Favorite Books of 2021

Portrait of Marie Jeanette de Lange by Jan Toorop 1900

This is a sequel to Half a Year of Reading posted in July.

In the second half of 2021 I read even more books than from January to June. Though I won’t give a number. I don’t count because for me it’s not a competition or a goal to check off. I find the comments on Facebook reading group pages very dispiriting as people stress over meeting reading goals. As if we didn’t have enough to stress about in 2021! I’m like Thomas Jefferson, “I cannot live without books.” More time for reading opened up as my grandsons went back to real school in September and I no longer had to supervise virtual learning. Much as I enjoy spending time with the boys I can tell you that this was not quality time! 

I read books old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, but all well-written. I have no patience for poorly written books however much they may be hyped in the media.  I threw aside one book that sounded promising, a World War II spy story, because in the first paragraph a character gave a “lop-sided grin.” I assure you no such tired cliches appear in my favorite books.

Fiction

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Though classified as fiction this book reads more like a memoir of the Irish poet’s obsession with an 18th century Gaelic poem. The Keen for Art O’Leary by Eibhlin Dubh is a dramatic lament for her murdered husband. Critic Peter Levi called it the greatest poem of the 18th century. Translated by Ghriofa, it begins with Eibhlin’s memory of meeting Art and falling in love:

O my beloved, steadfast and true!
The day I first saw you
by the market’s thatched roof,
how my eye took a shine to you,
how my heart took delight in you,
I fled my companions with you,
to soar far from home with you.

Eibhlin recalls their joyful life together and then the dreadful moment when news reaches her that Art has been attacked and lies bleeding in a ditch. She leaps on her horse but arrives at his side too late, in the extremity of grief falling to her knees and drinking her beloved’s blood:

Love, your blood was spilling in cascades
and I couldn’t wipe it away, couldn’t clean if up, no
no, my palms turned cups and oh, I gulped.

Ghriofa wants to learn all she can about the woman behind this intense poem of love and grief. She shares her research alongside the chaos of her daily life as the mother of young children. Rarely have housework and mothering been described with such poetic flair. The lives of these two female poets, centuries apart, intertwine for an unforgettable reading experience.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

This modern classic by the revered German author is another work of fiction that reads more like memoir. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading it but I’m very glad I finally did. Sebald spent much of his life in England as a professor of literature at the University of East Anglia. This is an account of his walking tour around the Suffolk coast and countryside. Though that is a bit like saying Ulysses is a day in the life of an Irishman. Many of the towns and villages he passes through have an abandoned air. Down-at-heel Lowestoft was once a posh resort for wealthy Londoners, while Dunwich, a medieval port city of 4,000 people, lies drowned beneath the sea. Sebald visits ruins of all kinds from a medieval monastery to abandoned military installations. Along the way he digresses on stories of the history and colorful characters associated with each place. There are such disparate tales as the fate of seventeenth century writer Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, a 1672 naval battle between the British and Dutch, the crashes of two American pilots during World War II, and an encounter with a man who has devoted years to building a scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem. The text is interspersed with black and white photos taken by the author, dream-like images that contribute to the haunting power of this contemplative work. 

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

My number one favorite book of the year is like an Irish Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Louisa is a new scholarship student at a posh convent school in a clifftop mansion reminiscent of Manderley. Mr. Lavelle is a charismatic art teacher who encourages the girls’ teenage crushes while the nuns anxiously patrol their behavior. More than one girl believes he is in love with her. Then one night the teacher and a student disappear. Amid the scandal the school closes and the mansion falls into a Gothic ruin. Twenty years later a young journalist comes across the unsolved mystery and determines to find out what happened to the missing pair. Did they really run away together as everyone assumed? Why were they never found? The investigation takes twists and turns until a key witness finally breaks her silence. Donohue writes with lush, atmospheric prose. The chilly fog-shrouded cliffs and the mansion ruins are a fitting Gothic setting for the emotionally charged plot. 

Nonfiction

There is really nothing I like better than a good literary biography, especially if the author in question has led a less than exemplary life. This year I read two that make my best list, though the authors could hardly be more different. I always read a lot of history and this year I went back much further in time than usual.

