Good-bye 2021!

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Most of the books I read last year are in this pile, which I’m currently attempting to sort out.  Do you like the (partially visible) painting?  It’s by American artist Jordan Buschur, who specializes in wonderful depictions of bookish art.

It’s that time of year again, isn’t it? Time to take stock of last year’s reads and to make those delightful reading plans for the coming months. As with so many other bloggers, last year was a difficult year for me. Not terrible, by any means, despite the pandemic, but — challenging. 2021 began with a house in disarray and my second move in ten months. It wound down with surgery last October; nothing serious, but I must admit recovery was slower than I had anticipated. Neither of these two events affected my reading very much, but as for the blogging — oh dear me! Frustrating really, as I read some marvelous things but couldn’t quite muster the concentration to do the reviewing. On both fronts, however, 2022 at least begins on a high note. Most of the boxes are unpacked (that is, if you ignore the garage), the books have (mostly) settled into their new resting places (although I’m already running short of shelf space — again!) and I’m whining (I believe the appropriate British term is “whinging”) about it but I’ve started back with the fitness routine. The pandemic, of course, is casting its hideously unwelcome shadow (particularly as I live in an area that’s partying like it’s 2019; needless to say the infection rate here is very high) but that’s life in the early 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, once things calmed down somewhat in my personal circumstances, my reading rebounded. Unlike 2020, when I seemed best able to concentrate on shorter works like novellas, this was the year I returned to novels, reading almost as many as I did before the pandemic. I don’t keep very complicated statistics (not that I dislike them, it’s just that I’m too lazy to keep track) but my informal list shows that in 2021 I finished almost double the number of novels I read in 2020. Approximately ten of these were old friends from the past (such as Henry James’ The Bostonians) that I was revisiting for a second or even third time. Although some of these were fairly short (if you’re being a bit picky about it, you might even term them “novellas”), they nevertheless packed quite a wallop and demanded slow and steady attention on my part. In this category, I’d include Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star and Fleur Jaeggy’s The Water Statues. Several, such as Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale (651 pages in my paperback Penguin edition) approached a Victorian tome in length. Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day was less physically substantial (a mere 400 Penguin pages) but a far more difficult read, as our Ms. Woolf struggled in this early work to develop the modernist novel while not being quite able to free herself from Mr. Bennett’s substantial (and very unwelcome) shadow. All of this is my own slightly pompous way of saying I counted each of these books as a “completed” novel, on the theory that the hefty page counts of some balanced the less substantial page counts of others.

Do you, like me, scan others’ yearly lists to see which novel was the very best one to that particular blogging friend?  I’m afraid my list is a bit of a dud in that respect.  Although I often pick something on impulse, or take a chance on a work that I’m not sure I’ll like, on the whole my reading selections are pretty targeted.  While this makes for a happy reading life, it does tend to produce a blandly positive list, particularly as I don’t like to write extremely negative reviews (there are several books in my life, such as Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, that took me years to appreciate).  Particularly as I didn’t review many books this year, I’m not going to pick out my top five, or ten or fifteen.  I do feel comfortable, however, briefly highlighting just a few of the works that impressed me, each for different reasons.  Please keep in mind that I’m excluding the novels that I posted on separately, such as Sigurd Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind or du Maurier’s The Parasites.

First Category:  The Novel That Surprised Me Most

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I included this little figurine in my photo, because it so accurately portrays my own trepidation at beginning Bennett’s novel for the third (or was it fourth?) time . . . .

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Old Wives a jinx book, although I’ve clearly struggled with it.  Do you have any inkling, my friends from the British Isles, how very difficult it can be for someone such as myself, when a writer begins his work with a detailed geographical description of a particular corner of England and then presupposes that you’re at least minimally acquainted with its character?  So, yes, there was a barrier here.  That was quickly surmounted, however, and I settled in to enjoy this wonderful novel.  Bennett recounts an absorbing tale of two sisters or is his actual subject the nature of time itself?  And who would have thought that Arnold Bennett would give such a exciting portrayal of a Paris under siege, or write such a vivid account of execution by guillotine, complete with sexual overtones?  If you like big, multi-character realistic novels á la 19th century, put this one near the top of your list.

Second Category: New to Me Contemporary Author

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I read this last October (some books just demand to be read around Halloween, don’t you think?).

