The silver lining for 2020 is that we had more time than ever to consume the arts. We finally got to the stack of books that had been sitting on the nightstand for months. We were secretly glad to replace weekend plans with a nice, healthy Netflix binge. Once we discovered the joys of listening to podcasts instead of actually, you know, talking to people on our daily pandemic walks, there was no looking back.
Considering the pandemic is very much with us, and social distancing is still the way of the near future, as we close out 2020, the Houstonia staff has rounded up our favorite things we read, watched, and listened during this strange, unprecedented year. So you can use these recs however you see fit, whether that means scanning this list to fill out your holiday downtime, or ordering up some of these titles for your own enjoyment in 2021.
I’ve read—or reread—a fair number of books this year, but my favorite 2020 page-turner has to be The Mirror & the Light. In the first days of the March lockdown, I had the pleasure of devouring Hilary Mantel’s eagerly awaited final volume of her trilogy chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s heady rise and sudden fall in the court of Henry VIII with almost carnivorous literary pleasure.
I’d been anticipating the book’s release like it was another Harry Potter, and had reread the first two books in the trilogy to properly prepare myself. But just like the way there simply was no method to prepare for what leaving the Before Times and plunging into the real 2020 would be like, there was no way I could have seen what Mantel would do with this book. Each of Mantel’s portions of Cromwell’s story has been a distinct entity, and a stunning achievement in its own right. And the final novel, starting with Anne Boleyn’s execution, with a vivid and haunting description of her women deftly handling her body after her death at the hands of a French swordsman, is no exception. From the start, I was once again hooked.
I sat up nights enthralled with the tale, watching as Cromwell stepped closer and closer to the executioner’s block, knowing how it would all end—a mucky mess of blood as the axman missed his mark and failed to cleanly sever the disgraced chief minister’s head in that first chop. But all the while, I was still hoping the blacksmith’s son who had pulled off so many other remarkable achievements would manage to dodge the whole bloody end entirely, a true testament to Mantel’s success in overhauling a character usually portrayed as a villain. —Dianna Wray, editor-in-chief
Part investigative journalism, part spy thriller, and part memoir, Ronan Farrow’s fast-paced, high-octane deep dive takes readers behind the scenes as he fights the system to expose the misdeeds of now-disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Sure, we all know how this story ends, but Farrow’s prose—as he invites us into his head, allowing us to see and experience the journey (as well as the terror and paranoia) through his eyes—is intoxicating in a way that you don’t always get from books about hard-nosed reporting. Farrow shares as much of himself and his personal relationships as he goes about the case, humanizing the Pulitzer Prize winner in a way that makes his recollection of the case utterly engaging and deeply human. Oh, and did I mention there’s also a podcast? —Emma Schkloven, editor
Zone One and The Nickel Boys (and other assorted reads)
I had a very Colson Whitehead summer, digging into Zone One and The Nickel Boys—the best novel I read this year. I also loved Rebecca Curtis’s short story “Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit,” which appeared in The New Yorker in November. As for nonfiction, I devoured Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight. —Gwendolyn Knapp, managing editor
Successfully landing the final installment in a popular trilogy is always a challenge, but it’s often an even bigger one when that saga falls in the fantasy genre (we’re looking at you, Game of Thrones). S.A. Chakraborty manages to do just that, and then some, in Empire of Gold, the closing chapter of her debut series, The Daevabad Trilogy. She pulls off an impressive balancing act, delivering a thrilling conclusion to the war that’s been brewing since midway through The City of Brass while also offering fitting ends to the journeys of Nahri, the Cairo thief-turned-priestess; Ali, the hard-headed, exiled prince; and Dara, the resurrected warrior with a dark past, that somehow avoid clichés or easily tied-up lose ends.
Chakraborty’s ability to weave intricate world-building with dynamic prose and stunning character development is once again on full display as she takes us even deeper in the mythos of her mystical, djinn-filled world, which brought ancient Islamic folklore to a whole new generation of readers. I can’t wait to see what she writes next. —ES
I won’t lie, I started watching HBO Max’s new thriller because of my unending love for actress Michelle Gomez, but the miniseries hooked me from end of episode one. Based on the 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian, the show follows reckless alcoholic flight attendant Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco), who meets a handsome passenger (Michiel Huisman) on a flight to Bangkok and wakes up next to his dead body. Yikes. Yeah, it sounds super soapy, but the twisty plot is anything but as Bowden tries to unravel the truth about her dead lover, while being investigated by the FBI, hunted by a killer, and not drinking herself into oblivion. Cuoco, who also executive produced the series, shows off an immense range that we rarely got to see during her time on Big Bang Theory, but the show’s scene stealer is Gomez‘s wickedly wonderful badass Miranda. And for those of you who read Bohjalian’s novel, the ending isn’t what you expect. —ES
If anyone had a good 2020, it was Tim Heidecker, the comedian best known for his work with Eric Wareheim (Tim & Eric). He co-starred in the Showtime astronaut comedy Moonbase 8, released an album called Fear of Death, and has continued to host a near daily web series called Office Hours. But nothing tops my favorite watch of 2020, his dryly genius stand-up special An Evening with Tim Heidecker.
