The books I read in 2021

There are many reasons to read. Maybe you want to learn about a subject, gain a new perspective, or go on an adventure. This year, perhaps more than any other year, I turned to books for comfort. Sometimes this meant reading about nature. Other times it meant picking books read and/or recommended by loved ones to feel closer to them. Further, I sought out some lighter material more than I usually do (although I did fit in some dark and gritty titles, too).

Despite this, there were points where I just could not read. I could not focus. But what proved to be true, time and again, is that I always came back to reading, and the books were there waiting for me for when I was ready for them.

Here are some reflections on what I read in 2021.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (852 pages)

The shortest book I read

Neighbourhood Watch by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette (128 pages)

The book I didn’t expect to like but ended up loving

The Wild Laughter by by Caoilinn Hughes. This book and I didn’t get off to the best start. I had a hard time getting into it. But it was a gift, and I wanted to make sure that I gave it a fair shot. I am sure glad I did. Once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a family drama with a good share of humour set in rural Ireland. The book really picks up when the father makes a request of his sons that could have devastating consequences for the whole family.

The book that broke my heart

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. You might think you don’t want to get your heart broken, but trust me: You will want to read this beauty of a book. This novella is exquisite in its exploration of how exterior elements can be internalized and stand in the way of love.

The book that made me LOL

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. This book is good fun for any word nerd. It alternates between the story lines of two characters working for the same publisher in different time periods: a lexicographer in the Victorian era and an intern in present day. The stories are connected as the intern goes through the dictionary to extract fictitious entries added by the jaded lexicographer a century earlier.

The book I read at the perfect time

Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium and And a Dog Called Fig: Solitude, Connection, the Writing Life, both by Helen Humphreys. I’m sort of cheating here, not only because I am choosing two books, but also because And a Dog Called Fig isn’t out until next year (I was lucky enough to have recieved an advance reading copy). But I couldn’t really include one and not the other because I read them right next to each other, at a time when I was having trouble concentrating on anything other than my own anxiety.

I’ve mentioned before that I will read anything Humphreys writes. I simply adore the way she crafts a sentence, so it doesn’t matter much what the subject matter is. In Field Study, Humphreys’ insights about the natural world and the people recording its history comforted me. In And a Dog Called Fig, I read the story of how one my favourite authors became and continues to be a writer, paired with stories of the various dogs she’s had over the years. On top of this, Humphreys sprinkles in anecdotes of other writers and their dogs. As a Humphreys fan, a writer and reader, and a lover of dogs, this book was absolutely what I needed.

The books that had me saying “Just one more chapter”

  • The Push by Ashley Audrain: A suspenseful and sometimes uncomfortable story about motherhood, told from the perspective of a woman who wanted nothing more than to be a mother and who ends up afraid of her child.
  • Fight Night by Miriam Toews: A fun book about three generations of females, narrated by a nine-year-old girl who lives with her mother and grandmother. It’s the characters that make this novel so hard to put down. They are so well crafted and enjoyable and feel like real people. I didn’t want to stop reading because I didn’t want to let them go.
  • A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson: A stunning novel that connects the story lines of three very different characters in a town called Solace.

My 5 favourite books read in 2021

  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: A remarkable novel that centres around an Artificial Friend named Klara, an unforgettable character whose observations give insight into what makes us human and what it means to love. My favourite book read this year.
  • The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex: A beautifully written mystery that builds steadily, providing glimpses into the minds and lives of multiple characters.
  • The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker: A disturbing and moving novel told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl who has killed a younger boy.
  • Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium by Helen Humphreys: A comforting book that follows Humphreys as she spends a year visiting the local herbarium, connecting the present to the past through examining nature and its specimens.
  • Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente: A powerful book that examines points in history, popular culture, and Wente’s personal experiences in a call for the nation of Canada to begin building a new relationship with Indigenous peoples.

