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.