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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

Top Ten Best Reads of 2021

Of the 80 books I read this year, here are my favorites. This year it was particularly difficult to narrow it down to ten, and truthfully the ranking order is somewhat arbitrary; each one of these titles had a profound impact on me and were incredible reading experiences.

10. The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

July Read

When I got news of his death back in March of this year and read all the commendable words that authors, critics, and fans used to describe his legacy, I kicked myself that I had never read any of his works. McMurtry was a name I had long been familiar with–from coworkers and bosses to the credits in various film adaptations of his work and scribbled in the list of Pulitzer Prize winners. I had seen his name but not known his work. This changed back in July when I picked up The Last Picture Show published first in 1966, his third novel and the first in the Duane Moore series. The novel follows three high school seniors in the rural Texan town Thalia during the early 1950’s: Sonny Crawford, a soft-spoken but brave young man who lives in a boarding house with his best friend Duane Jackson, a rugged varsity football player who dates Jacy Farrow, a beautiful and popular girl at their school, yet troubled by her home life and yearning for the excitement that lies beyond the restraints of her situations. This tri-narrative coming-of-age tale sees Sonny and Duane revel in delinquency, taking trips down to Mexico to visit brothels, getting in fights and falling into love affairs, Sonny specifically with the high school football coach’s wife Ruth. Jacy finds herself caught in the entanglement between an idealistic picture of her life and the actual reality of it which foments a spiral of sorts marked by indecision, apprehension, and anxiety. But together, their individual developments reveal a beautiful and at times heartbreaking portrait of a small town whose secrets pervade the dusty streets and slowly come to light.

I fell into this one from the start. McMurtry has quite the way to entrap the reader, feeding bits and pieces of information at a time, throwing eyes onto fragments of detail, letting the reader fill in the spaces with their mind and fulfill the world he builds while simultaneously letting them linger, wait, question, and read more in order find out the answers. Like the best, his prose is terse and descriptive, an impressive economy of words strategically shedding light onto the parts that appear the most important but which, at times, are the least–leading the reader away from what is readily evident by some shrewd literary ruse. And it’s not obvious; instead, it’s deep, beautiful, inquisitive–he runs his characters, throwing them through havoc and turmoil, adventure and awe, all the while the reader alongside with them. It’s fun to read (truly the most fun to read at times), to experience what they experience, the highs and lows, and the drama in between. And then it turns real, realistically real, relatable, empathetic, and it’s that intellectual journey that is not on the surface intellectual but subtle–suddenly it’s not fun, but poignant, still ruthlessly engaging and interesting to read. The novel is so brilliantly written it’s easy to fall into and find yourself one among the characters, thinking, plotting, understanding circumstances yet not knowing what to do or what decisions to make, which is a feeling shared by all the characters. It’s beautiful and dark, and unwavering captivating. This one novel gave me more than just a taste–it was a reading experience that felt like real life, and I cannot wait to read more of his work (and he has quite a lot) in the years to come.

9. McTeague by Frank Norris

November Read

Assigned readings often carry a risk–that the obligation to read might diminish the experience, no matter how great the novel. But with a novel like McTeague, I had nothing to worry about. A seminal work of literary naturalism by one of America’s finest 19th century novelists Frank Norris, McTeague is a cautionary tale of the repercussions which spur from insatiable avarice and possession. Set in San Francisco shortly after the California Gold Rush, the novel follows McTeague, an oafish, awkward, fraudulent dentist and his infatuation-turned-romance with young Trina who, just before their wedding night, wins the lottery–a sum of $5000. Every conceivable problem seems resolved–McTeague will continue his practice, Trina too with her animal carvings, but the two can live like upper class citizens, untethered by any threat of destitution. But, much to McTeague’s dismay, Trina vows never to spend a dime. Envy and greed meet steadfast miserliness and the result is a downward spiral into violence and unimaginable events. Across a large cast of characters–each and every one faced with a unique set of obstacles, though all inherently tied to a culture grappling with the advent of modernization and a widespread mentality fueled by money and capitalism–Norris paints a painful psychological portrait capturing not just the essence of a time and place over a hundred years ago past, but the monstrous, primitive nature of humankind.

