Everything Our Editors Loved in December


December was a very literary month here at Outside: while some of us spent our holidays with prize-winning novels and essay collections, others turned to screen adaptations of beloved books. Here’s everything that kept us entertained in the final days of 2020. 

What We Read 

I just read Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, and I can’t recommend it enough. The novel won the Booker Prize in 2019, making Evaristo the first Black woman to have received the honor. Her writing is engaging and singular: there’s little punctuation, and she often breaks up her sentences like poems. The novel focuses on 12 characters, primarily Black British women, some of whom are clearly connected to others and some seemingly peripheral. Evaristo crafts a narrative that spans generations, with each chapter following the life of a different character. Despite the unique structure and style, it’s approachable and compelling—I finished all 450-plus pages in five days. —Abbie Barronian, associate editor 

The award for most unintentionally perfect publishing timing goes to Elisa Gabbert for her latest book, The Unreality of Memory, which hit shelves at the beginning of 2020. You would think I’d be sick of reading about catastrophes after a god-awful year, but I found Gabbert’s collection of essays about our darkest moments, including September 11, Chernobyl, witch hunts, and, yes, pandemics, to be strangely comforting. At a time when everything feels enormously high stakes, I found solace in being reminded that history is long and full of desolation, and that I am small. “Disasters can feel like karmic punishment,” Gabbert writes. “But the earth is not a vengeful god—just an indifferent one.” —Maren Larsen, Buyer’s Guide deputy editor 

There are a lot of opinions on the right and wrong ways to ride a bike—where you should ride, which bikes are good for certain terrain, what makes a true cyclist. Even as someone who follows the cycling world as part of my job, I find it hard to keep up with it all. Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, wrote a book in 2012 about just this subject, and the title says it all: Just Ride. Petersen argues that bike racing has made cycling unnecessarily complicated for most riders, and that all you really need to do is get a simple bike and ride it. His guide for cyclists covers everything from myths about the efficiency of clipless pedals to tips for your first overnight bike trip. I don’t agree with everything he writes (like his hypothesis that you might ride more safely when you’re not wearing your helmet—I’ve taken a few too many diggers to roll with that), but I do believe in his fundamental argument: that most people take cycling too seriously. The book is an entertaining read and liberating for those of us who find ourselves getting sucked into the hole of the latest and greatest. —Will Taylor, gear director 

I was recently turned on to the wonderful writing of Oregon author and editor Brian Doyle, who died in 2017. His book One Long River of Song is the most exquisite essay collection I’ve ever read. The pieces feature keen observations on everything from an aging basketball player who dominates the court one night to memories of the rich smells wafting off the sea. Doyle consistently strikes just the right tone of awe and reverence for his subjects. Usually I limit myself to one essay each night before bed—and frequently an essay is just a page or two—but often I find myself rereading a paragraph or a few lines over and over in amazement and appreciation of his talent. I’m looking forward to picking up many more of his other works this year. —Tasha Zemke, copy editor 

Over the holidays I read The Boy Kings of Texas, a memoir by Domingo Martinez about his experience growing up in a Texas border town in the 1980s. Much of the book focuses on Martinez’s complicated relationships with various members of his family. So many of the memories he details are devastating, but Martinez also manages to find humor in a lot of his darker experiences. The book was published in 2012, and Martinez has adapted a few chapters into This American Life segments over the years; this one, about his two sisters dubbing themselves “the Mimis” and pretending to be rich white girls, is a prime example of the book’s unexpectedly lighter moments. —Molly Mirhashem, digital deputy editor

I spent some vacation time reading Girls Running, by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth Carey. The book is a guide to the sport, aimed at young women, and it breaks down training tips, smart fueling advice, and wisdom on building a healthy team. With sections on puberty and body shaming, Girls Running goes well beyond the typical reading for athletes, with the goal of promoting a healthy appreciation of the sport and what our bodies can achieve. My fiancé has a ten-year-old daughter who’s becoming interested in sports, and I encouraged her to add this to her reading list. —Abigail Wise, digital managing director

What We Listened To

In November, I drove out to California to spend the holidays with my family. The 12-hour journey from Santa Fe to San Diego felt longer than usual, and when I hit Phoenix, I was desperate for any form of entertainment that could sustain me for the rest of the drive. Luckily, I discovered the Phoebe Reads a Mystery podcast. This show, from the creators of the true-crime podcast Criminal, is exactly what it sounds like: journalist Phoebe Judge—who was born to be a storyteller, with her calm and even voice—reads classic mystery novels to listeners. It’s essentially an audiobook in podcast form, with each episode constituting a different chapter. I started The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie, on my drive and finished listening to the rest of it in December. The book follows Tommy and Tuppence, young English adventurers in the 1920s who set out to help an American millionaire find his missing cousin. Naturally, life-or-death situations, clever disguises, and romantic entanglements ensue. Hearing this compelling story delivered by a skilled reader, I felt more engrossed in the book and invested in solving the mystery than I might have been by simply reading it myself. As a former audiobook skeptic, Phoebe Reads a Mystery has opened up a whole new world for me, and I’m excited to keep exploring Agatha Christie’s collection, too. —Maura Fox, research associate

What We Watched 

My girlfriend and I stayed home for the holidays, and to fill the void of family visits, we decided to rewatch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I hadn’t watched it in full since I was in middle school, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up. I’d also forgotten what an outdoorsy franchise it is. As Rebecca Booroojian once wrote for Outside, “When you boil it down, The Lord of the Rings really tells the story of an awful lot of walking.” And very gripping walking at that, from The Fellowship of the Ring’s storm scene on the mountain Caradhras, which can match some of the best alpine-survival sequences I’ve seen, to the ultimate scramble up Mount Doom in The Return of the King (how did Frodo have that much gas in the tank at the very end?). The stunning landscapes also gave me some serious wanderlust for New Zealand. —Luke Whelan, senior research editor 

Over the past couple months, I’ve been catching up on HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The second season, released last spring, follows Ferrante’s protagonist, Elena, and her friend Lila as they navigate their teen years in 1950s Naples. When the season begins, Lila has dropped out of school and is newly married, while Elena continues her education and eventually leaves for university. It’s the rare literary adaptation that manages to live up to its source material: somehow the novels’ themes of class and power come alive even more vividly on-screen, and Gaia Girace gives a magnetic performance as the mercurial Lila. For my money, it was the best TV series of 2020. —Sophie Murguia, assistant editor

Pixar’s new animated movie Soul is the perfect way to start the new year. The film follows a middle school band teacher, Joe Gardner, who desperately wants to make it as a jazz pianist. One day a former student invites Joe to join one of the best quartets around, but before he’s able to seize this golden opportunity, he dies in a freak accident. He wakes up on a stairway to the afterlife and runs in the opposite direction, hoping to get back to earth, but instead he finds himself in a place called the Great Before, where he sees how souls are made. Joe is assigned to mentor one of these new souls, and from there, we embark on an extraordinary journey. After the difficult year we’ve all shared, this movie offers a hopeful reminder to love the life you’ve got while you still have it. —Jenny Earnest, audience development director 

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