Categories
Reading

My year in reading, 2020

It was a slog to read at times in 2020, so I escaped into other worlds through novels and reread a small handful of favorites, too.

Here are 15 books I read and loved this year, in no particular order:

Long Bright River
Liz Moore

This is Moore’s latest novel, and while entirely different in tone and topic than Heft, it’s just as beautiful. At first glance, Long Bright River is a straight, no-nonsense crime novel, but Moore brings to it her literary approach, and her deep sense of compassion. Her characters, who are enmeshed in Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, made me call my own family members just to hear their voices.

Heft
Liz Moore

I discovered Liz Moore through her short story “Clinical Notes” in The New York Times Magazine‘s Decameron Project issue, and I loved her writing voice and the gentle humanity in it. She reminded me of another favorite author, Brian Doyle. Heft has that same gentleness, with sympathetic characters that leapt off the page and into my heart even after I finished the novel.

The Idea of You
Robinne Lee

I needed this romance novel as an escape portal this year. The Idea of You is a pure joyride, a smutty, unapologetic love story between an almost-40-year-old divorcée and the 20-year-old lead singer of a boy band. I enjoyed this story so much because of its specificity and its pitch-perfect art, travel and fashion references. I couldn’t stop reading.

Nothing to See Here
Kevin Wilson

Such a delight!

This wacky novel about an unmoored young woman in charge of young twins who spontaneously combust when they’re upset is strange and sweet and perfect for a quick escape in a “what do I do with this summer Saturday afternoon?” kind of way.

Uncanny Valley
Anna Wiener

I am already the ideal reader for this book, suspicious as I am of Big Tech and the effect its products have on our lives, yet also thoroughly dependent on it. This memoir is a fever dream of shrewd insight into Silicon Valley and the people who shaped it and were shaped by it. I both laughed out loud while reading this and wanted to hurl it at the wall with anger (over how good Wiener is on venture capitalists in all their self-absorbed smugness.) What a timely, satisfying debut.

Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout

As the internet likes to say, BIG MOOD.

I love quiet stories like these — evocative, expansive and yet uncomfortably intimate. Gorgeous writing. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to discover Elizabeth Strout.

Eve’s Hollywood
Eve Babitz

Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company still takes first place for me, but Eve’s Hollywood was still sublime. It felt especially delicious to read about a sunny, druggy, bright LA while mostly confined to my apartment. Eve Babitz is always a jubilant, seductive ray of sunshine.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Gretchen McCulloch

I’m nominating Gretchen McCulloch as the internet’s librarian. Because Internet would have been satisfying as an in-depth look at internet culture and how it has shaped and molded language, but McCulloch reaches a step further and maps linguistic differences onto different internet cohorts and life experiences, giving the reader a chance to broaden her view and have more empathy toward, for example, older bosses, younger cousins and less-extremely-online college classmates.

Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book
Courtney Maum

An essential reference book for anyone new to or curious about the publishing world, even if the journey leans more toward voyeurism than actually taking the steps firsthand. This book is funny, informative and packed with useful advice from dozens of literary writers.

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
Anne Helen Petersen

I am such an AHP fangirl, and this book solidified my love. Maybe most important in this book is how Petersen calls out approaches to burnout that place the blame on the individual (usually the mother/wife/underpaid woman). We need systemic change in the United States, and Petersen is a vital voice shaping the call for a better, saner, more secure country.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Ottessa Moshfegh

A delicious, perfect little novel. This was exactly what I wanted to read in the week leading up to the 2020 presidential election (if I couldn’t just take an Infermiterol on Tuesday, Nov 3, that is). I love Moshfegh’s dark humor.

The Fixed Stars
Molly Wizenberg

I love Wizenberg’s writing — always have, always will. Her voice is quiet and intimate and unravels ordinary moments in life in a patient, steady way. This book appealed to me for its frank exploration of sexuality and fluidity in mid-life, although I think it would have been a better book if she’d waited another handful of years to write it.

Her Body and Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado

These stories are brilliant, creepy, sensual and haunting. (A good October read.) I read “The Husband Stitch” on a weekend away for my first anniversary and “Inventory” during, well, a pandemic — the stories were hitting uncannily close to home for a while, but they also lent a sense of wonder and curiosity to the seemingly ordinary.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

This sweet book highlights the relationships that rarely get formal recognition in our lives but are often the true bedrock of our identity: friendships. Sow and Friedman excel at telling their story with honesty, wisdom and heart while making the reader want to hold her own friends a little closer. An important manifesto for modern society.

