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.