This is the second part of my Year-End Review. I read in total 102 books from January to December 2021 and I gave 45 of them 4 stars and only five 5 stars. I’m going to give four books special awards, but first of all, here are my 5-star books from last year!
These are not in any particular order. I loved each of them for different reasons.
Vanity Fair – My Favourite Victorian Novel of 2021
I spent a lot of 2020-2021 academic year reading Victorian novels in and after reading ten of them, I found my favourite. If I have to summarise in one word why I prefer it, it’s more fun!
Before I started I thought it was all about a scheming woman and expected overall quite a dark book. But it’s not dark and it’s not all about one woman. I think that’s one reason I like Vanity Fair more – it follows more than one protagonist. As brilliant as these books are, Jane Eyre, North and South, The Portrait of a Lady, Great Expectations, most of the time I only get to watch one person speak and move. If I didn’t get on with the protagonist, it became really hard work!
So it’s not about one woman, it’s about two, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp. But to be fair, Becky Sharp is a lot more famous ever since she was created, probably because she is different from the usual virtuous women protagonists in Victorian literature. She starts with a very humble beginning, plays her advantages to the maximum – her femininity, intelligence and independent spirit – she conquers every man and woman that comes her way – the useful one she makes use of, the useless one she tramples upon. You watch her for a few hundred pages and there’s not a dull moment.
Becky Sharp is not a good person in many ways. I could imagine how Victorian readers judged her. But surprisingly, Thackeray didn’t give her the ending a wicked person ‘deserves’. She didn’t die lonely, diseased and despised as the possible future Scrooge was shown in A Christmas Carol. And from the beginning till the end, Thackery subtly commends her rebellion against rigid social expectations, her independent spirit and her love for freedom with a twinkle in his eye. I think that’s quite unique in a Victorian novel.
And then we have Amelia Sedley, the typical virtuous Victorian woman, whose life runs parallel with Becky in many ways but who reacts completely differently. In the same surprising way, the innocent and good Amelia nearly doesn’t get the happy ending the readers expect. Her virtue is shown as foolish and that must be a shock to many original readers too.
Such is life: “the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness” (Ecclesiastes 7.15). Thackery is completely realistic.
Like the title suggests, reading Vanity Fair is like watching a funfair. Sometimes you get terribly involved, sometimes you sit back and watch from a distance, listening to Thackery’s running commentary on his puppets, on the Regency society from a Victorian’s point of view, on human nature and very subtly, on morality. Here’s another reason I like the book: I like Thackery’s writer’s voice. He’s like a guide and companion who has walked the road. I feel safe and relaxed walking through the funfair with him.
Transcendent Kingdom – Most Thought Provoking of 2021
Transcendent Kingdom is the one book that I recommended to friends and family most. It’s about a very insecure and vulnerable young woman opening up her wounds to us and trying to make sense of the hardships and sufferings in her and her family’s lives. This book is about mother and daughter, about finding meaning and purpose in life, being a neuroscientist and being a Christian. It’s not a plot-driven book. It’s the fantastic reflection of life that shines.
When I first finished the book, instead of a usual book review I wrote a letter to her. Because I felt like I haven’t just read a novel, I have got to know Gifty as a person. Read the letter here.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – The Best Teacher of 2021
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, In Which Four Dead Russians Give us A Masterclass in Writing, Reading and Life,George Saunders reads through seven Russian short stories with us and shares wisdom from years of teaching young writers and from writing novels himself. I think this paragraph sums up what I love most about this book and why I love it so much. Quote:
“The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trouper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of ‘theme’ or ‘plot’ or ‘character development’ or any of that.”
And he is true to his words. There are no big words or academic phrases in the book. There is no teaching or thought I could not follow. No one has ever taught me the art of reading and writing like this book did. The academic books on literature, I have in mind the series of A Very Short Introduction, even Virginia Woolf and C. S. Lewis, they always make me feel like, OK I know you know lots and you have great ideas, but do you really want to share it with me? Because I can’t quite understand what you’re trying to say. I know your thoughts are profound and your style is elegant. But is there REALLY not a plainer way to explain this? But in this book, George Saunders genuinely wants me to understand and genuinely wants to help me on this journey.
