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Best Books Of 2020, Chosen By St. Louis Librarians

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Nenad Stojkovic
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What’s the best new book you read this year?

In a year full of uncertainty, stress and sadness, books provided many people an important escape. For others, so many hours at home offered the perfect time to dig into nonfiction writing about the issues our country faces today. Many sought out books that examine and critique racism, for example.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, listeners called in to share their favorite books released in 2020. That included “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II” by Sonia Purnell and “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs” by Sarah Smarsh. One listener also cited “A Universe Less Traveled” by Eric Von Schrader, a former St. Louis resident interviewed by Sarah Fenske in September.

Librarians Jennifer Alexander of St. Louis County Library and Jen Ohzourk of St. Louis Public Library also shared their top picks of the year. Their favorite reads are listed below, including brief notes from each of them.

JEN OHZOURK’S FAVORITE 2020 READS:

FICTION
“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

  • A woman who doesn’t want to keep living her life discovers the “Midnight Library,” a place filled with books of all the lives she hasn’t lived. Now, when she can live each of these lives, will she truly find happiness?

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by T.J. Klune

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  • A man who works for the “Extremely Upper Management” is sent to an island to investigate the unusual children who live there, as well as their caretaker. For anyone who ever felt like they didn't belong, weren't understood, and just wanted to be accepted and loved — this is your story. And hey, if you never felt like this, this is also your story because there's a lot here about learning about others, understanding and being empathetic.

“Over the Woodward Wall” by A. Deborah Baker (aka Seanan McGuire)

  • An evocative, beautifully written book about two seemingly ordinary children who meet when they venture over a wall into a fantastical and dangerous world. This book is similar to Baker’s Wayward Children series. These are dark, fascinating, beautiful stories.

“Solutions and Other Problems” by Allie Brosh

  • Like her previous collection, this is a series of illustrated stories, some of them really funny and some of them pretty sad. If you’re familiar with this author, you know you can be crying one moment and laughing one page later.

“The Golden Cage” by Camilla Läckberg

  • This tautly paced story of revenge is like a decadent dessert. Maybe you feel it’s a guilty pleasure at first, but then you just give in and relish it. Faye’s husband Jack is the perpetual golden boy, but when he starts to undermine her intelligence, she’s determined to give him exactly what he deserves.

“Recipe for a Perfect Wife” by Karma Brown

  • This story is a dual narrative between a woman in the past and a woman in the present, who now lives in the same house. As the story progresses, you see the similarities between their situations as they fight for a place in patriarchal society. When the new owner discovers a cookbook left by the previous owner, she not only learns how to make meatloaf five ways, but also how a special ingredient can change a life.

“Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

  • Moreno-Garcia takes the classic Gothic style and turns it up a notch in this atmospheric novel, which blends horror and suspense and has a pace that builds as you turn the pages.

“The Guest List” by Lucy Foley

  • When a body is discovered after an island wedding, it’s anyone’s guess as to who in the group could be the murderer. Told in alternating and intertwined narratives, the pace of this story steadily increases, along with the sense of danger. This is a great page turner. If you like “closed room” mysteries with twists and turns, this is your book.

POETRY
“Dearly: New Poems” by Margaret Atwood

  • Atwood’s first collection of poetry in over 10 years is well worth the wait. If you enjoy her unyielding eye in her fiction, try this collection of poems that explore the passage of time, life, love (and a few unexpected topics, too).

NONFICTION
“Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life” by Marie Kondo

  • Organizing isn’t just for your closets and drawers; organizing your work life can lead to better productivity and happiness. I put some of her advice into my own workspace and have found I’m less stressed than before — in spite of all of the weirdness of 2020.

“Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit” by Eliese Colette Goldbach

  • The author had plans to leave her hometown, but wound up applying for a job at the local steel mill. This is a memoir about her life, but also about the different parts and functions of a steel mill — which is pretty fascinating. It’s a memoir of how life can take you to unexpected places where danger lurks around every corner, but friendship isn't far behind.

“The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson

  • Larson is a master storyteller, and he’s an expert at bringing history to light (and to life) in a way that is engaging, interesting and makes you want to keep learning, even after you finish his books. This book is no exception. Focusing on Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister, you get a tightly written history that reads as smoothly as fiction.

Jen Ohzourk is a regional branch manager for the St. Louis Public Library. She works at the Carpenter branch.

JENNIFER ALEXANDER’S FAVORITE 2020 READS:

FICTION
“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam

  • An eerie novel about a family vacation interrupted by news of a possible disaster.

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman

  • A heartwarming, but not overly sweet, story of how a would-be first-time bank robber bumbles into a hostage situation at a realtor’s open house.

“Sorry for Your Trouble: Stories” by Richard Ford

  • These stories are classic Richard Ford — melancholy, insightful, and generous.

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab

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  • One of the great plot scenarios of the year — Addie LaRue has made a deal with a devil that enables her to live forever without aging, but she is forgotten by everyone she encounters as soon as she is out of sight. Then, one day, someone remembers her.

“Jack” by Marilynne Robinson

  • Robinson concludes her Gilead series with the story of Jack, wayward son of John Boughton, who is living in St. Louis after World War II and has fallen in love with Della, an African American teacher.

“The End of October” by Lawrence Wright

  • This medical thriller caused quite a stir with its story of a global pandemic that was all too similar to actual current events.

“A Burning” by Megha Majumdar

  • The story of the intersection of three lives in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a train near a large slum in India.

NONFICTION
“Candy Men: The Story of Switzer’s Licorice” by Patrick Murphy

“Intimations: Six Essays” by Zadie Smith

  • A brief book of essays about current events — COVID-19, the presidential election, racial injustice and community.

“Growing Up St. Louis” by Jim Merkel

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  • This book features recollections Merkel gathered from more than 100 St. Louisans born between 1891 and 2008.

“Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson

  • Wilkerson describes a rigid social order in our society by examining three separate systems: slavery in the U.S., hierarchies in India, and Nazi Germany.

“Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook” by Ina Garten

  • Cookbooks have been very popular this year, and this one seems to have what everyone is looking for.

“The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States” by Walter Johnson

“What It’s Like to be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing — What Birds Are Doing and Why” by David Allen Sibley

  • This bird guide focuses on activity, rather than identification, and is told mostly from the birds’ point of view.

“The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency” by John Dickerson

  • Dickerson tells a multitude of surprising and funny stories about what a strange job the presidency is and how it has changed over time.

Jennifer Alexander is the collection development specialist for St. Louis County Library.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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