I’m not a big fan of winter. Living in Michigan, in a drafty old house, I’m perpetually cold from November through April. Yet, I appreciate the month of January. The days already seem noticeably longer and there is snow on the ground, helping to brighten the season’s gloom. I also enjoy the practice of reassessing my goals and reflecting on the road I’ve traveled in the prior year. In that light, I look back on my reflections from a year ago and set down some new objectives for 2022.
SInce 2018, I’ve used the Reading Challenge in Goodreads to set and track my reading goals. I’d been averaging about 26 books a year but in 2021, I wanted to step it up. So, I set my reading goal to 30 books. I figured that with the pandemic underway, and an inability to go to the gym, I’d be walking a lot. I hoped to boost my literary diet by listening to audiobooks, via the library app Libby. This I did and at the end of 2021, I had absorbed 39 books.
I was quite pleased with myself until I sat down this week to look more closely at my statistics. Twenty-one of the 39 books were audiobooks. Eighteen were physical books that I actually read. So overall, I read far fewer pages in 2021 than I did in 2020! What’s more, only 7 of the books that I read last year were in French—another disappointment because I’d been averaging more pages in French as well.
So for 2022, I’ve again set a goal of 30 books. This time, however, I hope that at least 24 will be physical books and of those, I’d like 10 to be in French. In otherwords, this year “upping my game” translates to “resuming the pace that I was on.”
Best Books that Went Unblogged
Over the course of the year, I posted brief reviews of several of the books that I read. (There are links to those posts at the end of the page.) Most books went unreviewed because they had little to do with French culture. However, there are a few standout titles that I’d like to recommend.
|I absolutely loved Beartown, by Fredrik Backman. So much so, that a few months after listening to it on my own, I relistened to it with my husband, Andy, on a long road trip. It was just as enjoyable the second time and I learned that it had held my attention so well the first time through, that almost nothing was new to me on the second pass.|
This book, about a hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, is overflowing with many wonderful characters. Backman is a phenomenal storyteller with brilliant insight into human nature. The narration, by Marin Ireland, was also excellent.
|Fiction||Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is a series of stories (one per chapter), each providing a glimpse into a different individual’s life. All of the featured characters are descendants of half-sisters that were born in Africa in the mid 1700s. Gyasi took 7 years to write the book and it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.|
A historical novel, the story unfolds among real events and settings. Gyasi illustrates how generation after generation of war, slavery, exploitation, and racism can devastate a people. Her writing is spectacular. Homegoing is thought-provoking, chilling, and inspirational—providing insight into the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.
|The Bomber Mafia, by Malcolm Gladwell, was originally developed as an audiobook and I recommend that you consume it this way. The book describes the development of precision bombing techniques during World War II. This may sound like a snooze fest but I assure you it’s not.|
Gladwell peppers his narrative with sound effects, radio clips, and interviews that would be far less effective on the printed page. This is ultimately the story of two wartime philosophies and the high ranking generals that held them, Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay. The former believed that precision bombing of military targets would avoid civilian casualties, cripple the enemy, and eventually win the war. The latter was convinced that blanket bombing, such as that used over Dresden or the napalm dropped on Japan, would ultimately save lives by shortening the war.
Gladwell masterfully explores the tensions between these competing strategies and the age-old enigma of whether it’s moral to engage in war.
|Nonfiction||Early in 2021, I stumbled upon Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. I was looking for a biography of Baldwin that would tell me more about his life and also illuminate his thinking by including plenty of excerpts from his writing. This book fit the bill. Begin Again is part biography and part Glaude’s personal reflections about the current state of a still divided black and white America.|
Glaude turned to Baldwin in the wake of Trump’s election. He was feeling defeated and wondering how to find inspiration after such a massive setback to the progressive agenda. He knew that Baldwin fell into despair and attempted suicide after the assassinations of so many civil rights activists in the late 60s. Glaude hoped that by revisiting Baldwin’s life, he’d be able to piece together a vision of how to move forward in his own.
I waited for months until the audiobook, which is narrated by Glaude, became available on Libby. The writing, both Glaude’s and Baldwin’s, is dense. To fully savor them both, I ended up buying a printed copy that I could linger over and mark up.
|I’m a big fan of Mathew McConaughey—not the McConaughey starring in rom-coms where he has to take his shirt off and run along the beach, but the one who starred in Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Wolf of Wallstreet, White Boy Rick, and True Detective. So, I was intrigued when I learned that he’d written a biography.|
Greenlights proves that the man is more than a pretty face. He’s also a great storyteller, whose antics in real life are every bit as entertaining as the movies that he’s starred in. After listening to him recount his life’s story, I’m not sure I gained a deeper respect for his values but his intelligence, ambition, and joie de vivre are worthy of admiration.