Burning Man: The Trials of D. H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson begins by admitting that there may be no need for a new Lawrence biography. He is rarely taught in college courses nowadays, worship of the phallus being out of literary fashion. But she felt there was more to learn about his difficult middle years, 1915 to 1925. Lawrence was a coal miner’s son who “rose up in the world,” his words, and was convinced of his own genius. He expected everyone to worship at his altar, which did not make for a very likable person. The gossips of literary London, the usual suspects, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, all had their say about him in letters and memoirs, and it isn’t kind. A sample opinion: “Impossibly self-aggrandizing, semi-sane bore … with fantasies of divine leadership.” He destroyed most friendships and discarded numerous adoring women. His German wife Frieda left her husband and three young children for him and spent the years until his death trapped in an abusive relationship. These years also cover his sojourn in New Mexico sponsored by another adoring woman, Mabel Dodge Luhan. Wilson explores these dysfunctional relationships as key to the extraordinary works he produced during this time, including The Rainbow and Women in Love. If you enjoy spending time with eccentric sometimes appalling people, but at a safe distance, this book is for you. It’s a winning combination of scholarship and entertainment and I lapped it up.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

This book completely overturns the stereotypical image of Neanderthals as brutish creatures easily outcompeted by the more intelligent homo sapiens. New paleolithic research methods reveal that Neanderthals were in fact quite like us, toolmakers and artists, who adapted to changing environments in Europe for over 300,000 years. They lived in families, buried their dead, and made their homes in diverse places from the northern tundra to the shores of the Mediterranean. Sykes is a wonderful guide to all the new findings, combining scientific expertise with the ability to communicate it clearly. Much of the new information comes from DNA analysis. It is amazing how much scientists can now deduce from a tiny fragment of bone or a stone tool. Sykes also has a facility for lyrical writing, beginning each chapter with an imaginative scene of life among the Neanderthal. DNA also reveals that homo sapiens lived alongside our Neanderthal cousins for thousands of years, interbreeding with them. Some Europeans and Asians have between 1% and 2% Neanderthal genes in their DNA. (I’m reading a newer book on the subject now that claims people with Neanderthal DNA are three times more likely to die of COVID. There’s a bad taste joke in there somewhere but I’ll refrain). Here is how Sykes sums up: “The incredible details now amassed about Neanderthals are so far beyond the dreams of pioneer prehistorians, they verge on science fiction.” Her book is a revelation.

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Simpson

Here is another book that overturns prevailing notions. The image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a sickly invalid, author of a few pretty sonnets but eclipsed by her husband’s fame, is entirely untrue. Simpson sets out to correct the record on Elizabeth’s life and work and a portrait of a quite different woman emerges. Though she did suffer from somewhat mysterious ailments, she was a strong personality able to break away from her controlling father and establish a life of her own. At the age of forty she could only marry Robert Browning by eloping in secret. Her father never spoke to her again. And during her lifetime she was by far the more famous poet, opening doors in literary London for her younger husband. Robert only made his reputation as a leading poet of the age after his wife’s death. Her long narrative autobiographical poem Aurora Leigh was a critically acclaimed best seller. Ruskin judged it the greatest poem in English, surpassing even Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was also a principled advocate for the abolition of slavery. Her family’s money came from slave-owning sugar plantations in Jamaica, but when she learned from a brother about the cruel exploitation of enslaved people she began to speak out. Her 1845 poem The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims Point was published in the American abolitionist anthology The Liberty Bell. One thing that is true in the traditional tale is that the marriage of Elizabeth and Robert was a genuine love match. Elizabeth’s health improved when the couple moved to Florence and she gave birth to a son. After her death in 1861 Robert never married again. I found Elizabeth a lovely companion to spend time with in the pages of this book.

And the rest …

As always my preferred escapist reading was psychological suspense. My nomination for best of the year is Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney. Not only does the reader not know quite what is going on, but neither do the main characters, a married couple on vacation in a remote Scottish guest house. Authors of these kind of books seem to be vying with one another for most mind-blowing twist and Feeney certainly takes that crown. I also enjoyed the new titles by Paula Hawkins, A Slow Fire Burning, and Lisa Jewell, Watching You, and discovered another excellent English writer in this genre, Alex Marwood.

I cannot close out this year of reading without mentioning the death of Joan Didion. When I first moved from England to California it was her writing, particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that helped me understand this strange New World in which I found myself.

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2 thoughts on “Favorite Books of 2021

  1. Ever since researching material for a series of classes on the biblical Book of Genesis, I’ve been intrigue by early humankind, namely Neanderthals and their cousins as precursors of Homo Sapiens. Your review of “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art: by Rebecca Wragg Sykes further intrigues me, enough that I want to order it from Amazon this week. Thank you!

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    1. In your research did you come upon the theory that hunter gatherers were in paradise, easily plucking fruit from trees, and were cast out into the world of agriculture, which required far more work, sweat of their brows. If so can you recommend a book on that?

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