I’ve always loved to read so I can travel somewhere else, but thank goodness for reading and books in these last couple of years. They were a means to escape the stresses of the daily pandemic, to think about something different for a bit. This doesn’t mean the books I enjoyed were not challenging for the most part, but they let my brain shift to another time, another character, another place. And at the same time, they encouraged my engagement with essential issues: gender, autocracy, art, racism, antisemitism, history, language, belonging, love.
Some of these were published this year, some fiction, a couple of non-fiction, some I found on my own, others recommended by readers that I know. There are many more to get to and the pile next to my bed is still unwieldy, but I was held steady and engaged with the following titles:
The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez, Hades, Argentina by Daniel Loedel and Songs for the Flames: Stories by Juan Gabriel Vasquez are all novels set in South America. I’ve always been interested in South American countries, their histories and political trends, and these titles all tell of that violent history, blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, to try to capture the otherworldly feelings of war and terrorism and how everyday people tried to understand and respond.
In. by Will McPhail, And Now I Spill the Family Secrets by Margaret Kimball, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel are graphic novels that cover a range of topics, from loneliness and the need for connection. to family dysfunction, to the emergence of fitness culture in the U.S. Funny, informative, moving, weird – mixed with great art – what else do you need?
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa, Not a Novel by Jenny Erpenbeck and Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal are memoirs/biographies, stories of self with a lot of history mixed in. I loved A Ghost it the Throat, written so beautifully by an Irish poet, a book that dives into the lives of women, current and past, through an exploration into a famous Irish poem. Not a Novel is a series of essays by novelist Erpenbeck about her life growing up in East Germany and the lasting effects on her life. Letters to Camondo is told through a series of letters about a Jewish-French art collector who tried to assimilate into French culture but whose prodigy were destroyed by war and French collaboration. De Waal’s Hare with the Amber Eyes is great, too.
The rest of my favorites are novels that have struck me in some way: through writing, story, humor, insight. These include Matrix by Lauren Groff, about a 12th century nun who creates her own feminist idyll and Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart, who writes of a group of friends forced together during the pandemic, modelled on Anton Chekhov’s plays. Then there was The Wrong End of the Telescope, by Rabih Alameddine, with moods ranging from funny to devastating, about a transgender doctor who left Lebanon to live her life, and has now returned to the Meditteranean to help refugees. Oh, William! is Strout‘s latest about Lucy Barton and is told as if Lucy is spilling it all to the reader. It’s sparse, but playful, informed by Lucy’s traumatic past. Carter Sickels‘ The Prettiest Star, won the 2021 Ohioana Book Award in Fiction; it’s the story of a young man who left Ohio to be able to live his true life, who returns home to his family, dying of AIDS. Exploring hatred, prejudice, ignorance and love, it’s a gem. Snowflake by debut Irish author Louise Nealon, is compared to Sally Rooney’s books, but I found it to be less angsty and more interesting. Nealon’s protagonist is from poor stock, but is smart and so is accepted into university. As she meets people more affluent than her, she learns that they might not be as happy as she imagined.
I’ll finish with two last books. One, I’ve started, but haven’t finished: Kin by Miljenko Jergović, a Croation author. At 800 or so pages, it’s going to take me through this Winter, but so far it’s the kind of book I love. Set in Eastern Europe, it’s an epic about generations of family living through history that changed everything around them. And the last is the most recent in a science fiction series, The Wayfarers by Becky Adams. To me, her books are a perfect blend of envisioning the future, with a firm grip on humanity and a dose of humor thrown in.
I hope you find something to carry you through this time in the books that I’ve loved this year. If you have any favorites to recommend, feel free to comment and share!