And once again, we’re at the end of another year! As with every year, books have been our constant companions in 2021. We decided to look back on 2021 this way: what we’ve read this year and loved, whether new releases or old ones, books we’ve been meaning to read, or ones we accidentally discovered on the way.
Read on for why we picked these books, and get your copies here.
In 1986, a teenage girl disappears into the forest behind her family’s rubber plantation. In 2011, a Vietnamese-American woman vanishes in Saigon. Build Your House Around My Body is the story of these two interlinked disappearances, told across decades, as characters weave in and out of each other’s storylines. This expansive novel is mystery, ghost story, feminist fable all in one, drawing on decades of Vietnamese history and folklore. Kupersmith hints at connections between characters and places, and constructs an intricate mystery. It felt like a puzzle to read, in the best way, and left me thinking about it for days after.
I’ve never picked up a Salinger book until this year. I’ve always heard — or been told — that people either love his books or hate them, and that a lot of it depends on “where you are in life”. I’m not sure at all where I “am” in life, but this year I decided to read Franny & Zooey on the recommendation of a dear friend, and fell in love with it instantly. I adored the thoughtful, rambly, internal nature of its very vivid characters, their ruminations on everything from identity and disillusionment to faith and family and love. In 2021, I also raced through Salinger’s other novels, though Franny & Zooey remains my favourite — I like to joke I’ve had my own Salinger year. To me, this felt like a reminder of the power of books, how reading can sometimes feel like someone is reaching through the pages, across space and time, to shake my hand.
We read many books to pick the right one for our monthly subscription box. When we sent out Entangled Life earlier this year, The Plant Messiah was a close contender. The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is an exciting book following the author and protagonist across the world as he saves species from extinction and introduces us to the fantastic flora of the places he visits. In addition to his incredible work, I was also intrigued by his unusual career path at Kew Gardens. The book was enough to make me yearn for travel and a life at Kew!
A mesmerising and heart-warming picture book written by Richa Jha and illustrated by Sumanta Dey, Machher Jhol follows Gopu as he navigates the busy streets of Calcutta to get his sick father his favourite fish curry. I was mesmerised by the quality of the art as I flipped through this picture book and kept returning to it. I looked up the author and the illustrator to look for other books by them and that is when I found out that the young illustrator had passed away from COVID. Here is a piece by writer Richa Jha mourning his loss.
I have a long and deep association with the piano that goes back several years and when I read Lost Pianos, I realized there was an entire dimension of piano lore of which I wasn’t familiar. While it is a fact that the locations of piano manufacture and the eventual home of individual instruments can be quite distant and unexpected, Sophy Roberts’ book brings this phenomenon to life perhaps for the first time within the confines of the geographical boundaries of that vast land, Siberia. I had encountered a piano that had travelled to the deep interiors of Burma, closely followed by a piano tuner, in Daniel Mason’s gripping novel The Piano Tuner, but Lost Pianos elevates the story to one across time, space and the number of instruments involved. We are invited to follow in the footsteps of major Russian political figures, pianists, tuners, piano makers in a tour de force of the last 250 years of modern Russian history and the stories of over twenty pianos. Combine the reading of this book with a playlist of music that I curated for this book, which contains pieces by a range of European composers and Russian pianists, the latter where feasible, and instruments by manufacturers mentioned in the book, to inhabit the music that travelled across this forbidding land.
My home language being Kannada has meant that some of my reading happens in the original language. But reading translations, particularly those from other Indian languages, has been a long-standing interest of mine and this extends to translations of Kannada books as well. In this case, Vasudhendra has been an old favourite, and I look forward to reading any books of his in Kannada and in translation. The characters in The Unforgiving City are relatable, memorable and deftly sketched - the ones of Vishal and Devika clashing on pregnancy and job tenure inThe Recession come to mind, as do others in the twelve short stories that make up the collection. Vasudhendra’s own journey from a rural childhood to an urban resident finds echoes in the preoccupation of this collection. The translation by Mysore Nataraja is a treat and accessible as the stories are themselves, and are a perfect read for a winter afternoon.
In this book, Oliver Sacks travels to learn about congenital colour blindness (achromatopsia) that is common in Pingelap Atoll, a Micronesian island of the South Pacific. He discovers that the colourblindness in the island arose after a typhoon in 1775, with only 20 survivors. Sacks also tells us about the history of the Micronesian islands of the South Pacific which were deeply scarred by the ravages of American and Japanese occupations. If you’ve ever wondered what a colourless world might feel like, or what a starlit sky might look like if your eyes picked up only luminance, Sacks writes of this beautifully. I always admire the way Sacks is able to describe with empathy, lucidity and knowledge, conditions of the mind and body that are often unimaginable or difficult to relate to. And since this was a book on islands, I re-listened to Sacks on Desert Island Discs, if you’d like to :)
I first read John McPhee thanks to our beloved Theju. And once I began winding my way through endless essays by McPhee, I picked up Pine Barrens because I’m a fan of The Sopranos (and if you’re a fan you’ll know why). The Pine Barrens is an area adjoining New Jersey, a vast forest identical in area to the Grand Canyon, full of oaks, pines and cedars. It is one of the greatest natural recharging areas of rainwater in the world, threatened by construction and urban expansion. It is also a place of great mystery and reclusive people known as ‘pineys’, some of whom John McPhee meets. In this book, you hear of ghosts, cranberry bogs, orchids and what fires do to pine forests. I’ve always loved how John McPhee meets the lesser known people of the world and tells us their stories in the most unassuming, detailed way, never making any of it about himself.
It may seem trite to feel recognition, relief even, in coming upon a literary character with whom one feels an immediate kinship, but that is exactly how I felt reading Jenny Offill’s Weather. Lizzie Benson is a young woman already overwhelmed with the responsibilities of family and the insecurities of her job, when she finds herself making an extra buck answering questions about climate change. What I imagined, after reading the book’s blurb, was a story at the fringes — apocalyptic and sensational — but instead, here were scenes from a familiar life that cast the struggles and fears of modern life in sharp relief. At a time when I really needed it, the book, quite simply, made me feel less alone.
In my charge to devour more and more personal essays written by women, one of the books I picked up this year was Mary Oliver’s Upstream, which incidentally was also the companion read in the first travel-themed subscription box that went out from Champaca in the summer. Oliver’s writings about the natural world were, like her poetry, lyrical but strongly grounded, and I found myself easily lost in them. I didn’t always nod along with her musings (strongly objecting sometimes!), nor shared her literary passions often, and yet Upstream offered to me a way to be — observant and receptive, honest and kind, and content in the uncomfortable yet fertile soil of inner conflict.