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

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Biden’s Twelve Days of Christmas

For Christmas 2018 I wrote Trump’s 12 Days of Christmas. Now it is Joe Biden’s turn.

On the first day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Joe Manchin’s lump of coal, not really shocking!

On the second day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

On the third day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Three obstructive Republicans
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

On the fourth day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Four Fox hosts a lying
Three obstructive Republicans
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

On the fifth day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Five COVID variants
Four Fox hosts a lying
Three obstructive Republicans
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

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The Plains of Abraham

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.

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The Devil’s Tines

Early 17th Century French fork

The humble dinner fork an instrument of the devil? Surely not! Yes, the fork has quite a notorious history. As soon as the new-fangled eating implement was introduced to Europeans by a Byzantine princess it became the focus of clerical ire. When Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the Doge she carried with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. Cleric Peter Damien, a future saint, witnessed the shocking scene:

Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry it to her mouth. God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating. 

His opinion was confirmed a few years later when the unfortunate woman died of the plague, surely God’s punishment for her vanity he declared. The fact that sinful courtesans were known to eat sweets with a fork was even more reason to ban their use.

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Triptych

This cycle of poems is dedicated to my son Patrick Francis Hanrahan 1979-2002. Today would be his birthday. I wrote them at different stages of his life, the third shortly after his death from complications of mono. It was inspired by the last photo taken of him on his 23rd birthday.

I. Boy

          Golden-haired quicksilver boy
          You crash and rage
          About the house,
          All knees and elbows,
          Tumble of limbs and words
          In daring, perfect poise
          Of near-falls, cries, yells.

          My golden-haired quicksilver boy,
          Dropped into sleep
          Your delicate, pale-moonglow face,
          Curled, uncoiled body
          Stills.   
                                                                                             
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Half a Year of Reading

These are my favorite books of the year so far. I’ve also read some downright silly, some forgettable, and some dreadful books which will get a mention at the end.

Fiction

Think you could never feel heartache for a robot? Surrender to the magic of Ishiguro’s writing. Klara is an AF, a solar-powered Artificial Friend, purchased as a companion for Josie, a teenage girl who suffers from a mysterious illness. Klara is programmed to recognize and respond to human emotions and to always place the needs of her human first. She narrates the story, so we see the human world through her eyes, a disorienting combination of astute observation and naivety. As in Ishiguro’s most famous novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, the disturbing truth about Josie’s society and her illness are gradually revealed. When Klara decides she needs help to complete her mission she turns to the higher power who gives her life, the Sun. Once again Ishiguro’s hypnotic prose holds the reader in a spell. 

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Anglo-Saxon Values

The Anglo-Saxons have been in the news lately, but not in a good way. A proposal to form a Congressional Caucus to promote “Anglo-Saxon values” turned out to be a bit too explicit a nod to White Supremacists, even for the current iteration of the GOP. White Supremacists have sadly co-opted the term Anglo-Saxon, making it a divisive buzz word rather than simply the name of a period of English history. Lets look at Anglo-Saxon history and values. I have several books on my shelves to refresh my memory. A lovely illustrated edition of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in the 8th century and a battered paperback of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of narratives compiled in the 9th century reign of Alfred the Great. There’s also several books about archeological discoveries, including a hoard of gold treasure and the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial, and of course a copy of Beowulf.

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The Manchester Martyrs

On November 23rd 1867 three Irishmen, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged on a hastily built scaffold outside Salford Gaol in Manchester. The execution was a botched affair, carried out by William Calcraft who was…

notoriously unable to calculate the correct length of rope required for each individual hanging; he frequently had to rush below the scaffold to pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This is what happened to the unfortunate Larkin. O’Brien suffered a lengthy ordeal when the attending priest prevented Calcraft from dispatching him in the same way. He hung twitching on the rope for three quarters of an hour as the priest held a crucifix before him. Allen was luckier and died instantly. 

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Duck Duck Gone

Long ago in an England far far away my sister Angela adopted a duck. Her motivation is lost to history. Perhaps it was nostalgia for our childhood Sunday picnics in Valentines Park, a short bus ride from home. I remember how much we enjoyed feeding the ducks from the bag of bread crusts we brought along. We didn’t yet know how harmful it is to feed wildlife. Perhaps a newly enlightened Angela was seeking atonement. The story of the adopted duck recently resurfaced when she found the documentation in a box of old papers.

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