Monday, February 22, 2021

A Time of Wintering, Even in Florida


     With news of ice storms, power losses and frigid temperatures across most of the United States, Floridians may be thinking that severe winter conditions don’t apply to them. But make no mistake: We are all experiencing winter these days. We are all wintering.

        Winter is not only a season. It is also a state of mind.

        “Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again,” says Katherine May in Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.

Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when youre cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps youre in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds.” 

       Katherine May understands what it’s like to be in the cold. As a child, her autism went undiagnosed, and she was often forced to fend for herself in the isolation of her condition, learning to winter early on. 

      “Some winterings creep upon us more slowly,” May warns, “accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new.”

      Or finding yourself suddenly coping with a global pandemic.

      “However it arrives,” May explains, “wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet its also inevitable.” 

       Florida doesn’t have a real winter season. There are no snowdrifts, freezing nights or snow smoke (a winter term I learned from reading Snowdrift by Swedish mystery writer Helene Tursten), but thanks to COVID19, we have all gotten a crash course in wintering. Forced into hibernation of one sort or another, we have had to learn how to process all the losses we have been experiencing — from the loss of being able to move freely in the world to the devastating physical losses of those we love. 

     During this winter of our lives, we have been offered the chance to learn how to winter. Wintering, it turns out, is an art.

     Poets, novelists and short story writers have often used winter as a metaphor for gaining insight. From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the Game of Thrones with its ominous warning that “winter is coming,”  it is not an accident that winter has also long been a staple of children's literature and fantasy tales. Winter is a season that almost by definition — or at least by Centigrade and Fahrenheit  — prompts contemplation, a turning inwards.

      In 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote a poem she called “Wintering,” the last of her circle of bee poems. She used the dormant state of bees during winter as a stand in for her own reflection on the depression that once again was gripping her, this time after the painful collapse of her marriage. Setting the poem in winter, she asks the question, “Will the hive survive…to enter another year?” 

     The question of survival has seemed a particular urgent one in the era of COVID as we have witnessed so many deaths, but that question — Will we survive the winter? — is a reoccurring one for all of us. Pandemic or no pandemic, it is not a given that we will survive any winters of our lives. But if we do, Plath’s poem urges us to use the fallow time we are experiencing to prepare for the time ahead. She ends “Wintering” with an image of rejuvenation, a declaration of optimism and, yes, with a celebration of surviving another year: “The bees are flying,” reads the last line of Wintering. “They taste the spring.”

      Winter — whether it is the actual season or just the concept of wintering, hunkering down and withdrawing from the world — can teach us how to prepare for the rest of our lives.

      “Thats what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you,” writes Scottish novelist Ali Smith in Winter, a quirky novel that imagines a dysfunctional family gathering at Christmas time in Britain. 

      Plath eventually did not survive the winter of 1963. On February 11 of that year she committed suicide by placing her head in an oven. In the unpublished book of poems that she left behind  — which was eventually published posthumously as Ariel and Other Poems — she chose ”Wintering” to be the final poem. 

     “The poem…ends with an image of rejuvenation, a declaration of optimism and survival,” says Kate Moses, author of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, which imagines the last days of the poet.

     When Ariel was published in 1965, however, Plath's original life-affirming arrangement of her poems was altered. Her husband, Ted Hughes, who was also a poet, rearranged the order, burying the "bee poems" in the middle of the collection and placing a poem called "Edge" at the end. Unlike the more forward-looking "Wintering," "Edge" is a poem about death that seems to foretell Plath's eventual suicide. It wasn't even included in her original Ariel manuscript. 

     "Ariel as edited by Ted Hughes has a particular trajectory,” writes Moses. "It seems to be a narrative of a woman who is intentionally moving toward her self-destruction. Robert Lowells foreword claimed ‘these poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder… they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it.’  And that became the way people saw Plath: defiantly suicidal, a lost cause from the start.”

    In the original arrangement, however, the opposite was true: Plath had started with “love” and ended with “spring,” hardly a pathway toward destruction. “(I)t was very much a narrative about a persona, a woman, who was remaking her life after having it burned down to the ground, and she was rising to another place of survival and optimism,” says Moses. 

    A poem, in short, about the value of wintering. About learning to reflect, to recuperate, to survive.

