Five Favorite Fiction I Read in 2021


Looking back on the fiction I read in 2021, nothing jumps out at me as exceptional.  Let me rephrase that, nothing struck me as “Wow, you have to read this book!” Instead, there were lots of “Hmm, that was interesting.”  These were books that held my interest but didn’t wow me; books that make you want to drop what you are doing so you can block out a chunk of time to read. Or maybe the pandemic has just taken the luster off of everything…

As an aside, as I mentioned in my 2021 Reading By the Numbers post, with Goodreads, I have a tendency to overrate books; giving 4 stars when looking back I don’t feel like I “really” enjoyed it.  There is such a fine line between enjoying a book and really liking it. Which is why I have been wishing for half stars for many years.

Nevertheless, I did read some entertaining and interesting novels in 2021.  Here are five that stood out:

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures  by Jennifer Hofmann

A sort of dark and gritty espionage novel but with a supernatural element haunting it and a Kafkaesque style. At first it reads like a typical missing person/spy story but then the combination of the paranoia that comes from living in an authoritarian state where the government is spying on everyone, and everyone is spying on each other, plus a mysterious illness (and perhaps a mental breakdown) leads to things begining to spin.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Grabbed this on Kindle for $2 so that is a plus. I enjoyed reading this and found it fascinating but it also felt like there was deeper meanings that I was missing or some key to the whole thing that I just couldn’t quite grasp. I am not really very good at unpacking symbolism and layers in fiction.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Quick but enjoyable read. I really enjoyed the mix of Ghana, futuristic and fantastical elements. Has a sense of the mythological even as it is science fiction.

How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff

More espionage and more dark humor. A sort of noir espionage thriller that is dark and yet with a kind of wit and humor. A psychological exploration of grief and depression through the eyes of a spy. I really like Beside the Syrian Sea so not surprised I liked this as well.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

This was one I struggled with rating. I enjoyed it and found it creative and in some ways insightful. But it was also rather depressing and hard to read at times. My natural prudishness didn’t help given the plethora of F-bombs, etc.  But it kept me reading and a unique and imaginative debut.

I am hoping to offer more detailed posts on each of these books as I go through the books I read in 2021 but given my track record I wanted to highlight them as among my favorites.

Book Review: A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

As perhaps is appropriate, I came to read A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolf in a very roundabout way.  I decided to buy Interlibrary Loan after seeing it in the bargain area at Barnes and Noble.  I was in a bit of reading funk as far as fiction so was looking for something different to shake things up. I then found out that it was the second book in a series.  So checked out A Borrowed Man from the library.

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.

I found it to be an odd book. I don’t have an history of reading Wolfe, however, so have nothing to judge it against or to give the style some context.

At some level it is just a mystery but there is the fact that the narrator is a re-clone of a murder mystery author from 100 years ago who can be checked out from the library. It has been a while since a mystery, let alone one with such a unique plot device. I think the main character’s style/voice threw me off. Perhaps I missed some symbolism and depth, but even though I felt like I found a rhythm in the second half of the story, it just didn’t really click for me.

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My 2021 Reading By The Numbers

Some stats about my reading in 2021 (that may be of interest only to me):

  • Total Books Read: 84
  • Hardcover: 42
  • Kindle: 32
  • Paperback: 6
  • Audio: 3
  • Nonfiction: 45
  • Fiction: 38
  • Longest book: 751 pages
  • Shortest book: 12 pages

In later posts I will outline my favorite book in fiction and non, but what jumped out at me is that I haven’t really landed on a a genre or style that I really enjoy. Despite reading close to 40 works of fiction, I didn’t read a lot of books that I would heartily recommend, books that I loved. Feels like I am in a bit of a funk; not finding a lot of “You have to read this!” Type books.

The other thing that I find interesting with using Goodreads, is that I have a tendency to overrate books; giving 4 stars when looking back I don’t feel like I “really” enjoyed it.  There is such a fine line between enjoying a book and really liking it.  At least it seems that way to me. My campaign to bring half stars to Goodreads continues.

Bibliotheca: Achievement Unlocked

 

If my greatest reading accomplishment in 2020 was reading 100 books in a year, my reading accomplishment for 2021 was finally reading my entire Bibliotheca set in a little over nine months.

For those unfamiliar with Bibliotheca:

Bibliotheca is an elegant, meticulously crafted edition of the Bible designed to invite the reader to a pure, literary experience of its vast and varied contents.

The text is treated in classic typographic style, free of all added conventions such as chapter and verse numbers, section headers, cross-references, and marginalia.

I received the set way back in December of 2016 and despite picking it up on occasion never really read it in any serious way.

I don’t really have any deep spiritual/theological nuggets of wisdom to offer as my approach was really about getting lost in reading scripture as literature. So instead, allow me to offer my thoughts as tracked via Goodreads:

Volume I: The Five Books of Moses & The Former Prophets

I would give the design and materials of Bibliotheca 5 stars but I am not going to lie, by the end of this volume I was slogging through the kings and their continued insistence on doing evil in the sight of God. Seems almost sacrilegious to give the Bible 3 stars but hard to say “I really liked it” given the content… ;-)

A few things struck me while reading in this format: it really reads like the ancient text that it is, there is a lot of violence, and there is very little obvious doctrine or theology. My perspective leans heavily in this direction, but I was struck by the narrative drive of scripture. It is about the relationship of the people of Israel with their God. It is not abstract theology but often blunt and ugly history but with a God who is faithful.

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Literature as equipment for living

What if we were to think of literature and the other arts as a kind of repository of habitus, a motley collection of practices and strategies? “Motley” because we can never adopt them simply and straightforwardly – we have to accept the inevitability of bricolage. But still: experiences not just to admire or appreciate but to use. Edward Mendelson’s idea of “literature as a special form of intimacy” seems relevant here – literature, and the other arts, as equipment for living, equipment shared by fallen mortals, thinking reeds, puzzled people in the process of being formed. An improvised sociology for wayfarers.

equipment, Snakes and Ladders