It was assigned in my capstone course; over the span of two weeks, we were to read allotted segments in preparation for discussion, the first half of the novel one week, the second the next. I read it in four days. Mornings, train platforms and train rides, evenings–I was glued to the pages. This novel kept me enraptured, lingering on each and every cliffhanger ending to the chapters. I had first read Norris’s short story “Lauth” so going into McTeague I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with

Norris; and though the tales differ in every way, the prose rings the same–a terse precision, meticulous attention to detail, and in-depth examination into the interiority of the characters, lending the reader a glimpse into the rationalities and irrationalities that motivate each flawed character’s decision. Seeping through each subtle story is a visceral invocation of the questions, obstacles, and experiences to which every person is privy. But beyond such incredible explorations, it is the story of the novel itself, especially the ending, which names its place on this list. In the final moments, I read on the edge of my seat, physically feeling the palpable experiences of the characters, the tension rising, and the shocking denouement of its end. It was an incredible experience to read, a truly remarkable novel, one that I was so fortunate to discuss in an academic setting and write my capstone thesis about.

8. The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

May Read

Last year I included Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy as a single entry on my end of the year list, and here I am, about to do it again with another short trilogy which nevertheless deserves its place. The Copenhagen Trilogy, consisting of novels Childhood (1967), Youth (1967), and Dependency (1971), is a series of memoirs narrativizing the life and experiences of Danish poet and author Tove Ditlevsen, growing up in Copenhagen during the first and second World Wars. The first charts her childhood where, despite living under an oppressive governmental regime, her family falling deeper

into poverty, little Tove finds her life’s vocation: poetry. As she grows up and gains a greater awareness of her circumstances and the world that extends beyond the walls of her family home, she clings to her writing, finding solace in the beauty of words which stream forth from her mind and unto the page. The second finds Tove an adolescent forced to leave school and propelled into the work force, taking menial jobs with horrible bosses and living under tyrannical landlords. But amid the challenges she faces in the wake of adulthood, Tove finds her first success as a poet–a turning point which changes the trajectory of her life. The third and final volume follows Tove as a young adult with a prospering career, navigating the publishing industry as well as marriage and motherhood; but after a surgical procedure, Tove falls into an opioid addiction which slowly begins to engulf her entire life, thrusting her downward into a descent marked by extramarital affairs, near-death experiences, unplanned pregnancies, artistic failures, familial strains, and depression. But though addiction coaxes her further and further towards despair and despondency, Tove’s unwavering love for writing is what ultimately pulls her upward from the depths and into the light again.

As I mention in my original review, I read these books over the course of two weeks, unable to put them down. Ditlevsen writes with a clarity, an honesty that compels the reader to emphasize, understand, and experience even the most complicated of events and details. Reading her work is like living another life, but one of immeasurable complexity and uncertainty, filtered through the eyes of a virtuosic poet. And as the novels unfold, one flowing into the next, Ditlevsen’s voice changes–it grows as she grows, her perspective and understanding of the world develops, and the innocence that marks her childhood diminishes as worldly sensibilities deepen into adolescence and early adulthood. It’s remarkable how she writes–blending the external and internal, description and introspection, capturing all the while the universal, unanswerable questions inevitably impelled by blooming intelligence. The trilogy invokes the works of Knausgaard and Cusk, immersing the reader in a dark world turned bright, painting in elegant detail the pain and hardship Ditlevsen faces–as a daughter, a wife, a mother, an addict, as a burgeoning literary sensation, as a woman–along with the incredible moments of joy, hope, and triumph. And even in the tiny moments, a subtle detail, her poetic voice rises, transforming the mundane into meaningful and inspiring new insights. The Copenhagen Trilogy was reissued this year as a single volume, though I read them separately, finishing one short copy then immediately picking up the next, completely awash in the incredible life of one of Denmark’s finest writers.

