“A book does not beep at you, spy on you, sell you out to marketers, interrupt with breaking news, suck you into a doomscrolling vortex, cease to function in a nor’easter, flood your eyes with melatonin-suppressing blue light or otherwise interrupt your already troubled sleep.” ~Margaret Renkl
In 2019 I wrote a summary of the year’s joys, including titles of the best books I read. I have fewer things to celebrate this year but I am grateful for many blessings, among them wonderful books which are a welcome distraction from the ongoing horrors of 2020.
My budget doesn’t have much space for book purchases, but that’s okay, I’ve found a lifelong refuge in libraries. Many people have felt threatened by shortages of toilet paper and sanitizing wipes but I worry instead that the complete library lockdowns we experienced in the spring might recur. I’m one of those library patrons who regularly reserves a slew of books, from children’s picture books to those most recently reviewed in literary journals. Thanks to the extra hours insomnia gives me, I get through at least four books a week, often more. It’s impossible to imagine my life without books. Our rural county’s library system recently closed again due to increased pandemic risk but thankfully we can continue to get our books curbside. Every day a new pile of books comes in feels like a birthday to me.
Among those I’ve got on order!
Here’s a shortlist of the best fiction and nonfiction I’ve read this year, along with my hope that you’ll share some of your own favorites in the comments.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. You know that feeling when you encounter someone filled with awe? You can’t help but be captivated right along with them. That’s how I experience Merlin Sheldrake’s fascination with fungi. Neither plant nor animal, fungi are found everywhere and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi connect plants in vitally necessary underground networks. They are influence the way we think, feel, and behave. They can also break down plastic, explosives, pesticides, and crude oil. Yet over ninety percent of their species remain undocumented. Sheldrake writes, “Without this fungal web my tree would not exist. Without similar fungal webs no plant would exist anywhere. All life on land, including my own, depended on these networks.” library link
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature by J. Drew Lanham is a memoir, a reckoning with history, and a love letter to nature. Reading it, I am with the author as he explores the woods, minds his Mamatha, works to please his father, and discovers what he values. The writing soars in places, especially in descriptions of wilderness. J. Drew Lanham writes, “I eventually realized that to make a difference I had to step outside, into creation, and refocus on the roots of my passion. If an ounce of soil, a sparrow, or an acre of forest is to remain then we must all push things forward. To save wildlife and wild places the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything. To help others understand nature is to make it breathe like some giant: a revolving, evolving, celestial being with ecosystems acting as organs and the living things within those places — humans included — as cells vital to its survival.” library link
See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur. The author is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and Sikh activist who describes how her experiences with personal and collective suffering led her to reclaim love as a world-changing force. She writes, “Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.” library link
To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the
Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. When the author was orphaned as a child, elders took her in as the last ward under the Brehon Law. She was taught the ways of Celtic healing, the laws of the trees, Brehon wisdom, and the Ogham alphabet; all of it rooted the belief that forests are essential. Beresford-Kroeger grew up to became a botanist whose understanding of ancient ways brought her to new scientific breakthroughs. These include the discovery of mother trees, the chemical language of trees, the recognition that trees heal living creatures through the aerosols they release, and more. Beresford-Kroeger writes, “The elders versed in the mores of the Celtic culture instructed me in the meaning of a special word, buíochas. It means, as best I can render it, tender gratitude. The buíochas should be very high in each person, like a glass that is full. Buíochas is also a self-protection. You should carry gratitude in your heart for everything inside and outside your life and all the small things that impinge on your consciousness. The feeling of buíochas is like a medicine of the mind that holds your life together.” library link
Field of Compassion: How the New Cosmology is Transforming Spiritual Life by Judy Canato. I’m in a study group diving deep into cosmologist Brian Swimme’s Powers of the Universe and Canato’s book is a good companion volume (along with those by Thomas Berry, David Bohm, Teilhard de Chardin, and Cynthia Bourgeault). Canato encourages us to create a “field of compassion” by practicing four attitudes: spaciousness, contemplation, commitment, and imagination. She writes, “Compassion changes everything. Compassion heals. Compassion mends the broken and restores what has been lost. Compassion draws together those who have been estranged or never even dreamed they were connected. Compassion pulls us out of ourselves and into the heart of another, placing us on holy ground where we instinctively take off our shoes and walk in reverence. Compassion springs out of vulnerability and triumphs in unity.” library link
Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed For You by Jenara Nerenberg. This was a groundbreaking read for me. In several sections I nearly cried from the sheer relief of feeling understood. I am, by the standards of this book, neurodivergent. That includes my diagnosed ADHD, my sensory issues, and what’s left of my synesthesia. Nerenberg reveals the ways girls and women’s sensory processing differences are overlooked or masked. We blame ourselves rather than learn to celebrate diversity’s gifts. She writes, “The world will benefit significantly from talents such as empathy, emotional intensity, certitude, sensitivity, ability to detect details, depth of thought, will to embrace, and many other things that we need in a time where alienation, coldness, superficiality, and emotional hardness are predominating.” library link
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Written with precise and courageous prose, Trethewey shares the story of her mother’s life as well as her own early years. Despite the violence of her mother’s death, this memoir contains the sort of calm that comes of going deep to understand more fully. She writes, “What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives.” This book is an extraordinary example of that arc and meaning. library link
