My Most Memorable Backlist Reads of 2021
Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.
(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.
Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.
The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.
Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects. She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.
Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)
Short Stories in September, Part III: Butler, Costello, MacLaverty, Washington
Today I have a third set of terrific and varied short story collections. Between this, my Part I and Part II posts, and a bonus review I have coming up on Friday, I’ve gotten through 12 volumes of stories this month. This feels like a great showing for me because I don’t naturally gravitate to short stories and have to force myself to make a special effort to read them every September; otherwise, they tend to languish unread on my shelves and TBR.
From science fiction and horror tales set in alternate worlds to gritty slices of real life in Texas via two sets of quiet Irish relationship studies, this quartet of books showcases a range of tones and genres but fairly straightforward story structures and points of view. This was such a strong batch, I had to wonder why I never call myself a short story fan. All:
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2005)
My first R.I.P. selection and one I can heartily recommend – even if you’re normally wary of dystopias, horror and science fiction. Butler makes these genres accessible by peopling her plots with relatable protagonists and carefully accounting for their bizarre predicaments without wasting time on extraneous world-building. The way in which she explores very human issues alongside the existence of alien beings reminds me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, another of my rare forays into sci fi.
Along with the original five stories Butler published in 1970s and 1980s magazines and anthologies, this second edition contains two essays on her writing process and two new stories that date to 2003. In “Bloodchild,” a small band of humans live on another planet ruled by the Tlic, which sound like giant spiders or scorpions. Gan learns he is expected to play his part by being a surrogate for T’Gatoi’s eggs, but is haunted by what he’s heard this process involves. In a brief afterword (one is included with each piece here), Butler explains that the story arose from her terror of botflies, which she knew she might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon, and that she has always faced what scares her through her writing.
My other favorite story was “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about a subclass of people afflicted with Duryea-Gode disease. A cruel side effect of a parent’s cancer treatment, the illness compels sufferers to self-harm and they are often confined to asylums. Lynn and Alan visit his mother in one such institution and see what their future might hold. “Speech Sounds” and “Amnesty” reminded me most of the Parable novels, with the latter’s Noah a leader figure similar to Lauren. After an apocalyptic event, people must adapt and cooperate to survive. I appreciated how the two essays value persistence – more so than talent or inspiration – as the key to success as a writer. This was my fourth book by Butler and I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep going and read her whole oeuvre. (University library)
The China Factory by Mary Costello (2012)
Academy Street is a near-perfect novella and I also enjoyed The River Capture, so I wanted to complete the set by reading Costello’s first book. Its dozen understated stories are about Irish men and women the course of whose lives are altered by chance meetings, surprise liaisons, or not-quite-affairs that needle them ever after with the could-have-been. The mood of gentle melancholy would suit a chilly moonlight drive along the coast road to Howth. In the opening title story, a teenage girl rides to her work sponging clay cups with an oddball named Gus. Others can’t get past things like his body odour, but when there’s a crisis at the factory she sees his calm authority save the day. Elsewhere, a gardener rushes his employer to the hospital, a woman attends her ex-husband’s funeral, and a school inspector becomes obsessed with one of the young teachers he observes.
Three favourites: In “And Who Will Pay Charon?” a man learns that, after he rejected Suzanne, she was hideously attacked in London. When she returns to the town as an old woman, he wonders what he might have done differently. “The Astral Plane” concerns a woman who strikes up a long-distance e-mail correspondence with a man from New York who picked up a book she left behind in a library. How will their intellectual affair translate into the corporeal world? The final story, “The Sewing Room,” reminded me most of Academy Street and could be a novel all of its own, as a schoolteacher and amateur fashion designer prepares for her retirement party and remembers the child she gave up for adoption. (Secondhand, gifted)
Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (2021)
I knew from The Great Profundo that I liked MacLaverty’s stories, and I also enjoyed his latest novel, Midwinter Break, so I was delighted to hear news of a new collection. A number of the longer stories are set at turning points in twentieth-century history. In 1940, a mother is desperate to hear word of her soldier son; in 1971 Belfast, officers search a woman’s house. Two of the historical stories appealed to me for their medical elements: “The End of Days,” set in Vienna in 1918, dramatizes Egon Schiele’s fight with Spanish flu, while “Blackthorns” gives a lovely picture of how early antibiotics promoted miraculous recovery. In the title story, a cat is all a writer has left to remind him of his late wife. “Wandering” has a woman out looking for her dementia-addled mother. “The Dust Gatherer” muses on the fate of an old piano. Elderly parents and music recur, establishing filaments of thematic connection.
Three favourites: In “Glasshouses,” a man temporarily misplaces his grandchildren in the botanical gardens; “The Fairly Good Samaritan” is the fable of a jolly drunk who calls an ambulance for his poorly neighbour – but not before polishing off her brandy; and in the gorgeous “Sounds and Sweet Airs” a young woman’s harp music enthrals the passengers on a ferry.
