Starting this post with a little bit of cheesiness:
Writing on RUOT again after a hiatus feels like coming back home after a long day.
You know, one of those days that begin with–
an early morning therapy session (of course, you keep wondering during lunch why on earth you’d do that to yourself) and continue with meetings that draw out for as long as possible followed by an avalanche of emails that demand your blood and soul. Then, you come home, thrilled to shrug off the day. As you collapse into the cozy and cushy couch you share with your cats, you forget the world outside and its demands.
As I sit here today on a Thursday morning in a desperate attempt to carve out some time to write, I feel a similar sense of serenity and ease.
I miss this.
And as I catch a sight of my cat Venus, who is obsessed with nestling behind my laptop and looking out the window only when I’m at my writing desk, I realize that RUOT isn’t the only thing I’ve neglected in the past few months.
So far, 2022, the not-so-new year now, has been uneventful for me; I know this to be a blessing in this day and age. Since January, I’ve been preoccupied with immersing myself in life as I knew it before the pandemic. Except that my life as I knew it no longer existed- I, of course, anticipated this shift. Still, it came as a surprise to find myself surrounded by newness and a collective political angst. Leaving my adopted home when the world was shut down and emerging out of the repressive lockdowns in my old-new country has urged me to turn inwards to engage with life. Not as paradoxical as it sounds, is it?
But here I am, back at my writing desk. For me, that’s what counts. I’ve been working on my novel for a while now, content that I’ve made some progress. Coming to terms with the fact that it will take me a while to complete a rough draft has been liberating. I’ve had to ask myself repeatedly: what is the rush? I’m not competing with anyone. I’d like to enjoy the process. The perfectionist side of me may need more convincing, but overall I feel fulfilled.
Speaking of writing, I’ve also been agonizing over the fact that I didn’t write my 2021 in review post on RUOT this year. I enjoyed starting the tradition last year (see here) so I am here to keep it alive. It is March, I know, but it’s never too late to do anything, right? And this should include writing and posting late review posts-
without further ado, then, here are my favorite books of 2021!
My Favorite Books of 2021
Folklorn (2021) by Angela Mi Young Hur
Angela Mi Young Hur’s second novel novel Folklorn was the first book I read in 2021; in fact, it accompanied me into the New Year. I remember my skepticism as I held the advance reading copy in my hands a few months before its publication day. I hadn’t heard of Hur before, and as a reader who’s not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it’d be worth my time. After reading the first few pages, however, I couldn’t put it down.
Folklorn tells the story of a Korean American family through its protagonist Elsa’s perspective. It is a unique narrative that challenges the dichotomy between the real and the imaginary, symbols and numbers– and truth-telling and tale-spinning. Elsa, a scientist who studies neutrinos, believes that she always chooses science, “for its reliable, stable certainties because the rules and empirical evidence diminished my mother and disenchanted her, got me further from home.” However, as the parallel between her research and personal struggles becomes explicit, so does the close link between the personal and the cosmic. Throughout the novel, Elsa’s desire to contest the perception of neutrinos as monolithic mirrors the curious ways in which she makes sense of her identity. As I discuss in my full reflection on Folklorn, she elucidates her perspective in a research proposal on “sterile neutrinos” as follows:
Neutrinos are also shapeshifters, though in physics we call it oscillation. These “ghost particles” change identities along their lonely, infinite journeys–between electron, muon, or tau. However, we’ve never observed them in the process of transformation.We can only detect and deduce, observing them in one form here, another over there.
She tells her advisor elsewhere:
Even now, neutrinos don’t always abide by the same old rules of the Standard Model, but it’s like we keep forcing them to fit, even though the data shows these anomalies. […] By limiting the neutrino’s story, we’ve constrained our own cosmic existence. But if we can show a fourth state of being for the neutrino to morph into–that would upend everything! We’d have to build a new understanding of physics, a new understanding of the entire universe!
She goes on to explain that:
I always feel like a shapeshifter too-moving across America, across class, from Gardena to my blue-blood patrician schools, and now among the NordicTrackers. But it’s not code-switching–I don’t adapt in order to fit in or translate myself back and forth. I can’t peel off my Asian face anyway. But how else to explain why my skin feels false, ill-fitting or suffocating–depending on which borders and spaces I cross?
Although neutrinos change identities according to the Standard Model, Elsa’s focus shifts to what happens during the process of shape-shifting. She ruminates that the reason she became a physicist wasn’t the curiosity or “the willingness to believe in the unexpected,” but she realizes that something in her is changing; thinking like an artist, a story-teller, makes her a better scientist.
And we, as readers, are here to observe and relish the process of her transformation.
