Christine Hume, author of “Saturation Project,” recommends modern stories that turn patriarchal folklore on its head.
At the end of story-telling is myth-making: exhausted, stripped down narrative, pure grammar crystalized into affect. And when it’s good . . . Myth-structure holds the power to awaken us to our own history and also to make ourselves into strangers.
Do you have a reading plan for 2021? If you’ve never put a reading plan together, the task can seem overwhelming. Here are some resources I’ve collected that can help.
But you don’t have to develop a formal reading plan to find these articles useful. Maybe you’d like some advice on how to keep track of the books you read. Or perhaps you’re just interested in finding a few reading challenges to motivate you or help you discover new kinds of literature.
Either way, you might find something you can use in these articles.
Tirzah Price has developed a spreadsheet for keeping track of her 2021 reading. She provides a link where you can download a copy of her template, which you can then modify to fit your own needs. She even provides a video tutorial to help you work with the spreadsheet.
2021 is the seventh year for Book Riot’s annual Read Harder Challenge. This year’s challenge “has 24 tasks designed to help you break out of your reading bubble and expand your worldview through books. With new genres, new authors, and new points of view, the challenge will (hopefully) help you discover amazing books you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up.”
“If ever there were a new year that called for a new notebook, this would be it.”
Dr. Perri Klass admits that she loves notebooks even if she’s not as diligent in writing in them as she’d like to be. I used to write in a journal just about every day, but for about two years, when we were traveling extensively in early retirement (and hopefully we’ll be able to do that again some time), I let myself fall out of the habit. (Yes, it’s much easier to let a habit lapse than to build a habit in the first place.)
But I’ve been building up the old habit over the last couple of months and intend to do much better this year.
“We continue to experience a publishing pile-up, as books postponed from 2020 spill over into the new year’s catalogue. As a result, this season offers an embarrassment of riches for the reader of novels,” writes Cal Flyn, deputy editor of Five Books. Although this article follows the traditional Five-Books approach of featuring five covers, Flyn discusses additional titles in the discussion.
Here novelist Louise Candlish puts a particular spin on the discussion: “dislikable is not the same as irredeemable, and for this reason, there is no place on my list for any love-to-hate Tom Ripleys or morbidly mesmerising Humbert Humberts.”
Here she explains why she dislikes these 10 irredeemable characters. Because this list is in The Guardian, her emphasis is decidedly British. But #9 is the product of an American author, and #10 is from a very recent novel.
“Ray Bradbury is one of the most important American writers of the mid-20th century. He transformed science fiction’s position in American literature during the 1950s. There were other fine sci-fi writers, but Ray was the one who first engaged the mainstream audience. He had a huge impact on both American literature and popular culture.”
In this article, which came out at the end of December, Kelly Coyne writes, “It is often in the home where the plainest expressions of politics appear. This year, you could see it everywhere in the domestic novel.”
Coyne reflects on recent novels that “thrust white liberal parents into a harsh light” in the ways in which they interact with domestic workers.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.
I keep reading things like “I can’t wait to be done with 2020 and move on to 2021.” Do most people truly believe that merely taking one calendar off the wall and hanging up another one is going to change their day-to-day existence? Such magical thinking. Reality doesn’t work that way. The truth is still out there.
As I write this post in the first full week of January, we are in our 44th week of lockdown. (The last social event we attended was a monthly lunch excursion to a restaurant on March 6, 2020.) Even with the good news of the arrival of vaccines, I expect we won’t see any substantive change in our daily lives until July 1, 2021, at the earliest. I’m preparing for another six months, at least, just like the previous nine months:
Looking back on how well I fulfilled my reading plan for 2020 made me realize that the year well illustrates the validity of the old proverb “Man plans. God laughs.” And there are some lessons to be learned from this realization.
The biggest lesson is that, since we probably won’t see significant change in our current situation for at least half of this new year, the whole notion of a plan feels irrelevant. Last year I had my whole year’s reading planned out, month by month. But when COVID-19 hit and brought with it heightened anxiety along with reader’s and writer’s block, I was only able to get back to reading by ditching the plan. I allowed myself to stand in front of my TBR shelves and look for the book that called to me the loudest. I kept up that process, sometimes letting one book lead me to the next, at other times finding a new book to set me off on a different chain of association.
