I had a plane ticket to fly to Shannon, Ireland on March 12th, 2020. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, given what we all know happened next. The punchline might be: Ireland is a lovely country…I’m told. I cast my mind back to that morning, when it was announced that all travel was restricted, that we were in the grips of a full blown pandemic, and that all people were encouraged to stay home. I bought more groceries than I ever had before. I washed my hands more than I ever had before. I felt ill at ease and anxious. What was going to happen? I had no idea. No one seemed to know. As the days dragged into weeks and then months, I, like so many, settled into the pattern of unprecedented uncertainty and ever increasing and amplified injustice, mismanagement, and social unrest. I felt exhausted and afraid. I felt grateful. I found stillness and quiet solitude. I found chaos and unrest. Often all in one day.
For the first time in my life getting my hands on books became tricky. Our local libraries were entirely closed for weeks. Being an aggressive minimalist I keep very few books in my home, and none that I haven’t already read, so with the help of some rebel friends I sought out some contraband books. (Thank you. You know who you are.) Now the libraries are back open, doing curbside and take out window style services. Thank God for libraries and the wonderful people who work tirelessly for them. I read 52 books during this year like no other. They were a raft in the storm. They allowed me to move outside of my apartment, to travel and experience life beyond my four walls. They allowed me to step outside of my fear and worry and into the emotional lives of some other folks. Books are magic.
I am giving you two lists this year, Fiction and Nonfiction, in a loose descending cascade that starts with my favorites. There weren’t any bad reads this year, so even the titles at the bottom are good, I just enjoyed them a tad less then those that came before them. You might also notice, if you’ve a keen eye, that there are only 45 books on my list, and not a moment ago I haughtily proclaimed I read 52. Well I left a few off. Rereads to begin with. Also poetry (I read some Yeats and some Elizabeth Barrett Browning). And I left The Best of Me, by David Sedaris off as well. It’s a wonderful collection of his best essays, and I highly recommend it, but all of his previous books have ranked very high on my lists before and there is nothing new in his greatest hits collection.
I hope you are well, and safe. I hope you found your own path through this strange and ever shifting world. I hope you read some great books, and I’d love to hear about them! And I hope to give you all a hug someday soon. Until then: wash your hands, wear your mask, and take care of yourself, body and soul. Happy reading.
1. Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy, 2020
“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.” This poignant novel is set in a near future where mass extinction is an everyday reality. The story centers on Franny, a woman who is desperate to track the final migration of the last remaining Arctic terns (birds) - but it shuttles about in time, and has a slippery and not always trustworthy narrator in Franny, who has a dark past that echoes back generations. It is speculative climate fiction, but also a fairy tale with many magical elements and moods. It’s beautifully written and at it’s best when exploring grief, loss, and loneliness. I found it deeply moving and often surprising. I read it twice.
2. Writers & Lovers, Lily King, 2020
Lily King is a favorite author of mine. I loved Father of the Rain and Euphoria. But I think this might be my favorite book of hers. A quiet novel about a woman, Casey, struggling to write and publish her first novel while working as a waitress, living below the poverty line, grieving the loss of her mother, and juggling a few troubling lovers while she’s at it. Casey is so real I feel I know her (dare I say I might be her) and she is so alive on the page I was frankly astounded. Detailed and nuanced, this is the work of a writer who knows her craft and has found the soul at the core. A remarkable achievement.
3. The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss, 2007
I don’t read a lot of Fantasy, and when lent this book by a dear friend I must admit it sat around for quite awhile. To be fair it is 662 pages and the pandemic hadn’t arrived yet so I felt like I had options. But once I picked it up I blew through it in about two days; one of those books you stay up all night reading because you can’t put it down. I don’t think I’ve been so impressed by a book of this type since my first reading of The Lord of the Rings. It tells the epic tale (or the first part of an even more epic tale) of Kvothe (no idea how to pronounce that) as he journeys from a loving and gregarious gypsy/minstrel family childhood, to orphan-hood, and then magician's apprentice, a higher education (magical also), true love, and so on. It’s an entire world, and it’s complete, and compelling and phenomenal. Looking forward to reading book two in 2021.
4. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, 1966
Jean Rhys is a fascinating woman. Dominican born (August 1890) to wealthy Welsh and creole parents, she spent her childhood on a plantation in the Caribbean, was educated in London, worked for a time as a chorus girl, was unlucky in love, struggled with alcoholism, and later in life found success as a writer. This remarkable book acts as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. If you remember your Bronte, Mr. Rochester hires Jane to be a nanny in his gloomy mansion,and they fall in love (I guess, it’s hard to see what Jane sees in the horrid Rochester, and everyone’s emotions are secret and silent and tense.) In the attic (spoiler) is a crazy women, who late in the book is identified as Mr. Rochester’s insane wife. Who he locks up in there. You know, for her own good. Well this is that crazy woman’s back story, and let me tell you, it’s lit. This book explores the relationships between men and women, racism, displacement, assimilation, and the horrors of colonialism. And it is gorgeous and haunting writing that will crack you open.
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
Don’t know how I got this far in life without having read this classic. I loved this book. It follows Janie from childhood through three marriages and into her full bloom of liberated self hood (ish). It’s a fascinating, frustrating, and ultimately redemptive (though complicated) ride. Her third husband is called “Tea Cake” which I love. And funny side note while reading this I was a bit obsessed with a podcast: This Podcast will Kill You, and my favorite episode covers rabies AND a key character in this book gets rabies. Which is nuts cause how often do people in books get rabies? Pretty much never.
