My best reads of 2021

A satirical classic, an exploration of culture and a timeless call to arms.

Stack of books: The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, Why I Write by George Orwell, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, Why the Germans Do It Better by John Kampfner.
Photo by Kate Fistric

2021 has been a blur of a year for many of us, almost a 12-month appendix to 2020. Although lockdowns have been eased and some aspects of life may have returned to ‘normal’, I’ve found that the desire to stay cloistered remains strong. As a result, I’ve been reading more, a pastime I had sadly neglected in recent years.

When it came to selecting my favourite reads of 2021, I noted that they all had common themes of aging, love and identity. Besides being significant to me at this point in my life, these themes are clearly highly topical as we begin to consider how we want to rebuild our post-pandemic world, what a good life really means and how we might be better and kinder than we were before. But mostly, I’ve enjoyed these books because they are heartfelt, with characters who don’t quite fit in their respective worlds and who desire things that are beyond the norm. I will endeavour to take inspiration from them going into the new year.

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong (1973)
Cover of the book Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.

Fear of Flying gets a bit of a bad rap these days, in part because, at face value, it’s the whingings of a wealthy white woman. But, for me (a fellow whinging wealthy white woman), that’s exactly why it worked in 1973 and (worryingly) still works today. Jong details in writing what goes on in women’s heads – however narcissistic, neurotic and erotic that may be. It should go without saying that not all of it applies to all women, but moments still ring true with alarming regularity. As a writer, this novel is significant to me because Isadora is tediously selfish, infuriatingly contradictory and often deeply unlikeable, a state that sadly remains as unacceptable for female characters as it does for female humans.

Genius line: “Women are their own worst enemies. And guilt is the main weapon of self-torture… Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man.”

Why the Germans Do It Better, John Kampfner (2020)

Why the Germans Do It Better is an exploration of modern Germany, set within the framework of that quintessential British admiration of/ revulsion for its Teutonic neighbour. Kampfner isn’t coy about Germany’s faults, nor does he fawn over its successes. Instead, Why the Germans Do It Better is a clear-eyed, well-researched, eminently readable work. Combining history with modern anecdote, it’s the product of someone who understands the culture of Britain as well as he does that of Germany, and, more importantly, how those two cultures interact.

Genius line: “With the credibility of the US and UK undermined, Germany has found itself in the deeply uncomfortable position of being the standard-bearer for liberal democracy.”

Cover of the book Why the Germans Do It Better by John Kampfner
Less, Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
Cover of the book Less by Andrew Sean Greer

‘Failed novelist’ Arthur Less receives an invitation to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Desperate to avoid attending, Less decides he’s going to try to outrun his heartbreak by taking a round-the-world trip. It’s a simple enough set-up, but the journey Greer takes the reader on is one that is lively, charming and achingly poignant. Less is a story of a man coming to terms with aging and beginning to understand how the meaning and significance of love can shift with that process. The novel is pure of heart and wicked of wit, a combination in the face of which I am forever weak.

Genius line: Less is full of sweet and profound observations on love. But it’s the sparkling turns of phrase that appealed to me, for example: “An eel of panic wriggles through Less”, or, “The Russian novelist pulls his lush eyebrows together like the parts of a modular sofa”. Fresh, rich and unique.

The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell (1941)

The Lion and the Unicorn is actually an essay published in a compilation, Why I Write. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks, a life-changing piece that gave me an unexpected insight into myself as a Brit living abroad. Although the essay was written in the throes of the Blitz, there are moments when you’d be forgiven for thinking Orwell is talking about another European disaster: Brexit.

What really fascinated me, however, was Orwell’s optimism. He was genuinely convinced that one of the outcomes of the war would be a shift from capitalism to socialism. The spoiler, of course, is painful. But it was an important lesson that it is hope, not despair, that is the true driver of visionary writing.

Genius line: “The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.” Ouch.

Cover of the book Why I Write by George Orwell
The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford (1945)
Cover of the book The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

I’ve no idea why it took me so long to come to the divine Nancy Mitford. The Pursuit of Love is primarily the story of the upper-class, mercurial and perpetually romantic Linda Radlett as she pursues, well, love, or whatever that meant to young women in the 1930s. Set against the backdrop of impending war, it’s tragicomedy at its sweet/sad, heart-rending best. As social commentary, it’s a brilliant and bonkers send-up of the British aristocracy and an exploration of the evolution of personal identity in the interwar years. The BBC also released an adaptation of The Pursuit of Love in 2021, which does a good job of replicating the tone of the novel.

Genius line: “‘He was the great love of her life you know.’ ‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly, ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.'”

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