2020 Queer Books

In 2020, I read many books written by queer authors or featuring queer characters.

I blogged about I Have Something To Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg and The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini in the 2020 nonfiction post. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado was a completely original memoir, and the story of the author’s relationship with her first girlfriend, who was abusive. It’s not in a traditional narrative structure–each chapter is titled and told using a different narrative trope, such as “Dream House as Fantasy,” “Dream House as Second Chances,” “Dream House as Unreliable Narrator.” It was really well-done, and the author narrated the audiobook herself.

You can find my other thoughts on The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar on the 2020 Diverse Books post and in my Goodreads review. It’s so queer!! There are at least three separate queer romances embedded within the book; the main contemporary character is transgender, and there are numerous LGBTQ characters throughout. Including in the historical storyline!

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern surprised me when the main character turned out to be gay. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was thrilled because it was unexpected. It’s nice to read a Fantasy novel that’s not billed as “queer fiction” but just so happens to have queer characters. As I mentioned in the 2020 Book Group Favorites post, while I loved it because the writing was gorgeous and the idea so intriguing, it’s not for everyone, especially if you need a clear narrative structure.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus was a mystical, heartbreaking young adult f/f romance novel, told from alternating perspectives. Mentioned in the 2020 Best Body Positive Books post, it certainly belongs here as well. I noted Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy in the same post, and here, because the main character is figuring out her sexuality, which is likely bisexual or pansexual.

Books that get Honorable Mentions for queer supporting characters: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman; 96 Words for Love by Rachel Roy and Ava Dash; and, Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy.

Catch and Kill should also be listed here because the author, Ronan Farrow, writes about maintaining his bicoastal relationship as he’s reporting the Weinstein assaults, and proposes to his partner in a draft of the book.

Please visit my new blog at Reading While Fat, where I’ll be reviewing a new book every Sunday, with a focus on whether it is fat-positive, fat-neutral, or fatphobic.

2020 Fatphobic Books

First, how do I define fatphobia? It’s basically the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies and it perpetuates negative stereotypes that extend discrimination against fat people. More here.

Three of the 2020 books that I found to be fatphobic were read for one of my book groups, and most had positive aspects as well. You can find the positive aspects of Case Histories and Eleanor Oliphant in the 2020 Book Group Favorites post.

Despite being well-written and with a unique construction, I found Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson to be fatphobic in a couple of ways. First, the main character in one of the storylines is a solicitor named Theo, who is very fat and described as unhealthy, as he huffs and puffs walking down the street and his daughters chastise him to eat better. Theo is one of the few purely good characters in the book, but he suffers through unspeakable grief. Although I appreciate seeing a fat character in a British book, Atkinson makes the assumption that Theo’s fatness means he is also unhealthy, which is not a given, and she also subjects him to some of the worst grief a person can experience, so he becomes a tragic character. Another character who is presumed to be fat is Amelia Land, one of the sisters in another storyline who teaches English and is a virgin in her mid-thirties. She has a crush on Jackson, the P.I., but it is unreciprocated. She is portrayed as frumpish and awkward, and Atkinson uses another stereotype–that fat women are really lesbians who can’t get men — to finish Amelia’s story.

I found some fatphobia in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) by Gail Honeyman, another British book, but the main character works through it and seems to get over it. I would have hoped that Eleanor would have had empathy for fat people who are judged by the way they look, as she has a badly scarred face, but her emotional scars are too deep for her to have much empathy at the beginning of the book. She avoids sitting next to fat people on public transportation, having the same attitude as her abusive mother, who is snobbish and cruel. But later, after thinking about it, she realizes that they may be fat through no fault of their own, so she starts sharing her seat. And she has wisdom and insight about conventionally beautiful people, who she feels sorry for (or does she?): “Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral. That must be difficult. Always having to prove that there’s more to you, wanting people to see beneath the surface, to be loved for yourself, and not your stunning body, sparking eyes, or thick, lustrous hair.” Is she talking about beautiful people or those who aren’t?

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008) by Muriel Barbery was first published in French and tells the story of a concierge, Renee Michel, at a high-end apartment building on the Left Bank in Paris and a 12-year old girl, Paloma, who lives in one of the apartments. Madame Michel is middle-aged, ugly, and has cultivated an appearance so that the tenants perceive her to be of low-class and not very intelligent, but actually she is brilliant and has refined tastes: she is an autodidact, enjoys gourmet food, and is a connoisseur of capital-A Art. Paloma is precocious and sensitive, and has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Things change for both Madame Michel and Paloma when a resident dies and a Japanese businessman moves into one of the apartments. It’s a very deep book, full of philosophy, character-driven, and not a fast read. And it is fatphobic because it is presumed that Madame Michel is fat. About herself, she thinks: “I greatly pity the handsome young man who is obliged to contemplate a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound toad named Renee.” She also thinks that “to be poor, ugly, and moreover intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age.” Madame Michel and the Japanese businessman become friends, though, much to her surprise, and as they talk and find out how much in common they have, she begins to wonder if she might have found love against all odds. And of course, a fat and ugly character cannot find love, even if she does have friends and they remember her fondly. Ugh. The writing was beautiful, and I noted many quotes. But I found much of it offensive.

I read Is He My Son?: A trafficked Chinese child, discovered and lost again (2019) by Lin Chang, Bruce Humes (translator) through NetGalley and posted a review on Goodreads here. While I liked it overall, there was some choppiness and fatphobia. The birth mother says “I’d be massively overweight if I lived in the capital. So many delicious dishes,” and was asked “Not on a diet, are you? . . . As soon as I touched down in the capital I forgot the meaning of the word.” I don’t know how Chinese culture has regarded fat people historically, but it is clear that Western diet culture (and the accompanying fear of becoming fat) has spread around the world.

