Like everything else in 2020, I didn’t quite hit my reading goal. In fact I missed it by one – I read 99 books, out of my goal of 100. I was almost through number 100, but prioritizing family time (and probably spending too much time scrolling on my phone), made me to set it down yesterday. This morning I rolled over in bed, listening to my kids play Minecraft Dungeons in the living room, picked it up and realized I’d only had 3 pages left (3!), as the rest of it was a preview of the next book.
So, in sum, I missed my goal by three fucking pages and 8 hours. Goodbye 2020.
Continuing in this trend, as I write this, WordPress and Goodreads are continually crashing and reloading, making my usual method of drafting this annual post not impossible, but exceedingly burdensome. I may return later (I will not), but for now I’ve just posted covers and my brief comments.
Anyhow, I read some amazing books and graphic novels this year! As always lots of fantasy and romance, which rarely make this list, but remain excellent escapes. Just like prior years, I only include graphic novel collected volumes, not individual issues. Also, many of these books didn’t come out in 2020, that is just when I read them. After the highlights, I’ve shared some honorable mentions and pictured all the books I finished this year.
“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” ― Bertrand Russell
My Favorite Books in 2020
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
by Kim Michele Richardson, Katie Schorr (Narrator) My review from January 6, 2020: This novel was striking, sometimes very hard and heart breaking, fascinating, and very well written. I was/am pretty unfamiliar with this period of time in Kentucky and the condition which causes blue skin – so this was educational and engaging. Our main character is gracious, humble, brave, and stubborn. I listened to this as an audiobook and the performer was very good. Her gentle accent and inflections really added to the story.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
by Nghi Vo I read this in October 2020. This short novel was compelling and beautiful in so many ways. Unexpected results and very unconventional writing. The imagery created intrigue – and any confusion it caused only made me read on more urgently.
Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table
by Ruth Reichl I finished this novel on June 24 2020 and I was so sad to see it go. Ruth’s life is simultaneously an impossible, picturesque, almost liberal-cliché ideal but also raw, honest, flawed, and tragic. Her relationship to food and the food industry feels honest and equal parts inspiring and disappointing (in the experiences she has). Her affairs and marriage are really honestly portrayed here, as well as her heartbreaking adoption story. This memoir is unafraid and brutal while also being full of whimsy, passion, humor, wit, and most importantly excellent recipes (I made the crab cakes – delicious).
The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden I finished this novel in June 2020 and almost wish I’d held it for a winter night. This take on Russian folklore is magic but gritty and cruel. I love folklore and fairytales, and particularly enjoy the older versions or modernized takes, meaning versions that include the hardships, horrors, and pains that inspire storytelling in first place. This did not disappoint. I also enjoyed the authors notes on the lore’s history: “Morozko is the name of the Russian Jack Frost, a winter demon who is sometimes benevolent and sometimes cruel. He features in multiple fairy tales. What I found interesting about this character though is he has his mythical roots in slavic paganism, as a dark god of winter and death called Chernobog. He evolved over the years from a pretty powerful deity to sort of a wicked fairy-tale creature, and finally (after some European influence) to Ded Moroz, the Russian Father Christmas. I found this journey (from wicked pagan god to giver of treats to children) absolutely fascinating.”
Writers & Lovers
by Lily King I finished this novel in March 2020, and it left me with lots of reflections, feelings, and judgements. This novel is funny but also sad and relatable.
by Nicky Drayden The concept of this novel is… well… bizarre? Imaginative? Insane? Possibly one of the most thoughtful environmental metaphors ever (maybe)? If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, space travel, and social commentary, read this book. Seske Kaleigh is an engaging protagonist you find yourself cheering for again and again.
City of Girls
by Elizabeth Gilbert When I finished City of Girls in mid April 2020 it was just what I needed. Sometimes, when the characters are good enough, stories have the luxury of meandering around without any meaningful conflict for 200+ pages. This is one of those. The first half of this book is purely scene-building and I ate up every drop. Then you have your major conflict but the following 200 pages are essentially character development, in which the only notable conflict is that WWII is one of the partial backdrops. Yet, somehow, I want to meet Vivian and listen to her for hours. This worked for me, despite its lingering pace. Maybe it’s because it never went more than a page without mentioning fabric, cocktails, or sex? I’m here for it.
In at the Deep End
The first book I finished in and 2020, and it was appropriately titled. This is an intense read; both extremely sexually graphic and very, snort your tea out your nose, funny. It makes you uncomfortable, but in a way that sympathizes you to the main character’s choices.
