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thirteen books that wowed me in 2021

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Vita Nostra

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945

California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940

Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World

The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Some obvious common themes from 2020: Californian and indigenous history and strong landscape writing, digging deeper into both the land itself (Entangled Life, Finding the Mother Tree, Believers) and the past (Fifth Sun, The White Possessive, California Through Native Eyes.) Entangled Life and Finding the Mother Tree are both wonderful books that richly deserved to be referenced by Coach Beard in Ted Lasso (I squealed) but Believers introduced me to the indelible Finisia Medrano and thereby snuck in the win. I wish I’d met her.

Meanwhile my jonesing for history got loose and I dug into being on the wrong side of World War Two, being a woman in ancient Rome, and domesticating horses. A Chill in the Air and Hiroshima Diary were perversely comforting, in this year of democracy slipping away. They are proof that a person can live on the wrong side of history and still be a thinking, feeling, ethical being. I needed that reassurance. I described A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as I, Claudius if it had been written by Tamsyn Muir, and now I would like for all of history to be rewritten by profane queer feminists, please and thank.

This was the year I finally, viscerally understood what Becky Chambers is trying to do; something about stepping outside the imperialism of the monomyth and finding a more networked, interconnected, forest-like approach to narrative. I loved A Psalm for the Wild-Built so much that I went back and reread everything of hers, only actually, you know, getting it this time. Slow learner. Oh well.

I also reread The Dark Is Rising, The Doomsday Book (huge pandemic kick in the pants. Huge) and my beloved The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which last was an INCREDIBLE gateway drug to Vita Nostra, speaking of stepping outside the imperialist narrative, a masterpiece and a surprise standout of the year. So good I made Jeremy read it. You should too.

eleven books i appreciated this year

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Miracle Country

Real Life: A Novel

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District

Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

As is abundantly clear, I was craving books about Californian and Indigenous history, as well as strong landscape writing. Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams hit both nerves hard. It’s an unjustly neglected masterpiece.

I read more fiction and poetry than this list would suggest, but Brandon Taylor and Chen Chen were the absolute standouts. They’re also both fantastic on Twitter, which probably helps them stick in my mind.

I read 142 books, give or take, which is pretty normal. I might’ve expected more in a quarantine year, but I started a new job and house and garden and got two new horses and it’s a golden age for television, so. 92 books by women, 37 by identifiably queer folk, 5 of whom were trans, 30 by POC. It’s hard to read enough books by trans and POC writers, but I should try harder.

I read two separate books of nonfiction called Horse Crazy, which is probably all anyone needs to know about me.

adventure time: dances with horfs

Took Lenny the mustang to a little horse show.

What a very excellent boy.

midnight in chernobyl, by adam higginbotham

Intense gamma fields of 100 roentgen an hour and above—on the threshold for inducing acute radiation syndrome—caused such extensive ionization of the air that it left a distinctive aroma, like that after a lightning storm; if you smell ozone, his colleague said, run.

where reasons end, by yiyun li

…if we’re willing, we can pick out any number of statements from any number of books and find them comforting.

the life to come, by michelle de kretser

The Pacific chuckled softly: it was insane, twinkling away in a violent blue dream.

from “truman springs”

They played a podcast about a gay clockmaker in the deep South, as depressing as it was fascinating. The moral seemed to be: throw yourself into your work as much as you want, become the very best in the world at what you do, it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, you’ll still die alone.

Erica slumped in the back of Stephanie’s RAV4 and drank in the scenery. It was a cold, bright spring day. Snow lingered in the high Sierras, even as Hope Valley spread out a brilliant blanket of wildflowers. Past Markleeville, the redwoods gave way to the high desert and Bodie, the ghost town, lonely and severe. Then a twist of the highway revealed the pastel pink and blue moonscape of Mono Lake, its tufa towers menacing as alien monoliths.

rogue protocol, by martha wells

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.

the cooking gene, by michael twitty

The American plantation wasn’t the quaint village community you saw depicted in your history textbook. It was a labor camp system for exiled prisoners of war and victims of kidnapping.

the age of the horse, by susannah forrest

For the wild horse, these ruthless new hunters would be both an ark and an accelerant to their extinction.

the mister, a love story

Last month marked twenty years since I hooked up with himself and I meant to write about it, but the longer I am with him the harder it gets to write about us. Honestly, it feels like tempting fate; like every smug newspaper columnist and relationship coach in America who gives insufferable lectures on How To Keep The Spark Alive and you loathe them so much you just assume that their significant other is planning to elope with their dance instructor and you hope the two of them will be happy.

