I began 2020 with a fire in my belly for reading. I made up a goal to ensure a robust literary year: 20 novels, 20 plays. I proceeded to read more nonfiction than ever before, and I have no regrets.
1. Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding (1996)
This was a fun and easy read, even if it felt a bit repetitive at times. The journal of a functional alcoholic with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, this book moves quickly and ends up exactly where you want it to end. What more could you want in a rom-com?
2. Calypso, David Sedaris (2018)
David Sedaris has written extensively about his childhood and family from the vantage point of adulthood and time passed, and he’s at his best when he is at his most personal. In Calypso he dives into the recent realities of his mother’s death, his sister’s suicide, and his relationship with his elderly father. I remember learning the news of his sister’s death and feeling like my friend lost someone important. It feels voyeuristic to read the details, but Sedaris turns his pain into art. We are lucky to have him.
3. Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide, Georgia Hardstark & Karen Kilgariff (2019)
This book is as entertaining to read as their podcast is to listen to. A “dual memoir,” the authors’ writing and humor is very specific to each person. Karen is a professional comedy writer; her words are well-crafted and devastatingly funny. Georgia is an earnest bookworm; she puts everything out on the table for us to see. SSDGM is an advice book, with only some connections to true crime (inserted upon their editor’s request). If you enjoy the opening segments of My Favorite Murder (i.e., you aren’t a skipper), then you would enjoy these personal stories. In addition to learning more about Georgia and Karen, the advice they give is actually very useful.
4. Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, Mara Wilson (2016)
Memoirs generally follow the basic trajectory of childhood —> adversity —> success. Former child actor Mara Wilson’s memoir proceeds success/childhood —> adversity —> normal life. The theme of the book is that she’s a normal woman who had a very abnormal job as a little girl; she says this herself many times, and the stories of her adult life prove it. Her movies were a part of my childhood, and she has interesting stories from her days as a child actor. As a fan of Matilda, I am glad that character is as important to the actress who played her as Matilda is to the rest of us.
On a personal level, Wilson’s description of her childhood OCD was like reading a description of my own little kid mind. I’ve never been diagnosed with it, and my issues did not blossom the way hers did, but I saw myself in that chapter in a way I never have before.
5. Watchmen, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons & John Higgins (1986-1987)
I reread this graphic novel after watching the HBO show of the same name. Again, I am in awe of the narrative structure, the use of parallel scenes and themes and images, and generally the entire composition. For what it’s worth, I believe the show went in exciting, wonderful, clever directions worthy of the novel.
6. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer (2011)
I worried Moonwalking with Einstein would be just an expanded, redundant version of Foer’s TEDTalk, but I was proven wrong. Foer frames thought and memory in ancient but new-to-me ways. This book made me feel empowered to improve my memory—something I’ve always written off as simply bad.
Most of my memory is external. As a librarian, my most valuable skill is knowing where to look for information, not necessarily memorizing that information. I desperately document processes and compile the locations of information because my mind is like a sieve.
Usually documentation of information works for me, but when I perform improv I cannot use external memory banks. When I needed to get really good at remembering beats of a Harold, I started developing my own memory palaces. Improv was postponed indefinitely mid-March, and I lost my motivation keep up this practice. Nevertheless memory skills are clearly valuable, and I will return to Foer’s lessons when the time comes.
Sidenote: did you know Joshua Foer co-founded Atlas Obscura. Neat!
7. The Michigan Murders, Edward Keyes (1976)
Though I love My Favorite Murder, I rarely read true crime books. This one did not convince me to make a habit of it. I don’t care for this type of journalistic writing, and the final third of the book (which is heavy on repetitive issues of legal evidence) is boring as hell.
Nevertheless, reading The Michigan Murders was neat because I’m familiar with the locations described in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, including the law school (though another person has been convicted of that particular murder). I thought it was strange that the author changed the names of not only the victims, but also the perpetrator. I suppose that is a mark of how recent the murders were when the book was published.
