I recently learned that the original lyrics to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" were "Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow," not "...hang a shining star upon the highest bough." I'd heard both, but I sort of thought they were different verses of the same version. Apparently the latter replaced the version in Meet Me in St. Louis, which I remember as a bittersweet, kind of weird movie.
Then I read this article and found out the first draft of the song was "Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last."
Muddling through suddenly seems appealing, and I did plenty of it this year. Things were not too shabby—vaccine, book contract, schools reopening, summer road trip, a hummingbird outside our window—until August, when the adoption roller coaster chugged anxiously uphill, then plummeted down, and at times I felt like I'd flown off the tracks entirely. I think AK felt I had too, and that wasn't easy on her.
But we've muddled through, to the point where I'm feeling cautiously excited about the future again (along with a bunch of other negative and positive emotions). This is all preamble to my annual round-up of books, movies, and TV shows that I loved, and which helped me process, escape, and survive 2021.
The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O'Rourke: This book is incredibly validating for anyone who's chased a diagnosis (and I haven't, knockonwood; my Big Sick was fortunately very straightforward), as well as beautifully written, describing the mindfuck of illness the way only a patient and poet can. It's rigorous and evenhanded about both the accomplishments and failures of Western and holistic medicine, and I think it should be required reading for anyone in medical or nursing school.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: Just a few pages in, I could tell this novel was clever and well-observed, nailing nuances of subculture and zeitgeist with linguistic flair. Sometimes, I felt like the characters talked in essays, but they're good essays, so I didn't really mind. Deeper in, I decided this was an Austen-style novel of manners for the trans community. Finally I decided, as I do about all my favorite books, that it's about everything: love, desire, identity, human frailty. But what I'm most grateful for is specific: the perfectly described longing for motherhood in a queer body that has been told it has no business wanting such things. I'm a cis queer woman who said goodbye to my boobs and ovaries for cancer reasons, and I felt SO much of what Reese feels in being excluded from this particular marker of womanhood. I often wondered if trans people felt like I did, and it was heartening to know that at least a few do.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke: Part memoir, part social science survey, part cultural criticism, this graphic nonfiction book is all too timely. Radtke examines the experience of loneliness from an array of angles, through a personal and unexpected lens. Reading it, I felt less lonely.
Crude by Pablo Farjado, Sophie Tardy-Joubert, and Damien Roudeau, translated by Hannah Chute: Chevron fucked over the Indigenous people of Amazonian Ecuador, to put it mildly. One impoverished Ecuadoran worked in the oil fields, witnessed the corporate crimes, and studied to become a lawyer so he could hold them accountable. Farjado's personal story is as inspiring as the oil company's is rage-inducing.
I've read Lavery's work in The Toast and followed his Dear Prudence columns and podcast. This book draws on both those styles, while also employing a more personal and vulnerable approach that I craved even more of. (Although, next time I hear someone talk about wanting to write a memoir but being afraid of over-disclosing, I'll point them to this book, which somehow goes deep without sharing much in the way of family background or life events beyond the one at the story's center.)
The last chapter is one of the most poignant, and feels like a bit of a cliffhanger for a future memoir (or maybe I just know too much from following Lavery and his wife Grace on Twitter), and I hope he writes it.
The Violence Almanac by Miah Jeffra: Without, IMO, ever glorifying violence or excusing those who commit it, Jeffra spends time in the minds of both perpetrators and victims. Of course, if you aren't deep in denial, you know that most perpetrators are victims in one way or another. When woundedness meets power—in the case of Mr. Huberty, a man who struggles to find work but stockpiles guns in "Eye Wall"—trouble usually lies ahead.
I was particularly moved by the opening story, "Babies," which imagines how Andrea Yates killed her children to save them from the void she felt: "A cutting away, releasing the doubt, to preserve what good they had left in them.... If she kept on to them, held them close in this world, her world, they would all fall into that gaping hole, the one of eternal torment."
But Jeffra also lets us see, in no uncertain terms, what it feels like to be Yates' terrified child. In these ways, the book is much more painful than the bloodiest movie, despite the fact that there's very little graphic violence.
In "Ain't No Thing," a man tries very hard to be unassailable his whole life. From his father, he learns how to take a beating. Women complain "I want you...to want something from me!" He tries to be even nicer. He tries to hold it together. He tries to follow the rules and bury his hatred for those who don't—specifically, some young men of color on a MUNI bus, carelessly disposing of their trash—because it would be too painful for him to learn what the young men may already know, that Goodness will not save him. It reads like a cautionary tale.
Jeffra's work is so gutsy and imaginative and searing. Somewhere in here is a manual for how to live in this world, and how not to.
The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg: This collection of connected short stories is compelling, masterful, and occasionally heartbreaking. In spare, confident prose, Goldberg writes about people who regularly smash skulls and chop off limbs, but he doesn't seem to take violence lightly. For me the most wrenching story was that of Tania, a cocktail waitress who spends her windfall to adopt a Russian 12-year-old who apparently runs away. As readers, we get a lot more closure than most of the characters ever do, which I suppose is the point of fiction.
Last Chance Texaco by Ricki Lee Jones: I only had a vague idea of who Jones was going in, but damn there are a lot of adventures in these pages. Some traumatic, some joyous, many a mix of both. And always music. She writes sentences with as much rhythm and style as her song lyrics, and the book is a sort of non-prescriptive master class in creating an artistic life.
Encanto: In addition to gorgeous animation and addictively good music, it depicts family constellations—how people function, interact, and suffer based on the roles they play in their family—in a way five-year-olds can understand. I mean, the particular five-year-old I saw it with was scared of Bruno's sand cave, and the 6-year-old wanted to play a game on my phone. But the nine- and forty-five-year-olds and I enjoyed it.
Reservation Dogs: I don't know very much about youth rez culture, but somehow I feel like this show captures it perfectly? That's how convincing it is in its depiction of a culture whose influences are a hybrid of traditional and contemporary, urban and rural, proud and frustrating. Each episode is like a short story. It's funny and sad and delightfully weird.
Maid: I watched the first episode and had to stop because the main character's life—shitty ex, wild mom, total lack of resources—felt too much like that of April*, the expectant mom who broke our hearts. My therapist even told me, unprovoked, not to watch it. Then, after April broke our hearts, I decided to watch it to remind myself I didn't envy her life. And it's just a really good, gripping series about how class functions in America, and how hard it is to dig yourself out of a bad spot.
Succession: They're everyone's favorite family to hate, and they're mine too. AK and I got a lot of mileage out of dissecting them. Gerri is my favorite. A cool cucumber model for my middle years (except I will try not to be evil, and I'd never fuck Roman).
Mare of Easttown: I mean, it's got mystery and texture and character development and thematic arcs about post-traumatic stress and Kate Winslet. Of course I loved it.
Zola: Sharp, funny, savvy story of sex work and varyingly reliable narrators, based on a twitter thread.
Sort Of: Sabi is a nonbinary Pakistani-Canadian nanny, who is clever and kind but struggles with direction. The dialogue is of the slightly-too-clever genre, but it works, and all the characters are funny and multifaceted.
RuPaul's Drag Race: I watched so many old episodes these past few months, in such a dark state, that AK started to resent Mama Ru, which distressed me more than it should have. And my coworker told me RuPaul allows fracking on his land, which is...probably bad. But there's something about seeing fierce queer artists pour their hearts out on stage and in the workroom that I find incredibly life-affirming. I am a late-to-the-game fan of Jinkx Monsoon, Yvie Oddly, Nina West, Sasha Velour, Peppermint, Monique Hart, and Monet X Change.