Educated
Tara Westover

This tale of escape and triumph over adversity is a bestseller for obvious reasons — I simply couldn’t stop turning the pages. I’m a sucker for a story about the power of knowledge, and Westover delivers.

Here are five other books I’d recommend:

That Kind of Mother, Rumaan Alam
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Brian Doyle
Weather, Jenny Offill
The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory

And three worthwhile re-reads:

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Hyberbole and A Half, Allie Brosh
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

Categories
Miscellany

100 things that made my year in 2020

1. Refining our homemade pizza dough approach. Making it a near-weekly staple by the middle of the year.

2. Writing a pair of pieces for EarthBeat about millennial Catholics (including me) who are grappling with childbearing and climate change. Upping the cool factor by working with a talented, passionate illustrator on this project.

3. Dragging Ryan to a matinee showing of Little Women. Convincing myself that I’m a Jo while knowing that I’m probably just a Beth.

4. Falling hard for CHEER on Netflix and then going to an aerial yoga class in an attempt to recapture some of the slight acrobatic abilities of my youth.

5. A decadent, slow, lovely Restaurant Week meal out at Extra Virgin (made all the sweeter in my memory by the fact of the months that followed).

6. Gerard Mas’ medieval-girl-with-a-modern-twist sculptures.

7. Listening to podcasts in the bath.

8. Bringing home Utz chips and kettle corn seasoned with Old Bay after traveling to Baltimore for a conference. Taking a long evening walk through the city. Sharing a very French meal with colleagues at (now-closed) Chez Hugo and daydreaming about future travel.

9. Marveling at Ryan’s joy and the rest of the city’s on Super Bowl Sunday when the Chiefs brought home the championship. Getting sprayed with prosecco in the street in Westport. Crowding onto the sidewalks with thousands of other Kansas Citians in chilly February for the homecoming parade.

10. Becoming a runner. Getting outside three days a week since February to move for 2-6 miles, sometimes surprising myself, sometimes working through tough feelings, sometimes counting every step until I get home again. Running a solo 5K down a two-lane road in suburban Kansas City, and then another one on a curvy SW Portland boulevard on a very foggy Thanksgiving morning.

11. So much television. Pen15. I May Destroy You. Schitt’s Creek. Sex Education. The OA. Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi. Our Planet. Ramy. The Baby-Sitters Club.

12. Scheming to buy Ryan a copy of I Am Easy to Find on vinyl for Valentine’s Day — and receiving the exact same gift from him.

13. Roxane Gay on the big step and simple pleasures of moving in with her fiancé.

14. Eating Vietnamese and Italian food with colleagues in Anaheim. Working poolside on a beautiful evening. Taking long walks to the convention center in the mild winter weather. Listening to travel stories told by my 75-year-old colleague, a Catholic sister who has been to more than 30 countries.

15. Celebrating my cousin’s wedding on Leap Day. Ryan tearing it up on the dance floor and doing a front handspring during a Rihanna song. Flying for the last time in 2020 just as we began to hear about coronavirus cases in the U.S.

16. Martha Stewart’s easy basic pancakes.

17. Seasons 1 and 2 of The Dream podcast. Do the Thing with Melissa Urban. Esther Perel’s How’s Work. Rabbit Hole. OPB’s Timber Wars.

18. Exploring the Rock Island Trail by bike — and quickly learning it was uphill, all the way, and my tires were leaky. Digging deep for motivation to keep going.

19. Creating a quarantine zine.

20. Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Lianne La Havas. Mordechai by Khruangbin. Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore on endless repeat.

21. Riding, for too brief a time, a wave of cresting hope as I rooted in the primaries for Elizabeth Warren and her intelligence, kindness and extreme competence. Warren and Kate McKinnon flipping the script.

22. Pantry meals. Dried beans. Yes, homemade bread, a bit behind the curve. Baked risotto.

23. Making ugly collages and silly doodles in my journal. Participating in one of Wendy MacNaughton’s Draw Together sessions and hanging our artwork on the bookshelf.

24. Learning to cut Ryan’s hair at home. Receiving a hair clipper kit from Ryan’s parents as a going-away gift. Persuading him to trim my hair during a 10-month break from the salon.

