2020! Oh, what a year.
After a crushing 2019, I had grand travel plans for the year. But instead of Greece and “wherever the winds take us,” we finally escaped in October to southwest Michigan for a socially distant AirBnB stay, fueled by takeout and long, restorative hikes.
The daily newspaper that landed on my driveway offered a blow-by-blow account of how the world was burning, while the increasingly depressing Atlantic arrived in my mailbox warning that the worst was yet to come.
So I turned to books for escapism, for far-away places and times, for beauty and language and magic. (And I rejoiced when the public library opened for curbside pickup in June.)
Here are a few of my favorites from 2020, in no particular order.
The Snow Child
I’d seen this reviewed several times in my Goodreads timeline, so I grabbed it one day while browsing the library. And it knocked my socks off. Based on a Russian fairy tale, Ivey’s novel blurs the lines between real and fantasy in the most perfect type of magical realism. Set on a lonely Alaskan homestead in the 1920s, this gorgeously written novel is heartbreaking yet life-affirming. It’s as bleak as the depths of an Alaskan winter, yet offers hints of life and possibility, like brave March snowdrops and crocuses.
Mabel and Jack struggle with the decade-ago stillbirth of their only child. They move to Alaska to start anew, away from the stain of their self-perceived failure. It’s them against the wilderness, alone in the empty landscape, surrounded by the harsh realities of nature. One day, they build a child out of snow. That snow child, Faina, comes to life. And everything changes.
As someone coping with two stillbirths of my own, I appreciated how well Ivey captures the daily realities of loss, the feelings of futility and failure, and the isolation.
Right after I finished the book, I happened to notice the matryoshka sitting on my bookcase. A friend gave it to me many years ago, saying, “It supposedly shows a Russian fairy tale, but I just thought it looked neat.” Sure enough — it’s the Snow Child.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt: A Memoir
This is the best memoir by a made-up person that I’ve ever read.
But it’s so much more, too.
Anonymous lost her marriage, her home, her friends, her job. Clinging to her son and her sanity, she created an internet persona (Duchess Goldblatt) who quickly attracted quite a following, all drawn to Duchess’ bravery, optimism, and kindness — with a delightful snarky streak.
This was beautifully told, with A’s story providing just enough details and interspersed with the DG tweets I’ve long loved. Warm, reassuring, and charming — the perfect balm for this pandemic year full of disappointment and loss. I didn’t want it to end. But I’ll have to settle for the tweets, one of the few accounts that cuts through the squalor of the platform.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Such a well-told story, interweaving multple plots and characters. Even though you know what happens (spoiler alert: the ship sinks), Larson tells it in a way that keeps you turning the pages.
I had only a high school history level of knowledge about the Lusitania and believed that the US immediately entered the war after its sinking. In truth, there was a two-year delay. Larson does a great job establishing why this was, from the secrets of British intelligence to President Wilson’s romantic life.
Larson digs into the U-Boat captain, the Lusitania’s crew/passengers, the British intelligence agency (with cameos by Churchill and others), and others, from before the ship sails until long after it sinks. So good.
The Most Fun We Ever Had
Lombardo creates and expands great characters over 40 years, with an interesting structure that keeps the story moving. The dialogue feels very genuine, the messy family dynamics are real, and the main characters are multi-dimensional. Start hating one, and then you find out WHY she’s as messed up as she is.
There’s love and loyalty and betrayal. Sisters let each other down, then scramble to make up for it. (Or not, and live uneasily with the fallout.) Everyone lives their own lies, sometimes with consequences. The past is never truly in the past. Lombardo masterfully drops hints and details as the timelines eventually converge.
This could have been edited to be tighter, with a bit less repetition (c’mon, we realize that the parents of this sprawling clan have the seemingly perfect marriage, no need to keep repeating it). And I think if I was a parent, I would get more out of the nuance about the mother-child relationships at the center of the story.
But I inhaled this 530-page book in about 5 days, and was very sad when it was over.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Great nature writing that transports you to the North Carolina marsh and its inhabitants. A story of survival, of striking the balance between independence and reliance. A murder mystery. A love story. A love letter to nature. All delicately woven together and written so well you can feel the humidity.
Kya Clark is the “Marsh Girl,” living a boat ride from town. She attended school for a single day and was abandoned by her family. She lives among nature, creeping into town only as needed. So when a local man is found dead, she is the suspect.
