December 2020 in Review

And so here were are at the end of another month in another year, a particularly strange month in a particularly strange year. I stayed in my own home for Christmas for the second year in a row. Last year, it was the cat’s coronavirus, and this year, it was the world’s coronavirus. I think I could do with a Christmas without any coronaviruses at all, thank you very much.

As strange as it was to celebrate Christmas at home alone (last year, I did go to a friend’s on the day), it also wasn’t bad. A lot of local restaurants did take-home meals for the holidays, so I took advantage of that option for Christmas (and Thanksgiving and New Year’s). Plus, I baked some cocoa and cinnamon kanelbullar (Swedish buns) that I learned to make in an online baking class.

By the way, if you’re looking for something fun and semi-social to do when stuck at home, I highly recommend online baking classes. I’ve taken a couple with the same teacher, who I initially found through AirBnB experiences. The only problem for me is that I end up eating all the baking myself, since I don’t have an office to take it to anymore! Freezing has kept me from eating everything at once, but I may have to make up little care packages for local friends if I do more of these.

My office closes between Christmas and New Year’s, so I’ve had lots of time to rest and read. I haven’t been in much of a TV- or movie-watching mood, and the internet is exasperating me more than usual these days, so I got lots of reading done. So much so that I surpassed my vague and non-binding goal of 100 books in a year for the first time since 2017. And most of my December reading was pretty solid! Not necessarily knock-my-socks-off amazing, but good. Diverting. And diverting is what I needed.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride (abandoned). So many people have loved this book, but I could tell pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to work for me. It’s the kind of book filled with quirky characters and preposterous situations that so many people seem to love but that I often have trouble getting into. I read about 20% and, while I wasn’t mad at it or actively hating it, I just wasn’t interested. And there are too many other books out there to spend time on a book I’m not interested in. But I can see why people like this!

The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher. This is an enjoyably weird and creepy book about a woman who goes to clean out her dead grandmother’s home and finds … a lot. And it’s not just because her grandmother was a hoarder. There’s a whole other world in her yard. The narrator’s voice is kind of a lot, but her snarkiness probably cut some of the creepiness to make it feel bearable. I like horror that focuses on unease, and this definitely does that. The end felt a little hurried, but I’m also a lot less interested in the actual action portions of horror novels, so that’s maybe not such a bad thing.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Emira is a young Black woman babysitting the toddler daughter of a white social media influencer when she gets harassed by security at an upscale neighborhood grocery store. That, along with Emira’s new relationship with a white man, creates a whole lot of complications in her relationship with her employer, who has a complicated class and race history of her own to deal with. This is the kind of book with a lot to say, and it says it in an enjoyable way and without forcing readers to draw certain specific conclusions.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I really enjoyed reading this. It didn’t make much of a lasting impression on me, but as I’ve gone back to look at other reviews, I recall how much I enjoyed it. And given how impatient I’ve been lately with big stories with interconnected character groupings and non-linear storylines, I’m impressed that Mandel managed to keep me interested. It shows her skill as a storyteller.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. In the early chapters, this is less about language, I think, and more about culture, but culture is communicated through language, especially on the internet, so it makes sense that the lines would be fuzzy. And some of the discussion about internet generations (which are less about age and more about when you went online) was an interesting way to look at online culture (and culture clashes). As the book goes on, McCulloch talks more about language and how internet-specific language, such as memes and emoji, have evolved. There’s a lot of information, presented in a clear and engaging way. Some of it wasn’t necessarily new, because I’ve seen these evolutions happen, but I liked having something explain the mechanics behind such shifts.

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin. Ira Levin is a terrific storyteller, and if you haven’t read A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Stepford Wives, you really should give them a try. This 1976 novel, about a Nazi hunter seeking to foil a plot by Josef Mengele (alive in Brazil at the time), is another good story (if you can stomach the premise). After an intense first chapter, the book took a while to get moving because there are a lot of characters in different locations pursuing seemingly disconnected leads. But once it comes together it’s a solid high-stakes thriller, with plenty of chills, as you’d expect from Levin.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston. These are great stories that provide a window into Black life in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the stories are really fun and a couple are rather poignant. I enjoyed almost all of them to some degree, although I wasn’t wild about the ones written in a faux-Biblical style. (There are three of these, and the gimmick wore off quickly.) I loved that these are fully Black stories, with very little interaction with the white world. In other words, they aren’t stories specifically about racism, although there are hints of it here and there. Instead, they are primarily about how Black people relate to each other (mostly how men relate to women). I think I’d read one of these stories before, and I saw a couple of them performed on stage last year. It’s great to have all of them together in one collection.

Benediction by Kent Haruf. Haruf’s writing is such a comfort, even when he’s writing about difficult subjects, as he is here. This is the final book in the Plainsong trilogy, but it can really stand alone as the characters are entirely new. I think Eventide will stand as my favorite in the trilogy, but there’s so much here to love. I can’t recommend Haruf highly enough. His gentleness toward his characters and his careful observations of the simple details of life make every bit of this community seem precious, even when the people are deeply flawed. There is so much grace in this book in particular as its people face death and betrayal and fear and anger. There’s no one quite as lovable as the McPheron brothers, but in some ways it was even more powerful to see such flawed characters search for ways to be kind in the difficult moments.

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle. Terrific horror novel about a father, Apollo, trying to protect his newborn son, even as his wife seems increasingly disconnected from the child. The story unfolds in a satisfying way, starting with general unease and weirdness, moving to actual horror, then continually building action as Apollo comes to understand what’s happening and tries to save himself and the people he loves. Maybe a little longer than it needs to be, and the action sequences toward the end were a little confusing (possibly a me problem, since I often find action scenes hard to follow). Overall, though, a great book.

Mary Lavelle by Kate O’Brien. I liked that this 1936 novel about a young Irish woman who goes to Spain to work as a governess before getting married opened me up to a time and place I hadn’t read much about. Apparently Irish governesses in 1930s Spain were a thing. Because the time and place were new to me, the politics sometimes went over my head, but it was nonetheless a solid read about the difficulties of knowing yourself and your desires during young adulthood.

The Resisters by Gish Jen. This novel is set in the near future, when technology and commerce have pretty much taken over society, pitting people into clearly divided classes of producers (who get all the privileges) and surplus (who barely have enough to get by). It focuses on a surplus family who try to live off the grid as much as possible until the daughter, Gwen, shows a remarkable talent for baseball. Like a lot of near-future dystopias, this book has some clever elements, but the characters’ choices and ideas seemed dictated less by their psychologies and more by the need to move the plot to a specific place. And the attempt to make a story about both baseball and resisting an evil empire doesn’t really work.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Oof, this is a story. Vanessa is a young woman who, as a teenager at boarding school, was seduced by her teacher. She never allowed herself to see the situation for what it was, but now the teacher is being accused of assaulting other students, and Vanessa is having to look again at what happened. It’s an uncomfortable read, that moves back and forth between the adult and teenage Vanessa. But it very clearly shows how grooming can work to wreck victims’ perceptions and protect predators long after the abuse is over.

As for January, and indeed all of 2021, I’ll probably read some more TOB books as they become available from the library. I’m starting the new year with We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, which looks like it could be fun. I’m pondering whether and how much I want to continue blogging about my reading here. I do like having a record of my thoughts, but the blogging conversation just isn’t what it used to be. (I’ve stopped reading blogs much myself, so I can’t blame anyone else for not reading and commenting here.) The monthly posts have been a nice compromise, but they’re a lot to put together. Maybe I’ll try one of those Twitter megathreads, or use Goodreads more, or trying posting thoughts on Instagram or Litsy. Could this be a reason to figure out Instagram stories finally? We shall see.

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16 Responses to December 2020 in Review

  1. Maggie Redic says:

    Hi!  I’ve tried to comment a couple of times on your recent posts but I get stuck in a loop requiring me to log-in to WordPress (sounds simple, but isn’t actually, since I have a long and complicated history with WordPress) and end up abandoning my remarks.  (could this same scenario be true for others?) In any case I wanted to write today to tell you that I am still delighted to see your posts in my mailbox and I read them with enthusiasm and care, often saving them in a Reading file I have so I can reference them later.   Having said that, I understand the frustration of writing/creating a post and then feeling as if it’s landing in a void.  I do hope you’ll continue your reviews in some form because I truly enjoy them so much.  Please let us know your new platform and know that you still have dedicated readers/followers who remain interested in your perspective.   Sincerely,Maggie

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you! I know the WordPress commenting platform doesn’t work for some people. I don’t mind that there aren’t a lot of comments, but the conversation is part of the reward. I just need to figure out the amount of work I want to do, given how things are these days.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I hope you don’t stop: I feel as if book blogging is caught in kind of a self-fulfilling spiral, especially as people switch to newsletters (which seem to be basically emailed blogs? so what’s the real improvement?). But I also understand that sense of decline. I keep resolving to comment more faithfully on the blogs that I do still read faithfully, including yours, and then not living up to my plan. If we consider Twitter an accessory to our blogs, the conversation is actually quite robust, but it isn’t the same, I know.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re right about the self-fulfilling spiral, but maybe some of it is because people move on and moments pass. I’ve always said that I blogged mostly for myself, and that’s still true, I think, but maybe I’ve moved on. I do hope to be more involved in the Twitter conversation. I lurk too muck and don’t join in.