I often read books that fall in or intersect with the romance genre and as such they typically include a couple of sex(y) scenes, including relatively frequent LGBTQA relationships given the novels I choose, but never have I read a novel that so unapologetically rejects flowery similes for private parts. No “pearled” nipples or “the heart of my heat” here. The author talks about sex bluntly and honestly relates it back to how human’s make choices, feel about others, and manage their lives. It is graphic? Yes. Is it real? Yes.
She calls it like she sees it and the outcome is a honest look at the act of sex, humans, obsession, and comfort zones.
Some others to highlight…
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini is a very long book, which almost deterred me at first, but it moved pretty quickly. Like a lot of action-adventure stories it felt like the whole story was moving from place to place constantly and I don’t know that I could confidently pick out a “middle” but regardless I enjoyed the journey. Kira is an excellent narrator and relatable.
I fell hard for Ellery Adams’ mysteries this year. These are cozy and easy reads. While the happy ending is assured and the characters predictable, the mysteries themselves are complex and I’m often surprised by the culprits! Her novels are an excellent way to spend an evening leaving the world behind.
…and speaking of mysteries, it goes without saying that everything I read by Agatha Christie takes me to a new place and time. Clever beyond words. My favorite this year was Cards on the Table.
I try to make a point of reading some “classics” every year, some re-reads and some new to me. This year I read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (a re-read), The Best of Isaac Asimov (probably only considered “classic” by nerds, but I care not for your judgements), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The Asimov collection starts in his early(ish) life as an author, the first story being published in 1939 and spanning some work through the 1970s. I hadn’t read any of these before. In particular, in the early works, it was notable that the only female characters were wives, whereas in some of his later novels characters like Susan Calvin were instrumental. That said his creativity, clever but simple wit, and mastery of the human condition shines through. True “before it’s time” classic science fiction.
Fahrenheit 451 is one of those American classics I swore I had probably read in high school lit, but after listening for a hour, I knew I hadn’t. It’s classic dystopian science fiction and every other page is a remarkable quote or takeaway. Tim Robbins narration was intense, rapid, and moving.
On The Edge by Ilona Andrews – The Ilona Andrews team always craft a complex mystery with remarkable world building. I found the first chapter and this one to be a bit too wordy and full of set up but eventually got into it. The book covers though? They’re embarrassing (I usually check these out from the library instead of on my Kindle) especially when the mystery is good and the romance is so secondary to the plot.
Finally, this is probably the first year in the past five I haven’t included my favorite authors on this list – Neil Gaiman, Seanan McGuire, and Terry Pratchett (who is sadly deceased, but whose full catalog I have yet to complete). While I read some pieces of all of them this year, none were my favorites of theirs, though all still fantastic. That is to say, if I were trying to convince someone else to read them, the work of theirs I read in 2020 isn’t where I’d have them start so I omitted it here.
Full Pictorial List
I don’t want to do negative here, so I won’t call any titles out, but don’t consider the below covers endorsements. I read some real stinkers this year too.
Like many families staying in because of the pandemic, we’ve watched a ridiculous number of movies in 2020. At the top of the most-watched and loved list is the Kung Fu Panda series and the Netflix original movie Over the Moon. In both the mid-autumn festival is celebrated and moon cakes and bean buns are enjoyed. About a third of Eleanor’s preschool class was from China and they did many Chinese activities, so she was delighted to revisit the festival and teach us a few of the mandarin words she remembers from her friends there. We decided we wanted to learn more about the festival and the foods – and of course I’m trying to turn myself into a cook and a baker – so we decided to make moon cakes, throw a mid-autumn festival (a month late), and do some research.
As plagiarized from Wikipedia, the Mid–Autumn Festival, also known as Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, is a traditional festival celebrated by many East and Southeast Asian people. The festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar with a full moon at night, corresponding to mid-September to early October of the Gregorian calendar – in 2020 this was in early October. We’re celebrating a month late, but is it always a good time to stop and reflect on our good fortune, our family, and honor the changing of the seasons.
I became mildly obsessed with making moon cakes and watched all the YouTube videos. There are so many cool press options and variations by culture and country. I made three filling variations as I’m an annoying over-achiever. Because I was bothering with three different fillings, I decided to do try different recipes for the dough as well, though all are along the same lines. Here are the recipes:
Lotus seed paste, no salted yolk center (same recipe as with the yolk, just omitting the egg)
Chocolate candy filled (same dough recipe, filled with balled up mini snickers and reeses)
Right away, we needed to do some shopping. Ever wanting to support local, the kids and I masked-up, grabbed the hand sanitizer, and headed to three different Asian markets in Lincoln. I had the best luck at Oriental Market Inc. 林肯东方店 and at Hong Kong Market. I purchased golden syrup (Lyle’s), lye water, dried lotus seeds, azuki red beans, and of course a moon cake press kit, which was the most fun because of all the designs.
