Bookends: December 2020

December brought my pandemic birthday, pandemic Christmas, pandemic New Year’s Eve, and the rain I’ve so anxiously been hoping for. I couldn’t stand rain when I lived in Ohio. A news show out of Cleveland in the late 1990s said that northeast Ohio got only 65 days of sun a year. A quick internet search tells me that it’s actually more like 168 days of sun, but 65 felt more accurate. San Diego is quite a bit sunnier—263 days of sun a year (including partly-sunny days), one source tells me—and a heck of a lot drier, so I welcome the rain. Not only does it mark the end (sort of) of the ever-expanding wildfire season, it smells incredible (petrichor!) and gets tons of flowers blooming so it’s like springtime in the middle of winter.

I’m focusing on the rain and the flowers right now because the pandemic news is not so pleasant. Each evening when they’re released, I let myself check our county’s daily numbers (positive cases, new outbreaks, deaths, hospital capacity, etc), and I’m looking forward to the time when the numbers start going down. Based on the crowds and lack of masks and other violations of our regional stay-at-home order that we saw when we tried to visit the ocean this week, it’s going to be a while before that time arrives.

But I did get a couple of photos of the Pacific, which was remarkably blue that breezy day, and we took an amazing, totally deserted hike last week (a view from that is at the top of this post). I’m doing my best to focus on the beautiful things and the things I can control, at least to a degree, and let the rest of it play out as it needs to.

And of course, books are a big source of pleasure for me. Here are the books that made their way into my life in December:

Finished in December (16):

All Different Kinds of Free by Jessica McCann

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan

How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle

Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett

For December, I had an unspoken goal of achieving a blackout on my #bookspinbingo card. I did well, but was still a few titles short (seven, not counting the free spaces).

My reading this month was evenly split between books I selected for myself and books I read for my children’s respective Build Your Library curriculum booklists. There were some really great titles this month, a couple that were solid but not exactly fun, and one that just didn’t work for me. Regarding that last, you can read more in my review on LibraryThing or Goodreads, but here I’ll just say that if All Different Kinds of Free is still on the booklist when it comes time for my son to do high school American history, I’ll probably have him read Uncle Tom’s Cabin instead. I like the idea behind All Different Kinds of Free, but there are other books that work better, I think.

The “solid but not exactly ‘fun'” titles this month are both nonfiction and include Steven Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders—a dense, date-rich, history from 1830 through Reconstruction that taught me a lot about the tenuous financial system in the United States in the 19th century and the beginnings of labor activism—and Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s A Black Hole is Not a Hole, which is an accessible, informative book about black holes that wasn’t fun only because thinking about the immensity of space gives me palpitations. Back when I was a kid I used to freak myself out when I was trying to sleep by picturing infinitely small things and infinitely large things (inspired by the picture book Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire in which the main character changes the size of his spots), and imagining black holes gives me a similar unpleasant feeling of thrill/horror, like driving really fast over the top of the steep hill.

The other books from my son’s Level 5 list were fun. He thought Tuck Everlasting was too slow and not enough happened, but I really enjoyed the imagery of the forest and the way Babbitt brings a sense of foreboding and a challenging philosophical dilemma to an otherwise idyllic landscape. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Riding Freedom was better than I anticipated based on the cover and the description. It’s definitely got a middle-grade novel feel to it, but it tells the compelling, fictionalized story of the first woman to vote in California, well before the 19th amendment was passed. After last month’s somewhat strange Stone River Crossing, I wasn’t enthusiastic about another novel by Tim Tingle, but How I Became a Ghost really worked for me. It’s kind of gory for a kids’ book and definitely sad (not sure I would trust a happy story about the Trail of Tears), but except for a jarring bit of patriotism that came out of nowhere at the end, the story drew me—and my son—in.

The last of his books this month was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I was so sure I’d read this book before, but it was totally different from what I remembered (and it wasn’t in any of my online reading trackers as “read”), so now I wonder what teenager-survivalist book I did read. It’s such an unlikely story, but I’m kind of a sucker for living-off-the-grid stories, especially when they also include falconry.

In addition to A Nation Without Borders, my daughter’s booklist also brought me Flesh and Blood So Cheap, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, and The Golem and the Jinni, set during the same time period and in the same location but very much fiction. Flesh and Blood So Cheap is a well-rounded, quick-to-read summary of immigration and labor practices in New York City, especially in the garment district, during the early 20th century, the events that led up to the fire, and the reforms that resulted from the tragedy, with a particular focus on Frances Perkins, a woman I dressed up as for an event at church one year. I really like Frances Perkins.

