The Internet Personified: The Best Books I Read In 2021
Far & wide & across genres
So much has happened that I didn’t know where to begin this newsletter to you, which is why the long silence. We moved. Bruno died. I turned forty. I know I don’t want to talk about Bruno dying yet, it’s only been a week and I’m still processing, but I did want to tell you about the other two cats and how they’re doing. (Well! Happy, I think.) But all that is fodder for another newsletter.
Almost ever since I’ve had this newsletter I’ve been doing my own version of a year end best books list. These are books I’ve read over the year, not necessarily—not often—published in that same year. I used to do this with a reading challenge, I’d say “150 books in 2020” or whatever, and check them all off my list, but this year I fell behind my reading challenge, almost fell off-of it. As a result, I think I only read about 90 books of the 120 I promised myself I would. Of those 90, I’ve only made a note of 79. Reading challenges are a great way to keep track of what you read, as I’ve found before, but in eventful years, and boy, has this year been eventful, it gets easier and easier to lose track of all your lists. So here it is: of the 79-ish books I made a note of, or photographed for my bookish Instagram account, here are the eleven I recommend most highly. And with a week to go for the rest of this year, I’m reading three new books: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell, and Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay that are all so good that if I were to make this list in the first week of January, they would all be on my list. (I went to this excellent English language second hand bookshop yesterday and bought all three.)
But year end lists must follow some conventions, primarily that they come out at the end of the year. I waited as long as I could—perhaps too long, maybe you’ll be too busy with your end of year festivities to even open this list—but it’s time to call it. Here are the books I enjoyed most this year, I hope you’ll enjoy them too.
Looking Away by Harsh Mander: I read this in the beginning of 2021 when I was feeling full of despair at the state of the country (and the world.) He’s not the world’s most eloquent writer, swathes of the book just quote academic texts, but if you’re looking for someone to draw back the curtain and tell you how it is exactly, not mincing any words, then you’ll love this. I did, it made me think, which is always a great way to begin a year. I thought of Mander’s words constantly and consistently through 2021, the subtitle is Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference In New India, and like the title of the book implies, once you stop looking away, you can’t stop seeing all the ways the Indian government, and us, as private citizens are failing those who need us most. I wanted to thrust a copy of this book into the hands of all my friends, just so we could discuss it.
The Good Girls by Sonia Faleiro: I’ve long been waiting for a good true crime book to come out of rural India (for the best urban Indian true crime I’ve ever read see: Death In Mumbai by Meenal Bhagel) and this one was perfect. I sort of knew about the case: two teenage girls found hanging in a small village called Katra in Uttar Pradesh, but I didn’t know very much more. Faleiro’s slim book makes their world come alive, with interviews with the family left behind, extensive reporting into what exactly happened in the days before they died and portraits of the girls themselves, it made for a sensitive and heartbreaking read.
Laidlaw by William McIllvanney: I love crime novels but mostly for the plotting. I like being safe and sound in my own home and reading about wicked things happening in the outside world. Crime novels are great, but often narrative is sacrificed to plot, so you wind up with short choppy sentences and not much beautiful writing. (There are exceptions, including my most recommended favourite: Tana French, but also Kate Atkinson and Laura Lippman) Not so in this book. Laidlaw, the main character, is a brooding dark detective, but his inner monologue is what keeps the book going, not the crime. Not to say the mystery isn’t a real mystery, it truly is, but read it for the words. Consider this sentence I put in my Instagram post about the book which made my aunt (an architect) ask me to order her a copy too: “It was a nice place but it bothered him in the way houses that have been made self-consciously attractive always did. The whole experience, the talk that had lost all awareness of its own arbitrariness, the carefully arrived at prettiness of the rooms, was like being trapped inside somebody else's hallucination.”
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: This is the best novel I read all year. Partly because it’s about a plague, Hamnet is Shakespeare’s young son who dies of it. Partly because it was such a moving story about love and loss and what you do with that loss later. It was gorgeous, gorgeous, not one sentence out of place. If I could forget it and read it all over again, I would.
