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
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
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
Fourth Category: Most Rewarding Re-Read
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:
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.
Sixth Category: Greatest Discovery of The Year
Seventh Category: Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction
Well, dear readers, I dare not disobey! That’s it for 2021; now on to the New Year!