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> The Big Read
2021 By the Book
Zoomer’s resident expert offers eight themed holiday gift guides for every reader on your list, as well as personal favourites from 227 titles she read this year / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 17th, 2021
Like many people in the past year, my reading has been voracious but scattered. Books are both work and pleasure for me, and I carefully curate my reading life to suit my tastes (and avoid duds). But it would be disingenuous to pretend comprehensiveness, because I simply haven’t read every so-called important book published in 2021 to confidently cough up a definitive “best” list.
Reading is highly personal to circumstance, mood and moment, which is another reason I prefer the idea of favourites to bests/worsts. And my personal year in reading – at present, a tally of 227 titles, although hopefully I’ll add a few more before the calendar ends – had many highlights. I’ve relished the opportunity to share many of them with Zed: The Zoomer Book Club throughout the year, either through my monthly fiction column, Novel Encounters, in popular listicle round-ups or in The Big Read. And this season, I’ve put together eight themed book lists for holiday gift ideas, or simply to add to your own tottering to-be-read piles.
Early in the year I read The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo’s queer retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby, with some trepidation – it could have gone so wrong! But its rich, meditative quality and magical realism made it a highlight of the year. So was How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, a harrowing but worthwhile read: Cherie Jones renders fear and brutal violence in such exquisite, visceral language that I could almost feel the sentences reverberating in my body. And friends, fellow readers and social media followers have endured me going on (and on) about A Theatre for Dreamers, set in the 1960s on the Greek island of Hydra during Leonard Cohen’s bohemian days. (Read my interview with author Polly Samson and her husband, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who composed the music for the audiobook.)
Occasionally the best books don’t get chosen so much as find you by serendipity. Timothy Schaffert’s The Perfume Thief, a stunner published over the summer, had initially slipped my radar until I heard it casually likened to Moulin Rouge by way of A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s a textured and poetic novel of espionage set in 1941 occupied Paris. Clem, 72, is an aging American ex-pat and notorious former thief-turned-perfumer to the openly queer artists and cabaret performers who remain in Paris under duress. Clem is drawn out of retirement to steal and safeguard a famed Jewish perfumer’s book of formulas – a valuable cultural artifact – from the Nazis. What makes it notable is the setting and Schaffert’s vivid descriptions of longing – for freedom, warmth, good food and the way things used to be just-before. (We can all relate.)
Likewise the instant bestseller Taste, Stanley Tucci’s delectable autobiography, not only attests to the power of mixing a Negroni for one’s social media followers, but underscores that, in this fraught year more than ever, food is memory and connection. Dee Hobsbawn-Smith, a chef and writer in rural Saskatchewan, beautifully explores the same terrain – like learning to cook and, in turn, teaching her children – in a lovely new book of essays called Bread & Water.
Both put me in mind of a timeless title I regularly recommend, Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days by novelist James Salter and his wife Kay Salter. It’s a feast of words, meted out in daily doses that, through literary, culinary and personal lore, celebrate the delights of kinds of convivial meals we’ve been missing this past year.
On the theme of sensual pleasures, there has been a spate of lyrical ecology and science books sparking an appreciation for the planet and curiosity about the world around us, bringing home the urgency of the climate crisis. As an avid hiker and swimmer, when I was laid up for six weeks this fall with a foot injury, my vicarious pleasure was Roger Deakin’s Waterlog – because when you’re stuck indoors or need a kick start to cultivate the practice of awe walking that Rona Maynard describes in this Zoomer essay, his prose works a spell.
As German author Bernhard Shlink suggests in his new novel Olga, “History is not the past as it really was. It’s the shape we give it.” If you’ve scanned my holiday Nostalgia and Hidden Gems gift lists, you’ll notice the thirst for re-contextualizing cultural artifacts and neglected historical figures, as well as books and literature themselves. That current appetite for reappraisal extends to the established canon of myth, like The Women of Troy from Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker (the Regeneration trilogy). Her second novel about Briseis, Achilles’ war prize and the protagonist of the magnificent The Silence of the Girls, explores women at the margins of society and the reality – and price – of war.
After I got my hands on Annie Garthwaite’s Cecily, a similarly epic feminist retelling of the War of the Roses from the perspective of House of York matriarch Cecily Neville, another favourite was Harvard folklore professor Maria Tatar’s The Heroine with 1001 Faces. Tatar reframes storytelling around women in literature from ancient myth to Nancy Drew and Wonder Woman. It’s a long overdue correction to the prevailing hero warrior quest trope popularized by American mythologist Joseph Campbell that has permeated Hollywood, pop culture – and now the Marvel Cinematic Universe – for decades.
Whatever your highly-specific pop culture obsession, there’s probably a book dedicated to it, from an oral history of the 80s TV series Moonlighting, a cultural history of the 90s comedy Northern Exposure, an analysis of the existential angst in U2’s 1987 album The Joshua Tree, or an evaluation of David Simon’s 1993 series Homicide: Life on the Street in the context of Black Lives Matter.
Grief is another subject many of us were drawn to this year, and to exploring the contours of its raw edges, as accepting and expressing less upbeat emotions has been normalized in pandemic times. The intensely poetic memoir-slash-biography A Ghost in the Throat is about mothering, love and finding one’s voice. Writer Doireann Ni Ghriofa explores the life of a forgotten female poet who composed famous 18th century lament over the body of her dead husband, and it’s filled with remarkable moments of insight. Michael Ignatieff’s search for solace in On Consolation goes the more erudite route, relying on portraits of historical figures to explore the social chain of meaning, or how grief connects us across space and time.
We are surrounded by grief in so many ways, but sometimes pragmatic self-help – like encouragement and permission to be sad and inert – is welcome. Judging by sales of British author Matt Haig’s latest supreme bestseller, The Comfort Book, many of us need it. I recommend Helen Russell’s How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, By Being Sad, Better. Yes, the title suffers from Malcolm Gladwell’s opposites syndrome, but it’s actually helpful as practical guide to navigating, rather than avoiding, sadness and its place in our lives.
So is Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner’s moving and funny memoir about grief, family and Korean cooking. (Because, as Tucci would say, everything always comes back to food.) It’s named for the American supermarket chain that specializes in Asian products that Zauner is obsessed with after her mother dies of cancer. It is justifiably on everyone’s best-of-the-year list, as is Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, one of the first wave of novels set in the pandemic that similarly mixes cathartic laugh-out-loud satire with tears.
After the stunning adaptation of Mothering Sunday (which opens in cinemas next spring) made such an impression at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sought out the 2016 Graham Swift novella on which it’s based. Colin Firth and Olivia Colman co-star in the movie, set in 1924, about grieving parents and a close-knit group of neighbours united in bereavement. They are suffused with the grief of all the young men lost in the Great War, and that in turn feels palpably imbued with the shadow our own recent and ongoing collective losses. It is simultaneously hopeful and deeply sad, especially as I had just revisited Juliet Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer, about the year before the First World War. Then I stumbled upon the quiet devastation of The Wedding, the final novel from the late Harlem Renaissance writer and editor Dorothy West, which, like Mothering Sunday, it takes place in one tragically eventful day. Two years and several waves into the COVID-19 pandemic, and with another long winter looming, that journey through themes seemed especially apt for the cultural moment.
Because as any avid reader knows, one book leads to another—and there are always more books.