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2021 Year in review

Clausen, George; Reading by Lamplight (Twilight: Interior); Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/reading-by-lamplight-twilight-interior-38362

Remember last year, when I lamented reading “only” 44 books, but chalked it up to the pandemic? Well I’ve done it again! Exactly 44 books read.

At the end of 2020, despite being in the thick of the second wave, I was making plans. Not just for reading/blogging, but in general. After all, vaccines were coming and all would be well. A few waves and variants later, and recently reeling from another round of school closures, I’m wary to say the least.

This article about new year’s resolutions and perhaps choosing something you like doing but don’t always make time for resonates with my early 2022 mood. Forget reading; I might resolve to watch more movies, something I rarely make time for. I have Rachel’s recommendations to guide me, and my kids are old enough that I can sometimes watch something decent with them, too. I got to watch Dune in theatre with the 12 year old, before Omicron took hold.

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The Franzen Project: Tier ranking all of Jonathan Franzen’s books

I first tried to read all of Jonathan Franzen’s books as a project in 2017 and failed. I did, however, have a few runs of Franzen in February, and wrote some highly entertaining (IMO) posts.

It wasn’t the pandemic that pushed me to finally bring this one home in 2021. It was a combo of the Mr. Difficult podcast, a fellow Franzen enthusiast I met on Twitter, and good timing. Having got my greedy hands on a Crossroads ARC (thanks Jenn!), I realized that the ranks of true Franzen completists, already fairly small, would contract again as people catch up on this latest novel.

I was going to do a full ranking, but, despite what you may have heard, his works are pretty diverse, and a meaningful ranking would be difficult. Plus, ranking more than 5-10 items is not good practice (trust me, I write surveys for a living). Then I remembered a modified ranking methodology I learned from my kids, in a video about ranking doors. Yeah:

Further research reveals that “tier ranking” is a Thing in the gaming world, typically used to rank playable characters or levels, and you know what, I like it! Behold:

Books by Jonathan Franzen Tier Ranking

A+ Tier

  • Crossroads (2021): Elite Franzen. Have you all noticed the usual haters have been awfully quiet this time around? Yeah.

A Tier

  • The Corrections (2001): Could move to A+ upon reread. Dysfunctional family coming together at Christmas time is his forte. Does get a little “quirky” at times but if you are into his quirks it’s all good.
  • Freedom (2010): We all need to talk about Patty. And birds.
  • The Discomfort Zone (2006): Essential (well, only) memoir.
  • How to be Alone (2002): Essential essays, mostly written before he was a Great American Novelist.

B Tier

  • Purity (2015): Enjoyed it while reading, but unmemorable.
  • Farther Away (2012): Uneven, great on personal subjects (parents, DFW) but a bit boring on others (birds)

C Tier

  • Strong Motion (1992): Interesting because there are early iterations of some of his favourite themes, but a big old mess.
  • The Twenty-Seventh City (1988): Apart from a memorable scene of existential dread set in a mall, a slog.
  • The End of the End of the Earth (2018): Maybe because I’d read most of them before? Didn’t make an impression.

D Tier

  • The Kraus Project (2013): There are actually several things I appreciate in this hybrid translation, cultural commentary, and memoir, but unless you are a BIG Franzen fan, and/or have a DEEP interest in early 20th century German literature and thought, I would stay far, far away.
  • Spring Awakening (2007): Franzen’s translation of a early 20th century German play, so see above: unless you are a TRUE completist, and/or have a real interest in this kind of thing, I would not recommend. At least it’s short!

You can make your own Franzen tier ranking here, check out other book-related rankings, or, create your own template! I would love to see more literary rankings, as the existing ones are pretty much all YA/MG in nature…

And please argue with me below if you would do this ranking differently!

Novellas in November: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

As always, I encourage you to read Cathy’s and Rebecca’s reviews. I’m down to the wire here so this will be a short comment on a short book that needs no introduction. This is the fourth and final #NovNov buddy read, and I’d like to thank hosts Cathy and Rebecca for doing a bang up job. The buddy reads were a great idea! Check out all the posts linked here.

