Roof Beam Reader’s 2020 Year in Review

Welcome to My Reading Year in Review!

This year sucked in most ways, let’s be real. But one area of my life that was decidedly un-sucky was my reading. I had a goal of reading only a dozen or so books, because I knew how busy my schedule was going to be this year. Then, wouldn’t you know it, a pandemic struck and reading became not just more possible, but so very, very necessary. So, here’s what happened in my year of reading:

  • Most memorable character of 2020? Felipe from Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins (thoughts coming in February!)
  • Most beautifully written book read in 2020? Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski   
  • Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2020? How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2020 to finally read? The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  • Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read in 2020?
    • “I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds. It was a spectacle meant to be witnessed by the world, and all of its death and violence was and continues to be a form of social control, the way that kings of the past needed to behead only one petty thief in the public square to quell thousands more.” –From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo 
  • Shortest & Longest Book You Read in 2020?
    • Shortest: Burnings by Ocean Vuong (40 pages)
    • Longest: Dune by Frank Herbert (892 pages)
  • Book that Shocked You the Most? The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!):
  • Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship of the Year? Felipe and Caio from Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins
  • Favorite Book You Read in 2020 From An Author You’ve Read Previously? Closer to Nowhere by Ellen Hopkins and Bye-Bye Blue Creek by Andrew Smith
  • Best Book You Read in 2020 that You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else? Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Best 2020 debut you read? The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (thoughts coming in January!)
  • Best World-building/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year? From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
  • Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was the Most FUN To Read? The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2020? Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • Hidden Gem Of the Year? The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen or Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins
  • Book That Crushed Your Soul? An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  • Most Unique Book You Read in 2020? The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • Book That Made You the Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)? A Promised Land by Barack Obama (thoughts coming in March!)
  • New favorite book blog you discovered in 2020? Oops, I did it again. Forgot to explore!
  • Favorite review that you wrote in 2020?
  • Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?
  • Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?
  • Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2020?
  • Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?
  • Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?
  • Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?
  • Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?
  • One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2020 but Will Be Your Priority in 2021?
    • The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty
  • Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2021 (non-debut)?
    • Later by Stephen King
  • 2021 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?
    • The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. and Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih
  • Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2021?
    • None that I know of.
  • One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2021?
    • I would like to keep up the pace of posting one or two reviews per week, which I began in Sept/Oct.
  • A 2021 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone:
    • None. I’m out of the loop!

Thoughts: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In Of Love and Other Demons, Marquez, or the narrator at least, seems generally critical of faith and religion. It is interesting that the most faithful (or faith-filled?) character in the novel is the atheist doctor. Late in the novel, when Delaura asks Abernuncio why the doctor is so kind to him, particularly given how critical the church is of atheists and of learned men (Abernuncio having a library of “forbidden” texts), the doctor responds, “because we atheists cannot live without clerics” (121). The retort might come across as flippant, except that Abernuncio soon explains that he cannot articulate his own beliefs and that his primary concern is for his patients, and whatever it is that they need in order to heal and be well. For his part, that’s treating them with science and medicine. But he also seems to understand that many of his patients require faith of some kind, too.

Perhaps Marquez is suggesting that faith and religion are characterized by the beholder. They are useful tools, but they are also damning ones. Faith and religion can be oppressive, even violent, as we see in this story’s treatment of characters who do not share the Christian faith; but they can also be forces that drive characters toward positive change, as might be the case for the Marquis, who couldn’t quite give up his faith, though he tried. A writing professor once told us, “themes usually grow out of the material in an organic manner.” That couldn’t be more true of how the thematic conversation over faith, religion, and science/medicine are treated in Marquez’s narrative. Each of the main characters begins and ends in a different place as regarding their original stance on faith, with the exception of the the Bishop, whose inability to change is, I think, repudiated by the way the narrator describes the Bishop’s performance during the exorcism. It is he who comes across as devilish. 

