2020 The List and the Lesson

Hoochie mamma, what a year 2020 has been. So many unimagined events, so much atrocious behavior, stress beyond belief. Like slime from a dark lagoon, the sludge not only clung to us individually, but to our communities, our states, our nation, and the whole world.

For many hunkered down at home, entertaining cat videos and streamed movies provided a brief distraction.  For me, the greatest escape lay within the words and worlds of fiction. And since I have the luxury of an entire bookcase dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, I counted myself lucky this year.  Here is my list of the most memorable:

FAVORITE NEW (to me) AUTHOR SHORT STORY: I’m not a big fan of short stories, but this year I dedicated myself to catching up on my backlog of unread collections. I read a ton of short stories, most of which were previous ‘Year’s Best’ or award nomination collections. Many of these came to me as courtesy copies, some I bought because I follow the genre.  And while I know this author personally, I had not previously read her work until I found it in the 2014 Nebula Awards Showcase. Kat Rambo’s brilliant award-winner, Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain, is an unforgettably moving story that works on so many levels for me. It is both completely alien and at the same time a parable of the human experience.  The world-building is unique and presented in a way that seduces the reader into buying into the cultural taboos, goals, and hopes of the main character, her world and culture. Hands down, this is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

FAVORITE NEW-TO-ME AUTHOR: I am always seeking out book or author recommendations at classes and conventions.  Who better to ask for book recomendations than another author? In this case, the new-to-me author is Larry Watson, and the novel is Montana 1948. This is not a science fiction or fantasy setting, but a gritty out-of-time world, where cultural attitudes were in a different place than they are today, but then again, perhaps not. This year of 2020 has forced us to face the the ugly racist underbelly of America. With an author voice that is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry, yet completely unique. Wonderful characters and an impossible situation. I will be reading more of Larry Watson’s work.

FAVORITE CLASSIC: Every year, I make it a point to read a few classics–this year was no exception, and I happened to have an excellent stack to dig into. I read two Ursula LeGuin novels this year (I think I’ve read most of them now): The Lathe of Heaven, which was brilliant, and my favorite of the two, The Word for World is Forest, which is my absolute favorite of all her books. Although I did not pick these stories for their subject matter, I cannot help but note all three previous entries have at their core a seed of racism, cultural bigotry, and injustice. Maybe it’s the year 2020 that made these tales resonate for me so strongly. I think it’s a combination of the author’s skill with characterization, world-building and the emotional depth of the tale, topped off with a resonant (and in this case, just) ending.

FAVORITE READ BY FAVORITE AUTHOR:  Choosing a single work this year from such a plethora of great reads by my favorite authors is a good problem to have.  Thing is, my tastes are pretty eclectic.  I mean, how can you compare Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels (a boy, a carnival, and fortune telling) to Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun (an airline pilot & cannibals) to the American Sherlock Holmes?  I’m speaking of the amazing Robert McCammon Matthew Corbett series.  I read the first three volumes (roughly 900 pages EACH), back-to-back.  Great titles: Speaks the NightbirdQueen of Bedlam, and Mr. Slaughter; great setting (the British American colonies), and oh-so-devious plotting and diabolical characters. Some categorize McCammon’s work as horror; I wallowed in it. A wonderful, engrossing series–each one better than the last.  You can be sure I’ll be spending my tax refund on more of that series.

THE LESSON: Even within a pandemic year there are blessing to be found: Read good books. You don’t need to limit yourself to a specific genre.  There are good books in every genre.

PS: Regrettably, I didn’t see Thor Ragnarok when it was in the theaters. But watching it at home this year, I couldn’t help but think the Led Zeppelin’s 1970 The Immigrant Song is the BEST theme song ever.  Beats the Jaws theme by a landslide.

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