    In “Snowdrifts,” a chapter in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s volume of essays called Winter, the second in his quartet on the seasons, the Norwegian author points to the many Norse gods who are named for specific Norse words associated with winter. The children of the god Snow (who is the son of Jokul, which is the Norse word for ice) are Fonn (the Norse word for a large accumulation of snow), Torre (which means
hoar frost), Mjoll (a dense snowfall) and Driva (a snow flurry).

     “These names afford us a glimpse of a cold, snow-filled world, but also of a belief that its various aspects represent different powers,” writes Knausgaard. "The boundary between personification and naming is fluid, for even if we dont believe that a blizzard is a supernatural force, it still represents a separate state of nature, creating a space all its own and giving rise to particular moods or tonalities, and through the name all this is delineated and assembled, so that we are able not only to recognize it as something separate when it is present but also to invoke it when it is absent.”

     This is the power of winter, the essence of wintering: A time to identify how we can survive when everything seems to have died around us. The natural world has long learned how to winter, to adapt to a world of deprivations. Animals put on layers of fat, preparing for long hibernations. Birds migrate to warmer climes. After a burst of color, deciduous trees shed their leaves. Plants burrow deep into the soil to await the spring.

       “Plants and animals dont fight the winter; they dont pretend its not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but thats where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible,” writes May.


     Last month a friend of mine, Mindi Dickstein, sent me a collection of short stories called Hello Winter, compiled by Hello Out There Productions founded by director and playwright India Marie Paul.  In 2020 in response to the closure of theaters and performance spaces, Paul asked Mindi, who is a playwright herself, and eight other writers to submit a new short story prompted by the simple prompt, “hello winter.” The collection was conceived “as a way to continue the creating and telling of stories during a time when live entertainment came to a complete halt and the future of the arts were unknown,” writes Paul.


     Mindi’s contribution is called “The Essential Guide to Happiness,” the story of  “a woman who has lived half her life in the 20th century and half in the 21st” who “grapples with questions of self, purpose, and the pursuit of happiness in the midst of the pandemic — with a little help from New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.” Forced to close her art gallery, Louise tries to adjust to the new normal, shopping on the internet, Zooming incessantly and watching Cuomo’s updates on the virus. At one point, on a website based in New Delhi, she sees a wooden figurine for sale. On its base is inscribed the words: “The essential guide to happiness.” She orders it, worrying with all the disruptions due to the pandemic if it will ever arrive. 

     Whatever our own struggles have looked like this past year, I think we can all relate to Louise. Since the pandemic has thrown the world into turmoil, we all have been waiting for the Essential Guide to Happiness to show up on our doorstep. We all are waiting to emerge from this forced wintering. But as we perfect the art of wintering, it begins to dawn on us — as it does Louise — that the Essential Guide to Happiness has already been delivered.  It’s right there inside of us.


In January, I attended a Theater of War Productions event online that was held to help people get through “this incredibly difficult winter.” In collaboration with the PBS series Poetry in America, the theater company presented readings by the actors Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) and Moses Ingram (The Queens Gambit) of Those Winter Sundays,” a sonnet that poet Robert Hayden, an African-American who was born in 1913 and died in 1980, wrote in the 1960s. The readings served as a catalyst for a guided discussion about “the everyday struggle of surviving, thriving, and connecting” during the pandemic. The event also featured a recorded reading of Hayden's poem by President Joe Biden.

   Inspired by the three readings, each moving in its own way, the discussion centered on the economic hardships of diverse communities, the difficulty of family dynamics and the importance of gratitude. The presentation, including all three readings of “Those Winter Sundays,” is now available on YouTube.

    Here is Hayden’s poem:

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden (1913-1980)

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

Id wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, hed call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of loves austere and lonely offices?


Wednesday, January 20, 2021



Theodore Nordstrom aka Papa reads a bedtime story
to granddaughters Joan, Diane & Margo

Long before Tell Me a Story became a popular TV series reimagining fairy tales as modern-day thrillers...

Long before St. Petersburg romance writer Tamara Lush came out with an erotic series called Tell Me a Story...

Long before novelist Cassandra King Conroy wrote a memoir called Tell Me a Story about her life with Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy...

"Tell me a story" was my bedtime ritual.

Every night before I would agree to go to sleep, my grandfather read a bedtime story to me and my sisters.