By the number

Books bought: 47%

Books borrowed from the library: 33%

Books received as gifts: 12%

Books borrowed from friends: 8%

Books written by Canadians: 18%

Books published in 2021: 54%

Fiction: 78%

Non-fiction: 22%

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2021 reading: half-time update

We’re halfway through 2021 (which seems wild to me, by the way), so it felt like a good time to reflect on some of my favourite reads so far this year and share some of the books I’m anticipating.

5 books I’ve read and loved this year

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 16)

I tore through this novel that made me love a robot more than I’ve loved many human characters (and I don’t typically read science fiction). Several months later, I still think about Klara.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (March 16)

I relished the different layers in this beautiful novel and in all the characters’ secrets as they were slowly revealed.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (April 13)

This short novel broke my heart with its examination of race and masculinity and the barriers to maintaining a connection.

The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker (May 18)

Disturbing and dark from the first sentence, this story is told through the first-person perspective of an 8-year-old girl who murders a younger child. It’s difficult subject matter for sure, but the story is gripping and moving.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo (June 8)

A man shoots himself in front of a woman, compelling her to escape New York City and finally confront her traumatic childhood. Gritty, raw, and so engaging.

5 books I’m looking forward to this summer

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin (July 6)

A woman struggling with anxiety is mistaken for a job applicant to replace a recently deceased church receptionist. After getting hired, she becomes fixated on her predecessor’s mysterious death.

The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Cobb (July 13)

The true story of a Victorian doctor who committed murders in the United States, Canada, and Britain.

We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin (July 27)

These short stories are described by the publisher as “surprising” and “darkly funny.”

All’s Well by Mona Awad (August 3)

A theatre professor with chronic pain is at the end of her rope when she decides to work on a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (August 31)

A young woman lives in rented rooms and on the sofas of strangers as she searches for her own home and a place in the world.

5 books I’m looking forward to this fall

The Pump by Sydney Warner Brooman (September 7)

A gothic collection of linked short stories set in a southern Ontario town called “The Pump.”

Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente (September 21)

A non-fiction work that examines relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette (September 28)

A family saga following generations of the Strangers.

Dog Park by Sofi Oksanen (October 5)

A woman sits on a bench, watching a family play in a dog park. Someone sits next to her, and the woman realizes it is a person whose life she ruined decades ago.

People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami (November 30)

A tiny book of short stories about the different people belonging to a neighbourhood.

Canadian short story collections for Short Story Month

May is Short Story Month, and with the Victoria Day long weekend coming up here in Canada, you might consider picking up a collection to read while hanging out in the backyard, on the balcony, or in the park. Here are a few by Canadian writers I’ve particularly enjoyed

How to Pronounce Knife

It’s probably no surprise to see this one on the list. Souvankham Thammavonga’s short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize and has received much praise, both in Canada and beyond. I found these stories about the immigrant experience to be achingly beautiful.

That Time I Loved You

I was hooked from the first sentence of Carrianne Leung’s book That Time I Loved You: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.” This collection focuses on a group of neighbours in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in the 1970s. Reading these stories was like wandering the neighbourhood and peering into the windows of the houses. I loved learning the secrets of these characters–the parts of themselves their neighbours didn’t get to see.

Coconut Dreams

The stories in Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas centre around a brother and sister, first-generation Canadians whose parents emigrated from India. I enjoyed the different perspectives in the stories as they told the experiences of the siblings, exploring themes of innocence, identity, and belonging.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

In Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, thirteen stories show protagonist Lizzie at thirteen stages of her life, from her teenage years to adulthood. We see Lizzie struggle with her weight and with her relationships of all kinds. I was impressed with how each story worked as a standalone piece, but, when read together, they provided such a strong sense of Lizzie’s character.

The Toronto Book of the Dead

When I think of the short story as a genre, I think of fiction. But I suppose it doesn’t have to be. With Adam Bunch’s book The Toronto Book of the Dead, I think it’s fair to say this is a collection of short stories, even if the stories are true. It was fascinating to learn about Toronto’s history through these tales of some of the city’s most interesting deaths. (I happen to be currently reading Bunch’s new book, The Toronto Book of Love, which may appeal more, if you’re not feeling the morbid stuff so much.)

