I don’t need to tell you guys that this was a trash year. If I’d read a book that had this year as a plotline, I wouldn’t have made it to the end, because I would have considered it to be “too unrealistic.” Thankfully, I read several books this year that managed to make the year marginally better. Honestly, I wish I’d read more. I thought that this would be “the year of downtime,” where I’d do nothing but sit around and plow through book after book. However, I soon realized that sitting down with a book when your mind is on so many other important things (global pandemic, presidential election, racial injustice, California being on fire) isn’t the easiest task in the world, nor is it your first priority. Of course, there are so many people who didn’t make it through 2020, so if not reading as much as I wanted to is my biggest complaint, then I suppose I had a pretty great year. That and the fact that I had COVID, but let’s sidebar that for a moment. I’m sure that there are a few books that I forgot to include, but through the books that I am telling you about now, I will be putting very beautiful and complicated novels into your hands.
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an incredibly written memoir, written in the form of a letter to his son, chronicling his first-hand experiences with racism. He clearly lays out his points, making it read more like a lengthy and compelling New York Times article, than a full-fledged letter to his son. He makes it personal by relating relevant anecdotes from his life. The most searing part of the whole novel for me is when he becomes embittered because he has pondered how much effort, energy, time, discipline, and love must be poured into a person, only to have it all wiped away in a senseless tragedy; like the frequent deaths of unarmed black men. Coates employs an uncommonly candid and highly powerful voice.
Mrs. Bridge (Evan S Connell)
Mrs. Bridge is uncommonly introspective for a novel from the 50s and offers no nostalgia for the era it takes place in. Mrs. Bridge looks into the unfulfilling life of a 1940s housewife and how she must raise her kids. The story has many themes including the ending of innocence. As a child, reading a book that is told from the perspective of the parent was interesting because I have never felt the moment when a parent realizes that their lecture has fallen on deaf ears or that their reverse psychology isn’t working. The book doesn’t really follow a plot, just the realistic lifestyle of a woman who often acts as the foot soldier for her husband. This novel is an underrated classic that needs way more hype than it receives.
Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
Invisible Man is one of those novels that is so jam-packed with everything that the author wants to say that you almost feel like you can’t unpack it all. His look at the realities of racism in this country may shock those who have never experienced or witnessed what he is talking about, as was the case with many of the people I read the book with in class, but that alone should be reason enough for people to pick up and read it. Regardless of your level of exposure, “Invisible Man” is a provocative think piece and now, with so many people in this country, “waking up” to the realities of racism it might not be a terrible book to revisit. When it was first published, it was instrumental in the civil rights movement.
Beloved- (Toni Morrison) It’s no wonder that Toni Morrison went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature seeing as to how she wove this deeply haunting and profoundly disturbing (in a good way) novel. Many people use words like “beautiful” and “haunting” to describe novels, but none so deserving as this one. Many themes such as intergenerational trauma and the horrors of slavery, come across in this novel. There is a looming constellation of trauma that surrounds the family, as they live in a house that is practically a character of its own.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) Reading “Pride and Prejudice” was a big feat for me because I have attempted to read it over the past few years. I was always too young and the language was always too much for me to get through. I also watched the “Pride and Prejudice” BBC mini-series from the 90s, which is practically verbatim from the book and I was always disinterested in reading a book in which I knew almost down to the letter what was going to happen. One of the things that you cannot tell from a film adaptation is the compelling way with which Austen writes it (something I can now appreciate).
Ms. Eliza Bennett perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a Jane Austen heroine. An Austen heroine’s genuineness and ability to “go against the grain” can get her married so long as her authenticity is not being used to this end, or to any end. Although Austen never got married herself, she clearly saw the value in it and rewarded her heroine’s unwillingness to conform with the greatest reward a woman in her society could receive: marrying well. It’s ironic, rewarding a woman for her nonconformity by allowing her to conform as best she can.
