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Friends, here we are again, at the end of another exhausting year.  We made it! I never lost my reading momentum this year and I’m truly grateful.  In fact, I think reading constantly has been the key to my mental and emotional stability this year (such as it was, which is to say, not great).  I’m definitely a mood reader and this year for the first time I didn’t fight my moods, which were, understandably, somewhat volatile and tumultuous. I didn’t make myself read things I thought I “should.”  Instead, I went where my moods* took me.

I dove into mostly fantasy fiction this year,** immersing myself in stories that are DEFINITELY not real (escapism really works, friends!). On the other hand, I also took deeper look at individual, true-life stories, told in folks’ own voices.  My love for memoirs really snuck up on me, and those listed here are just a handful of my favorites among a large list of wonderful ones. Because when the world feels hostile and uncaring, apparently I yearn for empathy both in myself and in others.  Sharing in the pain and joy of others reminded me of the humanity in all of us (a spoonful of humanity makes the despair go down).

Another habit I’ve honed this past couple of years is not finishing books I’m not liking. As a result, I really loved almost everything I read (my average rating is 4.0+), so making this list was hard.  That’s why there are more honorable mentions then there are favorites. Here’s to another year of moodiness!

Essays: My newfound love for essays has also surprised me this year.  Essays are the perfect format to throw into a mix if you (like me) read more than one book at once.  They are easy to pick up and put down.  My hands-down favorite this year was Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno, which I’ve already talked about in another post.  Her writing is beautiful and her exploration of gender, sexuality and identity is eye-opening. [Trigger warning for SA]

Honorable mention #1: Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough.  Lauren grew up in an honest-to-goodness cult.  Her essays walk us through her cult years growing up and her Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell years in the military, and what she did with herself after being “asked” to leave the military.  She’s also a great person to follow on Twitter.  [Trigger warning for SA]

Honorable mention #2:  Here for It by R. Eric Thomas is hilarious and engaging.  His story about his school newspaper article that got him labeled a ‘typical racist white dude’ is unforgettable. His Twitter feed is worth a follow too. 

Nonfiction:  The costs of structural racism in our country are often unseen but white citizens. We seem to think that either they aren’t there or, if we are being honest and know that they are, we have a sneaking suspicion that they are not our costs to pay (spoiler: they are). In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee, an expert in economics and policy, shows readers how these costs (in housing, healthcare, voting, lending, the job market) hurt us all. And how helping the most vulnerable helps us all.

Honorable mention #1:  This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garret is a book about empathy and all the obstacles we put in our own way to keep us from being kinder, more empathetic people.  It’s filled with silly (and educational!) drawings but don’t be fooled, this book is for real.

Honorable mention #2
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power by Ijeoma Oluo.  At perhaps no better time than now, in the middle of a botched pandemic response, do we need to examine our cultural need to follow the leadership and authority of folks who are clearly not up to the task.  This book examines the historical context of why we arrived here and what we need to do to change it. 

Memoir (LGBTQ+): It only took a few pages before I fell in love with Ivan Coyote, author of Tomboy Survival Guide.  This is a memoir told as a series of stories of his Canadian upbringing and transition into his true authentic self.  This year I really leaned into stories of identity, specifically gender identity and sexual orientation and this is one of the best I read.  Turns out I’m easily swayed to read anything with Tomboy in the title, and this one didn’t disappoint.  In fact, it sets the bar high for all other tomboy books.

Honorable mention #1:  The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc is the emotional and engaging memoir of a trans man who transitioned during his pregnancy for his second child (and first pregnancy).  We follow Kris as he journeys through parenthood and pregnancy with all the unique emotional and logistical challenges that such a pregnancy presented. 

Honorable mention #2:  Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan.  I was introduced to Jennifer Finney Boylan when I read her book Good Boy, about being raised as a boy with his childhood dogs.  Her writing is beautiful and so relatable.  This memoir includes not only the story of Jennifer’s experiences as a parent in more than one gender (she had her children before she transitioned), but also interviews with other parents regarding gender and identity. 

Memoir: If you think that I got a lot of my book recommendations from folks I follow on Twitter you would be correct.  Ashley C. Ford is a gorgeous writer, plain and simple.  I will read anything she writes.  In Somebody’s Daughter she explores shares her deepest self with us and in doing so shows us how we can approach family, love and loyalty while still being true to ourselves.  [Trigger warning for SA]

Honorable mention:  I automatically buy any book that Jenny Lawson writes.  Her previous books have delved into mental health issues in Jenny’s hilarious, chaotic and inimitable way.  Broken follows in this tradition of the author sharing her truest, weirdest, most ridiculous and funniest self.  It’s a book that made me cry but also laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe.

Antiracist: Clint Smith, the author of How The Word Is Passed is a literal poet.  And this fact shines through every sentence of this powerful book.  He takes us on a journey around the country, exploring parts of the U.S. with ties to racism:  Monticello Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery and Galveston Island.  His descriptions are so powerful that the reader can see what he sees, which adds an additional emotional impact to the stories of our horrific past.

