It’s been a while. I wish I could say I stopped posting because life was sunshine and rainbows and no intense uphill climbs or downhill falls, that none of my worries came to pass and that I’ve been so busy smiling that I didn’t have time to write.
Sadly, not the case.
I stopped posting because, for a while, it was just too difficult to put things into words. The past year has been hard. It’s been so, so hard. But this is the time of year when I’m supposed to be thankful. And while there is so much— so much— that I am grateful for, including life-bettering friends and life-changing experiences and life-altering shifts in perspective, I think that I’m going to pause and be thankful for something else, too.
When things get difficult, I tend to pick up books and bury myself between the pages. I’m a lot like most bookish introverts that way— I’d rather lose myself in another world for a little while, preferably one more difficult and dangerous than mine, which makes all my problems seem so small. Or maybe one lighter and fluffier, which provides comfort the same way hot cocoa and a fleece blanket or a sunny day might do. I’ve always been like that— books have been my friends as much as people have been, over the years. But lately, my tastes in stories have been changing a bit. Maybe it’s just that I’m not seventeen anymore, but I think mostly it’s that the world around me doesn’t look at all like it did when I was seventeen. I used to seek out anything with words that could make me feel something, even if it was a shitty YA romance or a dry history book about a subject I didn’t care about. I used to read classics for the sake of reading classics. Somehow they all held my interest.
Now… I don’t know that I meant to grow more discerning. I think some of it just seems frivolous. Pointless. Empty. Not all of it, of course, and I still lean pretty hard on some stories I first came across three or four years ago. But I’ve noticed that I tend to seek out stories of a different sort now. I look for female protagonists. People who fight for justice in a world that won’t provide it. Stories about a vision for what the world should be, and how to fight those who would see all that is beautiful in it destroyed. I seek out stories about women who fight the odds. I find books that seem to wrap up everything in a nice little bow, and then show exactly how much chaos and destruction seethe underneath, ready to reappear as soon as the bow starts coming untied. I still appreciate a good love story— I do— but it seems I’ve lost patience for the stories with low stakes. I used to find them comforting, now I mostly find them unrealistic.
The trends in my reading habits match up with some trends in publishing, too. I was talking to my mom about that a few weeks ago. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale or Red Rising or the His Dark Materials series were all written in an era when the worst hadn’t happened yet. Now, we not only have something to fear, but we have a painful approximate knowledge of what the realization of our fears will look like. My mom’s the one who pointed out that if The Handmaid’s Tale is “this is what could happen, and you should fear it,” then Testaments is “the worst has already happened, here is how you fight it.” Red Rising was an adventure, a lark, something that played too easily with violence and brutality, because we were unfamiliar with it as a society. Iron Gold, but perhaps more so Dark Age, tells the stories of what happens when none of the neat, clean endings or peaceful possibilities work out. The bloody, gritty writing is less shocking, and possibly even less rampant, because there is so much more awareness written between the lines. (I could make the same comment for the recent follow-up novel for The Darkest Minds, but more on that later). As for His Dark Materials, the original three books might have been controversial, but they were always far more of a children’s adventure story that was comfortable with moral gray zones and mature philosophical ramblings than they were an outright political commentary. The follow-up trilogy, The Book of Dust, is far more explicit in its commentary regarding the insidious nature of power-hungry, paranoid, blind politics— and the scope of the world, in which all of the natural laws are turned on their heads and all of the characters must struggle with doing terrible things, hoping that the ends will eventually justify the means for their chosen side. Protagonists and antagonists blur.
My point is that the current age of literature reflects the current age in which we live.
I am not the only person I know who has had a rough year. In fact, mine was downright easy in comparison to what I know others are dealing with.
The world is changing, I am growing far more familiar with tragedy than I would like, and hopelessness seems to abound. I’d like to say that it’s because I’m twenty years old and leaving the world of childhood behind and this is just maturity and the real world kicking in— and I’m sure that is partially the case— but I am all to aware that the world didn’t look like this ten years ago. And I’ve known that the world was turning uglier day by day since before I turned eighteen. So no, I don’t think it’s just “growing up.”
But I didn’t start writing this post to talk about politics and pain and barely-suppressed rage. Instead, I want to talk about gratitude.
As with much in my life, I have survived this year in part due to books. Not just books, but the role models I’ve found within their pages. And if I’m going to issue gratitude for anything, then it may as well be for them— the media I’ve been consuming (books, plays, television, movies, music), and the powerful women who have inspired me to keep going. So without further ado, here are the stories and a number of women who have gotten me through 2019.
(I should note that I did not include rereads or rewatches. There are other stories that have given me strength for many years, but these are specific to my here and my now).
Lyra Silvertongue, The Book of Dust. I read The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass years ago, when I was probably too young for them. I adored all three books. They were complex, the world was detailed, and the protagonist was interesting but imperfect. I didn’t pay much attention to the politics until I was in the process of reading the follow-up series, which not only explores that world further, but mutilates it, rips it apart, and leaves the characters to pick up the pieces. And frankly, part of what I love about this series is that these characters are all allowed to be imperfect, and deeply so. No one is allowed to be entirely certain that what they are doing is the Right Thing. Lyra in particular has grown from the initial series, and while she’s stronger in some ways, she’s also far, far less surefooted and as a result has lost much of her grounding, and it hurts her. She’s not unbreakable; in fact, she’s a little bit broken. But unlike when she was a child, the fight she engages in becomes wholly her choice. For me, the discovery of La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth came at the perfect time. I desperately needed a dialogue on what happens when good shrinks and evil becomes organized, and the importance of seeking wonder and imagination regardless— and I got one.