For the most part I really enjoyed Righteous: An IQ novel (2017) by Joe Ide. It’s the second of a series of (currently four) crime mysteries set in South Central Los Angeles. Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) has some Sherlock Holmes-ian characteristics. It also was somewhat reminiscent of the humor in a Carl Hiassen novel, except with less absurd characters. I only found fault in one scene where Isaiah wonders why “you would wear a miniskirt if your thighs were like two Beluga whales swimming side by side.” I was disappointed and wish he had avoided the fatphobic description. But I am willing to fall on my sword, read the others sometime to see if this is a pattern, and report back. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thighs that look like Beluga whales–they are majestic! (And what if our thighs could echolocate like Beluga whales? Wouldn’t that be cool?)

2020 Best Body Positive Books

In 2020, I read two new fat positive books from one of my new favorite authors, one from the queen of body positive books, and some that I didn’t expect to be fat positive.

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy is Murphy’s first middle-grade novel, published in October 2019. It was a delight! The characters are diverse, and she doesn’t assume that they are all white. For example, I’d never seen a character describe her parent as being “white, like me.” It was so refreshing and an excellent way to subvert the assumption that white = normal and any other skin color isn’t. Sweet Pea is a 7th grader whose parents are getting divorced, and she lives 1/2-time with each one. Her Dad has rented a nearly identical house two doors down from her Mom. Her best friend is Oscar, and she has a frenemy named Kiera. When the eccentric old lady next door (who also writes the town advice column) goes out of town, Sweet Pea, who is house-sitting, starts answering her mail. Things go awry, of course. She struggles with finding clothes that a 13-year old would wear when she’s about sized out of the juniors department, and her Mom goes on a rampage with store management about not having merchandise to fit all bodies. What would our world be like if all parents defended their daughters like this instead of telling girls that they should change their bodies? What I love is that Sweet Pea is a fat character, but the story isn’t about her being fat at all–it’s about navigating the changes from a parental divorces, changing friendships and being a good friend, and changing from one stage of childhood to another (middle school to secondary school).

Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy, published in July 2020, is the YA origin story of the fat superhero also known as Zephyr. She’s a high school senior who lives with her grandma, works in animal rescue, is the secret author of a fangirl blog, and has just found out that she can fly. Her best friends are witchy (Ches) and queer (both Ches and Matt), she has a crush on her co-editor of the newspaper, and a huge possible scoop when her favorite show is filming in town. Of course there is a mystery to solve and criminals to expose, and there’s the matter of Faith not being sure whether she likes boys or girls or both. Again, though Faith being fat is a part of her as a character, it’s not the primary part–Faith is dealing with the possible dementia of her grandmother, competing crushes on a school friend and famous actor she’s just met, girls who are abducted and found later in a coma, and a strange drug that is showing up around town. I loved reading an entire book about a fat, bisexual superhero!

Big Summer was published in May 2020 and is Jennifer Weiner’s 17th book. The protagonist is Daphne, a plus-size “influencer” living in New York City who is also an afterschool nanny. Her parents are teachers at a private school in Manhattan, which she was able to attend, which put her in contact with people of a far different social standing. She had been best friends with Drue, an heiress, but their friendship was volatile and Drue asks her to be in her wedding although they haven’t spoken for years. Daphne’s parents have always supported her at whatever size she is, but diet culture and your inner critic is so difficult to clear from your brain. Weiner blends fat activism with social media influencer culture seamlessly. I loved that her supporting characters are becoming more diverse than in her earlier books and was thoroughly enthralled with what was going to happen next. There’s a huge twist in that the book starts out like Weiner’s other chick-lit, and then midway morphs into something completely different. It worked for me!

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (pub. September 2019) by Junauda Petrus is told alternately in the voices of Audre, a Trinidadian teenager, and Mabel, who lives in Minneapolis. Audre doesn’t get along well with her mother, who has found Jesus, but has a kindred spirit in her grandmother, Queenie. She finds love with the preacher’s daughter on a secluded beach but is caught by her mother, and so sent to live with her father in Minneapolis. She meets Mabel there, as their fathers are old friends. Mabel has two amazing parents and is trying to figure out her feelings about other girls. Unfortunately, Mabel is having some scary health issues and has a kind of leukemia. But she finds a beautiful, mystical book written by a man in prison on her parents bookshelves and she starts corresponding with him. It helps her come to terms with her situation. I include it on this list because I got the impression that Audre was not a small teen, and there was a reference to Mabel’s mother being comfortable enough in her own body to do yoga outside in booty shorts. It was a beautiful f/f teen romance.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes gets an honorable mention because I don’t recall any fatphobia in it, and one of the packhorse librarians, a minor character, is a chubby young woman who also uses braces to walk due to polio. After some initial hesitation, she is at home on horseback and even gets to be a hero during a flood! I love to see positive representation even when the main character isn’t fat.

2020 Book Group Favorites

With the pandemic, my college friends started our own book group. That makes two for me. Here are my 2020 favorites among both book groups.

The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes, was one of my favorites of the year. It’s the story of a British woman who has married a Kentucky coal heir and moved to the Appalachians during the Great Depression. Not sure her marriage is what she expected but unsure what to do about it — she becomes one of the traveling librarians who deliver books on horseback to people who live in the hills and can’t easily get to town. It was a great story–full of strong feminist characters, beautiful descriptions of the mountains, with a subplot involving race, possibly a queer character, and the excitement of a “married love” book being delivered by the librarians. And it will make an appearance later in the week for having a fairly well-developed fat character who has a positive subplot. If you like historical fiction centered on women and based in events that really happened, don’t miss it! (Side note: I know there has been a controversy about similar plot points in Giver of Stars and in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. I plan to read Book Woman in 2021 to form my own opinions.)