I did have to get the golden syrup and the press online, as stores reported they were seasonal. Everyone was also careful to tell me that I could just buy premade moon cakes and seemed to think I was a little insane, but I was undeterred. We made the cake flour at home (sift all purpose flour and corn starch) and I substituted the canola and sunflower oil for grapeseed oil (I like the fruiter taste and we had it on hand). Important tip, have a grams to cup/teaspoons converter ready!
Red Bean Paste Filling: Like anything else with beans, they needed to soak overnight. I immediately screwed up by just dumping the full package of dried beans into the soak, when the recipe said to measure one cup first. Whoops. Thankfully it was a relatively small bag, that was maybe about two cups. After the soak we did a double boil and let them simmer for almost two hours. I ended up with a lot of more paste and had to mess around with my sugar ratio once making the paste.
The dough felt like 90% syrup, but came together really nicely. This recipe is for mini cakes and the dough seemed like.. like not enough dough… but that may have been because of all my red bean paste? Anyhow, I froze all my left cover paste (almost 3 cups worth) to make bean buns later on.
Mid-bake you pull the cakes out to for an egg yolk wash. I definitely used way too much egg wash, which blew out the designs. Thankful I baked off one batch as a test first so I could adjust the lotus seed variations.
After baking, the cakes need to sit for two days (yes, days) in air tight containers, letting the oils soften up the dough. This really made a huge difference! Get patient and don’t skip the wait. Max, Morgan, and I really liked these red bean mooncakes but Eleanor couldn’t believe we could eat them. While sweet, it is a much more savory and crispy treat than our palettes are used to. To be honest, they really remind me of fig newtons.
Lotus Seed Fillings: Did you know the little sprouts grow inside of the lotus seeds and are super bitter? Now you do! The kid’s were recruited to crack open every seed and pull out sprouts, after the seeds soaked overnight. I also made the lotus paste the day before making the next round of moon cakes. This is a labor-intensive process, so I was leisurely about it.
I found the lotus seeds a little harder to get to congeal into a workable paste and my wand processor didn’t do a great job smoothing it out. I wasn’t a huge fan – though I didn’t hate it – but Morgan loved it. I was pretty skeptical about the salted egg yolks too. After opening them up I baked them for 8 minutes at 200(ish) to soften them up just slightly. In the end they made the cakes much more sturdy and the favor was much less salty and egg-y than I expected. I suggest trying them, at the very least.
Tip, again, if that egg wash goes on too thick you lose your design detail, so be sure your wash is really thin and covers the sides.
Candy: Max liked the red bean paste cakes, but Eleanor is a bit more picky. I wanted everyone to get in on our festival so with the last five balls of dough I dipped into the halloween candy. I took a miniature Snickers, warmed it up in my hand, and rolled it into a ball. I repeated this with a Reeses. These cakes leaked just a tiny bit and turned out delicious!
Festival Time! We threw our own Mid-Autumn festival a few days after I finished the last batch. In preparation we made 16 or so paper lanterns to hang up and learned about the moon. That evening Morgan made a Chinese feast with Eleanor’s favorite, chicken fried rice, and Max’s favorite, pot stickers. We read a few non-fiction books on the festival and it’s history and delivered a mooncake care package to my parents to celebrate family and share the love.
In all, we had a great two weeks learning about other cultures, trying new foods, and baking!
We haven’t had “real” photos taken since Eleanor’s birth, so when a law student (with a background and love for photography) offered an awesome fundraiser for the Student Bar Association I jumped on it! I’m not much into having posed portraits like this, but see the value in it, so a quick low pressure experience was great. She donated her photo session fees to the association and we got 30 minutes of her time. A win-win.
Thank you Dana Jurgensmeier!
Also, I never really share my kid’s faces on social media, though I sign the releases of schools and activities to do so. I’ve, pretty randomly, decided to share them here as part of our family photos. I can’t articulate a great reason for why I feel OK about this and not about day-to-day posts on social media, but formal family portraits seem like much less of an invasion of their personal autonomy. Life is full of decisions that live on a spectrum, this is one of them.
