My Year in Reading, 2021 edition

Hey, it’s me! What happened to that person who seemed to have so much energy for blogging at the start of the year? Well, that energy went into self-reflection and journal-writing instead. Climbing out of depression and grief is hard work, but I’m doing it, slowly.

This fall I went up to full time at work and taught first-year literature classes for the first time in ages, so a lot of my reading energy was spent on books for class and student work.

My reading this year, then, continued to be affected by the upheaval in my personal life, and as a result it wasn’t the most interesting reading year I’ve ever had. Some of my reading experiences with my students were great! I’m going to write something about that for Dorian, and I’ll let you know when it’s posted. Here are some highlights from the rest:

All the DNFs. Soooo many books started and abandoned. Renewed multiple times but returned to the library unopened. It was not the books, dear reader, it was me. Me and my (lack of) attention span. That’s fine. The books will still be there if and when I’m ready for them. But I hope that in 2021 I’ll be readier, because I’m getting a bit tired of my comfort “reading” of choice . . . .

All of the mystery, mostly audiobooks. Reading to distract me just enough from things I was tired of feeling and thinking. Cozies to fall asleep to. Backlist binges from the library or free on Audible. Nothing too dark or gory. Touches of humor appreciated.

Most of these, I have little memory of and nothing to write about. Standouts included the Thursday Murder Club books by Richard Osman. Four elderly friends start a club discussing unsolved murders, but then real bodies start turning up in their retirement community. Funny and charming without being twee, and thoughtful about friendship, love, and aging. In a similar vein, I loved Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders, a follow-up to The Stranger Diaries and a tribute to Golden Age mysteries. If you like Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders or Hawthorne and Horowitz series, I think you would like this (I read the most recent Horowitz too).

I’ve also been listening to and reading Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond mysteries, all out of order. I had read some of them before, especially later ones, but now I’m aiming to be a haphazard completist. I love this series, and it’s interesting to see how it has changed over the years.

My favorite new discoveries were some of Michael Gilbert‘s books republished in the British Library Crime Classics series, and Flynn Berry, whose gripping thrillers put women front and center, not (or not only) as victims, but as actors. I read all three of her books, and I was intrigued by the way she uses the genre to explore family bonds. I started with Northern Spy and I think it is my favorite, but you really can’t go wrong.

But Liz, didn’t you read anything but mysteries? Yes, yes I did, though not a whole lot. Most of it was good though!

My favorite non-fiction this year took me on adventures (escape again). A World Beneath the Sands is Toby Wilkinson’s history of European Egyptology, which I enjoyed in audiobook read by Graeme Malcolm. If you’re a reader of Elizabeth Peters or romance novels featuring Egyptologists, I think you’ll love this. It’s peopled with larger than life characters and amazing discoveries. Wilkinson discusses Egyptology as a kind of proxy for other international rivalries between European powers, but he also considers the ethics of the enterprise and the way it excluded Egyptians for so long.

I learned about Menachem Kaiser’s Plunder from Dorian. Kaiser, a Canadian Jew, goes to Poland to see if he can reclaim the apartment building stolen from his family by the Nazis. Nothing in this story goes as expected, and next thing you know he’s in underground tunnels looking for a probably-mythical train full of treasure with some really drunk Polish treasure hunters. Kaiser’s story is funny and dramatic, and manages to reflect on history and memory in fresh ways. This review will give you a better sense of this fascinating book.

I always enjoy Kate Summerscale, and her latest book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, was no exception. It tells the story of a working-class 1930s woman beset by a poltergeist and Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee and psychical researcher who investigated her case. Summerscale shows immense sympathy for both of them, and the book reads like a mystery. I was on the edge of my seat.

Finally, there is Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries, which is a kind of intellectual adventure. Turkle is a psychologist who teaches at MIT and has written a lot about online life and the online self. Her memoir is both a moving and revealing personal history and and intellectual one. It’s full of good stories. Guys at MIT try to imagine what non-academics would use a home computer for, since they don’t write much. She has caviar on toast points with Lacan. The things she studies help her make sense of herself and her complicated family history.

Probably my favorite (non-mystery) novel of the year was A Change of Time, by Ida Jessen, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken. Set in rural Denmark, mostly in 1927, the novel tells the story of Fru Bagge, widow of the village doctor, through her diary entries. She reviews and comes to terms with her past and begins to find a place for herself in a future without her husband. It’s a quiet, reflective book, and found me at the perfect moment.