I absolutely loved The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman, which was picked by our library facilitator as something light for December. I usually know pretty quickly whether I will really love a book by how soon I break out the tabs to mark a sentence I will want to note a quote. I only made to to page 8 on this one before I had to tab, and quickly followed with another on page 11. Nina is a millenial book store clerk, an only child of a single mother, who has anxiety, a competitive trivia team, her life planned to include plenty of reading time, and who lives in a walkable neighborhood in Los Angeles (who knew there was such a thing!). One day she finds out that she actually has a quite large and dysfunctional family through the father she never knew. And she seems to keep meeting up with the guy on the trivia team that gives hers the most competition. I was thoroughly amused and entertained by how Nina navigates these changes, and recommended it from one book group to the other. It will also make an appearance with an honorable mention in my queer-friendly books post later this week.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson is the first in the Jackson Brodie mystery series, which can be found as a TV series on Vudu with Jason Isaacs playing the detective. First, I will admit that I will read anything Kate Atkinson has written–she is one of my favorite authors. I liked this one–the structure is unusual in that you don’t get to meet Jackson until a long way into the book, as Atkinson sets up three different situations with different murders, and it’s unclear how they are going to be connected until much later. You just have to trust that she will connect them and it will all make sense later. There were tough situations to read–the disappearance and possible abuse of a child, stabbing, and breakdown of a mother with possible postpartum depression. But Brodie is a great character. I am going to try to read the other books and/or try out the TV series. One caveat: this book will also make an appearance later in the week because of its fatphobia.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman exceeded my expectations. Eleanor is a twentysomething clerk at an ad agency in Great Britain, whose life is regimented by work and weekends. She has facial scarring, and no friends–she doesn’t know if it’s the scarring or her lack of social skills. But she wants things to change, and they do when she stops to help a man who has collapsed on the street. Helping him to the hospital, she makes a work friend, and so it begins. It struck me that Eleanor’s lack of social skills may have been either from the trauma she’s been through or because she might have been on the autism spectrum. But she is a totally unique character, and the book also describes therapy pretty well. There’s a twist, and something of a satisfying ending–I loved it. Another caveat: some fatphobia to be discussed later in the week.

Almost one month before Indiana’s stay home order for the pandemic in March, I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Because it is set in a North America that has been profoundly changed by a pandemic that killed more than 99% of the population, that was probably not the best time to have read it. Nevertheless, it was beautifully written, with a story within the story and seemingly disparate characters seamlessly woven together. There is a traveling Shakespeare company and orchestra that goes from town to town through what remains of the upper midwest, but those that are left are wary because horrors are always near. Don’t read it right now, but maybe in a year or two when anyone who wants to has been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I was apprehensive about Darktown by Thomas Mullen, because it is historical mystery fiction, with lead black characters, centered on the first black police officers in Atlanta in 1948, and it was written by a white man. But, having read a lot of fiction written by black authors, I think he did a pretty good job highlighting this little-known part of Atlanta history and writing whole, well-developed black characters. Dr. King makes a cameo appearance, as one of the cop’s fathers is a prominent minister at another black church. The black cops are not allowed weapons or vehicles, and are subjected to horrific racism perpetrated by the white cops. But there is one rookie white officer whose experience growing up during WWI with a German mother, and liberating a concentration camp during WWII has given him more empathy towards black folks than nearly all white people in 1948 Atlanta. If not exactly an ally, he at least has empathy, which none of the other white characters do. The mystery was well-done and kept me guessing until the end. I think there’s a sequel, which I will seek out.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was completely original. Told non-chronologically, it’s the story of Rosemary, raised in Bloomington, Indiana, with an older brother and a sister named Fern. What we don’t find out until well into the book is that their father is a psychology professor, the house is full of graduate students, and Fern has been sent away, fracturing the family forever. You see, Fern is a chimpanzee.
Although there were some tough themes, such as the ethics of animal experimentation, difficult family relationships, and forgiveness, I loved it! One quote: “When there is an invisible elephant in the room, is from time to time bound to trip over a trunk.”

I list The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern last because while I loved it, I was the only one in my book group who did. It is hard to describe, but I’ll try: Imagine that every story also exists in an underground fantasy land–harbors that are connected by the Starless Sea. Events in the real world affect the story-land and vice versa. The protagonist is Zachary Ezra Rollins, a 24-year old Emerging Media Studies graduate student, who finds a book in the library one day that tells the story of an event that actually happened in his childhood–finding a door painted on a brick wall that he was afraid to open. It’s not for everyone, especially if you need a clear narrative thread, because it jumps around between multiple stories and you’re not totally sure what’s going on or what has actually happened at the end. I was enthralled. Morgenstern’s writing was beautiful, and I kept many quotes, including: “A book is an interpretation . . . You want a place to be like it was in a book but it’s not a place it’s just words. The place in your imagination is where you want to go and that place is imaginary. . . You could write endless pages but the words will never be the place.” And you’ll see this one again when I list my favorite Queer-friendly books of the year.

Schedule for the rest of my 2020 book reviews:

After that, I plan to transition book reviews to my new blog, Reading While Fat, where I will review a book a week, and primarily discuss fat positive or fatphobic themes in the books that I read. I may still keep this blog for other writing, but I’m not sure yet.