There are a few things you need to know about me from 2019 (aside from my blissful naivety of what the following year would hold). First, I love to eat good, adventurous, and new foods, but I hated cooking. Hated it. Full on felt that the process was torture. Fortunately I’m married to a chef and I was happy to eat sandwiches when he was not available. Second, I love taking on new and difficult challenges – always have – but I was sick of fitness and body centered goals. I started toying with the idea of a cooking challenge. Truth be told, training to run a seventh half marathon, after almost a year of running hiatus, seemed more doable than learning to cook. Actually enjoying cooking seemed near impossible. So, obviously, I set a New Year’s resolution to learn to cook.
Given what 2020 held, this was a very serendipitous decision. What better thing to do in a pandemic? Cook! And cook? Cook, I have.
Things started slowly and a bit painfully. I initially focused primarily on vegan and vegetarian dishes. My husband is a meat lover and as our primary family cook, almost every meal includes it, so I wanted to lighten our environmental impact. I continue to be interested in more plant based cooking, but have to admit I found it difficult to make things I really wanted to eat – though it was all rather pretty and colorful. From there I sort of unofficially turned to focusing on food from other cultures (Indian, Thai, traditional Mexican, etc). Now, since August or so, I’ve been enjoying using old cookbooks – be they gifts from our wedding over 10 years ago, hand me downs from various grandmothers, or 25 cent garage sale buys Morgan picked up years ago, I’m loving cooking my way through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
I had some pretty major flops, from rock hard cookies to cold sides to being completely unaware that lemon cucumber skin is extremely bitter. I… I did not always love this challenge. Like all good goals my journey has includes many “why the fuck did I decide to do this?!” moments.
I find the most difficult thing to master is timing. It feels like I spend an hour prepping everything, I turn on the stove or oven, and then EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT ONCE AND MY KIDS NEED HELP USING SOME ELECTRONIC THING AND THE CAT THROWS UP AND NOW STUFF IS BURNING AND WHY IS THIS NOT HOLDING TOGETHER? BABE CAN YOU HELP ME? OH SHIT THIS IS BURNING!
Shockingly though, against all odds, around April I found myself enjoying my time in the kitchen. Timing is still an issue and mistakes are still a regular occurrence, but somehow, I’m finding this fun. I think the change is related to confidence. I hated cooking because I was intimidated by it and bad at it. Every task felt like a judgement on my competency. This challenge forced me to try and in the end forced me to build up some confidence. Confidence to have fun, try things, throw away disgusting mistakes, and the confidence to say “it’s ok to like doing something you’re still not very good at.”
Lately, I’m finding myself drawn to baking as it relates to cultural tradition. This month, for example, we’re celebrating the mid-autumn festival popular throughout Asia a month late by making moon cakes. I masked up the kids and together we shopped our way through three Asian food markets to find lye water, golden syrup, lotus seeds and more. This process will involve combining indigents I am completely unfamiliar with, but look delicious. My moon cake press is in the mail and the kids have been ordered to work on paper lanterns as we learn the history of the festival and about the other cultures around us (stay tuned)!
For 2021 I want to keep it up, and in addition to some yoga and strength training goals, I’m setting a new New Year’s resolution to keep me in the kitchen: I’m going to bake my way through the Great British Baking Show technical challenges. This show may well be one of the reasons I decided on this challenge in the first place. Acknowledging that baking and cooking are two different arts, I’ve been taking both on in turn. This show, while a competition, is so cheery and supportive. I believe it has also convinced my husband to buy me a Kitchen Aid mixer for Christmas (thanks Paul and Mary!)
I look forward to recreating the tent in my own kitchen and imagining some ducklings and sheep wondering outside my window – perhaps kids and guinea pigs will be proper substitutes.
I’ve been posting Instagram stories of my cooking adventures with hashtag ElsbethCooks, though I’m slowly drifting away from having any social media accounts (Instagram is my last). I may share these baking adventure there, here, or no where – but know that most weekends I’m probably at home, cursing and baking.
The letter being shared in our Program’s 2019-2020 Annual Report and with our alumni this September.
As our team put together this report and reviewed the full gamut of events and activities we completed this fall, I felt a new wave of loss over all the great plans we had for spring 2020 that were, of course, cancelled. When the world stopped this March and all the “out of an abundance of caution” cancellation emails started rolling in, academic programs everywhere were suddenly forced to change course. Of all the losses and pain that COVID-19 has caused globally cancelled conferences and academic events are, with out doubt, some of the least important. Acknowledging that, it was still hard to cancel work we had put our hearts and souls into. There was so much I looked forward to sharing with you here that is missing – and that hurts.
