End of Year Staff Picks
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
"There has always been singing in dark times—and wonder is needed now more than ever."
- From The Lost Spells, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
We've nearly made it to the end of 2020, and while the year was a tumultuous and strange one, it nevertheless brought many a wonderful book into the world. I've heard many people complain of not being able to concentrate at all throughout the pandemic, and others say they've never read more in their lives! Whatever your habits have been, I hope you've found a gem to savor.
At the Camden Public Library, our staff is surrounded by books, DVDs, audiobooks, magazines, puzzles.... so with ample options at our fingertips, we bring you some of our favorites from this year: a collection of novels, children's book, movies, audiobooks, history books, cookbooks, and more. For every headline that makes our stomachs lurch, there are shelves and shelves of books to remind us that there are infinite worlds to relish in and enjoy... to linger in just a moment longer before we pull on our masks and head out into the world. Have fun exploring what we've been reading and watching. We'd love to hear about your favorites from 2020, too!
Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines and Marah Stets
I wish this cookbook had been available when my kids were younger. Features the classic recipes that we all want to learn to make such as buttermilk pancakes, guacamole, an assortment of quiches and wonderful soups, to chicken pot pie, fish tacos, and raspberry chipotle pork tenderloin. Simple, delicious meals that both you and your kids will want to eat. A real winner!
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
This is one to savor for a while.
What It’s Like to be a Bird by David Sibley
Best bird book ever! Beautiful, bold, painted illustrations accompanied by a simple, clear,
and informative presentation of the characteristics and behaviors of birds. One that a grandparent could share with a grandchild.
Black Wings Beating, Alex London
The twins live in the 6 villages and birds of prey are important to their survival. One is reckless and beaten down but hopeful. The other wants out and hides gifts she's hated all her life. Their community is full of corruption and chance but they are called upon as the threat of war descends. High fantasy. Loved the characters and the twists, all in the name of love and family bonds. Anxious for the sequel.
One Time, Sharon Creech
I was gifted an ARC of this beautiful book by Sharon. It was an incredible tale about Gina, Antonio and Mrs. Lightstone (their teacher) & their classmates. Antonio appears mysteriously next door but has an infectious smile that is hard not to smile back at. This is a story filled with imagination and a teacher who magically turns a jaded & skeptical class into writers! Mrs. Lightstone's question, "who are you?" sparks a year of discovery, creativity and exploration of themselves, imagination, and the written word. Wow! As I read this, I couldn't wait to discover the next word on the board! Oh, to be inspired by such a teacher!
JoJo Rabbit (movie) — incredibly, it is a very sweet story about a 10-year-old Nazi wannabe in the final collapse of Berlin in WWII.
Benedict Arnold's Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle for Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution by Maine author James L. Nelson. Nelson has written fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction, so he has the talent to put history together in a fashion that is as gripping as a novel. The first half of the book is Arnold's story leading to the Lake Champlain battle, including an in-depth look at Arnold's famous and incredibly arduous March to Quebec through the wilderness of Maine. I am especially enjoying the book because it ties in with a couple of trips I made this fall, to Saratoga Battlefield National Park in New York, and to the Great Carrying Place portage between the Kennebec River and Lake Flagstaff.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder (nonfiction) While I read this book shortly before the pandemic, I think it's a great read for such turbulent times, as it is an amazing testament to human resilience and creativity (by way of alternative living). Bruder, a journalist, follows the stories of a collection of people struggling to survive in contemporary America and 'making it work' by choosing to live a nomadic lifestyle.
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (nonfiction) This may be a tedious read for anyone without a strong interest in Russia, and while the subject is exclusively the Soviet Union/Russia, Gessen's portrait of Russia's totalitarianism is so poignant it's hard not to draw comparisons to other regimes in the current political sphere. Gessen provides an amazing amount of context, weaving together political history and government ideology starting in the 80s all the way to present day, while also zooming into the lives of a few prominent activists, academics, etc. and telling the story through their eyes.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (fiction) The storytelling in this novel is absolutely beautiful––truly amazing how it captures such intimate insights into such a wide cast of characters that spans multiple generations and two continents. It begins with two sisters born in Ghana in the late 1700s and then follows their two family lines after they are separated in childhood, one girl being sold into slavery and bound for America while the other remains in Ghana.
