Welp. That was certainly… a year. Let’s talk about books! I read way fewer things this year than I did last year, for reasons that I’m sure many of us did way less of shit in 2020 than they expected.
As a reminder: I keep a one-line entry in a journal and record the title, author and date that I finish each thing. I don’t include comics or childrens’ books.
Let’s do some numbers, even thought they don’t mean a ton. The parenthetical numbers are 2019’s stats.
Number of Things Read: 16 (47)
Reading Time (in days including weekends, during which I generally don’t read):
- Maximum: 174* days (The Phoenix Princess)
- Median: 11 days (Jacobin 35 and Catalyst Vol. 3 No. 3)
- Minimum: 1† day (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team)
- Mode: 4 days (The Consuming Fire, Books and Bone and Obsidio)
* This maximum is in error. Because I don’t record the starting date for books, if there’s a gap, it gets added to the next book I read. Normally that’s not a big problem because gaps are a few days at most. In April 2020, however, I was part way through Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorofor when I realized I’d been “reading” it for weeks and I probably wasn’t in the right emotional place for such an intense book. So I picked up How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish because my mom gifted it to me. That proved too dry for the emotional and mental state I was in. So eventually, I picked up The Phoenix Princess and absolutely blazed through it. I just have no idea how fast I read it, so I can’t correct the numbers. Also, FWIW, I do intend to return to those other books. Just… later.
† I think this minimum is also probably in error. I do remember that the first, maybe two thirds of the book were incredibly fast to read, but I think the last third took me at least another day? I think it’s likely that I was reading this concurrently with Jacobin No. 35 for some reason.
Things I Read in 2020
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (2020-01-19)
After reading this, I have beef with Novik as a writer. I like her writing style a lot and her world building and main characters are great. And in Uprooted, I excused some pretty yikes stuff as, like, a one-off problem. But this book shows that it’s a pattern and so I’m almost certainly done with her as an author. The deal is that she makes love stories about young women who meet shitty, borderline (or not-so-borderline) abusive men and then has these women come into their own power and solve the problems and do all the things you’d hope a protagonist would… and somehow ending up with these shitty, abusive dudes is part of the reward she gets? In some ways, there are abortive, incomplete redemptions arcs for the men, but for the most part, they’re given excuses for their behavior and not asked to atone or improve in any way before riding off into the sunset with the heroines. Just… yuck.
Jacobin 35: From Socialism to Populism and Back (2020-01-29)
To be honest, I had to look this one up. You’ll notice that after March, I didn’t read any political stuff of enough length to warrant logging it. Another thing I just couldn’t handle during all of everything else. I do remember that there was a piece of what the word “populism” means and what its origins were and whether it was worth continuing to use it in any way, but I don’t remember the conclusions at all.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (2020-01-30)
This is a business book about teams. It breaks down a framework for how to think about the things a team needs in order to perform at all. It’s a bit more detailed than “psychological safety”, drawing a hierarchy of things (sort of like Maslow’s). I’d have to go back to it to remember what the five dysfunctions are by name (and their remedies), but at the time, for a few months after, I remember many work conversations about why some interaction with an outside team was hard or frictioney turning back to the book and realizing that the relationship was missing one of the things from the list of five. It was also a super fast read (but see the note above), which makes it good bang for time-buck. I recommend it.
The Broken Heavens by Kameron Hurley (2020-02-12)
This is the conclusion to Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga. I like Hurley and her weird magic and weird technology and such. If you liked the first two books, you’ll like this one. I found the ending sort of surprising in terms of where it left the world, but I liked the decision.
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey (2020-02-21)
I really like the Expanse books and this is one of them. Without going into spoilers it’s a bit hard to talk about what I liked about this one as distinct from the previous entries, but it introduced some new themes around the main characters getting older that I liked. There wasn’t as much Amos as I’d’ve liked (which is basically always more Amos, please) and I wasn’t super pleased with how they stuck the landing on the conclusion of his character arc for the book, but overall I liked the book.
Catalyst Vol. 3 No. 3 (2020-03-04)
I had to look this one up, too. It looks like there was a piece about family that I remember being interesting and having new-to-me ideas and a piece about the economic forces driving the prison-industrial complex. But even as I write this I don’t have the mental energy to summarize what was memorable about them. Sorry.
The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi (2020-03-08)
Scalzi is always easy to read. I find I don’t love him as much as I used to (I discovered him in, I think, late high school, so over two decades ago!), but he’s comforting and fun, generally. This is the second book in his series called The Interdependency. It has witty characters doing space adventure things and winning because they’re clever, which I like.
To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (2020-03-23)
Chambers is among my favorite authors. This is the first of hers I’ve read outside of The Wayfarers series. It is about why humans explore, how we should decide what to do, what it means to be incredibly far from home. It’s sad, it’s hopeful, it’s got wonder and grief and confusion and… In the end, I guess the overriding emotion for me was bittersweetness. The title is a reference to a message on the Golden Record and it is a very fitting title.