Natasha Brown’s Assembly has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. It’s only 100 pages, and focuses on a day in the life of the narrator as she prepares to travel to the home of her uppercrust boyfriend for his parents’ anniversary bash. (There are shades of Mrs Dalloway in this conceit, perhaps). This moment could be a triumph for the narrator, a Black woman who has worked incredibly hard to make it in a professional and social world that, as we see through her memories, has offered her endless racist micro (and macro aggressions). The book is powerful, but it’s a little too one-note to have sustained more pages. I found myself wondering whether success on these terms was her only option–and perhaps Brown meant me too. Is the unrelenting grind just one more racist trap she’s fallen into?

I think my favorite poetry collection of the year was Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance. Antrobus is deaf, and many of his poems reflect on relationship to language, both spoken and signed. He hooked me from the first poem, in which he visits Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and considers the architect’s idea that acoustics can bring us closer to God:

Even though I have not heard

the golden decibel of angels,

I have been living in a noiseless

palace where the doorbell is pulsating

light and I am able to answer.

I’m not sorry 2021 is ending, but it had plenty of bright spots, including, I see now, more good reading that I’d remembered. Whatever 2022 brings (and it’s not looking like it will be off to a great start), I’ll have the company of books, as I have my whole life. I’ve got a pile beside my bed I’m excited to get started on. Or perhaps I’ll set them aside for another mystery audiobook. . . . Maybe I’ll even blog about which it is!

Happy New Year, book friends. May 2022 bring us all better times.

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20 Responses to My Year in Reading, 2021 edition

  1. lauratfrey says:

    I’ve meant to read Sherry turkle for a while, I’ve been on a bit of a binge of books about online life and the evils of social media.

    Tbh I’m a little suspicious of people who do keep regular blog schedules “in these trying times” or when going through personal stuff… to each their own I guess, but I’m like you, my attention span goes to shit!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve never read anything of Turkle’s but her memoir, but she’s an interesting thinker.

      They sure are trying times. I struggle to do anything regularly! I’m thinking about ways to work on my reading focus this year.

  2. willaful says:

    I’ve been a DNF’ing machine this past year and I have no guilt about it at all. Enough bad stuff comes into my brain, I’m controlling what I can.

    I’m glad you’re working your way out of the abyss. I’m struggling a bit since going off one of my meds. Not sure how it’ll all wind up.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t feel guilty about DNFing, exactly, but it mostly is sheer inability to pay attention. I want to read more good books! I wish you well with the meds. I know it can be a real struggle, and I am so grateful the first one I tried worked for me.

  3. Sunita says:

    Happy New Year, Liz!

    You can add me to the DNF bench. Somewhere in the fall I cancelled a bunch of library holds after returning far more than I read (or even opened). I still have a couple but I’ve cut way back. And your list of mystery series brings back memories of a time in my life when I was reading all the Joan Hess Maggody books, all the Simon Brett Charles Paris and Mrs. Pargeter series, and more I’m sure I’ve forgotten. They are definitely comforting.

    I was underwhelmed by Assembly. I agree it’s powerful and I liked the structure, but it it felt very one-note to me as well. I had no trouble believing that all the white people in her life were at best oblivious and at worst actively unpleasant and racist toward her, but it worked more as real-life truth than as truth in the context of the novel. Finance is a brutal profession, so it’s not surprising that it’s brutal in its racism (ditto for certain types of cross-class interactions, or race+class ones), but that’s not the same thing as showing that brutality effectively in a story. Maybe it hit hard in the UK because they haven’t had as widely read a corpus of work that shows it to them. I also found the switches between the storytelling and didactic-essay passages to not always work well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Reading Assembly I just wondered why her only options were succeeding on those particular terms or failing. I’m curious to see what Brown does next and whether she can successfully write something longer and more nuanced.

      My library has really increased its digital offerings in the pandemic, which is great in some ways, but makes it oh so easy to place holds and then send them back. I was talking to a friend yesterday who said she is switching back to mostly paper book holds, because they get her off her screen and the friction of having to go to the library to pick them up and return them makes her choose more carefully. I think I’m going to try that.

      • Sunita says:

        RE: Assembly, I wonder if the idea was that once she had committed to professional success, she couldn’t detach herself from its metrics of what comprised success or failure. You have to compromise so much to make it in a field that treats you badly, and while some people manage to keep to their own compass, others don’t. So walking away is the only option, and in her case it was both facilitated and super-charged by her medical issues.

        It’s received so much OTT praise, even though it really does read like a debut. Maybe it’s the style, maybe its the eloquently expressed (and completely justified) rage. Or maybe it’s just the publishing hype machine. I do think Brown is very talented and like you I am interested to see where she goes next.

        I abandoned ebooks for a while, and I did have some success with audiobooks and print. But sadly my issues were with reading at all more than format. I’m keeping all three in rotation this year, though.