"The Eddy" (TV series)
I waited for this show to come out for over a year, and I wasn't at all disappointed! Its unconventional style, with each episode focusing on a different character, left the plot a little more disjointed than some series I'm used to, but it's also what I appreciated about it. The story is set in modern-day Paris and follows the stories of a failing jazz club owner as well as the various musicians in his band. I loved the richness of the multicultural cast, many of whom were real musicians, and the incredible way each episode incorporated original music into the story.
I would recommend the movie called This Beautiful Fantastic (2016), currently available to watch for free with a Camden Public Library card on Kanopy: https://www.kanopy.com/product/beautiful-fantastic. This British romantic dramedy is absolutely lovely and a delight to watch. Well made, well acted, quirky, and as several critics put it, "sweet without being saccharin." If you enjoyed the film Amélie (2001), this is right up the same alley.
When I listened to Classics of American Literature, an audiobook in the Great Courses series, I discovered something really special. It not only provided me with entertainment, but supplied material that required active listening and active thinking — and in so doing, delivered me an experience like no other.
First, I had to set up a mode for getting the most out of spending so much time with a set of sound discs (42 discs, split into seven containers). I made the choice to listen to it almost daily in my car. I knew making that kind of commitment would eventually take me to the places I wanted to go. Although listening in short bursts, I occasionally had time to enjoy several chapters at once.
I was transported. It was as if Arnold Weinstein had invited me to a long table, and each lecture was a separate dish. So, I began taking part in a long and thoughtful tasting party.
I quietly listened and tested each plate as it was singularly lifted up for me to try...Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman; and Harriet Beecher Stowe…. I was pulled into the unfamiliar times of old with themes that were often so large and timeless that they remain relevant today.
Weinstein, an American literary scholar and professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University, slowly untangled the larger themes and often highlighted things about the authors’ lives and their times. With Weinstein’s selections, each one seemed to announce the next...Henry James, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams; and Toni Morrison….
Weinstein frequently focused on two or more major works and his insights were filled with flavor. He offered biographies, poems, short stories, and novels (his author choices are not all mentioned here). He read parts of works, but this was more about giving context to themes.
I can only say that I loved this measured experiential taste test of American classics. It lasted me about 150 days total.
And now I invite you to consider coming to the table.
Say what you will about 2020: it was a year of anticipated literary delights for me! New novels from Marilynne Robinson, Eve Chase, and Alice Hoffman, new middle grade books from Anna James and Sharon Creech, memoirs about natural history and reading Jane Austen, beautiful picture books like Nina Laden and Kelsey Garrity Riley's You Are A Beautiful Beginning, debut novels like Jessica Andrews' Saltwater, Molly Aitken's The Island Child, and Meredith Hall's Beneficence. The single book that most enchanted me, however, was Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris's follow up to their large scale work of art and language, The Lost Words. The Lost Spells is itty bitty by comparison but no less breathtaking. The book pairs poems or "spells" written by Macfarlane with Morris's watercolor illustrations in an attempt to retrieve and celebrate the vocabulary and phenomena of the natural world for children (and adults) before these words and knowledge become irrevocably lost. The poems range from rhythmic and whimsical to more lyrically descriptive. "Always with the comeback, / coal-black crackerjack, / joker of the haystack" .... "Beech gives wind speech" .... " "but the birches stand like churches / as the dark around them surges." It's easy to devour the book in one sitting but equally as easy to pore over it for hours, to learn, to experience awe, to sing. "There has always been singing in dark times—and wonder is needed now more than ever," reads the brief introduction. "So let these spells ring far and wide; speak their words and seek their art, let the wild world into your eyes, your voice, your heart." What a gift in a challenging year.
Happy reading in 2021!