I have done a year-end round-up of my reading on Novel Readings since I started blogging in 2007. Since Owen died, a lot of people have suggested to me that routines and rituals have value, and I am also trying to make myself act according to the principle I mentioned before, that “if something was worth doing before a crisis, it remains worth doing”—which is not to say that a post like this, or any individual post, is in itself especially worthwhile, but that perhaps Novel Readings itself is worth sustaining, and might be sustaining for me in some way as well. So in that spirit, here is a look back at the highs and the one big low of my reading in 2021.
Author of the Year
This doesn’t happen often for me, but it’s so much fun when it does: I read one book by an author that’s so good I promptly work my way through their other books and those are all really good too. Sarah Moss was an author like this for me a few years ago. In 2021 it was Jo Baker‘s turn. The first book of hers I read was actually The Body Lies, for my book club in February. I didn’t love it, but I found it really interesting, especially as a potential candidate for my seminar on women and detective fiction, because it is as much about the problem of how violence against women is represented in crime fiction as it is its own example of the genre. Our discussion piqued my interest in A Country Road, A Tree, which I loved, and that in turn convinced me to finally try Longbourn, which, against the odds, I also loved. Since then I have also read The Telling and The Undertow, and if her other two novels were more readily available in Canada I would have read them by now too.
The standout single book of the year for me was unequivocally Lonesome Dove. It gave me the kind of reading experience I am always looking for: immersive, affecting, thought-provoking. Close seconds were Whereabouts and Piranesi (neither of which, it’s worth observing, could be less like Lonesome Dove!) and maybe also Great Circle.
Non-Fiction of the Year
The best non-fiction I read in 2021 was Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five; a close second here was my colleague Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream. Both writers impressed me by their ability to tell a sensational story without themselves sensationalizing it. Rubenhold especially is committed to freeing her subjects from the pernicious and voyeuristic glamor that too often surrounds their killer, restoring them to us in the clearer light of their own humanity.
A great summer project was reading Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale along with Dorian and many others. An unexpected perk has been the lasting connections made with members of the Arnold Bennett Society.
Late to the Party
After giving up on Conversations with Friends back in 2019, I had something of a conversion to Sally Rooney in 2021, starting with Normal People (for me, the difference was ‘hearing’ it in my head in a lilting Irish accent) and then extending to Beautiful World, Where Are You, which I appreciated very much as a novel about people trying to think seriously about serious things.
If I were going to recommend just one book I read in 2021 to as many people as possible, Leonard and Hungry Paul would be the one. What a lovely novel, sweet but not saccharine, funny but soft. I didn’t write much about it myself, but my post links to Dorian’s much better one.
Most Unlikely Success
A Trollope novel but with dragons? It shouldn’t work, but somehow Tooth & Claw does—it was lots of fun.
Affinity: it remains my least favorite Sarah Waters novel—but because she’s so brilliant, that still means it’s better than most other novels.
Lucy Ellmann’s Things Are Against Us.
I read plenty of other books too; another year-end ritual is updating the Novel Readings index, something I’ll probably get around to before too much longer, as it’s just the kind of relatively mechanical task that appeals to me right now.
If December had ended differently and I had completed this post ‘on schedule,’ I would have concluded it, as I usually do, with a look ahead at some of my most anticipated reads of 2022. For the first time in my life, however, I am not really feeling like a reader. It’s not just that I’ve been having trouble concentrating since Owen’s death: it’s that, for now, the lure of books is, not gone, quite, but very faint. A couple of days ago I decided to practice reading again with a book I’ve loved for decades, Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense. I think it’s working, sort of: at any rate, looking at its familiar pages reminds me of loving to read, which is a start. Beyond that, I’ll just have to see how things go.