7. The American Fiancée by Éric Dupont

May Read

From my experiences–and I realize I’m fortunate to be able to say this–longer books tend to inspire the best reads. That this novel–The American Fiancée by French Canadian writer Éric Dupont, first published in 2012, the longest that I read this year–makes my list seems only to support my claim. Wow, this book was truly something else. It follows the Lamontagne family over the course of multiple generations, from the early 20th century to the present, from Quebec to New York to Berlin to Rome. The story opens with Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne, the son of the eponymous fiancée, who, in middle-age, regales the story of his life a former strongman, trekking across countries performing in traveling circuses against the backdrop of WWII, to his three children, one of whom his daughter Madeleine grows up to be successful restauranteur along with her childhood friend Solange. Madeleine’s two sons, Gabriel and Michel, who all throughout childhood are inseparable, grow into adulthood and stray into very different paths: Gabriel, the Casanova of the two, falls in love with a woman and follows her to Berlin where he becomes close friends with the elderly Magda, a mysterious neighbor of his with a vast and dark past; Michel grows into a famous opera singer whose virtuosic talents eventually bring him to Rome where is on set to star in a film adaptation of Puccini’s Tosca. And it is in Rome, during the present, that their two past, meandering trajectories converge, unearthing cosmic connections that transcend history, family, love, and death.

I read its 672 pages over the course of two weeks from the end of April into early May. One impressive feat that I think marks the greatest of long literary works is the capacity to encapsulate the widest array of human emotions. I remember falling into its pages, absorbed by the text, discovering moments of sheer hilarity, even laughing out loud (which seldom happens for me) then moving into the darkest, most solemn of moments, utterly struck by unspeakable sorrow, unthinkable tragedy, and completely moved, taken by the story and its entanglement with real history, real life. I first picked it up because I thought the cover was interesting–had never heard about it, nor heard of Dupont, nor had even read many Canadian works in general–nope, it was just the cool cover art that first caught my eye. Funny how that happens sometimes. And sure enough, it paid off. The novel is the fourth of Dupont’s five novels, was shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award. As I write in my original review, “the praise is deserved.” I was thrown by this novel. I love family sagas and this one, brilliant in its extensive and unerring scope, its intricate existential interconnectedness, its acute and unique characterization, its prosaic elegance, was one of the best I’ve ever read and uncontestably one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year.

6. The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

September Read

I first discovered Ian McEwan at the top of 2020’s last quarter, reading Nutshell per a recommendation from a coworker and loving it so much that I vowed to read more of his work in the next year. And although I read only two more this year, I feel like have only begun to truly discover the author, especially with The Child in Time. The novel, first published in 1987 and the third in McEwan’s repertoire, follows Stephen Lewis, a children’s book author living in London and his wife Julie, a music professor, two years after a devastating tragedy. One Saturday, Stephen and his daughter Kate, then aged three, head to a supermarket, and while they are checking out with their groceries, suddenly Kate disappears, kidnapped in the blink of an eye. Despite rigorous investigation both from authorities and parents, Kate unfortunately is never found, leaving Stephen and Julie to grieve and regret for the many years to come. The two inevitably separate, Julie moving to a mental care facility in the English countryside; Stephen stays in London and, against his obligations to his seat on the Parliamentary board of childcare, falls deeper and deeper to his depression, seeking numbness through alcohol and mindless television. But then he meets Charles Darke, a young publisher-turned-politician, whose enthusiastic demeanor and striking intelligence begin to raise Stephen’s spirits; he befriends Darke and his wife Thelma, often frequenting dinners at their house and engaging himself in their interests. However, when Darke suddenly begins to withdraw into himself, enough so to raise alarm, Stephen finds himself at the precipice of falling back into a life ruined by the grief and regret that had thus far defined his existence for the past two years. What enfolds is a series of decisions that unveil and unravel the very threads that bind one another together, exploring the intricate nature of family, love, death, and redemption in the wake of tragedy.