The Golem and the Jinni was one of my favorite reads of the month. It addresses issues of immigration and other-ness in early-20th-century New York, but through the perspectives of two unwitting immigrants, a jinni who unintentionally journeys from Syria and a golem who’s brought intentionally but without her consent from Poland. Along with immigration, author Helene Wecker adeptly explores how our inherent nature—or our perception of it—influences our behavior, right action within a community, friendship and trust, grace and forgiveness, and the way we’re perceived by others as compared to how we see ourselves. There’s probably more that I’m missing, but these are the issues that stick out to me.

And that brings me to the eight books I read from my own TBR. I’m feeling a little fatigued and I still have a 2020 Year in Books post to write, so I’m going to try to give the quick(ish) version.

Mexican Gothic was one of my Tailored Book Recommendations from Book Riot, and it was spot-on for me. I really liked Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things from October, and this one is different in many ways but at least as well written. The squirmy bits are super squirmy, the characters are in just the right amount of peril, and the bizarre is just so deliciously bizarre. I will definitely be reading more from this author. Of course, I’m going to have a lot of weird and scary fiction to read now that I’ve read Monster, She Wrote and added more than sixty titles to my TBR. It’s pretty much what I expected to happen reading an overview of the history of women’s horror writing, but hopefully it will give me some excellent weird fiction to explore throughout the year.

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford was another Tailored Book Recommendation. I’m a little behind on them and just switched from the hardcover subscription to recommendations-only in the hopes that the sort-of deadline of fine-free library due dates will move them up my priority list. I have a weird thing where I read a ton of library books while leaving books I own to get dusty on the shelves. I haven’t had a lot of success tricking myself into changing my behavior, but I keep trying. At any rate, while it wasn’t the slam-dunk for me that Mexican Gothic was, I did enjoy Crooked Hallelujah, which is about four generations of Cherokee women in Oklahoma and Texas struggling with issues of identity, community, family, and finding their place in the world. The chapters read almost like interconnected stories, and one in particular seems out of place, but I kind of like that about this book. It’s got some weirdness and randomness to it that feels true. It also might be the first book I’ve read set in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is one of the few states I’ve not yet visited in person (along with four states in the upper Midwest), and based on the description in this novel, I’m not sure I’m going to go out of my way to mark it off my list. Maybe I’ll catch it next time I drive cross-country, something I’ve been fantasizing about all during this pandemic but which isn’t on the calendar yet.

Between my kids’ books and mine, I read a surprising amount of fiction by Indigenous authors this month. Well, surprising just because I hadn’t planned to read them close to one another, they just happened to come up that way. The Only Good Indians is the third in this category, and quite different in tone from the others, although it deals with similar issues of identity, responsibility, and the friction that can arise between where someone’s from and where they want to be. There was a lot of basketball in this book—which I didn’t expect—and a lot of blood, which I did. And elk. I had no expectations around elk.

My Agatha Christie read this month was The Murder on the Links, which is already fading from my memory. I suspect I won’t be retaining the details of many of these mysteries. I read an ARC that’s been languishing on my TBR for too long: Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle, which was decent but didn’t quite grab me. It’s written in multiple voices that aren’t really distinct enough for me and one of them is a character’s journals, which gives me a similar and not-positive feeling I get from epistolary fiction.

And that brings us to my last read of December and my last of 2020: Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, a British ex-pat journalist’s exploration of his adopted country. I enjoyed Tremlett’s descriptions of the different regions of Spain and the unique history that led up to and resulted from the Spanish Civil War, which forced my grandpa and his family to the United States in 1938, and set the stage for my existence. Tremlett has definite opinions about Spain, but those are pretty easy to parse and are mostly amusing to read. I finished the book with a better sense of the different character of different parts of Spain, a reinforced feeling that the part of Spain 1/4 of my family is from is probably the best part (which is possibly a sign that I am more Spanish than I realized), and the budding conviction that Germany might be a better match for my personality if we ever get the chance to live the ex-pat life.

Whew! We all deserve a cookie for making it this far.

To-Read for January:

I’m still finalizing my #bookspin list for January, but I’ve some leftover scary books from October, Build Your Library homeschool curriculum selections, my Tailored Book Recommendations from Book Riot, and one LibraryThing Early Reviewers win that arrived in the mail today (part of the reason my list is still in flux).

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month and my Instagram (@ImperfectHappiness) for mostly not-book-related photos.

What’s on your TBR stack for January?

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