Matt Keeley’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Matt Keeley, a marketer and freelance editor who reads too much. He lives in Massachusetts. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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).

Vija Celmins, Night Sky #2, 1991

My favorite of all the books I read in 2021 was John Crowley’s Little, Big. Like my favorite book from 2020, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s chronicle of medieval life The Corner That Held Them, I believe it to be a masterpiece but hesitate to recommend it widely. Crowley’s 1981 novel follows the fortunes of the Drinkwater family through the twentieth century and into a bleakly imagined twenty-first. The family is connected, Somehow (Crowley always capitalizes this word), to the fairies and to a mysterious Tale (again, capitalized) that may encompass more worlds than ours. While no one, the author included, would deny that it’s a fantasy novel, it’s far different from and much superior to most everything published in the genre since Tolkien. It’s a long, beautiful, stately, and oblique novel; I look forward to returning to it.

Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker was a surprise and felt like a gift: When he published his memoir Where Shall We Run To? in 2018, Garner was already in his mid-eighties, and he’s a slow writer. Although I read it in just a few hours, Treacle Walker is precisely as long as it needs to be. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Garner, but it’s a fine (apparent) capstone to his six-decade career.

I read two books by Janet Malcolm in close succession early in the year; Two Lives is about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: their lives, their love, their art, and the mystery of their survival as Jewish lesbians in occupied France. Malcolm’s précis of Stein’s The Making of Americans is particularly wonderful; I had no idea how strange, unmannered, and unedited that pseudo-novel is. I wouldn’t want to brave its nine hundred pages of dropped plots, failed experiments, and abandoned philosophical musings, but I’m glad to know what’s in there. The other Malcolm title was Iphigenia in Forest Hills, true crime about a murder, more sad than sordid, in Queens. I don’t think either book achieves the heights of The Journalist and the Murderer, but both titles are exemplary models of craft and sympathy.

Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram is the second novel in the House of Niccolò series. While her books, with their dense prose, unglossed allusions, and cunningly withheld character motivations, aren’t for everyone, I’m happy to reflect that I have a whole six more books in this series to read.

I went on a minor Philip Roth kick as the pre-scandal publicity around Blake Bailey’s biography kicked into gear. The Facts and The Dying Animal were minor, but Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece, the most exhausting, most dyspeptic, and most sinisterly compassionate novel I read this year.

Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York comprises thirteen impressionistic essays about life in New York. Although it’s a distinctly minor work by a major writer, it was a balm for me at a moment when I was missing the city I’d made my home for six pre-pandemic years.

Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds is a book about, among other things, Sir Philip Sidney’s mostly forgotten sixteenth-century poetry, academic life, manuscripts, Walter Benjamin, and Virginia Woolf. I admit that I remember the book’s mood more than its matter — I had to consult the book’s publicity page to recall which writers feature in it. Perhaps that’s my failure as a reader. Or, if there really is something evanescent about Gallery of Clouds, maybe that’s only appropriate for a book of wisps and reverie and free association?

The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford is a brief account, just under a hundred pages long, of the 1960 British lawsuit against Penguin Books, which had published the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s novel. Bedford attended the trial; sixty years on, her account remains witty and infuriating.

Odilon Redon, Buddha, 1904

Some final thoughts and suggestions:

I think Dorian told me about the Willem Frederik Hermans novella An Untouched House, which was as good as I’d been led to believe. [Ed. – Not me, sadly. It’s still on Mount TBR. Will Matt’s recommender please step forward?] I finally got around to reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’d tried and failed to read when I was eleven or so.As someone who is occasionally paid to review science fiction, it’s a relief to finally cross this off my reading list. The prose isn’t great, but the novel is more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think that The Trees, Percival Everett’s comic guignol procedural about America’s history of racism, with bonus zombies,entirely succeeds, but I now have a whole stack of other Everett novels to read. Adam Mars-Jones’s Batlava Lake is extremely funny until, on the last page, it isn’t. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud-Cuckoo Land might be too commercial for some readers of this blog, but is absolutely enthralling. [Ed. –For some maybe, but the editor is willing to try all the things.] Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan lived up to the reviewers’ unanimous praise.

NancyKay Shapiro’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on her year in reading, her second annual contribution, is by NancyKay Shapiro (@NancyKayShapiro). NancyKay lives in New York, and reads a whole shit-ton.

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).

