In many ways, 2019 was a year of treading water for me. There were accomplishments, milestones, victories and losses but the revolution of the sun and of myself was mostly in an ability to stand my ground.
In the personal, we lost my grandfather-in-law, the adopted grandparent who loved and guided us, who united my spouse and me in marriage, and who made sure his wife never wanted or worried. We still have her, and through the vagaries of fate, are now attempting to give her what he did in terms of peace. But I’ve also strengthened friendships, reunited with far flung family, and made sure that my boundaries are intact. I’ve prioritized the things that make me feel whole, like exercise, creativity, and music.
In the political that becomes personal, I watched as a third of my country debated whether or not I was person enough to get the rights my foremothers had secured. I watched people attempt to revoke the personhood of my friends and loved ones. I held my friends’ hands as they whispered their fears, as they sat stunned after someone in their life was attacked, lost, or embroiled, and promised them over and over my support, my voice, and whatever power I had to keep the tide from ripping them out to sea. Once we spoke of building ships and bridges so that the sea was not an obstacle but a thing to be marveled in. Now we congratulate each other for staying on solid ground. It is a hard thing, to have turned the entire army towards a new battle, only to find that all the wars you thought you’d settled have rekindled. Bigotry is a form of necromancy, I am convinced.
In the professional, I had more progress, though even that was stilted. My day job is satisfying, interesting, intellectually stimulating, and safe. In writing, I finished book three, sent it out for beta reading, and started a new book project. It took me a year longer to finish the book than intended, but in a year where gains seem to slip away from me, bulling through the last chapters and typing THE END with firm intention still felt like a win. I’m really eager to share this book with you, as I think it might resonate with us, if your year felt at all like mine.
What I did measure as progress this year was in my literary world. Book done: check! Book club flourishing: check! Prioritizing reading: check! Achieving parity in the gender of authors whose books I read: check! Engaging more in the fandom: check!
The GoodReads book club I co-moderate, the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club, saw a huge increase in participation and membership. I am so grateful for the kindness, intelligence, enthusiasm, and humor of my friends there. I’ve found such support and kind help, along with so many wonderful books and worlds to escape to. I went to a convention for readers and joined the organization that runs it in the hope that we can continue the same spirit I’ve come to love online in the physical space as well. And while on average since leaving school, I’ve read about 50 books a year, this year I read 105 books.
Here are the books that I loved last year:
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange — a few years ago I asked a friend what authors she found to be pivotal to her, and Ms. Shange’s name came up. This was available from my library, so I went in blind and could not have been more enraptured. A sweet story of hope, familial love, an era of change and finding yourself with confident, beautiful writing that feels like a friendly hand on your shoulder.
Shange — I needed more by this author and was not disappointed. This is actually a theatrical script, part ballet, part spoken word epic poem, part play, it’s wholly unique and cuts deep.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke — This is a chonkster of a book. Slow, dreamy, and blending things I enjoy very much like Regency slice of life novels and dark fairy tales. If you like Jane Austen and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, maybe give this a try. I listened to it while spending all day cooking and it was simply perfect to lose yourself in.
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley — A searing retelling of Beowulf, this book mixes the classic epic poem style of oral history with the modern and weaves between the two a story as old as time that is at once familiar, vital, and so, so troubling. This is a work of art, and while I did have a few quibbles with it, the vision and mastery it shows over the concepts it invokes is just a marvel.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik — another book that mixed together the eternal story of privilege meets limitation, the strength of sisterhood, and dark fairy tales. I really enjoyed that this book witnessed women very different from our normal heroines, including people of Jewish faith.
Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey — In a world where the media keeps telling us how disparate and vile we are, this book was an oasis. The plot is small, the heroes plain, and the story is mostly in the goodness of the characters. A perfect thing to escape into and find threads of hope.
Becoming by Michelle Obama — I think this book is a must-read for women. I loved her pride in her identity, her tenacity, the love that was evident for her family, her partner, her mission and her values. I loved how relatable she was despite the heights she’s explored. I thought it would be too hard to read this now, but aside from the opening and the ending, I was engaged rather than misty-eyed.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker– I was late to this, both in reading it and in learning about the author’s strange allegiances, but credit where credit’s due, this book is sublime. I loved how personal it made the political, how it boldly stated that women, people of color, and queer people (separately and all at once) have always been here, and can enjoy love, freedom, and pain, just like everyone else.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers —
Riffing off ofthe first book in the loosely-affiliated Wayfarer series, this book explores what it means to be human, and is a gorgeous exploration of homecoming, intricately woven to compare and contrast different ideas in a way that merely explores without offering unwanted advice.
No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin — A collection of blog posts and essays by the late great Le Guin, these all capture small yet profound moments in our shared human experience, expressed as always with the clarity, grace, humor and rage of this beloved author.
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett — I ration the Discworld books as treats to myself when I know I need a boost. Replete with his signature wit and sarcasm, this is an exploration of belief, power, and the extreme peaks and valleys of humanity.
I think what I learned from all these books, if I distill it, is that we are stronger together, that hope and hardship are constant companions, and that contentment and security are valid ambitions. It can take as much energy to remain in place in a stormy sea as it does to set a record for an Olympic 800-meter gold. So I hope no matter what your year brought or what 2020 has in store, you take time to be kind to yourself, to make a harbor for someone to rest in, and that you end stronger and wiser than you were before.
Happy 2020 my friends, I keep you all in my heart.