The first of McEwan’s that I read this year, The Cement Garden, his debut, was so incredible a novel I nearly felt obligated to include it in this list; if not the top ten then certainly top twenty. That novel, which examines similarly the intersection of family, love, and death, albeit with a focus on the children rather than the parents and the morbid complexities sewn into their relations, was one of the few that earned McEwan the nickname “Ian Macabre.” So going into The Child in Time, I had excitedly expected another onslaught of the grotesque; what I found might be considered the opposite: an absolutely brilliant, deeply moving exploration of love against the unforgiving, senseless, and insoluble forces of circumstance. McEwan’s psychological breadth and insight lie at the heart of this novel; he takes on one of the hardest emotions to convey through writing: grief; and paints an elaborate picture of its toll not only on the people deeply affected but also those indirectly affected, examining all the while the various relations between. And with each detail unearthed, another is added, increasing the complications and changing the nature of prior ones. It’s unbelievably impressive–the seemingly simple way he is able to tack detail onto detail and trace the outcomes, the changes, the developments which forward narrative plot and explode readers’ expectations. And that he does it in such a fluid prose, meticulous detail, weaving interiority and exteriority with a unique elegance is truly an accomplishment and made for one of the most visceral reading experiences I’ve ever had. This one stuck with me and will stick with me for years to come.

5. Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard

June Read

It’s probably unsurprising that Knausgaard’s name makes my list, as I’ve written much about–and talked much about as my friends and family can certainly attest to–my unwavering admiration and affinity to his work. I began his autobiographical Seasons Quartet back in the fall of 2020 with the first volume Autumn, then kept up, reading each subsequent installment with its correlating season, before finally reaching the end with Summer back in June. This final volume of his tetralogy is the longest of the four and most distinctive in its hybrid form. Whereas the first two are comprised solely of essays and the third straightforward autofiction, this final volume blends letters, essays, autofiction, and narrative into a single, genre-bending novel spanning just over four hundred pages. Short essays dive into topics spanning from plants to animals, from weather to appliances, from intelligence to cynicism, each scrupulous in its insightful exploration. However, for me, it is in the bulk of the book, the two long texts addressed to his now two-year-old daughter wherein Knausgaard details the various quotidian events and escapades of the everyday–from literary trips to running errands, the interweaving details of married life, father life, and author life–that lie the true beauty and astonishment of the work, the signature power of his writing: the inexorable ability to totally immerse the reader into a world all his own.

The entire tetralogy is absolutely worth the read; each volume reveals and embodies the brilliant insight, beautiful perspective, and undeniable mastery of the craft that define Knausgaard’s writing–all of which I was first introduced to in his magnum opus My Struggle. Yet, his Seasons Quartet is devoid of the density and verbosity that comprised his famous six-volume novel; these shorter works contain an economy of words, intellect, perception that only serve to elevate the elements to which I was first attracted, condensing maximalism into minimalism, all the while still retaining the magic that permeates the prose. And Summer is the culmination of his victorious project. In it resides a powerful, hypnotizing quality, something difficult to describe and not readily apparent; it takes a few pages, along with an adjustment of the eyes and recognition of voice, and suddenly I’m lost, falling deeper and deeper, rendered immobile and at the whim to Knausgaard’s meanderings, eager to discover what unpredictable trajectories may unfold. This one contains the greatest number and the longest of such trails–streams of description and thought which wind and course and end in climactic revelations, transforming their innocuous starting points into grand illuminations of philosophic wonder. This one seized me in a different way than the others, piquing the intrigue and pulling at the strings which kept me enthralled, entranced. Empathy pours from the pages, deeper and stronger, I found, than in the prior volumes, and for that reason, it’s one of the best I’ve read this year.

4. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

May Read

It is damn near impossible to choose which of the magnificent novels that comprise The Border Trilogy I loved most, and indeed it almost feels a crime to select one in the first place especially as each differs so widely from the others, but nonetheless, The Crossing by American writer Cormac McCarthy, the second installment of the trilogy and first published in 1994, is one hell of a novel, and my favorite of the three. The novel follows adolescent cowboy Billy Parham over the course of three sojourns across the New Mexico/Mexico border during the late 1930’s and early 40’s. In the first trek, Billy and his young brother Boyd attempt to track down and capture a marauding female wolf which has been terrorizing local farms and killing cattle. The pursuit pulls Billy far out into the dangerous terrain, through brutal weather and the constant threat of robbery and violence at the hands of rebels, but young Billy narrowly prevails, captures the wolf, and instead of killing the animal, sets off to return her home in the mountains of Mexico. The second part sees Billy and Boyd setting off to seize some horses stolen out of their family’s barn but along the journey the two encounter a young girl runaway whom Boyd takes to and eventually runs off with. And the final journey follows only Billy as he searches for his younger brother. In the violent, western-picaresque style which trademarks McCarthy’s writing, filled always with such relentless brutality and unimaginable tragedy, The Crossing stands above the rest, a monument of literary fiction.

Like the rest of McCarthy’s accomplished bibliography, the novel explores the iniquitous nature of man, the indiscriminate nature of the elements, and the surprising and mysterious relationships forged between animal and man. But unlike other novels, The Crossing invites a certain humanity amid the bleakness and hardship; a power inherent in the ties of family, of brotherhood; and an unwavering strength in the flicker of hope, one born in the darkest of circumstances. This novel digs into the unanswerable questions which define the human condition, along with the countless other unknowns which, from the dawn of man, many have tried to answer. McCarthy is wont to include a philosophical musing or two in his novels, but The Crossing teems with them, the longest, and arguably the best, taking the form of a dialogue between Billy and an ex-Mormon whom he runs into during his travels, an interaction in which McCarthy lays out a theory of metaphysics which propels the entire novel into another light. And of course, I would remiss not to mention his astounding prose–a blend of terseness and grandiloquence, direct description and free indirect speech, lines which move and level and bewilder. McCarthy writes unlike any other author, and his style has and always will inspire me. Perhaps, that’s why I choose The Crossing to write on this list; out of The Border Trilogy, it’s the novel that inspired me the most.

3. Austerlitz by WG Sebald

April Read

Like McTeague, this one was an assigned read–however, I know for a fact that I would have eventually read this book, likely within the year anyway. Sebald is a name that I have and continue to consistently come across time and time again–from references in critical essays, influences cited by famous writers, and accolades attributed to his work. At the time of his death in 2001 at age 57, he was widely regarded as one of the greatest living writers. Austerlitz, his final work, follows an unnamed narrator who meets a man named Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian who, during the 1960’s, travels across Europe studying various pieces of architecture, from battlefield ruins to concentration camps to train stations to libraries. The two strike a friendship and meet various times through their respective travels, their conversations, meandering from history to philosophy to science and religion, carefully transcribed by the narrator. It is clear from the onset that Austerlitz is a man of rare and distinct erudition, and it is his musings which comprise the bulk of the novel, punctuated with long discourses on a wide range of topics and interspersed with black-and-white photographs of people, landscapes, buildings, and various other things. That’s really all there is to this novel–so simple in its premise, yet one of the vastest and greatest reading experiences of my life.

