2020 in review

Charles Yu's novel "Interior Chinatown" in front of Christmas treeMore than most years, 2020 has been hard to pin down. It seemed like several small epochs fit into the space of 12 months, as if 2020 were a kind of magical bag with limitless capacity, sort of like the sack Hermione has in one of the late Harry Potters, where she produces shelter, a radio, possibly cookware??? (if memory serves) from a small bag when the trio are on the run.

At the start I was still commuting to Redwood City and spending hours in the car listening to Civil War audiobooks. January and February I made my way through Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction, then The Second Founding, then W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, pulling out of my driveway before 6 am and starting the day with another chapter of armed intimidation, violence, murder, double dealing, and struggle. I would annoy friends and family by sagely opining that everything we were going through was connected to the Civil War, everything in our society reflected a power structure designed around racial disenfranchisement – by violent means if it came to that. Months later came the summer, George Floyd, and reckoning. I felt both glad I’d made this paltry foundation of a reading list and ashamed at how much further I had to go.

Lunar new year and the virus – that was the first holy shit moment, reading about all the travel within China that was going to vector this thing everywhere. In conference rooms at work we remarked how it was surely much worse than the Chinese authorities were telling us. I was sure, with so much air travel across the Pacific, the Bay Area would be hard hit, a scene out Contagion. I’d gotten into the habit of calling my parents on my drive home, once I had made the merge from 101 onto 92 East, often a cluster that could take 40 minutes to complete, plenty of time to sit in traffic and catch up. I remember calling my mom and telling her it wouldn’t be long before it emerged in California. It will look apocalyptic, but we’ll be ok. We’re taking it seriously. Don’t go to church. Don’t go anywhere.

I still went places. My last indoor restaurant meal was in early March, it felt risky and foolish. That night I went to the ballet and sat in a theater, aware of every cough and breath around me. By my daughter’s birthday in mid March we were in lockdown and I worried about being able to get a cake.

Then it was Tiger King, one package of toilet paper per customer, Zoom. Nine months of blur punctuated by an election.

Everything turned out not so bad but also a lot worse. We’ve been working from home. My son had a virtual graduation and then started college a virtual freshman. My daughter’s been thriving in online school, but she’s like that – driven, and a pandemic won’t stop her. We’ve got tons of masks. We see friends on walks or outside on our deck. But more than 300,000 deaths? Full ICUs and refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies? WTAF. I was never particularly rah rah USA, but I never thought I’d see America totally humiliated on something we were set up to lead. Brought low by ignorance, sectarianism, and cynical self-interest. Everything goes back to the Civil War…

Writing

Slow. Pointless. A joke. Having learned enough about publishing now, I realize how quixotic it is to still pursue novel writing at this point in life. I look benignly on the shiny new debut novelists and wish them well in their journey through capitalism.

That said, I’m still diligently writing a novel of crime, memory, ghosts, my favorite Northern California coastal spots, oysters, redwoods, murder, teenage lust and betrayal. An “anti-romance” I think I described it to a friend. I’m pretty into it. Hopefully in 2021 I’ll start getting it out for beta readers and see if anyone else is into it too.

Listening

Maybe because I did less time in the car this year I feel like I listened to less new music. Some highlights:

  • Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
  • Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, though it took me a few listens
  • Four Tet, especially “Baby”
  • Flo Milli – lol, Ho, why is you here? (the attitude more than anything, which is kind of how I felt about Rico Nasty – need to give a few more listens, though I’m sold on “OHFR”)
  • Noname, indispensable
  • Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Alfredo (nice album cover…)
  • I grieved for Pop Smoke, play “Dior” and think about the career he should have had
  • Burna Boy, ready for him to be huge
  • Tons of BROCKHAMPTON earlier in the year
  • Oddly taken with “Cue Synthesizer” by Destroyer
  • Taylor Swift, maybe I should stop underestimating her
  • Roisin Murphy (I played “Incapable” A LOT)

I listened to a lot more oldies than I normally do. I’m working my way through a great playlist Matthew Perpetua created for the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums 2020 Edition. There’s worse things than listening to Rush, “Tom Sawyer” again.

