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%

The books I read in 2020

Back in March, when COVID-19 first infiltrated our lives here in Canada, there were a few weeks where my reading habits changed. I found it difficult to concentrate. When I could concentrate, I certainly didn’t want to read anything too dark or heavy. But it wasn’t very long until, for the most part, I got back to my regular reading habits. I’ve read almost as many books in 2020 as I did in 2019.

It’s been a strange year (what an understatement!). As 2020 comes to a close, there’s a lot I don’t want to think about–a lot of things I wish I didn’t have to think about. It’s nice to take a break to reflect on the things I do want to hold on to, including the books I’ve read during these past 12 months.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (588 pages)

The shortest book I read

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (99 pages)

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

Reproduction by Ian Williams. I probably wouldn’t have read Reproduction if it weren’t for the Giller Prize. And that’s not because the novel won the 2019 prize, either. During the award ceremony, before the winner was announced, I tuned in to the broadcast and heard Williams describe his book. I was sold. Prior to that, I didn’t know much about the novel. I had picked it up at the bookstore once and flipped through it, noticed that it was a bit experimental, and decided I wasn’t feeling that. I’m glad I was swayed to read this because I loved this story of an unconventional family in the Greater Toronto Area in the 1990s. And the experimental structure turned out to be a delight!

The book I expected to love but didn’t

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s no secret that I’m partial to a good coming-of-age tale. This one is a classic–one I’ve heard about for many years and that has been adapted into film. This might be a case of me expecting too much from a book, but there are many novels in this genre that have spoken to me more than this one did. I didn’t hate this book, but it was a bit forgettable.

The book that is perfect for everyone to read right now

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. I read about Wintering somewhere online (of course I don’t remember where) and promptly added it to my to-read list on Goodreads. I do this with a lot of titles, and many remain on the list for some time (or never leave it). However, it was only the next day or so after I added Wintering that I was in the bookstore and, not looking for this book, happened upon a copy on a table. I was compelled to buy it. Wintering is partly a memoir and partly a meditation on the times in life when things are just, well, bad. Instead of fighting against our difficulties, why not try to accept them and comfort ourselves instead? In this beautifully written book, May looks at her own experiences and also shares examples from nature about resting and retreating during dark times.

The book that made me LOL

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This book has been out for a couple of years, but it previously hadn’t interested me enough to pick it up. But then, when the pandemic hit, I was looking for something lighter to read, something that might make me laugh. And Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine delivered. This novel about a socially awkward woman learning how to open up and deal with her dark past is very funny and uplifting without being corny or overly sentimental. It was just what I needed.

The book that had been sitting on my bookcase unread for too long

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this novel until this year. I bought it a few years ago, after The Paying Guests came out (the first Waters book I’ve ever read.) After reading that one, which I adored, I kept hearing Fingersmith was Waters’ real masterpiece. I picked it up at the bookstore and then just never got to it. I even read The Little Stranger in the meantime, which remains one of my favourite books ever. And yet Fingersmith sat and waited for me. And then this year, when the libraries were still closed and the bookstores weren’t open for browsing, I finally picked it up. Fingersmith is an engrossing twisty novel about petty thieves in Victorian England, and I enjoyed it immensely (but not as much as I enjoyed The Little Stranger).

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

  • Daniil and Vanya by Marie-Helene Larochelle, translated by Michelle Winters: A story about a couple who adopt twin baby boys, but the happy family they imagined doesn’t quite work out.
  • We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper: A true story about the 1969 murder of a female Harvard anthropology student that remained unsolved for 40 years until Cooper first hears rumours about the murder as an undergrad. She then spends the next 10 years looking into what happened, trying to find justice for the victim.
  • Throw Down Your Shadows by Deborah Hemming: A coming-of-age story set in rural Nova Scotia about manipulation and the dark side of teenage relationships.
  • Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan: A compelling novel about a lawyer who learns the client she has been having an extramarital affair with has tragically died. The story follows her as she befriends his widow as she tries to make sense of his death and of their relationship.

My 5 favourite books read in 2020

  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker: An incredible and true story of mental illness and a thought-provoking exploration of family. My favourite book read this year.
  • Rabbit Foot Bill by Helen Humphreys: Based on a true story, this novel is about a boy in 1940s Saskatchewan who befriends the local tramp, Rabbit Foot Bill, and witnesses him commit a violent murder.
  • Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch: A hilarious novel about being sad and basically being okay with that, even if others aren’t. A real gem.
  • Reproduction by Ian Williams: A quirky, poetic novel about an unconventional family that combines serious subject matter with humour and an experimental structure.
  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré: An impressive debut novel about a Nigerian girl who, despite being sold into marriage by her father, is determined to get an education and have her voice heard.

By the numbers

Books bought: 56% (bought new: 53%, bought used: 3%)

Books borrowed from the library: 31%

Books received as gifts: 7%

Books borrowed from friends: 6%

Books written by Canadian writers: 22%

Books published in 2020: 46%

Fiction: 82%

Non-fiction: 18%

I felt like I had read more non-fiction than in past years, but, in actuality, the number has gone down a bit. Maybe it just feels like more because the non-fiction books that I did read were so damn good. Without being able to browse in bookstores for much of the year, and with the libraries being closed for a few months, I cracked open some of the books that had been on my shelves for months or even years. That being said, almost half of what I read this year was published in 2020 (I do like my contemporary titles).

I finally accepted that it’s okay to not finish a book. I mean, I’ve not finished books in the past, but it’s never been a regular practice for me. Usually, if I am not enjoying a book, I stick with it, hoping something will pull me in. But, in 2020, I put aside more unfinished books than ever before, and I feel good about that. Sometimes the book just isn’t for me, but sometimes it’s just not the right time for that particular title. I like to think of these books as not being “left unfinished,” but more as being “put aside for now.” Sometimes a book will serve us better at a different time in our lives. I like knowing I can return to them later on, when they might be just what I need.

As always (but perhaps this year more than ever before), I am grateful for books. I am thankful for the authors who write them, the publishers who get them out into the world, the journalists and bloggers who promote them, and the bookstores and libraries who get them into the hands of us readers. I don’t know what 2021 will bring, but I am betting that whatever comes our way, books will help us get through it.