Honorable mention #1:  Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson is a gut-punch of a book.  Every beautiful, brutally true sentence requires your full mental attention and emotional investment.  Each chapter is addressed to a soul tragically lost to unnecessary and yet all too common violence against Black bodies:  Elijah McClain, Emmett Till, Eric Gardner, Breonna Taylor and others.  It should be read slowly, carefully, and unflinchingly. 

Honorable mention #2 & #3:  The most basic thing we white folks need to do to educate ourselves about racism is to listen to BIPOC voices.  Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho and The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Joseph, Frederick are two wonderful gifts from the Black community to us white folks – these are books explicitly written for us so that we can hear the things we need to hear.  I recommend both of these books for those just starting their antiracist journeys or for kids.  Uncomfortable Conversations even has a specific young readers version (which I got both my kids!)

Middle Grade: I read Verdigris Pawn by Alysa Wishingrad in less than a day.  I could not put it down.  It’s a delightful middle grade fantasy with characters you really root for.  It has some magic and also some mystery and just enough stakes to have you on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens next. 

Honorable mention #1 (&2):  I stayed up until 2am reading Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter.  It’s a story about orphans and mysteries and dark cloaked figures who are up to no good.  There is murder and intrigue and danger at every turn. There is a group of scrappy kids who are not to be trifled with. When I was done, I went out to buy the sequel. Winterborne Home for Mayhem and Mystery proved just as engaging (requiring another late night).  My kid, my mother and I all loved this series, so it’s good for all ages)

Horror:  Chuck Wendig has no right (as the kids say) to go this hard, not after what he did to us in WanderersThe Book of Accidents is, in many ways, a straightforward horror book.  There is a serial killer, plenty of gore, and some scary-as-shit, unexplained phenomenon.  But there are also portals and magic and demons.  I don’t know how he keeps all these threads together, but he does.  This book defies boundaries and genres.  And it’s so damn good. 

Honorable mention #1:  Dark Waters by Katherine Arden is the third in her Small Spaces Quartet.  This one is set in Spring (the previous two were in Fall and Winter).  The author does “horror for kids” as well as my perennial favorite, Neil Gaiman.  Because it’s middle grade, I always believe the kids will be alright, but there are just enough stakes to make me question this every once in a while.  As an adult, I find these books scary in that atmospheric way that is thrilling.  She’s a great storyteller.

NOTE: I started using The StoryGraph this year instead of GoodReads and consider this an unofficial plug to try this site out. It gives you great end of the year stats (see below for my Moods* and Fiction/NonFiction**)

david-sedaris1It might seem to you readers that Jesse, Devin and I can’t be on this blog together.  However, I can assure you that despite our Clark Kent/Supermanness, we are indeed different people.  Though with our glasses and our geekiness I can’t imagine which one of us would be Superman.  Jesse is more like Charles Xavier in his (sometimes scary) ability to read people. Devin is quite the enigma – she’d probably be the Invisible Woman.  And personally I have always leaned more toward being the Hulk.  But I digress. . .

I waited a while to post since I wanted Devin and Jesse to have some time center stage.  Recently and not so recently this blog has been entirely too much about me and my reading.  But now that they’ve had their fifteen minutes I’m stealing back the spotlight.  If they want it back they’ll have to read.  And post. 

Fitting then, that my post should be about David Sedaris, someone entirely self involved and constantly focused on where the spotlight is (and attempting to get it back where it belongs – on him). 

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Book CoverFull disclosure:  I read Marley and Me (hey, it has a dog on the cover doesn’t it?) and I enjoyed the book immensely.  I laughed at all the funny parts, cringed when required and even cried at the end (come on, you knew it was coming!).  I’ve read that Walking with Ollie is Britain’s answer to Marley and I agree with that in many ways. I also think that both men adore and love their dogs and any judgments that follow are solely in their roles as responsible dog owners, not as good people.

I have four rescue animals – two cats and two dogs.  They are all wonderful creatures, affectionate and loving.  They don’t know they are supposed to be thankful that I rescued them and often act quite cavalier about their living situation (they are, plain and simply, spoiled).  Three of them have stable personalities with no issues that need managing. 

One of them doesn’t. 

He came to us as a four month old puppy and the first time I took him to the vet (the second day I had him) she said “He’s a bit timid isn’t he?”  I wouldn’t realize her understatement until many months later.  By then I had come to realize the little guy was afraid of the car (he puked once he got in), strange men on the street (or boys past the age of 15 or so), my father (even after he’d known him for months), statues of people, holiday decorations, the vacuum cleaner, nail clippers (the dog version and the human version), baby gates, cats, and inexplicably, the Stop N Shop Peapod truck.   Unlike Ollie, he was not afraid of his owner (me) but he did give Tim the fish eye occasionally, just to make sure he wasn’t up to no good.

When I began reading Ollie, I couldn’t help but remember the despair I felt when I realized my dog was not normal.  I felt that I had failed.  I thought that my first dog attempt was a disaster and it was all my fault (did I make him this way?).  That I couldn’t help this poor creature who was just terrified of the world.  I felt for Mr. Foster, I really did.  I’ve been there. 

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I was worried about one of my pets, as I always do, when my mother said to me in frustration “Why don’t you just give away all your pets and. . .”