|Fiction||The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostava, is a book that I probably never would have picked up had I not been planning to travel to Eastern Europe. My son spent last semester in Budapest and I had hoped to visit him at the end of 2021. Unfortunately, Omicron and U.S. State Department warnings convinced me to cancel my trip.|
The Historian was recommended by an acquaintance who claimed to have read a lot of books centered on that part of the world. He was careful not to give me too many details, only saying that the novel offers up a breathtaking piece of historical fiction. He was right and in keeping with his strategy of not saying too much about it, I’ll just add that Kostava really did her homework. The story jumps all over Eastern and Western Europe, as well as forward and backward in time. It’s mind-boggling to consider how someone could weave so many real events and locations into a single, gripping narrative, but Kostava pulls it off. I learned a lot, added many destinations to my bucket list, and enjoyed the suspenseful ride.
|I have twin daughters who, due to the COVID pandemic, never stepped inside their high school for their entire senior year. 2021, while better than 2020, was pretty devastating for my kids and by the time spring rolled around, I was looking for a book to take my mind off the losses we were all feeling. Colin Jost’s, A Very Punchable Face, came through with flying colors.|
You may know Jost as the host of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s an extremely entertaining writer. In this memoir, Jost shares many uproarious (and a handful of poignant) stories from his life. The comedian erases all doubt that the people who wind up in the SNL cast deserve to be there. After listening to A Very Punchable Face, I can’t think of an entrepreneur, celebrity, politician, or artist who has had to work harder than Jost to achieve their goals.
|The Secrets Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar, is actually a sequel to The Space Between Us, which I’ve never read, but this book was fabulous. Set in modern-day India, the novel features a former servant, named Bhima who is fired after decades of faithful service and must find a way to make a new life for herself and her granddaughter. Surrounded by poverty, classism, rivalry, and misfortune, Bhima struggles to survive in the overcrowded streets of Mumbai.|
This is less a story of hardship than it is of resilience, comradery, second chances, and human dignity. A true classic that sheds light on the complexities of life in India and the universal disadvantage of being born female. The Secrets Between Us is the best work of fiction that I read all year—beautifully performed by Sneha Mathan who narrated the audiobook.
One of my goals for 2021 was to pick up my writing pace. Over the course of the year, I published 55 posts, averaging 1700 words/post. In March, April and May, I tried producing 2 posts/week instead of 1. However, by summer, I was burned out. I only wrote, 2 posts in July, 0 in August, and skipped the first week of September. I suppose that I’ve gotten a tad faster than when I first started blogging regularly in 2020. However, I tend to increase the amount of research I do, or the number of illustrations, or length of the post, to fit the time that I have available.
I also undertook a writing program laid out in The Artist’s Way. This entailed, among other things, writing 3 pages in a journal every day for 12 weeks. It was a good exercise but I spent far more time composing those 3 pages than the 20-30 minutes/day promised by the author. The initial writing prompts, sparked some good passages that I’m glad to have recorded. Once the program was over, however, the journal became dull and plodding as I uninventively scrawled out my day-to-day activities. My entries slowed to a few times per week, then once per week, now even fewer.
Throughout 2021, I followed some lessons from a Great Courses class on writing nonfiction and read a few dozen chapters/articles on the craft of writing. I often picked up a tip or two that I would apply to my current week’s post but so far, I’m not really retaining these techniques such that they become innate features of my writing style. In 2022, I’ll continue to study the art of writing and I plan to take a writing class or two where I can receive feedback from an instructor.
As always, I’m up for hearing about your experiences, techniques, and recommendations. One piece of advice that I run into frequently is “start your day by [fill in the blank]”, where [fill in the blank] is the goal you place ahead of all others: be it exercise, or reading, or writing, or practicing a second language… Since I want to do all of those things, plus spend time networking with other readers and writers, this counsel has never been particularly helpful.
Perhaps you feel similarly or maybe you’ve discovered an effective scheme for better managing your time. I’m open to any comments, words of wisdom, or successes that you care to share. Thanks for reading!
Posts from 2021 containing book reviews
- Surviving A Massacre—Catherine Meurisse And Art’s Curative Power
- Let’s Eat France! A Fun and Fascinating Guide To French Cuisine
- Dark Days, Here’s to the Truthtellers and Brighter Times Ahead
- Jules Verne, Captivating Storyteller and Harbinger of the Future
- Fiction that Enlightens: Learning Something Adds to the Enjoyment
- The Artist’s Way, An Attempt to Free My Creative Spirit
- Read-Along, The Archipelago of Another Life, Bestselling French Fiction
- Four Audiobooks To Batter Boredom, Promenades Of The Pandemic
- War in Afghanistan, Life of the Combat Soldier
- North by Shakespeare, An Underdog Defies 500 Years of Literary Doctrine
- Camus’ Letters to a German Friend, a Warning for Our Times
- 22 Sensational Reads for the Francophiles on your Gift List