Books on a stack of newspapers

I started with the notion of trying to wade through the weeds of this past year and list the things that kept me in astonishment as a reader, writer, editor and citizen. The list of excellent journalism was pages long; we barely scratched the surface in our Storyboard posts. Several newsletters stood out for their daily gift of information and delight of voice. Captiviating podcasts and documentaries made the list, and even a few social media memes.

But as I did that ruthless cull that editing requires, what held was fiction. It’s been the bedrock of my reading since I first deciphered the alphabet, but now happily shares space on my shelves and in my head with nonfiction — once the newspapers are thumbed and scribbled on and cut out and stacked on the recycle pile. And yes, I read the digital version, too.

This year, my non-news reading was slow and scattered, distracted by all the distractions of 2020. Rather than add to those as I attempt to honor the seasons of peace, with a heavy list, I zeroed in on a very few books that have been a gift to me this past year. While they are fiction, each is built on events that are as current and relevant as the journalism we do. Indeed, each seems to lean, at least in part, on that journalism.

My favorite fiction reads this year:

Frankel is the mother of a transgender child. Her novel draws on that experience, but the family she creates has five children — all boys, until the last of them… well, you really should read the book. The family dynamics make you envious, but also make you remember the magic moments in your own. The dialog, external and internal, is Sorkin-snappy but unique to each character. What’s the cliché? I laughed. I cried. Yep, I did both. More important than that, I considered.

  • My vote for one of the big book awards for 2020: Apeirogon,” by Colum McCann

It’s already been longlisted for the Booker Prize, but I want to see it shortlisted or at the top of something significant. For that matter, several somethings. It is called a “hybrid”novel, merging reported true events and people with a fictional extrapolation. Two fathers — one Israeli, one Palestinian — both lose daughters to the conflict and become, begrudgingly and oddly and to no certain outcome, allies and then friends. The structure was, at first, a challenge. As I went on, it became a marvel. It is one of those rare books I hugged to my chest when I finished, and set aside to read again.

This leapt into my hands from the shelves of a fine independent bookstore up in the North Cascades, where I don’t unplug from the news of the world, but try to relax into a more intermittent version of it. Of course, smarter friends had already read and raved about this book.  I forgive them for not flagging me, because this was a fun discovery. Towles takes us to Moscow as the Bolsheviks, and then Communists, wrestled control from the Russian monarchs. A member of the former elite is placed in house arrest in a grand old Moscow hotel, and we spend the next 40 years there with him, in a world that seems small from the outside but is so large and rich within. Maybe it’s because I read it during the confines of COVID, but I was transported: We’ve all been confined, but have we found the depths of our limited spaces, or just waited it out? It also helped me understand Russian history and culture — pre and post Revolution — in ways I never had.

Over the years, I’ve read everything by both authors. As a reader, both awe. As a critical reader, there are variants in that appreciation, with some works rising above others. But both of these most recent books spoke of how remarkable both writers (thinkers) are, and how they keep elevating their craft. They were the kind of books that drew me to bed — my sacred nighttime reading space — earlier than usual. They also drew me into cultures — other worlds — in the way great fiction does, and great journalism can and should.

It is hard to describe this collection of essays, which are meditations and musings and meanderings of the spirit. The subhed does it best: “Notes on Wonder for the Spiritual and Nonspiritual Alike.” I grew up in the church — the large Catholic one that marked the center of our village life, but also a grounding in my mother’s small country Methodist chapel. Incense and ritual and high Mass in the former; a single organ (played by my grandmother) with ham sandwiches on warm buns (made by my grandmother) served afterwards. It was a challenging tug at times, but I grew grateful that, over time, it let me define my relationship with God — however you define it, him, her — my own way. Brian Doyle has become one of those ways. A lifelong searching Catholic, he was the creative editor of Portland Magazine, the alumni publication of the University of Portland, and wrote essays and books along the way. “Mink River” and “Plover” are among my favorites, and not like anything else I’ve ever read. “One Long River” was published posthumously — Doyle died in 2017 of a brain tumor, at age 60. What he’s left behind is its own note on wonder, and a wonderment of writing and attention to the life we’re granted.

Further Reading

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