In one of the two holiday movies I watch without fail, It’s a Wonderful Life, lead character George Bailey is a man who has always resented his meagre, small town life until he gets a chance to see what said town would have been like if he’d never been born. George discovers that he actually made a significant, positive impact on the world and, what’s more, he himself has had “a wonderful life.”
In The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, a peasant woman in Renaissance France makes a deal with a dark god: life, free of constraints, in exchange for her soul when she tires of it. 300 years later, Addie has learned how to live in a world where she makes no impression whatsoever—she cannot tell her story, she is immediately forgotten once out of someone’s sight. Still, she finds ways to manage and to be felt even if not remembered.
Both Addie LaRue and Wonderful Life explore what it means to leave a mark on the world through the experience of not leaving a mark. This is a question I’m also thinking about as I write this year-end review of reading. I wonder, what is the point of keeping this blog, or of writing in general? It is certainly not for fame or fortune. And yet it is a way to say, I was here. I did things. I thought things. I shared things with anyone who was interested enough to read about it. It might not be a deep impression, but it’s still something.
- Favorite Non-Fiction – A strikingly diverse group of texts—memoir, history, movement facilitation and motivation, and more, encapsulated under the umbrella of “non-fiction.”
- 10. While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change, M. Jackson – This memoir, wrestling with the author’s twinned griefs around climate change and the deaths of her parents, has stuck with me all year.
- 9. Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree browne – This one’s a re-read, and I found it just as inspirational and thought-provoking as on the first read. browne has a talent for shifting perspective in order to see the most important things to focus on in a world of challenges and problems.
- 8. Trace, Lauret Savoy – A beautiful combination of nature writing, memoir, and history, enhancing all three genres by peeling back the layers of racial erasure in the American landscape.
- 7. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone – A classic but a first time read for me. Essential for anyone who cares but isn’t sure how to move forward beyond the paralysis of grief, despair, and/or overwhelm.
- 6. In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado – Machado layers genres in this memoir in an attempt to understand and tell the story of her abusive relationship. Beautiful and powerful work.
- 5. M Train, Patti Smith – I re-read both this and Just Kids this year and M Train is officially my favorite of Smith’s memoirs. Such a gorgeous book!
- 4. The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara – A fascinating uncovering of a forgotten woman from mid-century Hollywood and monster movie history, with a dash of memoir chronicling O’Meara’s experience writing the book and being a woman working in the same genre-wing of the industry.
- 3. Here For It, or How to Save Your Soul in America, R. Eric Thomas – I laughed. I cried. I will read anything that Thomas writes because he’s that funny and lovely and great.
- 2. Ninth Street Women, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art, Mary Gabriel – If I were categorizing these picks, I would classify this one as “toughest sell.” Yes, it’s 700+ pages on five female abstract impressionist painters. It’s also great. As someone who’s been missing art museums and travel, this book inspired me with its deep dive into the artistic process and world, and its sheer New Yorkness. Plus, it spans, roughly, from the Great Depression through the end of the 1950s, which were challenging, fascinating decades in New York, American, and global history that author Gabriel knits in alongside the subjects’ lives.
- 1. The Book of Delights, Ross Gay – It’s impossible to resist calling this collection of micro-essays by poet Gay, each one musing on a specific delight, a delight in and of itself. Because it is.
- Favorite Fiction
- 11. Heads of the Colored People: Stories, Nafissa Thompson-Spires – A dark and darkly funny collection of short stories that stuck with me like burrs in the brain.
- 10. The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow – Thoughtful and engaging historical fantasy with a compelling protagonist and a planet full of doorways leading to other worlds, other stories.
- 9. Empire of Wild, Cherie Dimaline – This book has everything—missing husbands, tent revivals, Indigenous magic, werewolves!
- 8. Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia – A clever spin on the Gothic novel, set in 1950s Mexico, that knows just what sandbox it’s playing in and so understands exactly how to subvert it.
- 7. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Karczuk, Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones – A murder mystery wrapped in a musing on loneliness and the meaning of community. Set in rural Poland with a remarkable protagonist/narrator.
- 6. The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa, trans by Stephen Snyder – Every so often, things disappear from this island nation and the Memory Police enforce their erasure with ruthless efficiency. A puzzle box of an allegory.
