A year in books

A couple of years ago I stopped using GoodReads and became the digital equivalent of my grandfather, recording everything I read in a list on my phone. It’s turned out to be a very satisfying habit to have. Somehow, amidst all the parenting, housework and paid work, I’ve read a lot. And so it’s becoming a tradition for me to post the highlights of my reading at the end of each year. It’s quite a challenge to reduce all of this reading (150+ books) to a few highlights, but I’ll do my best.

Top 10 Novels

1. Bewilderment – Richard Powers

I read this one early in the year and it destroyed me. As the father of a child not unlike Robin in this story, the picture it paints of a father trying to raise his unique child alone in an increasingly troubling world was a stab in the heart, but beautiful nonetheless. Its imaginative descriptions of other planets reminded me of another of my all-time favourite books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and this set alongside the devastating realism of the main narrative made it one of the most visceral and memorable reading experiences I’ve had. It should probably have won the Booker for last year.

2. The Lucy Barton novels – Elizabeth Strout

I’m cheating a little by including these four books as one, and the second in the series, Anything is Possible, is hardly a novel. But, as Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge has shown, Strout creates books like little interconnecting worlds. In fact her latest, Lucy By the Sea, references every one of her novels from the early standalones to the Olive books. This makes them almost impossible to separate. I first discovered Strout through the Booker-nominated Oh William! and proceeded to binge all the other Lucy Barton books. My favourite is probably Anything is Possible which is like Olive in the way it spins a web-like novel out of interconnected stories, yet surpasses Olive because each story is both entirely credible by itself and as part of the whole. Strout conjures small-town and suburban America with a dexterity that I’ve only seen in Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson, two of my other favourites, and in Lucy By the Sea she also makes the bizarre world of the last three years make some kind of literary sense.

3. Claire of the Sea Light – Edwidge Danticat

One of my favourite discoveries of this year is Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat. Her novel Claire of the Sea Light has the same interwoven short-story structure as some of Strout’s novels, while also managing to carry a political urgency and delicate luminosity at the same time. The novel begins with the story of a father whose wife died on their daughter’s birthday and who is now deciding to give her away to a woman who lost her daughter on the same day. It then takes us through an entire community and social history before returning to the tender moment where it began.

4. French Braid – Anne Tyler

There is something deeply gratifying about a writer like Tyler who you can discover late in her career and find she is still producing some of her best work. While there is, at one level, nothing new about her latest, French Braid – it feels utterly like an Anne Tyler novel, which for fans is a wonderful thing but may not wow a few reader – it also sees Tyler translate her remarkable literary vision to the pandemic world. Like many of her novels, we follow the same family across generations, but here we also find ourselves slowly reevaluating people and events as she takes us through each character’s perspective. There is nothing showy about Tyler. Everything is soft and subtle, and the greatest drama is contained in the unspoken power of small images: like two grandparents whose son and grandson who have been isolating with them, walking around the house quietly grieving their departure by silently smelling their grandson’s scent on the tiny face mask he left behind. Tyler has no need to reinvent herself, or even to keep writing, but with French Braid we see a master of her craft continuing to refine her work with a deft and dexterous touch.

5. Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford

The concept behind this novel is, on first pitch, interesting but potentially pointless. What if five children, killed in the Blitz, didn’t die but went on to see out the rest of the 20th century? It’s easy to just forget about this premise once the story of the children’s lives develops over the century. Their stories are sufficiently interesting to remain engaging: one struggles with Schizophrenia, one marries a neo-Nazi, one tries to get rich in property, one struggles with his analogue trade becoming obsolete in a digitalised world. Why, you might wonder, did Spufford need to begin with these fictional children dying then not dying? It all becomes clearer as the novel develops, and I won’t spoil it for you. But it has a theological significance to it – Spufford’s wife is an Anglican priest – that works on you slowly and subtly until it reaches its virtuosic and worshipful climax in the novel’s closing pages.

6. Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan

Boasting the shortest page length for a Booker-nominated novel, Small Things Like These is a masterpiece of understatement. Telling the seemingly mundane lives of a taciturn Irish couple in the 80s, the dreadful truth that the protagonist discovers – the infamous Magdalene Laundries – slowly opens up to us, before arriving at a resolution so beautiful and moving it just has to be experienced. Keegan’s previous novel, Foster, is a similar masterpiece of understated heartache.

