The ‘nerdiness’ category

The Quarantimes Week 40: All the Books I Read in This Year of Wonders

December 16th, 2020

I read a lot of novels this year, and in particular a lot of novels by women and BIPOC authors. Reading is a window into how others experience the world. This is one of the things I love most about it.

Last year I read 12 ½ books. This year I’ve read 27. That’s points for a pandemic.

I had this ambitious idea to list them here in the order of how much I enjoyed them, then realized that would be impossible. So many of them were just so good. 

So, loosely organized by category and otherwise just chronological:

Novels

Greenwood by Michael Christie

“Whenever she tells the story of the cyclone…she will puzzle over how to properly describe the sound it made as it ate through her library. She’ll grapple with how one could possibly capture precisely the sound of ten thousand books drawn up into the air and scattered for hundreds of miles. And it won’t be until years later–long after the Depression ends and poor people stop riding the rails…and long after she’s able to again venture into that section of her field where they planted the windbreak of maples together, trees that have only thrived ever since. And long after the void he left in her life entirely heals over–only then will she arrive at a suitable answer: they sounded like birds.” I read it, then flipped back to the beginning and read it all over again.

 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

 

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine

“Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.” This quote has nothing to do with the thread of plot in this book, but I liked it. I was meh on the book itself.

 

 

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.” I read a lot of Barbara Kingsolver when I was younger, then nothing for a long time. This was a nice re-entry into her oeuvre, although this novel is so unlike anything else I’ve ever read of hers. Yet beautiful.

 

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This was probably one of my favorites.“The hours passed; in the warm, dim glow of the igloo I sat staring at the thumbs of my torn mittens. I did not want to stay in that place. All my life I had known only the warmth of the Indies, the fresh salt of the sea air. I felt shuttered up, boxed in, shuddering with a cold no blanket or animal hide or fire could keep out.” The fact that this character has escaped from being enslaved and is now stuck in an igloo is just one of the geographically riveting aspects of this book, which I adored, sorrowfully.

 

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

“Phoebe, you’re a capable girl, but I’m afraid being alone isn’t a skill. It’s a disposition.” I can’t wait to repeat this line to my daughter someday. This book was luminous and harrowing. 

 

 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

My only reread this year, and one of my favorite novels of all time. “Despair is a cavern beneath our feet and we teeter on its very brink.”

 

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Of all the novels I read this year, this was probably the most difficult read. I had a hard time sinking my teeth into the choppy rhythm.

 

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“Fluffy always said there was no greater luxury for a woman than to have a window over the sink.” I somewhat concur, although I also really enjoy a good cashmere sweater and some fancy chocolate.

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead 

I liked this novel a lot more than Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. It was hard to read, but it actually made me gasp with the shivers at the end.

 

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

A definite contender for favorite novel of the year: “You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.”

 

The Overstory by Richard Powers

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” An apt argument for a tale of all trees and the humans hellbent on killing them.

 

 

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

“More and more brown patches were appearing on her face, like the apples she’d cut up and used as mouths on the pancakes. You get overripe from old age in the end.” This is just one vivid description from a book full of ones that make you flinch. 

 

 

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

“She believed that by giving problems a name they tended to manifest themselves, and then it was impossible to ignore them; whereas if they remained in the limbo of unspoken words, they could disappear by themselves, with the passage of time.” She’s talking about a rich South American family, but she might as well be talking about the middle class WASP clan I was born into.

 

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died.” This is a melancholic, simplistic, non-sophisticated young adult novel that goes deep on a very serious subject, and the perpetual 13-year-old in me loved it.

Memoirs 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land.” This is actually a Pema Chodron quote that Shapiro weaves into her book, and perhaps it’s the best-written thing in the book. Not to disparage Inheritance; it was a page-turner, like most modern memoirs with a decent plotline tend to be!

 

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper 

Books about writing, I love, but give me a book about a person who worked at the literal dictionary, swoon: “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets.”

 

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves

A collection of essays by Black women on the reading moments that altered the course of their lives as writers… “Star Trek takes place five hundred years from now, supposedly long after humanity has transcended racism, sexism, etc. But there’s still only one black person on the crew, and she’s the receptionist.”

 

Fairest: A Memoir by Meredith Talusan 

Really riveting story, mediocre writing.

 

 

 

Non-fiction

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Just, the entire history of humanity, no big deal. 

 

 

 

The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom by Mary Griffith

Three guesses why I felt compelled to read this book this year. In the end, I sent my daughters back to their Montessori school, but with dreams of unschooling them one day.

 

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.” 

 

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam by Resa Aslan

“Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith.” Islam is a beautiful religion, and this book pays sweet homage to its rich history.

 

The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley

How they did self-help in the groovy 20th Century.

 

 

 

This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol: Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life by Annie Grace

Eternally the sober-curious sort, I delved into this book this year. Normally self-help books are not my thing, but I took a lot from it. 

 

In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book by Joel Stein

This was a gift, and I was dubious, but it turned out to be very funny, and such a timely read. I read it in three nights.

 

 

And a notable mention

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

I read this  chapter book to my kids over the course of several weeks, during which they listened to almost none of it, and I enjoyed it tremendously. I hadn’t read it since I was a child, and had forgotten about the sheer poetry and expressive old-world vocabulary of this tale about the precocious animals that inhabit our natural world. “The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

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What else I’m reading:

If everything goes well and people agree to take the vaccine, Fauci says herd immunity possible by fall, ‘normality’ by end of 2021, but considering Many Black Americans, Republicans, Women Aren’t Sure About Taking A COVID-19 Vaccine, not feeling hopeful. Also, this: Two Rural States With GOP Governors And Very Different COVID-19 Results

This really made me laugh: Helicopter Mom vs. Jimmy Buffett Dad

I read this story in my paper New Yorker twice and had to look it up for you guys: The Skeletons at the Lake

This story is long and beautiful and totally worth reading: A Sunday Story About Having One Eye

What I’m listening to:

The podcast Love & Logic — parenting skills that aren’t just annoying advice

What I’m watching:

My Christmas tree is all the TV I need right now.

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What I’m eating:

Not these disastrous citrus shortbread cookies that seemed like such a good idea, but were a total Pinterest fail.

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