I read some books this year. Here are some words about a few of the titles, placed into random categories I just invented.
Biography of someone I’ve always wanted to know more about:
Sometimes You Have to Lie by Leslie Brody. The subtitle for this is “The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy.” Though her book was formative for me in my youth, with a relatable main character who embraced her own quirks, I never knew much about Fitzhugh. Brody presents a satisfying portrait of Harriet’s creator, a person as real and passionate and complicated as the iconic character she brought to life. Fitzhugh was also an accomplished artist, outspoken against racism, and a person who strove to live a life true to herself, openly gay in an era when closeting was more the norm.
Sweetness and awww:
A Handful of Happiness by Massimo Vachetta. This little memoir by an Italian veterinarian who opened a hedgehog rescue center will remind you that compassion is never wasted.
Nonfiction book that made me go hmmm while rubbing my chin in a thoughtful way, but also laugh several times:
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. This book is a sometimes hilarious, other times scary look at a failed attempt to build a libertarian Utopia in a small New Hampshire town. The author does a good job showing the humanity of the people involved, while also detailing the sometimes tragic consequences of prioritizing a rigid black-and-white ideology over the nuances of reality. You can ignore zoning and wildlife regulations in the name of freedom. But when you end up trapped in your house by bears that have come to see humans as their best source of food, that might not feel a lot like freedom.
Poetry that stands the test of time:
Flame and Shadow by Sara Teasdale. I went to the way back transporter for this book by one of Missouri’s Pulitzer Prize winners. Her work puts me in mind of the nature-y essence of Mary Oliver combined with the sharp-edged insights of Dorothy Parker. “There Will Come Soft Rains” gives me chills every time I read it.
Nonfiction that made me want to do what they did:
Wanderers, a History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews. The author begins with some of her own experiences in the mountains of Scotland, then forays into ten separate essays, each one focusing on a single woman who walked. How had I never heard about Dorothy Wordsworth before?
Novel written by a friend that’s so good I didn’t have to pretend even a little bit when I said I loved it:
A Song for the Road by Kathleen Basi. Full disclosure — I was a beta reader for early drafts of this. I liked it so much, I still took the time to read the final version. It’s a touching but never maudlin look at grief. A year after Miriam loses her husband and two teen children in an accident, she happens across a road trip app her daughter was developing and decides to follow its prompts in an effort to find a way forward in her life. Along the way, she picks up a young pregnant hitchhiker. This sounds heavy, but there are also moments of real levity.
Highly original fiction celebrating neurodiversity, set in a specific cultural niche:
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated to English by Ginny Tapley Takemori. This is a story about a woman who truly finds her calling, working part-time at a convenience store. If only everyone else in her life could accept this, things would be peachy. But her parents and sister always hold out hope that she will eventually “get better.” Keiko tries with all her might to understand and obey the rules of being human, observing that “foreign objects get expelled.” This book will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like a misfit.
Science memoir that made me say, Wow!:
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard. Suzanne Simard is a scientist who knows how to tell a story. Part memoir, part ecology lesson, this book is engaging and enlightening all the way through. The author has a knack for explaining science for the layperson. I was fascinated by the details of her experiments in old growth forests. Her nature descriptions are often breathtaking.
Some things I learned: Many trees in a forest have a reciprocal relationship, sending water and nutrients back and forth. Various kinds of fungi are instrumental in this. In a forest setting, if there’s a dry spell, the older, bigger trees with deep roots will pull up water from underground and send it to the younger, smaller trees with shallower roots to help them survive. That’s one of many reasons that clearcutting out big trees for wood products and replacing them with all new seedlings might not work out well. “We can think of an ecosystem of wolves, caribou, trees, and fungi creating biodiversity just as an orchestra of woodwind, brass, percussion, and string musicians assemble into a symphony.”
Historical fiction with added ghosts that made me say, Wow!:
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. Set in 14th century China, this story explores themes of fate, free will, loyalty, the nature of power, and of course, gender. Though we’re often taken deep into the point of view of Zhu, a girl who takes on her late brother’s identity in pursuit of his unclaimed fate, the author keeps back just enough so that the story does not become predictable. The characters are complex, the plot is clever, and the story a real page turner. Overall, I’d say this book accomplishes what art is supposed to – it made me feel and think deeply.
Laugh riot classic:
Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. These short stories are a hoot, with the ever-resourceful, comically understated gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, time and again saving the skin of his employer, the hapless Bertie Wooster. In the process, Jeeves often advances his own agenda as well. Wodehouse had a genius for turns of phrase — “shrubbery that looked as if it had just come back from the dry cleaner” to describe a meticulously groomed garden, for instance. There’s quite a bit of slang of the era, and some that Wodehouse invented, but it’s easy to figure out the meaning by the context. I felt these stories were bracing — not the least bit rummy.