I don’t know about you, but I feel like November 2020 was simultaneously the longest and shortest month of the year so far. It was short in that it can’t possibly be December already (much less late December now that I’m finally getting around to finish this post). But it was long in that the election feels like a million years ago and can’t we just get on with things already?
As I expected, my election officer duties were not particularly intense. In fact, it was a very slow day with not quite 450 voters at my precinct. I think they (quite sensibly) staffed the precincts with the same numbers as they would for a normal presidential election, but with so many voters voting early, it wasn’t necessary. So it made for a long, slow day, but it was interesting to learn so much about the process, and I’d do it again, for sure.
Like many people, I didn’t travel for Thanksgiving, but I never do, so it wasn’t a big deal. I do sometimes have family visit me, which didn’t happen this year, but there have been other years where it didn’t happen, so again, not a big deal. I did want to make the day special somehow, so, even though I like to cook, I decided to give myself a break and get a nice Thanksgiving meal from a local restaurant. A friend came over to share (with appropriate precautions in place), and it ended up being a nice day.
Not traveling on Christmas will be a little more difficult, especially since I missed family Christmas for the first time last year to take care of Natasha as she began her FIP treatment. But traditions are never set in stone, and sometimes a change is nice. I have decorated for the first time in years, and I’m enjoying turning on the lights on my little tree each evening.
As for reading, it’s been a month of pretty good books and a couple of really great ones. Mostly new books this month — the release of the TOB longlist moved a couple of eventually books into the why not now? category. However, I am very good at reading TOB books that don’t make it to the shortlist, so I don’t know why I bother. I suppose because the books look good! And, this year, it turns out I read six books from the shortlist, and abandoned another, which may be a record!
So here’s what I read in November, in order:
The Searcher by Tana French. This library hold came in the weekend before the election, and it was perfect. French’s books are reliably absorbing for me, and that was definitely the case with this book. It’s a little slower than some of her other books and maybe a little less gritty, or at least less obviously gritty. The darkness is buried in the bucolic setting and slowly gets unearthed over the course of the book.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Another book about darkness getting unearthed, this story begins with a death of a person who we gradually come to understand. Emezi embraces complexity in characters and their relationships while also telling a good story. I liked their debut, Freshwater, a lot, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Another book about complex relationships that the people inside them don’t necessarily understand. The main character, Wallace, is a Black gay scientist from a small town trying to navigate life at a university where no one is like him and no one quite gets who he is. He doesn’t always handle the situation well, but it’s clear that hardly anyone could.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang. This was kind of a disappointment. I loved the idea of a novel about Chinese Americans in the Old West, as it’s a story not often told. But I felt like this book was representative of the trend in contemporary literary novels to eschew actual story-telling in favor of striking images, not necessarily in chronological order. There are striking images here, but there were leaps in character motivation that didn’t make sense to me, and I think some of the problem was the unnecessary time jumps and proliferation of flashbacks.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (abandoned). Another book with a story that I really wanted to read. But it also relies more on imagery and interesting prose than on storytelling. If it were shorter, or if I hadn’t picked it up immediately after How Much of These Hills is Gold, I might have finished it, but after 100 pages, I could tell that I would end up irritated with it if I continued, so I put it down.
Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from German by Ross Benjamin. I was really excited when I started this because I thought it would be a single story, told from beginning to end, and I was enjoying it a lot. Alas, after the first part, it became evident that this was a series of stories about one character, the tightrope artist and entertainer, Tyll. He’s an interesting character, and I liked the way some of the things that happened to him are never fully explained. Some of the individual stories are fun to read. But I wanted a book I could really sink into, and with the time jumps and changes in setting and central character from story to story, I never really could do that.
Red Pill by Hari Kunzru. Finally, a proper story, albeit a loopy one! Nerve-wracking in the best way. I loved the unease established in the beginning. The story flags a bit in the middle, but that makes sense given the main character’s state of mind. Some of the intellectual discussions went on a bit too long, but I think that’s intentional — we’re meant to roll our eyes at it. And Kunzru works out a neat little trick toward the end that casts a lot of what happened in the middle section in a different light. I’m not sure how this book would go over in a different time. Even a year or two from now, some of it may not quite work, so I’m glad I read it now. This will be in the TOB play-in round and I’m hoping for some good conversation about it.
Transcendent Kingdom Yaa Gyasi. I loved this. Homegoing is one of my favorite books in recent years, and this is really different but just as good. I could appreciate so much about the main character’s struggle to recognize what was both good and bad in her past. This seems smaller in scope than Homegoing but I think it’s just as ambitious because there’s so much to explore within the one family at the center of the book. And Gyasi lets the questions about faith and science, about addiction and sex, about immigration and identity, stay complicated.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This novel, written in the form of a screenplay, tells the story of Willis Wu, a Generic Asian Man on a cop show who dreams of becoming Kung-Fu Guy. It won the National Book Award, and there’s a lot to enjoy about it, although the gimmick didn’t entirely work for me. I could never quite wrap my head around what was really going on. Is he an actor, or just acting a part in society, or both? I think the literal reality is not actually the point, though. It’s more about the conflicts between who we want to be, who we think we are, and who we’re expected to be and how those conflicts are especially potent for Asian Americans.
Factory Man by Beth Macy. I’ve been a fan of Beth Macy for a long time, as she was a reporter for the local daily newspaper where I grew up and lived for years after college. I even took a couple of writing classes that she taught. So I’ve been enjoying seeing her books so well, especially since there’s too little high-profile journalism about the communities she covers by people who spend years with them. I’ve been meaning to read her first book about a furniture factory owner’s efforts to keep jobs from going overseas ever since it came out in 2014, but it took me this long to get to it. It’s a great work of journalism, that delves into the soap opera that is the Bassett family, the difficulty of competing with Chinese manufacturers, and the importance of factory jobs in so many communities. Some of the story, especially early on, is hard to follow — lots of duplicate names in this family — and I suspect a lot of the landscape has changed since this book came out. But I think the discussions of the devastation that comes with factory closures and the lack of good supports for the community when closures happen is still relevant, perhaps even more so as we’re seeing the long-term effects of the feelings of disconnection and loss in blue-collar communities.