Books I Read in 2021

As I do at the beginning of every year, I’ll give you a run-down on what I had read the previous year. In this instance, the previous year was 2021, a good year for reading by virtue of the Covid restrictions. I’ll mention all books I read in the year, but won’t waste too many sentences on the ones I disliked or was not especially moved by.

The picture above is of the front cover of the first book I read in 2021, and one that did indeed move me. The covers on Kawakami’s books, which I assume she gets to choose, often incorporate a unique and idiosyncratic feature, i.e. that of a young woman levitating across the landscape. I suspect it may be pointless to ask the reason why.

So, let’s get down to it:

(1) Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami translated from the Japanese. I struggled to get a proper handle on this book at first, so I read it a second time, and will probably end up reading it a third time. It tells the story of Kei, a woman whose husband disappears without trace one day, and who is, ever since, haunted by ghostly presences. Kei tries to enlist the help of these ‘ghosts’ to solve her problem. So, it is very much a story of the interior workings of Kei’s mind. The main characters are Kei herself, her teenage daughter, her mother, and her occasional lover Seiji. And let’s not forget the Japanese seaside town of Manazuru. It is a character in its own right, rendered with telling vibrancy in this story. Very few novels I have read invoke such a strong sense of place as Manazuru. I found reading this novel, in the final analysis, to be an extremely moving experience.

(2) Sapiens, A Graphic History, Vol. I, The Birth of Civilization by Yuval Noah Harari. Back in 2017, I read Harari’s impressive book, A Brief History of Humankind. Since then, as a celebrity writer, he has apparently decided to tell the same story through the medium of a series of graphic novels. This is the first of these graphic novels. It is a most worthwhile project for him to embark upon, because Harari’s ideas are delicious fruit for the mind, even when you find yourself compelled to disagree with what he has to say or to doubt its provenance. Harari becomes a character in his own book, and that bumptious character known as Dr Fiction is irresistible. I look forward to Vol. 2.

(3) Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. This novel has been billed as the novel to read during a pandemic, so I decided to give it a go. It is about the travails of a fictional epidemiologist, Martin Arrowsmith. Set mostly in 1920s USA, these are the days before antibiotics, when bacterial epidemics were a worry. Arrowsmith’s aspiration is to pure research, but he is constantly frustrated by commercial pressures, and by being constantly put-upon to publish incomplete results. I’m sure nothing much has changed over the decades. Lewis’ writing is uneven. Sometimes it is coherent and at other times it reads as if he was under the influence, which doubtless was the case. But it is a compelling story about the inevitable conflict between pure science and Capitalism 101.

(4) Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This is the first of a trilogy by the author. Back in 2014, I read the second in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, so I’m reading them out of order. In truth, I may or may not bother to read the third because I think I’ve got the general idea. The general idea is that Thomas Cromwell, unscrupulous advisor to Henry VIII, did right well for himself until he finally got the axe (literally) as did almost everybody in Henry’s orbit. So, it’s a most interesting story, researched well and told well by Mantel. Historical fiction doesn’t get much better than this. Wonderful detail, historically accurate, but don’t expect too much heart. Almost all of the characters – what would you expect? – are irredeemable.

(5) The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. A sweet book about life in Oz in the 1950s, made into a good film with similar name by Bruce Beresford. God, they were such simple days. Lisa, a student who has just finished her final year of secondary education, has taken a Christmas holiday job at an upmarket department store in Sydney. Here, mingling with the store assistants – women in black – she gets her first taste of existence outside an educational institution, and it is to be a life-changing experience. Treat yourself to it, and to the film.

(6) Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I was disappointed. Ishiguro has written some really luminous stuff, especially The Buried Giant, which I read in 2018. But, in this one, it seems to me he is trading on his former literary and commercial success. The theme: the world of AI at some time in the future, when a young girl may rely on the services of a robotic Artificial Friend. To me, it came across as superficial, and lacking in depth. Robotic, perhaps? What, I asked myself, could I be missing? Then I came to the conclusion that the missing piece was not inside me, but intrinsic to the novel itself. It is the shell of a novel, inside which a good story might have grown but didn’t.

(7) Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami translated from the Japanese. This author is, I am told, no relation to the more famous Haruki Murakami. His novel, an awful mess, is a boys’ own story cooked up with a liberal dash of slease. At times it resembles, in textual form, the worst kind of gratuitous manga. Don’t waste your time or money.