When Papa died (I was only 3), my mother stepped in and not only read stories to us from our vast collection of children's books, but also made up ones of her own which involved amazing flights of fancy ("zoom, zoom, zoom on a magic carpet") and a girl named Mary Ann who could do anything she put her mind to do.

Years later when I was book editor at the St. Petersburg Time (and, presumably, had long before  "put childish things behind me"),  I wrote a column decrying the fact that audiobooks were becoming so popular. Wasn't it better to read a book than to listen to it? I asked.

Well, the feedback I received from that column made me reconsider my answer to that question. One of the responses came from the daughter of a blind woman who said her mother wanted me to know that she agreed with me that nothing could replace holding a book in your hands, but that listening to books was all that she had left. Another pointed out that literature -- especially poetry -- was originally orally transmitted. Wasn't I missing the benefits of hearing a tale?

Yes, I was. I realized I had forgotten the thrill of those childhood bedtime stories -- the magic of having a story told to me. I started listening to audiobooks and to my amazement found that many of them provided something I couldn't get just by reading a text.

In David McCullough's biography Truman, for example, the audiobook included an excerpt from an actual speech by Give 'Em Hell Harry. You couldn't get that out of a book. I was hooked. I've never abandoned the thrill of holding a book in my hand, but now there's always an audiobook on my reading list.

I'm not alone. Audiobooks have continued to be the fastest growing segment in publishing -- and thanks to lockdown, interest in them has exploded. In 2020 sales increased by 16 percent in the U.S., generating over $1.2 billion in revenue. For ages 18 and up, the average number of audiobooks consumed last year went up to 8.1 from 6.8 in 2019

The pandemic has given us the time and inclination to listen to stories.

It has also given us the possibility of listening to -- and sometimes even talking with -- the authors of those books. 

In a Washington Post story posted last August, several authors talked about their willingness to join online book clubs that are discussing one of their books. 

"I love to connect with book groups, because it allows me to interact with my readers in a living-room format," Chris Bohjalian, whose latest book, The Red Lotus, is eerily about a pandemic, told the Post. "We talk in a way we never talk at a book signing or speech. It's far more authentic."

St. Petersburg native Mary Kay Andrews has also discovered the virtues of meeting her readers online. She had planned a massive book tour to tout her 2020 title Hello Summer which came out in May. But when COVID 19 hit and prompted so many cancellations, she launched a Facebook Live channel with fellow writers Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Alice Monroe, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Kristin Harmel.

The group -- which they call Friends & Fiction: Five Bestselling Authors. Endless Stories” -- meets every Wednesday at 7 p.m. to talk with each other and guest authors about books and writing. The interviews are now archived on YouTube with more to come in 2021. 

Several Florida festivals -- including the Zora Neale Hurston Festivalthe Florida Storytelling Festival and the Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise  -- and bookstores across the country, including the St. Petersburg-based  Tombolo Bookswhich used to feature in-person programming, now are offering a number of online author events, giving us a unique opportunity to listen to our favorite authors and hear their stories in the comfort of, well, our living rooms. 

And even if you can't make it to the festivals live, materials often are archived online after the events. Recordings, for example, of the conference to be held January 29-30 on  Afrofuturism: What Is its Sound?  -- part of the 32nd annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival -- will be posted after the conference via the ZORA! Festival Academic Academic Conference 2020-2021 Afrofuturism Syllabus.

The conference's keynote -- Oral History, Zora Neale Hurston and the Black Freedom Struggle through Storytelling and Song, by Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida professor of oral history -- celebrates oral storytelling, a speciality of Zora Neale Hurston, a Florida native. 

Florida has had a long history of oral storytelling. This year's online version of the Florida Storytelling Festival (which normally is held in Mount Dora) is organized by the Florida Storytelling Association, a group that began back in 1984. Jennifer Bausman and Annette Bruce, two women who loved storytelling, organized the first Florida Storytelling Camp at a rustic Florida campground, out of which the association sprang.

Who are the members of the Florida Storytelling Association?

"We are storytellers, story listeners and story lovers," the group says on its website, summing up our universal love of telling and listening to stories.

"We are people just like you with a story to tell."

A version of this essay was originally published at Arts Coast Journal, the online journal of Creative Pinellas.

 . .

