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Top 2021 Reads from HD Librarians - Part 1

Top Reads 2021 part 1

Here are the books that make my list of Top Reads for 2021 - click on the titles in bold for links to the catalogue:

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited second novel is far shorter than her first offering, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. However, what it lacks in length, it makes up for in sheer scope and enjoyment. Piranesi mixes philosophy, murder mystery, classical architecture, labyrinths, spirituality, religion, and egotistical academics. It’s comprised entirely of Piranesi’s own diary entries which look a little odd to begin with, but I strongly recommend that you persevere. Piranesi himself is a kind and charming if naïve character, and his narration gently and lovingly exposes some of the oddities and contradictions of modern life especially through the mysterious Other, who appears on certain days to hold meetings with Piranesi, supplying him with multivitamins and a pair of sparkly blue shoes.
Nothing I can say about Piranesi can accurately encapsulate its brilliance, and really it’s one of those novels where you’re best to go into it knowing next-to-nothing, embracing the confusion of the first few pages and letting Clarke’s beautiful descriptions wash over you.

Passing by Nella Larsen (eBook via Overdrive)
While I don’t think it’s very productive to pit books against one another, I couldn’t help but see Nella Larsen’s Passing as a precursor to Brit Bennett’s extremely popular The Vanishing Half. Certainly, I would recommend it to readers who enjoyed the latter. “Passing” is an idea I was introduced to in Brit Bennett’s novel: it entails being able to pass for a member of another identity group. In both Passing and The Vanishing Half, the implications of African American women passing as white women are explored. Other than being a rich source of social and cultural commentary, Passing is a compelling exploration of one woman’s life: her fears, friendships, and anger. It’s also fascinating to read about Harlem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s. Netflix has recently released its adaptation of Passing, but I’d strongly recommend you give this relatively short read a go before consuming the film version.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway is neither the most fast-paced or gripping book you’ll ever read – but it is a masterclass in stream-of-consciousness writing. Woolf famously uses observable objects to pivot between the thoughts of different characters, a style she pioneered. Owing at least in part to the novel’s age, some of the views and opinions in this novel are outdated, but its legacy cannot be denied. It follows upper-class woman Clarissa Dalloway over the course of one day as she readies herself to host a party. A second narrative line follows Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran whose memories of World War I continuously invade his thoughts. It’s a great exploration of how the past continually shapes our experiences in the present.

Temporary by Hilary Leichter
This book is a surreal romp through one young woman’s working life. When I say surreal, I mean it: picture employment on pirate ships and humans posing as barnacles to alleviate the loss of a certain species. Throughout these jobs, the narrator grapples with her own impermanence and the ethical issues that arise in her placements – such as whether to assist an assassin, or whether to drop bombs at random from a blimp. Oh, and she also has 18 boyfriends.
Temporary responds to what a reviewer on the front cover of the book calls “the gig economy”: a market where temporary contracts prevail and workers spend their lives seeking some form of permanence in a system that negates their individuality and importance. I have a penchant for novels about modern working life (Exhibit A: my review of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job earlier in the year), so when I heard about Hilary Leichter’s debut novel, I immediately put a hold on it and eagerly awaited its arrival. It is thoroughly strange, but almost unrelentingly funny: it won’t be for everyone, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the narrator’s bizarre jobs in the interests of satire; or, if you’ve ever wondered whether your job actually means anything, I’d encourage you to take Temporary on.

Fox 8 by George Saunders
There’s something endlessly fascinating about the way humans interpret animals’ thoughts and feelings. Fox 8 is George Saunders’ rendition of a fox uncovering the devastating effect construction is going to have on his skulk (the collective noun for a group of foxes, thank you Google). By listening to nightly storytimes through a suburban window, Fox 8 learns to speak “Yuman”. His enchantment with the Yumans is soon tainted, as he hears the retelling of a story which mis-categorises foxes as sly (foxes do not trick chickens, he promises). What follows is Fox 8’s effort to save his skulk from the destruction a new housing development is set to wage on their environment. This is a short book, but Saunders packs a whole novel’s worth of joy and emotion into its sixty-something pages.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This classic of the Jazz Age was a re-read for me during lockdown. You’re probably familiar with the story: Jay Gatsby’s enduring quest for Daisy Buchanan pulls his neighbour Nick Carraway, a wannabe writer-turned-stockbroker, into the orbit of a tragic love story studded with extravagant parties and opulent Long Island mansions. Nick finds himself surrounded by an upper class in moral and mortal turmoil: his position “within and without” allows him to observe the corrupting influence of extreme wealth, but he cannot bring himself to speak up, oscillating instead between awe and satire. Fitzgerald’s writing is truly beautiful and eminently quotable, full of lush description and imagery that has undoubtedly been repeated to death in English literature essays – but for good reason.

The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
I was propelled into reading a collection of Mansfield’s work after being enchanted by her bite-sized story 'Miss Brill'. I, like many other New Zealanders, read Mansfield’s 'The Doll’s House' in high school and was rather unmoved by what I interpreted as its stale depiction of upper-middle class life at the turn of the century. As I remember it, our study was completely void of any mention of Mansfield’s progressive views and her importance on the international literary scene in the early 20th Century. In fact, Virginia Woolf called Katherine Mansfield her greatest rival.
Also absent from our studies were Mansfield’s more murderous stories, such as 'The Woman at the Store', and her highly-acclaimed story of homoerotic desire, 'Bliss'. As much as Mansfield focuses on the upper classes and fails to give voice to the lower ones, I think it’s pretty clear that her stories are shot through with a certain amount of criticism.

Posted by AM

7 December 2021

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