I kicked off my 2021 reading journey with aplomb, managing to complete eight books in January. I managed to carry over the momentum I have gained late in 2020. Speaking of momentum, it also got carried over in February as I managed, yet again, to complete reading eight books.
Despite February being the “love month,” I shied away from romance novels and, instead, I read books that were nominated for the (Man) Booker Prize for Fiction. It is one of the most prestigious literary awards and every year since 2018, I have been looking out for the nominees and eventual winners. As a matter of fact, I have read the past four winners (from 2018 to 2020). The literary award is a well of great reads, some of which have become my favorites such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman,, Other and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea.
In 2018 and 2020, I had dedicated at least one month to just reading works nominated for the award. In 2019, I read only previous winners whilst I started 2020 reading works from the 2019 Booker Prize shortlist. Both were wonderful reading journeys that made me look forward to what February 2021 had in store. Without more ado, here are the magnificent reads I had in February.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
2020 Booker Prize Winner. I first came across Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain when the 2020 Booker Prize longlist was issued. The book’s cover first captured my attention. It was then that I added it to my (growing) reading list; I even featured it on my Goodreads Monday post. Reading the book’s synopsis, I was reminded of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (even the black and white cover evoked such imagination). Of course, these two books, though they share some elements, could not be further from each other. Shuggie Bain was supposed to be the story of Shuggie, the son of Hugh and Agnes Bain. Rather than Shuggie, it was Agnes that loomed larged in the story as it was about her addiction with alcohol and how it has affected her and her family. On the backdrop, Stuart wove a vivid image of 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. It was a good story, even though it was more about the mother and despite it suffering from lack of a dynamic plot.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
2020 Booker Prize Shortlist. 2020 was indeed a hallmark year for the Booker Prize. A majority of the longlisted novels were debut novels. One debut novel that has captured my attention was Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I was even more excited when I learned that Taylor and C Pam Zhang, whose How Much of These Hills is Gold was longlisted for the same award and was one of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To, were friends. Just like Shuggie Bain, procuring a copy of the book proved to be a challenge but I was lucky enough to find one in our local bookstore and in February, it was my second read. It relates the story of Wallace, a Black student from Alabama who enrolled in a PhD program of a predominantly white university in a Midwestern town. Taylor captured the feeling of isolation perfectly but I found it a challenge establishing a connection with the main character.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
1982 Booker Prize Winner. Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (published as Schindler’s Ark in the United Kingdom) was my second Booker Prize-winning read for the month. I have heard a lot of good things about the movie which was based from this book. Keneally was inspired to write the book after a chance encounter with Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor, and a Schindlerjude (literally Schindler Jews). However, Schindler is no ordinary hero. Whilst his kindness helped save several Jews from certain death, he was also but another human being – flawed. Keneally made careful note of Schindler’s perversion towards alcohol and women. The novel also explored Schindler’s friendship with Amon Goth, the commandant of Plaszow labor camp. Whilst I admire Schindler’s heroic acts admirable, I found the book tedious. It was more a historical book rather than a literary work but props to Keneally for not trying to fictionalize the novel the way Iturbe did with The Librarian of Auschwitz.
The Gathering by Anne Enright
2007 Booker Prize Winner. From one Booker Prize-winning book to another. I have been hearing a lot of positive things about Anne Enright, an Irish writer (I love Irish prose), but I have never read any of her works before. I did manage to buy a copy of one of her works, The Gathering about two years ago. The Gathering charts the story of Veronica and her large family. Recently, her brother, Liam Hegarty, took his own life in the sea at Brighton. His sudden passing came as a shock to her sister who was closest to him. In the days leading to his funeral, Veronica undergoes a period of rumination where she tried to understand what pushed her brother towards alcoholism and, eventually, suicide. Veronica’s inner turmoil reminded me of one facet that is ubiquitous in some Booker Prize winners – that journey of reflection that inevitably leads to a renewed understanding of one’s person and life.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
1999 Booker Prize Shortlist. It was during a random bookstore escapade that I first chanced on Egypt-born writer Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love. I didn’t have an iota on who she was nor have I encountered any of her works. Nevertheless, the Booker Prize seal on its cover was too tempting for me to resist. Two years after purchasing the book, I finally got the chance to immerse into what it has in store. Divided into two timelines, The Map of Love first charts the story of Lady Anna Winterbourne. In 1901, following the death of her husband, Lady Anna traveled to Egypt where she met and fell in love with Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi, a nationalist loyal to the cause of the country. In 1997, their descendent, Isabel Parkman, traveled from the United States to Egypt to understand her heritage. The political nature of the narrative reminded me of other Egyptian works that also dealt with the country’s tumultuous past and politics.