Even more seriously, the rug was pulled out from under students everywhere. I am proud of how Nebraska Law responded and we did our best to support students and employees who suddenly found themselves learning and working from home. From “old school” efforts like student phone trees, to more modern efforts in helping students navigating Zoom classrooms, we took efforts to the next level to retain our community.
Did we do it perfectly? No. Spring 2020 was an unprecedented time, and it continues to be so as I write this. There is no blueprint to help us establish best practices for building community when our community can’t be together in person. The past six months have taught us a lot of lessons – and while I hope we don’t have another occasion to apply them in the same context, opportunities to learn always provide opportunities for gratitude.
That feeling is the one I want to leave you with: gratitude. I could outline our response plans, discuss how our online program made us uniquely suited to make the switch, tell you what it felt like to watch our students graduate and move away without being able to hug them, but instead I want to thank our community for rising up to meet the challenges we faced this year.
When all the networking mixers, airport connections, conferences, and “hustle” is stripped away, what is left is the heart of the mission, the research, and the community. This has been a year for introspection, creativity, empathy, and making space for new ideas. While this isn’t the year I would’ve wished for, there is space for gratitude for what this year has been.
To our alumni, friends, and loved ones who have been impacted by COVID-19, our hearts and thoughts are with you.
Elsbeth Magilton Executive Director of Technology, Security, and Space Law Initiatives Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program Nebraska Governance and Technology Center
We finally made a choice about how the kids will be attending school during the first quarter amidst the pandemic.
We are under no obligation to validate it and fellow parents – neither are you.
This all sucks, big time. Everyone has different situations professionally and financially and by-and-large our leaders failed us. We’re all just doing the best we can with the options available. If you’re panicked, frustrated, angry, sad over back-to-school: I am too. Always up to talk and commiserate, however your kids are attending this fall.
For what it’s worth our kids will be going for the first 10 days so they can get to know their teachers and get some in-person instruction on using their chromebooks for remote learning, which they’ll switch to until we reassess in mid-October for the second quarter. 10 days is the time set by our district to stick with one method or the other – so 10 days in and one and half months remote. It is an imperfect plan, but still at least reduces exposure over the next 9 weeks, while acknowledging other needs.
Eleanor is starting kindergarten and I’ve lost so much sleep and cried many tears processing this.
I do want to say that I feel the folks in our public school system have had their hands tied and are doing the best that they can. We are so proud of the work our elementary school has put into keeping kids safe, using classroom cohorts, and with masks on.
“I heard a bird sing In the dark of December A magical thing And sweet to remember. ‘We are nearer to Spring Than we were in September,’ I heard a bird sing In the dark of December.”
Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing
I’m not a Christian, nor is my husband, but we celebrate Christmas. It’s kind of gross, I know. Ingenuine and dishonest. The holiday has so permeated our culture, particularly here in the Midwest, that I don’t have the heart to rip it away from my children. I’m not strong enough to deny them the tree, Santa, or jingle bells. Judge that for what you will.
I still feel, however, a need to be spiritual during winter each year – and not just in discussions of gratitude, giving, and family joy (which are also important) but in a deep and old way. I believe strongly in honoring the land and the earth. I don’t have any defined beliefs regarding what lays beyond our world and my suspicions vary day to day. One thing I’m sure of though, is that the cycle of the earth and the ground beneath our feet deeply matter in some ancient way.
To be clear, while it appeals to me somewhat, I’m not Wicca or Pagan either. I’m simply an agnostic descendant of Scandinavians who likes trees and experiencing all the seasons. It’s not a flashy station with a settled dogma, but it’s mine and here we are.
For the past few years I’ve held a special Winter Solstice dinner for my children by candlelight – this is the traditional “dark dinner” where we light every candle in the house and turn off every light bulb. We “light the night” to welcome back the sun as our days begin to stretch longer again. This year I added yule log decorating, some historical discussion of winter holidays that existed before Christmas existed, creating our own solstice lanterns, and a “moon walk”. The day was truly something special between my kids and I (my husband had to work that evening, but did join us for a follow up dark dinner the next evening).
I rarely require much decorum or silence my kids, but I asked for some while I read a few poems about nature, winter, and introspection. They agreed that serious moments, while potentially boring, “make things feel important.”
From our crafty family to you yours – Love, light, joy, and reflection.
“I speak cold silent words a stone might speak If it had words or consciousness, Watching December moonlight on the mountain peak, Relieved of mortal hungers, the whole mess Of needs, desires, ambitions, wishes, hopes. This stillness in me knows the sky’s abyss, Reflected by blank snow along bare slopes, If it had words or consciousness, Would echo what a thinking stone might say To praise oblivion words can’t possess As inorganic muteness goes its way. There’s no serenity without the thought serene, Owl-flight without spread wings, honed eyes, hooked beak, Absence without the meaning absence means. To rescue bleakness from the bleak, I speak cold silent words a stone might speak.”