Friday, January 1, 2021

Year-End Best Book Lists

     Last year one of my resolutions was to read 71 books. When I made that resolution I had no idea that I would be locked down for most the year with more time to read than ever before. At the beginning of this pandemic, however, I found it hard to read. I couldn't concentrate, couldn't focus on the written word. Instead I watched plays and movies. 

     Gradually, however, I got back to reading and when I did, I began reading with a vengeance. Often I would have two, even three books going at once. One set up in the bathroom (something with short chapters), another on my nightstand (to read before I went to sleep) and a third on my Kindle (which I could read anywhere). I joined two book clubs (online, of course), both of which I've found thoroughly enjoyable. I hope both continue even when this quarantine time is lifted. I trekked often to the library (at first, picking up books outside the Main Library and then gradually returning to the library nearer to my house, even walking the 1.3 miles there to combine the sedentary nature of reading with some exercise.

    The illustration at right from the Florida Association for Media in Education site says it all: Books turned out to be a the greatest comfort to me in 2020.

    I made it to 70 books read, one short of my goal. For 2021 I've set the number at 72 (based, as it was last year, on the age I will be turning in the new year). 

    Below is a version of the story I did for Arts Coast Journal -- the last of the year -- on end of the year best books lists. It's chock-a-block with ideas for good reading in the coming twelve months and I've
already put many of the titles on my reading list.

    I've also lined up three books to read for the new year:

          1. Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt

          2. Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel E. Lieberman

          3 Beethoven Variations by Ruth Padel

     Hope this gives you some ideas as well. Happy reading!


    By Margo Hammond

     Every year a staggering number of bloggers, newspapers, authors, magazines, celebrities and book sites offer up Best Books of the year lists. What books are readers in my area -- Tampa Bay -- putting on their 2020 lists?

     In search of an answer, I consulted  this master list on a blog called Largehearted Boy where for the past 13 years David Gutowski has been aggregating year-end best book lists.  As of mid-December he had catalogued nearly 1,000 sites, from the best dog books of 2020 (The Dogington Post) to the best boating books of the year (Yachting Monthly).

       I found, however, only two Florida-based lists on Gutowski’s site. Well, three. But none of them, alas, came from Tampa Bay: Sarasota Books where the staff of Bookstore 1 in Sarasota offers its picks) and South Florida Sun-Sentinel (where the state’s veteran mystery critic Oline H. Cogdill offers up her favorites) and a list by Stephen King (who lives part-time in Casey Key).  

       So I decided to create my own Tampa Bay Bibliophiles list of Best Books of 2020. First, I discovered a list online curated by Cultured Books, a local pop-up children’s bookstore which operates along The Deuces in South St. Petersburg (see a sample of that list below). Then I solicited titles from local book lovers. I asked everyone willing to participate to supply five titles that got them through this annus horribilis.

       I got generous responses — from a bookstore, a journalist who writes books about Florida, a literary writer; a mystery writer and magician; a deputy mayor; a museum docent; a New York Times bestselling author; a USFSP professor; a poet laureate; a champion of black women authors; a champion of readers, writers and lovers of words; a director and actor and an Eckerd professor.

      “Narrowing my list down to just five books was TOUGH,”  admitted author Craig Pittman. Some added a few more. Author Lisa Unger said that she hates doing "best of" lists. “I fear leaving out one of my friends, or worthy books -- because I read so many!”  she wrote. 

      Some couldn’t resist adding a few more than five and not all of the titles chosen by the participants came out in 2020 (many of us reached back and found older books that called out to us). Unger included titles from 2021 that she read (she said she’s lucky to receive advanced copies of books). All of us confessed these books gave us comfort somehow in this extraordinary year.

      Book editor Colette Bancroft included her favorites of  2020 list on the book pages of  the Tampa Bay Times, including Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Best Novel and Best Novel set during a plague) and Cat Tale by Craig Pittman. Many of the titles she reviewed (and picked as her favorites) were by authors whom she interviewed for the all-virtual Festival of Reading this year. The interviews are archived at

    Several titles cropped up on more than one list, including Octavia Butler’s 1993 science fiction classic Parable of the Sower about a zealot who is elected to “make America great again” and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s 2018 My Sister, the Serial Killer longlisted for the Booker Prize as well as several 2020 titles whose authors have Florida connections: Shoreless a book of poetry by Enid Shomer, Squeeze Me a satirical novel by Carl Hiaasen, Summer of the Cicadas a novel by Chelsea Catherine, Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day short stories by JD Scott’s, Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther non-fiction by Craig Pittman and Fair Warning a thriller by Michael Connelly. 