Ethan Frome is sometimes seen as a departure from Wharton’s other works, though in the Everyman’s Library edition I read, Hermonie Lee makes a case for linking Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters in one volume, and not just because they’re short. They’re also about working-class heros and heroines. There’s none of the social climbing (and falling) that mark The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Unrelenting poverty is the driving force of this story. Zeena and Mattie end up at the farm because they are both poor relations with nowhere else to go, and Ethan can’t leave even if he wanted to (and he sure does by the end) because he’s running the farm into the ground and couldn’t raise $50 if he tried (and he sure does try.)

It’s also about isolation and revenge. I was struck by the parallels between it and my all-time favourite book, Wuthering Heights. The framing device, the stark landscapes, the isolated house, the use of dialect, and most of all, the people, tied forever to the land and to a never-ending cycle of blame and regret.

The last line even echoes Wuthering Height’s iconic ending. I have a personal aversion to quoting last lines, but these are both so good, and I’m hardly spoiling anything. Feel free to stop here if you haven’t read one or both.

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Nonfiction November Week 5: New to my TBR

The final #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Jaymi at The OC Book Girl. Despite some early efforts, I did not keep up with her daily Instagram challenge. For me, Instagram isn’t a place to post, it’s a place to see what my Millennial and Gen Z cousins are up to, and to indulge in hyper-local memes and cringe TikToks. Anyways, Jaymi encouraged us to keep track of the nonfiction books added to our TBRs in preparation for this week, which I did, until the 15th. So this will lean heavily on the first two weeks of the event. My new additions:

And that’s it! I didn’t do much reading (concentrated my efforts on novellas, the other perennial November book blog event) by enjoyed posting and reading. A huge thanks to all the hosts and participants.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

This week’s #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey,  and she challenges us to pair a nonfiction book with a novel. She suggests a historical novel paired with the real history, which is the best place for me to start. In the run up to publication of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, third and final book in the Wolf Hall series, I took in a pre-Broadway run of Six in late 2019, and reread the first two books in early 2020. I was so ready. Unfortunately, my reading experience ended up being seriously dampened by early pandemic anxiety. A reread will be in order. But to make myself feel better, I indulged in a couple of Tudor nonfiction titles.

So if you liked the Wolf Hall series, you should check out:

  • Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell. Juicy and scandalous, but scholarly enough to bring some real insight into what the Tudor court was like for an eligible young woman.
  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives is a little drier at times (he has a lot to say about her possessions, textiles and drinking vessels and prayer books and whatnot), but not without controversy, as theories abound about who Anne really was and how much agency she really had. But this does seem to be the authoritative account, and has been since 1986.

And speaking of royals, fans of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, or specifically the first book, Quicksilver, which is all I read, should check out the real life story of a minor character in Anna Keay’s The Last Royal Rebel: The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth. He is portrayed as a lecherous rake in Quicksilver, and well, he basically comes across as the same in Keay’s history, but with some nuance. Great fun, and illuminating, if you read historical fiction set in this time.

Reading history (and not just royal history) to clarify and illuminate novels would be a fun project! It’s got me thinking about the world literature I’ve loved this year, like Independent People (20th century Iceland) and Demons (19th century Russia), and how they could probably be appreciated better with more background knowledge. I have a bit of a TBR going for Russian nonfiction, but wouldn’t know where to begin with Iceland.

I hope others are able to go beyond Katie’s suggestion of historical fictions/history, but I’m drawing a blank! I thought about suggesting various anti-social media books to go with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, but I’m going to save that for next week’s prompt…

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore for #BrianMoore100

This event is being hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, who is known for celebrating all things literary and Irish. Moore’s Irish connections are always jarring to me, as he’s well known as a Canadian author here. In reality, he was a wanderer, living in many places in Europe and North America, and spent more time in the United States than anywhere. So I guess it’s not that odd that I read a “New Canadian Library” edition of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book about Ireland, with an afterword by Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital. Actually, Hospital lived in Ontario for thirty years, later moving to the States, sharing a claim on Canadian identity and a nomadic spirit with Moore.

