Best books I read in 2021
The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978, *audio*) I’m not sure if The Sea, the Sea is a good book. It’s a haphazard, crazy, bonkers book. It felt as if Murdoch was making it up as she was going along. But sometimes a story is worthy if it’s simply an entertaining ride, and The Sea, the Sea may have been my most enjoyable audiobook experience ever. The book is fun and ridiculous and atmospheric. But most of the praise should go to actor Richard Grant for his astounding voice acting performance. If there’s an annual best “narrator” award for audiobook narrators, it ought to have gone to Grant.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) This is a book about an epidemic of memory loss in a post-war Arthurian Britain. I admire Ishiguro for cheekily playing with Arthurian legends—Merlin may have been engaged in dark sorcery; Arthur may have sought peace via brutal means; Sir Gawain wrestles with internal demons from his warring past. The book brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, in which one ethnicity vied against the other. (The Buried Giant is about the aftermath of the Briton-Saxon wars.) Memories breed anger which breeds revenge, and the violent cycle continues. One can imagine how forgetfulness can be a salutary disease under such circumstances, and I like how Ishiguro played with these themes. The “buried giant” — you could say — was simply the memory of the war atrocities that would, if unearthed, wreak havoc on Britain.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) One of my favorite things about this book is how flawed Stevens, a self-denying English butler, is as the narrator. There is something boyish and endearing, if pathetic, about how persistently self-deluding Stevens is. Once you see this as a reader, the reading experience changes, because you can now see through Stevens and begin to tease out the truth for yourself.
Beverly by Nick Drasno (2016) I love Drasno’s two graphic novels, set in Anywhere, USA. The illustrations are likely deliberately bland: blank expressions, boring bodies, neat suburbs, and undecorated interiors. It all suggests a lack of spiritual richness in the characters’ lives. These characters are victims of a soulless and impoverished American culture: bad TV, recreational binge drinking, advertisements everywhere, media-generated paranoia…These characters seem to be wandering through these boring landscapes, searching, but rarely finding, connection or understanding. It all sounds so dreary, but there’s humor on every page. Drasno’s books are some of the best critiques — or diagnoses — of American culture, and the alienation, loneliness, and “something’s missingness” so many of us feel.
Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux (2019, *audio*) I’ve long been a big fan of Theroux. There’s a casual wisdom in this memoir, which covers everything from boyhood, to marriage, to his career. (It’s mostly about his career.) He spends an inordinate amount of time on his interviews with Jimmy Saville (who later turned out to be a serial pedophile), but I found myself enjoying this theme, and I suppose the continual fascination with the subject says something about Theroux. I strongly recommend the audio version, as Theroux is a gifted speaker.