7. No-One is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

This genre-defying novel is almost the exact opposite of Small Things Like These – wild and crude where Keegan is quiet and gentle. But it has equally powerful emotional surprises in store. Starting out as an outrageous satire of online culture, it suddenly morphs into a family drama that had me bawling my eyes out for the whole second half. And it all calls us to ask ourselves: what on earth are we talking about, and why is no-one talking about what actually matters most?

8. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

This extraordinary historical novel tells the story of William Shakespeare’s family, specifically the death of his son Hamnet at age 11. But that description does no justice to the remarkable literary feat that it is. O’Farrell never once mentions Shakespeare’s name and, really, the novel is hardly about him. It’s much more about his wife, here called Agnes to make us look at her differently, like someone we have not encountered before. And it’s also about being a parent and all the wonder and heartache it entails. When Hamnet’s death arrives, expected though it is, it’s devastating all the same, especially to any readers with children of their own. As a father of twins, the death of one twin while the other remains behind particularly broke me. And O’Farrell manages to sit with the family’s grief in a way that neither wallows in it nor shys away from its impact.

9. Pilgrims Way – Abdulrazak Gurnah

When Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, I bought this book, not knowing where else to start. It isn’t his best regarded – that would probably be Paradise, also on my bookshelf to read – and he has a new one that came out this year. But it’s still a wonderful place to discover Gurnah. The story of Daoud, a refugee from Zanzibar, as he negotiates life in England and falls in love with English nurse Catherine, is powerful, funny, shocking and informative all at once. I knew very little of Zanzibar’s history prior to reading this book, and Gurnah assumes no knowledge, letting the story of Daoud’s past slowly unravel as he reveals it through imagined letters to those he meets and, in the end, through telling it all to Catherine. It is sometimes righteously angry, sometimes tender, sometimes horrifying. But it is always compelling.

10. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The HBO TV series of this novel has attracted much interest and acclaim, but the 2014 novel, written well before the real pandemic yet in many ways eerily prescient, is significantly different and worth reading on its own terms. Mandel reveals her world slowly and skillfully. The novel is much more of a journey of discovery than is found in many other dystopian novels and is as much concerned with the tender, seemingly insignificant moments that make up life as it is with world-building. Mandel said she wanted to write a novel about the present world and decided to do that by showing everything we take for granted being taken away. She well and truly succeeded.

Top 10 Poetry Books

1. Carver: A Life in Poems – Marilyn Nelson

I discovered Nelson this year when I was searching for names of contemporary Christian poets. I have since read many of her books, and have enjoyed some more than others. But Carver, a verse biography of the extraordinary former slave who became a scientist and philanthropist, is definitely her best, and easily the standout of the 100 books of poetry I devoured this year.

2. Where the Sky Opens: A Partial Cosmography – Laurie Klein

If this author’s name is familiar to you, you may have grown up singing I Love You Lord like I did. When I read this extraordinary collection of poetic evocations of faith and its absence, I was both stunned by their artistry and the depth and complexity they revealed, in comparison to the tender simplicity of Klein’s most famous song. I went on to write to Klein and later interviewed her on these poems and the stories behind them, and I hope the interview will be available to read in some form in the coming year. More importantly, I hope more people read her poetry.

3. If I Had Wheels or Love – Vassar Miller

This book brings together all of Miller’s many collections of poems, from the Rossetti-like formalism of her early work through to the dark resilience of her later work. Miller had cerebral palsy, and this informs much of her poetry even when it is unnamed. Many of the books of poetry that I read this year explored the significance of the human body, but none did so as powerfully as Miller. Her experience of being in her body and all that entails shapes these poems with a tenderness, agony and wonder that makes me wish more Christians had heard of her.

4. Let Evening Come Jane Kenyon

I first heard of Kenyon when I read her husband Donald Hall’s devastating “Weeds and Peonies” written after her death. (The book it comes from, Hall’s Without, documenting Kenyon’s illness and death, is well worth reading, with tissues on hand.) This year was the first time I read Kenyon herself, and was stunned by her reflections on the natural world, marriage, mental illness and God. I would recommend anything she has written, but this was my favourite, most of all the title poem.

5. Flight and Metamorphosis – Nelly Sachs

I discovered Sachs a few years ago when I decided to read something by all authors who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Back then, it was very hard to find anything by Sachs in English. This beautiful new translation of one of her best books finally came out this year (I pre-ordered it in July of last year) and it is a wonderful way to encounter the ways that Sachs ripped apart and reconfigured language and imagery to convey the horrors of the Nazi holocaust, of which she was a survivor. The bilingual edition is helpful even if you don’t speak German, because Sachs’ German reveals things you can’t see in English, particularly the many ways she riffs on and rearranges the word flugt (flight) from the collection’s title, allowing it to mean both running away and transcending.

