Alumni and Faculty Books Named Among NPR's Best of 2020

Nicole Saldarriaga
December 10, 2020

NPR's Book Concierge recently released its list of best books of 2020, naming several titles by School of the Arts alumni and faculty among them. 

Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown, and Company, 2020), a novel by Ayad Akhtar '02, follows a first generation American born to Pakistani parents as he navigates his relationship with his Trump-supporting father and gets involved in a capitalist scheme with more consequences than he originally imagined. The novel was released to great critical acclaim, called "a moving and confrontational novel…[dealing] in ambiguities that were beyond the pale of public discourse in the years after 9/11," by The New York Times Book Review.

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Conjure Women (Random House, 2020) by Afia Atakora '16 follows protagonist Rue, "a young Black woman enslaved on a plantation during the Civil War," who hesitates to pursue her mother's work as a midwife. Publishers Weekly calls the novel "a haunting, promising debut...Through complex characters and bewitching prose, Atakora offers a stirring portrait of the power conferred between the enslaved women. This powerful tale of moral ambiguity amid inarguable injustice stands with Esi Edugyan's Washington Black." 

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and was the recipient of a De Alba Fellowship while at Columbia University. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

If I Had Your Face: A Novel (Ballantine Books, 2020) by Frances Cha '11 follows a cast of women in modern-day Seoul, where "beauty is a means to an end [and] the women at its center are bluntly aware of this fact." Booklist calls the novel "magnificent...with unblinking focus, [Cha] confronts some of the darkest consequences of contemporary gender inequality." 

Frances Cha is a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul. She grew up in the United States, Hong Kong, and South Korea. She has written for The Atlantic, The Believer, and the Yonhap News Agency, among others, and has lectured at Columbia University, Ewha Womans University, Seoul National University, and Yonsei University. 

Dinner in French: My Recipes by Way of France (Clarkson Potter, 2020) is the latest cookbook by Melissa Clark '94 (BC '90), which turns French cuisine into "fast [and] easy weeknight options." Publishers Weekly called the book a "remarkable volume [which] will entice avid home cooks to return to it time and again." 

Melissa Clark is the author of three cookbooks and is a staff writer for the New York Times Food section, where she writes their wildly popular food column, "A Good Appetite." The winner of multiple James Beard and IACP awards, Clark is the host of the "Weeknight Kitchen" podcast on The Splendid Table. Her work has been selected for the Best American Food Writing

The New Wilderness (Harper 2020) by Diane Cook '12 takes place in a United States that has become unlivable due to smog, pollution, and other markers of human intervention. Bea and her rapidly ailing five-year-old daughter, Agnes, volunteer to take part in an experiment that seeks to discover whether humans can live in nature without destroying it. Along with 18 others, Bea and Agnes live as nomadic hunter-gatherers in The Wilderness State, where life is "hard but possible." The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and was called "a wry, speculative debut novel" by Publishers Weekly

Diane Cook is also the author of the story collection, Man v. Nature, which was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, The Pen/Hemingway Award, and the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harper's, Tin House, Granta, and other publications, and her stories have been included in the anthologies Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a former producer for the radio program This American Life, and was the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Pizza Girl: A Novel (Doubleday, 2020) by Jean Frazier '18 follows a pregnant teenager who "works at a pizza shop, lives with her mom and boyfriend, and drinks beer after beer in the shed at night while wondering if she's turning into her alcoholic father." Pizza Girl quickly becomes obsessed with Jenny, a middle aged woman who orders pizza from the shop weekly, and the novel explores the often confusing relationship between the two women. The novel has been called "a playful and unflinching debut…[an] infectious evocation of a young woman's slackerdom [that] will appeal to fans of Halle Butler and Ottessa Moshfegh, and will make it difficult not to root for the troubled and spirited pizza girl," by Publishers Weekly

Jean Kyoung Frazier lives in Los Angeles. Pizza Girl is her debut novel.

