2021 By The Books: Fiction Edition

Daniel Issing
9 min readDec 24, 2021
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

For the fourth installment of my annual book review, it seems appropriate to rearrange the typical way of presenting my readings. Fittingly, I have a roughly equal number of fiction and nonfiction books to choose from this years, so we’ll keep them separate this time. This also allows for the first part to be released before the end of the year.

L’Arabe du Futur 1+2, Riad Sattouf

I read my last comic book when I was, I dunno, 12?, and have since worked hard to cultivate the typical upper-middle class snobbish attitude towards them. An unexpected birthday gift gave me the opportunity to reevaluate my carefully reasoned disposition.

Comics make for a fun and quick read — no surprise here — but I wouldn’t lose many words on them if that were all there is to it. The story Sattouf tells in the Arab of the Future (his own, so I don’t know if it still qualifies as fiction) is rather remarkable: Born in France to a Syrian father and a French mother, his family moves first to a village in Libya and then to to a small town near Homs. The portrayal of the father is particularly rich, if only because it is so depressing. Having received his PhD in France and allegedly secular in his ways and thought, he is never short of excuses to justify the poverty, oppression and bigotry that surrounds him in his native Syria. There are at least three more sequels; I hope to report back next year.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

Contra my expectations, this is actually not a narration of the stream of consciousness of a dying person. It’s actually quite funny, in a macabre way to be sure.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

That out of all of McEwan’s books, Atonement would be picked up by Hollywood and turned into a major motion picture is unsurprising, given the plot. I liked Solar better, less melodramatic although both plots strain credulity. Still, there’s something to his writing that I quite appreciate, maybe the psychological depth?

Bonus: Read John Crace’s digested reads. No just on Solar, but all of them.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

I had my troubles reading Beloved. I felt that the plot wasn’t easy to follow (not helped by the fact that I interrupted it twice to squeeze in a different book), alongside a couple of stream-of-consciousness-like digressions that I couldn’t make sense of. In sharp contrast to the tragedy around which the novel evolves, the characters remain somewhat shallow, one-dimensional.

The Cider House Rules, John Irving

Irving must be one of the greatest living storytellers, if Cider House Rules is any indicator. I don’t think his narrative style could be called innovative, even back in 1985 when the book was first published — it’s indeed quite explicitly a Dickensonian novel (David Copperfield being a central reference), harking back as far as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Not a problem for me if it’s well done (the old books are classics for a reason, after all). In addition to the traditional elements of a Bildungsroman, it also offers maybe the most nuanced — though not balanced — treatment of abortion I’ve come across in fiction, presented in a way that should allow both supporters and opponents to engage with the topic.

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s third novel is often hailed for its prescient description of post 9/11, post dot-com bubble America, and I may well have failed to notice the accuracy of his premonition because it’s just so spot-on. Like if you read a pamphlet from the 1930s predicting we’ll be ordering food using an app called Uber? Anyway: In my opinion, however, his account of the deeply dysfunctional (although moderately successful) Lambert family — sharp, insightful, often tragicomic — will prove to be of more lasting value. With the exception of some rather, shall we say contrived, passages (such as one protagonist’s adventures in Lithuania, or the daughter’s double affaire with both a husband and his wife), the depiction of their relationship flows so naturally it scares. The numerous ways in which they make their own lives, and those of the other family members, miserable would be funny if you could be sure something like it will never developing in your own life — a tragedy without many an obvious avenue of escape left open. Back in March 2021, when I finished the book, I predicted it will be my favorite novel of the year, and so it turned out.

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler

The first thing I’d like to remark is that Darkness at Noon very obviously wasn’t written by a native speaker, but composed in German and translated into English by English sculptor Daphne Hardy. (Yes, I do realize that as a German native speaker writing an English blog, I’m maybe not in the best position to complain about this.) The good news is that, more than seven decades after its first appearance, the original manuscript was found, and there is now a new English translation (published 2019) which supposedly far surpasses the “original”. So do yourself a favor and get this version, instead of the one I’ve been reading.

Maybe because the perverse logic of the Stalinist purges is so well known nowadays does the novel fail to make a lasting impact on me; it is, however, not hard to imagine what reading Koestler (a former communist himself) must have been like for his “fellow travelers”, who had spend years denying, downplaying or refusing to believe whatever little information about the Soviet system of oppression made its way to the West. The unconditional fatalism of the protagonist, who not even once revolts against his treatment and looming death sentence, makes the story less realistic than it could have otherwise been.

Dubliners, James Joyce

Joyce’s first major work is a collection of short stories whose main characters become progressively older with each new story he tells. I always wanted to read Ulysses but failed miserably the first time I tried, so I thought Dubliners would provide an easier entry point into Joyce’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, I am now even less convinced that I should finally give the Ulysses another try, because Dubliners totally failed to grab my attention. Somehow I also didn’t realize that the chapters really represented disconnected stories and thus failed to make any sense of the plot.

