Paul Wilson’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading, his second annual contribution, is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul). Paul lives in Colorado with his wife, two sons and lots of books. He also co-hosts The Mookse and the Gripes podcast.

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

I’m happy to say that coming up with a list of my favorite books read in 2021 was no easy task. For one thing, I read more books this year than I ever have before. Why? My best guess is a combination of the ongoing impacts of a quieter pandemic life, the fact that my wife and I now share our house with two teenage boys who are often doing their own things, and a conscious effort on my part to simply spend more time reading. 

Creating my list was made even more tricky by countless recommendations from so many wonderful and generous friends on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s like I have a team of top-notch curators sending me a constant stream of great books. I started with a stack of around 30 titles that could have made the list, but here are 10 favorites.  

Tomás González, Difficult Light, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg 

This is a mesmerizing and melancholy book about time and memory. The narration often jumps across decades, sometimes within a single paragraph or even sentence, creating fascinating and often somber insights into aging and the far-reaching effects of our pasts. A quiet reflection on art, loss and family that offers yet another example of why Archipelago Books remains one of the most exciting and important publishers out there. 

I am surprised once more by how supple words are—how all by themselves, or practically by themselves, they can express the ambiguity, the changeability, the fickleness of things. And yet I long for the aroma of oils or the powdery feel of charcoal in my fingers, and I miss the pang—like the pang of love—that you feel when you sense you have touched infinity; captured an elusive light, a difficult light, with a bit of oil mixed with ground-up metals or stones.

Nathalie Léger, Suite For Barbara Loden, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer 

Can it really be true that I hadn’t heard of Nathalie Léger before 2021? In a year filled with wonderful literary discoveries, she was one of my very favorites. I read her triptych of novels all in a row and loved each of them, but, to me, Suite for Barbara Loden was the standout.Ostensibly about the film Wanda, its creator Barbara Loden, and Léger’s attempt to write a short entry for a film encyclopedia, this book becomes a mesmerizing blend of biography, autofiction, film analysis, and Dyer-esque reflections on the slippery process of creation. 

I find myself increasingly drawn to books that are hard to pin down or define and this one certainly fits that description in all the best ways. If you’re looking for a project for 2022, I would highly recommend spending some time with Wanda and Léger. I think about them both often. 

“How difficult can it be to tell a story simply?” my mother asks again. I have to stay calm, slow down and lower my voice: what does it mean, “to tell a story simply”? … You think that you’re dealing with pure formalities, footnotes, short texts, table, prefaces, indexes or annexes—an orderly organized abundance of works that you just need to spend a morning assembling into a few sentences; a straightforward administration of language—and then somehow you end up with endless decisions to make, with abandoned hopes and collapsed hypotheses.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts, translated from the Italian by the author

Lahiri has long been one of my very favorite writers, so when I heard she had a new book coming out, I went through the usual blend of anticipation and anxiety that precedes a highly anticipated work by a beloved author. I needn’t have worried. 

The unnamed narrator is a prickly, unmarried writer and lit professor who has lived in the same Italian city for her entire life. Through a series of episodes that take place over the course of a year, she shares her meditative and sometimes melancholy perspectives on isolation, solitude and the movement of time. Although a dramatic departure in many ways from the subject and style of Lahiri’s previous works, Whereabouts is an example of a master at the top of her game. I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.

Robert Walser, The Tanners, translated from the Swiss German by Susan Bernofsky

After years of sitting unread on my shelves, this book was becoming one of the spines my eyes unconsciously skipped over while I scanned for my next read [Ed. – that is a thing, isn’t it?]. Fortunately, my good friend Trevor (@mookse) saved it from obscurity by sharing his contagious love of Walser during our conversations this year. Tragedy averted! 

This was my first foray into Walser’s work, but it certainly won’t be my last. Reading him is like jumping into a raging river—you can fight it and become overwhelmed, or you can relax, let it carry you along and just enjoy the ride. This was the most exuberant and joyful thing I read this year. 

I must find myself a life, a new life, even if all of life consists only of an endless search for life. What is respect compared to this other thing: being happy and having satisfied the heart’s pride. Even being unhappy is better than being respected. I am unhappy despite the respect I enjoy; and so in my own eyes I don’t deserve this respect; for I consider only happiness worthy of respect. Therefore I must try whether it is possible to be happy without insisting on respect.