(8) The Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago translated from the Portuguese. This wonderful little tale (fable?), about the length of a short story, reflects on the search by two ordinary people for their respective identities, for which the ‘unknown island’ is a metaphor. It has gorgeous illustrations, and a charm rarely to be found in contemporary literature. In short, a gem.

(9) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I really enjoyed this book. Some people have tried to belittle it by categorizing it: ‘sentimental pfaff for women’ or ‘Jane Austen for socialists’. There’s more to it than this. It may seem dated to some, but Gaskell, over 150 years ago, certainly knew how to draw characters, portray accurately the time and the place, and develop a coherent story line. I found the final chapter, where John Thornton and Margaret Hale are reconciled, to be very moving. Others, more cynical, will doubtless choose to dub it unforgivably mushy.

(10) The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen by Krissy Kneen. Essentially, this is a biography of the author’s grandmother, and an account by the author of her attempts to uncover gaps in her family history. It is certainly not world shaking, but does expose a curious historical quirk: the one-time fact of the Alexsandrinke, women in an impoverished post-WWI Slovenia who travelled to Egypt to become nannies to rich Italian families stationed there. The author takes her grandmother’s ashes, divides them into three, and buries a portion in each of Central Queensland, Slovenia, and Egypt. As you would.

(11) The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago translated from the Portuguese. A superb novel. It is the best one I have read this year, and possibly the best thing Saramago has written. Ricardo Reis is an avatar of Fernando Pessoa, a renowned poet of 20th century Lisbon. Saramago brings him to flesh-and blood life, even having him enter into debate with the deceased Pessoa. Always attempting to maintain a distance between himself and events in the real world, Reis observes (1) the arrival in Lisbon of refugees from the Spanish Republic and the Civil War it engendered, and (2) the police state of Antonio Salazar which Reis has the misfortune to experience first hand. He also manages to engage, with suitable detachment, in affairs with two women of diametrically opposite social class. Saramago tells his story with his particular brand of humour, wry as all get-out, and succeeds in bringing to life the beautiful city of Lisbon. Having now read this book, I would just love one day to return to Lisbon, if for no other reason than to search out the statue of Adamastor, which features prominently in the story. I shall read this book again for the sheer pleasure of it, and aim over time to read all Saramago’s fiction. Thankfully, he was a prolific writer, so this portends pleasure for some time to come.

(12) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This is an ingenious story with convoluted multiple plots, and is much better, in my opinion, than her more well-known novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Oppressive male dominance via patriarchal families features in both these novels. Characters are well drawn, especially in the bits relating to the Chase family dynasty. There are twists and turns aplenty, including as relates to the authorship of the novel within a novel known also as The Blind Assassin. It is not a hard book to read. Mostly it reads itself, but you must be prepared for the sudden swerves it makes from one line of travel to another.

(13) Census by Jesse Ball. A fascinating book. A dying man embarks on a road trip with his Down’s Syndrome son. They are to be census takers. They travel through the north from A to Z, fulfilling their duties in a somewhat unconventional manner. Throughout their journey, the son proves to be a distinct asset, exerting a calming force on all their dealings. This novel tilts towards The Castle by Kafka and Invisible Cities by Calvino, two most worthy models indeed to tilt towards. I was entranced. The inevitable ending is moving beyond description, so I’ll describe no more. Read this one for yourself. But do read it.

(14) Othello by William Shakespeare. I’ve set myself the task of reading at least one Shakespeare play per year. Last year, I read Richard II again, decades after being forced to read it at secondary school. For this year, I chose Othello, which would never, in a fit, grace a school curriculum. The language would be presumed far too bawdy for the ears of young innocents. Shakespeare takes us step by step through the process by which Iago, the archest of arch villains, persuades Othello, a well-respected and well-adjusted moor (and a national hero to boot), to murder his new wife, who loves him and is beloved by him. She, Desdemona, is the most submissive of women, going so far as to address Othello as ‘my lord’ even as he strangles her. No man comes out of this grim episode smelling of roses. Even the worthy Cassio at one stage stoops to engage in idle chatter – pub talk of the era – demeaning to women. Never fear. All of them get their comeuppance in the wash. Wonderful language throughout, of course. But are we not all led to believe that Shakespeare in effect invented the language?