Bookends: November 2020

“Thanksgiving has been cancelled.” I heard this multiple times this past month, and it always caused my brow to furrow. Maybe Thanksgiving looked different this year, maybe we had to give second thoughts to gathering in person, but no one cancelled Thanksgiving. It’s strange to me that some people choose to use this kind of language. I can see that it is perhaps a reflection of their disappointment that the holiday isn’t what they were used to and I can see using it a time or two as a kind of catharsis, but to persist in using it seems just to serve to reinforce the disappointment. I’m not a “glass if half-full, power of positive thinking” person, but I do think the language we use influences our perception, and if the things we say are both inaccurate and painful to us, maybe it’s a good idea to change what we’re saying.

It’s also possible that it’s easier for me to say this because I live thousands of miles from family, and I don’t go “home” for the holidays. We’ve traveled for Christmas once this century and not ever for Thanksgiving. The closest we got was in 2017 when our trip to Spain with my sister coincided with Thanksgiving, and that was just for the purpose of maximizing vacation time. Holidays with extended family weren’t part of my childhood experience either. I remember spending one Christmas with my mom’s family back in Ohio, and we never went back for Thanksgiving. It’s just always seemed to make more sense to go when the weather’s nice, when people are less likely to be sick, and when we’re not traveling at the same time as everyone else in the United States. Pandemic Thanksgiving wasn’t really that different for us, and it certainly didn’t feel “cancelled.” Without that tradition and expectation of a big family celebration, it’s easy for me to dismiss people’s grief at the loss of their envisioned holiday and even more easy to dismiss their anger when they choose to equate a suggestion to change plans with the cancellation of the holiday entirely. My empathy falters.

Now, though, as the y-axes on graphs of case numbers and deaths have to be elongated to accommodate the new reality, I just feel tired and glad that my little family is accustomed to working together to create our own holiday traditions.

And I am, as always, also glad for books!

Finished in November (9):

Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

Zone One by Colson Whitehead              

The Shadows by Alex North              

The White House Is Burning by Jane Sutcliffe              

Stone River Crossing by Tim Tingle              

Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley              

The Secret Adversary: A Tommy and Tuppence Mystery by Agatha Christie              

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier              

November’s reading started off strong, slowed down mid-month, then picked up again just after Thanksgiving. My favorite read of the month was the first that I finished: Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier. This novel is told entirely from inside the head of the narrator, who’s known only as “the second Mrs de Winter,” and whose insecurities and assumptions color her perceptions so that she often leads both herself and the reader astray. I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator, and this really tickled me. I could really relate to the narrator’s distrust of her good fortune and to her attempt to make sense of a situation that just doesn’t feel right to her. Although I love gothic stories (I’m not quite sure I agree with this being one; it feels too modern, but that designation seems fairly common in the reviews I’ve read), I often get lost in the setting, unable to navigate the big houses and servants’ passages and sprawling grounds. This house, though, seemed more clear to me, especially the morning room. I love the morning room and the desk with the labeled pigeonholes, which you know if you’ve communicated with me at all in the past month because I mention it to everyone via text, email, Zoom, and post.

My second-favorite read of the month was one of the last I read before December. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is quite a bit different from Rebecca, but in a way they’re both about no-longer-living people having an influence on the living world and both are told from the perspective of people whose true names we don’t know and who are trying to navigate this new world with limited information. Aside from this and the fact that I really enjoyed them both, there’s not much overlap. Asa Nonami’s Now You’re One of Us is a closer match to Rebecca, with the newly married main character moving in with her husband’s family and trying to figure out the weird things that happen in the house, but even that comparison is a stretch. I didn’t enjoy Now You’re One of Us quite as much as I enjoyed either of these other two books. The evolution of the main character’s relationship with her in-laws seems too abrupt, and the story takes a weird turn that I’m not sure I buy. I’m glad to have read the novel, but I’ll probably gift my copy rather than giving it a permanent spot in my library.

The two other non-homeschool books that I read in November were both mysteries. The Secret Adversary is classic Agatha Christie set between the two world wars (and written before anyone knew there was going to be a sequel to WWI) with espionage and Communists and kidnappings and scrappy young self-appointed detectives. I listened to this one on audio while out on my walks, so it’s incongruously linked in my mind with the dragonfruit plants, palm trees, artificial turf, and eccentric lawn art of my neighborhood. This made it a little challenging to immerse myself in the English setting, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of the whodunit style.