8. The Complete Improviser: Concepts, Techniques, and Exercises for Long Form Improvisation, Bill Arnett (2017)
The Complete Improviser is a straightforward book that had a big influence on me as an improviser. I’ve never been great at creating weird characters or situations, and this book helped me find what I’m naturally good at, like reacting honestly and emotionally. I needed that as a foundation before I could venture out into things that I’m less comfortable with. The physical book looks incredibly self-published, like it was formatted in a Word doc. Arnett needs no bells and whistles; he takes the teaching of improv seriously.
9. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari (2014)
We know that cultures, religions, governments, and the like change over time and geography, but what other than the passage of time caused those changes? Sapiens shines light on the significance of shifts in human value systems—what circumstances changed? What underlying values were disturbed or abandoned? This book feels revolutionary.
The author’s underlying goals appear to be (1) end industrial agriculture, (2) promote Buddhism, and (3) re-institute fancy dress for male leaders. Honestly, I am on board with all three.
10. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed (2012)
In this advice column essay compilation, each letter asks how to deal with some obstacle that seems insurmountable. Forgiveness, life changes, possibly beginning or ending relationships with family, partners, and friends–all those situations that we get hung up on and avoid resolving because any decision will involve a radical departure from the life we are currently surviving. Sugar answers with compassion, tough love, clarity, and wisdom. Truly inspiring.
11. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (2012)
I experienced this book in an atypical order. First, I saw the Gilmore Girls episode where Lorelai attempts to recreate Strayed’s trek. Second, I watched the movie adaptation on a plane. Finally, I read the book and found myself wanting to follow in Lorelai’s footsteps (i.e., get inspired to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and then give up).
Strayed seamlessly weaves her autobiography together with her travelogue, bringing forward natural beauty and internal revelation (also a few unexpected graphic sex scenes).
12. The Cider House Rules, John Irving (1985)
I found it hard to find a flow reading The Cider House Rules, which hasn’t been a problem reading other Irving novels. I suspect this is because everyone seems so unhappy, and the subject matter (orphans and abortion) is so dark.
I did not particularly like this book. I do not believe any of the characters are real, particularly the women. Melony and Candy are both weak and obsessed with men. The repetition of catchphrases —“right,” “wait and see”—is quickly tiresome, and the various peculiarities ascribed to orphans are comical. The reader lives with the tension of a secret without the satisfaction of seeing it revealed. The reader does see a lot of graphic descriptions of obstetrical procedures.
Part of my disappointment in this book likely stems from the truth Melony reveals: Homer Wells is not a hero. The reader also expects him to be one, but he’s nothing but a man child not taking responsibility for his life.
Regardless, Irving is really a genius with the craft of language. In one paragraph, he can triangulate between characters living separate story lines in separate locations. Masterful!
13. Mega-Dams and Indigenous Human Rights, Itzchak E. Kornfeld (2020)
It was ~11 months late, but I wrote a review of this legal work for the a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Legal Information. Sneak peek: “These small indiscretions, together with the paucity of human rights discussion, make the monograph seem unfinished. Nevertheless, this book would be a good starting place for those interested in the effect of major infrastructure projects on minority native populations.” Apparently I can get pretty sassy about topics I know very little about.
14. Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson eds. (1890-1896)
Having finished the Poem a Day series, I had to return to more traditional volumes of poetry. Emily Dickinson’s poems are divided into four thematically organized books titled Life, Love, Nature, and Time and Eternity. The Nature poems are lovely, but lack the punch you look forward to. The death poems pummel you right in the gut.
15. The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, Carlos Hernandez (2016)
This collection of short stories blew me away, and not just because I am part assimilated Cuban. Carlos Hernandez drops you in the middle of each story with no explanations and no extraneous language. The confidence of his straightforward, natural style allows him to drop one unbelievable twist into each story. As a reader, I hung onto his every word, and I was rewarded every time.
16. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation, Stephen Mitchell tr. (2002)
When reading this ancient text, I experience three parallel impulses. On one level, I see the prescriptive nature of Krishna’s words and how they could be converted into doctrine. I am not terribly familiar with Hinduism, so I can’t say how Krishna’s pronouncements manifest themselves in religious practice. Having been raised Catholic, I am very aware of the words of Jesus and other Biblical figures have morphed into strict rules and codes, empty of spiritual meaning. Because it is impossible to speak about the spirit without using the limitations of language, every spiritual teacher is at risk of misinterpretation or perversion. That is why teachers appear in different ages and cultures, speaking in different languages and different metaphors—because new symbols are needed when the old symbols have been literalized.
