Anja Willner’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on her year in reading, her second annual contribution, is by Anja Willner. Anja insists on reading Russian books in the original even though it takes her way longer than in English or her native German. She lives and works in Munich, and tweets @WillnerAnja.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and into next. It’s a stellar lineup. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Kazimir Malevich, Red House, 1932

I’ve always thought of myself as a reader. Ever since I was able to read on my own, I’ve been a fan of libraries, reading, and books. It took only two pandemic years to question this identity. I mean, how many brain fog afternoons, Netflix hours (and we’re not talking the documentaries I still pretend to myself I will someday watch), minutes spent staring into the void or at my cats grooming themselves (very soothing, can recommend) until I must stop calling myself a reader?

Maybe I will find the answer this year and maybe I will find it on Twitter making silly jokes, writing lists of book recommendations, and losing them.

As to 2021, I finished 66 books read for pleasure and some more for not-so-much pleasure. That sounds like a lot to the non-readers in my life (greetings to my fellow guilty pleasure streamers and starers into the void) and is probably somewhere in the middle for Book Twitter.

It might be more telling to offer the number of books abandoned, unfinished or purchased but still unread, but I never counted these. Probably better for my peace of mind! One almost successful rereading project was Crime and Punishment with about 200 pages of maybe 600 read, curiously on a smartphone.

Reading C&P while waiting for the metro or having home office lunch staring on a rather small screen seemed weird but also strangely suitable. If living in a pandemic taught me one thing, it is this: Sometimes things you used to do with ease are just not possible anymore. Some of these things will come back, some will not. And that is probably okay.

Anyway, some reading projects did work out in 2021 and I’m all the more thankful for these experiences. Some of my highlights:

Minae Mizumura – A True Novel (translation: Juliet Winters)

Thank you, Dorian and Jules (who decided to tackle ‘A True Novel’ in the original Japanese!) [Ed. – Jules; not me], for pointing me towards this novel! Mizumura brought back that pure pleasure of childhood reading. I remember how I had entirely different plans when it was delivered but could not stop reading once I opened the package, so I just stayed on the floor of my apartment with book one (of two) for hours.

I now feel under pressure – but think of the loveliest, tiniest, tenderest kind of pressure you can imagine – to finally read Wuthering Heights, which the novel is loosely modeled on.

Mikhail Bulgakov – Flight, The White Guard, The Days of the Turbins

I’ve been meaning to read The White Guard ever since being the only person during a tour of Bulgakov’s family’s former apartment in Kyiv who didn’t know the novel intimately. I’m not even exaggerating: It was a Russian-language tour and I’m quite sure everybody who went to school in Ukraine or Russia is familiar with the novel. Finally reading it in 2021, I understood three things:

1. Why everyone on the tour went “ah” (the satisfied, approving kind of “ah”) when the guide switched off the lights in the apartment.

2. Why everyone who read the novel is absolutely crazy about it.

3. That recommending The White Guard to readers I consider worthy might be what fate had in mind for me.

Only joking! Well, half-joking. The White Guard is one of those books I want to start reading again right after finishing them. And then again, again, and again. The many layers, the adorable and not-so adorable characters, the (often bitter) jokes, the apocalyptic atmosphere. The understanding that huge changes we read about in history books mean mostly confusion and often bloodshed for the people experiencing them. The wild mixture of Russian, Ukrainian and everything in between, a nightmare for any translator. A language at times so hypnotizing you forget there is a world outside, making you want to memorize parts or read entire passages out loud.

If you want to give Bulgakov a try in 2022 but are more into plays and have less time, The Days of the Turbins is practically the same story with funnier dialogue. It was said to be Stalin’s favorite play until it wasn’t, causing a lot of trouble for Bulgakov. But that’s already a different story.

Flight, another play, has memorable main characters and is darkly funny but might be difficult to get at times if you are not familiar with a) the early parts of Soviet history and b) the language of orthodoxy. But you still have The White Guard or you can turn to the available film adaptions, so you’re not entirely lost for my cause!

Louise Kapp Howe – Pink Collar Workers

This is not a novel, but after the many academic papers I had to read last year Howe’s study of women who work in low-paid and underestimated jobs was such a relief that I have to share it with you. Howe watched women work and talked to them. A lot. It took months and she even worked a retail job to better understand the conditions there. It might be cliché, but I think every (male) reporter turning such experiences into a book would boast about them.

Howe does not do that. She tells the stories of the women she encountered. And she does not care for ‘scientific’ language or the kind of approach that is usually expected for such studies.

Howe in her own words:

[The women I have talked to] included nurses, receptionists, keypunch operators, legal secretaries, domestic workers, medical technologists, teachers, dental assistants, sewers, telephone operators, supermarket cashiers, among others in female-dominated jobs. … I can’t tell you how many there were because I never kept count. Maybe there were 123. Maybe 180. Maybe 206. It doesn’t really matter, does it? They’re women, not data.

The book is from the 1970s and of course not every single sentence has aged well. I like to think that Howe – if she were alive today – would reconsider the way she describes women hitting their children to teach them a lesson. (Note to my fellow readers of medium-ancient books: there is at least no trace of the kind of blatant racism one often encounters in books from that period.)

Marian Engel – Bear

Ah yes, that one – the bear sex book Dorian keeps raving about! [Ed. – I do.] And what can I say, the man is right. [Ed. – she really makes a good point.] Sign me up for the Cult of Bear! [Ed. – Another satisfied customer!] This was lovely, raw, weird and had me google the wildest things. Yes, there is real bear sex, there are a lot of books mentioned for intertextual fun, there is a heroine liberating herself and great nature writing, there is thinking about what it means to lead a successful life, to be remembered, what literature can do. I love it when a book is so thickly layered (but not overloaded language-wise!) that it can convey more on less than 200 pages than some doorstop will after some 700 pages. [Ed. – I did not coach Anja to say any of these things. Genuine testimonial.]

Ivan Turgenev – Asya

Speaking of short: if you feel like you need some good old 19th century reading but your pandemic brain cannot stomach the ‘great’ novels by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the like, go for Asya, a novella by Turgenev. There are all the ingredients one loves (or does not, depends) about 19th century literature: sad love story, passive hero you can project all your negative feelings onto, better kitchen psychology, great but not too much nature writing, social critique – but all within just a couple of pages. Meaning you will be able to finish reading it quickly. Plus, you won’t have to remember 127 names, only three main characters and even fewer minor ones. Double win!

Unknown Ukrainian cubist artist, Portrait of Woman, 1920s — 30s

I’m looking forward to another year of discussing books, chasing after books, and sometimes – when I’m in the right head space, let’s face it – even reading them.

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