T. J. Clark, The Sight Of Death

I never would have discovered this gem if I hadn’t stumbled across a tweet by Lauren Groff: “I’m so broken down by isolation that I can’t get four pages into T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death without weeping. Just—the patience and persistence and love it takes to visit the same painting day after day and see new things, better things, how the light changes, it’s so moving.”

In 2000, two paintings by Poussin were hung in a room in the Getty Museum. Clark found himself hypnotically drawn to them, returning day after day to sit quietly in the room and record his observations in a series of journals. His subtle blend of passion and patience is fascinating and contagious. I read it back in March and still think about it almost every day. Its laser focus on obsession, solitude, and time haunt me. 

I believe the distance of visual imagery from verbal discourse is the most precious thing about it. It represents one possibility of resistance in a world saturated by slogans, labels, sales pitches, little marketable meaning-motifs.

Olivia Manning, Balkan Levant Trilogies

When I think about the books that gave me the most pleasure in 2021, there’s no way I could leave Olivia Manning off the list. [Ed. – The man speaks truth.] I joined my first ever Twitter reading groups this year while making my way through her two trilogies: I had a blast, connected with many great readers, and had so much fun seeing the various historical images everyone shared and reading their reactions and insights about these wonderful books. The experience was a reminder of how art and literature foster community and conversation. 

On top of all that, Manning’s trilogies are incredibly compelling, masterfully balancing the epic scope and horror of war with the countless ways it impacts the individual lives caught up in its wake. 

For several nights, Simon was worried not only by the lack of cover but the intrusive magnificence of the Egyptian night. The stars were too many and too bright. They were like eyes: waking in mid-sleep, finding them staring down on him, he was unnerved, imagining they questioned what he was doing there. 

David Albahari, Götz and Meyer, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

This book came very highly recommended by Mark Haber and, yes, Dorian Stuber. [Ed. – Paul, you seem to have omitted “the one and only” before my name. Imma put that back in.] I’m so grateful to them both for bringing it to my attention. An unnamed narrator seeks information about his extended family, almost all of whom were killed in gas vans near Belgrade back in 1942. During the course of his research, he comes across the names of two drivers of the truck in which his family was likely put to death: Götz and Meyer. 

The narrator becomes increasingly fixated on these men; his obsession is reflected in the convoluted way in which the story is told. The fictional lives he creates for the two men, along with the book’s increasingly unreliable narrative style, create a growing tension and make the reader less certain about which parts are true and which are invented.

How is this book not better known? I will happily join Mark and Dorian in spreading the word about this slim and haunting masterpiece. [Ed. – It really is fantastic; wrote about it a little more here.]

I must say here that it is entirely possible in the case of Götz , or possibly Meyer, that God was more present than one usually thinks, because Götz, or possibly Meyer, survived the explosion of a bomb that killed at least nine soldiers from his company, thanks only, as he often said, to God’s will, somewhere on the Eastern Front. Because of that Götz, or possibly Meyer, thanked God everyday for his goodness, especially while they were jouncing along in the truck on their way to Jajinci, while in the same truck, in the back Jews were screaming at God with their last breath, asking him why why he wasn’t there, why he wasn’t there yet, why he was never there?

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Like Götz and Meyer, this book concerns the fallibility of memory and the impossible task of trying to make sense of horrific and violent events from the past. 

A multigenerational story touching on myth, memory and truth, it features multiple narrators sharing their interpretations of a tragedy. Like much of Faulkner’s work, it reflects the strong cultural ideas of the American South, where the past is still an indelible part of the present that is continually being revised and rewritten through stories told and retold. 

The narrative consists almost entirely of flashbacks that shift in time and between various points of view, creating a fragmented and often disorienting experience. I know many readers have come to think of Faulkner as an academic chore that they’re happy to have left behind, but I would urge anyone who feels that way to reconsider. This is storytelling on a grand scale. A magical book. 

“We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales, we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable … They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.”

Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Last year’s top reads for me were Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses. Both joined a short list of the very best books I’ve ever read. I found it incredibly rewarding to engage with these masterpieces and wanted to keep that momentum going this year by reading Don Quixote. I’m happy to report that Cervantes has now taken his rightful place with Proust and Joyce on my all-time list. [Ed. – In so doing, Paul earned himself the nickname DQ, and I encourage you all to call him that.]

As Harold Bloom puts it, “This great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterisation mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Don Quixote may not be scripture, but it so contains us that, as with Shakespeare, we cannot get out of it to achieve perspectivism. We are inside the vast book, privileged to hear the superb conversations between the knight and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sometimes we are fused with Cervantes, but more often we are invisible wanderers who accompany the sublime pair in their adventures and debacles.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

A work I was expecting to require patience and hard work instead turned out to be a hilarious and compelling page turner, and a perfect holiday companion to close out the year. It’s amazing how modern this book is, and Edith Grossman’s stellar translation is a masterpiece of its own. As the pages flew by, I could hardly believe it was written 500 years ago. If you’re on the fence, I would urge you to give it a try. My guess is you’ll quickly find yourself immersed, impatiently awaiting the next time you can pick it up and once again take your place beside Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter

Each year, when I look back over all the titles I’ve read, it’s always fascinating to see which ones stand out. I loved The Magic Mountain when I was reading it, but the intervening months solidified the enormous impression it made on me. I read most of this wintry book in our backyard hammock during the height of summer, creating some of my favorite memories of the entire year in the process. [Ed. – Love it!]

The plot is relatively straightforward: Hans Castorp is about to start a career as a shipbuilder in Hamburg, but first, he plans a short trip to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to visit his tubercular cousin. But as he is drawn into the strange insular world of the hospital and its strange patterns and people, he begins to subscribe to the same rituals and treatment as the patients. Meanwhile, time just keeps slipping away. 

I loved the ambiguity and the fact that I never knew exactly how to think or feel. Mann recommended that those who wished to understand it should read it twice. And even though it’s a huge book that took up a significant part of my reading year, I already find myself drawn back to it and ready to be lost again. 

Time drowns in the unmeasured monotony of space. Where uniformity reigns, movement from point to point is no longer movement; and where movement is no longer movement, there is no time.

16 thoughts on “Paul Wilson’s Year in Reading, 2021

  1. These guest posts are crammed too full of temptatioms. Now I want to reread Don Quixote, since I’m sure I was too young to fully appreciate it at the time. Also like your Davos illustrations, by the way. These vintage mountain posters are simply wonderful.

      • Ah, I see. I suppose I was thinking “the things you learn from life, getting older, etc” (ideally anyway). But you were thinking about “the things you learn about the books and their contexts” (history, biography, etc).

    • Right. When I reread Absalom, Absalom after thirty years, which should happen soon, I hope, will it look different mostly because of life experiences – I have now seen both Cambridge (MA) and Oxford (MS) with my own eyes – or because I have read 3,000 more books in the meantime?

      I am a Thomist (S. Eliot) in the sense that I think the knowledge works both ways. We read older books that change how newer books look to us, but the newer books also change the older. There’s no right order. Still, when Paul says “scripture,” I remember that French junior high schools teach key parts of the Bible to their predominantly atheist students precisely because the students will need the Bible to understand later literature.

  2. Carolyn Ruane Books read 2020

    Absalom Absalom 1936

    Quentin Compson and Shreve, his Harvard roommate, are obsessed with the tragic rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. As a poor white boy, Sutpen was turned away from a plantation owner’s mansion by a black butler.

    From then on, he was determined to force his way into the upper echelons of Southern society. His relentless will ensures his ambitions are soon realised; land, marriage, children, his own troop to fight in the Civil War… but Sutpen
    returns from the conflict to find his estate in ruins and his family collapsing. Secrets from his own past threaten to ruin the lives of his children and destroy everything he has worked for.

    This is an interesting way of writing as you go forward and back in time. This does work!

    The Silent Patient Alex Michealides 2019

    The narrator , Theo Faber, is a young psychotherapist, who seizes on the opportunity to work with the patient,
    Alicia Berenson, in the hope of helping her, and in particular restoring her speech. She did not say a word from
    her trial and at the mental health establishment.

    To say more about the action would be to spoil the experience of being carried along by the plot. It’s a novel that can very nearly be read at a sitting, and once past a certain point, is extremely difficult to put down.