If there is a battle between good and evil in Of Love and Other Demons, it might be organized Christian religion versus native/pagan religions. Sierva Maria seems to be the central character around which everyone else revolves. We learn most about the characters in the story, and their goodness or lack thereof, by how they treat Sierva Maria. For example, her father the Marquis, for all his faults, does what he needs to do in order to get her help. In this way, despite his lack of agency and weakness of character, he can be seen as heroic. So, too, Cayetano Delarua, who is the character who changes the most over the course of the story. His relationship with Sierva Maria causes him to question the Bishop, if not his own faith. He still repents when he thinks he has done wrong, but he doesn’t take the Bishop’s commands on instinct anymore. Bernarda, who does have a soft moment late in the narrative during her reunion with the Marquis nevertheless seems to end her life unchanged. We see this when Delaura comes to their home for help and she rebuffs him almost on impulse. Despite gaining some insight and understanding into her late in the story, which does create some empathy, she is ultimately unredeemed. Last is the Abbess, who is committed to viewing Sierva Maria as a demon and to treating her that way. Contrast this with the other inmate, who cares for Sierva as the child she is, and we find a clear distinction between the goodness of the common person and the drive toward inhumanity by those who represent the larger “Church.” The good, then, seems to be the simple human who is capable of changing based on exposure to new information; the evil, then, is religious dogma and those who adhere to it, who refuse to reassess a situation that they’ve already prejudged.

I am not sure the book is making a final judgement about the quest for love or what it will absolutely do; instead, I think it suggests that each of these–transformation, annihilation, insanity–is a possibility. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the act of love is a catalyst for change. That change could be positive, negative, or neutral. It might depend on the motivations behind these acts. For example, the Bishop and the Abbess would call their actions “loving,” because in Christian terms, and in viewing Sierva as the do, they believe they are loving her by expelling her (non-existent) demons and saving her soul from damnation. Abernuncio’s actions as a doctor and his willingness to trust Delaura and invite him into his home, thereby exposing himself to severe punishment because of the illicit library he keeps, is another act of love, as are his attempts to care for his community. Can we judge the loving actions of these diverse perspectives the same way? None of these characters is transformed by their acts of love, but Delaura is. Delaura is perhaps the only one who changes in any significant way, and it is by exposure to acts of love from all sides, the religious, the pagan, the lover/protected, the citizen father. When he is reciting poetry with Sierva Maria, he says, “I reach my end, for artless I surrendered to one who is my undoing and my end” (126). He does not lament this surrender, though he does call it artless. I think it’s significant that the “undoing” and the “end” referred to here are not just his turning away from the Bishop and the Church, but ultimately his literal end, and Sierva’s too. Death is a kind of annihilation, but it’s important to note that his transformation happened first. He died being the kind of man, the loving person, that was otherwise absent from Sierva Maria’s life, except for the Black servants who cared for her as a child and taught her their ways, when no one else would teach her at all. 

This one is a hefty little novel, tackling religion, science, slavery, power, atheism, race, and class. 

Thoughts: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Here’s a little horror novel that was nothing like what I expected. It is at the same time a contemporary psychological thriller with horror elements and a treatise on some of what I think are foundational, critical elements of Native American ideology. At its heart are themes of fear and retribution, and the deep connection between man and nature. Native American writer Tommy Orange remarked that The Only Good Indians was “more than [he] could have asked for in a novel,” and I couldn’t agree more; this is not just a novel, it is philosophy-as-raw-nerve. 

I first heard of this one from young adult writer Andrew Smith, who raved about it early in the summer, back when the book was first released. He also recently cited it as one of his favorite reads of 2020. I read a lot of what Smith recommends because he’s one of my favorite writers, so it makes sense that I can trust his recommendations. Like Andrew, I was caught off guard by this one. At first, I was disappointed that it didn’t read like a traditional American horror novel, a la King, Koontz, etc. I think what The Only Good Indians does so well, though, is that it carves into the genre from a unique perspective and with unheard stories to deliver. It is similar to another horror novel released to wide acclaim this year, Mexican Gothic (my review of which will be available soon) in that the heart of its tale is not horror for horror’s sake, but the specific horror manifested by a particular culture, time, and place. These are stories that couldn’t be told by anyone else and, if they were, they’d lose the importance and the charm they carry across so effectively. 

