Best Books 2021
I read slightly fewer books in 2021 than in years past. Nevertheless, a handful of books stand out.
Books sometimes make my lists because despite not thinking them best books at first, they haunt me. Three that did this for me this year were The Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by her son, and China Mieville’s The City and the City, a mystery/science fiction hybrid that I first brushed off, but kept thinking about. The third was Eileen Botting’s Artificial Life After Frankenstein.
China Mielville The City and the City: This novel is set in an imaginary European city which is actually two cities that overlap one another: a highway or street from one city might run through a part of the other city, a park from one city might jut into the geography of its counterpart. However, the division between the two cities is very strict. Not only are citizens of one city not allowed to set foot into the other city, they can disappear for even looking at the other city as they are traveling past on a bus or train. A mysterious group enforces this separation, but a murder mystery that involves both cities brings the separate universes into contact.
The interesting part for me is the way this separation acts as a metaphor for how we actually live in our cities or spaces. How many of us, even in the bottom part of the upper income half, really “see” the part of the city where the other half lives? How much poverty is hiding in plain sight? And how much of this is self censorship? This has come home to me in the last year, as people have told me how horrible it must be to live in rural Ohio with all the poverty and opioids and etc. Yet the people making these comment live in or very close to cities with poverty that makes rural Ohio's look like affluence. Do they not see it? I think not—even if they might frequently pass it, they perhaps concentrate their eyes on the what they want to see: museums, theaters, good restaurants, and good shopping. Poverty is never pleasant, but if I had to be poor, I would rather do it in a spot like rural Ohio, where social services are not overburdened and where unspoiled open spaces are near at hand for rich and poor alike. So I wonder about all we don’t see. This is not a new theme—but still worth pondering.
Leonora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet: I enjoyed this whimsical and powerful book about old age and change. Goodreads summarizes the plot as follows:
The Hearing Trumpet is the story of 92-year-old Marian Leatherby, who is given the gift of a hearing trumpet only to discover that what her family is saying is that she is to be committed to an institution. But this is an institution where the buildings are shaped like birthday cakes and igloos, where the Winking Abbess and the Queen Bee reign, and where the gateway to the underworld is open. It is also the scene of a mysterious murder.
Marian carries the story. An irrepressible 92 year old, she is a victim of ageism, knows it, and doesn’t let it defeat her. This is a romantic book in the sense of being a story of the world as we might want it to be rather than how it, but never sappy, and never dishonest or sentimental about how old people, especially women, are devalued and shunted aside. It is told from the sub-altern point of view and at the end becomes a shout out for the marginalized, including animals. It is a delight--the kind of book that has to be read because it can't really be explained.
Kazuo Ishiguro: Never let me Go. I binged on Ishiguro this year: Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun, and half of The Buried Giant. Never Let Me Go was the standout, a searingly understated book about what it feels like to grow up as a clone. The clones in question, primarily Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy, are part of a group at the top of the clone hierarchy and are aware that they are especially privileged in being brought up at Hailsham, a boarding school. The sadness comes in the disconnect between how privileged Kathy and her friends feel and the reader's growing awareness of their very shabby treatment. From time to time, for example, they can trade chits they have earned for used consumer goods: old cassette tapes, a walkman, or sweat pants, an old doll—treasuring these items that are unwanted castoffs. When they leave the school in their late teens, they are consigned to an old, unheated farmhouse. They dream of maybe being allowed to work in retail store rather than donating their organs, but such a simple life is far beyond their caste. In their 20s, they are first caretakers of other clones going into hospitals to give up organs—what they have been designed to do. In their later 20s, while their organs are still young and fresh, they begin to “donate” them to “real” people.
Malcolm Lowrie: Under the Volcano: I started this book several years ago on the recommendation of my friend Elaine, got halfway into, and as is the way life goes, was blown off track by relentless demands and never finished it. This year, a new reading group offered the opportunity to delve back in. This is a stylistically rich book, lyrical and saturated in symbolism. It is told from the point of view of an alcoholic, set in pre-World War II Mexico, and explores some of the despair about the world then that seems relevant to today. The movie, though far thinner than the book, is work seeing, as is a documentary about Lowry’s tortured life: Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry
Elena Ferrante: Those who Leave and Those Who Stay: I continue my slow trek through this quartet. This year, I read the third novel. The novels continue to be searing, and much of the tragedy lies in how neither woman, despite having highly divergent life paths, is finding happiness.
