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My 2020 Year in Reading
Something different for Newsletter #10
On January 1, 2020 we were in West Virginia. We had flown there for Christmas, on a packed airplane, with no masks and no distancing. Wild to recall that time, our last airplane trip, another universe ago. In West Virginia the kids came down with a puking bug that they mysteriously experienced every other (??? why? how?) night, politely taking turns (one night Ev, the next night Gigi, and so on) for about 6 of the 10 days of our trip. One day, Ev had been up sick the night before, but the family had a planned trip to Baltimore -- a 1.5 hour drive each way to see extended family, including 99-year-old aunt Dottie, a fascinating woman who lived in a Baltimore retirement home, and who would in June die from COVID-19. Instead, because of the sickness and the sleep deprivation, Ev and I stayed home and lounged together on the bed in the basement in West Virginia. While he alternated between sleeping, barfing, and tablet time, I spent the entire day reading Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House in one sitting.
This was the first of the 52 books I read this year. When at the end of the year I look back at my list of what I read, it brings me back not only to the book but the reading experience--where I was, how I felt, if I tore through a book or dutifully plodded my way to the end. In reviewing my 2020 list, I see myself almost entirely in one place: in bed at home, usually at the tail end of another long day with inadequate childcare after doing the bare minimum for my full time job because I had no other choice, because this year we were asked to do the impossible in so many different ways. I was reading to transport myself out of my shrunken-down world in my house and also to distract from the larger world outside of my control--the virus, our country’s “leaders,” the facts of how badly we’ve failed so many people in this country in so many ways. If I think about all of it too much I am filled with a white hot, incandescent rage that could power a city. So I read books instead.
I fell in love with Susan Choi after reading Trust Exercise at the end of 2019, so this year I read My Education (loved) and American Woman (liked). I borrowed American Woman from the SF Public Library in hard copy before shelter-in-place began, and it remains near my bedside table even now, nine months later, because most libraries here are still closed and SFPL has a no-fine policy, bless them. I’d estimate a solid ¾ of the books I read, I did so on my Kindle after borrowing them from the library, downloading them without even having to leave the stale air of my bedroom. Again, bless them. Libraries - a model for what I want more of in our future communities.
Sitting in bed, I read and loved the following: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (please I would like a vacation in that lonely hotel on an island near British Columbia); Euphoria by Lily King (truly loved, a story of three anthropologists inspired by Margaret Mead, big recommend); and Godshot by Chelsea Bieker (a page-turner that would make a great movie). The short stories in Fraternity by Ben Nugent; How Much of these Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang; The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe; and Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam were full of distinct characters I still think about. I re-read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and I finally read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel which took me a while to warm up to but still lingers enough that I plan to embark on book two, Bring Up the Bodies, in 2021. A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, Weather by Jenny Offill, and Want by Lynn Seger Strong are a trilogy of bleak and haunting books narrated at a cold distance that capture something about our current moment. I don’t recommend them if you’re on the verge of depression, but I loved them nonetheless.
I did have a couple of other unique reading experiences. My favorite was April and May, when I listened to the podcast “Phoebe Reads a Mystery” where she read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and I marveled at how clever and modern a Victorian novel could feel. I listened to this on my daily walks, down 27th Avenue, across Fulton into Golden Gate Park, past the disc golf course where there would frequently be players already lined up at 7:45 or 8:00am, often with a can of Pabst in hand. Through the wooded area and around the track outside the polo field Phoebe read and I was transported. Later I read Wilkie Collins’s other book, The Woman in White, at the recommendation of my brilliant friend Jade who is a Victorian lit professor, and I loved that too.
These were fiction books I read for fun, but there were three other books that were truly the heart of this year for me--so invaluable that I barely register them as part of my “Year in Reading” and feel they might fit better on a “Resources That Changed My Life” list. Lynda Barry (all of it), The Artist’s Way, and This Naked Mind. These books were life-rafts that saved me, bibles that guided me, portals that revealed another world to me. 2020 was my Lynda Barry year. I have loved her since I found Cruddy in the Kahului Borders 20 years ago, but I rediscovered her in 2020 (and I re-read Cruddy this year, too). I ordered Making Comics in March as a potential source of activities to offer the children, suddenly at home all the time with me. Making Comics amused them for a few minutes but became a touchstone for me, and helped me decide to spend my sabbatical doing a creative retreat. It inspired me to dive into Lynda’s oeuvre and I read One! Hundred! Demons, and What It Is, and Picture This, and even went so far back to The Good Times Are Killing Me. I wrote her fan mail; I will forever be grateful for her open-hearted invitation to make art in her books, and showing me the way in Making Comics. It opened up a new and beautiful world for me.
And of course, The Artist’s Way. I grew so much from the simple processes and questions that book asked of me. Like wiping away the rain from your windshield, all the revelations that book guided me toward were gentle but important, like they’ve been right in front of me all along, waiting for me to be able to see them. And then I listened to the audiobook of This Naked Mind, and stopped drinking after drinking way too much between March and September, and thanks to that book it feels like I escaped something sinister.
In 2020, books transported me and distracted me and revealed some new and beautiful magic in the world that I hadn’t been able to see before. I needed books more this year than maybe any other, and as usual they were there for me.