The Best Reviewed Books of 2020: Nonfiction (2023)

2020—the longest year that has ever been—is almost at an end, and that means it’s time for us to break out the calculators and tabulate the best reviewed books of past twelve months.

Yes, using reviews drawn from more than 150 publications, over the next two weeks we’ll be revealing the most critically-acclaimed books of 2020, in the categories of (deep breath): ; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror; Short Story Collections; Essay Collections; Graphic Literature; Poetry; ; Literature in Translation; General Fiction; and General Nonfiction.

Today’s installment: Nonfiction.

1. Caste: The Origin of OurDiscontentsby Isabel Wilkerson

21 Rave • 4 Positive • 9 Mixed • 1 Pan

Read an excerpt from Caste here

“…elegant and persuasive … She has, in particular, a masterly command of the complex extended metaphor … What distinguishes Wilkerson is her grasp of the power of individual narratives to illustrate such general ideas, allowing her to tell us what these abstract notions have meant in the lived experience of ordinary people … The dexterity with which she combines larger historical descriptions with vignettes from particular lives, recounted with the skill of a veteran reporter, will be familiar to readers of The Warmth of Other SunsCaste will spur readers to think and to feel in equal measure. Its vivid stories about the mistreatment of Black Americans by government and law and in everyday social life—from the violence of the slave plantation to the terror of lynchings to the routines of discourtesy and worse that are still a common experience for so many—retain their ability to appall and unsettle, to prompt flashes of indignation and moments of sorrow. The result is a book that is at once beautifully written and painful to read.”

–Kwame Anthony Appiah (The New York Times Book Review)

2. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

13 Rave • 15 Positive • 5 Mixed

“The Obama of A Promised Land seems complicated or elusive or detached only if you think that these two elements of the president’s job—the practical and the symbolic—must be made to add up in every particular. Obama himself doesn’t. Even at his most inspiring, he was never a firebrand speechifier. He preached faith in the ability of Americans’ commonalities to overcome their differences. This is a creed in which he continues to believe, even if A Promised Land contains its share of dark allusions to the advent of division and acrimony in the form of Donald Trump. Obama is not angry, the sole quality that seems obligatory across party lines in every form of political discourse today … while A Promised Land is a pleasure to read for the intelligence, equanimity, and warmth of its author—from his unfeigned delight in his fabulously wholesome family to his manifest fondness for the people who worked for and with him, especially early on—it’s also a mournful one. Not because Obama doesn’t believe in us anymore, but because no matter how much we adore him, we no longer believe in leaders like him.”

–Laura Miller (Slate)

The Best Reviewed Books of 2020: Nonfiction (3)

3. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

10 Rave • 19 Positive • 6 Mixed

Read a profile of Anna Wiener here

“Wiener was, and maybe still is, one of us; far from seeking to disabuse civic-minded techno-skeptics of our views, she is here to fill out our worst-case scenarios with shrewd insight and literary detail … Wiener is a droll yet gentle guide … Wiener frequently emphasizes that, at the time, she didn’t realize all these buoyant 25-year-olds in performance outerwear were leading mankind down a treacherous path. She also sort of does know all along. Luckily, the tech industry controls the means of production for excuses to justify a fascination with its shiny surfaces and twisted logic … It’s possible to create a realistic portrait of contemporary San Francisco by simply listing all the harebrained new-money antics and ‘mindful’ hippie-redux principles that flourish there. All you have to do after that is juxtapose them with the effects of the city’s rocket-ship rents: a once-lively counterculture gasping for air and a ‘concentration of public pain’ shameful and shocking even to a native New Yorker. Wiener deploys this strategy liberally, with adroit specificity and arch timing. But the real strength of Uncanny Valley comes from her careful parsing of the complex motivations and implications that fortify this new surreality at every level, from the individual body to the body politic.”

–Lauren Oyler (The New York Times Book Review)

4. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

20 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed

Read Helen MacDonald’s “The Things I Tell Myself When I’m Writing About Nature” here

“… a stunning book that urges us to reconsider our relationship with the natural world, and fight to preserve it … The experience of reading Vesper Flights is almost dizzying, in the best possible way. Macdonald has many fascinations, and her enthusiasm for her subjects is infectious. She takes her essays to unexpected places, but it never feels forced … Macdonald is endlessly thoughtful, but she’s also a brilliant writer—Vesper Flightsis full of sentences that reward re-reading because of how exquisitely crafted they are … What sets Vesper Flights apart from other nature writing is the sense of adoration Macdonald brings to her subjects. She writes with an almost breathless enthusiasm that can’t be faked; she’s a deeply sincere author in an age when ironic detachment seems de rigueur … a beautiful and generous book, one that offers hope to a world in desperate need of it.”

–Michael Schaub (NPR)

5. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

20 Rave • 3 Positive

Listen to an interview with Natasha Trethewey here

Memorial Drive is, among so many other wondrous things, an exploration of a Black mother and daughter trying to get free in a land that conflates survival with freedom and womanhood with girlhood … A book that makes a reader feel as much as Memorial Drive does cannot be written without an absolute mastery of varied modes of discourse … In one of the book’s most devastating and artful chapters, Trethewey makes an unexpected but wholly necessary switch to the second person … What happens in most riveting literature is seldom located solely in plot. I’ve not read an American memoir where more happens in the assemblage of language than Memorial DriveMemorial Drive forces the reader to think about how the sublime Southern conjurers of words, spaces, sounds and patterns protect themselves from trauma when trauma may be, in part, what nudged them down the dusty road to poetic mastery.”