Henrich Von Kleist: The Marquise of O—and Other Stories: Kleist is not widely read in the English language, but I enjoyed his melodramatic stories, many dealing with rape. I especially appreciated his “Betrothal in Santo Domingo.”
The Letters of Shirley Jackson edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman: I approached Shirley Jackson’s letter with some trepidation: I am not a horror reader, and I didn’t expect to enjoy them. I was most happily surprised at Jackson’s wit, intelligence, and ability to always write entertainingly. Her letters trace out a life tragically marred by sexism and fat-ism—Her son, who edited the volume, lays out a convincing frame for her death not as an accident but a suicide. He shows a once vibrant woman whose ego was crushed by the relentless criticism she endured for becoming overweight. As an aside, I read her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, on the basis of being taken with the woman in the letters. The novel struck me more as a dark romance in the style of du Maurier’s Rebecca than a horror novel—but it is considered an outstanding example of the horror genre. I found it surprising good, and appreciated details of life in the 1950s, such as saving and sharing bath water—using someone else’s bath water is likely to raise a huge “ewww” today--but most of all enjoyed the good story. The letters had similar details: for example, in the late 1940s or early 1950s, one could just show up at the now ultra-prestigious Bennington College with a fairly modest check in hand and gain admission to this small, all girls school. In some ways, the old days were so much better.
Eileen Hunt Botting: Artificial Life after Frankenstein. This book, unfortunately very expensive, grew on me slowly. It sides with Mary Shelley against Victor Frankenstein’s rejection of his creature and makes the case that we should treat any artificial life we create as fully human from the start. Botting, a humane thinker, argues vehemently against using the human form as an "instrument", by which she means as created for the purpose of making life better for a “superior” class of humans. She uses Never Let Me Go as a paradigmatic novel, like Frankenstein an example of the cruelty of denigrating “artificial” life forms. She also makes the salient point that the assumption that artificial intelligence, when it becomes more intelligent than we are, is going to kill us, is merely a viewpoint that reflects the pathology of patriarchal thinking. Botting asserts that a truly more intelligent life form may likely look at life through a more humane and nuanced lens. There's simply much to think about in this book.
Suzanne Methot, Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing: This a heartfelt and insightful survey of the effects of intergenerational trauma on indigenous people in Canada. Although I don’t remember her having much to say about Fanon, Methot follows in his footsteps in rightly locating native “pathologies” in the extraordinary traumas of colonialism rather than in a "defect" in native groups themselves. Methot, from native roots, is compassionate towards the Canadian indigenous while also clear-eyed about the criminal behavior collective trauma can cause.
Soyica Diggs Colbert: Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. For reasons I don’t fully understand, at least two biographies of Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play Raisin in the Sun, came out this year. The best was Colbert’s, a literary biography that takes seriously Hansberry’s radicalism and refrains from carping on her imperfections or suggesting she didn’t write her own work, as the other bio does. Through Colbert’s book I was introduced to concepts in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. The ideas these scholars promote are similar to Woolf’s vision of a Society of Outsiders and align with her concept of transitory utopian moments. I was also fascinated by Hansberry’s critique of French existentialism: she saw it as the lamenting of privileged white European males affronted at the loss of their empire. She found their despair self indulgent, turning the tables to see in their loss of European colonial hegemony as darker skinned people’s gain.
Robert Gottlieb, Garbo. Readable, well-synthesized, convincing biography of Garbo that in an understated way emphasizes the tragedy of her early retirement from film. One wonders how she managed all those decades as nothing more than one of the idle rich, with all her talent going to waste. The volume is filled with beautiful photos—Garbo was ahead of her time in understanding that beauty is at its best when left untrammeled--naturally the men in her life wanted her tarted up.
Charles C. Mann: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus: I’d read pieces of this 2005 book—for example, a long essay in The Atlantic arguing the South American rain forest was not a random occurrence but the end result of planning by an agriculturally advanced society. I had even read the beginning chapters, but it was the nevertheless fascinating to read it in its entirety.
Jenni Diski essays. Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? Entertaining essays that range from serial killers to Diski’s pre-Doris Lessing days with her bizarre parents.