I very excitedly and proudly announced earlier this year that I was beginning my PhD studies in Political Science after spending six months prepping for and taking the GRE and writing my application. It felt like a romantic return to my youth and optimism preparing for and starting law school 10 or so years earlier. In August I, rather self-assuredly, got started. I enjoyed it. I truly did – until about the fourth weekend and family dinner I had to miss. I quickly became (even more) exhausted and guilt ridden.
In October I deferred my admission to the program and stopped my studies. The reason is multifaceted but boils down to that exhaustion. At work I’ve recently been promoted – continuing to run my program while additionally launching and running a new privately funded center. I thought I could add studies to my plate right now, but it was already too full. Between my work, my travel schedule, and my class work the most important people in my life were paying the price: my children. My husband still got me after 10pm when I could no longer keep my brain focused enough to work or study, but my children were asleep by the time I relaxed.
I love my career and my interest in the PhD wasn’t related to making an immediate career shift. I love learning. I want to enjoy continuing my education, but instead I was rushing, overwhelmed, doing the minimum, and stressed.
One does not have to get a second doctorate-level degree and here I was acting as if it was the worst and most necessary burden. Then, when I did finally break and leave my course, I only told those in the department and my closest friends and family – embarrassed to have quit something.
So here I am, telling myself (and you), that not everything has to happen right now. I’m allowed to not want to be exhausted. I’m trying to unlearn that exhaustion and success must go hand in hand. Dissertations and statistics will still be there in 5 years and I believe I’ll start again – I know myself well enough to know I won’t let it go forever – but right now my life is in a sweet spot. My children are young and interested in my time. My career is demanding, but manageable and flexible. My marriage is strong and filled with laughter.
It’s OK to stop and enjoy it, rather than chasing the next credential – which isn’t what I wanted from the experience in the first place.
ETA a full year later: I have started class again and I am enjoying it immensely – a perk of the pandemic is the forced slow down in travel and events. That said, I continue to try my best to go easy on myself, walk slowly, think carefully, and protect my most important resource – my time.
I read a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. Throughout the year I look forward to writing this post – when I start a book I think “will this be one of my favorites for the year?”
Most of the books highlighted below were not released in 2019, that is just when I read them. Like my 2017 and 2018 book posts, I also want to preface this post with some information about me as a reader. I read mostly fiction narratives of the fantasy, mystery, science fiction or romance variety. I very rarely read non-fiction books (outside of research for my work). I also listen to many audiobooks (currently re-reading Little Women) and I count them here. I read a lot while traveling and I travel very often work. I count graphic novel volumes as a book but not individual comic books/issues. Also I included a few of the chapter books (books read in multiple sittings and are 75+ pages) I read with my second grader (though he is now reading many on his own).
Logistics aside, I want to share my favorites of the year and hope that others will share theirs! A full pictorial list of everything I read this year is below too. My reviews are brief, because seriously, time is a hot commodity, but I have also shared the GoodReads description.
In no particular order, my top ten favorite books I read in 2019:
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.
Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.
Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.
My Review on August 13: I’m a McGuire fan girl and I’ve read nearly every story she’s set out to tell me. In the author’s note in the back of this book she acknowledges this novel wasn’t something she had to skill to write until now. Yes. As a reader we get the pleasure of watching talent grow, deepen, and turn great into holy shit that was cool. The characters here are reminiscent of her prior uses of cryptology but exist in a different way, seemingly in an unconnected universe. She uses some of her favorite magical tools from stories past but in a way that’s more dark and grounded. This book isn’t a fast paced adventure, it’s a slow burn. It’s a thinker and gave me some strange, strange dreams.
Though, admittedly, in their San Francisco adventures I silently hoped they’d run into October.
My comments today: Like I said in August, I’m a McGuire fangirl. I read four McGuire books this year and picking one is a challenge, but this novel is a standout and I’ve already sung the praises of the October Daye and Wayward Children series. The blurb doesn’t do this one justice. It’s haunting, complex, unsettling, smart, and emotional. A true standout. Not to mention my sweet cousin met Seanan at a book signing in San Francisco and got me my very own dedicated and signed copy! Squeal!
Calypso by David Sedaris
If you’ve ever laughed your way through David Sedaris’s cheerfully misanthropic stories, you might think you know what you’re getting with Calypso. You’d be wrong.