Thin Places: Essays from In Between by Jordan Kisner. Throughout these intelligent and always engaging essays, Kisner, who describes herself as “naturally reverent,” considers evangelical churches, neurosurgery, reality television, autopsies, and much more. Her search for meaning resonates strongly with me, as in this passage. “Because thin places involve an encounter with the ineffable, they’re hard to talk about. You know something has happened, some dissolution or expansion, but like most things that feel holy and a little dangerous, it just sounds weird in post-factum description… But then, the thin places I’ve known aren’t always places, per se. Sometimes a thin place appears between people. Sometimes it happens only inside you.” library link
The Oldest Story In The World by Phil Cousineau. My (own!) copy is underlined, starred, and littered with margin notes. Cousineau is a polymath whose love of story takes him (and us) on a journey from ancient Aboriginal tales to modern parables to the power of sharing our own stories. He writes, “Stories strangify experiences and estrange the world so we can rise above it like smoke, if even for a moment, to catch a glimpse not only of what is happening – but what it all might mean. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why stories are a means to an end, and the end is meaning, a meaning that emerges slowly with every daring glimpse into your own inward life.” library link
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is an improbable tale about the redemptive powers of social media and the rewards of fandom. This memoir, anonymously written by a reclusive working writer, takes us with her as she creates the fictional character Duchess Goldblatt. I’ve enjoyed the wit and kindness of Her Grace on Twitter, enjoy it even more in this charming memoir. As the Duchess writes, “Sometimes I tie your words in linen with a little lavender and mint and use them as a poultice for my weary old heart.” library link
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a magnificent accomplishment. Very human stories converge with the natural world in wonder-inducing ways. I loved everything about it and couldn’t help but read sections aloud to my mostly-patient spouse. I also understand fellow readers who got bogged down by its complexity. My booksmart friend Laurie gave me two helpful hints before I started. She said she made quick notes to help her remember the main character in each chapter. She also said it was not a book to read over a long period of time, instead it’s best to keep reading to fully absorb the impact over a series of days. I totally agree. Here’s a sample. “But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.” library link
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. I was swept up away this remarkable book, especially where it steeps in the numinous. It’s a modern-day story of a struggling family whose lives shudder to the pulsing heartbeat of Hawaiian gods. Each family member’s gifts and burdens come across in pitch-perfect prose as they move ahead carrying the past’s shadows. Here’s a sample of Washburn’s writing. “But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight.” library link
A Burning by Megha Majumdar is set in modern-day India. It connects the lives of an impoverished Muslim girl accused of terrorism, a coach willing to do anything for an extreme political party, and an outcast with dreams of glory. It has parallels to life in the U.S. and is so engrossing that I stayed up much of the night reading it start to finish. Here’s a sample, “I stand tall, though colors appear bright in my eyes, the greens of trees luminous as a mineral seam, the ground beneath my feet composed of distinct particles. My legs buckle, and the policewoman catches me. A shout goes up among the crowd.” library link
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell twists a tiny bit of Shakespeare’s life into a tale of motherhood, grief, and determination in a time of plague. She effortlessly brings the reader into the daily lives of women in Elizabethan England with lucid prose, like this passage. “The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.” library link
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami is the tale of an immigrant family caught up in a murder mystery. It’s also a love story and a stark example of how much the personal is also political. Here’s a sample. “Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember.” library link
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich brings us into the lives of distinctly memorable characters, one based on her Chippewa grandfather. We can feel the cold night air, the omen in an owl’s call, the warm stew, the pencil scratching across paper, the long history honored within traditions. The story takes place in the early 1950’s yet feels entirely relevant today. Here’s a bit of Erdrich’s prose. “Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people—political figures, priests, explorers—and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. This confusion of the chimookomaanag between the timelessness of the earth and the short span here of mortals was typical of their arrogance.” library link
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a singular tale. Twin sisters from a small, all-Black community run away from home in their teens only to follow very different paths. Bennett’s meditation on race, identity, and family is both timely and timeless. As she writes, “That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realize that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath.” library link
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is inspired by the author’s ancestors. This painful coming-of-age story is riddled with poverty, racism, and abuse. At the same time, it’s a transcendent read. Somehow McDaniel makes each beautifully written paragraph seem effortless, as she does in this passage. “My father’s hands were soil. My mother’s were rain. No wonder they could not hold one another without causing enough mud for two. And yet out of that mud, they built us a house that became a home.” library link
The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey. This is an observant and captivating book centered around siblings whose lives are forever changed after finding a victim of a violent crime. Livesey is a master at creating authentic characters. I’d have happily followed them through any plot. Here’s a glimpse. “If Zoe was the one who found things, their little brother was the one who noticed them: the different yellows of two eggs yolks, the way a person’s lips twitched when they met him, the first snowdrops pushing up through the frosty grass, the curve of a dog’s eyebrows.” library link
Stars of Alabama by Sean Dietrich actually reminds me of a Steinbeck novel. Dietrich is a gifted storyteller who makes this saga sing. His characters’ broken hopes and strange yearnings are imbued with hope. Here’s a sample: “Their lives weren’t beautiful. In fact, their lives were hard. And whenever they settled into a routine, along came something that changed it. They always seemed to be a few meals away from starvation, and they seemed to have less each month than they had the month before. But life doesn’t have to be beautiful to be pretty, Paul thought. All it needs is red hair.” library link
“I have always loved the feel of books, the way they give a literal weight to words and make of them a sacred object.” ~Natasha Trethewey