- 5. Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi – Haunting, heart-breaking, brutal and not here to play. Puts the lie to any dismissals of YA fantasy and its capabilities.
- 4. Circe, Madeline Miller – The only re-read to make the top 10 this year and I enjoyed and admired this retelling of the myth of Circe even more than the first time I read it. During COVID and #stayinghome, Circe’s isolation also took on deeper resonance.
- 3. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell – In a sense, this book wags its finger at fantasy but in the most apologetic, devastating, and beautiful way. This book broke something in me and I’m still working to put it back together.
- 2. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke – Another book full of layers where a description of plot or setting or even character would not capture the actual point. Protagonist Piranesi lives a largely solitary existence in a world made up of a massive “house” surrounded by an ocean and full of sweeping, statue-filled halls. And yet things are not as they seem. (Are they ever?)
- 1. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett – Look, I admired The Vanishing Half before gushing about The Vanishing Half was cool. Or perhaps, if you can’t beat them, join them. Or, rather, who cares? This is such a great, smart, complex and yet entirely engaging novel that it’s no surprise it topped so many end-of-year lists.
- Honorable Mentions
- Rebecca, Daphne de Maurier – New to me and entirely delicious.
- The City We Became, N. K. Jemisin – Given that Jemisin seems to have the rare gift of writing series that get better and better, I cannot wait for the next installment.
- The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller – I debated between this one (new read) and Circe (re-read) on the main list because I legitimately liked this novel a lot. But in the end I love Circe more, although I am glad to have read this retelling of the love and adventures of disgraced prince Patroclus and the mighty Achilles.
- Orange World and Other Stories, Karen Russell – How to choose between dark and darkly funny collections of short stories that stick in the brain? How?!?! I did but it was hard to pick.
77 books read, 24,205 pages read, 11 re-reads, 66 first timers.
For the first half of the 2020 list, see this post. For last year’s list, go here.
One star = I thought it was quite good; Two stars = I thought it was really good.
Zero stars is not a value judgement beyond that, some I liked quite a bit, others not so much.
|Title and Number – July-December||Author||Pages||Re-read?|
|45. Slade House||David Mitchell||238||No|
|*46. The Golem and the Jinni||Helene Wecker||484||No|
|47. Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it all with the Greatest Chef in the World||Jeff Gordinier||240||No|
|48. Once Upon a River||Diane Setterfield||460||No|
|49. Crossings||Alex Landrigan||359||No|
|50. Until the End of Time||Brian Greene||326||No|
|51. The Broken Kingdoms||N. K. Jemisin||384||No|
|*52. Heads of the Colored People: Stories||Nafissa Thompson-Spires||197||No|
|*53. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good||adrienne maree brown||441||No|
|*54. The Kingdom of Gods||N. K. Jemisin||575||No|
|*55. Empire of Wild||Cherie Dimaline||298||No|
|56. Insomnia||Marina Benjamin||122||No|
|*57. Mexican Gothic||Silvia Moreno-Garcia||301||No|
|58. The Secret Garden||Frances Hodgson Burnett||264||Yes|
|*59. M Train||Patti Smith||275||Yes|
|*60. The Memory Police||Yoko Ogawa, trans by Stephen Snyder||274||No|
|**61. Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus||Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell||No|
|62. The Future Earth||Eric Holthaus||229||No|
|**63. Piranesi||Susanna Clarke||247||No|
|64. Annihilation||Jeff VandeMeer||195||No|
|*65. Trace||Lauret Savoy||186||No|
|**66. Uprooted||Naomi Novik||435||Yes|
|*67. Margaret the First||Danielle Dutton||160||No|
|68. Everfair||Nisi Shawl||382||No|
|*69. The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick||Mallory O’Meara||309||No|
|**70. Riot Baby||Tochi Onyebuchi||173||No|
|71. The Age of Miracles||Karen Thompson Walker||269||No|
|*72. Every Heart a Doorway||Seanan McGuire||169||No|
|**73. Ninth Street Women, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art||Mary Gabriel||716||No|
|*74. The Once and Future Witches||Alix E. Harrow||516||No|
|**75. Emergent Strategy||adrienne maree browne||274||Yes|
|76. The Wild Edge of Sorrow||Francis Weller||169||No|
|*77. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue||V. E. Schwab||442||No|
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