Steering the Craft (Ursula Le Guinn) Le Guinn presents you with several intensive writing tasks that target specific aspects of writing. These tasks, which often focus on such topics as pacing, dialogue, adjectives, or ambiguity, get watered down until you eventually know how to form proper sentences. In order to get the full effect of the book, you must do every writing exercise. With a confidence and a smoothness, Le Guinn explains to the reader, in great detail, why you are doing these tasks and the importance of them. Conversations surrounding the art of storytelling can get very conceptual and abstract very quickly, but Le Guinn never allows it to go there, remaining accessible to the reader until the end. This book will undoubtedly make any person a better writer in ways that they can’t possibly know.
Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
Wanting to read more modern novels, I decided to settle on this one, because, not unlike “Normal People,” it was a New York Times Bestseller with a highly-anticipated Hulu adaptation. When I first read it, I loved it. I thought it was complicated and was always eager to see where it was going next. I do remember thinking that the ending was a bit anticlimactic, but otherwise fine, which is more than I can say about its lackluster adaptation. Overall, it was a strong and taut novel, but despite it taking place in the 90s, it felt very contemporary. I can’t put my finger on it, but modern novels have a feeling and a tone to them that I’ve noticed when reading “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins and others, and it isn’t just the absences of the smudged typewriter font. Perhaps it is the pop-culture references or the lax tone of the storytelling. Whatever it is, this book has it.
Normal People (Sally Rooney) People who’ve read my blog before will already know my views on this novel, but to be fair to its lovely novelist Sally Rooney, it is probably excellent if romance novels are your cup of tea. They are not mine. Rooney does seem to be deeply interested in human relationships. The most common in literature being, of course, romantic. She and I both definitely want to take a look at human intricacies, but we both seem to want to go about them differently. I was mostly frustrated by her lack of quotation marks (as you might be too) and can’t for the life of me figure out the reasoning behind that decision. It was just lines of dialogue not bracketed off by quotation marks. It pained me.
The Queen’s Gambit- (Walter Tevis) This has got to be one of my all time favorite novels. It had a compelling female character, which is not always a guarantee, who subverted my expectations time and time again. It was a gritty look at drug addiction and alcoholism. Other themes included feminism, introversion, and chess fundamentals. They were all handled well, even if you are not a chess enthusiast. The pacing was surprisingly good since we follow a young woman throughout most of her early life, ending when she is nineteen and at the top of her craft. Most people will recognize this entry by its adaptation. By the time I read it, 60 million people had watched the Netflix limited series by the same name. My plan, as with three others on this list, was to read it and then watch it. The two versions were virtually identical, except for one fundamental difference.
Enola Holmes (Nancy Springer) Technically this book is for preteens, but I started reading it when I was a child, didn’t finish it, and then accidentally gave away my copy. When I saw that Netflix was making a version of it, I decided to buy it again and read it. It is not bad a little novel, albeit a bit immature for me at this juncture. It is a proto-feminist novel geared towards young girls, so what can be better?
A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) So long as I was reading “Enola Holmes,” I thought that I might as well read some actual Sherlock Holmes, so I started with the first book in the series. It wasn’t very long, but it might as well have been because of how slow-moving it was. The whole middle section about the Mormons in Utah, took the life out of me. The last time I read that much about a Mormon in Utah, I think that Mitt Romney was conceding the 2012 election. Much of the glamor and the hype surrounding Sherlock Holmes came later, I am now sure. It was great, but perhaps not as great as some of its modern day adaptations.
Carrie (Stephen King) They say that reading for just six minutes a day can reduce your blood pressure by up to 60 percent. Unless of course you’re reading Stephen King, in which case, your blood pressure is liable to go up. I bought “Carrie” about a year ago at a bookstore in Maine, which, as you can imagine, had an extensive King collection. I’ve been trying to get into his work for a while now and since “Carrie” is a story about a misfit teenage girl who gets even with her classmates, I thought it was a good place to start. King has a very distinctive voice; he writes in fragments, shifts perspective, and uses parenthesis constantly, three pretty big no-nos in the industry, but, as usual, it works for him. I was going to read “Emma,” but decided that I wanted something a little bit more plot-driven than character driven. So, I was having to choose between two young women: either Emma or Carrie.
I chose Carrie and decided to leave Emma, so that I can have something waiting for me in the New Year. I just received an amazing collection of books for Christmas that’ll keep me occupied throughout 2021. Hopefully, they will be just as good if not better than the books that I read in 2020.
The Tragic Queen,