If I had to do it again, I would read this in the depths of winter (rather than Memorial Day weekend) so I could taste the summer heat and smell the plants, pulsing with life.
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
We are the sum of our memories. But how is modern life changing the role of memory?
Foer stumbles into the US Memory Championship and discovers a world of people who memorize thousands of digits of numbers or random sequences of cards, all for sport. After one competitor tells him, “anyone can do it,” he spends the next year immersed in memorization techniques while also studying the history of memory.
At the time, it was assumed writing would serve merely to remind people of what they knew, rather than to teach something entirely new. In fact, the ancient Greek word for “to read” translates as “to know again.”
Foer meets quite the cast of characters in his journey, and intersperses his training efforts with visits to people with the world’s best and worst memories. Ultimately, he discovers that memory is closely tied to mindfulness rather than any special tricks or skill, and it’s possible to improve your memory even when all the world’s knowledge is just a search away. But it has to be a conscious decision.
I walked away with a new appreciation for memory and how we choose to remember (and forget) things, both as individuals and a culture.
East of Eden
There’s so much going on here, and even more if I knew anything at all about Genesis.
But it’s Steinbeck, with straightforward descriptions in a love letter to California and America that points out the collectively dirty underbelly.
Two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, settle in the Salinas Valley to raise their children. There’s love (and competition for a father’s love). There’s poverty, contrasted by unearned wealth. There are saints and sinners, farmers and whores, rocky farmland and paradise.
At the center, though, is the Genesis allegory. Is the Salinas Valley Eden? Or have the Trasks been cast out? Why? And there’s a lot to chew on around the concept of “timshel” – or, “thou mayest,” the idea of free will and the choices you make in your life.
13 interlacing stories in which Olive — a retired schoolteacher — appears. Sometimes she’s a central character, sometimes just another customer in the donut shop. But the denizens of the small town of Crosby, Maine are stuck together, whether they like it or not.
The stories are sad and wistful and frustrated and humorous. Just like Olive herself, who is sometimes teacher-patient and other times frustrated by things she can’t control.
The writing is gorgeous. It’s all very human and worth savoring. Months later, I don’t remember the plotlines as much as I recall the feeling, the sense of place, the coziness of that donut shop.
Homer [we think]
What fun! I groaned when my book club chose this as our January book, but then was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I’m so glad I chose to read Emily Wilson’s new translation, which made the story more accessible while updating some of the concepts that have been historically downplayed. (For example, all those “servants” in older translations were more accurately described as “slaves” by Wilson.)
If possible, I recommend reading much of it aloud, as the iambic pentameter makes for a great reading experience and makes the story flow really well.
The ancient story holds up, with themes we can all recognize: loyalty, grief, love, longing, adventure, regret. And lots of lies. All through a cast of characters that include one-eyed giants, monsters, and plenty of gods.
Bonus pick: I also thoroughly enjoyed Madeline Miller’s Circe, about the lesser goddess exiled to a remote island. Circe and Odysseus have quite a relationship, and the beautifully written novel explores power struggles and destiny, with plenty of monsters.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
Gottlieb is a therapist who decides to seek out therapy for herself after a breakup. Along the way, she examines why it is that people go to therapy (“Every decision we make is based on two things: fear and love. Therapy strives to teach you how to tell them apart.”) and the very human concerns that we all deal with: death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.
That sounds textbook-y, but it’s not. Gottlieb’s book has an almost novel-like plot arc, with interesting (real-life) characters, each dealing with their own issues. We dip in and out of the lives of some of her patients, each of whom is dealing with something that’s often deeper than it initially seems. But there’s so much humor, too! And interspersed are lessons on what we can learn when we pay attention, along with several very thought-provoking questions.
Gottlieb feels so normal, like she could be a neighbor down the street. As a result, her thoughts are very approachable, yet they leave you thinking.
I especially enjoyed her musings on grief and the process of grieving. The “stages of grief” we all hear about (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were originally developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to help terminally ill patients, for whom acceptance was inevitable – they would die. But when a survivor tries to apply these same stages, they often find “acceptance” to be impossible, or hollow, or to feel wrong — because “how can there be an endpoint to love and loss? Do we even want there to be? The price of loving so deeply is feeling so deeply, but it’s also a gift, the gift of being alive. If we no longer feel, we should be grieving our own deaths.”
If you are human with human emotions (or know a human who has emotions), I highly recommend this book.
And now… to my 2021 stack.