Waterland by Grahan Swift
1983 Booker Prize Shortlist. During the 2018 Big Bad Wolf Sale in Manila, one of the books that I managed to purchase (because it was sold at a discount) was Graham Swift’s Waterland. I have never read any of his works before and I barely recall encountering his name in must read lists. Nevertheless, I am always one for new adventures. Waterland is narrated by Tom Crick, the headteacher of the history department in a local high school. For over thirty years, he has taught history but his position was compromised by questions on the importance of history and the recent scandal involving his wife, Mary. Before he left his teaching position, he had one final history lesson to teach – the history of the fictional River Leem and how it shaped the history of the Fenlands. Intertwined with this history lesson is the history of Crick’s own family. I like history but I wasn’t as riveted by the story as I expected to be.
Shame by Salman Rushdie
1983 Booker Prize Shortlist. From one history lesson to another. The second novel shortlisted for the 1983 Booker Prize I read in February, Shame is my eight novel from Salman Rushdie. Rushdie has certainly earned a fan in me (especially after reading Midnight’s Children). Shame took pages from the contemporary history of Pakistan. Using his brand of magical realism, Rushdie portrayed the story of f Iskander Harappa and General Raza Hyder, and their friendship. The main theme of the novel, of course, was shame and shamelessness. Shamelessness was portrayed in all characters but was chiefly explored through Sufiya Zinobia, the daughter of Raza Hyder, and Omar Khayyám, the novel’s main character. It was, as always, an interesting take on history that gave me a better understanding of Pakistan’s rather tumultuous modern history. I still recall the feeling of incredulity I had when I heard the new of Benazir Bhutto”s assassination. She was also represented in the narrative through Arjumand Haruppa.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
2002 Booker Prize Winner. I closed February the way I started it – with a Booker Prize winning book. I believe everybody is familiar about Life of Pi because of its movie adaptation; even I was coaxed into watching it by a friend. Even though I was familiar with the movie and the book, I shied away from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (I can’t honestly recall why! HAHA). But when I encountered it in the bookstore, I said why not! I bought it and it formed part of my February 2021 reading month. Pi is the name adapted by Piscine Molitor Patel (he was named after a swimming pool), after he got continuously ridiculed by his peers. The story begun in the Indian special territory of Pondicherry where the Patels run the local zoo. However, after Indira Ghandi’s declaration of “The Emergency”, the Patels carted off their animals and left for Canada. On their way, their ship Tsimtsum sank with only Pi and a motley crew of animals surviving on a lifeboat. Whilst many highlight its exploration of religion, I find the novel elaborating more on harmony.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 4/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 1/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 0/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 16/60
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 5/20
Book Reviews Published in February
- Book Review # 232: The Dutch House
- Book Review # 233: The Glass Hotel
- Book Review # 234: Redhead by the Side of the Road
- Book Review # 235: Shuggie Bain
- Book Review # 236: A Long Petal of the Sea
- Book Review # 237: Northanger Abbey
- Book Review # 238: Woven in Moonlight
- Book Review # 239: The Complete Maus
- Book Review # 240: Beauty is a Wound
The first two months of 2021 were both solid reading months. There were some great books and there were some middling ones. Nevertheless, with 16 books completed, this is my strongest start since I started reading. Apart from that, I managed to cross out some of my pending book reviews from 2020 (I still have about 20 I think). Despite the shortened month, I published one more book review than I have read, which is great. The goals in March are the same as the previous months: a) to read more books; and b) clear those backlogs.
I am hoping to carry over this momentum in March as I travel back (literary of course) to Africa to immerse in its colorful culture, and diverse literature. I have already completed one African work, Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut novel, We Need New Names and I am currently reading another shortlisted work, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. Also in line this month are works of Naguib Mahfouz, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Wole Soyinkan, and Nadine Gordimer. I am looking forward to what they all have in store.
How about you readers? How was your February reading journey? I hope you had a great journey. You can also share your experiences in the comment box.
Happy reading everyone!