      The choices were a mixture of fiction (both mainstream and experimental) and non-fiction, old and new. They all, however, were books that gave us comfort in this extraordinary year.

   And my own list ? Here are the titles from 2020 that I highly recommend:

1. Weather by Jenny Orfill  

2. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell 

3. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell 

4. Jack by Marilynne Robinson 

5. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

      Craig Pittman is right. It WAS tough to keep that list to just five. If only I could add five more…they would be… 

6. Cat Tale by Craig Pittman

7. Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

and three earlier works

8. Overstory by Richard Powers

9. Upstream: Essays by Mary Oliver 

10. Miss Iceland by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

     The lists sent to me have given me a lot more books to put on my 2021 TO READ list. I hope they inspire you, too.


A pop-up children's bookstore headquartered at The Well at 833 22nd St. S, Cultured Books promotes books that foster love of self by showing positive images and sharing great stories about people of color. Here’s a sample from Cultured Books Best Books of 2020

        1.   Red Shoes by Karen English, illustrated by Ebony Glenn

        2.   Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Laura Freeman

        3.   The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez, illustrated by Lauren Summer


        4.   Boys Dance! (American Ballet Theatre) by John Robert Allman, illustrated by Luciano Lozano


     Tombolo at 2153 1st Ave S in Saint Petersburg this month celebrated its first year as a brick-and-mortar bookstore, an impressive accomplishment in a pandemic. The 2020 recommendations sent on by the Tombolo team were all about Florida authors and Florida books:

  1. Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly
  1. Grounds for Murder, a new murder mystery novel by Tamara Lush, the Florida correspondent for the Associated Press
  1. The Committee by Sterling Watson, a work of historical fiction by the co-founder of Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise Program which came out at the end of 
  1. Three books by Jeff VanderMeer:  A Peculiar Peril, a YA novel; Fantasy Anthology, which he edited with his wife Anne, and  Ambergris, a reissue in a one-volume hardcover of his classic sci fi trilogy
  1. Summer of the Cicadas by Chelsea Catherine 
  1. Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day by JD Scott
  1. Cat Tale by Craig Pittman
  1. Holding Smoke by Step Post, which came out in February
  1. Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

      10.  True Love by Sarah Gerard

      11.   Cigar City: Tales from a 1980s Creative Ghetto by Paul Wilborn, which came out in 2019 but won The Florida Book Award in 2020

     12.   Mail Duck by Erica Sirotich, children’s book

     13.  Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg by Rob Sanders


Craig Pittman, the author of Oh Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,  published Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther on the eve of the pandemic: January 21, 2020. Asked for own list of best books of 2020, he offered three titles published this year (Numbers 1, 2 and 5) and two earlier books that he just got around to reading this year (Numbers 3 and 4):

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen: “Hiaasen’s funniest book in years, driven by his withering fury about the direction the country has taken in the past four years.”

2. The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980 by Nicholas Griffin: “A deeply researched, eye-opening look back at a turning-point year for South Florida.”

3. The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet by  Lyn Millner: “An astonishing book with one of the best openings you'll ever see in a book, and a bizarre anecdote on nearly every page.”

4. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler: “I don't read a lot of science fiction, but this dystopian novel grabbed me from the first page and wouldn't let go.”

5. The Revelators by Ace Atkins: “A tour de force. This 10th novel in Atkins' series about a former Army Ranger who's become the sheriff of his Mississippi hometown is the one that winds up all of the ongoing storylines of the previous nine, as well as commenting on such current issues as immigration and corporate exploitation of the poor.”


Since Sarah Gerard’s True Love came out in July, the novel has landed on an impressive number of 2020 lists, including Most Anticipated Book of the Year by both LitHub and The Millions, Entertainment Weekly 30 Hottest Book of the Summer, Refinery29 34 Books Youll Want To Read This Summer, Shondaland's 15 Hot Books for Summer, Chicago Review of Books' 10 Must-Read Books of July and Glamour’s The Best Books of 2020. For her own favorites, she chose a coming of age novel by a queer girl in a right wing community of Michigan, a memoir of growing up in Oklahoma, a novel in translation by a Japanese author living in Germany and two classics: a 1993 science fiction novel by a black American and a meditation originally published in 1919 from a poet who is an icon for LGBT rights and feminism. 