  4. I have missed your reviews.

    I had a lot of DNFs this year too. I think it has something to do with getting older; when I was young the amount of time I had felt infinite and I didn’t worry about whether I was wasting it on a book, but as I age I’m more conscious of the fact that time is precious. I know a lot of people who read less than usual this year, though, so maybe it’s also that we’re harder to engage right now, a tough audience.

    I have heard excellent things about THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB and I gave it as a holiday gift to my elderly mother-in-law who loves cozy mysteries. I’ve even been thinking of reading it myself, though I don’t read mysteries very often.
    Do you ever read noir mysteries? I don’t generally but I made an exception for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s VELVET WAS THE NIGHT and it was excellent. I’m working on my Best of 2021 list right now and VELVET will be on it.

    A CHANGE OF TIME sounds lovely. Do you think I would like it?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I feel like I finished a lot of books that were kind of wasting my time and returned (or bought and still haven’t cracked) some really good ones. Fingers crossed for more focus this year.

      My daughter recommended Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic to me. I definitely need to read more of hers.

      I think that you would like A Change of Time. It’s slow and quiet and kind of melancholy, or reflective—but the ending is happy. I loved watching the character spread her wings.

      • I was an outlier but I didn’t care for MEXICAN GOTHIC. It takes place mostly inside a house and I would have liked the world outside the house—1950s Mexico—to play a bigger role. That usually happens in her books and it’s one of the things I love about them. Beyond that I didn’t enjoy the storyline, but gothic horror isn’t the kind of thing I typically enjoy. I wouldn’t have read the book if I hadn’t liked GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW so much. The heroine is one of her best characters, however.

        I think VELVET WAS THE NIGHT might interest you more because it has no fantastical or paranormal elements. It’s a historical noir mystery. One thing I appreciate about Moreno-Garcia is that she doesn’t write the same book twice. I’ve had mixed experiences with her books but they have all been very different from each other.

        VELVET WAS THE NIGHT is also more literary than a couple of the others. The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and other media outlets have named it one of the best books of the year. With all that said, I can’t be sure that it would be your thing.

        I will look into A Change of Time. It sounds lovely.

  5. Liz
    May 2022 be a good year for you.
    Thanks for bringing Flynn Berry to my attention. I’ll give ‘Norther Spy’ a try. I’m always on the lookout for new-to-me mystery authors.
    I wanted to let you know that I read Jon McGregor’s new book ‘Lean Fall Stand’ and was captivated. I loved it, almost as much as I loved ‘Reservoir 13’. Another one on my ‘Best of’ list is ‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff–a lovely, lively bit of historical fiction featuring poet Marie of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
    I enjoyed reading about all your mystery reading/listening. I really had fun with Osman’s two (so far) Thursday Murder Club books. I think I preferred Lovesey’s Sgt Cribb books to the modern Diamond stories, but that’s just me.
    As for all the DNFs–join the club! I consider that I had a good reading year, yet 30-50% of all I borrowed went back to the library either unfinished, unread, or unopened.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s a pandemic of DNFing. I am looking forward to Lean Fall Stand. I bought it so that when I’m in the right mood I’ll have it and it won’t be due back in the library in two days.

      I gave myself and my parents Matrix for Christmas. Usually I give them books I read and loved in the last year, but this year there wasn’t that much (I did send them A Change of Time) so I also chose some I wanted to read along with them. My book group is reading Fates and Furies this month, so I will be discovering Lauren Groff.

    • Speaking of Resevoir 13, it’s on a limited-time deal on kindle today for only $1.99. I snapped it up.

  6. Kaetrin says:

    Happy new year – may it be an improvement on the last couple!

    I had more DNFs than usual too but still managed to do quite a bit of reading and find good books and good listens. I had a terrible reading slump in the middle of the year and then I tried to cut the top of one of my fingers off which put the kybosh on reviewing for a while so I read from my own TBR which was a bit of a treat actually. 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      We could all use a better year! Here’s hoping. Sometimes having something that makes us take off the pressure to read certain things is a gift—though trying to cut off your finger seems extreme! Happy reading in 2022!

  7. Happy New Year, Liz. I’m glad you are emerging from your depression, even if it is a bit slowly. As for all your DNFs, at least you saw the potential for reading in those unopened, unread books. Another tick in the hopeful box. Here’s to more books read in 2022.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, Vassiliki! Unread books as a symbol of hope. I love it. Happy New Year to you and yours.

      • willaful says:

        I also really loved someone’s comment that looking for more books is a way of connecting with them at times when it’s hard to read. I know we’ve both bemoaned that tendency in ourselves.

        I’ve decided my focus for the new year is to take steps to improve my attention span.

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