Hospital uses that connection, and familiarity with being “from away”, to bring forth themes of displacement in her brief afterword to this edition. Miss Hearne lives a very circumscribed life in Belfast, but Hospital shows us that she actually goes on an epic journey, including romance, hope, dashed expectations, and a crisis of faith. The afterword was illuminating, but to me the more interesting themes were those of hunger, desire, and rage – or, you know, passion – and specifically the rage of the middle aged woman. These themes reminded me of Jean Rhys’s writing, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the same editor who shepherded Wide Sargasso Sea into the world, Diana Athill, was a champion of this book.

Miss Hearne’s dreary bedsit put me in mind of Good Morning, Midnight‘s heroine Sasha’s awful hotel rooms. Both characters are without family, of little means, near starving, drink to excess and fall prey to depraved men. If anything, Sasha had less hope than Miss Hearne, lacking an object for her anger (other than herself), with no church to storm and no one to ask for forgiveness. Sasha had only lately fallen on hard times, while Miss Hearne had been sidelined her whole life, first by her tyrannical Aunt, and then by poverty. In The Lonely Passion, we see a woman who has been made invisible her whole life finally demand to be seen.

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A tale of two dinner parties

Well, one dinner party and one “dinner thing.”

I’m suseptable to seeing tenous connections and patterns in books. I succumbed to this impulse over the summer, drawing conclusions about Paul Beatty’s influences that are not borne out in reality, and I fear I’m about to do it again. Except for one blazing detail, that makes me think I must be right, but I’ll leave that for last…

In Real Life, Brandon Taylor tells the story of Wallace, a Black grad student at an unnamed, mostly-white school that is understood to be the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wallace’s regular weekend routine of lab work, tennis, and angst is interupted by a last minute invite to a dinner “thing”, which starts out benign enough but soon Wallace finds himself under attack by his so-called friends. The dinner party is the central scene in the novel, and is much celebrated by Taylor’s contemporaries as, well, real, and necessary.

I found it overly dramatic on first read. But then I read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and wondered whether his late-1930s alcohol-soaked dinner party scene wasn’t the model for Taylor’s 2010s vegan hispter potluck, and if Taylor wasn’t responding directly to it.

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Novellas in November 2020

I’m pretty disconnected from book culture (I’m trying! See here, here, here) but even I noticed that this is a big month. The Booker and Giller Prizes will be awarded, and a slew of reading events are running, one for every taste, including the geographic (Germany, Australia), the author-specific (Margaret Atwood Reading Month), and the category-based (Novellas in November, see below, and Nonfiction November, blog or booktube version).

I’m just here to read novellas, though I will have a bit of overlap with one other event. No need to break out the Venn diagrams in my case though!

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The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

This book is positioned as an essay collection, but it easily could’ve been called a memoir. Or one big essay in pieces. Or, as Meghan O’Rourke is quoted in the cover blurb, a “guide to the complexities of thinking about illness”.

The essays aren’t scholarly, though you’ll gain quite a bit of background knowledge, not just about her diagnoses, but mental health systems of diagnoses and treatment in general. They aren’t personal essays, in the “it happened to me” style, though there are plenty of personal details and even a little name-dropping. Wang doesn’t use schizophrenia as a metaphor, though she references the metaphors and plots of movies and books with ease.

And this book definitely, thankfully, doesn’t have the “overcoming adversity” inspirational feel of mainstream illness memoirs.

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The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I noted that my first #20BooksofSummer20 review, of Real Life by Brandon Taylor, would likely be enhanced by a rereading of Mrs. Dalloway, a text that is alluded to from the very first line. The Known World immediately put me in mind of a another book too, and I even did some research this time! And reread the first chapter of said book! Don’t say I never did anything for you, gentle blog readers.

But after all my hard work, I think I’ve talked myself out of it. Let me explain…

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