Looking back on books you might have missed in 2020? Here are some the bestselling books of 2020 from independent publishers and small presses according to the New York Times.
If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.
1. My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem
With movements for racial justice hitting the headlines this past summer, this groundbreaking book on race and trauma – originally published in 2017 – hit the New York Times bestseller list once more in 2020.
Resmaa Menakem examines white supremacy in America from the unique perspective of body-centred psychology. My Grandmother’s Hands is a call to action for all of us to recognize that racism is not only about the head, but about the body, and introduces an alternative view of what we can do to grow beyond our entrenched racialized divide.
2. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton
Deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism are rising dramatically in the United States, claiming hundreds of thousands of American lives. Anne Case and Angus Deaton explain the overwhelming surge in these deaths and shed light on the social and economic forces that are making life harder for the working class. As the college-educated become healthier and wealthier, adults without a degree are literally dying from pain and despair. Case and Deaton tie the crisis to the weakening position of labor, the growing power of corporations, and a rapacious health-care sector that redistributes working-class wages into the pockets of the wealthy. This critically important book paints a troubling portrait of the American dream in decline and provides solutions that can rein in capitalism’s excesses and make it work for everyone.
3. Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey
This New York Times best-selling book is a guide for families, educators, and communities to raise their children to be able and active anti-racist allies.
With a foreword by Tim Wise, Raising White Kids is for families, churches, educators, and communities who want to equip their children to be active and able participants in a society that is becoming one of the most racially diverse in the world while remaining full of racial tensions. For white people who are committed to equity and justice, living in a nation that remains racially unjust and deeply segregated creates unique conundrums.
4. Trace Elements by Donna Leon
A woman’s cryptic dying words in a Venetian hospice lead Guido Brunetti to uncover a threat to the entire region in Donna Leon’s haunting twenty-ninth Brunetti novel.
As she has done so often through her memorable characters and storytelling skill, Donna Leon once again engages our sensibilities as to the differences between guilt and responsibility.
5. The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Named one of 2016’s most influential people by TIME Magazine and frequently touted as a future Nobel Prize-winner, Elena Ferrante has become one of the world’s most read and beloved writers. With this new novel about the transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, Ferrante proves once again that she deserves her many accolades. In The Lying Life of Adults, readers will discover another gripping, highly addictive, and totally unforgettable Neapolitan story.
6. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
This Booker Prize-winning debut novel was one of our absolute favorites of 2020.
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Édouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.
7. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
A brilliant, haunting, and unforgettable memoir.
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant—the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.
8. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
From the New York Times bestselling author of H is for Hawk and winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, comes a transcendent collection of essays about the human relationship to the natural world.
In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep.
Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing the massive migration of songbirds from the top of the Empire State Building, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife.
9. Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun
When Ada Calhoun found herself in the throes of a midlife crisis, she thought that she had no right to complain. She was married with children and a good career. So why did she feel miserable? And why did it seem that other Generation X women were miserable, too?
Calhoun decided to find some answers. She looked into housing costs, HR trends, credit card debt averages, and divorce data. At every turn, she saw a pattern: sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennials, Gen X women were facing new problems as they entered middle age, problems that were being largely overlooked.
Speaking with women across America about their experiences as the generation raised to “have it all,” Calhoun found that most were exhausted, terrified about money, under-employed, and overwhelmed. Instead of being heard, they were told instead to lean in, take “me-time,” or make a chore chart to get their lives and homes in order.
In Why We Can’t Sleep, Calhoun opens up the cultural and political contexts of Gen X’s predicament and offers solutions for how to pull oneself out of the abyss—and keep the next generation of women from falling in. The result is reassuring, empowering, and essential reading for all middle-aged women, and anyone who hopes to understand them.
10. Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Blindsided by her mother’s sudden death, and wrecked by a recent love affair, Casey Peabody has arrived in Massachusetts in the summer of 1997 without a plan. Her mail consists of wedding invitations and final notices from debt collectors. A former child golf prodigy, she now waits tables in Harvard Square and rents a tiny, moldy room at the side of a garage where she works on the novel she’s been writing for six years. At thirty-one, Casey is still clutching onto something nearly all her old friends have let go of: the determination to live a creative life. When she falls for two very different men at the same time, her world fractures even more. Casey’s fight to fulfill her creative ambitions and balance the conflicting demands of art and life is challenged in ways that push her to the brink.
Writers & Lovers follows Casey—a smart and achingly vulnerable protagonist—in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King’s trademark humor, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.
11. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, and as a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.
12. World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfiction—a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us.
As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climes of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplanted—no matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscape—she was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.
13. Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof by Kobe Bryant and Ivy Claire
Before his tragic death in January 2020, Kobe Bryant launched the independent publisher, Granity Studios, and created several series of sports-based YA novels.
Set in an alternate classical world dominated by sports and a magical power called grana, Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof is the story of two children: the lowly born Rovi and the crown princess Pretia who uncover and battle terrible evil and discover their inner strength along the way.
Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof takes place at the most elite sports academy in the land, where the best child-athletes are sent to hone their skills. When Rovi and Pretia arrive, each harboring a secret about themselves, they begin to suspect that something evil is at play at the school. In the course of their first year, they must learn to master their grana in order to save the world from dark forces that are rising.
14. Legacy and the Queen by Kobe Bryant and Annie Matthew
Tennis means life and death for the residents of the magical kingdom of Nova, and for twelve-year-old Legacy, it’s the only thing getting her through the long days taking care of the other kids at the orphanage. That’s all about to change when she hears about Silla’s tournament.
What Legacy has yet to know is that the other players have something besides better skills and more money than she does. In Nova, tennis can unlock magic. Magic that Silla used to save the kingdom long ago and magic that her competitors have been training in for months already.
Now, with the world turned against her and the orphanage at stake, Legacy has to learn to use her passion for the game to rise above those around her and shine.
15. The New Jim Crow: 10th Anniversary Edition by Michelle Alexander
Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” As the Birmingham News proclaimed, it is “undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.”