The story itself revolves around a group of friends who commit an atrocity against nature and tradition. Years later, on the anniversary of this terror, they suddenly find themselves prey to an unnatural and insurmountable force that has come to seek retribution for what was done. Some of the friends are eliminated quite quickly, while others are teased and toyed with, and then eliminated. There’s a deep discomfort in the way they are hunted that is metaphorically indicative of the terror that human hunters bring to their own prey. I thought Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was the best rendered version of this tale imaginable, with the likes of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale coming in close, but Stephen Graham Jones really turns this theme on its head. Never have I felt truly vulnerable as a human being, the way animals must feel when we come for them, and their children. 

I will admit that I found the structure of the story a bit underwhelming. The parts develop into more and more complexity, with additional characters added into each of the friends’ storyline, and then in the final section, the original happenings, those that were the impetus for the friends’ downfalls, is recounted. I couldn’t help but find myself wishing for a more linear and balanced segmentation; but that said, the ingenuity, the raw emotion, and the cultural significance of this one are impossible to ignore. For fans of horror, Native American folklore, ecoterrorism and conservation, or any combination of those. 

Thoughts on Dune by Frank Herbert

In my life, I think I have only read a couple dozen science-fiction novels. I look back at my science-fiction categories here on the blog and notice that, in retrospect, I’m not sure I’d even still label some of them as sci-fi at all! So, let’s say I can count my experience with this genre on my two little hands. What made me pick up the likes of Dune, then, you ask? What a great question!
The truth is: Timothée Chalamet.

Look, I’m a little obsessed with him. He’s a stellar actor who picks amazing projects. Lady Bird. Beautiful Boy. Little Women. The King. And of course, Call Me By Your Name. I won’t hide my heart-filled eyes or deny that the reason I finally picked up Herbert’s Dune, after allowing it to sit for decades on my TBR shelf, is because the film was supposed to release this winter, and Chalamet is cast as the hero, Paul Atreides–the Muad’Dib. After seeing the first trailer, I rushed to my bookshelf and got to work, and what a great decision!

For anyone as woefully out of the loop as I was, Frank Herbert’s Dune is considered to be one of the canonical works of the science-fiction genre, if not its bible. In many ways, it reminds me of what Lord of the Rings did for the fantasy genre. Herbert creates an entire world, well, multiple worlds, with its own languages, cultures, geographies, politics, histories, and all the rest. While it does not go into as much detail or description as the Tolkien books do (who could!?), it nevertheless successfully immerses its readers in an entirely different and yet relatable story, a kind of alternate and futuristic timeline that has as its ancient roots the planet earth and Christianity.

It is great fun to see how these evolved earthlings plus other humanoid species are imagined singularly and in cooperation with one another. The classic palace intrigues, the intricate politics, the subtle espionage. Nothing that one would expect from the study of a race and time, a history of a people, is missing. It just so happens that this history is from the future. A boy foretold, much like Jesus Christ, is born and comes of age on a dry and desolate planet. That boy, Paul, becomes the political leader Muad’Dib and the spiritual force Kwisatz Haderach. He is the one who will bring order to the system, who will end a corrupt reign and liberate a people.

If the pure fun of the tale isn’t enough, Dune is also littered sublimely with philosophical wisdom on the self, the environment, and the spirit.

“Fear is the mind killer,” Herbert writes, and he couldn’t be more right. The film has sadly been postponed, but I can’t wait to see it.

2021 Themed Reading: World Religions

As you might know, every year I try to read a substantial number of works from within a particular genre, category, or what have you. This year, for example, I focused a lot of my attention on Southeast Asian literature and on poetry (often a combination of those two). Next year, I will be focusing on world religions. I have chosen 6 texts in particular that I plan to explore, and I would love to invite you all to join me in a read-along for one or more, or all, of them, as your interest and schedule dictate. 

