2021: A Year’s Reading

I walked hundreds of miles this year while listening to audiobooks. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was a particular highlight. George Saunders himself talking through my earbuds about Chekhov while I was walking on high ground with a vista of the Hampshire countryside where a steam train on the Watercress Line was huffing towards Alresford. The perfect combination of book and surroundings.

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I began the year with a hard-boiled fiction binge. Ross Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar) was initially a revelation – a writer of serious ambition (he was taught by WH Auden and was an expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge) who brought literary sensibilities to pulp fiction. But by the third book I couldn’t help but notice that his plots tend to be all the same elements slightly rearranged. His wife, Margaret Millar, was also a crime writer (at the start, her career eclipsed his), and I thoroughly enjoyed Beast in View.

Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter, aka Salvatore Albert Lombino) proved much more addictive. I began his 87th Precinct series from book one (of fifty-five), and could probably have done the whole lot in sequence. The listening experience (I tackled them by audiobook) was supplemented by the excellent podcast Hark! The 87th Precinct, which helpfully rates each novel. After reading the first few, I picked off some their highest rated titles from later in the series.

It’s good to know that I still have dozens more 87th Precinct novels to discover, but all the other books in the world won’t read themselves, and I need to keep chipping away. For years I’d had my eye on John Dos Passos’s USA, though more than a thousand pages of experimental modernism appeared impossibly daunting. I finally tackled it by approaching each of the component books in the trilogy individually. It turned out to be far less taxing than anticipated.

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I managed to read four-fifths of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence quintet. Much of the ground was familiar from The Golden Notebook. I haven’t yet been in the mood for the final volume, The Four-Gated City, which envisages a world of social injustice, violence, and global pandemic. John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, about the ups and downs of an extended family, felt like escapism. I read the first volume and hope to read the remaining two volumes next year.

A couple of times this year I felt bogged down by the books I was reading – especially modern literary fiction – and picking them up became a chore. Biographies helped to reawaken my enthusiasm. My favourite was Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano, a vivid account of the poet’s remarkable life. David Lodge’s two volumes of autobiography were mostly engaging, though he’s very much of the old school with occasional lapses into attitudes that are no longer palatable. But that’s more down to modern perceptions than to him, and setting that aside I also enjoyed revisiting his Campus trilogy. Much more problematic was the long anticipated biography of Philip Roth by Blake Bailey. I was in the midst of reading it when serious allegations were made against Bailey and the book was withdrawn. I decided to continue, but there were certainly passages that took on uncomfortable resonance in the context of Bailey’s downfall.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year were non-fiction. Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb is a chilling exposé of modern Rwanda, which is so often portrayed as a model African nation. In Turkey three years ago, my wife and I had a small role helping Jeremy Seal research his gripping book A Coup in Turkey. The book helps explain the undercurrents that we became aware of there but didn’t fully understand. Andrew Hankinson’s Don’t applaud. Either laugh or don’t (At the Comedy Cellar) is an innovative look at cancel culture and its consequences.

After ten years of an itinerant life, often literally living out of suitcases, I’m hoping that in 2022 I’ll finally be reunited with all of my books – many of which have languished unseen in storage for most of that time. Consuming on Kindle and Audible has enabled me to read more than a dozen books a month, even when – since July 2021 – I’ve only had shelf space for half a dozen at most. White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle showed me what I’ve been missing. It’s a passionate defence of the love of books, and is my book of the year.

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JAN

  1. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (R) (AB)
  2. The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene (AB)
  3. The Chill by Ross Macdonald (AB)
  4. Sleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald (AB)
  5. Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan
  6. The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald (AB)
  7. Beast in View by Margaret Millar (AB)
  8. That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry
  9. Black Money by Ross Macdonald (AB)
  10. The Blue Fox by Sjon
  11. The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald (AB)
  12. The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald by Hugh Merrill
  13. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (AB)
  14. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (AB)
  15. Job by Joseph Roth
  16. Karoo by Steve Tesich
  17. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (AB)

FEB

  1. Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith (AB)
  2. Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel
  3. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
  4. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (R) (AB)
  5. Fall by John Preston
  6. The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter
  7. Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem
  8. My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim
  9. Trio by William Boyd (AB)
  10. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
  11. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

MARCH

  1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (AB)
  2. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon (AB)
  3. The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard
  4. The Carter of La Providence by Georges Simenon (AB)
  5. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
  6. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (AB)
  7. The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis
  8. Cop Hater by Ed McBain (AB)
  9. The Mugger by Ed McBain (AB)
  10. Patrimony by Philip Roth (AB)
  11. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
  12. The Pusher by Ed McBain (AB)
  13. The Con Man by Ed McBain (AB)

