Karen Naughton’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Karen Naughton. Karen, a lifelong reader whose tastes range from popular fiction to classics across almost all genres, has a Ph.D. in British and American literature and divides her time between Texas and Maine with her husband and two dogs. She tweets @barkerforbooks.

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).

Gabriele Münter, Woman in an Armchair, Writing, 1929

In 2021, nonfiction featured prominently in my list of favorite reads. Of these, The Path to Power, Robert Caro’s first volume in his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, stands above the rest. The work is the marriage of a master story teller with a subject who defies categorization—one of my all-time favorite biographies. I also loved discovering the writer Pam Houston, whose memoir Deep Creek inspired me with its wisdom acquired through adversity. The most memorable scene in that book involves Houston sharing with two younger women her experiences expending emotional energy on men and dating. Finally, Trent Preszler’s memoir Little and Often also impressed me. Preszler is a gay man who honors his deceased estranged father by building a canoe using hand tools his father bequeathed him. Preszler’s ability to convey affection and gratitude despite his father’s failings sets this work apart.

Three novels made my year’s best-reads list. He depiction of emotional abuse in Dorothy Whipple’s They Were Sisters is among the best I’ve read. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, moved me with its deft portrayal of war’s devastations. Since Houston, Texas, where I’ve lived most of my life, is home to a large community of people of Nigerian heritage, this history fascinated me. Finally, I’ve always had success with Julia Alvarez’s books and her latest, Afterlife, did not disappoint. It investigates the boundaries between what individuals owe to themselves and to their communities.

My favorite poetry collection was Shuly Xóchitl Cawood’s Trouble Can Be So Beautiful in the Beginning. Lyrical and accessible, these poems use images of domesticity to explore themes of loneliness and connection.

Two short story collections proved memorable. Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living [Ed. — Canada, represent!] expertly plumbs the circuitry of domestic relationships, a category of fiction that usually works for me. Somewhat in contrast, the stories in Chris Gonzalez’s I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat focus more on loneliness than on connection. Many have a melancholy tone, but Gonzalez peppers the narratives with such wit that the book is as humorous as it is poignant.

Taking a cue from NancyKay Shapiro’s guest post, my least favorite read of the year (surprising no one, perhaps) is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read it because I like to have my own opinion about popular books. I didn’t expect to love it, but I did think it would at least be a page turner. The sexualized violence was a resounding “no” for this reader… and it was long. [Ed. — And yet you finished it! Amazing fortitude.] If you loved this book (many, many people do), no shade. It’s just not for me at this point in my reading life.

To end on a more positive note, I was able to make dents in two of my reading goals for 2021. I purposely reduced my Goodreads reading goal in order to encourage me to tackle some of the larger tomes on my TBR. In addition to the lengthy books named above, I read JR by William Gaddis and The Tale of Genji by Marusaki Shikibu and translated by Royall Tyler. I cannot say I loved either of these works, but I am glad I read them and certainly feel that they have added to my literary and cultural knowledge. My favorite novelist is Thomas Hardy. My other goal this year was to get to the novels of his I hadn’t read before. I read three: Dangerous Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree, and The Hand of Ethelberta. Reading these in order of publication, I can trace his growth as a novelist. Of them, Ethelberta is a hidden gem. It’s in no way a perfect novel, but the characterization and fate of Ethelberta gobsmacked me. I highly encourage anyone pursuing Victorian studies to check out this novel, rich for analysis.

Ben Nicholson, June 11-49 (Cornish Landscape)

Thanks to the Twitter bookish community for inspiring much of my 2021 reading year, and thanks to Dorian for inviting me to interrupt his regular programming. [Ed. – Interruption? This is the regular programming! Thank you, Karen!]

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