This morning, flying home from Seattle and listening to Panic! at the Disco’s “Casual Affair” approximately one billion times while reading a particularly devastating chapter of the epic Steve/Bucky love story, I realized one reason why it feels so risky to write about it: it was staggeringly dumb luck on my part. Obviously I was cute as a button at 25 but I was also, in Grant’s memorable phrase, an emotional basket case. And he was being diplomatic as hell when he said it.

Stupid, infinitely improbable dumb luck. Really. What were the chances that anyone would want to take me on, all of me, me and my intensity and my endless garbage-pile of trauma? What were the chances that a person would not only be able to cope with all of that, would sign up for my total lack of self-knowledge or emotional intelligence, but would be able follow me as I ran, as I zig-zagged across the Anglosphere, as I fucked up and bottomed out and rebuilt everything every few years? Would sit with me in the middle of the giant messes I made and coax me to laugh?

I know everyone thinks their boo is the one in a zillion but I also know, I know in my bones, how broken I was and how hard I made things for myself and everyone around me. And to wake up here in middle age with him, with the universe of shared jokes and shorthand so enormous that it makes Claire furious that she will never learn all the stories, never know all the references, with the still-unbelievable truth that however difficult it has been, however difficult I have been and still am, he still wants me, he still misses me when I’m away… eh. Words fail me. I hope he and his tennis coach will be very happy together.

alice and thimble shelved themselves in alphabetical order

the tragedy of the macarons

Opinions are divided over who left the five remaining Laduree macarons in our beautiful little apartment on Rue de Seine. Certain people have held the contentious position that I am principally at fault; I, contrariwise, maintain that the responsibility for commonly held macarons is itself collective, and that everyone ought to have done their part.

However the disaster came about, the fact remains that the macarons were left behind, and the Pole Sud macarons purchased in Lezignan, while undeniably delicious, were considered no substitute for the real thing.

We caught the TGV back to Paris yesterday and there was some talk of ducking out for replacement macarons, until we established that there were Laduree outposts at CDG itself. As we checked in this morning, our gate agent told us there was one such outpost just inside security. Jeremy dashed all our spirits when he reported that Google said it was closed.

Fie upon you, Google! It wasn’t, and almost our last act in Paris was to replace the Earl Grey, menthe, vanille, abricot and yuzu ginger macarons that had been so tragically lost. Since this story has such a happy ending, technically it is now the comedy of the macarons. Goodbye, Paris, we love you and hope to see you again soon.

horse heaven, by jane smiley

from my kindle notes

“I sounded ignorant and shallow, a twerp with no experience of life.”

– Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation

“Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.”

– Donald Hall, Without: Poems

“I consider my father and mother the best part of myself, sir.”

– George Eliot, Middlemarch

home from oz farm

We saw: mule deer, a jackrabbit, red-shouldered blackbirds, a scrub jay, turkey vultures, a kestrel, harbor seals, great blue herons, snakes, frogs, toads.

I read: Motherland, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, Telegraph Avenue.

showing jackson

We neither won nor placed. But Jackson was delighted to be at the show with the fancy horses, and we didn’t disgrace ourselves or the barn, at all. (Two clear rounds, one with one rail down and one elimination.)

For the first time I understand how horse showing can fit into horsemanship, into the kind of rider I am trying to be. The round is a snapshot of where the two of you are at that moment in time, what you can do, what you struggle with. It yields information you can take home and work on.

If the horse is the hardware and the rider the software, the show is the test.

she cracks me up

Salome and Tym

Took home the high points ribbon :)

the standards you walk past are the standards you accept

I like to think that my grandfather was this kind of soldier.

As Jeremy points out, it’s a good basis for a more general code of conduct. Have some moral courage.

pretty much the best picture i will ever take

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