1. The Reconception of Marie by Teresa Carmody, published in November 2020 by Spuyten    Duyvil

2. Rerun Era by Joanna Howard, published in October 2019 by McSweeney’s

3. Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated in 2011 by Susan Bernofsky

4. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

                                                                           5. Notes on Thought and Vision by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) 


Jim Swain, who lives in Odessa, is a mystery writer and a magician (before the pandemic he was performing magic tricks weekly at the Hollander). In 2020 he published his 22nd book, No Good Deed, the third in his Florida-based series starring ex-Navy SEAL Jon Lancaster and FBI Agent Beth Daniels. (The 2nd in that series, No Good Deed, was set entirely around Tampa Bay.) Sending on his favorite books of the year, he wrote: “Its an eclectic list (fiction, non, biography, philosophy) but thats how I tend to read. There are a couple of titles which werent published this year, but provided great relief to me during these troubled times, especially Jordan Petersons book which I recommend to all my friends. Here’s to a better new year.”

1. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

2. Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

3. The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

4. 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

5. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

6. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

7. Last Words by George Carlin, Tony Hendra

8. The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova


Kanika Tomalin, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, is a 2020 author herself. Her St. Pete Eats: A Cookbook, includes recipes sourced from restaurants around St. Petersburg with a healthy twist. The cookbook is part of her ongoing initiative Healthy St. Pete, which focuses on creating access to healthy food options, implementing free fitness zones in city parks and adding resources for individuals and families to make healthy living easier. Her non-fiction picks tackle racism, health issues, philosophy and comparative mythology. Numbers 2 and 4 came out this year. 

1. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

2. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

3. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

4. Tyranny of Merit: Whats Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel

5. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell: “a reread that was as awesome the third time.”


     Helen Huntley, a docent at the James Museum, leads the museum’s book club. All five books on her list — four novels and a work of non-fiction — were published in 2020. The last two — a debut novel set at at the end of the American gold rush and a debut thriller set on a Native American reservation in South Dakota — are James Museum Book Club picks for 2021.

1. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

2. Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

3. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz 

 by Erik Larson

4. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

5. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden 


Lisa Unger, a New York Times bestselling author, is no stranger to “Best” lists. This year her psychological thriller, Confessions on the 7:45, graced the Best Book and/or Bestseller lists of the L.A. Times, Sun Sentinel, USA Today, Toronto Star, Amazon, Apple Books, Indie Next, Barnes & Noble, KOBO, Library Reads,, SIBA, Audio File, Loan Stars, Costco Canada and GlamourUK. “Here are a few books that really transported me this year,” she says, “two published in 2019, and the rest coming up next year. Not precisely a "best of" but definitely a couple of my favorite pandemic reads.”

  1. 1. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2019): What would you do if your sister -- the pretty one, the favorite -- couldn't seem to stop killing her boyfriends and asking you to clean up the mess? Asked and answered in this thrilling, layered read.

2. Never Far Away by Michael Koryta (February 2021): Could you leave your family behind to save them? And what would happen if you had to go back for them and risk all your lives? Koryta will keep you breathless as he spins another rocket-paced, beautifully written mystery set in Maine.

3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2019): A wealthy family, a young nanny struggling to find herself, and an ugly late night encounter at grocery store. Reid digs deep into her layered characters to take on racism, privilege, friendship, and love.

4. The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (July 2021): A young reporter takes down a wealthy and powerful sexual predator, only to find that she has put her own life at risk. Even the high security building she's moved into at the tip of Manhattan can't keep her safe. This thriller is smart, ripped from the headlines, and deep.

5. Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison (March 2021): A stunning, isolated island off the coast of Italy, the wedding of the year, a bride and groom, each with terrible dark secrets, and a looming storm -- what could possibly go wrong? Ellison is a master at ratcheting up the delicious suspense page by gripping page.


