The pandemic changed how I read. Fiction has always been my wheelhouse; not so in 2020. Of the 48 total books I read, 24 — half! — were nonfiction. (The rest: 23 fiction books, 1 collection of poetry.)
What happened? After sheltering in place for a few months, the reading habit whose constancy I thought I could always count on faltered. Paying attention to plot lines grew onerous so I leafed through cookbooks to keep up the act of reading. I loved soaking up culinary knowledge and got sucked in by other nonfiction books as well before falling back into my usual fiction fandom in the fall.
In years past, I’ve written this blog post with a tinge of regret about how few notes I took while reading. Perhaps I’m haunted by memories of mandatory annotation in high school, which my meticulous self overdid, making books both drab and dramatic drag. By the fall — four, five months into living in a foreshortened world — I got bored and started to record my thoughts on scrap paper and phone notes. Talking to myself (and the author) wasn’t enough, so I started posting public reviews on Goodreads. My early reviews now strike me as precise and inoffensive; my most recent ones are messier but warm. Publishing these reading updates has forced me to crystallize my jumbled reactions, which helps me better remember and recommend books that I’ve read.
Though pre-pandemic 2020 no longer feels like reality, I do recall one standout book that I read then: Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Her essays on Black womanhood, sociology, present-day America, et cetera are keen and unrelenting in their arguments — exactly what I’d hope to see from an academic — but accessible and personable in the language she chooses to craft them. She doesn’t mince her words, nor does she bloat them with jargon. One example:
“I hate small talk. It is small. Small is for teacups and occasionally for tiny houses. Too much small talk is how a country is given to sociopaths who thrive on shallow chatter to distract their emotional sleight of hand.”
Singular and straight to the point! I sought out McMillan Cottom on Twitter after finishing this book and am delighted to report that her voice shines through there as well.
I read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata in the purgatorial period between realizing the threat posed by COVID-19 and receiving citywide shut-down instructions. Its strangeness paired well with my uncertainty-driven anxiety. Murata satirizes society’s expectations of thirty-something single women — namely, that they should settle down with a man — by portraying main character Keiko’s borderline-amorous devotion to her convenience store clerkship as normal. This book served as a welcome relief from most fiction books I read which, after a while, blend together into a same-y mass.
Mrs. Dalloway affirmed its place amongst my lifetime favorite books when I re-read it during the pandemic. Here’s a quote that I quite like from it:
“That was her self — pointed; dart-like; definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one center, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room….”
I’m obsessed with how thoroughly Virginia Woolf penetrates the minds of her characters and how effectively she translates their feelings into words. No other writer that I’ve encountered has better represented the “infinite shades” of ordinary and extraordinary human lives. Dalloway isn’t for everyone (it bored most of my high school classmates) but I am endeared to it.
Though I’ve never read a gothic horror novel before it, I’d heard enough about the genre to savor how well Silvia Moreno-Garcia subverted some of its tropes in Mexican Gothic. Heroine and damoiseau in distress sub in for hero and damsel in distress. Purity — here, eugenics and entrenched colonialist hierarchies — is to be pulverized, not protected. Spooky fungi abounds. (Okay that last bit isn’t subversive per se but it sure was fun.) Technical due diligence aside, I loved the romance (!) and the ambiguous ending, both of which made for a lively book club discussion.
On the subject of subversive books, reading my coworker (!) Morgan Jerkins’s Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots upended my assumption that memoir and historical writing cannot coexist on the page. I blithely assumed that, oppression notwithstanding, the history of Black Americans would be transmitted in writing, the standard of the mainstream and the powerful. How wrong I was. Jerkins blew me away by revealing unknown-to-me aspects of American history by mining her own family’s uttered-and-unpublished stories for genealogical truth. (Read my full review on Goodreads.)
I revisited American history a second time by reading How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Northwestern professor (whose classes I’ve never taken) Daniel Immerwahr. This book answered some of the passing questions that I’ve had about America’s territories: Why aren’t they states yet? How do their inhabitants view the United States? It also imparts historical happenings that I would never have thought to ask about, such as the crucial role played by plastics in American primacy and the murky overseas medical practices that effectuated the development of retinol and birth control, two drugs that I’ve personally used. Though textbook-adjacent, it was fun to read and influential upon my worldview.
Talia Hibbert’s Take a Hint, Dani Brown may be the first romance novel I’ve ever read. It exceeded my expectations for the genre, supplanting my shrugs with swoons one fell swoop. She set the positivity and empathy bars high early on and maintained them the whole way through, arming her leads with baseline confidence in their identities — which include oft-thorny elements like queerness and religiosity — but kindly guiding them through their love-life quandaries. Hibbert also weaves in meta-commentary on the romance genre, further winning me over with monologues like this one:
“But [romance novels are] all about emotion, Dan — the whole thing, the whole story, the whole point. Just book after book about people facing their issues head on, and handling it, and never, ever failing — at least, not for good. I felt like my world had already ended unhappily, but every book I read about someone who’d been through the worst and found happiness anyway seemed to say the opposite. Like my story didn’t need to be over if I didn’t want it to.”
I’ll throw in a few honorable mentions, presented in no particular order:
- A Burning by Megha Majumdar (my review)
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
- BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks (my review)
- A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis
I’m (once again) including this section as inspired by another great annual reading write-up. Of the 48 books I read,
- 32 were written by women (up from 22 last year),
- 24 were written by people of color (up from 21 last year),
- 7 were published before 2000 (same as last year), and
- 2 were read by me as works in translation (down from 3 last year).
Sadly I didn’t read any books written in or translated in to French. I tend to amble (and sometimes stumble) through literary French, and I simply didn’t have the patience to slow down to do that this year.