2020 Best Diverse Books

More than 50% of the books I read in 2020 where written by authors who are not white. Here are just a few–you’ll find that just about all of my lists for 2020 have non-white authors.

Bluebird, Bluebird and Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke, take place in East Texas along I-59 (a route I know driving back and forth to Houston from the midwest to visit family most Decembers) and center on Darren Mathews, a black, native Texan, Texas Ranger who is drawn, in Bluebird, into a murder of a white supremacist after a confrontation with a family friend. He’s suspended but has to testify to a grand jury, and also gets drawn into a double murder–of a black man and a white woman–which he informally investigates, accompanied by the man’s widow. In Heaven, Darren’s problems continue when his mother finds evidence that might incriminate him in the family friend’s confrontation. These are both so good--and well-done treatments of race relations in the south, in the context of genre police procedural/ mystery stories. Locke is a superb storyteller–you may already be familiar with her work adapting and producing the Celeste Ng novel Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu, and the shows Empire for Fox and When They See Us for Netflix. I’m going to seek out all of her other novels.

I found The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen to be completely unique, as the narrator is addressing a “Commandant” but you don’t find out the context of who he’s telling the story to and why he’s writing it until much later–nearly the end of the book. It won many awards in 2015-2016, including a Pulitzer. The narrator is aide-de-camp for “The General”–a South Vietnamese military leader–but we find out quickly that the narrator is actually a mole, working for the North Vietnamese. He is the child of a teen Vietnamese mother and French Catholic priest, and was never accepted in his village because of his parentage. He learned English so well he was able to go to Occidental College in California before returning to Vietnam before the war. When Saigon falls, he escapes on one of the last planes, and ends up back in Los Angeles, where he remains in contact with his handler through writing letters in invisible ink, reporting on the actions of the General in preparing a regiment to go back to South Vietnam. Some of it was hard to listen to, especially the descriptions of a couple of rapes, and the murders the narrator is involved in, which he rationalizes as part of the cost of war (although he is haunted by the ghosts of the men he kills). Though difficult, I think it is important to read, as Nguyen deliberately rejected the majority (white) American perspective of the Vietnam War and provides the perspective of those whose country was left broken and reeling afterwards when the United States left. It’s not all difficult reading, though–it was full of dark humor and the writing was beautiful.

I really loved Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile and plan to watch the TV series it inspired. Charley, a young African-American widow from Los Angeles with an 11-year old daughter, moves to Louisiana after her father’s death because she has inherited his sugarcane farm. She stays with her grandmother, and soon her brother, Ralph Angel, arrives with his 6-year old son to stay, as well. Charley finds expert help to manage the farm, since she’s never run a farm before, and the book is primarily Charley running against time to keep the farm from going under while dealing with her grandmother’s and Ralph Angel’s expectations that Charley will help her brother out despite his drug habit. There’s a romance subplot, but don’t expect a happy ending for everyone.

I reviewed The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar on Goodreads here. It is one of my top five of the year–I loved it. His Map of Salt and Stars was one of my favorites of 2018, so it’s no surprise that I loved this one as well.

The Yellow House is a unique and powerful memoir, winner of the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. The author, Sarah M. Broom, tells the story of her family through the story of the house her mother bought long before she was born, the youngest of twelve children, and which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. She dives into historical records, such as deeds and newspapers, finding out how East New Orleans was developed, and tells the stories of how her brothers survived Katrina and how her fractured family finds each other when the house they all knew is gone.

Home Body by Rupi Kaur is a beautiful, short book of poetry, with themes of recovering from abuse, dealing with mental illness, and learning to love yourself and the skin you are in. It’s her third book; I will seek out her other two.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez features a strong teen voice, and deals with grief, depression, and a suicide attempt in a thoughtful and sensitive way. Julia, a writer, lives in Chicago and is the only remaining child of undocumented Mexican parents. Her older sister Olga, the “perfect” daughter, recently died in a car accident, and Julia never seems to meet her parents’ expectations in the same way Olga did. But she finds some things in Olga’s room that make her think Olga may have been keeping secrets from her parents. Julia tries to find out what she can, with the help of her best friend, but of course things backfire and she is punished. Depression overtakes her, and she gets therapy before her parents send her to Mexico to spend time with her grandmother. This helps, and when she returns to Chicago, she is able to solve Olga’s mystery and leave home to go to college in New York. I loved the Chicago setting, and if you read it, you won’t forget Julia easily.

In Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga, we meet Danny, a Sri Lankan immigrant house cleaner in Sydney who discovers while on a housecleaning job that a former client has been murdered. He learns on the news information that leads him to believe that another client may be a suspect. The two were having an affair, and he may be the only person with knowledge about the pair’s connection. But he has a problem–he is undocumented and if he comes forward with information about the likely killer, he risks being deported. It is so well-done, taking place in a single day while Danny texts back and forth with the possible killer. A quote, which I relate to because I set my clocks in a similar way: ” . . . the time was four minutes fast, by design. The goal was to alternate anxiety — late late late — with relief — four extra minutes, remember, four extra — a pattern that intensified Danny’s sense of duty.”

2020 Notable Nonfiction

2020 was a great year for nonfiction, ranging from sociology to history to memoir.

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memor of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran was read on audio by the author. Phuc’s family left Vietnam when he was a baby, during the fall of Saigon, and settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Growing up in the 1980s, he had to deal with significant racism and an abusive father, but was saved by finding a tribe of skateboarders, listening to punk rock and reading great literature.

I Have Something to Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg was also read by the author, the spouse of former South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. I’ve followed Chasten on social media, and enjoyed listening to his background in 4-H and drama in Traverse City, Michigan. He writes with heart about the difficulties of being gay in a conservative, rural area, even if your immediate family loves you. I read Mayor Pete’s book a couple of years ago, and loved hearing the story of their meeting and courtship from Chasten’s perspective.