Helen Pruitt Wallace is the Poet Laureate of St. Petersburg. For her Best Books list, she explains, “I’ve kept my list to poetry and memoir and left off many new favorites by poets I've hosted this year in the Dali Poetry Series. Too hard to choose among them!”  Her choices include a memoir by a former U.S. poet laureate, an illustrated collection of essays by a poet about the natural world and three books of new poetry, including one by another former poet laureate of the United States. “Several of these,” she says, I'm still savoring, but I guess that's what we do with books we love!”

1. Memory Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

2. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

 by Aimee Nezhukumatathill: “newly out!”

3. Shoreless by Enid Shomer

4. Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

5. Summer Snow by Robert Hass


Janet K. Keeler teaches in the Journalism and Digital Communications Department at USFSP where she launched the Food Writing and Photography Program, which offers a graduate certificate. Keeler also spearheaded the universitys Food and Travel Writing study-abroad program. Her top reads in 2020? “A mix of fiction and non-fiction entertained and enlightened me in 2020,” she says. Here is her list:

1. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: “Wilson’s inventive story had me stopping several times and asking, ‘how'd he think of that?’ In a year of dumpster fires, the flames of this book were a delicious diversion.”

2. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: “This diabolical tale of complicated sisterly love and obsession took me somewhere I didn't know I needed to go. Who knew murder could be so fun?” 

3. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng “Fire, literal and figurative, appeared to be a theme on my reading list. Ng creates memorable characters with flaws that stuck with me long after I finished the book.”

4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Thoughtful and personal, Coates shares his insights about race in America in a series of essays to his son. Though published in 2015, the book resonated in a summer of racial unrest and reckoning.”

5. We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by Jose Andres: “I read this along with my fall Food Writing students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Through this book, chef and restaurateur Andres, also the driving force behind World Central Kitchen that feeds victims of disasters around the world, illustrates the place that food has in social movements. A quick read with important significance.”


The executive director of Kitchen Table Arts Center, which aims to build awareness, appreciation, and support for women of color and black women writers, poets, and their work, Sheree L. Greer sends emails with a quote by poet Lucille Clifton that seems particular apt during this pandemic: “May the tide that is entering even now…carry you out beyond the face of fear.” Her five favorite books of 2020 are equally inspiring: an urban fantasy novel, two short story collections, a psychological thriller, and a book of poems, all by Black women and all published in 2020.

1. The City We Became: A Novel by N.K. Jemisin

2. Nine Bar Blues by Sheree Renee Thomas

3. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

4. When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

5. Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong


Maureen McDole is a poet and founder and executive director of Keep St. Pete Lit, a community of “readers, writers and lovers of words.” For her five favorites of 2020, she went with “mostly local writers.”  Two books of poetry, a dystopian science fiction book, a debut short story collection and a novel. All were published in 2020, except Number 1, a book of poems by Orlando’s poet laureate, which came out in 2019. 

1. Venus in Retrograde: Poems by Susan Lilley 

2. Shoreless by Enid Shomer

3. Blueprints for Better Worlds by Tenea D. Johnson 

4. Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day: Stories by JD Scott 

5. Summer of the Cicadas by Chelsea Catherine 


Bob Devin Jones, a playwright, makes a living acting, directing and supervising thestudio@620 (which he co-founded) as its artistic director. His favorite titles of the year is loaded with titles by writers with ties to Florida: Ray Arsenault, Gilbert King, Roy Peter Clark, Denise Lehane, William F. Felice, Peter Golenbock (with Richard Painter) and “no less” Jack Kerouac. Here, as he puts it, is his “unexpurgated” book list:

1. Arthur Ashe: A Life by Ray Arsenault

2. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

3. Satori in Paris & Pic by Jack Kerouac (“written in St. Petersburg, FL no less”)

4. Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 

6.  The Given Day: A Novel by Dennis Lehane: “one of my favorite books of all recorded time”

7.  Tourist Season by Enid Shomer

8. How to Save My Honor: War, Moral Integrity, and Principled Resignation by Bill Felice

9. American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump Is the Worst Offender by Richard Painter and Peter Golenbock


A Colombian-American writer and translator and Eckerd College professor, Gloria Muñoz picked books by authors with roots in Argentina, Nigeria, Korea, the United States and Peru. Four novels and a memoir.

1. Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

2. The Death of Vivek Oji Akwaeke Emezi

3. The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

4. Memorial by Bryan Washington 

5. The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero