Books of 2021
As 2021 draws to a close and this blog nears its first anniversary, I feel almost contractually obliged to do a round-up of my books of the year. So here we are: ten books, new and old (and ranked only by author surname), that I particularly enjoyed over the past twelve months. Not all of them I got round to reviewing, alas, but I include them here anyway for the sake of interest. I’d be keen to hear your picks.
David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count
It is a testament to how well this book makes the case for Jewish inclusion in identity politics that I hesitate to even use so subjective and negotiable a phrase as ‘make the case’. That is, Baddiel marshals his evidence of Jewish discrimination so convincingly that I closed the book feeling that the case, too, was closed; that Jews aren’t counted and should be. A brilliantly argued polemic.
Saul Bellow – Ravelstein
In my quest to consume all of Saul Bellow, 2021 saw me read both his first novel, Dangling Man, and his last, Ravelstein. Though one is the work of a twenty-eight-year-old, the other that of an eighty-four-year-old, it is the latter that is the more vigorous, with passages as powerful as anything in Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift. Straight on the reread pile it goes.
Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me
There are many things to love about Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, but, for a Billy Wilder superfan like myself, it is its reclamation of the director’s little-seen but infinitely fascinating penultimate film Fedora that I loved most. A story about a faded star of the silver screen, Fedora is essentially a creaky rehash of Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard, making it, for Coe, a sad reflection of where the director himself was at this point in his career, i.e. old, past-it and disillusioned with the film industry. But don’t let that put you off. Just as Wilder maintained his sense of humour to the end, so does Coe’s novel, which I devoured in two pleasurable sittings. No novel went down more easily this year.
Joshua Cohen – The Netanyahus
Who knew there was a rip-roaring comedy to be written about Israel’s first family? Who else could have written one but Joshua Cohen? As James Wood said in his review of Cohen’s previous novel, “his sentences are all-season journeyers, able to do everything everywhere at once. He can be witty, slangy, lyrical, ironic, vivid; he possesses leaping powers of metaphor and analogy […] his fiction displays the stretch marks of its originality.” The same – and then some – applies to The Netanyahus.
Jude Cook – Jacob’s Advice
Though it couldn’t be more unlike a James Bond film, Jude Cook’s Jacob’s Advice gave this locked-down reader the same travel-by-proxy pleasures: of a main character flâneuring around a beautiful European city (Paris); of witty, alcohol-fuelled repartee; of a transnational romance with a preposterous age gap. Turns out I didn’t have to go abroad, after all; I just had to read Jacob’s Advice.
Iris Murdoch – The Bell
Having not enjoyed the picaresque of Under the Net, I was only persuaded to return to Iris Murdoch by the recent In Our Time episode on her. What a lesson in second chances! With its broad-church approach to sexuality and its sly send-up of middle-class mores, The Bell has as much to say now as it did when it was first published in 1958. I look forward to finding out whether her other novels hold up in 2022.
Gwendoline Riley – My Phantoms
Like Ravelstein, My Phantoms is a novel that puts all its eggs in the basket of character yet is as page-turning as a thriller. Proof, if proof were needed, that plot and character are not discrete elements of storytelling but are inextricable; that if you have characters as complex and interesting as the mother and daughter at the centre of My Phantoms, then that is all the plot you need.
Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind
I’ve read two more of the Patrick Melrose books since I read Never Mind, yet neither of them delivered quite such consistent pleasure as this first instalment. Never Mind is lean, clever and wonderfully outrageous, with characters you just love to hate.
Elizabeth Taylor – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
There is an interesting connection between Elizabeth Taylor and one of the other authors on this list. In 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was among the shortlisted novels for that year’s Booker Prize and the favourite of all the judging panel. All of them, that is, except Saul Bellow, who vetoed Mrs Palfrey on the grounds that it reminded him of “the tinkle of teacups” and insisted the prize go instead to V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State. Well, Bellow was wrong about that. Yes, there are teacups in Mrs Palfrey, but they don’t do anything so decorous as tinkle; they crash, break and slice your hand. That’s how sharp the writing is.
Michael Taylor – The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery
Of the many myths this important exposé of British slavery punctured, the most relevant one for my reading was the myth that history books are long, dry and dull. For Michael Taylor’s The Interest is none of these things and was read at great speed and with great fascination. I really must read more history. (I actually interviewed Michael about this book for the Berwick Literary Festival. You can view the conversation here.)