Who wants a miracle?
Well, I can’t get you one. Sorry. Ordinarily, it’s hard enough for me to provide miracles, and this is 2020 — a year in which even daily mail delivery seems miraculous. (Apparently, my mailman has determined that “neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow” actually means, “I’ll come with your mail only if I happen to feel like dropping off your billion catalogs.”) I haven’t put makeup on in months and I rarely wear pants with a zipper — so, yeah. A miracle seems like a reach.
But for Hanukkah, I’m going to do the next best thing. I’m going to give you eight recommendations of the best books I’ve read this past year. I love to read under normal circumstances, but I have to say that this year, I find reading to be all the more essential. It’s the basically the only escape I have from the daily fear of someone I love getting sick, the stresses of online schooling, and the general roller coaster of political and personal chaos we’re all strapped into for this year.
Books are a miracle because they allow you to go somewhere else and see new things and people for a while. They bring us closer to our fellow humans in a completely compliant-with-social-distancing way. Hanukkah, of course, is the season of miracles, where we celebrate lights fighting against a sea of darkness. So, here are a few little miracles on the page. May these reads be momentary escape hatches for you from this delightfully shitty pandemic life, and I hope they shed a little light into this year’s darkness.
1. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb
I loved this book so much that I could barely stand it. Kalb takes on the task of writing the women in her family in their own voices — and while I never met her grandmother, I feel like I did after reading, laughing, and sobbing my way through this book. Kalb is also a hilarious person who I liked even more after getting to chat with her on our Call Your Mother podcast, and she regularly does snarky Instagram Stories envisioning scenarios in which Ivanka Trump tries to make a comeback into New York society. A winner all around.
2. Sea Wife by Amity Gaige
This book is exquisite, painful, and I never wanted it to end. This novel is about a family at literal and metaphorical sea: Two parents and two children who decide to take some time and sail tropical seas. Just like us, the family in the story thirsts for a change of pace and scenery (relatable!). But the problems the parents bring with them prove too hard to jettison. It’s pitch-perfect for the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves. I highly recommend this one as one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years.
3. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
I never understood “fan fiction” — until now. This book is an imagined memoir of Hillary Rodham in a parallel universe, in which she doesn’t marry that guy, Bill Clinton. It’s super smart, deeply felt, and an absolute joy to read. I loved contemplating this alternate universe in which a brilliant woman wasn’t kneecapped by her own heart. However, it may leave a small hole in your heart at the end, depending on your politics.
4. If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane
This one is such a fun British rom-com, with intelligent writing and a smart, funny, and sexy protagonista. I love sappy romance as much as the next person, but this one has actual characters who seem real — both in their flaws and strengths — making the whole story more pleasurable as a result. Plus, who doesn’t have a Bridget Jones-ish itch needing to be scratched? If we ever go to a beach again, this would be the one you’d take with you. In the meantime, pour yourself a frosty drink, slip on your sunglasses, turn on your seasonal-affective-disorder light panel and enjoy.
5. Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous
This is the story behind a phenomenon I didn’t even know existed until I read this book: A real pseudonymous Twitter account, created by a reclusive unknown writer, whose pretend persona has garnered her devotees all over the world, including Lyle Lovett. The book describes the origin of the persona and her evolution, and what she has come to signify both for her creator and her ardent fans. It’s so well written and so much fun, an implicit contemplation of the worlds we create on social media and an explicit story of the connections we all crave.
6. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
A friend recommended this to me to take my mind off a particularly bothersome emotional problem. That’s how I can personally testify that this book help you ignore your real life and become totally submerged in the life — or the many lives — of the protagonist, Nora Seed. Nora is depressed and decides she wants to end her life. But then finds that, before death, she is sent to a Midnight Library where she is offered the option to live out many of the other ways her life could have gone if she had made different choices. Highly enjoyable.
7. Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life by Christie Tate
This is a memoir of a lawyer who lays out her entire life — her fears, her eating disorder, her sexual confusion, and her insecurities — to a therapist, a group of strangers, lovers, and to us, the readers. She’s a funny and unreliable narrator (aren’t we all?) taking us through the rocky road of tearing herself down and building herself back up. I, for one, found it refreshing to be completely immersed in someone else’s life — I mean, I have my own problems, but didn’t mind taking a break from them to get a front row seat for someone else’s.
8. Members Only by Sameer Pandya
This excellent novel is what would happen if the classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst wasn’t a picture book about a disgruntled kid but, instead, a novel about an educated yet overthinking yet impulsive adult in 2020. Oh… and if rather than being upset about gum in his hair and not getting dessert in his lunch, the protagonist was concerned about privilege, race relations, love, and identity. The novel starts when the Indian-American college professor antihero makes a grossly racist joke at the expense of an aspiring African American member for his mostly-all-white tennis club, and things rapidly go downhill from there. It’s fiercely compelling and can’t be put down until it’s done. Read it and have fun ignoring your family!
Header image via Amazon; HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Random House, Penguin Random House, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin Random House, HMH books (left to right)