APRIL

  1. King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (AB)
  2. Do Not Disturb by Michela Wrong
  3. Doll by Ed McBain
  4. Sadie When She Died by Ed McBain (AB)
  5. Ice by Ed McBain (AB)
  6. First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami
  7. Tricks by Ed McBain (AB)
  8. Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer (AB)
  9. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
  10. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (AB)
  11. Philip Roth by Blake Bailey
  12. Deception by Philip Roth (AB)
  13. Twenty-One Stories by Graham Greene
  14. The Ratline by Philippe Sands (AB)

MAY

  1. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty (AB)
  2. Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor
  3. Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov (AB)
  4. Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt (AB)
  5. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (R) (AB)
  6. King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov (R) (AB)
  7. Law and Disorder: Scenes of Life in Kenya by Peter Evans
  8. Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t by Andrew Hankinson
  9. Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (R) (AB)
  10. Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (R) (AB)
  11. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (AB)
  12. Second Place by Rachel Cusk
  13. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (AB)
  14. White Noise by Don DeLillo (AB)
  15. The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

JUNE

  1. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey (AB)
  2. A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy
  3. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (AB)
  4. USA Trilogy 1: The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos (AB)
  5. Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark
  6. Selected Poems 1968-2014 by Paul Muldoon
  7. The Promise by Damon Galgut
  8. The Pearl by John Steinbeck (AB)
  9. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (AB)
  10. USA Trilogy 2: 1919 by John Dos Passos (AB)

JULY

  1. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
  2. Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes (AB)
  3. A Coup in Turkey by Jeremy Seal
  4. USA Trilogy 3: The Big Money by John Dos Passos (AB)
  5. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
  6. Mao II by Don DeLillo (AB)
  7. The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
  8. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (AB)
  9. Rebellion by Joseph Roth
  10. White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle
  11. The Pages by Hugo Hamilton
  12. A Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing (AB)

AUGUST

  1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (AB)
  2. The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins
  3. Weights and Measures by Joseph Roth
  4. Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut (AB)
  5. The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy
  6. A Death in the Family by James Agee (AB)
  7. The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
  8. Love Unknown The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano (AB)
  9. Fat City by Leonard Gardner
  10. On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Toibin
  11. The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin
  12. A Ripple from the Storm by Doris Lessing (AB)
  13. I, Dreyfus by Bernice Rubens
  14. Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe (AB)

SEPTEMBER

  1. Our Man Down in Havana by Christopher Hull (AB)
  2. Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly by John Franklin Bardin
  3. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (AB)
  4. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud (AB)
  5. The Bachelors by Muriel Spark (AB)
  6. Damsel in Distress by PG Wodehouse (AB)
  7. Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee
  8. The Tenants by Bernard Malamud (AB)
  9. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (AB)
  10. Changing Places by David Lodge
  11. The Clicking of Cuthbert by PG Wodehouse (AB)
  12. Speak, Silence: In Search of WG Sebald by Carole Angier (AB)
  13. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  14. Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (AB)
  15. The Forsyte Saga I: The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (AB)
  16. More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow (AB)

OCTOBER

  1. Small World by David Lodge
  2. Landlocked by Doris Lessing (AB)
  3. The Forsyte Saga II: In Chancery by John Galsworthy (AB)
  4. The Devil That Danced on Water by Aminatta Forna (AB)
  5. 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman
  6. Nice Work by David Lodge (R)
  7. The Forsyte Saga III: To Let by John Galsworthy (AB)
  8. Memory of Departure by Abdulrazak Gurnah
  9. Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis (AB)
  10. Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir 1935-75 by David Lodge (AB)
  11. Somewhere Becoming Rain by Clive James
  12. Silverview by John le Carre (AB)
  13. My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
  14. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (AB)

NOVEMBER

  1. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
  2. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (AB)
  3. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (AB)
  4. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  5. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago (AB)
  6. Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin
  7. The Amur River by Colin Thubron (AB)
  8. Nothing is Real by David Hepworth
  9. Shooting Midnight Cowboy by Glenn Frankel (AB)
  10. Allegorizings by Jan Morris
  11. Solid State: Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles by Kenneth Womack (AB)
  12. Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov (AB)
  13. Keeper by Mal Peet

DECEMBER

  1. My Michael by Amos Oz (AB)
  2. Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis
  3. To Jerusalem and Back by Saul Bellow (AB)
  4. Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy by Peter Robison
  5. Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert by Peter Elsdon
  6. Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976-1991 by David Lodge (AB)
  7. The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet by Sylvain Tesson
  8. The Magician by Colm Toibin (AB)
  9. Sour Grapes by Dan Rhodes
  10. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan (AB)
  11. The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (AB)
  12. In a Free State by VS Naipaul (AB)

AB – Audiobook

R – Reread