The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer

The United States are often referred to as the only liberal democracy that still practices capital punishment. What’s maybe less well known (at least outside the country) is the following:

HT: Dynomight

Between 1965 and 1977, there was a brief period during which not a single death row inmate was executed, capital punishment being deemed “cruel and unusual” by the Supreme Court. The Executioner’s Song is, in a sense, an account of how one man single-handled changed history and put an end to the moratorium by refusing to appeal to his death sentence — or rather, by actively demanding for it to be carried out. Gary Gilmore, who killed two lowly service workers for no apparent reason, became the first man to be executed in the US in ten years, and even though the numbers never reached their 1900 peak again, it’s evident that all further attempts to put an end to this practice have so far been unsuccessful.

There are many things that are distressing about the novel. The first one is how Mailer manages to draw the reader into the story, and makes you emphasize with Gilmore. Keep in mind this we’re talking about 1,000+ pages! But for all the depth with which he paints the killer, there’s comparatively little on the victims’ families, to the point that the two murders almost appear as digressions from the main story. This is all the more unfortunate because it seems as if their portrayals were kept at the bare minimum to allow more room for tabloid journalist Larry Schiller, who made a small fortune selling the rights to Gilmore’s letters and interviews. An odd choice, one would think, until you dig a little deeper and figure out that Schiller is in fact the source of most of Mailer’s material (the two already collaborated a few years early on a highly speculative Marilyn Monroe biography). Then there’s also the fact that Mailer himself stabbed his second wife and got away with it, plus his role in the bid for parole Of Jack Abbott, a convicted murderer who went on to kill a 22-year old coffee shop employee six weeks after his release from prison…

And if that weren’t already enough, observing the prosecution charting an overnight plane to Denver to overturn a last-minute restraining order and get the execution carried out “on time” is just so baffling and bizarre that I struggle to put it in words.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter Thompson

Uh, so, it’s quite a ride, as you would imagine. There are some incredibly funny scenes, like when Thompson alter ego and his attorney attend a police conference on drugs whilst completely strung out, and it probably does capture the zeitgeist of the early 70s rather well. But overall, not exactly a killer book.

Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

I would judge this the weakest of Eco’s novels that I read, behind the splendid The Prague Cemetery (whose themes it anticipates to some extent) and the world-famous The Name of the Rose. It’s a much more sophisticated version of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, a metaperspective on conspiracy theories rather than an attempt to add yet another fantastical version to the repertoire. I would probably have to be more familiar with Eco’s theory of semiotics (which, I am being told, informs all his writings) to fully appreciate the subtleties of the plot, but I had some fun looking up all the historical characters that appear in “The Plan”. It just didn’t particularly resonate with me.

Herzog, Saul Bellow

The main question I have been asking myself before and while reading Herzog — a question that, to this day, I haven’t been able to answer satisfactorily — is: Say you have a famous author, very prolific, but you only have so much time. Which of their works do you start with? Assume for the moment that there is value in reading these authors rather than their lesser-know competitors (and I think that’s not a completely unreasonable heuristic to go by, since they presumably must have become famous for some reason), should you read their first work? The novel that turned them into celebrities, or the one for which they won some important prize? The book that is held in high esteem by the critics (which?)? The one that a friend recommend, or the one with the best rating on Goodreads? Herzog, marking the turning point for Saul Bellow from impoverished writer to famed artist, seemed like a good place to start, but the novel didn’t do the job for me— and not because I’m opposed to philosophical speculations interrupting the storyline. At this point, I’m unlikely to give Bellow another change, unless someone manages to convince me that he really wrote better pieces than Herzog.

The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Ugh. It started off well enough but got so tiresome over time that I almost put it away halfway through. I started skimming it so heavily that, when I checked the plot afterwards on Wikipedia, I realized just how many relevant details I had missed. It feels a bit silly to read novels in that way (for nonfiction, that’s a different story) and I should have just stopped.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart

Picked up on a whim as a first attempt to see how well audiobooks work for me (okay-ish, probably takes some time getting used to — I tend to get distracted more easily than when reading, and having to press a button to take a break is a bigger inconvenience than I’d expected). The story is largely autobiographical, following a lastborn and his alcoholic mother through the nadirs of 1980s Glasgow as he becomes increasingly alienated from the environment he grows up in. Lots of reviewers emphasize the economic decline of the city during Thatcher’s reforms, but I found this a bit of a stretch — neither does the book suggests the situation is getting worse (it’s pretty much bleak from beginning to end), nor does it hint at how this decay could have been prevented under different circumstances. It is quite beautifully written, not least because it touches on questions of guilt and responsibility only indirectly.

That makes 14 books in total, not too bad and a new record for novels! More to come in a week or two.

Previous editions: 2018, 2019, 2020 (1), 2020 (2)

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Daniel Issing

Book reviews, trail running, physics, and whatever else I feel like writing about.