Star Wars: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson (2020-04-10)
This is the origin story of Phasma (the silver shiny Stormtrooper commander lady from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi). It humanizes her interestingly and is a fun read. It’s a Star Wars book, so I didn’t expect a ton of depth going in, but it was pretty good for what it is.
Books and Bone by Victoria Corva (2020-04-14)
This is by a newish author. It’s about necromancers and a young woman raised among them who wants to take a different path. It discusses themes of fitting in or not (and deciding such actively); finding the grit to stick to your guns; the risks or going out on your own. I really liked it and plan on reading the next in the series. It’s a bit of a pity because I remember after reading it having a lot more thoughts on the book and specific nuances I wanted to communicate, but I didn’t write them down and so here we are.
Obsidio by Amy Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (2020-04-18)
This is the third book in its series. They’re all a connected story that features a new pair of young men and women who are and/or fall in love and fight to bring light to an unfolding capitalist atrocity. By the end of the series, I sort of got the idea; the third book didn’t have a lot new to say compared to the first two, but I wanted to finish the story and also… I like stories about young people falling in love and doing adventures, so it still gave me that.
The Phoenix Princess by K Arsenault Rivera (2020-10-09)
This book sort of saved me, in a way. I hadn’t really read anything for months and was not doing adequate self-care to keep my mental state from just spiraling down. It wasn’t, like, dire, but it was headed in the wrong direction for several months before I picked this book up. It’s the sequel to The Tiger’s Daughter and is a fantasy story about two women in love who do badass sword things and are generally more epic than the world can handle. And being that epic causes them a lot of pain both physical and emotional, to be honest. But their love is healing in many ways. It’s not a bright, sunny book, but I love them and I love it, so… it reminded me why reading is good to do when I needed that.
Infomocracy by Malka Older (2020-10-15)
This book was super weird to read because it is a story tied all up in this scifi democracy and someone trying to steal an election and all sorts of shitty political actors and, like, at the time, we were neck deep in the same shit here in the US. But rather than be, like, Too Real™ and adding stress to my life (a new metric I try to gauge about a book before I embark on it), it was oddly cathartic because the main characters are smart and capable and though the problems are huge and unwieldy, they are tractable to them in a way that real world problems are not to me. I’m undecided whether I’ll pick up the next in the series not because this one was bad or anything, but because there are so many other things that promise to be awesome.
Vicious by V.E. Schwab (2020-10-23)
This one is a bit of a different take than I’ve seen before on the idea of “powered” people living in an otherwise normal world. Secret super heroes, as it were, but no one is really a hero. It’s full of grey areas and personal BS distracts everyone from getting into world-threatening or world-saving territory. The next one in the series is already in my to-read pile.
Side note: The above was the last book in my to-read pile that didn’t either feel too emotionally or mentally taxing for me to handle this year, so I placed an order through the local book shop, but then had to wait several weeks to get any of them because they were getting super slammed by holiday sales and their shipping/curbside set up is all new (like most non-restaurant places). No shade on them, it just explains the big gap in the dates here.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (2020-12-28)
Possibly my favorite of the year. I generally don’t like to pick favorite things, but this book was so good. It’s about a sword lesbian who has no time for the shit of necromancers (some of whom are also lesbians) and they’re in space. The main point-of-view character, Gideon, is sassy and tough and irreverent (she wears aviator shades over her ceremonial skull face paint) and I love her. The other characters all feel real and there’s all this history between them that’s messed up and drives them to want and do messed up things. Bad things happen to good people, then bad things happen to bad people. And it’s all just very wonderful. I’m sad I bought this in paperback because the second book is already out in hardback, but I want things to look nice on the shelf, so I won’t buy it. The paperback doesn’t come out until September or something. Clearly the greatest travesty of 2020. (This is sarcasm; obviously there were actual horrific events in 2020).
Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021-01-04)
This one gets counted as 2020 because I read most of it in 2020. This is the second translation I’ve read. I think the first was in college and has the Old English and the Modern English translation on facing pages. Anyway, this new one is done from a feminist perspective, which is neat. And translates it not just into Modern English, but into ultra-modern vernacular. It’s sort of a thing amongst Beowulf scholars (of which I am not one) to debate how to translate the first word of the poem. She translates it as “Bros!” which is a wonderful decision. She keeps much of the alliteration all throughout but mixes esoteric words, and the compounding of the original (e.g. whale-road) while also using very recently coined turns of phrase like “black-out drunk” or “stanning”. A great translation. However, I’d forgotten how boring the last bit of Beowulf is. That’s no fault of Headley’s, of course. It’s just that in many ways, the style of the poem is to say the same thing in several different ways all the time and after Beowulf defeats Grendel and his mother, he returns home and repeats the tale to his king and then 30 years later before he goes to fight the dragon, he repeats it again and… everything about the dragon is also sort of repeated… it drags on at the end, is what I’m saying. But the translation is delightful.
Thanks to Joshua for helping edit this post.
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