  3. Sly Wit says:

    Count me as another one that generally saves up book blog posts in my inbox for later reading. I haven’t been very good at reading of late, but you’ve inspired me to try to get through The Glass Hotel before it is due at the library.

    • Teresa says:

      I still use a feed reader, and the posts have been accumulating more than they used to, even with fewer posts to read. I think maybe I need to cut back to the essential few and actually read and comment (including yours for your movie posts).

  4. Ruthiella says:

    I hope you continue blogging because I like reading your posts, but I understand your feelings. I often don’t comment because I read the posts so late and am embarrassed to be chiming in weeks later. I am also too old/lazy to move to different platforms like instagram or twitter.

    Ira Levin is the bomb. I read a ton of his books in the ’90s. I think almost everything he wrote was adapted for the screen. He just had the best out-there ideas.

    I am reading The Glass Hotel and The Resisters now. I’m really enjoying the Mandel. I wasn’t bowled over by Station Eleven so my expectations were tempered and I think that is helpful. I am just enjoying the book on its own terms and you are right, she really keeps the reader interested despite the story going all over the place. I don’t like The Resisters much at all. So far it is kind of boring and obvious in its message. But I like to try and read the whole shortlist. What can I say, I’m a masochist.

    • Teresa says:

      Every year I tell myself I won’t read the whole shortlist and I end up attempting it anyway. But I do abandon TOB books frequently if they clearly aren’t my thing. I might have given up on The Resisters if I hadn’t been reading it during my week off. Once I put a book like that down, I often lose the will to pick it back up.

      This year, my library has everything on the TOB list except Telephone, and I’ve put myself on the hold list for all that I haven’t read yet. Some of those lists are very long, so I may not get everything in time.

      • Care says:

        I just received Telephone today and I would offer it to you but I need to read Vanishing Half and Long Bright River first… and I can’t seem to read right now. Big bad slump and it stresses me out.

        Pls don’t go Instagram. I dislike IG intensely and only post my pie photos there because it is easy. But it is super hard to connect with others there, IMO. Twitter and Litsy and goodreads. I feel odd about reviewing on gr, not sure why. Sigh. I do miss the old days when blog commenting was easy. I am also worried that WP will unplug what I like about the way I blog. They already are making it harder with the new block edit push.

      • Teresa says:

        I have hope that my library will order Telephone. I put in a request and they’ve usually honored my requests for newer books.

        Instagram is an unlikely choice for me, really. I mostly use it as a way of posting to Facebook where I have lots of friends and family who like seeing my updates without actually having to go to Facebook. I don’t follow many people there at all and don’t comment much.

        I wish I could get more into Litsy because their rating system is my favorite. But I get irrationally annoyed when people tag books that their posts aren’t about because their titles convey the sentiment they want to express. And that annoyance (which is totally my own problem) keeps me from enjoying looking at it.

  5. Jeane says:

    Whelp you just added a few more books to my ongoing TBR, for which I am always glad btw. I hope you do continue blogging, as I am one of those who still read them, although I regret to admit I often don’t find much to say. I struggle with moving on to different platforms- many of my friends and family have bounced from blogging to FB to Instagram- I never managed to get comfortable with FB and barely glance at Instagram still stuck here on the blog . . . I suppose I still really like the format- it feels like my space, my way of organizing my thoughts.

    • Teresa says:

      Blogging is the format that feels friendliest to my way of thinking. For me, it may just be a matter of thinking of it less as a space for conversation (and then seeking that elsewhere) and more a place of documentation.

  6. I continue to love blogging, although I agree that the blogosphere has changed a lot since we started. But I like having somewhere to keep my thoughts about what I’m reading, and I like commenting on other people’s blogs, and getting book recommendations, and all that. I have thought about doing more on Litsy but as you can see I um, haven’t done anything about that yet. Social media is hard to keep up with! And I already love twitter so much!

    • Teresa says:

      I used to be so good about commenting, and that has fallen apart for me this year. I’m just not inclined to comment like I used to. And Twitter remains the best place I’ve found for actual conversation. I think I just feel more hesitant that I used to about leaping into it.

  7. lauratfrey says:

    I just did a huge cull of the blogs I follow (you made the cut!) and it does help, I actually want to read everything that pops up. Im terrible about commenting but I am reading. Long live book blogs😁

    • Teresa says:

      I should probably take another look at how many blogs I’m following and actually read. I don’t follow nearly as many as I used to, but there are some I do end up skimming most of the time.

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