Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Year End Reading Stats

(Note: The book listed as one page in length actually had no pagination.)

It's the last day of 2020 and that means it's time for reflection. It's also time for my favourite kind of pie -- pie charts! -- to see how well I did in my efforts to read diversely, and how this compares to previous years. 

44% of my reading was actually listening to audiobooks (166 of them).
Ebook reading was up from last year: 7% in 2020 vs 2.5% in 2019, strictly due to access.

31% were by queer authors in 2020, versus 29% in 2019

In 2020, 35% of my reading was written by people of colour and 5% by Indigenous authors,
which is about the same as in 2019.

26% of the books I read were either by men or various authors.
The rest (74%) were by women, trans and nonbinary authors.
My effort to read more women is working, because in 2019, 30% were written by men.

I read 35 books in translation and 2 in French this year, which is about 10% of the total.
Last year I did slightly better, with 46 books (12%) in translation or in French language.

At the start of 2020, for the first time I began keeping track of something else: my sources of reading material. And then COVID happened, which shifted my usual formats and usual sources to more digital library materials (rather than print, since the public libraries were closed for part of the pandemic) and more online purchases from my local bookshops. 

All of which in turn prompted me to look at the value that I get out of my library. I spent a little over $2,000 on books this year, which is quite a bit more than is usual for me. If I would have purchased ALL of the books I read, I would have spent more than 75 per cent of my annual pension, so I am deeply grateful to the Edmonton Public Library.

The totals for the skinny pie pieces are: 9 received as gifts; 
5 from the publisher; 5 loaned to me by friends from their personal collections.

Another thing that happened was being invited to participate in a Shadow Giller jury. 63 out of the 120 Canadian books that I read this year fall under that category. It was a memorable experience, and is probably the reason that my percentage of Canadian books jumped from 26% in 2019 to 32% of my total read in 2020.

Something new I discovered this year is that popular science is my comfort read. Never too old to learn new things... about myself and about the world.

30% of my reading was nonfiction in 2020, down somewhat from 2019 (38%).
I am guessing it's because Giller reading edged out some of the nonfiction this year.

One more thing that I like to do at the end of the year is to see how well I did in Book Riot's Read Harder challenge for this year, simply by chance, without having looked at the categories ahead of time. I will save those results for tomorrow's post.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

December 2020 Reading Round-Up

Of the 42 books I read in December, my favourites include: short story collections; novels for adults and for children; science nonfiction in audio format; history and memoir in comics format; and picture books. 

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

Two main storylines plus two minor ones entwine in a compelling novel about women across time who either succumb to, or survive, male violence. The unforgiving Scottish coastal setting matches the bleak, brutal theme. There‘s also a beauty, like sunshine on water, in the way these women are able to help each other to avoid the harmful actions of men.

“Mom says you‘re seeing someone?” says Katherine.
“Says you‘ve got that stoaty thing about you that you get.”
“You know. She said, like a… stoat in the snow—flicking about—like you might run up a trouser leg.”
“Fuck‘s sake.”
My sister smiles.

Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams

I adored this debut collection by Eley Williams, a lesbian author from Ireland. Her playful use of language delighted me from the start. I could sympathize with her introverted characters, struggling with how best to express ineffable feelings. There‘s a lively freshness to the prose that lifted my spirits, which is exactly what I needed right now.

I felt impervious and brave, wonderfully dunderheaded with love like the best of them and so many smiles started with you. I was idiot-beamy and bumble-gaited, could barely string a walk together let alone a sentence—I started waking up knowing that beneath the brickwork of my skin my heart had become built like a ziggurat. Our days were glossy and embossed.

I wondered whether beetles ever suffer from insomnia, or think beetle-thoughts about huge bodies of water with something like gratefulness.

...there are earphones trailing from this man‘s neck and they squeak with chords that have the obtuse delicacy of a dove retching —

I read in my research notes that Michelangelo once made a snowman. He sculpted it in a Florence courtyard for one of the Medici. Blank-faced and temporary, it must have melted into priceless gutters.

We Two Alone by Jack Wang

A poignant collection of lengthy short stories featuring characters who are part of the Chinese diaspora. The settings range from Vancouver to Shanghai to Vienna to South Africa to New York, from the 1920s to contemporary. I felt the emotional resonance in all of the stories, with my favourite being the novella that is also the title of the collection. This is a belated Shadow Giller read... but really, it's never too late to read a great Canadian book.

