I wrote this on New Year’s Day to get it out of my head, and then sat on it for a while, unsure if I wanted to publish it. I couldn’t found a way to talk about my reading year without talking about what’s been going on in my life, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. But I’m practicing being open and vulnerable and hardly anyone reads this blog, so here goes.
I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, and this was the fifth? sixth? year of a depressive episode I had made sporadic attempts to get help with but couldn’t seem to shake. Then, in the fall, my husband moved out. It takes two to get a marriage in trouble. I knew mine was, and that my depression was a major contributor. But I’d had no idea he was at the point of ending it.
I’m grieving. But I also have anti-depressants that are working, a good therapist, and friends and family who love and support me. I’ve grown closer to many of them this year, something I wanted but couldn’t initiate in my depression. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by sadness, but sometimes I feel happier than I have in a long time. I’ll be OK. I’m OK now. No need to comment on this, really–just talk to me about books!
What did I read through these enormous changes and a pandemic?
The Most Important (to me) Book I Read This Year
On Your Own Again by Keith Anderson with Roy MacSkimming. On an awful insomniac night when the rug of my life had just been pulled out from under me, I searched “divorce” on the digital library site. I remember hardly anything about this book, but it made me feel less alone: if there’s a book for this, I can’t be the only one going through it. It told me everything I was feeling was normal, and that it would pass. It’s too much to say that this book saved my life, but it helped me take the first step towards believing that my life is still very much worth living.
Also: For similar reasons, memoirs about depression and being in therapy appealed to me this year. Other people are fucked up too, and they get better. Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, about her experiences as both therapist and client, and Christie Tate’s Group, about some pretty intense group therapy, were the ones I enjoyed most.
My Favorite Book of 2020
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. May’s idea of “wintering” spoke to me so strongly in this year of depression, pandemic isolation, and heartbreak:
Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of the outsider. . . . However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet it’s also inevitable.
May explores the way that plants, animals and people in cold places survive winter. What can we learn from them about how to hunker down, nurture ourselves, and wait for new growth? Her tales of traveling to Iceland, cold-water swimming, and fainting in the sauna and her descriptions of the natural world are funny and beautiful by turns. The self-helpish subtitle misrepresents this meditative memoir.
“Winter,” she writes, “had blanked me, blasted me wide open. In all that whiteness, I saw the chance to make myself new again. . . . Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.” Let it be so. I listened to a library audiobook, but I’m planning to buy my own copy. I know I’ll want to revisit it.
Best 2020 Reading Experience
My friend and fellow churchwarden Jane and I are reading Deesha Philyaw’s Secret Lives of Church Ladies together and discussing it–and many other things–over Zoom. (She’s done, I’m behind). This debut story collection was shortlisted for the National Book Award and, as the judges say, “revels in the beautiful mess of life, depicting generations of Black women navigating love, sex, death, family, and faith.” We both love it, and we love talking about it too. A little less isolation.
Mystery, Mystery, Mystery
My genre of choice this year; their plottiness kept me engaged, and they mostly didn’t make me feel too much. I escaped into them. I’ve almost caught up on Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. I enjoyed Peter Lovesey’s most recent Peter Diamond book, The Finisher, and I’m slowly working my way through the series from the beginning–I’ve previously just read some in random order as I find them at the library.
My favorite new-to-me mystery authors were Dervla McTiernan, Susie Steiner, and Louisa Luna‘s Alice Vega series (two so far, I’m reading the second now). The latter two authors feature two very different female investigators, but each is strong, messed up, complex, resilient and persistent in her own way. No wonder they appealed.
I read less this year, because I get it from the library and for a chunk of the pandemic they were closed (the digital collection has little poetry). My favorites were Natalie Diaz’s excellent collections When My Brother Was an Aztec and Postcolonial Love Poem. You can read some of her poems at the Poetry Foundation and Poets.org.
Non-Fiction I Enjoyed (Not About Therapy or Divorce)
Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade. Wade links these writers, some well known, some less so, because they all lived for a time in Mecklenburg Square. Like Rohan I thought that this premise was a bit gimmicky, but found the book enjoyable anyway. The portraits of women immersed in intellectual endeavor reminded me of my undergrad years at a women’s college and made me think about what I want to put into the new life I’m building now to recapture some of that feeling of being part of a community passionate about learning.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I listened to this on audio, read by the author. I’d like to reread it some time, because having it from the library meant I had to rush through, and the essays started to blend together. I think it would have been better more spread out. Her reflections on what we can learn from plants and the natural world reminded me a little of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a favorite from a few years ago. Kimmerer’s blending of Indigenous and scientific ways of knowing was inspiring.
What’s Next? Who knows? I’m not making reading resolutions this year, though I kind of hope to branch out more from mystery, that trusty companion. I don’t know if blogging will be something I want to add back to my life, but it did feel good to write this, so . . . .