Although the special was taped in 2017, it remains remarkably topical. Here, Heidecker assumes the role of a mediocre everyman white comedian, bombing often while making hacky jokes. His joke construction is terrific, his timing is impeccable, and his thought process is astonishing as he creates a sad character who’s not unlike so many men in America today. It offered both a lens into a culture that’s far more dangerous than meets the eye while also allowing me to guffaw away some of the challenges of 2020. —Timothy Malcolm, editor
I don’t use streaming services and mostly watch sports and HGTV with my husband, but I have followed a few YouTube channels this year. During the hellish months cooped up at home I got to escape with an Australian couple that sails the catamaran La Vagabonde all over the world at their own leisurely pace. Even when Captain Riley Whitelum and girlfriend Elayna Carausu were restricted to quarantine on their boat, it happened that they were “stuck” on the gorgeous coast of southern Portugal. Their drone videos of adventures in various ports and islands are visually captivating, and their toddler, Lenny, provides the perfect dose of adorableness. Earlier this year, they made international news when they escorted teen climate activist Greta Thunberg across the Atlantic back to Europe. The couple uploads videos weekly, and I (as well as their 1.5 million followers) look forward to the escape every time. —Monica Fuentes Carroll, art director
Yes, this show has been off the air for years now, but this sitcom about a smart kid, his rowdy brothers, and parents just trying to get by felt more relevant than ever this year. Come for the sheer comedy genius of Bryan Cranston, pre-Breaking Bad, effortlessly wringing a mix of physical comedy and pathos out of his scenes to the point he manages to outshine the rest of this brilliant cast, and stay for the steadily hilarious performances turned in by that cast, particularly Jane Kaczmarek as the indomitable matriarch, Lois. The show admittedly gets a little long in the tooth by the time it moves into its final season, but the ending is one of those rarest of TV rarities—a series finale that manages to be hilarious, to feel real, and to offer us all what we've most needed this year, some hope. — DW
The Outsider (which seems like it came out 10 years ago), Lovecraft Country, and the latest season of Fargo—Jessie Buckley’s role as deranged nurse Oraetta Mayflower is perfection—were my jam this year on the TV front. As far as films go, I honestly watched too many movies to even keep track of, but of the 2020 releases, I’d say Possessor, Tenet, and Arkansas are the ones that still resonate. Oh, and Trolls World Tour, which is basically like having an acid trip without the drugs. —GK
I listened to The Highwomen's 2019 self-titled debut album on repeat this year. In 2016 Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires formed this country supergroup, which pays tribute to the outlaw-country group The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) while also shattering industry-standard tropes for female-centric country and folk music. My favorite song on the 12-track album is "Highwomen," which twists the lyrics of 1985's "Highwaymen" to showcase the experiences of women—the "silent generations"—throughout American history. At the 2020 Americana Music Honors & Awards, the group swept duo/group of the year, album of the year, and song of the year ("Crowded Table") award categories. —Catherine Wendlandt, digital editor
A song called “The Roving” by Bonny Light Horseman, a folk supergroup featuring Anaïs Mitchell, the creator of Broadway musical Hadestown; Eric D. Johnson of the Fruit Bats, and Josh Kaufman (a collaborator with The National and more bands), as they reimagine centuries-old folk standards for modern times. And that new Wilco song, “Gwendolyn,” of course. —GK
I consumed more podcasts this year than anything else—seriously more than 15,000 minutes, according to my Spotify year-end report. Some of my favorites include The Michelle Obama Podcast, which was everything I hoped it would be and more; Dolly Parton’s America, an 11-part series that documents how Dolly Parton truly is our country’s queen; and the always-comforting The Stuff You Missed in History Class, whose current hosts, Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson, have been chronicling our strange past, like the “The Defenestrations of Prague,” since 2013. —CW