25. Feeling soaring highs and gloomy, disengaged lows through a promotion that didn’t pan out.

26. Zoom chats with my college girlfriends, with my writing group, with my cousins, with my therapist, with a volunteer committee. Zoom fatigue at work. Learning to “hide self view.”

27. Gaming the hell out of the Go365 program through our Humana health insurance in the quest for a free bicycle.

28. Movies. Palm Springs. Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Portrait of A Lady on Fire.

29. Praising the heavens for takeout containers of premixed Negroni at Il Lazzarone.

30. Adjusting slowly to the work-from-home life. Propping my laptop up on thick books. Learning to get up from my desk often. Sharing lunch with Ryan instead of my colleagues. Being OK with not wearing makeup to every Zoom meeting. Starting my work day at 7:00 am. Finding freedom in restriction.

31. Watching livestreamed Mass for a few weeks during Lent. Celebrating Easter, and then ignoring the digital option entirely for months.

32. Writing a song on the ukulele with Ryan in the early still-creative stretches of sheltering at home. Playing that song on Zoom with a couple dozen extended family members singing along.

33. Learning coping mechanisms from the smartest people around: kids.

34. Buying a Nespresso machine and letting it bring us some small joy every weekend.

35. Reflecting on how in lockdown, it all changes and it all stays the same.

36. Supporting my yoga teacher on Patreon instead of in the studio. Buying a strap and a second cork block for my home practice.

37. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. Heft and Long Bright River by Liz Moore. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. Robinne Lee’s The Idea of You.

38. Feeling very fortunate as we made generous donations to local nonprofits with a chunk of our stimulus checks.

39. Accepting gifts of homemade masks from an upstairs neighbor and in the mail from my mom.

40. Participating in a gratitude photo exchange with my sisters during the first weeks of lockdown.

41. Keeping a StrikeThru journal to organize and clarify my work and home life.

42. Taking a Sunday drive to Clinton, Missouri, and getting startled by an Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racer snake while on a walk at the nature preserve.

43. Ordering takeout to celebrate birthdays and the end of another mundane week and in a tiny, futile attempt to “save the restaurants.”

44. Going on a virtual trip to Nashville to visit my sister instead of flying out for Memorial Day weekend like we’d planned. Shopping online at Nashville stores, listening to live music on Zoom and taking photos in front of “local” murals.

45. Crying about work stress and moving stress and the pandemic and Ryan’s unemployment and a gloomy Saturday and life not happening on my terms. So. Many. Tears.

46. Participating in Brian Benson’s Daily Write class on Zoom in April and May. Having a piece published in the resulting anthology, Proof That I Exist.

47. Saying goodbye for now to my dear friends and colleagues in Kansas City in a 2020-appropriate meetup.

48. Mailing a birthday card for Breonna Taylor to the Kentucky attorney general. Reading and talking and learning about systemic racism in this country during the summer’s wave of social unrest. Feeling helpless and hopeless and desperate for change.

49. Surviving several weeks of a bedbug infestation in our home. Commuting to and from my in-laws’ so we could get some sleep. Buying a new mattress.

50. Saying goodbye to Ryan’s Corolla and becoming a one-car family.

51. Dan Sinker’s son’s research project leading to an endless string of Bird Weeks.

52. Moving cross-country in the middle of a pandemic (after stressing about that move for endless months). Eating Taco Bell on the tailgate of our Budget moving truck. Almost running out of gas outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Wiping down every possible surface of our hotel rooms in Grand Platte, Nebraska, and Meridian, Idaho.

53. Watching movies simultaneously with friends and live-texting our reactions. Choosing yet another weekend film thanks to the inspiration (and Twitter threads) of Vulture’s Friday Night Movie Club.

54. Supporting Ryan through a rocky, prolonged spring of uncertainty at work and eventually, a few months of unemployment.  

55. Facetiming and Zooming and participating in car parades to celebrate holidays with extended family and grandparents. Masking up for distanced outdoor greetings. Waiting as long as possible to go to the grocery store.

56. A charming, simple look at the socially distanced life through the lens of a mom of teenagers.

57. The NYT Cooking app. Cheesy, spicy black bean bake. Dutch babies. Japanese-style tuna noodle salad. Somen noodles with mushroom broth. Korean barbecue-style meatballs. Mississippi roast.

58. Too much screen time.

59. Foraging blackberries from the end of the street.

60. Oliver Burkeman on the only life question we really need to ask ourselves: “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?”

61. Voting.

62. Escaping into a different reality through documentaries. Honeyland. Crip Camp. The Dawn Wall. Free Solo. This Mountain Life. My Octopus Teacher.

