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Archive for the ‘Shirley Hazzard’ Category

What can we say about 2021 other than let’s not do that again?  After sailing calmly through 2020, everything blew up in 2021 for me, with chaotic work stress (I reported to four different people in 2021, two of whom both joined and left the company during that period), scary hospital visits (see work stress), apocalyptic weather, and just the constant, draining feeling that real life is on hold and when you dare to plan as though it’s not…time for new restrictions and endless cancellations.

On the plus side, I enjoyed some excellent local trips, welcomed a new nephew who shares my birthday, rejoiced to get my Covid vaccine shots, and read a truly ridiculous number of books.  Here are my ten favourites for the year:

10. River Kings (2021) – Cat Jarman
Science is so cool!  That is the only reasonable response to bioarchaeologist Jarman’s examination of Viking trading routes, tracking how an Indian bead could have come to rest in an English Viking grave.  So much of what is written (and televised) these days about the Vikings focuses only on their excursions westward, but Jarman looks at the skeletons and burial items found in the UK and finds goods – and people – who came from much further away than Scandinavia.  Isotope analysis, which allows archaeologists to identify markers for foodstuffs eaten in childhood and therefore distinguish between someone who grew up eating English wheat versus Danish wheat even when their DNA shows the same ethnic origins, thereby providing the ability to sort immigrants from locals, is clearly the coolest thing I have learned about this year.

9. Black Earth City (2002) – Charlotte Hobson
Hobson arrived on a study exchange in a provincial Russian town just as the Soviet Union was crumbling.  This elegant memoir of her time there gives a vivid portrait of what it was like to live through that bleak change – a time of great uncertainty, devastating hyperinflation, and heady youth.

8. Our Trip Around the World (2020) – Renate Belczyk
In a year with only local travel, I delighted in this memoir about two German girls who set off around the world in the 1950s.

7. Love and War in the Apennines (1971) – Eric Newby
Newby’s tale of his escape from an Italian POW camp and months on the run in the mountains, being sheltered and aided by locals (including his future wife), is told with the same sense of fun and adventure as his great travel books.  The fear and discomfort of his life as an escapee is well told, with great respect for those who risked their lives to aid him.  In delightful contrast, the book begins with his lighthearted descriptions of capture and time in prison: I will never forget his despair that fashion-conscious Italians cannot be fooled by ersatz prison-made clothing or fail to be entertained by his memory of the “temporarily expatriate members of White’s Club in captivity” who played baccarat and sent instructions to their London bankers – via the Red Cross – for the settlement of resulting debts.

6. The Unquiet Dead (2015) – Ausma Zehanat Khan
For someone who rarely reads mysteries, I not only loved this but became slightly evangelical about it, pushing it (and subsequent books in the series) onto everyone I know.  Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty, Toronto-based investigators from the Community Policing Section, are tipped off to look more closely at a man’s death from what looks like a fall.  They are soon drawn into a case of hidden identities and revenge, all centered around the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav wars.  Khan, who holds a PhD in international human rights law, bases characters’ experience on real-life events and the result is a chilling look at how the past is always with us.

5. Twilight of Democracy (2020) – Anne Applebaum
Applebaum, a Pulitzer-prize-winning historian who specializes in Eastern Europe, has been warning the world about the erosion of democracy in the West for years (and continues to do so in excellent features for The Atlantic magazine).  In this very personal book, she discusses what it has been like to see first-hand the changes in Poland (where her husband is a politician and current member of the European parliament) and notes with alarm what has been happening in America and the UK.  Her portrait of the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who she knows from their time as journalists, is particularly good.  It’s not cheerful reading but, as we head into what looks to be an especially dramatic year for democracy in America, it’s important and brilliantly done.

4. The Bell in the Lake (2018) – Lars Mytting (translated by Deborah Dawkin)
It has been so long since I read something that pulled me in a deeply and quickly as this did, immersing me in the small Norwegian village of Buntagen in 1880.  The story of dismantling the village’s stave church – including its two bells with their long history – is ultimately a tragedy as the hand of fate twists and turns.  Kai Schweigaard, the village’s energetic young pastor, is excited for a modern new church – one large enough to hold everyone and insulated enough not to freeze them to death – and to bring the villagers into the modern world.  Astrid Henke, the daughter of one of Buntagen’s prominent but struggling farming families, dreams of travel and life outside of her village but longs to preserve the sister bells in the church, donated centuries before by her family.  With the arrival of Gerhard Schönauer from Dresden to oversee the church’s transport, a love triangle emerges with the protection of the bells at its heart.  Best of all: this is the first in a trilogy, with the second book being released in translation in March 2022.

3. Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read three books by Adichie this year and Half of a Yellow Sun, her novel about the Biafran war, could have just as easily made this list.  But Americanah edged it out, with its humour and wry observations of the lives of two young Nigerians and the lives they make – or struggle to make – in America and England and the draw they feel for their corruption-ridden homeland.  Superb.

2. A Suitable Boy (1993) – Vikram Seth
A joy of a book, which is good because, at almost 1500 pages, I spent a long time reading it.  The central story of Lata Mehra and her suitable – and unsuitable – suitors is full of Austen-esque delights; her mother could challenge Mrs Bennet with all her flutterings, but is happily made of sterner stuff when action is needed.  Lata’s romantic storyline is contrasted with the far darker one of Maan, a relation by marriage, who finds himself entangled in the heady politics of post-partition India, as well as a passionate romance and shocking crime. Judicious editing could have made this even better but I adored the massive cast of well-rounded characters, the detailed sense of time and place, and the absorbing human dramas, large and small.

1. The Great Fire (2003) – Shirley Hazzard
This artful book – Literature with a decidedly uppercase L – is so gracefully written and so thoughtfully constructed that I found it hard to read anything after it for a long time.  It tells the story of Aldred Leith, a war veteran in his early thirties, who is now writing about his experiences of travelling through China after the end of the war.  Billeted in Japan with an awful Australian officer, Leith forms a friendship with the officer’s teenage children and soon – to his discomfort – falls in love with the daughter, Helen.  This sounds very simplistic and tawdry but it is a book about people learning to live – again, in Leith’s case, or for the first time, in Helen’s – in a new world and after much loss.  The writing is extraordinarily beautiful and the story both thoughtful and compassionate.  It’s a novel that needs to be read slowly, with attention and emotion, and I’m glad I was able to give it both.

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