Reading in a Terrible Year

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.

Poetry

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 . . . .

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20 Responses to Reading in a Terrible Year

  1. Victoria McManus says:

    I did some rereading this year, which finally got me reading some of the surefire books I’d been hoarding for hard times.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m usually a big comfort re-reader, but not this year. Maybe I needed to feel the future, as well as the past, could be brighter!

  2. sonomalass says:

    I read a lot of paranormal and urban fantasy this year, in addition to high fantasy (always one of my top genres). Series were good for me — no decision to make, just get the next book and keep going. But there were a number of times during the past eight months when I turned to mystery; Louise Penny, Amanda Carmack and Sherry Thomas. I realized that what I need to read are books about people solving problems and fixing things. Justice happening. I read less romance this year than I have in about a decade, although I still read some good ones, and I think it’s because I had trouble focusing on the needs/fortunes of only two people. I needed more than that in the face of pandemic and political evil.

    I didn’t reread as much in 2020 as I usually do when I’m in need of comfort, although I did reread the perfection that is Patricia McKillip’s The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy. But 2021 started with a reread of Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (as a result of rewatching the 1970s BBC adaptations), and I have never been able to read just one Sayers, especially as we’ll be moving on to the 1980s Wimsey adaptations in our weekly DVD marathons.

    I bought a lot of nonfiction in preparation for teaching intercultural communication classes, but I ended up skimming a lot and reading summaries rather than really getting into deep reading. It was just too much. But I am definitely getting a copy of Wintering!

    I am so grateful that I was raised to be a reader, and that I have friends and an online community of fellow readers. Books have been a big help to me in coping this year, and I hear the same from others. Hugs to you, and may we all continue find books that get us through tough times.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I think the solving problems and fixing things is a big part of it. I had a surprisingly high tolerance for mysteries where the plot hit close to home, solutions that were imperfect and left serious wounds, and protagonists who did things I thought were wrong, this year. I think it’s because they were always motivated by trying to do right. And the fact that you could fumble through and it wouldn’t be perfect but still somehow closer to better and right—that resonated.

  3. willaful says:

    I had some books that really helped me through the major breakup of my life. It was so long ago that I don’t remember their names and chances are what worked for 18 year old me wouldn’t work for you anyway, but I’m glad you’ve found things that have helped.

  4. Sunita says:

    I’m so glad that you are finding strong support from friends and family, and that medication therapy is helping. At its least bad 2020 was a real-world Groundhog Day, and at worst it made Groundhog Day look like a gift.

    I read 54 books in 2020, only 4 of which were romance and all were from my favorite authors. My comfort read genre is mysteries again, with a sprinkle of SFF (mostly science fiction). I like mysteries because of the focus on order, I suppose, but also because they have a lot to say about human relationships and society without requiring an emotional HEA/HEFN or a laser focus on two characters. I also found that classic novels (Trollope, the Manzoni which I finally finished) made me feel better about the fact that what we’re experiencing is what humanity has always experienced in some way.

    I restarted Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond after setting it aside a couple of years ago and I loved it. It’s part memoir, part essay, and wholly insightful. I’d also recommend Sara Baume, another youngish Irish author who writes from a similar place, I think. I read A Line Made by Walking, but her first book was very well received and her most recent book sounds good too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Sunita! Nice to see you. I found sometimes I was desperate for more company and to escape my house, but sometimes the enforced retreat of the pandemic was a balm. I could be “on” at work (which helped me so much this fall!) but still be drinking coffee in my comfy leggings. I didn’t have to fake as much. My online classes went amazingly well, thanks in large part to dedicate students who inspired me to match them, and the help I’d gotten from colleagues in learning to design and deliver a decent course. I’m right back at it today. Not quite enough of a break. I hope your semester was good too.

      You’re right about mysteries and the way they can include so much about the complexity and variety of human experience. I haven’t been able to read romance for some time, partly because the contrast with my personal struggles was too strong. And the fix sometimes seems too complete and easy to bring about the HEA (though not in the best ones, of course).

      I think I’ve had Pond out of the library more than once. Maybe next time I’ll actually read it!

  5. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I’m so sorry about the hard times you have been going through. It seems facile to talk about ‘getting comfort from books’ and yet your post shows that you did find support, encouragement, and (sometimes most important) distraction in your reading. I’m glad – it’s so important – that you also have the other supports you talk about.

    Because it was the only one available locally, I started with Susie Steiner’s second but her first just arrived in the post and I’m looking forward to it. I find I get impatient with a lot of mysteries these days, maybe from teaching a course about them so often that I seem to hear the machinery creaking too loudly to enjoy them – but with Steiner (and also McTiernan) I managed to get past that initial resistance and then really appreciated what she did with her story.

    Wintering sounds like a book that would help me right now, so thank you for telling me about it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you, Rohan.

      I didn’t love the first Steiner book when I first read it, but when you and Dorian both liked others, I tried it again, liked it more, and really enjoyed the later ones.

      If you read Wintering, I hope you enjoy and find comfort it in, as I did!

      I was thinking about finding comfort in books. Part of it is that reading is ME. I have been a reader as long as I can remember. For the last several years, I have felt that I’m going around in a fog, or with a screen between me and the world. I felt like my brain had shrunk and I wasn’t fully me anymore. Yet still, I read. I hung on to that piece of myself. There was comfort merely in that, whatever I read. Now I’m hoping to get back to that feeling of being fully engrossed in a book, to read more deeply and critically, to broaden my reading horizons again.