63. Saying hello again to a more bruised, angry, striving version of one of my favorite cities.

64. Eating (almost) every flavor of Kettle Chips in a summer obsession. Crowning Korean Barbeque as one of my favorites.

65. Settling into our rental house in southwest Portland. Hanging artwork on the plaster walls, after a few small emotional outbursts. Trying to revive our sunburnt houseplants. Purchasing real furniture.

66. The Oregon Zoo’s Twitter feed reminding us of our fuzzy neighbors while it’s closed to visitors. Uni! Juno!

67. Exploring our local parks and trails. Feeling more than a little awestruck when first stumbling across the old-growth forest in Marshall Park. Running in Tryon Creek State Park. Getting very familiar with the Springwater Corridor.

68. Nicknaming the neighborhood cats (Simon, Lindor, Mitt and Taffy), who mostly ignore us.

69. Hunkering down at my grandparents’ beach house for an incredibly restorative, restful, beautiful, slow anniversary stay on the Oregon coast. Building fires in the circular fireplace. Reading entire books. Hiking on muddy trails. Identifying jellyfish and crabs and anemones on the shore and in tidepools.

70. Passing the knowledge test to become licensed in Oregon again and celebrating that (and my legal name change) with a beer and several tears. (Still waiting on that Oregon license plate, though!)

71. Drawing so much hope and inspiration from the launch of The 19th* and its first year of coverage.

72. Playing and singing and generally just goofing around with my toddler nephew Preston.

73. Afternoon walks around the neighborhood with Ryan.

74. Learning to use our new Traeger grill. Happily reuniting with the abundance of Oregon produce in the summer. Filling our freezer with salmon fillets.

75. Missing book readings until I decided to find them on Zoom. Listening to Molly Wizenberg talk about her latest, The Fixed Stars. Delighting in BFFs Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow chatting on my screen. Looking forward to reading Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel, Transcendent Kingdom.

76. Trying to take a mental vacation when we couldn’t really go anywhere.

77. Remembering what’s really important with Ada Limon’s poem The Conditional.

78. Scratching my travel itch just slightly by exploring the aisles at Barbur World Foods.

79. Hunkering down during a long, scary 10-day stretch as Portland had its first true wildfire season. Staying indoors and refreshing air quality index readings hourly. Worrying about family friends and their homes. Having dance parties in an attempt at exercise and ease. Trying not to overthink headaches and scratchy throats.

80. Finding a perfect bit of peace in a rainy fall visit to the Portland Japanese Garden.

81. Looking at the full moon through my binoculars.

82. Trying to ground ourselves in the seasons. Eating a lot of squash and making homemade pumpkin spice lattes and watching silly Halloween-adjacent movies like Addams Family Values and The Blob.

83. Getting outside to work off some nervous energy the weekend before Election Day and taking a 20-mile bike ride on the beautiful Banks-Vernonia State Trail.

84. A.O. Scott on Wallace Stegner and the conflicted soul of the west.

85. A new job for Ryan at On running.

86. Worrying as family members and friends and colleagues contracted COVID-19. Trying to balance my sanity with my safety. Using hand sanitizer that smells like a college basement. Staying home.

87. Reading the archives of Orangette while Ryan watches Chiefs games.

88. Having a two-week dalliance with cold showers and loving the jolt of morning energy.

89. Finally getting our hands on a kettlebell and a set of resistance bands. Setting up a little workout area in the basement.

90. Lurking on TikTok and learning that even Catholic sisters are using the app to connect with Generation Z.

91. Sharing some of my favorite books in the #perfect31 challenge.

92. The radical quilts of Rosie Lee Thompkins.

93. Toasting to better things to come with Haus aperitifs.

97. Enjoying a gentler waking experience with a sunrise alarm clock.

98. Hand-painted signs at the coast that reminded us to go slow. “Slow down. Seal crossing.” “Slow is the new fast.” “Yo, dude. Slow down.”

94. New sweatpants. Crewneck sweatshirts.

95. Getting slightly lost on a 10-mile hike on the Oregon coast but finding worthwhile views and good company.

96. Watching grackles fight in the front yard and Steller’s jays hopping around the spruce tree.

99. Telehealth appointments.

100. Two of my sisters receiving their first doses of the coronavirus vaccine. A few extra minutes of light at the end of each day.

Read my lists for past years here.