I have three words to describe Hur’s novel: compelling, soulful, and ethereal.
Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is one of the best contemporary novels that represents the human condition in the 21st century. Incidentally, this is the first Rooney novel I’ve ever read, and I was certainly drawn to her unembellished style that anticipates a wide range of themes, from connection/disconnection to beauty, that run throughout the novel.
In thirty chapters that alternate between emails and third-person narration, we follow two close friends who hover around thirty as they grapple with the demands of modern life. Not much happens in the novel, which, for me, worked quite well as I was in the mood for a novel that was intellectually stimulating. As the characters reflect on their day-to-day realities, the narrative dives deeper into the question of what it means to be human in the consistently unstable and chaotic world that we call home.
As I discuss in more detail in my reflection here, Beautiful World is one of those rare novels that help us question our privileges and responsibilities in the globalized world while inspiring us to redefine beauty along the way.
Whereabouts (2021) by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts was originally published in Italian in 2018 as Dove mi trovo ( “Where I find myself”). When the English translation came out last year, I read a review where the novel was described as “the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience.” As a reader who revels in stream of consciousness narratives, I was intrigued.
Like most readers, I was introduced to Lahiri in one of my postcolonial novels/writing classes. Her collection of short stories The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and her first novel The Namesake (2003) revolve around the South Asian immigrant experience in America. Her thematic shift from immigration and cultural identity narratives towards broader questions about existence and belonging thus piqued my curiosity.
Whereabouts, translated into English by Lahiri herself, follows an unnamed narrator over the course of a year—a writing professor in her 40s who is grappling with loss, change, and the consequences of the choices she’d made. As the protagonist meditates on her past and present, quotidian details drive the narrative, and we are offered a glimpse into her routine(s), her job, her relationship with her family, and more strikingly, the way in which she moves through the world.
Perhaps, I was drawn to the narrator as a 32 year old who is following in her footsteps. As a reader, I understood her on many levels. The sense of relief her solitude provides, the sense of acute loneliness it brings at times, the pride of having carved out a sacred space for herself irrespective of societal demands, the fulfillment she draws from writing and reading, as well as from being on the move, made me feel heard and seen, and I’m always grateful when I read a book that understands me.
Isn’t that the reason most of us love reading– to understand and to be understood?
Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now (2021)
by Ece Temelkuran
If there’s one book that one must read in 2021, it’s Ece Temelkuran’s refreshing manifesto/guide, Together which reveals Temelkuran’s approach to surviving (and, dare I say, maybe even thriving) in a post-truth world where the word hope has lost its meaning.
The intersecting threats of the global rise in neo-nationalism, ecological collapse and climate crisis, the avalanche of misogyny, refugee crises, and the recent pandemic, among other things, have left most of us emotionally depleted and stuck. Temelkuran helps us figure out where we can go from here in this age of constant turbulence where “our responses to [various global crises] are becoming contradictory: Earthquake: Get out! Coronavirus: Stay in! Fascism: Get together to stop them! Coronavirus: Stay away from other people!”
For instance, Temelkuran writes in the chapter “Choose to befriend fear”:
Understandably, one of the questions we hear most frequently is ‘Will this ever end?’ This, though, is now our reality, and it encompasses both properly epic fears- such as the predictable apocalypse, a Third World War, or another pandemic- but also more ignoble concerns: terrifying tomatoes, genetically modified to such an extent they might soon bite us back, or a wrathful ex-lover creating a fake social media profile to mortify us for the rest of our days.
In this context, one of the things we can do to cope is to work on accepting our new normal and getting comfortable with it. Embracing the sweet insanity when the reality is too much, Temelkuran suggests, is part of that process that will allow us to not only “survive, but survive beautifully.”
Together is a crucial text that is brutally, lovingly, and magically real. It is the ultimate celebration of our kind and what we can achieve. You can read my full reflection on Together here.
And this brings me to the end of my (late) yearly wrap-up.
As I was reflecting on the books I read in 2021 to choose my favorites, I realized that there were indeed few books that I actually enjoyed.
And as I look at my favorites now, I see that I was primarily drawn to slow-paced narratives that weren’t necessarily plot-driven. In 2021, it seems, I needed and sought intellectually and spiritually stimulating books that supported me as I tried making sense of the past two years. A word that comes to mind in this context is soulful–
from Beautiful World to Together, all four books have truly spoken to my soul, and I know how rare and beautiful such a reading experience can be.
Have you read any of these novels? What did you think? What was your favorite read(s) of 2021? Please share your favorites with me so I can add them to my to-do list.
And I truly hope that 2022 has been treating you well.