2021 has been many things, most of them not what we expected or hoped for twelve months ago. But one positive thing that happened to me this year was that, in an effort to cut back the control of Amazon’s algorithm on my life, I got rid of Goodreads and started to keep my own list of what I was reading. As I did so, I found myself paying more attention to the dynamics of my own reading – to the genres that were getting the most of my time, and the diversity of writers I was reading. The list-keeping became something of a personal challenge to make it as diverse as I could. Initially I intended to just post the whole list here without comment at the end of the year, but it got so long that I decided instead to post some highlights here: 5 novels, 5 books of poetry, and 5 non-fiction reads. For the parents out there, there’s a whole other list of the best read-alouds that I discovered with my kids – maybe that can be a post for another day. But here in no particular order are 15 books I appreciated this year.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer: Magical realist historical fiction should become its own genre after this searing epic of slavery and abolition. Heart-breaking, inspirational and beautiful all at once.
- Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand: A masterpiece of language, about the power of language. It begins as a wry thriller set in Antarctica and turns into a powerful meditation on language loss and what it means to care for someone who has to relearn how to be a person.
- Fanny Howe, Indivisible: I became curious about reading this book after Christian Wiman listed Howe (also a poet) as one of the only three novelists he considered worth bothering with. Howe is not an easy read – I also read another novel of hers, and a lot of her poetry this year, without understanding much of it – but this was the book that won me, after perplexing me for a long long time. It is, at its heart, a story of both motherly love and the love of God. It is not for the faint-hearted but it has one of the most satisfying endings of any book I have read this year.
- Marilynne Robinson, Jack: The finale in the Gilead series, Jack is perhaps the weakest of the four (Home is my personal favourite) but no word from Robinson is ever wasted, and the story of the wayward son that has haunted the other novels until now is a tender and moving story, filled with a powerful sense of the word that concludes the story: grace.
- Rachel Cusk, Kudos: I discovered Cusk this year via her latest, the Booker long-listed Second Place, and while that book was ultimately was flawed it left me with a taste for more. This one is the final in her inventive Outline trilogy. The concept – a series of monologues from people interacting with a moderately successful novelist at literary festivals – might sound boring, but the result is slow-burning and powerful, with an intriguing but evocative conclusion.
- Louise Glück, Winter Recipes From the Collective: I have read most of Glück’s poetry since her 2020 Nobel win, and it’s hard to pick a favourite but this – her latest – was probably the highlight of the ones I read this year. The poems are longer but more spare. After nearly a decade since her last collection, the brevity of this work is one of its greatest strengths. It all feels powerfully wintry and sparse, like language stripped back to its barest bones, exhausted with itself yet remaining vibrant all the same.
- Rita Dove, Mother Love: I first encountered this book through an excerpt, “The Bistro Styx”, that I read in a poetry course in my final year of Literature at Uni. The poems in this collection, many of them sonnets, are mostly variations on the story of Persephone and Demeter. Dove is tender and gutsy at the same time. I love everything I’ve read by her, but this was the most memorable.
- Barbara Kingsolver, How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons): I’ve never read Kingsolver’s novels but my wife gave me this recent collection of her poetry and it won me over instantly. Her voice is wise, wry and compassionate. The first sequence – a series of instructional poems that seem filled both with disappointment and hope – was especially powerful.
- Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things: I have enjoyed Berry’s poetry since first discovering it ten or so years ago, but had never read a full book of his. This collection, spanning much of his career, is an excellent introduction to the work of this wise, slow and thoughtful Kentucky farmer, perfect for a lockdown year. Berry has a powerful and measured voice, like he has learnt from hard experience what most needs to be said.
- Thom Satterlee, Burning Wyclif: It’s very difficult to describe this book in a way that does justice to it. It was honestly one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read, but any description can only hope to sound a little odd. Sometimes comically drawing on scholastic philosophy, sometimes evoking a variety of voices from the time or liturgical or scholastic structures, Satterlee tells the story of John Wyclif’s early years as a student through to his heresy trial, death, posthumous burning and ultimately looking to his impact on the world of today. It is thought-provoking, innovative, unexpectedly funny and tragic. Religious poetry doesn’t reach these kinds of heights very often.
- Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: I was first given this book as a birthday present about ten years ago and couldn’t bring myself to read it at the time. I have since read a number of books of Wiman’s poetry and a book of his essays, so it seemed odd that I was still afraid of approaching this. I’m glad I finally came around to it – it was just what 2021 called for. Wiman, who wrote this book over several years while being treated for a rare form of blood cancer, manages to write of God and faith with a searing honesty that, while often focusing more on what cannot be said of God than what can, gave me an increased determination this year to believe through it all. Wiman, at his best, gives us a language and a space to understand the place of darkness and uncertainty in the life of faith.
- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking: I only discovered Didion this year, just before she died. Death is very much at the forefront of this memoir, which begins on the night her husband dies and recounts her year of grieving for him while also watching their adopted daughter fight for her life. Quintana, their daughter, would go on to die soon after this book finished, and it’s the inevitability of death and the human attempt to live in the face of death that drives this book. Didion was a sometimes Episcopalian, and her struggle with God also drives this work. A devastating and beautiful memoir.
- Carys Walsh, Frequencies of God: Journeying Through Advent With R.S. Thomas: Another highlight of my poetry reading this year was the Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas. I read three books of his poetry this year, and concluded the year with this beautiful Advent devotional, which takes one of Thomas’s poems for each day followed by an Advent reflection. Walsh’s devotions are sensitive to the riches of Thomas’s poetry while also theologically profound in themselves. Wonderful on its own terms as spiritual reading, it is also an excellent introduction to Thomas’s work for the uninitiated.
- Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves: This has been on my reading list for a long time and I have read portions from time to time but this year I finally committed the time and mental energy to finishing it. Kristeva is no easy read and makes no pretence of being accessible. But she is compelling, and these reflections on otherness and the difficulties of encountering the other in society and in ourselves remain poignant. My next book of poetry, slowly in the works, owes quite a debt to this book.
- Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, Correspondences: I have never been one for reading the letters or journals of other writers, but this one caught my eye after I first read Celan’s Breathturn and a collection of Sachs’ poetry. Sachs and Celan were two of the most inventive European poets of the last century and were both Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and its aftermath. I knew nothing of their friendship before reading this book, especially the ways in which Celan’s letters were able to help light Sachs through some profound psychological darkness. The letters are a testament to the collective grief and trauma of a people and the power of poetry and friendship in the face of unspeakable pain. Not easy to get your hands on but well worth the read if you can.
In years to come, I’ll no doubt see much of this year reflected on what I chose to read. How did your reading reflect the year that you had, I wonder? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
And love and blessings to you all in the year ahead.