Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 Book Lists! Great Reads for a Trashfire Year.

Good news: I read 53 books this year! Since I don't finish books I don't like, I can promise I enjoyed them all. You can see my whole list here.

I've been doing these favorites lists for a long time, and this year I've decided to do a 20 for 2020. I'm going to organize the twenty books into two balanced flights. So, there's a romance and at least one mystery on each list, for example. There's some nonfiction both here and there. Each offering is a mix of "commercial" and "literary." I like each flight equally as much. Away we go!

Here's the first flight in alphabetical order by author.

The Herd by Andrea Bartz.

People Magazine highlighted this compulsive novel as a "distracting thriller." I concur. The clever plot and smart writing sucked me right in, and I finished it in two days. What happens is this: some fancy women who were college friends establish an exclusive NYC co-working space. When the queen bee girlfriend goes missing, the kid-sister journalist of one of the Herd turns detective, and anyone could be responsible. I recommended this left and right last spring. It's quick, smart, and addicting.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

This is a truly engrossing character study that had me both thinking about identity and writer's craft. In it, we meet the Vignes twins. They run away from a small Southern town as two black teenagers. Years later, one of them returns with a daughter, and the other marries a wealthy white man, becoming his wealthy white wife. Bennett employs a sort of distant narrative style. It feels like you're watching a play, encouraged by the far-off view from the balcony to reserve judgment of the players. I listened to the audiobook, which was excellent and performed by Shayna Small.

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow.

Here's my take: Weinstein and Lauer and Trump are worse even than I knew. The women who spoke out against them are incredibly brave and strong. The attackers had all of the power and, in most cases, the money, and they used every tactic--NDAs, organized mudslinging, institutional pressure at every level--to maintain their reputations and to continue victimizing women.

Farrow blends personal narrative and meticulous journalism, and although I hated the terrible people and their despicable actions, I loved this book, too.

Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton.

I've read a lot of running books, and this is among the best. It's the story of American marathon record holder, Deena Kastor, and most poignantly, the way she accepts and transforms her thoughts. The takeaway is, "Find a thought that serves you better." I really came back to the message in this tricky year, and I wrote more about it here. I listened to this audiobook read by the author. 

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.

If I had to pick only three favorite reads for this year, Angie Kim's literary mystery would be among them. The Yoo family runs a hyperbaric oxygen chamber which they tout as an experimental cure for all manner of conditions. When tragedy strikes, the reader and the characters set out to discover culpability. This is incredibly well done and compelling. It's about parenting, marriage, truth, obstacles, conditions--and one emotionally wrenching murder trial where the right person may or may not be in the defendant's chair. 

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

I flew through this splashy, superfun romance. My friend Kathleen pointed out that the premise: that the son of the US president and a British royal prince fall in love and carry on a secret affair, is highly unrealistic. She's right. But guess what? It turns out I don't care that much about realism in this case. Plus #megxit! McQuiston's dialogue is witty and snappy, and I loved the happy ending for a LGBTQ+ couple. If you're in a reading rut, this might be the book to break you out.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia.

There's a Kate Racculia novel in each of my 2020 book flights! I discovered her this very year, and I think she's a genius. Bellweather is about a music conference for high schoolers at a remote, iconic, and falling-down hotel. Something bad happened in the hotel a long time ago, and that bad thing as it turns out, has never totally been figured out and/or put to rest. This book is cleverly written, populated with the quirkiest, believable people, and infused with tons of heart. I love it a lot.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

This is both a page-turner and also thought-provoking. Reid delves into the complex relationship between mother and nanny while also allowing readers to interrogate their own beliefs about race, class, and power. I listened to the audiobook performed by Nicole Lewis, and her performance engrossed me. Months after reading, I keep thinking about what the ending of the book says about ambition and expectations -- and also what "types" of women have ambition and adhere to expectations.

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James.

What you have here is part ghost story and part serial killer/amateur detective mystery in a dual 1982/2017 timeline. Add in short chapters, smart writing, red herrings, and old-fashioned gothic noir, and you've got a book that will propel you from start to finish in a super satisfying reading experience. I stayed up really late finishing this, and since I'm usually asleep by 9:30, you know this is a really big deal.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson.

This is utterly brilliant. The premise is wild: Lillian and Madison are old friends from high school. Madison takes advantage of Lillian's love and loyalty in all kinds of ways, and Lillian lets her for all kinds of reasons. Many years out of high school, Madison needs Lillian for a really weird job: her stepkids are moving in with her, and they need a nanny. That sounds fine until Madison tells Lillian that the kids also start on fire when they're upset. I'm talking real flames. They don't get hurt, but all the stuff around them does. The book, which I plan to reread very soon, is about loyalty and ambition and failure and in the most touching and unsentimental way, love. God, I love this book. Top one of a great reading year and also an all-time fave.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Oh Holy Hell

It's been another month since I wrote anything here. Pretty soon this whole damn blog will just be laments about not writing on the whole damn blog.

Anyway, we're off on a weird Christmas adventure, locked down in our home as so many others are. Inspired by a colleague, I asked the children a week or two ago about what fun events in which they might want to engage.

They arched their eyebrows and sneered in response to this query. "What are you talking about?" one of them asked.

"Like maybe we can drive through a Christmas light display on the State Fairgrounds?" One of my third graders had told me about this diversion. She was awed by it. Of course, it's worth remembering that she is eight years old.

Still, the kids agreed to the lights, although without much enthusiasm. "Okay," they said. I did some quick research and discovered that the only available tickets were for tours that began after 9:45pm. I mean, I like fun, but I also have a bedtime.

So, I canned that particular light idea. Luckily, a colleague mentioned another fun tour where you get to tune into a radio station and Christmas music syncs to the holiday display! I booked a ticket for 6:30pm this evening. It would be early enough that we'd make it home for my 9pm retiring.

"We will be going to the Severs' Corn Maze Light Display!" I announced to the family with militant cheer.

Everyone feigned excitement. Or, at least everyone reserved their bellyaching. I promised drive-thru Chik-fil-A as a bonus. And then guess what happened? Our brown Christmas has been thwarted by the season's first big blizzard. It's happening this very evening at the same time as my light tour. We're getting between 5 and 15 inches with 2-4 foot drifts on top of the glaze ice that will form after a morning of rain and 40-degree temps. By the time I tuck myself in, the temperature will be below zero with fifty-degree wind gusts. 

So, the moral of the story is, don't plan any family fun. It won't happen, and your kids will just be in a position to tell you they told you so. You're welcome.