The book includes In the Cart, The Darling and Gooseberries by Chekhov, Master and Man, Alyosha the Pot by Tolstoy, The Singers by Turgenev, and The Nose by Gogol. As the author says in the introduction, “If my goal was to get a non-reader to fall in love with the short story, these are among the stories I’d offer her. They’re great stories… But they’re not all equally great. Some are great in spite of certain flaws. Some are great because of their flaws.” It’s attractive and intriguing right from the first page.
And he did it! The book single-handedly made me interested in Russian literature. His enthusiasm is contagious. And his manner is warm and easy. He keeps saying, do you see? do you see? what do you think? isn’t it fascinating? I have always believed any subject of study can be interesting – it all depends on how good the teacher is. George Saunders, you are an excellent teacher. Thank you!
Anna Karenina – The Most Passionate Love Story of 2021
I know Anna Karenina can’t be reduced to a simple label as a love story. But what stayed in my mind most is the passion of the love story between Anna and Vronsky. The scenes where Kitty watched them dancing in agony, where Anna traveled alone by train in a snowstorm and Vronsky appeared from the dark night, “to be where you are”. It’s terribly romantic.
There’s no thought of reason or consequence or people’s opinion or if it’s right or wrong, good or bad. The mere thought of this person is powerful enough to make one “whistle joyfully” and feel like being picked up and carried off by the wind. It’s how I imagined love as a teenager, when we were reckless. So I loved it when I found the same kind of passion in one of the greatest novels ever written.
Being the Bad Guys – The Best Christian Book of 2021
It’s a book about the drastic change of opinions towards Christianity in recent years and how Christians should respond to it. There are many books that touch on this topic. What I like most about this book is not just the clear explanation of the situation but the author’s attitude that comes through it all. He’s confident that he’s in the right camp. Facing the vast army from the opposite camp, he does not panic at the thought or the sight. Like Psalm 4 says, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety”.
The Most Pleasant Surprise – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
I mentioned this in my December wrap up so feel free to skip this section. I had two things against Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before I started: it was one of the oldest pieces of writing and I was intimidated; secondly, it was poetry! I failed poetry completely in 2021. Except this one!
I thoroughly enjoyed it. I managed to follow the whole story even though it was a massive long poem and it was from the 14th century. It’s part fantasy, part thriller, part romance. I can even imagine what Sir Gawain looks like and how he moves about. It was such a pleasant surprise!
Most Whimsical (or Random or Bizarre) Author – Nikolai Gogol: with both The Nose and The Night Before Christmas
I read The Nose in A Swim in A Pond in the Rain and thought it the most bizarre and hilarious story I’ve ever come across. And in December I read The Night Before Christmas and couldn’t decide which of the two was more bizarre and hilarious!
I explained how sparkling The Night Before Christmas was in my December Wrap Up so I won’t repeat it here. But The Nose starts with a barber getting up one morning and finding a nose in a loaf of bread at breakfast. He recognised the nose belonged to one of his clients. Worried that the police would come and arrest him, he decided to go out and throw it away discreetly. In another part of the city, the owner of the nose went everywhere looking for it and came across his nose getting off a carriage and running up some stairs wearing a uniform…
I listened to quite a lot of audiobooks in 2021. And the next award is called…
Audiobook Production that Won My Highest Respect – Ulysses
At the end of Adam Kay’s Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, he said something like ‘it’s not a long book but the audio recording took me F hours’. I have huge respect for anyone who reads aloud and voice-acts novels. But my respect for Jim Norton, who narrates Ulysses, is on a whole different level.
It’s an amazing production. This was one of the very first audiobooks I tried and I was in awe. It’s a piece of art in itself and it adds so much to the text.
The last special award also goes to an audiobook, it’s
My Favourite Audiobook Voice – Tony Foster reading The Rainbow
The perfect voice to read The Rainbow, even the family name Brangwen sounded more mysterious and fascinating when it came out of Tony Foster’s mouth. I love his narrator voice, his little girl voice, his old woman voice, his farmer voice. I don’t even like the story that much. I just love listening to him read!
What are your favourite books from 2021?