    The Man on a Donkey H. F. M. Prescott 1952

    This historical novel is too often overlooked, and despite being first published in 1952 and warmly received it has seemed to have dropped out of most people’s knowledge.

    Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott was an historian and this does not spoil the writing.

    From the clergy and the lower echelons of society this novel also takes us into the higher spheres, and thus the noblemen and Henry VIII himself. We all know the story; Henry wanted a son and with his first wife not providing one;
    so the king’s eye turns towards a certain Anne Boleyn. But with the papal authorities not giving permission for a divorce so the king took matters into his own hand, thus creating a split from Rome and the rise of Protestantism.

    For a nation though that had only ever known the Catholic tradition such a matter would of course not go unmentioned, especially as the new queen was not liked by many, and other issues that were of concern at the time.

    This culminated in an uprising in the North that was named the Pilgrimage of Grace which lasted from 1536-1537. This novel is thus about that and how it arose and what the leaders wanted. Of course, not going down well with the king or Thomas Cromwell so we can see the repercussions of this rebellion, and what the protestors die not succeed in, and also what they did succeed with.

    This does then make for an interesting read and there is a lot that happens here as we follow the separate strands of certain characters; some of them imagined others real; as the tale progresses. Although this is fiction and thus
    certain scenes have been imagined, where possible real scenes are as they were reported at the time. It has to be admitted that this does start off a little slowly as we are introduced to various characters, but as they start to become entangled as events proceed so this does all make sense and comes together quite well. So, rather like Hilary Mantel this does take a little while to get really gripping.

    Starving Men Siobhan Finkielman

    An Irish Psychiatrist, a Professional Killer and a Twisted Revenge for History looks at both the past and present with a fast paced deliverance of the plot.

    I thought it refreshing; was that although historical references were made throughout the book; to key points in Irish history; the storyline was based in current times. The book opens on a preface setting the scene; telling a gruesome tale of an intruder brutally murdering someone’s ex-wife & the kids nanny; to them then experiencing their own gruesome ending for running to a different country and starting a new life under a new alias. At the end of the
    preface we meet one of the main characters. Turlough O’Sullivan. We are then introduced to the well respected Psychiatrist Michael Gleason. From meeting O’Sullivan, Gleason sees this as an ideal opportunity to begin a bloody revenge and kill all living descendants of all the worst men in Ireland’s historical past.

    This had aspects of Jekyll & Hyde, with the Psychiatrist to the public being a good decent citizen but behind the demeanour a cold blooded killer awaiting the perfect opportunity for revenge. The story was well constructed and
    flowed freely. A lot of time and research went into this.

    This is another page turner.

    The Tattooist of Auschwitz Heather Morris 2018

    Its hard to say you have enjoyed a book when it is about such a harrowing time in history; she seems to have beautifully written a piece of history put together so us as the reader can truly acknowledge the price and the pain of
    these poor people paid in such a horrific circumstances. The book is poignant, very sad and extremely moving at times but at the same time you are filled with courage and determination as these people’s ferocious and
    tenacious desire to survive against all odds. This account has sensitivity and has been put together with a lot of great thought and care.

    It’s a great read! I highly recommend it.

    The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell 2018
    Robert Dugoni

    When Sam Hill was born his eyes were closed. His troubles started when he opened them to reveal that they were red. Sam’s mother loved him for his red eyes and fought for him to be given the opportunities that were open to other children; standing up to the school admissions team and insisting he be allowed to attend, supporting
    him when the school wanted to expel him for fighting.

    We’re used to tales of prejudice based on race, religion, disability, sexuality etc, but this book takes on unfair treatment of a boy for his eye colour and works as a bit of a morality tale.

    This book is about the power of friendship between Sam and his best friends Ernie, the only black kid in school, and Mickie, the daughter of an alcoholic mother, and also a story of family love. Sam’s mother is a wonderful, powerful, deeply religious woman who just won’t take no for an answer.

    The extraordinary life of the title is a life that’s perhaps more extraordinary in its apparent ordinariness. A life made special by the attitude of its protagonist.

    I enjoyed the relationships of the main characters. There perhaps is too many catholic ideals but; this does not detract from the tale.

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