This brings me to the second experience pulsing through Bhagavad Gita: the parallels between Krishna and Jesus. I’m not the first person to comment on the strong connections between Krishna’s words, his message, and his transfiguration. Krishna taught the Indians of ~200BCE what Jesus taught the Judeans of ~30CE. I’ve heard Jesus’s words since I was a child, but Krishna’s words are fresh and clear and can cut through the jaded haze of culture. In fact, the juxtaposition with Christ’s teachings make the Gospel more alive—the meaning breaks through.
Opening my heart to the meaning is the third and most powerful level I experience in this text. Regardless of history, time, upbringing, and language, this simple and beautiful translation speaks directly to the spirit. Yes, the Bhagavad Gita is intellectually interesting as a cultural artifact and focus of comparative religion, but it is much more rewarding when the reader is receptive to its original purpose.
17. Salt Fat Acid Heat; Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat (2017)
Salt Fat Acid Heat is exactly the kind of cookbook I’ve always wanted. Samin Nosrat teaches readers how to cook intuitively by using these four elements to create dishes with confidence.
SFAH is overwhelming to simply read; the information is difficult to retain without first putting it into practice. That being said, the practices described seem very doable.
I like that Nosrat provides projects to tackle and skills to develop. SFAH is essentially a self-help cookbook.
18. Great Tales from English History, Robert Lacey (2003)
These little snippets of English history, biography, scandal, and myth are a whitewashed version of history, and I would not depend on this book for unbiased historical accuracy. Nevertheless, it is fun, Anglophilic brain candy. These are the legends and tall tales that inform British culture–what English schoolchildren know but American adults wouldn’t necessarily have a reason to.
It is a comfort to me when I remember that much of English history is also American history. Of course English history is often dark and ugly, but it includes Shakespeare and produced The Beatles so sue me.
19. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo (2018)
I learned a lot from this book. Truly, it transformed the way I understand myself and the people around me, and those lessons have stuck with me through the year since I read it.
Robin DiAngelo provides a clear definition of racism, as defined by race scholars, and how the widespread understanding of “racism” as something only bad people do prevents any real reflection or progress, instead preserving our society’s systemic racism. This definition is fundamental to the book, as “white fragility” is triggered by our need to defend ourselves as “not the baddies” when any of our behavior is labeled “racist.” DiAngelo offers the following as a way to understand one’s individual relationship with racism:
[T]here is no face to save and the game is up; I know that I have blind spots and unconscious investments in racism. My investments are reinforced every day in mainstream society. I did not set this system up, but it does unfairly benefit me, I do use it to my advantage, and I am responsible for interrupting it.pg. 125
White Fragility takes the reader through the causes, manifestations, and consequences of white fragility. After clearly identifying white fragility and how to recognize it, the closing chapters describe the alternative: how I can, as a white person, accept feedback on my racist words and actions in a way that interrupts systemic racism and promotes my own growth. I very much appreciate these action items.
DiAngelo crafted the book knowing that every word would trigger white fragility. Her presentation is factual but not scientific; blunt but not judgmental; damning but not condescending.
This book receives a lot of criticism for being an opportunity for white people to pay another white person for lessons on racism. That is a fact, but I don’t consider it disqualifying. In my view, White Fragility carries an important message in an effective package. For what it’s worth, I’ve read a few of the popular books on the topic of anti-racism, and each one approaches anti-racism work with a specific focus. White fragility as a phenomenon is touched on in other books, and in my experience the message hit me the hardest in this volume. Should it be the only anti-racism work someone reads? Absolutely not. Is it worth reading if you are a white person alive in 2021? Definitely.
20. The Essential Neruda, Mark Eisner ed. (2004)
I traded a loaf of bread for this collection of poems. I read each poem in English and then in Spanish; each version informed my understanding of the other. I shrank away from the first few poems in the collection, which included descriptions of female bodies. At the time I interpreted them from the point of view of the subject women, and they triggered feelings of inadequacy and competition. I would probably appreciate them more now from the point of view of the author.
I relished my first experience with Neruda. He presents people and nature and passion and the world in powerful images and words thick with substance.
21. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin (1963)
This book came into my possession through some anonymous Amazon worker who decided my order was missing something. I’ve never received a random extra book from Amazon, so it seemed like a sign to prioritize reading it.
I can say what many have already said: James Baldwin’s words are arresting in their force, and sadly they are still applicable despite the nearly 60 years that have passed. Baldwin explains the intent of the Nation of Islam in ways I’ve never understood. He also reviews the powerful effects of the Christian church on the state of the world.
22. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, Bill Bryson (1990)
Bryson traces the English language from its prehistoric sources through centuries of influences—conquering peoples, conquered peoples, printed word, spoken word, and more.
One influence The Mother Tongue is missing, simply because it did not exist at the time of publication, is the influence of the internet, email, social media, and texting on the language. More people communicate by writing more often and with a wider audience than at any time in human history. I would be interested in Bryson’s take on how this already has affected (and potentially will affect) the language. Other authors may have done this, but I’d love to see a treatment by Bryson’s curious mind and unique voice.
23. The Complete Maus, Art Spiegelman (1980-1991)
I read this graphic novel in one sitting. Maybe I wanted to finish it, so that I would not live in the horrors between the covers.
Maus tells the story of one Holocaust survivor. It is a constant stream of near death experiences, lucky breaks, and cunning successes. While reading I was frequently struck by the reminder that every single European Jew of this era, whether or not they survived, has a similar story. It either ends with their death or their life after war, but it is a personal narrative of fear. The subject survivor’s son (i.e., Maus‘s author, inserted into the narrative as himself) is devastated by the loss of his mother’s journals. They contained her story, which was almost certainly similar to her husband’s but also completely individual. After losing the six million stories that were ended by German murder, the loss of one more life story seems too much to bear.
Maus illustrates the continuing destruction of the Holocaust. Those who survived are never whole. Vladek lives in 1970s Queens by the skills that kept him alive in 1940s Poland, still surviving but full of survivor’s guilt. His son wants to live a normal American life, but also feels survivor’s guilt despite being born after the war. The story of Vladek is fascinating, and the presentation of that story is in and of itself meaningful.
24. Poems that Make Grown Women Cry, Anthony and Ben Holden ed. (2016)
I take issue with the organization of this book: chronologically by the chosen poem. If this were an historical anthology of poetry, this might make sense, but nothing about the purpose of the book necessitates this order. What we end up with are clumps of similar poems, like Rumi and Hafiz together, and several consecutive poems by Emily Dickinson.
What poems make grown women cry (according to this book)? Poems that made them cry when they were little girls. Poems that were written by loved ones who have died. And, very occasionally, poems that grown women encounter that touch their spirit.
25. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (2003)
Technically this is a book about science and math. Stylistically it is a literary history about science. At heart it is a book about people. People who have quirks and anxieties and interests. People who made hundreds of mistakes and revolutionary discoveries. People who were curious, who kept to themselves, who formed clubs, who schemed and stole, who thought they knew everything, who taught us everything.
Breaking through our public school-understanding of scientific fields, Bryson demonstrates how fields begat one another. Geologists needed to be mathematicians to calculate the age of the earth. Astronomers needed to be geologists to understand the nature of planets. Mathematicians needed to be sailors to perform global calculations. Like good improv, Bryson focuses on relationships not the thing. Instead of explaining the science in boring depth, he tells us why the discovery happened where it did, at the time it did, by whom it did.
I found the middle section difficult to read, as it outlines all the ways life on earth may be wiped out. I don’t need a reminder! The final section is on the different species that may have evolved into us, which makes A Short History of Nearly Everything a very good book to read right before Sapiens, which begins with what is known about these species (and has a lot of more up-to-date science). I’d love an update on what we’ve learned since publication. (I gotta stop giving Bill homework assignments.)
26. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays, Sam Irby (2017)
These essays were not compiled from the author’s blog, but they have the casual, confessional nature and disjointed structure of an internet post. Sometimes the meaning of a sentence is lost in the jumble of self-deprecating references and half-explained anecdotes.
Irby recounts her life in deeply personal stories, describing challenges past, present, and future that aren’t widely represented in more traditional literature. This book made me sad often and laugh rarely. She tells the story of putting her cat to sleep; she didn’t stay with the cat when it died.