I read The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio through NetGalley and reviewed it on Goodreads here. It also made it onto Barack Obama’s 2020 book list, so you should read it based on those two recommendations alone.

I found The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual v. the USA by Eric Cervini on the new shelf at the library. It’s the story of Frank Kameny, who obtained a PhD in physics after serving in WWII and began to work with the precursor of NASA before being fired from his civil service position because he had been arrested in a California public restroom while at a conference years before. He began the first gay social organization in the United States, and marched for gay rights before Stonewall. With his logical mind, he never bought into the idea that being gay was a bad thing, because if he had attraction to men, and he knew his own worth, then there couldn’t be anything wrong with being gay. So he marched with signs saying “Gay is Good”. He assisted with others and brought many lawsuits himself protesting the termination of government employment or security clearances because being gay was seen as a security risk. It was a fascinating look at a part of history I wasn’t familiar with at all.

A book group friend recommended The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery a couple of years ago, and our facilitator put it on our list for 2020. I will admit to not having much knowledge about octopuses, or much interest in them, before reading this book. But Montgomery writes with such fascination and love for them, it made me want to visit the nearest aquarium to watch one! Did you know they can fit through any space that their beak can? And that they are put together so differently from humans as to be the closest thing to an alien that we might ever see? And that scientists think that each arm might have its own sort of brain?

I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer on Krista Tippett’s On Being several years ago, and read her Gathering Moss in 2019. In 2020, I listened to her earlier Braiding Sweetgrass and loved it so much I had to buy the hard copy of the book. She’s a professor, a botanist, a mother, and a member of the Potawotami nation. She weaves native wisdom seamlessly with science. Sweetgrass is considered the hair of Mother Earth, and is mindfully harvested and braided to use for smudging ceremonies. I need to re-read and mark the book because I couldn’t catch everything I want to remember by listening.

I first heard of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore when the local high school performed the play with the same name. It’s the story of the young women who went to work in factories painting numbers on watch dials with radium paint, the health issues and deaths they later experienced, and the lawsuits they brought to have their problems acknowledged as related to the work they did. It was hard to listen to at times, because the author graphically described their sicknesses and deaths, and I cringed every time she described how they “pointed” the paintbrushes with their tongues and lips in order to make the fine letters, taking radium into their bodies bit by bit. One of the factories was in Ottawa, Illinois, where there is a monument to the dial painters and not too far for a visit, even in COVID times. I hadn’t realized that their lawsuits influenced the establishment of OSHA and workplace safety laws.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow read like a novel–I found myself listening to Farrow’s narration every chance I could, even though I knew from watching the news how it ended. And the subject matter–assault–was difficult– but I loved listening to his portrayal of the women he interviewed, their accents and different inflections. His story shows that power protects power, but I’m glad it got told to hopefully prevent more women from getting hurt.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is worth a second listen. I loved her earlier book, The Warmth of Other Suns, and Caste is exceeded those expectations and is even more important. She identified how race in the United States is an unspoken caste system that is similar to the Indian caste system and the caste system of Nazi Germany. She illuminated it in a way I’ve not seen before and which makes so much sense I wondered why it’s not been written about in this way before. There is no question in my mind that she is absolutely correct.

In Attention: A Love Story by Casey Schwartz, she recounts her decade taking Adderall, how she stops, and how she later seeks to understand attention. I was very interested in the subject, having my own attention issues after surgical menopause, and finding some success with occasional use of ADHD meds. A quote, quoted from Tristan Harris in the Atlantic in 2016: “You could say that it’s my responsibility to practice self-control over digital devices but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

2020 Favorite Fiction

As I looked at the 2020 list, I find that many of the books I read and loved fit several categories (e.g. book group and diverse or nonfiction and diverse), so don’t read anything into whether a book is included on one particular list or another.

In The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, the residents in a small town on an island lose one thing after another–they must bring it to be destroyed, and when it’s gone, no one remembers it any more. One day it’s potatoes, the next it’s statues. As time goes by, more and more important things are gone and forgotten. But some people remember, and if the memory police find that out, those people are gone, too. The main character is an author whose mother was a person who remembers, and her editor remembers, too. In order to protect him and protect the story she’s writing (which is its own part of the book), she plots to hide him in a secret compartment in her house, so the memory police won’t ever find him, and in that way, things are remembered. It’s a horrifying book, very well written. It was originally published in 1994 in Japan, but was recently translated into English.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich is loosely based on events that happened to her grandfather, who was a night watchman at a factory, and Chippewa council member who went to Washington DC to fight a termination bill in 1953, which would have negatively impacted the tribe. He fights to stay awake every night, writing letters and seeing ghosts. It’s also the story of fictional Pixie Paranteau, the daughter of a woman hidden from white people so she wouldn’t be sent to the boarding schools, and who was taught all of the tribal ways. Pixie has graduated from high school and works at the factory, supporting her mother and younger brother. Her sister went to the Twin Cities but no one has heard from her. So Pixie goes to find her, and comes back with her sister’s baby, but no sister. As usual, it’s beautifully written, funny, and poignant. A couple quotes: “. . . most everything was funnier in Chippewa.” “Government is more like sex than people think. When you are having good sex, you don’t appreciate it enough. When you are having bad sex, it’s all you can think about.”

