Best books of 2021

I’m not alone in reflecting back on my reading at this time of year. And I know I’m not alone with having struggled to read at times this year too. I definitely hit a slow patch with my reading earlier this year, one of those Covid things where I’m too worn out by day to day life to even indulge in the simplest form of escape – following words on a page.

Happily I picked up reading again in the second part of the year and managed to get more than 35 books read (and 4 or 5 books still in progress at this time but I hope to close some of those over the next few days.)

What were the books that moved me this year? In no particular order:

The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa

Any book about animals is going to have elements of sad about it. That just seems to be the nature of things. This story of the cat and his owner as his owner tried to find a new home for him engaged me emotionally and I of course thought about how it would feel to be giving up my cat. As the story evolves you realise his owner is not being honest about why he’s giving up his cat. I don’t think my cat would be as loyal as the cat in the book, as I think he would follow anyone who agreed to be his slave and feed him, but it’s novel to think other people’s cats are so loyal. Warning – this one has a weepy ending.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

I read this for Yoga book club. It might have been on my to read list anyway as I seem to have read everything Maggie O’Farrell has written. It’s the story of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, told from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife Anne. Anne is not treated kindly by most Shakespeare biographers, so Maggie set out to use what bones there are of her story to create a woman in her own right and to explain how she would have felt about the life and death of a child that led to one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I really liked the depictions of day to day life in 1560s England, down to the details about the laundry, the cooking and the house cleaning, and the chapter that charts the journey of a plague infected flea from Venice to rural England was incredible and in a way, chillingly familiar in these Covid times.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – Deepa Anappara

One of the first books I read this year. Set in an Indian slum, possibly on outskirts of Delhi, it gives a clear picture of how life is for the very poor. But it doesn’t fetishise the poverty, not sensationalise it, but makes it human. This book shows how people live, how people make a living, and how fragile life is when you are living hand to mouth. And how there is a very thin line between life and death. Jai is inspired by his favourite TV detective to investigate why children are disappearing in his neighbourhood. The descriptions are so vivid, and the characters so engaging, that as you follow Jai and his friends as they investigate, it doesn’t prepare you for the ending, which comes suddenly and gives you chills, and reinforces the idea that for the rich, the poor are a commodity to be used, not even to be considered human.

The Overstory – Richard Powers

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, I’m coming to this one a bit late, about a year and a half after I bought it in fact. Why did I wait so long? It was a wonderful book. At its simplest, it’s about people and trees. Or trees and people. What starts out as a series of seemingly unconnected stories starts to weave together quite quickly, and you are drawn in, absorbing information about trees as you read (I did several times pull up my phone to look up certain trees referenced in the book – not just types of trees, but also famous named trees). The science of trees is gently woven in amongst the human stories – you may never look at a forest the same way again. Richard Powers obviously loves and knows trees; how else could he describe each species of tree so carefully, so delicately, so individually? This is a beautiful book: great writing and structure, the way the story weaves together, but also important, explaining (through the story) why trees are important, why they should be protected, why we should see them as works of wonder worth preserving and not as a monetisable commodity.

Girl Woman Other – Bernadine Evaristo

Another book I read for Yoga book club. It had been on my shelf for a while but I hadn’t had the impetus to pick it up until this year. But it was a great read. Books that weave a story from multiple voices can be difficult to pull off well but this book was well written, each character fully formed and real, despite the short space they had to tell their story. That is some skilled writing.. As each new character told their story you found links to previous characters, and sometimes breadcrumbs for stories that were to come. The book gently suggests that we all judge others without really knowing them or their stories, and that all stories are worth telling. It also put forward the case for black characters in history. The usual depiction of history would have you believe that Britain was white until the 1950s; some of the characters here would challenge that. An enjoyable read and one that, like a merry-go-round ride, I felt sad when I realised things where slowing down and we were coming to the end.

Challenge book of the year: Moby Dick

There is always one book it was a struggle to get through and this year it was Moby Dick. It took me about six months to finish it, and it was a struggle, as there was a lot of what I’ll call “whale theory” and not a heck of a lot of plot actually.

“Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come…”

Indeed, this book did weary me too, and make me faint with its outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, with chapter headings such as “Of the monstrous pictures of whales” which was followed by a chapter “Of the less erroneous pictures of whales, and the true pictures of whaling scenes”. You can’t fault Melville for the descriptive headings of his chapters!

Interesting side fact: I read a news story this year that talked about the impact of whaling on ocean biodiversity. The theory was, if you take the whales out of the ocean (as happened in whaling times), the population of krill, that whales feed on, should have exploded, but it didn’t. In fact it declined. And that was because with less whales, there was less whale poop. Whales are big animals, and they poop in big quantities too. Whale poop is actually a source of nutrients (sorry for anyone who’s eating) for marine creatures. Microscopic marine life breaks down the poop and uses the nutrients to live and prosper. They then become food for the next biggest thing, which becomes food for krill, which becomes food for whales. So whales eating krill was actually providing a source of food for krill, in a perfect circle-of-life example. Until us stupid humans step in and interrupt the cycle by killing off most of the whales.

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