6. Your 21st Century Prayer Life – Nathanael Lee Hansen

In this collection, Hansen manages to bring together all the ordinary things that assail lived faith in the world today while also capturing transcendence and hope. I found myself resonating with almost every word and feeling like the poems themselves were praying for me.

7. Ordinary Time – Jackie Bartley

I discovered this book the same way I discovered Marilyn Nelson. It is largely unknown despite its tender imagery that manages to be everyday and sacred all at once. My favourite was the poem “Baptism”, in which the unashamed bodies of older women in a swimming pool changeroom are set alongside the modestly hidden bodies of the younger women, and Bartley uses this simple, human moment to point to how the body itself is a sign of God’s renewing, transforming work.

8. In the City in Which I Love You Li-Young Lee

The experiences of an Asian migrant in America are woven together with religious experience and the power of a family’s past within its present in these deeply personal and lyrical poems.

9. Incarnation, Again – Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo

This debut reveals a poet who I will look forward to watching grow. Harlan-Ferlo’s theology possibly tends more towards syncretism than mine, but she has an extraordinary talent for speaking of the sacred in completely ordinary, embodied language, and her own experiences as a minister’s daughter make these poems especially compelling to read.

10. The Animal Too Big to KillShane McCrae

It is difficult to pick a Shane McCrae book to recommend. He is not an easy poet. His voice and meter are somewhere between Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and an oral history of America. Growing up, as he puts it, “white trash and black”, McCrae has a perspective on American society that needs to be heard. And this collection, capturing the voices of slaves and their ancestors with a powerful urgency, was the one that made me want to read him more.

Top 5 Non-Fiction

Most of my reading is poetry or fiction, but I have tried to broaden that in the last few years, and these five books were particular highlights.

1. The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens – Steve Harris

This is an exceptionally readable history of a dark time in Australian history – the imprisonment and transportation of child criminals to Australia’s toughest convict settlements. The book has much less to do with Dickens than the title suggests, although Dickens’ campaigns against Victorian attitudes towards the troubled children of the Empire informs much of the book. It tells the story of two young boys accused of brutally murdering a prison guard, and of the court case that followed, and the harrowing circumstances that brought them there.

2. The Deeply Formed Life Rich Villodas

Written by the Puerto Rican pastor of a large church in urban New York, The Deeply Formed Life is at once a critique of modern western culture and a call to transformative discipleship. A very powerful book that urged me towards a life more deeply formed by God.

3. A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really) – Rachel Jones

Possibly an unexpected title to appear towards the end of these lists, Jones’ book was actually one of the most helpful steps towards a theology of the body that I have read. Whether you have periods, no longer have them or never have, this book is a very useful (and unflinching) exploration of what 50% of the population experience regularly for most of their lives. But it also calls Christians to a richer understanding of what it means to have a body, in all its glory and mess.

4. Help My UnbeliefFleming Rutledge

I came across Rutledge’s name multiple times once in a Twitter conversation about most influential Anglican women, and wanted to read her ever since then. Most of her books are collections of sermons and are best understood in their context, being preached at a variety of Episcopal churches through the east coast of the USA. Weaving together contemporary cultural analysis with utterly orthodox preaching, Rutledge’s compellingly Jesus-focused perspective shows us how we can bring disparate listeners, even liberal ones, to hear the unfiltered Gospel in arresting ways without making enemies or turning people away.

5. Prayer in the Night – Tish Harrison Warren

Beginning with a vivid description of a miscarriage, this book by an Anglican priest and mother is clearly not one that shys away from the mess of life. That’s its power. Taking her readers through the traditional Anglican prayer of Compline (also known as “Prayer at the end of the day”), Harrison Warren invites us to encountered God’s presence in the very darkest of nights.

As I sign off on these lists for this year, I think of the many books I didn’t have space for: Leila Motley’s devastating but strangely hopeful debut Nightcrawling, for instance, or classics that I came to late like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory or James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. And one day I’ll have to write a list of the best books I’ve read my children. But for now I’ll have to make do with these 25 gems from a year that, however challenging it was, managed to give me a lot of good books to read.

Published by Matthew Pullar

Teacher, writer, blogger, husband, father, Christian. Living in Wyndham in Melbourne's west, on the land of the Kulin Nation. Searching for words to console and feed hearts and souls.

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