I have therefore decided not to use the label of plan at all for 2021. Instead, I’m going to focus on some goals that will still be possible no matter which particular books I may read. For example, one part of my plan for last year was to use the Blog Discussion Challenge to motivate me to write some substantive blog posts. Even though I didn’t meet my original quota, I was able to write about just about anything—including a look at why I was having trouble reading and writing—and call it a discussion post. So this year I’m going to talk about reading and writing goals instead of a reading and writing plan.
After looking at last year’s plan, I’m describing this year’s goals in relation to last year’s in two major areas:
I. Elements I’m keeping from last year
II. Elements I’m dropping from last year, replacing, or adding
I. Elements I’m Keeping from 2020
Most of these are general challenges and goals.
1. Goodreads Challenge
I did make last year’s goal of 55, but I had to rush and include a couple of particularly short works. I’m therefore going to dial my challenge goal back to 50 books, a number I think I can more easily achieve.
2. The Classics Club
Although I had good intentions last year, I didn’t come even close to my goal of crossing six books off my Classics Club list.
I’m going to cut back this year’s goal to four and hope for the best.
3. 2021 Book Blog Discussion Challenge
I signed up for the 2020 Discussion Challenge to motivate myself to write substantive posts on literary topics. Despite not writing as many discussion posts as I had wanted to (because, you know, COVID-19), I enjoyed working on the 12 that I did manage and was pleased with the results. I’m therefore signing up for the 2021 Discussion Challenge with the goal of writing one discussion post per month.
II. Elements I’m Dropping, Replacing, or Adding
For 2021 I’m taking the focus off reading exclusively and incorporating the intention to write about more of the books I read. Not every book I read warrants a review on the blog, but many do, and I need to make more of an effort to discuss those. For me, writing seems to take some time; thoughts swirl around in the unconscious before percolating to the surface of awareness. It’s too easy for me to finish reading one book, then immediately pick up another one without going back to revisit the first one again.
I will need to follow through and return to each previous book to finish the reading process. And this emphasis on writing may have a secondary effect of influencing me to choose more meaty books to read so that they’ll be ones I’ll want to review.
Here, then, is a new goal I’m adding for 2021:
4. to review 50% of the books I read on this blog
I’m also adding another reading goal this year:
5. to read more of my TBR books
Here is my current TBR shelf of Book of the Month editions I haven’t gotten to yet:
The shelf contains 22 books, with two more to be added as soon as my January box arrives. And those are just my Book of the Month books. Several other shelves contain books I’ve been wanting to read for some time, including Where the Crawdads Sing, All the Light We Cannot See, The Hours, Crime and Punishment, A God in Ruins, and Trust Exercise.
I do not acquire books haphazardly; I chose every book on these shelves for particular reasons. They’re all good books that I want to read.
When I jettisoned the calendar part of last year’s reading plan at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing myself to choose whatever book I wanted to read next proved to be a tremendously freeing experience. Suddenly reading became an adventure again, not just some productivity goal to tick off on a to-do list.
This rediscovery of the joy of reading convinced me not to include a specific reading calendar in this year’s goals. I still have several reading projects I’m interested in pursuing, so I’m keeping the list of projects, but I’m treating them as possibilities rather than requirements tied to specific completion dates.
News flash! There’s a new book arriving this month about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. (1849) and her sister, also a physician. Elizabeth was the major figure about whom I wrote my dissertation, so I’m excited and have preordered this book.
I place this one near the top of the list because it provides a monthly list of literary events, from specific book publications to award announcements and film/TV adaptations. (Publication dates in countries other than the U.K. might differ from those listed here.)
The folks at Off the Shelf advise, “If you pre-order these fabulously gripping reads now, you’ll thank yourself when the books arrive in the new year, and you’ll have plenty to look forward to throughout 2021.”
List compiler Ann Foster writes, “Several of these works featuring all or mostly-white characters in print have been adapted to change some characters to POC, but the dearth of adaptations of books by BIPOC and women is notable yet again in 2021.”