The power of the novel, first and foremost, comes from the Sebald’s writing itself–a testament also to the translational feat of English scholar Anthea Bell, for which she won multiple awards. The prose itself–flowing from thought to thought, description to description, line to line (one of which runs nearly nine pages long) blending historical context and present, entangling the trauma, pain, beauty and triumph of people and communities across time–contains a web of puzzle pieces. A litany of motifs run rampant throughout the text–music, memory, art, ecology, recollection, and so many more. And all the repeating, intersecting waves are thrown into a new light brightened by the inclusion of photographs. Devoid of direct description, the photographs lend a certain counterpoint which changes the text: the photos confer meaning to the text, the text confers meaning to the photos. Sebald said once in an interview, “I believe that the black-and-white photograph, or rather the gray zones in the black-and-white photograph, stand for this territory that is located between life and death.” And indeed, the photographs, shot by Sebald on his trusty 35 mm film camera, seem to elevate and propel the novel into a strange liminal space between fiction and memoir, untruth and truth. Sebald’s work invokes the philosophy which binds existence and literature, intellection and imagination, experience and perception, and most saliently, time and memory. And because his prose is unerringly brilliant, I simply can’t help to add this one to my list. In the new year, I plan to read more of his work, which I am sure will make for reading experiences as memorable as this one was.

Carole Angier’s extensive biography on Sebald entitled Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald was published in October of this year.

2. Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

February Read

Even ten months later, this one still resonates with me; her words, her stories, triumphs and tribulations, pain, love, artistic feats–the life of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, as detailed in this 2016 memoir, is truly one of the most bewildering, impressive, and remarkable reads I’ve had this year. The book begins with her birth in Belgrade, Serbia just after WWII, and growing up under the oppressive grasp of her mother. Amid a bleak and solitary childhood, Marina found her passion in life: art–first illustration and painting, then in adolescence, as she discovered a community of liberal-minded avant-garde artists, performance art. By her late twenties, she had already performed death-defying feats of artistic expression in multiple installations, and at thirty, she met Ulay, a German artist and photographer, and thus embarked on a longtime relationship and career collaboration which would span over a decade. The two traveled the world–across countries in a renovated van prone to breakdowns, having to sew their own clothes and peddle for enough cash to get to their next destination; and later across continents, experiencing different cultures, performing incredible exhibitions, until their final collaboration Lovers, an unbelievable venture where over the course of three months the two walked a distance of two-thousand kilometers on the Great Wall of China from opposite ends and met in the middle thus marking the end of their relationship. But Marina went on, continuing to garner international success with her controversial, radical feats of endurance, strength, and pain, her The Artist is Present exhibition at the MoMa in 2010 drawing thousands of spectators. The memoir ends with Marina’s establishment of her institute of performance art which is still in operation today.

I still remember so clearly reading this astounding memoir; the early mornings and late nights, clutching the book under the light, falling deeper and deeper into the brilliant mind of one of the greatest, most creative, and wildest artists of the 20th century, lingering over tiny anecdotes, moments of synchronicity, instances of joy and despair, and experiencing all the while the extraordinary displays of pain, strength, and bravery, uniquely distinctive to her performances. In Marina’s descriptive voice lies the power which defines her art, and it streams through her prose in unrelenting torrents, washing the reader in vivid depiction, transporting them to another realm, one founded upon the edge of endurance, the limits of human capability, and the beautiful intricacies of love and passion. Each chapter opens with a short, italicized passage, a description of a memory, and these tiny vignettes not only echo through the section that follows but they are also what ring the loudest in my mind all these months later. Just writing this makes me want to read it again. It was truly an astounding memoir, one of the best I’ve ever read–so captivating, so powerfully moving, I was brought to tears at times; and one that I cannot wait to return to time and time again.

1. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers

November Read

The novel is an achievement of artistic and visionary virtuosity, at once an interweaving narrative triptych transcending time and distance; a philosophical exploration into love, war, technology, and art; and a perspective-shattering meditation on the interconnectedness of humanity. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, the 1985 debut novel by Pulitzer-prize winning American author Richard Powers, is really three novels in one. It begins with an unnamed narrator discovering in a Detroit art gallery a photograph, a real portrait by German photographer August Sander, depicting three formally-clad young men standing alone in a fallow field, all donning canes, their faces aslant and eyes verted upward toward and past the photographer. Immediately, the narrator is entranced, puzzled and sent down an archeological spiral to learn as much as he can about the photograph–its history and the lives of the men in the frame. Then the novel flows into the story of the three young men, brothers Adolphe, Peter, and Hubert, living in Germany at the onslaught of the First World War. Over the ensuing years, the brothers stray apart and fall into a complicated web of war, romance, and even identity schemes. Then the novel jumps forward sixty years, to the story of magazine writer Peter Mays living in Boston who becomes infatuated with a red-headed woman he sees during a Veteran’s Day parade. Unable to quell his interest, he embarks on a journey to find her, one which inevitably deconstructs all understanding of his family, life, technology, time, and even love.

