By Walker Thornton
2020 was a banner year for me, bookwise. I read 86 books. The biggest and in some ways, most challenging, was listening to the whole of Middlemarch, by George Eliot. And discovering that I had severe coronary artery disease and would have to have open heart surgery.
I was well on my way to overshooting my goal of 50 anyway, but as I began healing and recovering, I gave myself permission to read what I wanted, to abandon books that didn’t suit me. To read 3 or 4 books at once if I wanted. I read a wider variety than ever before I think.
Fifty-three were written by women, fourteen by people of color, or not-white authors; two Asian writers, two Indian authors, several by a Turkish author, Elif Shafak and six by black writers.
We all have different tastes, and whether we’re reading romance or classics, we’re still engaging our brains. I found lots of “ought to” lists and I tried occasionally. I abandoned more than a few.
I discovered that I don’t really enjoy Elana Ferrante. Her newest, The Lying Lives of Adults didn’t grab me, it was a struggle to keep reading. I’m intrigued by books that reimagine old storylines, particularly ones driven by male characters.
Years back I read about the witch from The Wizard of Oz, and Ahab’s wife, In 2020 I read The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker, a story of the Illiad, as told by female slaves. It tied into my earlier reading of Circe, by Madeline Miller in 2019. What a delight to read about women who formerly stood in the shadows.
I particularly loved The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd, a story of Ana, wife of Jesus. At a time when most women didn’t know how to write and were forbidden to do so, Ana is determined to preserve the stories of women, even at the risk of her freedom. Kidd is reminding us that women have always been strong and fierce—too often ignored and silenced by male voices.
Naamah, by Sarah Blake also takes a well-known story—this time of Noah—and flips the narrative—letting us imagine the flood through Naamah’s eyes. Blake portrays Noah’s wife as a competent woman, head strong and full of sexual desire. The book is at times sad, and painfully emotional, as one might expect from this story of devastation and rebirth.
In my mid 60s, I want to read about women; I want to see stories told through the eyes and sensibilities of female authors. I want to read of women who step out of bounds, who stride through life independent of wife and mother labels. I’ve grown a little tired of men and male-centered books.
Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld, imagines Hilary without Bill Clinton. In this case I wish I’d read rather than listened to the book as the reader’s voice, void of intonation or liveliness, made it hard to feel drawn to the narrator. It was a clever story and satisfying.
While Rodham wasn’t suited for audio, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet was a delight to listen to. Hamnet is the story of William Shakespeare’s wife Agnes and their children, the family he left behind to pursue his work.
O’Farrell portrays Agnes as an unusual woman, a healer, who is eyed with suspicion by her in-laws and the community. It is also a story about the plague and loss, about love and trust.
It was a year for mysteries—a counterpart to weightier books and the tedium of the news. I love Alan Bradley’s series about a precocious 11-year-old girl with a love of chemistry—poisons, to be exact. Flavia de Luce is an amateur detective, delightfully narrated by Jayne Entwistle.
We hear about life in post-WWI England, through the eyes and voice of Flavia, as she observes and meddles in the lives of those around her in this quaint country community. There’s always a murder and Flavia is always right in the middle of things. She’s a perfect heroine/detective—sharp as a tack, funny, intrepid, a feminist before her time.
There were classics: Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul, and Middlemarch, by George Eliot. There are few, if any, non-fiction books in the list and too few books by American people of color. I read to be soothed, to be lulled into sleep by a nice story and to escape politics. I also read memoirs by women—again my craving for women’s voices.
I have ambitious plans for 2021— 3 book groups, and a goal of 60 books. I’ll read Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Elie Weisel’s Night, and hopefully, Proust’s Swann’s Way. And I’m contemplating Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.
If you want to see more of what I read, you’ll find me at Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/walkert
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Walker Thornton has a Masters in Educational Psychology. She’s been a bus driver, a caterer, the executive director of sexual assault crisis centers, and a caregiver. Her life experiences and work in the field of violence against women have allowed her to support and work with women in times of crisis and transition.