From CNN. I’m especially excited about the last book listed here, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, by Olivia Campbell, due out in March. 2021 seems to be THE year for interest in the history of women in medicine, with The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura coming out later this month. (See my latest 6 Degrees of Separation post.)
I think I have more than 3,000 books on my Kindle. Because I only recently discovered how to use collections, there’s very little order to my ebooks. Here Ashley Holstrom offers advice on how to organize your Kindle cloud and your Goodreads shelves. She also tells us to create Goodreads shelves to log our entire elibrary, but I’m not sure I’m going to invest that much time in this project.
You may have heard the story of how Charles Dickens never outgrew the fear of incarceration after his family’s stint in debtor’s prison in 1841. Here Laurence Scott reports that “In her 2011 biography, Claire Tomalin notes that, in adulthood, Dickens became ‘an obsessive visitor of prisons’” and looks at examples of passages from his works that illustrate his obsession.
The New York Times reports on “a mysterious international phishing scam that has been tricking writers, editors, agents and anyone in their orbit into sharing unpublished book manuscripts.”
Both big-name writers—like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan—and unknown writers have been targeted, and no one seems to know where manuscripts submitted through the scam end up. “When copies of the manuscripts get out, they just seem to vanish. So why is this happening?”
Deborah Treisman, fiction editor for The New Yorker, comments on some of the fiction that appeared in the magazine during the “historically pivotal” year of 2020: “It’s hardly surprising that some of the anxiety of this unmooring year trickled into fiction—or sent us to stories that explore other historical turning points and what led to them.”
It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.
For this first 6 Degrees of 2021, we start with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This book is next up on my to-read list. I understand from reading about this highly praised novel that it portrays the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, at age 11 in the plague of 1596.
But the book focuses not on the playwright, but on the child’s mother, Agnes, who learns from her mother about the power of plants and about understanding her own premonitions. In other words, Agnes is a witch.
1. Thinking about Agnes’s role immediately brought to mind The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. In this novel for young people an orphaned young woman, Kit Tyler, travels from Barbados to live with a relative in the Connecticut Colony in 1687. Since I grew up in Connecticut near the place where this novel is set, reading it was de rigueur when I was in elementary school. I reread it a few years ago and was pleased to realize that the portrait of Hannah, an ostracized Quaker woman whom young Kit befriends, still fulfills the standard stereotype of a witch.
2. In her nonfiction work Woman as Healer, Jeanne Achterberg examines the role of women in the Western healing traditions, from their honored position as healers in ancient cultures through the persecution of such healers as witches in the Middle Ages and then into more modern roles of women as midwives, then nurses, and now physicians.
3. In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. In 1895 she published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.
4. Just a few days ago I discovered a new book scheduled to be published by W.W. Norton later this month: The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P Nimura. The book focuses on the life work of Elizabeth Blackwell and her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, who also became a physician.
5. At the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, the Blackwell sisters lead efforts to organize women to help care for wounded soldiers. Their efforts met with strong opposition from the United States Sanitary Commission, whose male leaders resented the women’s incursion into the traditionally male-dominated profession of physician. The novel My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira presents the difficulties a young midwife faces as she tries to train as a physician with a male doctor during the war.
6. The novel The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati, set in New York City in 1883, provides a look at how women worked to defend their right to practice and to define their role as physicians during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Anna Savard, a graduate of the Woman’s Medical School, works to protect and care for immigrant and orphaned children on the city streets and in the rudimentary orphanages.
Bonus: The second book in this series, Where the Light Enters, set in 1884, tells the story of Anna’s cousin, Sophie, an obstetrician and the orphaned daughter of free people of color.
I have very much enjoyed this exercise in exploring how women have experienced and redefined their role as healers over the centuries.
Lit Hub has compiled this “Incomplete List of the Writers, Editors, and Great Literary Minds We Lost This Year.”
Among the many unhappinesses of this year, we lost what seems like an unusually large number of members of the literary community, from poets to novelists to editors to critics to publishers to booksellers. To them, we say a last thank you, and goodbye. They will be missed.
Most of the annual best books of the year lists refer only to books published during the stated calendar year. But my annual list always refers to books I read this year, regardless of when they were published.
Here, then, are the 10 best books I read this year, listed alphabetically by author, plus 5 more honorable mentions.