At Least We Still Have Books
by Alisa Alering
It's been a bad year for a lot of things, but a good year for reading. I traveled a lot less in 2020 and some of that recovered time has been devoted to reading. And perhaps more intentional reading because, instead of choosing something that could be enjoyed in small snatches or reasonably expected to keep my attention on a transatlantic flight, I had a longer horizon to make more strategic choices. Plus a desire to distract myself from feelings of stagnation and treading water.
This started with a plan to read more middle grade (roughly ages 9-13) novels, with half a notion that this serve as background research for writing one myself one day. Going in, I thought I would be all about the fun, whimsical, adventurous ones, but it turns out I prefer serious stories where somebody dies. Go figure.
Unlike YA, MG books are--on average--less likely to absorb adult readers. But that doesn't hold true categorically. These four are pretty great books, no matter what your age:
—All the Greys on Greene Street, by Laura Tucker - A stolen painting, a catatonically depressed mom, a guerilla artist, and a day running wild in nature that restores a friendship
—The Line Tender, by Kate Allen - A dead mom, quarry swimming, and a detailed shark autopsy
—Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez - This one's more on the zany side but inventive, refreshing, and absolutely one of a kind: Raw chickens, multiple universes, sick baby brothers, and lot of delicious Cuban food.
—The Parker Inheritance, Varian Johnson - Hidden treasure, clues from a dead grandma, new friends, and a history of the Jim Crow South
Sometime late last year, my partner suggested we start reading poetry to each other. We dipped our toes in with Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy from Bloodaxe Books in the UK. We started reading front to back --like you do--until we realized that all of the fun, hopeful, positive poems are in the first third, all the poems about love, marriage, and family are in the middle, and all the ones about cancer, exile, genocide, death, and the bomb are in the last third. So when we finished that starter volume and moved on to Being Alive, we now select each day's poems using a page number randomizer. We don't know what mood we’ll encounter on any given evening, but we no longer have to dread the final third.
Two poems that for me have made the whole experience worthwhile:
"Dawn Revisited," by Rita Dove
"There Was No Difference," by Pablo Neruda.
In August, we also finally embarked on a plan to watch more movies. For people who watch a lot of movies, maybe this doesn't seem very hard. But in my household, we don't spend a lot of time in front of the TV screen anyhow, and those few hours are filled with tried-and-true favorites. My partner and I are both chronically indecisive, and it always turned out that the genre-busting, dystopian Weird Western set in an isolated Brazilian village that the Guardian calls a 'hallucinatory trauma' (Bacurau) that looked so intriguing on Monday afternoon no longer seemed like such a great choice when it was Saturday night and we were tired and just ready to settle into a warm bath. On top of that, I always worried about my responsibilities if I choose a film and it turns out to be a real stinker. So we settled on picking picking a list of 6 movies at a time in advance and working our way through that list, one per week. Narrowing the options makes it harder to give up and just watch Derry Girls again. We've only watched 14 films so far, but my favorite was:
Atlantics - This recent Cannes-prize winner from Senegalese director Mati Diop is a romance and a ghost story and social commentary and feminism all rolled into one. Some young construction workers who haven't been paid in months emigrate by sea. Their boat is lost and their ghosts return to possess their girlfriends, who demand the money of their employer. That sounds straightforward, but the film is elegant, affecting, and dreamy--and just a little bit creepy.
Other notable books of 2020:
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam - I heard Alam on NPR and was really sold on the premise of a white family from NYC vacationing in a rural AirBnB when a late-night knock on the door brings an older black couple who say it’s their house and they need to stay because sudden blackout has swept the city. But it's much more about the (vague, unspecified) apocalypse than it is about race and society. Reminded me most of Station Eleven. It was a very unsettling read.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - I couldn't wait to read this one, and it didn't disappoint. I spent the ages 12-14 gulping down Victoria Holt and other gothic romances as fast as I could turn the pages. I was so excited by the prospect of indulging in the same tropes but with a new world twist. It goes a little more outright fantasy that the genre usually does, but all is forgiven. Plus, there are paper-freaking-dolls for the main character, and a playlist that I've really enjoyed.
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nahesi Coates - I confess, I had a few doubts about this one when I started. I figured that since Coates is such a brilliant essayist, critic, memoirist, and commentator, he couldn't possibly be an equally gifted novelist. How wrong I was. I guess the world is sometimes unfair like that and heaps a whole bunch of different talents on one person. But I'm not going to complain, because that abundance resulted in such a good story. The fantastical element of 'conduction' is a unique one and perfectly suited to its context. The exploration of the complicated feelings of Hiram for his white and free brother
In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado - The house at the center of this book is in my town (Bloomington, IN) and I can't help trying to figure out which house it is. There are little clues scattered throughout the text: drunken students wandering the golf course, the proximity of a forest, and the position of the driveway, etc. Providing these details are all accurate, I've got it narrowed down to one or two possibilities. House detecting aside, this is a unique, absorbing, inventive memoir, and you should probably read it.
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo - I always try to read the Booker Prize shortlist (I don't always succeed, but I try). It often turns me on to fantastic books and authors, like Anna Burns' 2018 winner Milkman and Sally Rooney's Normal People. Following the lives of 12 women, I loved how their stories looped in and out of each other across generations and jobs and neighborhoods. And the final 'story', and the way it ties it all together was just fantastic.
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik - I tried reading this a few years ago and couldn't get into it. I'm a big fan of the Temeraire series, and I LOVED Uprooted, but I just couldn't get into this one the first time I tried. All the slog of Miriam's life in the village in the first chapters didn't appeal. But late last year, Nancy Werlin made a strong case for it and so I put the audiobook on hold at my library and persevered. I'm so glad I did. It's a really complex story that weaves together multiple tropes from fairy tales and folklore and rewrites them all.
And when I can’t sleep, and I want something to read that will soothe and not give me nightmares or remind me of the hand basket we are all living in, I turn to the Ruth Galloway mystery series by Elly Griffiths, about a forensic archaeologist living in a lonely cottage at the edge of Norfolk fens. They are just adventurous enough to keep my interest but cozy enough to reassure. I find them eminently soothing. Maybe you will too.
Finally, a shout out to my local Monroe County Public Library, which has kept me safely supplied with more than enough to read and listen to throughout this pandemic year by having very generous ebook arrangements and even upping the digital borrowing limits when taking out physical books became impossible. I haven't set foot in the library itself since March, but I don't forget that there's where all my glorious convenient free reading is coming from.
Alisa Alering is a writer, editor, and coach. Her most recent story "The Time I Found A Phone Booth Where I Could Talk To My (Dead) Dad," appears in the Autumn 2020 issue of Fireside Quarterly. Other fictions can be found in Mythic Delirium, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and creativity workshops at the Highlights Foundation and Wiscon (well, when there *is* a Wiscon😞 ). She is a graduate of Clarion West (2011) and winner of Writers of the Future (2013). Her story "Madeleine Usher Usher" appeared in Aqueduct's Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries across the Known Multiverse. www.alering.com | @alering