The books:

  1. JANUARY: TAO TE CHING: This Chinese text is known as “the original book of mindfulness.” What better way to begin a new year than to focus on being mindful and present? The Tao Te Ching dates back to the 6th-Century BC and is purportedly written by a sage named Laozi, though this is debated. The oldest dated portion, however, does indeed date back as far as the 4th century BC. The Tao is one of the fundamental texts of Taoism, which is both a religious and philosophical practice that focuses on “The Way,” or the essential process of the universe (and our individual place in it.) Taoism influenced Legalism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, so it seems an added bonus to start here, since the second text of the year will be a collection of Buddhist Scriptures. I will be reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation, New English Version, published by Harper Perennial. ISBN: 9780061142666.
  2. FEBRUARY-APRIL: BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES: Buddhism has no central text comparable to the Bible or Koran; however, there is a body of scripture from across Asia that encompasses the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings range from original works in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Pali, and more. Often, they describe elements of the Buddha’s supposed origin story or of his past lives, including explorations on the qualities or qualifications of the bodhisattva, or person who attains enlightenment, including, for example Buddhist monks. Enlightenment itself is also a subject of the scriptures. The edition I’ve chosen is the Penguin Classics, edited by Donald S. Lopez. It covers all these topics through historical and geographical lenses. ISBN: 9780140447583.
  3. MAY: THE HOLY VEDAS: According to Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar, “The four Vedas contain the divine, infallible knowledge revealed to those primal men whose soul was specially illuminated to by the grace of god to receive and impart humanity the words of almighty god.” The Vedas of Hinduism are the sacred heritage of India. In this book an attempt has been made to bring together representative hymns which encompass all the aspects enshrined in the Vedas. The author has tried to retain the spirit of the original Sanskrit mantras in English renderings and to impart some of the holy ambience of these sacred texts which are the fountainhead of Hindu philosophy and culture.” I am using the illustrated, versified edition from Clarion books, which I recognize is not directly translated and which, apparently, intermixes the four Vedas for the benefit of western audiences. It seems a good place to start. ISBN: 9788193935590.
  4. JUNE-AUGUST: THE TALMUD: One of the most significant religious texts in the world, The Talmud is a compilation of the teachings of major Jewish scholars from the classic period of rabbinic Judaism. In a range of styles, including commentary, parables, proverbs, and anecdotes, it provides guidance on all aspects of everyday life. The edition I have chosen is another from Penguin Classics (because I trust them.) According to the description, this is a selection of the Talmud’s most illuminating passages. It is intended to make centuries of Jewish thought accessible to modern (western) readers. Particularly helpful, I think, will be the introduction that includes information about The Talmud’s arrangement, social and historical background, reception, and authors. ISBN: 9780141441788.
  5. SEPTEMBER: RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS: What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is the starting point for de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. The quest begins with the premise that supernatural claims of religion are false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world. Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. The major topics range from building a sense of community without a church, to the spirituality of travel, to finding purpose in art, architecture, and music. The edition I’m using is published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780307476821.
  6. OCTOBER-DECEMBER: THE QUR’AN: The final text of the year will be the foundational text of Islam and the one most important to the Muslim world, The Qur’an. I’ve chosen the Oxford World’s Classics latest edition, translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, as it comes with high recommendations for its accuracy and ease of reading. In this edition, for example, dialogue addressed to the Prophet is identified to aid western readers, paragraphing and punctuation have been included, and verses are marked for reference but in superscript, which allows for uninterrupted reading. This edition’s introduction also provides a history of the Qur’an, including its important features, to aid understanding. ISBN: 9780199535958.

As you can see, three texts are scheduled in single-months, while the other three are scheduled over three months. This is because, upon examination (and in simple page length), three of them are rather short and seem to require much less time, while the other three are longer and more complex. I wanted to be sure to give myself (and anyone joining me) enough time to spend with those more complicated texts. I’ll likely be doing some secondary source reading as well, to help me understand what I’m reading, just as I’ve done when reading the Christian bible, for example. 

I’m very much looking forward to reading these important voices across disparate religions and non-religions alike. I’m going to do my best to treat each text fairly and delicately, and to avoid any offense as I communicate my thoughts about them. That said, I should also explain that I’ll be reading these texts as literature and philosophy rather than taking any religious perspective on/from them.

As to the reading itself, I have no plan, yet, to compare and contrast them, but instead think I’ll take each of them at a time and see what happens as I go along. Who knows, by mid-year I might start synthesizing as my reading, and the ideas borne of it, progresses. 

Care to join me?