Edward Hopper, New York Corner (Corner Saloon), 1913

The notorious year, the second of the Big Pandemic here in New York City, was, for me, the year I really settled into the idea of being retired from my freelance ad biz career (which I’d declared at the beginning of ’20 in a wishful fingers-crossed kind of way), found other things to do than work, got my elderly mom vaccinated twice, myself vaccinated three times, counted lots of blessings, lost said elderly mom at age 89 (not to Covid), and busied myself then grieving and dealing with her estate.

I read or listened to 84 books. Looking back over the list, I find that very little has stuck with me with especial vividness, probably because there was a flatness to my emotional life for most of the year, and then, when Mom passed in early September, the whole emotional tenor changed, and everything leading up to the day of her death seemed like a decade rather than a handful of days and weeks ago.

So, having said that, let’s see which books I want to recommend from those 84.

The first book I read in 2021 was The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which I only picked up because of Book Twitter, and which I hated and kept telling Dorian I was going to chuck, because it seemed to be about an overly academically precocious child and an overly clever but useless-at-life mother. I thought I saw where it was going and that was to an ever-more annoying place. I would have chucked it if not for his encouragement, and I only appreciated it when I got to the last fourth or so of the text and could see what the whole thing was amounting to. [Ed. – Let this be a lesson to you all.] In the end I was glad I’d read it, breaking a habit I have of not persevering with books that, a hundred pages in, aren’t giving me much reading pleasure. The pleasure was retroactive.

Rob Sheffield, the music critic, wrote a book called Dreaming The Beatles: A Love Story of One Band and The Whole World. I’m a lifelong fan, but hadn’t thought about them much in recent years; this book delighted me because it wasn’t so much a band bio as a story of how the Beatles are perceived, and adored, across time, by their admirers. Lots of fun, gave me some new perspectives on these old favorites that sent me back to the music; a sprightly winter time read.

Quenching my desire to read dark books about grim and squalid Northern British things was Alma Cogan, a novel by Gordon Burn, in which he writes a fictional autobiography of Cogan, a singer popular in England in the 50s and early 60s, whose career was steamrollered by rock’n’roll, and who died young. In this novel she doesn’t die young, and she spills all the tea. Great and ghastly.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood really lit me up when I was reading it. It had an air of sui generis-icity about it that was exciting; its emotional roller-coaster effects were earned. Lockwood is very clever in the good ways of being clever, and this novel, which starts out being about online-ness, ends up being about emotions of great tenderness and subtlety. Full of surprise. A must. Just read it without reading anything about it first.

Over the summer I got into the way of wanting short stories by Anton Chekhov and William Trevor, and read great gobs of them, in the form of The Portable Chekhov and Trevor’s Collected Stories. I feel, looking back, as if I sat through hundreds of hand-wringing playlets, each story totally absorbing, a world in itself in a way that even the best novels are not, because you’re not reading them in a single sitting.

Also over the summer I had an urge to reread John O’Hara, and revisited Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara, and 10 North Frederick. O’Hara’s merciless dissection of the manners and mores of upper-class Americans in the late 19th and 20th century is a genre unto itself for me. I can’t get enough of his snobs and tragically unself-aware nobs, all floating in cold martinis.

A wonderful discovery was the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, whose books are reprinted by the wonderful New York Review Books. I read Little Reunions for a class at the Center For Fiction, then went on to Love In A Fallen City. She writes about romance and family life in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the mid 20th century, with the political restrictions of these places hidden beneath the carefully articulated actions and thoughts of her heroines.

At the end of 2021 I listened to the audio of a new biography of poet Sylvia Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, an exhaustive but never exhausting account of the accomplishments and anxieties of Plath’s amazing life, which lasted just 30 years. I’m always fascinated by the lives of writers. Plath was, though a genius, also exemplary of all the things society puts in the way of young women—the pressures to be pretty, nice, quiet, maternal, agreeable, nurturing. This bio impressed me afresh with her struggle to be both a great artist and a successful woman, by the standards of mid-century America and Britain.

Finally, my least-liked—really, flat-out disliked, book of 2021: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. The first novel by him I’ve read, and it’ll be the last. I only finished it because I’d been taught by The Last Samurai that things might turn around in the final third, but in this case, not so much. I know a few people who adore him and this book, but I can’t see it. [Ed. – I did not recommend this book, just FYI.]

Edward Hopper, Blackwell’s Island, 1928

Other stand-out books I read:

  1. Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
  2. Piranesi by Susannah Clarke
  3. Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Pete Paphides
  4. Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  5. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
  6. Alec by William DiCanzio
  7. How To Hide An Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
  8. Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric
  9. Life of a Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy by Edward Ball
  10. Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones

Every book I’ve read since 2008: https://bit.ly/3njPjah