Books and bakes #10: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 and blueberry crumb bars

The bake

Sometimes you just feel like baking. And since I have enough chocolate for now (I picked up some early Easter chocolate last weekend), this week I felt like making something fruity. Blueberries don’t come into season until the summer in Ontario, but something about the lemon-blueberry flavour combination always says “spring” to me. Thankfully frozen fruit makes it possible to bake with this combo at any time of year. I found this recipe for blueberry crumb bars from My Baking Addiction that have just a hint of lemon with the addition of lemon zest to the crust/crumble. The bars were easy to make, and had a tasty crumble on top, with a good balance of crumb to fruit. My only complaint is that in just 24 hours, some of the bars became quite soggy sitting in a sealed container. I’m not sure if there was a better way to store them, as the recipe didn’t include any notes. But it’s not a real bother. The bars still taste great. The soggier ones just have to be eaten with a fork rather than with fingers.

The book

I’ve had Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo on hold at the library since before it was released in Canada. I think it’s been over a year now. If my memory serves me right, it was released when everything first closed due to the pandemic. I couldn’t get anything from the library at that point, and I think they had paused on receiving books, too. There may have been some other reasons for the delay, but I am unaware of the details. Anyway, the fact that it was taking so long just made me want to read it more. And, a few days ago, I was finally able to pick it up.

Kim-Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a short novel (160 pages) that opens with 33-year-old Kim Jiyoung displaying increasingly unusual behaviour that concerns her husband. The book then goes back in time with a section devoted to a different period of Jiyoung’s life, starting with her childhood, then her adolescence, her early adulthood, and then her marriage (outlined in the table of contents). The opening of the book grabbed me. Right away I wanted to know what was happening with Jiyoung. I’ve just finished the adolescence section, and now I’m finding it fascinating going back to look at Jiyoung’s life, seeing how her family and culture have affected and shaped her. So far, this book is proving to have been worth the wait.

A reader’s guilt

Reader’s guilt. That’s a thing, right? Logically I know that the only way guilt is worthwhile is if your conscience is telling you you’ve done something wrong and that you should take steps to fix it. When it comes to reading, I don’t feel like I have done anything wrong. (I mean, how can you do reading wrong?) But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling guilty when it’s not warranted. What I’m not as sure about is if other readers feel guilty about the same things I do. So here I am, coming clean about what I feel guilty about when it comes to reading.

Giving a book fewer than three stars on Goodreads

When I first started using Goodreads, it was just so I could track the books I read. I didn’t use any of the social aspects of the site, and I didn’t think about my ratings contributing to a book’s overall rating. But as time has gone by, I’ve become more aware of this. When I finish reading a book that I didn’t particularly enjoy, I struggle with how to rate it. This isn’t so much the case for classics or extremely successful writers, but it’s certainly true for new books and even more so for debuts. I don’t want to deter others from picking up the book (tastes are so subjective). On the other hand, I want to keep an honest record of how I felt about what I’ve read.

Not finishing books

I’ve been getting better with this one, but there’s still some guilt when I put a book aside before reaching the end. But I’ve realized that sometimes you just can’t get into it. Maybe it’s the particular time you picked up that book, or maybe it really is that that particular book isn’t for you. But if you’re not enjoying reading a book, you don’t have to keep reading it. What a concept! I think the pandemic helped me finally learn this. Read the book you want to read in that moment. (Unless you are a student, or an academic, or a book reviewer, or–okay, I’ll just clarify that I’m talking about reading for pleasure here.) Why does it sound like l I am trying to convince myself?

Not being able to read all the books

This is a common feeling amongst avid readers. And it can be stressful, too. There are so many books out there and new ones coming out all the time. And this is actually great! This is wonderful! Let’s surround ourselves with books and never run out of stories to choose from and new voices to hear from. But it’s just impossible to get to all the books we want to read. The TBR pile is always going be teetering. I will always regret that I can’t get to all the books I want to. But never running out of things to read? It seems like a pretty good trade-off.