When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.
With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Make no mistake: these stories are very, very funny–it’s a book that can make you laugh ’til you snort, the way only family can. Sedaris’s powers of observation have never been sharper, and his ability to shock readers into laughter unparalleled. But much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future.
This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke. Calypso is simultaneously Sedaris’s darkest and warmest book yet–and it just might be his very best.
My Review on November 19: This is a book about aging, family, and humor. Not always easy, often sad, and usually relatable. One of his best yet.
My comments today: I “read” this via audiobook – which is how I recommend consuming all Sedaris at least once. His voice amplifies his meaning.
Circe by Madeline Miller
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
My review on July 16: I can’t explain exactly why this felt like a real page turner to me, as it’s primarily focused on her exile and lore I was already familiar with, but somehow I couldn’t put it down. I’m not entirely satisfied with the conclusion but it’s also precisely what I would expect from this book. Circe is not always a particularly sympathetic character and her story is not necessarily a strong or inspiring‘s one so much as one about discovery, loneliness, and developing a sense of self.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, American Gods takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what – and who – it finds there…
This is the author’s preferred text, never before published in the UK, and is about 12,000 words longer than the previous UK edition.
Finished on July 6, my comments today: I mean, duh, this one of the best books I’ve read. Gaiman is master of the surreal. I started this one as an audiobook check out from the library’s database service, which is 20+ hours. When I went to renew it had been removed! No! I was on the road at the time and picked up a used copy at a great local bookshop in downtown Colorado Springs. It was a weird feeling to switch from listening to reading in between, but actually made for a pretty intense and rich experience with this novel. I really enjoyed Gaiman’s forward on this, discussing his trip across the U.S. while writing this. It captures America in a hard, cool way.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk–grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh–Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.
Finished June 22, my comments today: I also strongly suggest Novik’s other book in this universe, Uprooted. These are fairytales, but the characters are flawed, interesting, and real. It’s a charming, if not occasionally unsettling, take on fairytale romances – but don’t get it wrong. These are not love stories. In this novel the relationship between Miryem to all those around her is the most interesting. Wanda’s story is moving but also inspiring. The Staryk king and his kingdom are well thought-out and crafted.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day
From online entertainment mogul, actress, and “queen of the geeks” Felicia Day, a funny, quirky, and inspiring memoir about her unusual upbringing, her rise to Internet-stardom, and embracing her individuality to find success in Hollywood.
The Internet isn’t all cat videos. There’s also Felicia Day—violinist, filmmaker, Internet entrepreneur, compulsive gamer, hoagie specialist, and former lonely homeschooled girl who overcame her isolated childhood to become the ruler of a new world… or at least semi-influential in the world of Internet Geeks and Goodreads book clubs.
After growing up in the south where she was “home-schooled for hippie reasons”, Felicia moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming an actress and was immediately typecast as a crazy cat-lady secretary. But Felicia’s misadventures in Hollywood led her to produce her own web series, own her own production company, and become an Internet star.
Felicia’s short-ish life and her rags-to-riches rise to Internet fame launched her career as one of the most influential creators in new media. Now, Felicia’s strange world is filled with thoughts on creativity, video games, and a dash of mild feminist activism—just like her memoir.
Hilarious and inspirational, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is proof that everyone should embrace what makes them different and be brave enough to share it with the world, because anything is possible now—even for a digital misfit.
My thoughts on May 28: I read a lot of these “individual essay actresses memoirs” at this point, and I have to say I found this one to be one of the most charming. We are big fans of many of her projects and I’ve casually followed her career for years. The last few chapters get particularly real and honest.
I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff by Abbi Jacobson
From the co-creator and co-star of the hit series Broad City, a “poignant, funny, and beautifully unabashed” (Cheryl Strayed) bestselling essay collection about love, loss, work, comedy, and figuring out who you really are when you thought you already knew.
When Abbi Jacobson announced to friends and acquaintances that she planned to drive across the country alone, she was met with lots of questions and opinions: Why wasn’t she going with friends? Wouldn’t it be incredibly lonely? The North route is better! Was it safe for a woman? The Southern route is the way to go! You should bring mace! And a common one… why? But Abbi had always found comfort in solitude, and needed space to step back and hit the reset button. As she spent time in each city and town on her way to Los Angeles, she mulled over the big questions– What do I really want? What is the worst possible scenario in which I could run into my ex? How has the decision to wear my shirts tucked in been pivotal in my adulthood?