The other mystery is The Shadows by Alex North, also set in England but in the late 20th century and in a town that feels like it could be in Ohio. I had no idea there were towns that depressed and depressing in England, and I’m not sure how I feel having this knowledge. At least there’s a used bookstore. This one kind of reminded me of Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, with a protagonist reluctantly returning home to face a traumatic past, but the language in The Shadows is less painfully cliched and the storyline is somewhat more believable. Also, it’s about dreams, for which, as with unreliable narrators, I’m a sucker.

The remaining books for this month are all from my children’s U.S. history and literature homeschool curriculum from Build Your Library. Two are middle-grade historical novels dealing with slavery—Stone River Crossing by Tim Tingle and Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Stone River Crossing—about a family in nineteenth-century Mississippi that escapes their enslavers by crossing the river into the Choctaw Nation—took an odd fairy-tale turn that I couldn’t quite get my head around. There’s another Tim Tingle book coming up on my son’s list, so I guess I’ll have a chance to see if this is a one-off or part of the author’s style. Jefferson’s Sons is told from the perspective of the children (not just sons) of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as the author imagines what that situation might have been like for those who lived it. It’s a worthwhile thought experiment as it in many ways encompasses a lot of the contradictions of the United States, and I think the author did a fairly good job of showing the nuances of the relationships. The third of the middle-grade books is Jane Sutcliffe’s The White House is Burning, nonfiction account of a portion of the War of 1812. Before reading The White House is Burning, the only thing I really knew about the War of 1812 was that the British destroyed the Library of Congress (leave it to me to know the fate of the books). I am pleased to report that I now know much more than that, like that British Rear Admiral George Cockburn didn’t pronounce the “ck” in his name but the Americans did.

Finally there’s This Republic of Suffering by former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, which I started on e-book, then moved to audio, then finally to book-book, all based on library availability. I cried through the first chapter, but then I got used to reading about the universal experience of death in the Civil War and how the nature of the war challenged and ultimately changed American perspectives on death and dying, and while it was still heavy reading, I didn’t cry again. The Civil War marked the beginning of the creation of national cemeteries and the government’s official accounting of and responsibility for military dead. Initially the national cemeteries were only for Union dead, the idea from some being that those who rebelled from the country didn’t deserve the same recognition as those who fought to hold it together. I found it interesting to observe my own reactions to this, which were and continue to be conflicted. On the one hand, I agree that perhaps the “winning” side of the war doesn’t have responsibility for the dead of the “losing” side, but being that the act of winning united the two sides as one country and that was the point of the war all along, it seems wrong to continue the distinction and to use the dead to make that point. The vast majority of Confederate dead were not those who rebelled, anyway. The rebellion was spearheaded by the Southern power elite, a wealthy landowning minority who wanted the right to continue to own people (the number of times slavery is explicitly mentioned in the Confederate constitution belies the “it wasn’t about slavery” argument), and it seems wrong to deny an honorable burial to the sons, fathers, and husbands who fell carrying out that rebellion. From a pragmatic point of view, if the goal is creating a united country, it would seem a good plan to focus on the shared experience of the families north and south of 620,000 people who weren’t ever coming home rather than on the color of the uniforms the bodies wore. The more I learn about history, the more I realize how haphazard and led by emotion so many of the choices that have shaped our country have been. I suppose in a way maybe it could be comforting to know that the current situation isn’t as unprecedented as it feels, but mostly I just feel discouraged that we’ve yet to learn that at the base of things, there are no “sides.” We’re all Americans, we’re all humans, we’re all mortal, but just as Civil War remains are still being unearthed on the old battlefields, we’re still having the same kinds of arguments.

No matter what I read this month, and probably for the past nine months, I always relate it to the current situation—the pandemic, the chaotic election, the attempts to sow doubt in our democracy for personal gain. I do this with fiction and nonfiction alike, and the act of comparing the written word with the current reality provides some comfort to me. It doesn’t bring me answers, but it helps me put things in a broader perspective. Spreading the confusion out through history and fiction dilutes the effect to some degree and makes it easier for me to get through my days. I have always been grateful for books, but that gratitude has taken on greater intensity in 2020. I don’t know how I’d get through this time without the written word.

To-Read for December:

Since I’m a few days behind on posting November’s Bookends post, I’ve got a partially completed #bookspinbingo card to showcase my December TBR. This month I (still) have leftover scary books from October, Build Your Library homeschool curriculum selections, my Tailored Book Recommendations from Book Riot, and one LibraryThing Early Reviewers win (which I think I managed to spell correctly this time). And I just got a notice that I have two more books to pick up at the library, neither of which is on this month’s TBR. Good thing for Free Spaces!

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month and for lots of posts (hopefully) about #WinterGames2020! I’m not great at earning points for my team (sorry #MerryReaders) but I have fun with these month-long bookish games.

What’s on your TBR stack for December?

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