Fagan uses her tale of a cursed Edinburgh tenement and its residents (which include the devil’s daughter herself, as well as the beat poet William Burroughs) to show an outsider’s history of Edinburgh over a ninety year period.  Brutal and brilliant, this combination of fairy tale and urban realism stayed with me for a long time and put Fagan on my “always check out her latest” list.

Third Category:  My Newly Discovered Classic

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Jean Stafford was one of my great discoveries last year.  After years of dodging The Mountain Lion (her best known novel) I finally read The Catherine Wheel on a whim.  With a style reminiscent of Henry James in his less difficult moments, this family drama set in the upper class New England of the 1930s displays to the full Stafford’s ability to evoke character and atmosphere.  I’m amazed that Stafford’s work appears to be so little read these days.  Could it be that the fame of her first husband, the poet Robert Lowell, has over-shadowed her accomplishments or because she wrote only three novels?  Happily, NYRB Classics has re-printed her debut novel Boston Adventure, which is one of my “must reads” for 2022.

Fourth Category: Most Rewarding Re-Read

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I’ve returned several times to these three novels. This time around, it was to The Bostonians.

Have you ever had one of those horrible, walk-the-night cases of insomnia, where absolutely nothing will put you to sleep?  In such cases, I’ve found, nothing will do but a really great novel that will take your mind off the fact that, all too soon, you’ll have to be up with the dawn and minimally functional.  During my last such bout, I finally settled on James’ The Bostonians, with the idea that I’d read a chapter or two then move on to a more contemporary work.  Well, two days later I’d finished my third (or is it fourth?) re-read of James’ flawed but fascinating novel.  This time around, more strongly than ever, James’ exploration of a woman’s place in society and his examination of a brand of conservatism clinging to the past seemed especially timely.  If you’re hooked on appealing characters and storybook endings, I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere.  That would be a shame, as you’d miss a psychologically acute study of this novel’s three protagonists, a vividly drawn supporting cast of secondary characters, and a wonderful portrayal of post-civil war Boston in all its intellectual glory. 

Fifth Category:  Shorter Works

I was very pleased that my 2021 reading continued to include quite a few of those shorter works that I had mostly ignored prior to the pandemic.  Although the five short story collections that I finished were all excellent, two deserve special mention:

0-3 Eileen Chang’s Love In A Fallen City and Aoko Matsuda’s Where The Wild Ladies Are really stood out for me among the short story collections I read in 2021.

Written and published in magazine form in the Shanghai of the 1940s, Chang’s stories were compiled and published in book form by NYRB Classics around 2010.  Don’t be misled by the title; Chang is concerned not with love but with the raw sexual warfare between men and women.  A young divorcee who has no illusions about the rich playboy with whom she becomes involved; an aging & unloved woman who spends most of her life getting those around her addicted to opium; a young girl who becomes a pawn in her scandalous aunt’s sexual maneuvers; the stories may be grim but they also effectively capture the tensions of a society in transition between old and new.  And did I mention they’re beautifully written?

Matsuda’s collection is emotionally at the other end of the spectrum.  Loosely inspired by Japanese fairy tales (no need to fear if you’re unfamiliar with them, as the collection includes a brief but helpful synopsis), Matsuda’s wildly inventive stories always manage to surprise.  As an added bonus, they’re frequently very funny as well.  I particularly enjoyed “Smartening Up,” in which a lovelorn young woman receives an unexpected visitor. 

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In addition to these I also read the remarkable quartet of novellas contained in Edith Wharton’s Old New York.  Although it’s impossible to choose among them, I think Turgenev’s First Love made the greatest impression simply because I’d not previously read any of his work. 

Sixth Category:  Greatest Discovery of The Year

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2021 was, for me, the year I really discovered literature in translation.  This particular pile includes many treasures, most of which were reviewed by other bloggers.  I particularly enjoyed Miss Iceland, a bittersweet story of a young writer struggling against the strictures of a traditionally patriarchal society, and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds, one of the most emotionally powerful novels I read last year.

Seventh Category: Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction

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The Bodiless Cat emerges from her cave and says, “Enough!  If you’re not going to discuss books about cats, it’s time to stop.”

Well, dear readers, I dare not disobey!  That’s it for 2021; now on to the New Year!

30 thoughts on “Good-bye 2021!

  1. Ha ha ha:) the kitty is right! That’s why I have a whole page for kitty books.

    Glad you were able to find some many excellent reads. I’ve read your reviews of some of them and will end up adding to my TBR from this list too. The only one from your list I’ve read is the old wives tale but too long ago to remember much. Also two of the Henry James from that collection, both of which surprised me in their outcome.