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St James: This book scared the crap out of me, which is high praise, as a lot of contemporary horror leaves me interested but not moved. But I’ve always been a sucker for haunted house books, and this is about a haunted hotel and the mystery of the young women who seem to have vanished there. It was delightfully chilly, read well into the night with your lights blazing and you’ll love it too.
A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary: If you, like me, are obsessed with children’s literature, then you’ll love this memoir. If you’re not, you might still enjoy it because of its portrait of a certain time in America, being a certain sort of person. I loved it, but I love everything Beverly Cleary so this is really just a recommendation for you in the back with your old Ramona copies still on your bookshelf.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: If anyone from my book club is reading this they’ll probably roll their eyes at this recommendation. “Nothing happens!” one of them said to me, accusingly. Untrue. So much happens, but in a slow, life-unfolding kind of way. A half-goblin person is the only living heir to a throne, ruling over elves who think themselves superior. He’s got to figure out a way to stay both alive and happy, while around him court intrigue grows and many attempts are made on his life. Meanwhile he’s this naive well-meaning person who just wants to make friends and live his best life. So good! I adored it. RIYL: Schitt’s Creek or Ted Lasso.
My Antonia by Willa Cather: Got to this American classic late, despite being a lifelong reader of Laura Ingalls Wilder (set in the same time, amongst similar people). It’s such a moving story about immigration and what constitutes hard work and who is respectable and who isn’t.
H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald: Another book about loss! It was that sort of year. This time non-fiction and about a bird, how could I resist. Macdonald grieves the loss of her father by training a young goshawk she calls Mabel. I loved Mabel, she reminded me of a cat. I felt for Macdonald and all her shrouded grief. I loved the insights into a birding life and I also loved the descriptions of human and animal trying to find a bond despite all their differences. This is one of those books you’ve seen a zillion times, always with someone trying to get you to read it, here, I’m adding my own name to the queue. Read it!
Something In Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard: If you’ve been reading my newsletter for a while you know I get obsessed with certain authors. Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote the Cazalet Chronicles which I’m always banging on about, but this book is a standalone novel, about three sets of people, all vaguely related. There’s a woman married to an unpleasant man, there are her two grown children, living separate lives in London, and there’s his adult daughter, just married herself and deeply unhappy. All this forms the foundation on which this brilliant novel rests, Howard’s particular skill is just getting to the psychology of a person in a few quick sentences, you can imagine them all, you’re deeply invested before you know it.
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor: Another masterful psychological narrator. I always think Elizabeth Taylor gets short shrift because of her name and she was such an excellent novelist! Please read this book all about an elderly lady who moves into a hotel with other elderly people to live out the end of her life and finds herself entangled with a young man despite it all. Not in a lover-like way either. It both charmed me and left me quite sad.
And that’s my list! Tell me your favourite book/s you read this year too in the comments, let’s make it a sharing party.
Speaking of books, I have an essay out in the just-released Cat People (ed: Devapriya Roy), an anthology of stories and essays about—duh—cats. Mine is about loss (and writing), and it’s coming out so soon after Bruno’s death, I feel like it’s a tribute. Please read it and tell me what you think.
I have MANY things to tell you about moving to a new city (and I’m taking mental notes!) but I’m also frantically settling in, which involves, okay, me lying down on the sofa with a book and a blanket and some honey on toast. My first European winter. It’s cold outside and warm inside and I’m cooking masses of things (we don’t have a fridge yet so cooking is in done in small amounts and fresh each time like we’re the heads of a large family who refuse to eat leftovers) and we’re walking kilometres every day and we’re making our flat a home and Christmas is just round the corner and all the other homes are lit up with fairy lights and the supermarkets are selling frozen goose. So far we have been lazy about Christmas: no tree, no lights, but we’re talking of getting two frozen goose legs and cooking them up for our dinner. So you see, we have the “spirit” too.
Speak to you soon.
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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