul. The girl’s family disowns her because they believe that she somehow has ruined the family honor. Once she arrives in Istanbul, the big city becomes a predator, and the girl a prey.
This storyline has dominated Turkish melodramas, Yeşilcam films, and unfortunately the news for years in the country.
But Shafak’s rendition offers a glimmer of hope. Although you may find yourself mourning the death of Leila as you learn more about her struggles, strength, and colorful character, her story is not purely heart-wrenching. If read closely, this is a story about solidarity and victory– a tribute to the willpower and strength of Istanbul’s women and marginalized characters.
As I scan my favorite books, I now see that they all end on a hopeful note and that hope, an ingredient that has kept me going in 2020, is a common theme. For that, I’m grateful.
And this brings me to the end of my yearly wrap-up. Despite everything, 2020 has been an exciting year that introduced us to wonderful new writers who will possibly be remembered as the greatest writers of our times.
I must quickly add that one of the highlights of 2020 for me was starting this page, sharing my ideas, having wonderful discussions with you and getting to know you. So, thank you. I’m looking forward to adding new projects like video wrap-ups and various reading challenges in the new year.
Happy reading–and a happ-ier, healthier New Year!
Have you read any of these novels? What did you think? What was your favorite read(s) of 2020? Please share your favorites with me so I can add them to my to-do list.