It was one of those nights when the window unit gurgled plangently, every inch of his body skimmed with sweat. For hours, he scudded along the surface of sleep. Then, near daybreak, he fell into that deep valley and couldn‘t pull himself out.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
Audiobook read by the author

“Mycelium is ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.”
This science audiobook kept me enraptured throughout. Lots of fascinating facts. Interconnection between all beings is a comforting concept to ponder as we quarantine or stay socially distant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A mycelial network is a map of a fungus‘s recent history and is a helpful reminder that all life-forms are in fact processes not things. The “you” of five years ago was made from different stuff than the “you” of today. Nature is an event that never stops. As William Bateson, who coined the word genetics, observed, “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing.”

Fungi make worlds. They also unmake them.

Some fungi have tens of thousands of mating types, approximately equivalent to our sexes (the record holder is the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune, which has more than twenty-three thousand mating types, each of which is sexually compatible with nearly every one of the others).

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

This hilarious novel about a woman going from one absurd temporary assignment to another has a charming energy. Whether she‘s filling in for a chairman of the board, an assassin‘s assistant or a barnacle, she tries to do her very best. “Steadiness” is her dream, which seems forever out of reach. Hilary Leichter‘s pointed commentary on capitalism is slipped in almost under the radar. Also, note how some of the excerpts below take on new significance in light of COVID.

“I propose a new kind of vote,” says an entirely insignificant shareholder, “in which we vote the way we think our grandmothers would‘ve voted, contrast this against the votes our unborn grandchildren might make, then, using a system of charts and graphs, concede to the hypotenuse of the two hypotheticals, in the name of our forbearers and our descendants.”

These days, all my boyfriends are long-distance. But then again, so is the length of an arm stretched between two people watching each other from afar.

“There are only a few kinds of jobs in the world,” says the captain, who is the type to pontificate & listicle on subjects varied & profound. “Jobs on land, jobs at sea, jobs in the sky, jobs of the mind, & working remotely.”
“You mean like working from home?” I ask.
“No,” the pirate captain says. “Working remotely is what we call being dead. Pirate lingo.”

The First Temporary studied the world. She noted the shortcomings of the gods, their tempers and their feuds. It was their bureaucracy that allowed for her existence. She noted the fallacy of permanence in a world where everything ends and desired that kind of permanence all the same.

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna

A deeply moving true account of an extended family‘s escape during the brutal time of the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia. Cartoonist Tian Veasna was born three days after the takeover, while his parents were on the move. It‘s a difficult read, yet ultimately a hopeful story of survival.

The ingenuity of this family! Forced to evacuate Phnom Penh at the start of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, the men dismantled their cars and made carts so they could cross rivers where bridges had been destroyed. Two in the image above are shirtless because they traded their clothing for lumber.

I Know You Rider by Leslie Stein

A memoir about a momentous time in the cartoonist‘s life, when she decided to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. She has lots of conversations with friends, family and strangers about their decisions to be parents—or not. I really like the way she portrays other aspects of her single life and how this provides context for us. Stein‘s watercolour artwork is whimsical and she has an unusual way of drawing faces without an outline.

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

An African American boy and his family come to terms with the dawning reality that his father not only will no longer play pro football because of repeated head injuries, but also that his memory loss, headaches, mood changes and other symptoms may be permanent. This tender verse novel is so moving that I had to take a break partway through in order to have a good cry. It‘s aimed at middle grade readers—and it‘s great for all ages.

When you love a thing, little man, my dad said,
you gotta love it with everything you got.
Till you can‘t even tell where that thing you love begins
and where you end.

“How come they can‘t just fix him?” I say again,
but softer this time.

All those times he got knocked down
and knocked out, my daddy kept getting up

but maybe some part of him
stayed on the ground.

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf
Audiobook read by Mirai Booth-Ong

A spooky middle grade fiction set in Malaysia. A lonely Muslim girl grows up with a hereditary demon-ghost as a best friend. Issue of bullying is handled well: the girl refuses to allow her ghost to retaliate against bullies because she doesn‘t want to be like them. When the girl gets a human friend, things don‘t go well with the jealous ghost. Malay syntax sounds great in audiobook

Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake

“I‘m your new roommate, Skunk!”
Then Skunk tilted his head. “Did you think I was a door-to-door sales skunk? That is funny. Ha!”
“Har-har!” Badger laughed politely, while inwardly everything lurched.