In Under a Dark Sky, by Lori Rader-Day, Eden is a widow who finds a reservation made by her husband for a dark-sky park around the time of their anniversary nine months after he died. She decides to go by herself anyway, feeling like she needs to make decisions about her next steps. The problem is that she hasn’t been able to abide the dark since he died. So she arrives in far northern lower peninsula Michigan to stay in the cabin, when she finds out that, although she has the suite to herself, a group of twentysomethings are also having a reunion in the rest of the cabin. When one of them ends up dead in the middle of the night, Eden is a suspect. Is she a reliable narrator? How did her husband die? Rader-Day reveals many secrets, one by one. It was a very well-done mystery, set in a unique location.

I wasn’t sure what to think of The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung at first. There was a lot of math and discussion of famous theorems that I didn’t quite follow, listening to it as an audiobook. But I’m so glad that I hung in there! There were so many layers to it –there was the math, of course, but also both the Pacific and European horrors of World War II, womens’ place in academia in the 20th century, adoption and who is truly family, growing up Asian in midcentury United States — I was enthralled and delighted by the writing. I loved how Chung wove everything together.

Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho was described as Bridget Jones Diary meets Crazy Rich Asians, an apt description. I loved it! Andrea Tang is a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Singapore, gunning for partner. She’s also the last in her generation to be single, much to her mother’s chagrin. She decides to try online dating, without much success. At the same time, she meets Eric, a hotel magnate, and things go well. But she is friends with her office-mate, Suresh, who is also a rival to be made partner, and he’s engaged, but they have undeniable mutual attraction. Will he be chosen as partner before her? Will Eric propose? It’s satisfying chick-lit, and while I couldn’t relate to the bar-hopping and designer clothes-name dropping, I loved Andrea’s Candy Crush addiction and fairly accurate depiction of life working at a Biglaw firm.

Dawn/Adulthood Rites/Imago are the Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler. It’s a fascinating look at the possibility of aliens finding humans on earth. The Oankali have wondrous powers–they are natural genetic engineers. Humans have made the earth essentially inhabitable because of their inherent hierarchical tendencies and are in a constant state of war. Lilith wakes up in a featureless room every so often, and one day something is in the room with her. It is somewhat human-shaped with arms, legs, a head, and a torso, but instead of hair, it has sensory tentacles. Lilith is able to tolerate spending time in its presence, and comes to find out that the Oankali have “rescued” the humans they were able to and placed them in suspended animation with the plans to exchange genetic information with them. That’s what the Oankali do. But will the remaining humans or their children ever be the same after the exchange? Butler had an amazing mind–we lost her far too young when she was only 58 in 2006. I have never been disappointed reading anything she has written.

My 2019 in Books: Book Group Favorites

The first book group I belong to is run by my local library — I’ve been going since 2012, and it has always taken me out of my reading comfort zone and introduced me to authors I wouldn’t have found otherwise. 2019 was no exception. Here are some of my favorites:

The Book of Dreams by Nina George (also author of The Little Paris Bookshop) was unlike anything I’ve read before, primarily because one of the main characters is in a coma, and one of the other main characters has synesthesia, which is a condition where instead of just seeing colors, you might hear them as well, or when you hear music you might also smell or taste it. Henry is in a coma, and visited by his ex-girlfriend/healthcare power of attorney, Eddy, and his son, Sam, who has synesthesia. The overarching theory that makes the book work is that when someone is in a coma, their consciousness is still active, but can’t communicate with their bodies. But they can interact with other people in their dreams. It’s fascinating and beautiful and heartbreaking.

Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts (author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion) was a delight. It’s historical fiction based on the life of Maude Gage Baum, the widow of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, and how she influenced the filming of the movie. I loved the Oz books growing up, but never gave the movie too much thought. Maude was the daughter of the suffragist Matilda Gage, a contemporary of Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. Frank and Maud struggled while he went from job to job and she raised four boys, taking in sewing, until he was able to get Wizard published. Maud’s sister struggled on a homestead raising Dorothy, the girl who inspired the book’s namesake. And a fictional Judy Garland is a big part of the book, along with Maud’s attempts to protect her from studio executives and help her channel the real girl behind the character.

Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French was mostly enjoyable, except for the fatphobia. The premise was interesting: a 77-year old woman given a radioactive cocktail when she was pregnant (and which caused the bone cancer of her child at 8 years old) seeks revenge on the doctor who ran the study. She moves in down the street and plots ways to murder him, but finds out that murder won’t be very satisfying since he has dementia.  He lives with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, and the family has more than its share of struggles, such as contemplation of an affair, kids on the autism spectrum, and an acting-out pre-teen. It’s entertaining, but I was annoyed by some of the fatphobic tropes that came up several times. When one character sees a fat woman in a thrift shop, he refers to her as Jabba the Hutt. Another character refers to herself as fat but is corrected with a “You’re not fat . . . all the guys were taking about how hot you are.” It’s frustrating to be reading an otherwise excellent book but be hit with these dehumanizing stereotypes.

I enjoyed Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson because I wasn’t familiar with this particular mission, it was set in the year I was born, and it told the Apollo 8 story in historical context. There was so much happening that year! This was the mission that resulted in the first photos of the entire earth, and inspired this quote: ” . . . it occurred to Anders, in this last week of 1968, this terrible year for America and the world, that once you couldn’t see boundaries, you started to see something different. You saw how small the planet is, how close all of us are to one another, how the only thing any of us really has, in an otherwise empty universe, is each other . . . the astronauts had come all this way to discover the Moon, and yet here they had discovered the Earth.” We need this reminder in 2020 as well.

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta was a straight-up page-turner thriller that I devoured in one sitting! Koryta is a master of thriller, and has Indiana connections that often make it into his books. Jace, a teen boy, accidentally witnesses a murder. His parents hire a bodyguard, who tries to hide him from the killers by sending him from Indiana to a survival camp in Montana/ Wyoming for the summer. So the leader of the camp has to both teach him and the other boys how to survive in the wilderness, and protect Jace if the killers figure out he’s there. It was excellent!

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is nominally the story of the Los Angeles Public Library’s 1986 fire, and the attempt to find out who set it, but it’s really a love letter to libraries and books. A quote, regarding trying to throw a book into the trash: “The sensation of dropping a living thing into the trash is what makes me queasy . . . this is why I have come to believe that books have souls–why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away?  . . . A book feels like a thing alive in this moment and also alive on a continuum from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off of the printing press–a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it and it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: they take on a kind of human vitality.”

Bridge of Clay by Marcus Zusak (author of The Book Thief) was very different from Book Thief, but still excellent. It’s the story of the five Dunbar boys and their parents, and how they deal with the mom’s cancer, set in Sydney. The language is beautiful and the story comes together bit by bit, the love story of Penny and Michael, and how the boys give all of their pets the names of Greek heroes. If you need your stories done chronologically, this might not be for you. But if you want to be enthralled and surprised and amused by a “family of ramshackle tragedy” and a “comic book kapow of boys and blood and beasts”, give this one a try.

My 2019 in Books: Best Body Positive Books

I read a lot of fat positive/ body positive books in 2019, which I find to be an excellent sign that the idea is growing that fat people can and should be positively portrayed in literature.

I got to meet Julie Murphy at BookCon in June 2019. She is the author of (among others) Dumplin’ (the book that the Netflix movie was based on), its sequel Puddin’, and the standalone Ramona Blue. If you haven’t seen Dumplin’, I’ll wait–go, watch it right now. It’s the story of Willowdean, an unapologetic fat, white, and grumpy high school student in Texas, and her mother (played by Jennifer Aniston) who fight over many things, most specifically the pageant. Willowdean’s mother is an always-dieting beauty queen. Spoiler: Willowdean ends up with the hot guy, Bo. And she stays fat, and doesn’t try to lose weight. Plus, Dolly Parton and drag queens are featured. I wish I’d read such a book when I was a teen. A quote, regarding the song Jolene: “THE Dolly Parton is singing to some mysterious Jolene who she thinks is more beautiful and more worthy than her, begging her not to take her man . . . it’s this reminder that no matter who you are, there will always be someone prettier or smarter or thinner. Perfection is nothing more than a phantom shadow we’re all chasing.”

Puddin’, the sequel, is even better. Set in the same town with many of the same characters, this is the story of Millie, a minor character in Dumplin’. I identify so much more with Millie, with her planners and crafting and positive, type-A personality! Millie also gets a guy, and weathers a difficult friendship with a dance-team member, Callie, while standing up for herself with her mother and getting into journalism camp. I would love for this book to be turned into a movie, as well. Quotes: “My magic truth–the thing that has changed everything for me–is this: the body I have shouldn’t change how deserving I am of my dreams. I stopped obsessing over my body being too round or too wide or too lumpy. Because I’m not too much of anything. I’m just enough. Even when I don’t feel like I am.” And “I want to help change the rules, you know? To help make everything more fair. But no one cares about evening the playing field or changing the rules unless they have some kind of connection. I guess…well, that’s what stories do. They connect people. Stories change hearts and then hearts change the world.”

The main character in Ramona Blue is not fat, but she is very tall. She is white, and came out as a lesbian early in high school, and lives in a trailer with her father and slightly older sister. They live along the Gulf Coast in Alabama, and Ramona works bussing tables and has a paper route and a group of friends, mostly other queer white kids. She’s about to start her senior year, when she reconnects with Freddie, the biracial grandson of an old friend who has moved back to town. They become good friends, and Ramona needs that, because her sister is pregnant and her friend group is full of drama. I included this as body positive because one of Ramona’s friends is described as round and not apologetic about it, and Ramona’s height is not a huge part of the book–it just is. The best part is how Ramona realizes that she may not be entirely gay as she spends more time with Freddie.

Mrs. Everything was one of my favorite books of 2019. It’s fat-positive because one of the main characters, Bethie, is fat, she accepts it, and her body size has nothing to do with her eventual success in business and in love, although she did spend a lot of time dealing with shame because of trauma. Jen Weiner gets it.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon and American Street by Ibi Zoboi are not focused on fatness or body size, but they each describe fat characters in a very neutral or positive way. That’s progress. Both are haunting and beautifully written.

In an Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma, the main character’s love interest is a plump woman verging towards being fat, and she is much desired. The main character turns his life inside out for her. It’s a very unique story, as it’s told by the chi, or guardian spirit, of the main character, and is a modern twist on the Odyssey and Igbo cosmology. It’s well worth the time if you want to be immersed in a different world, as it’s set in Nigeria in the 2000’s.

In 2019, I read a couple of books by John Green and Hank Green: Turtles All the Way Down by John, and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank. While there are no explicitly described fat characters in either book, I respect the fact that I have never seen either of them rely on fatness as a stereotype for negative qualities. They’ve never focused on the way their characters look as some male authors do, and they’ve handled mental illness (John) and a bi/pansexual character (Hank) with grace. While I would prefer fat characters to be included more often (and not only when a scapegoat or miserable character is needed), I think authors who refrain from using fatness negatively should also be praised.

My 2019 in Books: Best Diversity Selections

. . . when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.

Quote from Esi Edugyan, from Washington Black

Reading authors who are not white is my small way of favoring those who have less privilege than I, by deliberately choosing who is worth observing (reading) and writing about. Here are a few books written by non-white authors from 2019 that I couldn’t put down.