    Wish you a great 2022 and some more wonderful reads this year🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for the good wishes, Mallika, and a happy and wonderful New Year to you as well. Isn’t it amazing how the TBR stack keeps growing? Every time I visit a blog mine gets a new addition! (not that I really mind; but at times I do feel a little stressed because I want to read all these things but time/energy is limited).
      Which of the HJs did you read? Washington Square & Portrait of a Lady? I love both of them. The Bostonians is a weird novel, not too many people like it and even James himself thought it flawed (and I agree), but somehow it resonates with me. I really wanted to review it but ran out of time (maybe this year? Although I hate to carry over)
      I will definitely check out your kitty books, although my resident “She Who Must Be Obeyed” won’t be happy if she finds out I’m reading about another cat . . . . .

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      1. Yes indeed, it is those two. Each of the main characters seemed to act in line with what I’d have expected from the other. I havent read the Bostonians but have read What Maisie Knew and the Spoils of Poynton.

        This happens with my TBR too, almost every post throws up some title/s to add on.

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    1. Hi Gerts! So glad you clicked by. Happy New Year to you as well! I know what you mean about not making rules and I thought of that myself. I usually sign up for a couple of challenges, read most of the books and review only a few. Nevertheless, I like the framework because it makes me sort through the pile and I usually end up reading something I’d otherwise skip (no self discipline, I’m afraid!), Old Wives Tale & Night and Day, for example.
      I have no doubt that you’ll (collectively & singly) read many wonderful things, which I very much look forward to reading about on your blog.

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  2. I really like the way you’ve structured your annual reading review into these different categories, very engaging indeed! Of the various titles you’ve highlighted, it’s the group of books in translation that really appeals. I’ve read and loved a few of these – the Barberis, Nada, Three Summers and Skylark – so it’s highly likely that I would enjoy some of the others!

    Wishing you all the best for 2022 – reading-wise and otherwise!

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    1. JacquiWine — thanks for the kind words! I’m afraid that my structure was born of desperation, as I really wanted to post something about all the great books I’d read but it all seemed too overwhelming and this was a useful short cut. Weren’t some of the translated literature books wonderful? I very much enjoyed your reviews of Nada, Three Summers and Sunday in Ville-d’Avray. I think I missed Skylark– you didn’t review it this year, did you? It was one of my shelf warmers that had been sitting around for quite some time and I did struggle a bit with the names at first but — wasn’t it great? I loved it. It really is IMO a masterpiece.
      Have a great 2022 yourself and keep those wonderful reviews coming. I can’t wait until your next Anita Brookner post (you must be getting close to A Friend from England, which I’m thinking I may re-read).

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      1. Ha! Well, a function of necessity or otherwise, I found your categorisation both interesting and entertaining! You’re right in saying that I haven’t written about Skylark. I read it pre-blog but would love to revisit it at some point, maybe in a year or two to see how it compares to my memories.

        Good point about Brookner, too. I’m hoping to read my next fairly soon – Q1 2022, hopefully. X

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    1. Astonishing indeed, the number of all those great books. When I think about it, my reaction varies from exhiliration (“so many great things to read”) to mild depression (“so many great things to read and so little time”). It’s a Catch-22, I guess, but I wouldn’t have it any other way (have you read Catch-22 BTW? It’s great!)
      Have a great New Year and stay healthy. Hopefully you’ll be visiting one of your area’s great museums very soon and blogging about it . . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, it sounds like the year was complex in many ways, but you’ve come through it and read a long of great books along the way. I did enjoy reading about some of your highlights and I’m actually thinking I might have to give Arnold Bennett a try one day, despite having an unreasoning bias against him based on absolutely nothing! Glad you’ve discovered translated lit too – so many wonderful works!! Here’s to a happy 2022 of reading!!!