–Kiese Makeba Laymon (The New York Times Book Review)

6. Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell

13 Rave • 15 Positive • 2 Mixed • 1 Pan

Listen to an interview with Mark O’Connell here

“This survey of end-times obsessives, from climate scientists to conspiracy theorists, may strike some readers as unnecessarily close for comfort … It turns out that the prospect of the annihilation of human life is a richer mine of comedy than you probably supposed … The variety of end-of-the-world scenarios that O’Connell confronts is sobering … The rough and faintly random material gathered in O’Connell’s ‘notes’ is bound together by his brilliant comic style. To get a handle on his cerebral, neurotic persona it might help to imagine a cross between Bill Bryson and David Foster Wallace … Anxiety, you’ll have gathered, is O’Connell’s natural element … He is richly scathing of the eschatology-evading comforts purchased by the billionaires buying up land in New Zealand … a fidgety, fretful but very funny book.”

–James Marriott (The Times)

7. The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

8 Rave • 20 Positive

Read an excerpt from The Man in the Red Coat here

“Barnes is fascinated by facts that turn out to be untrue and by unlikely but provable connections between people and things … While Barnes is concerned in this book to find things that don’t add up, he also relishes the moments when a clear, connecting line can be drawn … Wilde and Pozzi, and perhaps even Montesquiou, admired Bernhardt; Pozzi and James were both painted by Sargent; Wilde and Montesquiou had the same response to the interior décor at the Prousts. Barnes enjoys these connections. But in ways that are subtle and sharp, he seeks to puncture easy associations, doubtful assertions, lazy assumptions. He is interested in the space between what can be presumed and what can be checked.”

–Colm Tóibín (The New York Review of Books)

8. by Merlin Sheldrake
(Random House)

16 Rave • 5 Positive • 1 Mixed

Read a conversation between Merlin Sheldrake and Robert Macfarlane here

“While fungi are easy sources of wonder, getting to the wonder means understanding the basics, which can be arcane in the case of fungi. Sheldrake carefully explains the details in clever, affable prose. His book has a host of other strengths as well. It emphasizes the openness and indeterminacy of mycology, a vastly understudied field, through honest depictions of scientists in the lab and field trying to puzzle out fungi’s unexplained behavior. Sheldrake also shows how culture shapes scientific knowledge … He embraces the sort of fantastic speculations that come with the territory, as when a childhood memory of Terence McKenna, the ethnobotanist, mystic, and family friend, segues to McKenna’s fantastic theories about the extraterrestrial origins of fungi. But ultimately the book remains grounded in empirical evidence. Sheldrake is stylistically impressive, too—he can be charmingly poetic, using metaphors and analogies to communicate meaning … Although Entangled Life never lapses into polemics or preaching, the book has an evangelical message all the same … The book is a call to engage with fungi on their level.”

–Joanna Steinhardt (The Los Angeles Review of Books)

9. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

16 Rave • 6 Positive • 1 Mixed • 1 Pan

Read an interview with Erik Larson here

“There are countless books about World War II, but there’s only one Erik Larson … Over his career, he has developed a reputation for being able to write about disparate subjects with intelligence, wit and beautiful prose … Fans of Larson will be happy to hear that his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile, is no exception. It’s a sprawling, gripping account of Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister of the United Kingdom, and it’s nearly impossible to put down … Larson’s decision to focus on a wide group of people is a wise one. While Churchill is clearly the main character, Larson’s profiles of his aides and colleagues add valuable context to the prime minister’s role in the war. Many books have been written about Churchill, obviously, but by expanding the scope of his book, Larson provides an even deeper understanding of the legendary politician … And although he doesn’t at all neglect Churchill’s actions and policies, he also paints a vivid portrait of the politician’s personality .. There are many things to admire about The Splendid and the Vile, but chief among them is Larson’s electric writing. The book reads like a novel, and even though everyone (hopefully) knows how the war ultimately ended, he keeps the reader turning the pages with his gripping prose. It’s a more than worthy addition to the long list of books about World War II and a bravura performance by one of America’s greatest storytellers.”

–Michael Schaub (NPR)

10. Intimations by Zadie Smith

13 Rave • 7 Positive •3 Mixed

Listen to Zadie Smith read from Intimations here

“Smith…is a spectacular essayist—even better, I’d say, than as a novelist … Smith…get[s] at something universal, the suspicion that has infiltrated our interactions even with those we want to think we know. This is the essential job of the essayist: to explore not our innocence but our complicity. I want to say this works because Smith doesn’t take herself too seriously, but that’s not accurate. More to the point, she is willing to expose the tangle of feelings the pandemic has provoked. And this may seem a small thing, but it’s essential: I never doubt her voice on the page … Her offhandedness, at first, feels out of step with a moment in which we are desperate to feel that whatever something we are trying to do matters. But it also describes that moment perfectly … Here we see the kind of devastating self-exposure that the essay, as a form, requires—the realization of how limited we are even in the best of times, and how bereft in the worst.”

–David L. Ulin (The Los Angeles Times)


Our System: RAVE = 5 points •POSITIVE = 3 points •MIXED = 1 point •PAN = -5 points


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