As bad as I was at reading this year—because, well, *gestures at the world*—I was perhaps worse at keeping track of what I read. But here’s what I wrote down. Making these collages is a real treat at the end of the year; thanks for checking them out. Thinking of all of us in hopes for better reading habits in a better year. And there’s a bonus treat at the bottom.
- Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Starting here because it was my most recent finish and what a read it was!!! It has been a while since I’ve read proper fantasy (I checked out the first Game of Thrones, and before that was likely a Lord of the Rings reread) and frankly I’ve been missing out. BS is set in a gorgeously detailed Mesoamerican world and rotates through fascinating, flawed, and fully fleshed out characters that you have to cheer for. Roanhorse knows there’s a lot of rules, geography, and lore for her to explain and she does so patiently. She is such a good storyteller and knows just when to tease out tension or leave you hanging when switching to a different storyline. There is action, romance, politics, a long voyage at sea, religion, heroes of all genders, and so much magic. Something for everyone! So, so, so good.
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters. Oh my god. This is a crime novel set in the Victorian era—not a genre I ever read—that I got from one of my bookstore mystery boxes. It features a craftily concocted scheme, a queer female hero, and lots of thieves, and was truly expert storytelling. Couldn’t put it down amid the twists and turns. It is so juicy good. And there’s a BBC adaptation that I haven’t watched.
- The Butterfly Lampshade, Aimee Bender. I went through a long, long funk of not being able to read at all this year, but this book snapped me out of it. So immersive, gorgeous imagery, unique characters, mother/daughter, mental health, etc. And set in Burbank! I love a local read.
The rest are in no particular order:
- Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi. Snow White in 1950s Massachusetts—gorgeously written. Say no more.
- Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak. He’s my favorite, always.
- Parable of a Sower, Octavia Butler. A classic for good reason! Apocalyptic and on the nose for today, so only read if you’re in a good head space lol.
- Department of Speculation, Jenny Offill. Am always one for alternate novel structures: letter fragments and other prose do beautifully here. I loved it.
- Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino. Took me too long to finally pick up, was of course terrific.
- You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, Yona Harvey. Here’s a sample of Harvey’s work. It is wonderful.
- The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante. There’s nothing Ferrante has written that I haven’t liked. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- Lila, Marilynne Robinson. Better than Jack (see below).
- Bury My Heart at Chuck E Cheese, Tiffany Midge. Midge is hilarious and these essays are insightful while also making you laugh. For example: “How many white supremacists does it take to change a lightbulb? a. The white supremacist has to want to change. b. Society has to change. c. First, you need a ladder.”
- Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood.
- Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky. Very beautiful. (Read We Lived Happily During the War if you haven’t already.)
- Fleishman is in Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner. It’s one of those A Couple Who Lives in New York Gets Divorced books; didn’t particularly love it.
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh. So this is another book about wealthy New York people, which is usually not a draw. But that our heroine essentially sleeps for a year…. there’s lots to say, but mostly: that sounds kinda nice, these days. Well written and very interesting.
- Life After Life, Kate Atkinson. A very cool book with a fun temporal structure that I liked a lot.
- Orange, E Briskin: I reviewed this book of poems! Read it here.
- Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff. If you’re going to read Lauren Groff, I prefer Florida – but there are some good moments in this.
- Boysgirls, Katie Farris
- The Part That Burns, Jeannine Ouellette. I reviewed this book too (publication pending) and it is a really beautifully written (and sad) memoir.
- Jack, Marilynne Robinson. I love Robinson’s work so much, but I did not love Jack so much. I liked it, fine: her ability to make the mundane profound shines through as always. But to write a book about an interracial relationship in the 50s and not explore those issues or give much attention to Della felt… incorrect.
- A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid. A quick and very worthwhile read about the ethics of tourism that makes me want to read more of her work. Recommend for sure.
- The Soul of An Octopus, Sy Montgomery. OCTOPUSES (apparently octopi is wrong) ARE SO SMART. I never read nonfiction but I love them.
- Two Old Women, Velma Wallis. Adventure! Alaska! Friendship and questions about community and almost dying: a great retelling of an Athabascan Indian legend.
- Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a war book, so it is very sad. But it is quite good. I was also very ignorant of Biafra’s existence—no longer!
- Swamplandia!, Karen Russell. I loved the concept of this book—a family runs an alligator theme park in Florida—but the ending was only so-so, for me. There was a bit of unnecessary violence, some playing it safe, and some choices that made it kinda fizzle out. But, great characters and a cool world.
Honorable Mention To All the Books I Started But Did Not Finish This Year that Include:
- The Dreamt Land, Mark Arax
- Set the Night on Fire, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
- In Love and Trouble, Alice Walker
- Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann. I loved the concept of this book (stream of consciousness narration). But it is walls of text of one character’s thoughts for over 1000 pages and it is difficult to read.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
- Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, Astra Taylor
- How to Do Nothing, Jenny Offill
They’re all good (save the one exception)! My brain is just broken and can’t always read.
Bonus treat: I found this in the drafts, written in September of 2019. It feels like another lifetime in every possible way.
I hope you had a wonderful summer. I find myself in constant motion lately, bouncing off of airports and buses and cars like a ball in a pachinko machine, accumulating unusual experiences in the process. These include:
- In Alabama, I spent an afternoon driving my coworker and I around in a U-Haul cargo truck on narrow back highways. Our assignment was to film b-roll, but I made us first stop at the Museum of Wonder, a drive-through museum (exactly as it sounds: http://www.museumofwonder.com). Farther down the road we saw farm animals milling about so we wandered around with cameras until a neighbor told us to get off their friend’s property. We stopped at a place that looked like it had excellent BBQ (we were correct) then returned to our hotel.
- I spent a day walking around Atlanta solo while Mattie was at work, at the Georgia aquarium. I bought cool pants at a vintage store, got rained on as I left the Jimmy Carter Library, and accidentally stumbled past MLK’s grave at the King Center. A little girl threw up in the Gandhi room. Mattie and I got grits and chicken dumplings and peach pie to conclude.
- In Minnesota, I sprinted through a torrential summer rainstorm, walkie earpiece still in, fanny pack bouncing around my waist, to go back to the RV trailer where my boss requested I take notes for her. I had just finished rinsing our lunch cutlery in the water gushing from the neighbor’s gutter.
- After accidentally missing my first flight, I stumbled onto a plane the morning after the fourth of July. I finally made it to Philadelphia that evening where I rolled up two hours late to the wedding of a friend I met four years ago while living in Florence. A few hours after returning to the hotel, I walked to 30th street station at 3:45am, a Wawa hoagie in hand and my duffel bag on my back, to board my 6am flight to Phenix City, Alabama.
- I went to the San Xavier del Bac mission just outside Tucson on the San Xavier reservation, home of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s the oldest European building in Arizona and is stunningly beautiful. I bought a map from one of the vendors (having complicated feelings about buying sage or other sacred Indian objects for sale) at the crafts plaza next door, and talked to him briefly about the weather. He reached into the cooler below his table and gave me an icy cold bottle of water to take with me as I headed back into the 106-degree heat. It was such a small gesture of kindness but I cannot stop thinking about it.
Here and now, it seems clear a year of this little movement could, seemingly, only have been triggered by a 2019 of this _much_ movement. So I apologize for 2020, everyone!! We have paid our penance and now 2021 will be fabulous. Knocking on wood. (I don’t mean to be glib. Am choosing optimism.)
to good health, good fortune, and good books…