  6. Liz–honoring your wish to talk books–
    I had fun this past year with a bunch of reprints from the British Crime Library. These are by ‘forgotten’ Golden Age authors. Quite honestly, some of them should have stayed ‘forgotten’, but I really enjoyed the ones by ECR Lorac (who also wrote as Carol Carnac). She wrote long series under each name, both featuring Scotland Yard detectives. My favorites were ‘Fire in the Thatch’ as Lorac, and ‘Crossed Skis’ as Carnac. I see that more of her Lorac backlist is becoming available digitally. Yay!
    My ‘book of the year’ was “Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell. Absolutely fabulous!

    Add me to the list of those who are intrigued by ‘Wintering’. Down here in Maryland our winters are usually mild, but the personal process should be the same. Right?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have mostly tried “best forgotten” examples from the British Crime Library, but I will look for Lorac/Carnac at the library. I like a classic/Golden Age style mystery.

      I think we all winter at times, cold or not!

  7. lauratfrey says:

    I took my time with the audio of Braiding Sweetgrass, and it still felt like the essays blended together. I think their supposed to (braided together? maybe?). I loved that book! Wintering sounds great.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, that’s a really good point about how the themes and topics are “braided” through the book and keep coming up again. Your comment made me think about how sometimes, when I’ve been to a presentation from an Indigenous person for work, I’ve been thrown by the different structure from many academic presentations. I’ll be thinking “why are they starting with this long story?” and have to reset my expectations for the way information is delivered and reflect on well, why ARE they starting with this long story? what is it telling me? This book was like that in not having an “obvious” structure, i.e. the kind I am used to or expecting. It doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

      • lauratfrey says:

        Yep, same (tho it’s a rarer event for me than you probably), I ended up asking a stupid question due to my unfamiliarity with the structure of an Indigenous author’s work… something to keep working on for sure!

  8. I wish I was there to hug you in person. I’ve been there with depression and divorce. In my case the divorce was something I needed to do to save my sanity, but a divorce is a loss no matter how it comes about. All the hopes you had when you were young and believed in your partnership shatter, it’s awful. And it’s rough, so rough, to go through that while struggling with your mental health and equilibrium. The year I went through that was the hardest I’ve ever lived through. So—hugs. I’m so glad you have friends, a therapist and family who are supportive.

    If your’e interested in reading more books on the topics you mentioned, there are a couple I recommend:

    Darkness Visible by William Styron — the best book on the topic of depression that I’ve ever read. Styron experienced depression and wrote about the experience later, once he was doing a bit better. He captured it so well. As with anything, others experience it in different ways. But he’s a good writer and articulated the utter despair, the difficulty of seeking help or responding to others who offer it, the feelings of guilt and helplessness. I will always be grateful to that book for making me feel seen, and less alone.

    How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Melba Colgrove, Harold H. Bloomfield and Peter McWilliams — an older book that came highly recommended by my therapist. It can be used not just by people who are recently widowed or divorced but also people dealing with other losses such as the death of a pet, or job loss. It’s a book of brief, simple meditations and suggestions for self-care, written with kindness. The kind of book where you can read a page at a time, then put it down and absorb what you read, or not, without feeling inadequate or anxious.

    Books can be such a comfort and I am glad you are able to experience that more fully now.

    I have heard good things about the Susie Steiner series before an I want to look into it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you for all of this, Janine! I know about Styron’s book, but I’ve never read it (or Andrew Solomon’s). That might go on my list. And simple, brief meditations are the kind of thing I’m finding really helpful right now.

  9. I too am intrigued by Wintering. I’ve had depression and anxiety issues over the years and the thing that stood out for me is that all I wanted to do was hide in my bedroom as it made me feel better yet I kept being forced to go out to “cheer up” yet no-one forced me to go anywhere while I felt the same way during the pandemic, and I feel stronger for it. I’m so glad you found (and shared) this book. I will definitely find a copy to read. I’m glad that you found some comfort in the books you chose, and I love that you co-read on Zoom. I hope this year is a better one for you.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hiding in my bedroom often didn’t make me feel better, but sometimes I had a hard time doing anything else. I have becomne an evangelist for Wintering! I hope you find an enjoy it.

  10. Kaetrin says:

    I know what you mean about books which helped. I came back to reading romance many years ago when I was so grief stricken I could barely function and I just needed to escape into something that I knew would end up okay and not fall to pieces like everything in my real seemed to be doing. It was a different situation and we chose different books for different reasons but the idea of reading to heal makes so much sense to me. I’m glad you have reading and listening to help you along the way, as well as all the other things you have. I’m very glad you’re OK.

    Last year I did a lot of re-reading, a thing I rarely do usually – but 2020 was an unusual year after all. I fell into comfort reads; I re-read or re-listened to all of the Mercyverse books by Patricia Briggs, I re-read or re-listened to almost all of my Susanna Kearsley collection and when things were scary and weird they helped. After about November though my reading tanked completely and I’ve been struggling to read. Fortunately I’ve been able to listen still so I still have books. I’m reading a good book now though so maybe (fingers crossed!) things are finally looking up.

    May they look up for all of us in all the ways.

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