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.'”

No babies allowed!

What the ban on children in Parliament tells us about women in the workplace

Palace of Westminster and Westminster Bridge in London
Image by Marcin Nowak via Unsplash
Why we need more babies in Parliament

By not offering Creasy a locum and leaving her in a kind of post-natal professional limbo, the suggestion is that, if an MP happens to become pregnant, they should just step down, being, as they surely are, unable to complete the duties of an elected representative. With relatively few pregnant male MPs in the Commons, this is an expectation that has thus far only applied to women. To take the subtext further, women should only be allowed into Parliament in the first place if they behave like men, and men don’t have babies, at least not visible ones.

Despite what the right-wing media might have us believe, Creasy isn’t an outlier. Around the world, babies in Parliament aren’t uncommon (and provide a delightful Google image search on a grey November day). Jo Swinson was the first British MP to bring her baby into the Chamber in 2018; Australian Senator, Larissa Waters breastfed her baby during a debate; and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s daughter, Neve, accompanied her onto the floor of the UN in New York.

MP Stella Creasy in her official portrait with her baby in a sling
Stella Creasy with her daughter in 2019 (image from UK Parliament)
The motherhood penalty
Final thoughts

Stella Creasy isn’t the first mother to be made to feel unwelcome in her workplace. Women are invariably subject to lower pay and reduced opportunities as a result of becoming parents.

Ultimately, nobody should be in a position where they feel they are unable to raise a child and play a part in the workforce; not Stella Creasy, not a nurse and not a lorry driver.

The criticism levelled at Creasy that she is, in some way, taking advantage by bringing her baby into the Commons is exactly the reason she should be doing so. It serves as an important, if visually-jarring, reminder that when we drive women out of decision-making, everyone suffers, especially families.

Weigh in! Should the ban on children in the Chamber be overturned? What has been your experience of working while parenting? How can we make work life more conducive to family life?

How the British socialist fell in love with the German conservative

Angela Merkel in 2006
Angela Merkel at the Chancellory in 2006

This coming Sunday will mark the end of an era. Germany’s second-longest-serving Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel will stand down after sixteen years. Since I moved to Germany in 2013, all I’ve ever known is Merkel. And in that time, I confess – I’ve caught feelings.

As a member of the British Labour Party since the day I turned 16 and the daughter of a former Labour Councillor, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, bleeding-heart socialist. If you were to cut me open, I’d have ‘fuck the Tories’ written throughout like a stick of Blackpool rock. And yet, on Sunday night, I may well find myself shedding tears at the departure of a Conservative politician.

So how did it happen that, with such a background, I fell for Angela Merkel?

Our type on paper
A first flush of love
The seven year itch?
It’s complicated
The end of the affair

Weigh in! How do you think history will remember Angela Merkel? What are your wishes and expectations for the new government in Germany?

I read the IPCC report* so you don’t have to (but you probably still should)

climate change protest with teenagers holding placards
Image by Callum Shaw via Unsplash
What is the IPCC report?
What does the report say?
Why is this report different?

Weigh in! If you’ve read the report, what did you think about the five scenarios? And if you haven’t read it, what’s stopping you? What advice do you have for people on addressing climate change?

Typhoid Mary and the dangers of vaccine complacency

latex gloved hands holding syringe
Image by Sam Moqadam via Unsplash
TL;DR keep wearing that mask
Vaccines: humanity’s greatest achievement
‘Typhoid Mary’ – the world’s first known asymptomatic carrier
The power of the individual as part of a whole

Weigh in! Will you still be wearing your mask after 19 July? What are your thoughts about the lifting of restrictions in England?

Women and alcohol: how the WHO got it so wrong

Image by Kelsey Chance via Unsplash

Weigh in! What are your thoughts on the WHO’s report? How can we ensure that authoritative organisations with health mandates consider their social responsibilities?