27. The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson (2019)
Approaching science in his particular style, Bryson recognizes and seizes upon the opportunity to rewrite the historical narrative. He he profiles scientists in particular depth when their contributions have been forgotten or minimized by common texts. Similarly, he rectifies common misconceptions (like the idea that adults need to drink 8 cups of water a day) and explains the faulty origins of such.
Reading about all of the billions of little components that constitute my body, as well as the billions of chance events that led to and continue my existence, I felt particularly fragile.
28. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997)
I read the 2017 edition of this book, which opens with summary of setbacks, advancements, and stagnation on the racial landscape between 1996-2016. Needless to say, this section was very depressing to read (particularly before Biden was elected). Tatum strategically uses parallels between racism and sexism, possibly to help connect white women (e.g., me) to the concepts.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? dives into child development theory with more depth than I expected, and I found it fascinating. Tatum gives insight into the experience of children and how the effects of institutional racism manifest long before a Black person is denied a job or a loan. I have met educators who write off minority children based on their race; this book should be required reading for anyone who works with children.
29. The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies (1981)
The Rebel Angels is Robertson Davies’ love letter to university life. He shapes the narrative to allow for pages and pages of academic chatter and professorial eccentricity. The now-unthinkable relationships between professors and students date this work, as does the scientific discussion, but I’m sure these were true to the day. I suspect the characters are inspired by real-life professors; I wonder if Davies’ colleagues found themselves in his work.
My first post on this blog was a review of The Rebel Angels in 2014. I also reviewed the second book in the series, but never the third. Reading this book again was in preparation for completing my trilogy.
30. Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms, John Hodgman (2019)
Reading a book about traveling while I sat at home on lockdown was a strange experience, but John Hodgman’s voice felt like an old friend. Hodgman has been in many secret rooms, and his reaction to having Medallion Status is imposter syndrome (very relatable). Hodgman dispenses wisdom (“Don’t let your body stray in the world while you are absent,” “Accept the gift”) with humility.
I was excited to see the section on smaller venues he has traveled to or performed in. He lists two shows in Birmingham, Alabama; I went to both of them. He tells the story of putting his cat to sleep; he stayed with the cat when it died.
31. Circe, Madeline Miller (2018)
Like Joseph Heller’s God Knows, Circe tells the story of a legendary figure from that figure’s point of view. Unlike God Knows, Circe does not enhance the story with humor or satire, favoring the steady, declarative pace of Greek myth.
Throughout the novel, famous names from mythology are presented like celebrity cameos. A figure is described before he or she is named, whetting the reader’s curiosity; the reveal of the famous figure satisfies that feeling. The comings and goings of mythical visitors could easily be one-off vignettes without lasting consequence, but each cameo affects Circe—internally or externally—and contributes to the overall narrative.
As a Ulysses superfan, I was delighted to realize that I read Calypso and Circe at the beginning and end of the year, respectively.
32. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)
Oryx and Crake is a dystopian novel that felt like a mix of Infinite Jest and The Road. I listened to the audiobook version, and at some point I realized I was listening to find out what already happened, not what will happen. Between the present narrative and the flashbacks to the world before, the reader seeks resolve in learning the mysterious recent history. The effect is unsettling. It seems manipulative, like a cheat code to holding my interest.
33. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown (2018)
Austin Channing Brown strikes a natural balance between telling her personal story and speaking to widespread issues. I listened to this as an audiobook as well, and I settled into the recording like hearing a friend tell her life story. This book stands out for the way Brown demonstrates the positive effects of Christian strength and community in a society that likes to dismiss religion entirely.
34. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown (2015)
The ever-inspiring Brené Brown clearly lays out ways to reevaluate your relationships with family, colleagues, friends, strangers, and yourself. I related a lot to the bits on vulnerability in the corporate world. I even found the parenting chapter helpful, despite being an adult without children.
I did a lot of rereading this year, but at least I did a lot of reading (for me). My top new reads were Sapiens, Maus, Tiny Beautiful Things, and The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. Regarding my 2021 reading plans: I want to learn, I want to improve myself, and I want to enjoy myself.