With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington (2019)
The musical equivalent of Lot might be a mixtape played on a boombox or blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Most of this Dylan Thomas Prize-winning linked collection follows Nic, a mixed-race Black/Latino boy who works in the family restaurant. As his family situation realigns – his father leaves, his older brother Javi enlists, his sister Jan has a baby – he’s trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and wondering if this gentrifying city suits him anymore. But he knows he’ll take himself wherever he goes, and as the book closes with “Elgin” (the most similar in mood and setup to Washington’s debut novel, Memorial) he’s thinking of taking a chance on love.
Drug dealers, careworn immigrants and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these stories. Eleven of 13 stories are in the first person. Where the narration isn’t Nic’s, it’s usually the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys. As far as I can tell, most of the story titles refer to Houston sites: particular addresses or neighbourhoods, or more vague locations. Like in Memorial, there are no speech marks. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh: “He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around”; “He’d been staying there since the Great Thanksgiving Rupture, back when his brother’d found the dick pic in his pillowcase.” With the melting pot of cultures, the restaurant setting, and the sharp humour, this reminded me of Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart.
Three favourites: In “Shepherd,” the narrator emulates a glamorous cousin from Jamaica; “Bayou” is completely different from the rest, telling the urban legend of a “chupacubra” (a mythical creature like a coyote); “Waugh,” the longest story and one of just two told in the third person, is about a brothel’s worth of male sex workers and their pimp. Its final page is devastating. Despite their bravado, Washington’s characters are as vulnerable as Brandon Taylor’s. I think of these two young gay African American writers as being similar at root even though their style and approach are so very different. (New purchase)
A side note: I’m wondering how an author chooses primarily first person or third person POVs for short stories. MacLaverty and Taylor write exclusively in an omniscient third person; Washington and Eley Williams almost always plump for the first person. (Here, Butler was about half and half and Costello only used first person in three stories.) Is the third person seen as more impartial and commanding – a more elevated form of fiction? Is first person more immediate, informal and natural, but also perhaps too easy? I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other (not in my novels, either); it all depends on the execution. Notably, none of this year’s stories were in the second person or employed experimental structures.
Two more collections I’m reading are spilling across into October for R.I.P., but will I keep up the short story habit after that? I still have a shelf full of unread story collections, and I have my eye on My Monticello, which I got from NetGalley…
Two Recent Reviews for BookBrowse
The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting
A legend from Mytting’s hometown tells of two centuries-old church bells that, like conjoined twins, were never meant to be separated. Inspired by that story and by the real-life move of a stave church from Norway to what is now Poland, he embarked on a trilogy in which history and myth mingle to determine the future of the isolated village of Butangen. The novel is constructed around compelling dichotomies. Astrid Hekne, a feminist ahead of her time, is in contrast with the local pastor’s conventional views on gender roles. She also represents the village’s unlearned folk; Deborah Dawkin successfully captures Mytting’s use of dialect in her translation, making Astrid sound like one of Thomas Hardy’s rustic characters.
- See my full review at BookBrowse.
- See also my related article on stave churches.
- One of the coolest things I did during the first pandemic lockdown in the UK was attend an online book club meeting on The Bell in the Lake, run by MacLehose Press, Mytting’s UK publisher. It was so neat to see the author and translator speak “in person” via a Zoom meeting and to ask him a couple of questions in the chat window.
- A readalike (and one of my all-time favorite novels) is Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned.
Memorial by Bryan Washington
In Washington’s debut novel, set in Houston and Osaka, two young men reassess their commitments to their families and to each other. The narration is split between Benson and Mike, behind whose apparent lack of affect is a quiet seam of emotion. Both young men are still shaken by their parents’ separations, and haunted by patterns of abuse and addiction. Flashbacks to how they met create a tender backstory for a limping romance. Although the title (like most of the story titles in Lot) refers to a Houston neighborhood, it has broader significance, inviting readers to think about the place our loved ones have in our memories. Despite the tough issues the characters face, their story is warm-hearted rather than grim. Memorial is a candid, bittersweet work from a talented young writer whose career I will follow with interest.
- See my full review at BookBrowse.
- See also my related article on the use of quotation marks (or not!) to designate speech.
- I enjoyed this so much that I immediately ordered Lot with my birthday money. I’d particularly recommend it if you want an earthier version of Brandon Taylor’s Booker-shortlisted Real Life (which I’m halfway through and enjoying, though I can see the criticisms about its dry, slightly effete prose).
- This came out in the USA from Riverhead in late October, but UK readers have to wait until January 7th (Atlantic Books).