In this collection of anecdotes, observations and reflections–all told in the sharp, wildly funny, and relatable voice that has endeared Abbi to critics and fans alike–readers will feel like they’re in the passenger seat on a fun and, ultimately, inspiring journey. With some original illustrations by the author.
My thoughts on March 22: I legitimately laughed out loud and had to gasp-back tears throughout this book. This is an honest book and a personal journey. This is not your standard “famous person writes a memoir collection of essays” though there are certainly chapters that focus in on parts of her life, it’s overall a story about a road trip from New York to LA after some challenging personal events. Can’t recommend this enough to every 30-something woman in my life.
My comments today: Have you watched all of Broad City yet? (stop reading and go do so) Love women bold, salty, vulgar, unashamedly complicated and flawed? Finding yourself? Lost yourself? Go on this trip with Abbi.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
The three laws of Robotics: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm 2) A robot must obey orders give in to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
With these three, simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future–a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.
Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-read robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians, and robots who secretly run the world–all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asmiov’s trademark.
My comments January 29: Another science-fiction revisit from my youth, though it was copyrighted in 1950 before my mother was even born. Several of these remarkable short stories take place in 2015 and 2021 (and beyond). Asimov imagined a much more evolved world; one humans were probably capable of achieving but didn’t. Regardless I love these robot stories. Such fun here, mixed with psychological interest, social metaphor, and great science fiction. Did I mention a major character is a woman? Who is a scientist and discussing her career? 1950s sci-fi got there y’all. #SusanCalvin
My comments today: A cool thing about hitting your mid-thirties is the opportunity to revisit books you read 20 some years ago as a teen. You can learn much about who you are and how you have grown and changed through books. Different takeaways, different lessons, different likes and dislikes, same story. Humans are cool as hell.
Descender, Vol. 1: Tin Stars (although I recommend all volumes) by Jeff Lemire (Writer), Dustin Nguyen (Artist), Steve Wands (Goodreads Author) (Letterer)
Young Robot boy TIM-21 and his companions struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet. Written by award-winning creator, Jeff Lemire, Descender is a rip-roaring and heart-felt cosmic odyssey. Lemire pits humanity against machine, and world against world, to create a sprawling epic.
My reviews by volume:
Volume One: Immediately an emotionally compelling story and Dustin Nguyen’s art is unbelievably beautiful.
Volume Two: Seriously excellent storytelling. Relatively heavy sci-fi with many characters but the art, storytelling, and lay out keep everything quite clear while still being incredibly visually compelling. Enjoying these volumes a ton.
Volume Three: This volume jumps around in the timeline quite a bit, which made it harder to sink into from a story-continuity perspective, but also filled in a lot of really important parts and answered questions I didn’t know I had about the plot. Nguyen’s art just gets better and better. Effie/Between Queen is just stunning.
Volume Four: The first issue in this volume – with the three paneled pages telling the three different stories that cover about 30 minutes of time – are breathtaking both in art and in storytelling.
Volume Five and Six: These are simply gorgeous and complex, thoughtful storytelling. Best original comics I’ve read in a while.
Carpe Jugulum (Discworld #23) by Terry Pratchett, Nigel Planer (Audiobook Narrator)
Mightily Oats has not picked a good time to be priest. He thought he was there for a simple little religious ceremony. Now he’s caught up in a war between vampires and witches, and he’s not sure there is a right side. There’s the witches — Agnes, Magrat, Nanny Ogg, and the formidable Granny Weatherwax… And the vampires: the stakes are high but they’re intelligent — not easily got rid of with a garlic enema or going to the window and saying “I don’t know about you, but isn’t it a bit stuffy in here?” They’ve got style and fancy waistcoats. They’re out of the casket and want a bite of the future. “From the Trade Paperback edition.”
My comments June 17: Knocked out the audio book on my road trip today. Some of my favorite quotes:
“Repent!’” Nanny Ogg went on. “Repent? Me? Cheek! I can’t start repenting at my time of life. I’d never get any work done. Anyway,” she added, “I ain’t sorry for most of it. Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (Discworld, #23)
“And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” “It’s a lot more complicated than that—” “No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.” “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—” “But they starts with thinking about people as things…” Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (Discworld #23; Witches #6)
“He grinned. It was the sort of grin that Agnes supposed was called infectious but, then, so was measles.” Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (Discworld #23; Witches #6)
My comments today: I think I may finally be emotionally prepared to read Pratchett’s final novel, which happens to be focused on my favorite Discworld character, Tiffany Aching. This man was a honest, witty, genius. Thank goodness he wrote so many damn books.