"Large, loose, baggy monster"-Henry James on War and Peace
Happy New Year and welcome to my first newsletter of 2021. I started working on this while the year was still fresh and now I feel it's almost too late to send out a year-in-review type of post. Nevertheless, I love reading about other people's reading lives, so I hope you'll enjoy this round-up of my favorite fiction reads from 2020. In the next newsletter, I'll cover my nonfiction reading and, finally, I'll look at what I learned in 2020 and what I'm focusing on this year.

Before we get to the books, I want to offer a soft and open heart with compassion for everyone who is struggling or suffering right now. I think that's all of us, based on the personal anecdotes I'm hearing, as well as the attempted coup/rioting in the U.S. capital this week. I'm angry about what I saw on the news, I'm worried about a friend who just tested positive for covid, and I'm thinking about what I can do to contribute more positively to my community and the causes that matter to me.

(And when I'm not feeling/thinking about those things, I'm just bumbling through my own little life, dreaming and working and cleaning the house, loving my family, missing my friends, and trying to make it to my yoga mat every day.)

The following list contains the novels I finished in 2020 that I would recommend. There's no particular order except loosely the order I read them in, since I drew from my reading journal. I haven't included links to purchase the books, but I would encourage you to buy from your local indie, either directly or through bookshop.org.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
"You buy Rooney’s ticket, you take her ride," Dwight Garner wrote in his New York Times review of this novel as well as Rooney's first one, Conversations With Friends. It's true that the two novels are similar in theme (coming of age, class consciousness, intellectualism) and plot (friendship and romantic entanglements), and I am one of the readers happy to take this ride. I haven't watched the Hulu miniseries yet, but would like to.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Back when I was still working in an office, I used to talk books with a fellow reader in my hallway. We read this one together and I'm so glad she suggested it. It's a spooky read, though more of a psychological thriller than a ghost story. And there is much to interpret about the ending, especially if, like me, you were an undergraduate English major who wrote all your papers from a feminist theory angle.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
This was my first foray into Ephron's fiction and I was not disappointed. Even though the novel has many period details from the early-80's time it was written and published, Ephron's humor feels fresh and classic. I listened to this on audiobook with narration by Meryl Streep.

The Nobodies by Liza Palmer
I read this as part of an online book club and enjoyed the story of "nobody" Joan Dixon who takes a copywriting job at a start-up after finding her journalism career (and love life) in tatters. A feel-good, adventurous plot unfolds.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
This was also a pick from a (different) online book club. I haven't read much in the fantasy genre and would not have found this on my own, but enjoyed the novel's delights including its imaginative landscapes, spunky characters, and theme of storytelling.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I never read this in school, so was excited to finally experience the classic novel through Jake Gyllenhal's audiobook narration. My audiobook consumption all but dried up after my office closed in mid-March, but before then I also listened to and enjoyed another classic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Boy did that one feel eerily prescient in the year leading up to the presidential election with all the fake news and media echo chambers that accompanied it.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
I read this with a friend over the summer, after we both realized we had it on our TBR shelves. Coincidentally, I think I originally picked it up in a used bookstore in Maine while visiting the same friend. It was my first Roth and I definitely felt like I was reading a master prose stylist and novelist. It was also an eerily prescient book, all the more so because of the true events it's based on.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This was one of those books I'd heard about, picked up a copy somewhere, and had it sitting on my TBR shelf. Then it was a book club pick, giving me a push to actually read it. I was disappointed at first, finding the detached narrative voice hard to get into. But once I started to figure out the premise I got emotionally invested in the main characters' trajectories. And I enjoyed sitting with my thoughts about it afterward, pondering medical ethics and what it means to be human.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
This one showed up as a surprise in the book club box I subscribe to through my favorite podcast, Pantsuit Politics. What can I say; I love a good story about the intensity of female friendship. A lot of other stuff happens in this book, too, as the main characters grow up in India and eventually land in the U.S., but the love they have for each other is at the heart of the story--and what kept me enthralled.

Writers and Lovers; Father of the Rain by Lily King
I discovered a new favorite writer this year after discovering King's newest book through Book of the Month (who can resist a title like that? Not I. Luckily, the novel doesn't disappoint.) Then I picked up one of her backlist titles through a kindle sale and thoroughly enjoyed that as well. It's fun to read more than one novel by the same writer in close proximity and notice the similarities in prose style, character backstories, etc. King also had one of my favorite quotes about writing this year, in response to the "By the Book" question "Can a great book be badly written?" in the New York Times Book Review. King said, "No, not a great one. Not if it’s truly bad prose. Nothing can compensate. The entire experience comes through the sentences. You can’t make a good spaghetti sauce with rotten tomatoes." I've been thinking about her tomato metaphor ever since.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Another classic I'd been meaning to read, especially since a good friend of mine counts it among her all-time favorites. I ended up reading it in the fall and am still sad it's over. It's one of those big, immersive worlds that manages to contain all of life. It was also a comforting read in a disorienting year.

The Paris Hours by Alex George
This was the bookish equivalent of travel this year, a fun and fast read through the streets of Paris.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Side anecdote--I met Tayari Jones at a visitation event for accepted students to the Rutgers Newark MFA program. I ended up going to Temple for reasons of geography, but I've always wished I could've studied with Tayari. I'm sure she has plenty of good wisdom to impart on the craft of writing, but she also just seemed super nice (a rare find in a graduate school professor). Anyway, I heard good things about this novel when it came out, but didn't read it. Then American Marriage came out and I read it and was as awestruck as everyone else. So this fall I got the chance to read Silver Sparrow with my online book club and it was delightful. More than that, it contains "the whole world," as the best novels do--in this case the world of 1980s Atlanta.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Another book I've been meaning to read forever and finally got to this year. What can I add to the conversation about this wholly original and heartbreaking novel? You should read it for yourself, if you haven't already. It also contains the whole world.

One novel I didn't finish this year is War and Peace. Thus the subject line of this email. I started my third attempt in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, and I do think I'll finish this time--hopefully in 2021.

Did you read any good novels last year you want to recommend? I love hearing about books from friends.
Featured Article
A friend published this funny & relatable listicle about new mothers in McSweeney's this week: "Developmental Milestones For New Mothers." Check it out!

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