Stray: A Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Chelsea Bieker


My own novel came out just as the lockdowns began, and my dreams with connecting with other writers I so admire, and readers in real life, were abruptly cancelled. Mid-March, as things unfolded in a strange haze like frenzy, I took one last trip to Powell’s Books on Hawthorne before they closed, and feverishly bought books as if I was headed, along with everyone else, on some strange panic-laden vacation. Only a few weeks of this probably, I thought, as I selected my then kindergartner a workbook. I chose my own stack (it would soon become obvious it was way too small) and headed out into a new world.


It is hard now, after so much has happened, to recall what I read before mid-march. January and February may as well have been their own year. I know I read. I loved Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, and Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur. I read the galleys of books to come with excitement, my best friend, Genevieve Hudson’s incredible novel Boys of Alabama. Was stuck on books about trauma stored in the body—Letting Go by David R. Hawkins, and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. But I suppose I was more focused on writing essays to help promote my own book, floating through life in a state of awe looking at a year I was sure to be the best one yet.

it’s the books I read after the pandemic set in that remain seared into my mind
like old friends attending my hour of need. Below is an incomplete list, but
still, evidence of truly addictive reading, reading to survive, and reading
with a heightened sense of community—I still needed to connect to other artists
even though I could not see them in person. I needed to support local
bookstores, and I needed language that was not my own in a desperate sort of

My Baby First Birthday by Jenny Zhang seemed like exactly the sort of fuck you poems of beauty and grit I needed, and The Father by Sharon Olds felt necessary to process my experience of quarantine while not being able to see my father who was diagnosed with cancer. I latched onto My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell with a fervor, connecting it to the brave and harrowing memoir, Being Lolita by Alisson Wood a few months later, both books circling the same themes, each deepening my understanding of the other. A book that made me burst into tears by last sentence was The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe, and I was lucky enough to do an online event on Mother’s Day with Rufi and Nina Renata Aron, the author of the memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls, a memoir about relationships and addiction and a feminist perspective of recovery groups that we desperately need. In the same vein, I might have audibly cheered reading Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker, another very needed perspective and voice in the world of recovery—both books made me relish in gratitude for my sobriety and also that the conversation around alcohol, and most especially the way recovery literature needs a major feminist update, may be shifting. 

As I dove deep into writing a new novel about motherhood, I had to call in reinforcements: The Shame by Makenna Goodman might be my favorite book that came out this year. I am now re-reading it. It’s so inventive, the voice so sharp, the observations about identity and mothering and art making so spot on. Ordinary Insanity by Sarah Menkedick is the book on post-partum anxiety I have always been searching for, and Body Full of Stars by Molly May Caro writes motherhood and anger perfectly. I returned to the stories in Baby by Paula Bomer, felt seen in A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk. I re-read After Birth by Elisa Albert which has become an annual tradition for me, and Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I am just finishing The Harpy by Megan Hunter and feel spellbound by her observations of motherhood and marriage.

Story collections were on the menu of course and this year I loved Daddy by Emma Cline, To Be A Man by Nicole Krauss, and returning to the stories of Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons at random, most of which now feel like familiar friends, which is what masterful writing can do.

A reading highlight came from an unexpected place: Portland has a little free library practically on every block and one day my daughter and I stopped to survey the goods and at the last minute I decided to pluck away what looked like a romance novel at first glance, but would later turn out to become one of my favorite novels I’ve ever read, earning it a place on my shelf next to Angels by Denis Johnson and White Oleander by Janet Fitch. Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler (Now I feel stupid for not knowing her, believe me I know her now!) feels like a perfect book to me. 

Summer belonged to Luster by Raven Leilani, lines so funny I screamed them to my husband in the next room. Summer also belonged to my need to reinvent my ideas about spirituality, shed some layers that were no longer serving. I clutched my crystals and dove deep into Burning Bright by Kelsey Patel to learn some self-reiki and Emotional Freedom Technique to calm the fuck down. I went beyond my sun sign with You Were Born for This by Chani Nicolas. Getting to Center by Marlee Grace was the book I wish I’d had at 19, oh do I. Lots of inspiration, lots of kindness there, and lots of real talk about what building a creative life can mean and look like. A book I hope everyone will read is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. It gave me hope and comfort and felt like something I could DO amid the challenges of climate change and pandemic and fires, so many fires.

I taught a class with the Center for Fiction on unblocking the emotional life to create the work of our dreams and a book that was instrumental in this, and one I wish I had found ten years ago (every writer needs to read this) is Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring. This book is so wise and offers writers a way to embody their practice on multiple levels.

It seemed this year I was blessed with novel after novel of astounding beauty, the sort of books I took notes in: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang; The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett; You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat; Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham; Out of Mesopotamia by Salar Abdoh, a stunning portrait of combat. House Rules by Heather Lewis felt of my own heart. The Bear by Andrew Krivak will stay with me. I devoured Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and hopefully learned how to write more skillful sex scenes because of it. Self Care by Leigh Stein made me rethink Wellness, and Temporary by Hilary Leichter felt so fresh and wild.

I re-read some old comfortable favorites in the bathtub until the water turned to ice, preferably having to do with haunting east coast elite educational institutions—Prep by Curtis Sittenfield, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt came back out to play, and felt in companionship with The Lightness by Emily Temple (which might be one of my favorite covers this year) and Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas; two delicious warning songs of exclusive schools that naturally I wanted to attend anyhow.

Memoirs were near and dear to me, and Stray by Stephanie Danler seemed to understand the deep complication and difficulty and love and hardship of loving parents who cannot care for themselves. Mean by Myriam Gurba had me stopping to re-read the power of the sentences again and again.

And finally, with my English Composition students we read We The Animals by Justin Torres and Beloved by Toni Morrison, two books that took on new dimensions for me after reading my students’ beautiful and vulnerable essays about them. I was reminded yet again, the power of a good book to pull us through darkness.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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