Red Pill (Knopf, 2020) by Adjunct Associate Professor Hari Kunzru, is a novel whose protagonist is a writer struggling to write anything at all after winning a prestigious writing fellowship in Germany. Instead, he spends his time watching Blue Lives, a violent show about police. When the protagonist meets the creator of Blue Lives, he begins to feel that the two of them are in a "cosmic battle, and that Anton is ‘red-pilling’ his viewers—turning them toward an ugly, alt-rightish worldview—ultimately forcing the narrator to wonder if he is losing his mind." According to Publishers Weekly, "This nightmarish allegory leaves the reader with much to chew on about literature's role in the battleground of ideas."  

Hari Kunzru is the author of five previous novels: White Tears, The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions, and Gods Without Men. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and his short stories and journalism have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Public Library, and the American Academy in Berlin. 

Temporary (Coffeehouse Press, 2020) by Adjunct Assistant Professor Hilary Leichter '12 follows an unnamed protagonist working as a temp in 23 "increasingly bizarre workplaces" and explores the protagonist's desire for permanence. The novel was shortlisted for The Center for Fiction's 2020 First Novel Prize and has been called "a surreal extreme of gig economy slacker fiction...emotionally convincing not just because of its narrative, but because of the linguistic dislocation that proves its premise," by Guernica

Hilary Leichter has received fellowships from The Edward F Albee Foundation, the Table 4 Writers Foundation, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University.

Just Us: An American Conversation (Graywolf Press, 2020) by Claudia Rankine '93 is "a collection of essays, photos, poems, and conversations that...Rankine has been having with friends and strangers about race." According to Kirkus, "in this genre-defying work, [Rankine], as she did so effectively in Citizen, combines poetry, essay, visuals, scholarship, analysis, invective, and argument into a passionate and persuasive case about many of the complex mechanics of race in this country...Rankine writes with disarming intimacy and searing honesty…[this is] a work that should move, challenge, and transform every reader who encounters it." 

Claudia Rankine is a poet, essayist, and playwright. Just Us completes her groundbreaking trilogy, following Don't Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen. She is a MacArthur Fellow and teaches at Yale University.

Want: A Novel (Henry Holt and Co. 2020) by Adjunct Associate Professor Lynn Steger Strong '14 follows protagonist Elizabeth who has a PhD,  lives in New York City with her husband and two children, works two jobs, and is still forced to file for bankruptcy to get out from under their debts. When Elizabeth reconnects with a childhood friend who is also experiencing a crisis, the struggles they are facing bring them crashing back into each other's lives. Kirkus Reviews calls the novel "a wise, unflinching, and compelling novel about womanhood...Strong writes womanhood with brutal honesty; exhaustion, love, desire, anxiety, and the devastation of unfulfilled expectations permeate every page...Strong's writing consistently distills bitter truths in understated yet penetrating ways." 

Lynn Steger Strong's first novel, Hold Still, was released by Liveright/WW Norton in 2016. Her nonfiction has been published by Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books,, Catapult, Lit Hub, and others. She teaches both fiction and nonfiction writing at Fairfield University and the Pratt Institute as well as at Columbia University.

Eat a Peach: A Memoir (Clarkson Potter, 2020) by David Chang with alumnus Gabriel Ulla '18, explores Chang's transformation from young, unknown chef opening the tiny Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, to "one of the most influential chefs of his generation." Kirkus Reviews calls the book "an entertaining, admirably candid self-assessment of life in the foodie fast lane."

Gabe Ulla is a New York-based writer who has collaborated with a number of noted chefs and contributed to publications including WSJ Magazine, Saveur, and Town & Country.

The Most Beautiful Thing (Carolrhoda Books, 2020) by Kao Yang '05 is a tender picture book memoir "about growing up with little money in a Hmong American home. Kirkus Reviews praises the "poignant storytelling with stunning visuals" in this "picture-book memoir for older readers [that] explores perseverance, financial hardship, and the richness of family connection." 

Kao Kalia Yang is the author of The Song Poet, which received the 2017 Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA Literary Award, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her previous book, The Latehomecomer, also received the Minnesota Book Award. Her children's books include A Map into the World, which won the Minnesota Book Award, and The Shared Room