Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2021)

Here we are again at the close of the year and I’m picking some favorite reads from 2021 (past years are here). There has been no consuming obsession like my Knausgaard binge last year (although his newest novel does show up on the list below – the “Me and Karl Ove” series which kicked off my blogging year was my attempt to deal with my aesthetic hangover) but it was still a good reading year. My favorite from the list below, the arbitrary favorite of favorites, is probably still Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard is True (I wrote about it here). Sometimes you just can’t beat the right book at the right time. And, to those of you who have been following along on the blog over the past year or two: thanks for reading. Sincerely. I am embarrassed to admit how much the kind word here and there about what I’ve written has encouraged me.

Ok, on to the list. I have picked a quote from each book to try and give a taste of what you might find if you decide to pick it up:

What You Have Heard is True (Carolyn Forché): “‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘I know nothing about military dictatorship.’ His elbows were on the map, his folded hands pressed against his mouth. I saw myself in his glasses, two of me, and the girls’ laughter was sieved through the kitchen screens. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘At least you know that you know nothing.'”

The Morning Star (Karl Ove Knausgaard): “‘God, give me a sign!’ I said into the air. Did I really say that? I asked myself in the very next instant. Was I, a grown man, really standing there in the woods asking God for a sign? Embarrassed and ashamed, I forged on, burying my lower face in my thick, wide scarf, my woolly hat pulled down to my eyes. Suddenly all I wanted was the sofa, bed, sleep, darkness.”

Gringos (Charles Portis – I read a bunch of Portis this year – I wrote about Dog of the South here – but Gringos was my favorite): “You put things off and then one morning you wake up and say—today I will change the oil in my truck.”

The Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg – a new discovery for me – my LinkedIn short story this summer was at least partially an attempt to try and steal some of the magic of her voice): “We refuse to suffer; we hear suffering approach us and we hide behind the armchair, behind the curtains, so that it won’t find us.”

In (Will McPhail – first ever graphic novel on my end of year list, I think):

Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford): “Old sorrows she thought were long worked through—no, more than that, which she thought were actually abolished by her having had different desires fulfilled—turn out to be still capable, still bitter, able like ghosts to billow up and start talking, if given a drop of blood to feed upon. She stumps up the hill, and the unquiet ghosts say: Why only this? Why this life and not the other? Why this ending and not another?”

God in the Rainforest (Kathryn Long): “The overarching argument [of this book] is that the global expansion of Christianity as it happens on a case-by-case basis is complicated, even messy, much more so than either mythmakers or critics are willing to acknowledge. Missionaries make decisions with unintended consequences; indigenous people exercise agency in unexpected ways.”

4000 Weeks (Oliver Burkeman): “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.”

Be Holding (Ross Gay): “we in here talking about joy”

Piranesi (Susanna Clarke – wrote about it here): “It is the Statue of a Faun, a creature half-man and half-goat, with a head of exuberant curls. He smiles slightly and presses his forefinger to his lips. I have always felt that he meant to tell me something or perhaps to warn me of something: Quiet! he seems to say. Be careful! But what danger there could possibly be I have never known. I dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child.”

Jack (Marilynne Robinson): “He said, ‘Look at the life we live, Della. I have to sneak over here in the dark just to steal a few words with you. Is that language, or is it noise?’ She said, ‘It’s noise that you have to do it, and language that you do it, anyway.’ She said softly, ‘Maybe poetry.'”

The Apostles’ Creed (Ben Myers): “Theological thinking does not add a single thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are. So this small book is an invitation to happiness.”

Vesper Flights (Helen Macdonald): “And we stop in front of the cage. The bird and the boy stare at each other. They love each other. The bird loves the boy because he is entirely full of joyous, manifest amazement. The boy just loves the bird. And the bird does that chops-fluffed-little-flirting twitch of the head, and the boy does it back. And soon the bird and the boy are both swaying sideways, backwards and forwards, dancing at each other, although the boy has to shift his grip on the plastic sea lions to cover both ears with his palms, because the bird is so delighted he’s screeching at the top of his lungs. ‘It is loud!’ says the boy. ‘That’s because he is happy,’ I say. ‘He likes dancing with you.’”

The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Kierkegaard): “So let us then consider the lily and the bird, these joyful teachers. ‘The joyful teachers,’ indeed, because you know that joy is communicative, and therefore no one teaches joy better than a person who is joyful himself. The teacher of joy really has nothing other to do than to be joyful himself, or to be joy.”

Studying with Miss Bishop (Dana Gioia): “For five years I had even stopped sending out poems. I was dissatisfied with what I had published. I kept writing in private. Whatever it was I sought I had to find myself. I gave over my nights and weekends, month after month, to the slow discovery and refinement of my own voice. I survived by living in the future tense.”

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