6. The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke, 1987
Straight Mystery is another genre I don’t read too often, but this might be my favorite book of this type (I still love The Moonstone, but that is an entirely different vibe.) The dialog and prose in this book are downright lyrical, the story is moody and complex and engaging. I loved reading it, it was a pleasure.
7. Madame de Treymes and Others, Edith Wharton, 1907
8. People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks, 2008
9. Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo, 2019
10. Memento Mori, Muriel Spark, 1959
11. If It Bleeds, Stephen King, 2020
12. The Light Between Oceans, M. L. Stedman, 2012
13. The Flight from the Enchanter, Iris Murdoch, 1956
This is a weird little book. My first Murdoch, but not my last.
14. Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer, Sena Jeter Naslund, 1999
15. An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986
16. Full Throttle: Stories, Joe Hill, 2019
This is a great collection of very dark and well crafted short stories. “In the Tall Grass” is one of the two shorts in this collection co-written with Joe’s scribbler pop, Stevey King, and it is still on my mind months after reading it. In the introduction Joe also directly addresses his daddy issues, a rare inside scoop. Good stuff.
17. A House Among the Trees, Julia Glass, 2017
18. Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins, 1980
19. Scratches, Joshua Marsella, 2020
20. The Paris Wife, Paula McLain, 2011
1. One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Brian Doyle, 2019
I’m not sure how to talk about this book. It’s a collection of essays about family, nature, and simple everyday life. But, it’s quite a bit more than that. It’s a treasure trove for any lover of language. It’s startlingly beautiful, and honest, and raw, and often funny, and clearly written by a man who was immensely curious and empathetic towards everyone and thing. This book left me profoundly changed and better for having experienced it. Brian Doyle, a novelist, poet, practicing catholic, and editor of Portland Magazine, died in 2017 at 60 from a brain tumor, and this book was published posthumously.
2. The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, J. Drew Lanham, 2016
“In me, there is the red of miry clay, the brown of spring floods, the gold of ripening tobacco. All of these hues are me; I am, in the deepest sense, colored.” A remarkable memoir of ornithologist and professor of ecology J. Drew Lanham’s childhood, home, family, and the life that nurtured in him a love of land and nature so lovely it inspires awe. This book is an absolute pleasure to read. I fell in love with Drew’s grandmother, who believed in ghosts and lived, by choice, in a shack on the property; and Drew as a boy, laying still and silent in a field so the buzzards would land close to him and he could study them; and the Home Place, the land his family owned and worked and loved. Beautiful and unique book.
3. Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences, Richard Pryor & Todd Gold, 1995
Richard Pryor had the kind of life few people live to tell about. One of the funniest and most influential comedians of all time, he was married seven times, but twice to the same person, but not the same person both times, if you follow, which you might not, because it’s a mess, so seven marriages to five women, if that clarifies anything. And seven children, muddled up with six women, not all of whom he was married to, so again, try to keep up. And he grew up in a brothel, run by his grandmother, where his alcoholic mother sometimes worked, but was mostly absent. It makes for a pretty compelling read. Devastating, sometimes, but also really funny, and oddly bighearted. Pryor died of complications from Multiple Sclerosis/heart disease at age 65, leaving behind a legacy of some of the best comedy ever made.
4. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken, 2008
This is a memoir about a miscarriage, and as McCracken says it, “This is the happiest story in the world, with the saddest ending.” It’s moving, and unexpected, and often funny, and very, very odd, just like Elizabeth herself. The longer I live the more I realize that death is not just a part of life, but something that is integrated into living. When people speak honestly about grief and loss I sit up and listen. It’s something we all need.
5. Quit Like a Woman: the Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, Holly Whitaker, 2019
This is a book I’ve been looking for for a long time, and Holly Whitaker finally had the good grace, and the intelligence and guts, to write it. It is a groundbreaking look at the drinking culture women have found themselves in, and it offers, for those in need of or just curious about, a way to step outside of that culture and take a different path. Deeply researched, wonderfully personal, a book that struck me on almost every page with new insights.
6. Dry, Augusten Burroughs, 2003
7. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love & Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed, 2012
8. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate, 2008
This is a phenomenal book about addiction written by a doctor who worked for years in a clinic in a rough skid row area of Canada. A deep dive into the psychological, socioeconomic, and societal influences on our brains and lives. Also one of the most well laid out arguments for the decriminalization of drugs I’ve come upon. Excellent and heartbreaking book.
9. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston, 1976
10. Lust & Wonder, Augusten Burroughs, 2016
11. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
One of the best books I've read is Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This Baldwin is the influence for that work. Amazing to track the through line here.
12. The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner, 1985
13. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett, 2009
14. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, 1994
15. True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall, Mark Salzman, 2003
16. How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, 2019
17. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Peter Levine, 2010
18. Light Magic for Dark Times, Lisa Marie Basille, 2018
19. The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison, 2018
20. Cool, Calm, & Contentious, Merrill Markoe, 2011
21. I’ll be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara, 2018
22. Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson, 1953
23. This Naked Mind, Annie Grace, 2015
24. Round Ireland with a Fridge, Tony Hawks, 2000
25. Open Book, Jessica Simpson & Kevin Carr O’Leary, 2020