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    1. Hi Kaggsy — so glad you clicked by! Yes, I did the survive 2021, which actually was much better than 2020; in fact, compared to many I’ve had an easy time (at least in coastal Florida the climate allows for year round al fresco dining, so to speak!). As far as the reading, it was a great year where I began to feel that I was getting back on track. I must say I owe several very interesting books (not to mention a huge semi-peak on Mount TBR) to your blog posts!
      Bennett was a real surprise. Like you, I really was at least slightly biased against him, considering him a semi-Victorian relic whose work was of little current interest. Do you think it’s because of Woolf’s essay (Mrs. Brown & Mr. Bennett ???) targeting his work that he’s so completely ignored these days? I have no idea how the rest of his other novels would hold up and do suspect that Old Wives is probably the best of them (at least, that’s the conventional opinion; at some point, I’ll probably give Anna of the Five Towns a try, just to compare). I like lots of detail and am a bit of a fan of those big, sprawling 19th century things (think Trollope series), for those of similar taste, Bennett could well be an unmined treasure. On the other hand, the modernist novel is much more of a struggle as far as I’m concerned. I really must give our Ms. Woolf another try.
      I’m really getting hooked on translated literature. After all, the TBR pile needs more additions!
      A happy New Year to you as well! I’m very much looking forward to your posts (after all, the TBR pile need more additions . . . )

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  4. Yes, I do like that painting – must be a lovely piece to live with! It’s been a time since I’ve come across Jean Stafford’s books or Dawn Powell’s for that matter, thanks for the reminder. Hope this new year brings you many more wonderful books and good health in spite of living in the eye of the Covid hurricane.

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  5. Hi Julé — so glad you liked the painting; it was a present to myself when I moved into my new house. It’s hard to read the titles of the stacked books, but one of them is Atwood’s Stone Mattress. When I saw that, I knew this was meant to be!
    Isn’t it amazing, how book blogs expand one’s reading universe? After reading your comment, I immediately checked my stack of unread books and realized I’ve at least three by Dawn Powell, whom I haven’t yet read! Any recommendations regarding her best? As I said in my post, I hope to read another of Stafford’s novels this year. Also, I’d like to explore at least a few of her short stories (I think these are what actually won her the Pulitzer).
    Thanks for the good wishes (yes, I’m definitely living in Covid central: no masks, no social distancing, lots of crowds and only a moderate vaccination rate. I noticed that our governor just emerged from hiding today to give one of his distressing news conferences . . .) May you have a happy New Year filled with wonderful books, to which I add the perhaps selfish wish that you post about all of them!

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  6. What a great round up and I have added like a zillion books to my TBR…LOL! I am yet to appreciate Middlemarch….I just cannot seem to find any rhythm with it. But Old Wives Tale has been on top for a while and I will get to it in 2022 for sure, especially now that I know what I need to get past to get to the core of the book! A big thank you for that! I am also very curious about Fagan and Eileen Chang’s Love In A Fallen City; though I think I will get to Fagan quiker than Chang. I have not read Turgnev for a while and you are the second person in last two days to talk about First Love so I think that is also calling me. Finally I am also reading Shafak’s old bestseller 40 rules of love for the first time ( yes I am always slow in catching the bus 😦 ) and I so far have mixed feeling about it. But I have heard such amazing reviews for 10 mins that I may jump ahead! Wishing you a wonderful. healthy and bookish 2022!

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    1. Hi Cirtnecce — on the principle that “misery” loves company, I’m so happy I’ve contributed to your TBR! (let’s be honest, it’s not really misery is it? ).
      I know exactly what you mean about Middlemarch, as I had a similar reaction to it myself. My theory with Middlemarch is — when the time is ripe, you come to it! It’s such a complicated book, with so many characters & different story arcs, that it took me at least quite some time to get into it (I initially found it so boring, in fact, I used it as a cure for insomnia). It’s such a treasure, however, that it’s worth mutiple attemts (I put it in the same category for me as Moby Dick–at least 3 attempts, if not more–and Proust–can’t count the false starts. I haven’t yet made it with Joyce’s Ulysses!).
      If you like Victorian novels you’ll probably like Old Wives. The Penguin edition I read has a good introduction although I wish it had included more detailed footnotes. I wouldn’t say Bennett’s novel approaches the sheer richness of Middlemarch but IMO it’s easily up there with the best of Trollope and maybe even early James, if you’re not too demanding vis á vis the pyschological insight found in even the latter’s very early fiction.
      Like you, I first tried reading an early Shafak (Three Daughters of Eve, in my case); like your early Shafak experience, it didn’t gripe me and I gave up pretty quickly. My experience with 10 Minutes was absolutely different — I was into it from the beginning! I really wonder how many others have had similar experiences with Shafak’s work?
      Thanks for the good wishes and may you, too, have a happy and prosperous year. I very much look forward to reading about your adventures, bookish and otherwise!

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  7. I enjoyed reading your list, and particularly liked your category tags – I find the concept of 10 Favourite books for the Year to be very limiting. I’m not a fan of the Victorian novel, but that said, did pick up some ideas to add to my ever-growing Wish List. Best wishes for a brilliant 2022 crammed with lovely books. P.S. Your cat is gorgeous.