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, takes place in “a North America that could have been.” Jamaica is a sovereign nation in the Caribbean. Albion seems to be the successor to the 13 colonies, and the Tejas Free Republic, the Five Civilized Tribes territory, and Canada are the governments that take up the rest of the land. Desmond, a former Jamaican spy, has become guardian to a young boy named Lij, and they are on the run. It’s a very well-done novella that is hard to characterize between fantasy/steampunk/alternative history/speculative fiction. Broaddus lives in Indianapolis; I will need to seek out more of his writing.

I loved The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, which I listened to as an audiobook. It’s set in northern Mexico in the late 1800s and told from multiple perspectives. The Morales family adopts a baby with a cleft palate who was found covered in bees, Simonopio, when their daughters were almost grown, then later had a biological son. The language is beautiful, and the story is told with humor and elements of magical realism, although the events can be heartbreaking. One quote: “It occurred to him that houses die when they are no longer fed with the energy of their owners.”

Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America, by Ayaz Virji. Virji is of Indian descent, raised in Florida, and became a practicing Muslim in high school. After training as a doctor all over the U.S., he settled in rural Minnesota with his family, taking a Medical Director position at a small-town hospital. After Trump was elected with more than 50% of the vote in his county, he realized he needed to educate his community, so he started doing talks at local schools. Some go well, and others don’t, but he is supported by many local friends. I didn’t like the fact that he focuses on bariatric surgery, which I think in the future will be viewed as barbaric as we currently consider footbinding. Overall, though, I thought it was a well-done memoir. A quote: “Women and children are being sold and enslaved, sold as spoils of war, forced into marriage and servitude, and we don’t want refugees? We want to stop them from coming here . . . they don’t have anything.  They’re mothers and children and babies. We don’t want them? Oh, no. We don’t want you here. Is that Jesus? Is that what this country wants to be?”

Washington Black by Esi Edugyen. This is the story of a young boy named Wash, a slave on a Caribbean plantation in the early 1800s. When the master’s brother comes to the island, Wash is assigned to him. The brother is a scientist and naturalist, and soon realizes Wash can draw. So Wash accompanies him and assists him with his experiments, documenting them and drawing the flora and fauna. Wash doesn’t have to work in the fields, though he is getting of the age the master wants him back. Through the most unlikely of events, they leave the island and travel to England, and then the Arctic. Wash settles in Canada but is always looking over his shoulder. It’s really well-done, although some of the events seem to be too coincidental. I can suspend disbelief in service of beautiful writing and historical detail.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. Wow. It’s the story of Tish and Fonnie, two black young adults in New York in the early 1960s. Fonnie, a sculptor, is wrongly accused of rape, and Tish, pregnant with his baby, tries to get him out of prison. If you haven’t read any of James Baldwin’s fiction, do yourself a favor and start.  A couple of quotes: “People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes is a record of that collision.” Regarding men in prison: “These captive men are the hidden price for a hidden lie: the righteous must always be able to locate the damned.”

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Another wow–this time speculative historical fiction. Hiram is the biracial son of the plantation owner whose mother was sold when he was a small child. He was then tasked with protecting his older, white brother. One day, while riding in a carriage, they fall into the river. His brother drowns, but Hiram does not. The Underground Railroad finds him because they believe he has the power to conduct people from one place to another like he did for himself instead of drowning. He meets Moses (Harriet Tubman) who has that power, but he cannot seem to control it. So many quotes. “But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible.” And “it struck me that even here, in the free North, the luxuries of this world were built right on top of us.”

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray. There was a lot to like about this book. I loved the characters and the overall story of sisters, a family dealing with betrayal, prison, and the legacy of a parent’s too-soon death. I loved that one of the characters was a lesbian in a multicultural relationship, and it wasn’t about her coming out. But I disliked the focus on the same character’s eating disorder, and on another character’s larger size as being a problem. The fat teen was in crisis because her parents were in prison, but it was assumed throughout that her fatness was a result of the trauma, without actually stating it out loud. I would have loved for the author to have tackled both the eating disorder and everything else from a health at every size perspective.

The memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio was a good antidote to Care and Feeding. Mirna grew up a nerdy fat black girl in Brooklyn and was able to go to a private residential high school where she ran for field hockey and loved how running made her feel. Later, after having a child, she started running and exercising again, trying a half marathon, and then a full. Eventually she started running ultramarathons–100 kilometers, or 62 miles. She never becomes thin, and learns to love what her body can do. She started the blog Fat Girl Running and has been affiliated with Women’s Running magazine. I was thrilled to be able to pick up a book at my suburban library–by chance–by a fat black female runner. A quote: “Instead of being ashamed of doing what you do or being what you are, I ask two important questions: Why not celebrate it? Why not be proud of the fact that the body you are in can do great things?”

American Panda by Gloria Chao. This was a young adult/new adult coming-of-age-type story of Mei, a 17-year old college freshman at MIT, who is the daughter of Taiwanese parents, who is pre-med but also a germophobe, math-lover, and dancer. Her brother was disowned by the family because he fell in love with a woman who couldn’t have children–so could not produce a son. Her parents are still very involved in her life–they live in the same metro area–and they take her to dinner regularly and take her laundry home to do. But she meets Darren Takahashi, who is not Taiwanese, and she pulls and pushes him away because she can’t bear to disappoint her parents. She reconnects with her brother, and that’s the beginning of Mei becoming brave. I really loved it–Chao does an excellent job of conveying Mei’s torment at trying to live up to her family’s expectations but not just losing herself–never having had the courage to find herself.