This novel was the most intellectual, hilarious, tragic, and utterly captivating novel I’ve read in a long time. Each chapter follows one storyline ending on a cliffhanger, each succeeding and leaping to another line before jumping back first and picking up where it left off. Powers’s tri-narrative weaving I found to be both absolutely remarkable, a feat of literary structure, and just impossible to pull myself from. The contents of each chapter–events, descriptions, historical details, and plenteous philosophical musings–adduce and embody the chapter’s title and meticulously selected quotes which precede the section, concretizing central motifs which carve through the novel like underground rivers. I wrote in my original review that “Powers’s breadth of historical knowledge, scientific understanding, and cultural commentary” invokes that of Pynchon; each chapter teems with the research of a PhD candidate. But more than anything, Powers’s imaginative vision and talent for writing were what enraptured me. It was a novel that seized all my faculties when reading and all my thoughts when not. And by the end, when all the tiny, loose ends of the narrative strings were finally tied together revealing a grand, beautiful, timeless, variegated mosaic depicting the interconnectedness of humanity, I was at once astounded and invigorated. It was one of those rare novels that made me grateful to have found during my lifetime. And I cannot wait to read all of his other works.

Honorable Mentions:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Sula by Toni Morrison

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

How Fiction Works by James Wood


Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Stoner by John Williams

I reread more books this year than I ever have in the past, and each one of these titles surely deserves its place on this list. To return to a book is to return to the places, emotions, and experiences of its first encounter but through a veil sewn by the passage of time, distance, and memory; to encounter it again as a different reader and to read with different eyes. And because I returned to these reads knowing what I was in for, that pleasurable feeling of the unknown which precedes opening a new novel was supplanted with the pleasurable suspense of re-experience, one only heightened by the unknowable, potential discovery of what I may have missed the first time. The first time I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I all but drowned in the waves of description but this second time reading it as part of a course, replete with numerous classroom discussions, I swam with pleasure in those same waves, basking in the brilliant crests of imagination and style, discovering the intricate lives beneath. I ended up writing a paper about the novel. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was a similar experience, though one quickened by my inability to put it down–his prose is unbelievable; the first chapter alone contains a semester’s worth of a creative writing instruction. And Toni Morrison’s Beloved–this is a novel that demands re-reading. Details, timelines, character trajectories, linguistic feats, and so much more were revealed in troves with a strength and frequency that I failed to realize the first time–that I read it for two different classes in the same semester also helped. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was a slightly different rereading experience as I read Adam Thorpe’s ambitious translation as compared to Lowell Bair’s famous one. I found myself falling into the very passages that seized me the first time, though more than often jumping out from my seat to grab my other copy and compare the translations. Truth be told, I think I favor Thorpe. With John Williams’s Stoner, I experienced the narrative, the life and all its complexities, that had consumed me the first time, but more lucidly, more empathetically, Williams’s prose shining brighter with each line uniting with its counterpart in my memory. The wide range of emotions evocatively explored seemed somehow deeper, more salient, more direct and unsparing. So too did his exquisite description appear stronger, more distinct, and more beautiful, which I believe is a sentiment that will be forever be applicable for each subsequent time I return to this wonderfully tragic novel, and I certainly intend to in the years to come. Writing this, there are a number of other books that come to mind that I feel deserve second–and a third, fourth–read which I think I might have to make plans to revisit soon, this coming year perhaps, if only to re-experience the parts I remember, and rediscover those unknown.

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