Annalise Keating, How to Get Away with Murder. I almost didn’t put her on this list. The show itself is a bit gruesome and not terribly realistic, but it is Annalise’s story that remains utterly compelling. Mostly, the scene in front of the Supreme Court, in which she demands a better world. That, and the amount of determination, courage, and grit that she possesses. Like most of my favorite characters, she is deeply flawed, and it’s what makes her human— which makes it okay if I am human, too. She is flawed and ambitious and unapologetic, and I needed her desperately.
Sara Bareilles, Amidst the Chaos. This album has gotten me through this year like nothing else. It’s all about beauty in tragedy, determination to go forwards, and staying true to oneself despite all the heartbreak. More than that, it’s about not forgetting the good memories of the past, even as the present rages on. This album has been a touchstone for me, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s gotten me through some nights when I just wanted to cry and punch things until I fell asleep.
Kat, The Starless Sea. No, I’m not just putting this on the list because I really love Erin Morgenstern and I was unbelievably excited for the release of this book. It’s Kat, specifically. She’s a reader, but more than that she’s a creator. She’s loyal. She’s a good friend in every way that counts, but more than that, she is the embodiment of what it means to really love a good story enough to keep it going past its end. I’ve struggled with writer’s block more this year than ever before in my life— I’ve had so much difficulty articulating how I feel about the world. I needed a Kat, and I got her in book form, and it was enough to bring the inspiration back.
Zu, The Darkest Legacy. I did not expect this book to hit me as hard as it did. At all. I read The Darkest Minds, the whole trilogy, in high school— I vividly remember bringing Never Fade with me on a college tour and reading it in my hotel bed. At the time, the books were fun, and not a whole lot more. It was a story about kids with superpowers, adults who don’t trust them, bad things happen but the good guys win. The Darkest Legacy sums up exactly what I mean when I say that the neat pretty bows that get tied up are anything but neat, because of everything still lurking underneath. Policy changes or one single victory do not fix the rot in the woodwork, and there will always be another battle to fight. I have never associated political commentary or a sense of true, realistic urgency with a YA book, let alone something that I read and discarded in high school. But this… It made me afraid, full of knowledge of exactly how much horror this world is capable of dealing out. But more than that, it made me the kind of angry that makes me want to start a revolution. I needed that urgency, and I needed proof that other people were angry and afraid, too.
Sabrina Mahfouz, A History of Water in the Middle East. This play was one of the stranger theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Among other things, it made me think— about women’s stories around the world, about international policy, about colonialism, about how I do or do not fit into any of the different machinations around the world. Mostly it made me think about identity, and about strength, and what that means. I needed something to open my sense of the world I live in— not some fantasy or some strange world in which everything bad has already happened, but this world, where it is still happening, and we have a chance to stop and think and fix it.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, justice of the United States Supreme Court. Not a fictional character. Just a strong, powerful individual. She is survivor. She has been through so, so much. And yet she remains fair, composed, proud. At a time when I as a Jewish woman feel unsafe in America, she is a lifeline.
Elizabeth Warren, democratic candidate for President. Also not fictional. Just a woman brave enough to stand up and decide that she deserves something, because she has done the work and she knows what she is about. She has her own #metoo story and refuses to be cowed. In a time when I have been struggling to feel anything but hopeless and helpless in terms of representation in politics, Elizabeth Warren has been, if nothing else, a reason to care.
Captain Marvel. I’m not going to go into this, actually— I wrote a whole post about it not long ago. I’ll link it here.
The Good Place. I am not going to pretend that I haven’t leaned on this show like a lifeline on bad days. This, and Brooklyn 99. Because yes, I have needed reminders of goodness— simple, important, goodness. Friendships are important, frequently life changing. Things don’t stay bad forever. There isn’t always an “answer.” There is always, always a reason to keep trying. People change over time. As my mom likes to say (and if it isn’t clear by now, my mom is on that list of amazing women for whom I am unendingly thankful)— in the en, everything will be okay. If it isn’t okay, it’s not the end.
Hadestown. This musical might deserve its own post, eventually. It’s… I’m not sure I have the words for why it has been so important to me, of late. I think it comes down to the recurring line that “it’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.” This show is about life, even in death. It’s about love, even when it’s doomed. And it’s about telling the story, so that we don’t forget. It’s about difficult journeys, and the lengths that two people can go to for one another. It’s an unflinching look at corruption and pain and suffering, seen through the lens of capitalism. It’s unexpectedly dark and undeniably beautiful and it is the perfect reminder of what hope can do in the face of stagnant oppression. Again, something I have desperately needed of late.
These are not, of course, the only stories I have absorbed this year or the only women I have admired. But right now, with less than two months left in 2019, these are the works and the people that I am so thankful to have discovered or learned more about, that have kept me afloat in this harsh and ever-shifting world. If I have been reading more war stories of late, then it is because I am drawing strength from their pages in order to go fight the battles of my own reality.
This year has not been easy. This world, right now, is not easy. But these stories, these women, these bits of truth in a world that likes to cloud it out; they have all made it less difficult to bear. And I am grateful, from the bottom of my heart.