2021: A pandemic year in books

The New Year is just around the corner, and I love to review the books I have read during the year: my favourites, the ones I would recommend, and the titles that shined during a difficult time.

2021: A pandemic year in books

(A sunset and a snow storm at the same time on Lake Ontario. December, 2021. Photo credit: Roxanne Dubois)

This year, I read about half the number of books I usually do. No matter how you slice it, 2021 was the year where a pandemic kept us in lockdown for half the year, and then opened up a short window of relief to gather and see the world outside our homes. Even the strongest reading habits likely didn’t withhold the ups and downs of this year, and it doesn’t really matter how we feel about it. Despite the challenges, I discovered great books and authors.

In no particular order, here are the books that I will remember reading in 2021.

Bernardine Evaristo is a prolific English author. Her novel Girl, Woman, Other (2019) won the Booker Prize in 2019, making her the first black woman to win the award. It is a magnificent novel that follows the interconnecting lives of a choir of characters in the United Kingdom. Evaristo writes in a poetic and sometimes fragmented style. I loved her voice and pen, and this book was a highlight of my reading list this year.

The hype got to me and I put Sally Rooney’s novels on my library wait list. The young Irish author is touted as the voice of the “millennial” generation, with her deeply psychological books, one of which has already been made into a television series. I read Normal People (2018) first, and definitely took to her story-telling. Then, I read Beautiful World, Where Are You? (2021) and it hit me like it was the novel to read this fall. It is light, but deeply interpersonal. It is timely, but also somehow timeless. It has all the traits of a great book that stays with you weeks after completion. I loved it, and will join the chorus of readers hoping that Rooney will write more books in the near future.

For many years, I have been working through a rather long list of literary classics in chronological order of publication. I have reached the late 1800s, and it just so happened that the start of 2021 coincided with La Guerre et la Paix, or War and Peace(1869) by Leo Tolstoy. Looking back, it seems like a completely unreasonable project for me to start the year with such a dense classic. This book spans more than 1600 pages and features more than 500 characters. Lockdown life demanded ambitious personal goal-setting, and so I did what I could to stay the course.

Every day, I opened my beautiful green paper edition of this novel and read a few short chapters. War and Peace is the historical and philosophical novel by excellence. It narrates the invasion of Russia by France, and alternates between scenes of military conflict and high society. The complex web of characters is made accessible by the serial format - very short chapters allow for a rapid pace reading of this long-winded novel.

It took me 4 months to read War and Peace - I started on January 15 and finished, with a great sigh of relief, on April 19. It was a ridiculously long and epic adventure. Of course, it was worth it! Like many Russian novels, War and Peace lends itself extraordinary well to the colder months - do read it in the winter.

I recovered from this lengthy reading project most of the year by staying off classics, with a few exceptions.

Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours or Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) by Jules Vernes was a short and happy travel book I read at a time when traveling was not in the realm of possibilities. You already know the story, but have you read the book? It is the comical tale of a man who tries to win a bet by traveling around the world in eighty days, and ends up finding love along the way. Charming and accessible.

I read Wild Seed (1980) by Octavia E. Butler, curious to know more about this novel after the launch of Toronto’s Wildseed Centre for Art & Activism. This book tells the story of the relationship between Doro and Anyanwu, two beings with special powers - very different powers - and how they choose to use them. Wild Seed is a classic, one that is much needed in these times of crisis. Significant and radical.

I discovered the compelling stories written by Canadian author C.L. Polk. Looking for a fun series to read while dealing with the constant heavy toll of the pandemic, I read the first of the Kingston Cycle. I never thought I needed magic, witches and a beautiful fantasy world as much as I did. I read the first two within weeks - Witchmark (2018) and Stormstrong (2020). The third title, Soulstar (2021), is coming up shortly on my reading list, and so is the author’s fourth novel that is not part of the series: The Midnight Bargain (2020). The ones I read were fun, fast-paced and magical - read it before it hits your television screen in the near future!

In French, I read Kukum by Michel Jean. This book won the French competition equivalent to Canada Reads, le Combat des livres in 2021. Michel Jean is a journalist who has been writing stories inspired by his Innu roots for many years. Finally, he’s getting some recognition in Quebec literary circles and media for his books. Kukum tells the story of his own Innu grandmother, Almanda Siméon. Important and crisp like a Northern wind.

By happenstance, I discovered the first collection by a bilingual poet from Montreal living in Ottawa. Leslie Roach published Finish this sentence in October 2020. A short, but punchy book of poetry about experiences of racism in her life. Impactful and rhythmic.

A bright light to top off this list is a book that we should all have read in 2020, but we got a little busy. How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa is a collection of sharp short stories, difficult but alive and full of hope. The book won the Giller Prize in 2020, and likely got a little buried in the avalanche of pandemic news. This book is about work, about race, about love and about the Greater Toronto Area and about Canada. Read it!

A special thanks to the Toronto Public Library, my beloved neighborhood branch that delivered French and English books to me, in paper or electronic format, throughout the worst of the pandemic. Library workers who allowed the services to continue, uninterrupted, often working on the front lines to provide people with information and reading material are nothing short of heroes. Thank you!

All that is left to do is to wish you a safe 2022, one that is full of the people you love, moments of joy, chances to build a thriving community around you, and of course, many great books to read.

Previous years

Reading through the unprecedented: 2020 reads

Reading Balzac in end-times: 2019 readings

Year-ends and bookends: 2018 readings

Reading my way through 2017

Top 5 books read in 2016 | Le top 5 de nos lectures de 2016