Reading

What did I even read this year? I have no idea. But I remember:

  • Alexander Chee on writer’s block in Medium
  • Have One on Me, Rumaan Alam in Esquire
  • Luster by Raven Leilani – the hype is real
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – kept thinking he’d fall off the highwire in this, but nope, stuck the landing
  • Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, can’t wait to see what he does next
  • Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
  • Jean-Patrick Manchette, discovering his wild “atrocity exhibition” type of marxist noir
  • Ross Macdonald, The Zebra Striped Hearse
  • Presidio by Randy Kennedy
  • Detective by Day series by Kellye Garrett

Watching

At the beginning of the lockdown, I watched a lot of this – incalculably soothing, ultra-British bridge instructional, “Join Us for Bridge with Shaw Taylor.” So good I may start watching it again, it’s the ultimate sleep aide, brain gym, portal into an alternate universe.

And I couldn’t have made it through the year without:

  • The Last Dance – an absolute gift
  • Call My Agent (Paris!)
  • The NBA finals
  • The Queen’s Gambit
  • Nathan Apodaca’s “Dreams” TikTok
  • And of course, Watchmen

I think the last movie we saw in theaters may have been Cats…?? That should have been a clue right there we were in for rough times.

Happy 2021 all. May the new year bring us more justice, more peace, more fun, and vaccines!

2017 in review

*Sweeps away the cobwebs, checks if the lights still work around here.* I used to do an annual “year in review” post. But maybe all I need to say about 2017 is that I still have my 2016 in review post sitting in my drafts folder and never got around to finishing it. Yeah, 2017. Shitstorm. Completely hijacked by feelings of “why bother?” and “who cares about the thoughts and miniscule endeavors of one middle-aged lady fiction writer when the entire world is falling apart?”

I spent a lot of last year feeling weepy and doomed, then realizing it mattered very little what I felt and the thing to do was just roll up one’s sleeves. Yet when I write I always sink back into the bog of my feelings. So I’ve had very little interest in blogging or tweeting or posting of any kind. Still—at the risk of revolting self-absorption—I’m going to try to chronicle something of the passing year.

Writing:
I’m still working on “The Shadow Clock,” the novel I thought would be done by now. What a quaint little hope of mine. I’m not sure what to say about this except I am doggedly putting one foot in front of the other. With any luck, it will see publication in 2019. I bemoan my slow progress, but really my pace is my pace. When I stop whining about stuff outside of my control, I realize I actually like this book a lot and think it will be fun. I’m stretching, I’m learning! But boy will I celebrate when it’s done.

Reading:
My reading was a bit different in 2017. I subscribed to the Economist and tried to read that cover to cover each week (not always successfully). I started a new job with a couple days a week of very long commute. So now for the first time I’m listening to audiobooks. The first one I tried was a complete winner: Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling,” read by the author and amazing in every way.

Listening:
Spotify continues to be an essential crutch getting me through my day. Just a few things I enjoyed:

Migos, Culture
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN
Tyler the Creator, Flower Boy
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest
Bjork, Utopia

Of course I also listened obsessively to Future, “Mask Off.” Sigh. Future.

Viewing:
I know I saw other movies, but at the moment, I feel like I only saw one and it was Lady Bird, and it was so amazing! If I had to see only one movie in a year, I’d be totally content with Lady Bird.

Except I forgot Get Out! Geez. In my personal Oscars it’s like a tie between those two.

Life:
Aside from the excremental political scene, the emboldened resurgence of odious ideologies, new nightmares in gun violence … well, life continues. I lost my admirable and kind father-in-law in November and witnessed the rallying decency of small-town Iowa when we traveled back for the service. Was able to spend the month of July working remotely from Tucson where I saw my parents every day, sank with gratitude into the cozy “Father John Mysteries” on PBS, and took my daughter to swimming lessons at the heavenly UofA pool. My son went off to the Canadian wilderness for a month, learning how to classify rapids and find the best downed limbs for firewood. Grant published “Pep Talks for Writers” and retreated for a time to the glories of Aspen. I celebrated my 50th by going to the Mokule’ia Writers Conference and having a delicious week in Hawaii by myself.

Looked at a certain way, it was actually a stellar year.

A happy, peaceful, and productive 2018 to all!