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  8. Hi Alison — so glad you clicked by and that you enjoyed the list. The categories were born of desperation; I can never select just a small group of favorites and, last year, I posted so little I had an enormous (to me) number of books to consider. Still, I might decide to continue something along these lines, just for some personal variety.
    I’m also glad that you enjoyed the Bodiless Cat, particularly as that photo is a personal favorite of mine. I actually have three cats (you can imagine the household chaos); this one is physically the smallest but psychologically the most dominant. Think Napoleon!

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  9. Ha! Always wise to obey a cat’s commands – the punishment for disobedience can be cruel! 😉 Looks like you had an excellent reading year, covering plenty of genres. I loved Arnold Bennett in my twenties and have been meaning to revisit him for ages – glad to hear you felt he has stood the test of time. And yes, I do know what you mean about authors expecting readers to know the kind of cultural hinterland of a particular place. I’m fine when it’s British because I do understand it, but I frequently struggle with American fiction for that reason.

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    1. Hi FF — glad you dropped by! Since you obviously have your own little dictator perched on a favorite seat, you clearly know all about the severity of the punishment that can be meted out!
      I was quite pleased with my 2021 reading, mostly because 2020 was such a low point, for me as for so many others. Last year, thankfully, I felt that my attention span was rebounding a bit and I could return to some more demanding reading choices. Posting, however, was another matter. I really wish I’d summoned the energy to review Old Wives Tale, since I enjoyed it so much (I may try to squeeze it in this year). How do Bennett’s other novels hold up? Do you remember any you’d particularly recommend? I don’t read nearly as much of those sprawling realistic novels as I did at one time, but when the mood is right nothing else will do.

      The cross cultural difficulties of reading (U.K. vs U.S.) are quite interesting. I personally have the most trouble with British geography, followed by certain nuances of class. And, of course, there are all sorts of cultural associations that are quite difficult, such as knowing that Bennett set his OWT in a area long-famous for its pottery/porcelain production. The slang & colloquialisms that pop up in British fiction aren’t really so bad, as most often meaning is clear from the context. It’s interesting to learn that a U.K. reader might have similar problems with American fiction.

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      1. Unfortunately I really don’t remember specific titles to recommend from back then. I used to read whatever the library had available since pennies were in short supply in that era, so the books don’t live on my shelves and I didn’t record my reading. But I vaguely remember reading several of the “Five Towns” novels and a couple of others. I’ve actually got The Old Wives Tale on my new Classics Club list, and didn’t know when I put it on if it would be a re-read or not – I’ll find out when I start reading it!

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      2. Isn’t it amazing, how much fades after a few years? I’ve been horrified when, about a third of the way through a “new” book, I realize that I read it in the past! This happens most often with mysteries . . .
        Although I’m in no rush (have too much to read already) I plan on trying another Bennett. I have a copy of Anna of the Five Towns; we’ll see how it goes.
        Your “pennies in short supply” made me laugh! Back in the day, the height of luxury for me was a brand new paperback, that no one else had read before me (I was living in what we’d now term a “red” state. Libraries were not a priority). Sometimes I think that’s now why I’m such a compulsive book hoarder . .

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  10. Looks like a fabulous reading year! I like how you structured your post – I’m always dithering over how to structure my end-of-year post.
    I really would love to read more books in translation – they always appeal to me!

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  11. It was a good reading year, which was a considerable relief after the disaster of 2020. It was NOT a good year for posting — I just couldn’t seem to muster the mental energy and discipline to actually write about anything. It was very frustrating, as I was reading so many great things. Here’s to a better 2022!

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  12. I loved The Old Wives’ Tale and I agree that those introductory descriptive passages can be tedious; I just imagine them in a “public television special presentation” voice and push forward. Heheh (Riceyman Steps was very good too: I do love a “shop novel”.)

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    1. I’m thrilled to meet a fellow fan of Bennett’s OWT. I can’t understand why it’s not on more bloggers’ list, particularly the lists of those who (like me) enjoy those big, sprawling, chock full of life novels. I loved the “public television” image! The voice of course would be very, very Oxbridge British!
      I very much appreciate your mention of Riceyman Steps, which I immediately goggled. I will definitely read another Bennett novel at some point but wasn’t sure which one (I have Anna of the Five Towns). Riceyman looks very interesting and is now definitely in the running!

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