The next step up for emerging readers, this charming little chapter book has large print and wide leading. It also has a lot of challenging vocabulary, so it might work best as a read aloud before a child attempts the story solo. Moody illustrations by Jon Klassen.

In a spot of lamplight, Skunk sat curled in the green beanbag chair with an enormous book open on his lap.

Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar and Khoa Le

A just-right blend of poignant contemporary realism—an immigrant child newly arrived in NYC where she she‘s having trouble adjusting to life with her aunt and uncle—and the retelling of an ancient Persian parable, used by her aunt as a gentle teaching device. The gorgeous illustrations by Khoa Le are in rich blues, reds and golds, with lots of floral embellishment. A stunning picture book for kids age 5-9.

The Old Truck by Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey

Brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey created the retro look of this striking picture book by crafting over 250 individual stamps. The same shapes are cleverly used in different ways through the pages. The narrative of a black girl taking over her parents‘ farm when she grows up is beautifully portrayed, as are seasonal changes. For example, a wordless two-page winter scene marks the transition of the farm to the next generation. All ages.

The story opens with a wordless two-page spread that works as a prologue, since it is placed before the title page in this lovely picture book: a pregnant woman, a man building a barn, lumber in the back of a pick-up. I like to see book design that incorporates story elements outside of the usual placement.

Subtle symmetry in the images are part of the visual appeal. In this spread, the planets dangling from the ceiling, the globe on a stand in the opposite corner, the girl‘s round face and the goldfish bowl in between, plus the real moon outside … a crescent moon like the crescents that form the girl‘s features… the art is so well done. In addition, we see books and get the idea that perhaps this child is interested in science.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Audiobook read by Fred Sanders

I‘ve been meaning to read this for a long while and finally tackled the 22-hour audiobook. It‘s approachable science with a broad scope, from cancer‘s first recorded history, to research into the causes and cures, to the author‘s own clinical experience with the disease as a doctor. It‘s fascinating and I learned a lot. Also, I felt closer to my loved ones who live with and have died of cancer.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Best Books of 2020

My favourite book of 2020 is one that I read as part of the Shadow Giller project: Noopiming by Leanne Betamosake Simpson. A link to my review is here. I tend to place myself within characters when I read, and I guess that in this time of stay-at-home-to-control-the-spread-of-Covid, I could really identify with the narrator, a frozen lake. Go figure. I also found comfort in the worldview of the novel, that of the interconnectedness of all beings.

Other Canadian novels are also standouts, including the Giller winner, How to Pronounce Knife (Souvankham Thammavongsa) and Giller shortlisted Polar Vortex (Shani Mootoo), and one that hasn't received the attention it deserves: The Subtweet (Vivek Shraya) -- all three of which I reviewed in May and spoke about with Jenny on her Reading Envy podcast episode 196.

Two more Canadian novels from 2020 that I hope more people will read are: Misconduct of the Heart (Cordelia Strube) and Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Maria Reva). The title links will take you to my reviews.

The Black Lives Matter movement prompted me to read some outstanding nonfiction that has given me a greater understanding of underlying issues. The best of these are:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson); Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine); Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You (Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi); and The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power (Desmond Cole). The last two were both reviewed in my June round-up.

It's a three-way tie for best poetry of 2020: Fleche (Mary Jean Chan); An American Sunrise (Joy Harjo) and Dearly (Margaret Atwood).

Best graphic novel is easy: Clyde Fans (Seth).
Best comics format nonfiction is a tie: Good Talk (Mira Jacob) and Dancing After TEN (Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber).

Two picture books tie for best. One is from Australia, first published in 2018: Tales from the Inner City (Shaun Tan) and the other one from Canada, 
I Will See You Again created by Lisa Boivin, a Dene artist and bioethicist from Deninu K'ue First Nation in the NWT. If you are an adult who doesn't read picture books, you are missing out! It's great to share picture books with children but you can also enjoy them perfectly well on your own.

Best Queer Audiobook: Shuggie Bain (Douglas Stuart) read by Angus King.
Best Audiobook Nonfiction-that-reads-like-fiction: In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado) and Little Weirds (Jenny Slate) both of which are read by their authors (reviews are here).
Best Memoir Audiobook: The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer and Care (Anne Boyer) read by Amy Finegan. (My review is here along with a bunch of other great audiobook recommendations.)