MUTT PLOUGHMAN'S TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2020

10. THE OVERSTORY, Richard Powers. (2018) This big, bold, genre-defying book about another world that is all around us every day - the world of trees - takes huge risks and sometimes founders, but also does something I can’t remember experiencing in a successful novel before: it makes the reader consider anew humanity’s primacy, and its purpose, upon the earth. 

 

9. GET THAT N*GGER OFF THE FIELD! The Oral History of the Negro Leagues, Art Rust, Jr. (1976). Not even still available in print, this colorful and eye-opening oral history telling the saga of black baseball players in the United States is a humbling, engaging, and ultimately inspiring collection of the voices of some of the most gifted and courageous athletes in our nation’s history. 

 

8. ONE FOOT IN EDEN, Ron Rash. (2002) Rash established himself as one of America’s most gifted and powerful novelists right from the jump, as demonstrated in this moving debut novel, a simple but devastating tale of love, betrayal, and family bonds set in 20th century, rural Appalachia. 

 

7. PROJECT X, Jim Shepard. (2004) A gripping, page-turning, but shattering short novel by the undersung national treasure Shepard, this story charts the events leading up to an all-too-realistic school shooting from the perspective of the two overlooked, bullied, and misunderstood adolescent boys who feel driven to perpetrate it. 

 

6. THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT, Hilary Mantel. (2020) The lengthy final installment to Mantel’s superlative trilogy of historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII of England’s calculating “fixer,” convincingly terminates a magnificent fictional exploration of the human animal’s appetite for, and willingness to use, power. 

 

5. SAY NOTHING, Patrick Radden Keefe. (2019) While countless books already exist about Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” Keefe’s stands apart for two reasons: it suspensefully catalogues a devastating mystery concerning a mother of ten who vanishes one day from a Belfast slum; while simultaneously offering a compelling profile of a handful of the region’s most aggressive freedom fighters by focusing on their basic humanity despite their murderous acts. 

 

4. PROCESSED CHEESE, Stephen Wright. (2020) Only the fifth major work from the criminally undersung novelist Wright, this newest is his most savage treatise yet on his favorite subject - the USA - but in spinning its lurid, cartoonish, increasingly unsettling narrative concerning a lazy couple who embark on a shocking bender after a huge bag of cash literally falls from the sky, it manages to make his four previous novels look like Little House on the Prairie installments. 

 

3. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (1988) In this epic love story from the Nobel Prize-winning Marquez, a young man in an unnamed South American country falls in love with a woman, is rejected by her, then carries a flame of love for her over five decades, waiting to see if life will grant him another chance - but in tracing both individuals’ stories with vibrant prose, unabashed romanticism, uproarious humor, and a sense of wonder, Marquez beautifully demonstrates for readers why his great novels transcend cultures and generations. 

 

2. THE SWERVE How the World Became Modern, Stephen Goldblatt. (2011) Part history, part anthropological adventure, part Dan Brown-thriller, and part philosophical inquiry, this fascinating narrative about one of history’s most momentous accidents - the random discovery of a lost manuscript copy of Lucretius’ 1st century poem called De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, by a 14th century Papal administrator and “book hunter” - is, simply, one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. 

 

1. THE SHEPHERD’S HUT/THE TURNING (tie!), Tim Winton. (2018/2004) Winton - much heralded in his native Australia, and the only writer now to top my year-end list two years in a row - lifted and inspired me as a person and as a writer not once, but TWICE in 2020: in The Shepherd’s Hut, a short, beautifully crafted novel about a troubled young man, on the run after losing his mother to cancer and the accidental death of his abusive father, who stumbles into a life-altering relationship with a disgraced priest; and again in The Turning, a moving collection of intertwining stories featuring recurring characters that chronicle whole lives of pathos and desperation along Australia’s southwestern coast. 

 

HONORABLE MENTION:

THERE THERE, Tommy Orange

IN A LONELY PLACE, Dorothy B. Hughes

MAYBE I’LL PITCH FOREVER, LeRoy “Satchel” Paige, as told to David Lipman

NIGHT WALKS, Charles Dickens

 

DOG OF THE YEAR!

HOTEL IRIS, Yoko Ogawa. (1996) This well-written but brackish, sometimes down-

right repellant, mercifully short novel from Ogawa, a celebrated literary figure in her

native Japan, tells the story of a 17-year-old girl living in a crumbling hotel with her

ice-cold mother who hears one older male guest verbally abuse a prostitute;

becomes inexplicably obsessed with his voice and impeccable sartorial taste; and,

naturally, enters into a twisted, sado-masochistic sexual relationship with him. WOOF.

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