“Be miserable?” was my reply.  Because despite my anxieties on their behalf (are they sick, are they happy, are they getting all that they need????) I can’t imagine living a life without the little critters. 

Though I am not one of those delusional people who thinks of my pets as kids, they are certainly an important part of my family.  I smile even while getting mauled by the dogs each day when I get home (what human would ever greet you with such happiness?).   When away from home I cannot sleep, ironically, because it’s too quiet.  Though a purring cat can be loud, it sure is comforting.  Being flanked on either side by warm felines bodies leaves some folks cold, but I’ll take the subsequent crick in the neck for a few glorious moments of a group cat nap. 

Though I spend a lot of time attending to my pets’ needs, as an chronic worrier, it’s nice to have a respite from my own issues, even if it means worrying a little about someone other than myself.   When the dogs need to be fed or walked or the litter box cleaned, there is no time for self involvement – and that’s ultimately healthier than the alternative.

I’m not the first to delight in the soothing affect of pets. Ask any pet owner and you’ll get a litany of reasons why their pets are good for them (you may even get melodramatic or just highly dramatic accounts of noble acts and miracles, depending on the pet owner).  And more recently science has supported such anecdotal evidence with studies that show pets lower blood pressure, decrease depression and increase feelings of social support in those who live alone.

So it’s not surprising that Bruce Goldstein’s therapist suggested that Goldstein, a manic depressive, get a dog.  Where medicine and therapy failed, a tiny black lab puppy named Ozzy succeeded. 

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I would have bought this book for other reasons – it has a cute dog on the cover, it’s about veterinary medicine – but the real reason I bought this book is a little more selfish.  The author, Nick Trout is a veterinarian and he did surgery on my childhood dog almost 20 years ago.  That dog was 5 years old and for a while my parents thought they would have to euthanize him.  But the surgery was successful and he lived another 9 years.

A small part of me wanted to see him in print, but his was not a sensational surgery or an emergency one.  This book features both types of surgery, after all, who wants to read about the routine and mundane?  That’s just not exciting and probably doesn’t sell many books.

The format of this book condenses 25 years of experience (including many patients and owners) into a “day in the life” of Dr. Nick Trout.  It’s an exhausting day for him, but a vastly interesting one for the those of us reading.  Of course you must have an interest in all things veterinary.  This book is not for mere animal lovers; it’s not James Herriot (though he never shied away from the gross).  There is some technical jargon which, if it’s confusing, you can probably skim, but for those of us who love anatomy it’s very intriguing.

There is one particular patient whose overarching story connects the book and you will get attached to her and her owner.  In between there are dozens of other patients and scenarios, some lighthearted, some tragic, some funny and some just plain sad.  Dr. Trout’s experience is vast and though he has the brain of a surgeon he has a heart big enough to hold all the patients he cares for.

“The Middle Place is about calling home. Instinctively. Even when all the paperwork — a marriage license, a notarized deed, two birth certificates, and seven years of tax returns — clearly indicates you’re an adult, but all the same, there you are, clutching the phone and thanking God that you’re still somebody’s daughter.”

So yeah, those little blurbs on the book jacket are supposed to make you buy the book.  But I’m stronger than that.  Maybe for most books, but this one pulls you into a big bear hug, like I imagine the author herself would do if I met her on the street.

I’m a huge fan of memoirs of “regular” people, by which I mean not Burroughs or James Frey but instead people like  Judy Blunt, Alison Smith or Abigail Thomas.  Woman with complicatedly simple lives which they live with extraordinary ordinariness.  Real people.  With real problems. 

I read memoirs because they contain that spark of surprise – someone is like me!I like reading things that feel instinctually right, even though when I hear them in my own head I fear they are oftentimes weird or wrong.  Call it my need for external validation but to see oneself in another is comforting, no matter who you are.

I was drawn to Kelly herself, but more importantly I was also drawn (as she said I would be; she’s so smart) to her father, George.  He reminded me a lot of my late grandfather or at least how I like to remember him.  At least I know that my mother felt similarly about her parents, her kind, easy going and fun-loving father and her capable, tough and pragmatic mother.  As Kelly suggests, if you want to feel good or need twenty bucks, go see George.  If you want something done, go see her mother.   I remember thinking the same about my grandparents.  My grandfather always had candy, though he was diabetic.  My grandmother always had advice, usually of the unwanted variety.

While my relationships with my parents are quite different, I do feel Kelly’s need to be someone’s daughter.  To know, that even when you are a parent yourself, there is someone in your corner willing to help you out.  That you don’t need to have all the answers because someone else does.  She thinks of this as a delaying of growing up, of staving off adulthood.  But I think it gets to the heart of familial relationships.  It’s certainly hard for parents to see their children as adults, but I think perhaps it’s harder for children to see themselves as such.  It’s such a relief to let someone else take control, to know that someone else is in charge.  It’s a dynamic that all children and parents work through.

Kelly’s story of her family and her life is inspiring and I don’t say that lightly.  She’s a real person with real fears and needs and triumphs.  I won’t tell you any specifics, because I expect you to go out and read it.  Now.  Because it was with regret that I put down this book. 

Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading