The continuing pandemic freed up time this year as well, so I read 38 titles in 2021. As always, I won’t make too many promises about what I’ll read in the coming months, but I’ll finish my reread of the Dune series – Chapterhouse: Dune should be one of the next reviews I post. Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, M. John Harrison and Antwerp author J.M.H. Berckmans have become regulars on this blog, and they will remain so.
I’ll continue to read non-fiction too, I’ve amassed a bit more science books than I usually have on my pile – yearly picture below. New additions are books on vision and the brain, oceans and economy. I also hope to finally read Feynman’s QED on light. As for art books, I’m still reading on Picasso, and I’ll try to finally start with Becher or Twombly, long overdue.
Before I’ll get to this year’s favorites, a bit of blog stats for those of you who are interested in such a thing. I’ve again had a significant increase of traffic: 38,763 views and 21,108 visitors – about 16,000 and 8,000 more than in 2020. Lots of that traffic seems to be driven by my writings on Frank Herbert – I guess the Villeneuve movie increased the interest in analysis of his work.
Of the posts I wrote in 2021 Dune: Part One, God Emperor of Dune and The Book of the New Sun were most read: 1567, 1210 and 1106 views. To offer a bit of perspective: last year that top 3 was Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and The Ministry for the Future, and they only got 675, 501 and 363 views.
As for all-time stats, most read reviews so far are those for Dune Messiah (2742 views since published), Recursion (2631) and Piranesi (2255). There’s 14 posts with over 1000 views now, and an additional 23 with over 500 views in total. I’ve been blogging for 6 years, and so far I’ve published 266 posts.
As always, a big thank you to everyone who has read what I write, and an extra special thanks to those that have commented, linked or pressed the like button: much appreciated, it doesn’t go unnoticed. My best wishes to you and yours for 2022 and beyond.
As for the actual favorite book list: below are the titles I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2021, six books in total – the older I get, the harder it seems to become to rate something the full 5 stars. If I had to pick one, I’d go for The Book of the New Sun, an old favorite that held up well to rereading, or maybe Contingency And Convergence – I learned so much from that book.
Honorable mentions for Eschbach’s The Hair-Carpet Weavers, Harrison’s Nova Swing, Robinson’s The Gold Coast, Cook’s The Black Company, Buchanan & Powell’s The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory, Stephenson’s Termination Shock and, in Dutch, Boon’s De Voorstad Groeit. All more than excellent reads, well worth your time.
Click on the covers for the review.
The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe (1980-1983)
What can I say? I reread Wolfe’s magnum opus. I have to admit the book was better in my memories. But memories aren’t trustworthy, and they endowed TBotNS with a near-impossible aura. It remains a rare 5-star read nonetheless. Baffling, poetic, harsh at times. A book that defies analysis or quick description. If you are a serious fan of science fiction or fantasy, you will have to come to terms with it someday – it is one of speculative fiction’s bibles. “Do you think there are answers to everything here? Is that true in the place you come from?”
Perihelion Summer – Greg Egan (2019)
A long novella or a short novel? Understandably, because of its business model, publisher Tor opted for the second choice. By doing so, it did the readers of this little gem a disservice. Expectations matter, and this book shouldn’t be judged as a full novel. Egan fast-tracks climate change by using a black hole that passes through our solar system. But Taraxippus isn’t the focus of this story: instead of a book cramped with math and science, Egan wrote about human reactions. Unsettling. A tense parable for AGW impact events.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld – Patricia A. McKillip (1974)
How to pigeonhole this? High Fantasy? Young Adult? Fairytale? It is all that, but much, much more, and mature at that. McKillip’s first venture in fantasy turns out to be one of the best books – maybe the best – I have ever read to capture some of the essential problems of the romantic relationship. It is beautiful, but also sharp, callous and, at times, dark. This slim, rich, nuanced book is on par with Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Another classic.
James Turrell: A Retrospective – Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim (2013)
A big book that is filled to the brim with light. It offers both the necessary text and images to get American artist James Turrell (°1943) in sharp focus. The number, length, depth and quality of the essays and interviews does its subject justice, even though the pictures only offer a pale copy of what it is to experience Turrell’s light sculptures in real life. That is not the monograph’s fault however, but the inevitable result of the laws of physics.
Contingency And Convergence: Toward A Cosmic Biology Of Body And Mind – Russell Powell (2020)
A book that consumed quite a lot of my energy, in very rewarding kind of way. It tackles a big question, in a rigorous way – don’t expect popular science. “Can we can use the patterns and processes of convergent evolution to make inferences about universal laws of life, on Earth and elsewhere?”
The first part examines concepts of convergent & contingent evolution in the broad sense, focusing on the evolution of bodies. The second part zooms in on minds, and starts with an investigation of senses, as sensing your surroundings is crucial to develop a mind. Powell discusses how animals perceive their surroundings and themselves in those surroundings via sight, echolocation and electrolocation, and what that means for the possible emergence of minds. The last two chapters look at possible evidence on how minds – other than the minds in the brains of terrestrial vertebrates – could emerge from the convergent evolution of bilateral brains and other types of neural clusters, and at evidence from cephalopod and arthropod behavior.
Possibly my favorite non-fiction book, a landmark for all biologists & those researching the mind.
What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics – Adam Becker (2018)
While the question of the title obviously does not get an answer, this book does shoot holes in a lot of so-called established knowledge – most notably Niels Bohr gets a spanking. Becker expertly and entertainingly shows that science is a human affair, and as such prone to social problems: scientific progress is not merely a matter of objective reasoning, especially not in the murky water that is quantum physics. Both a solid overview of the science and possible interpretations of quantum theory, and a sociological history of the workings of the physics field. What is Real? deserves a wide audience, as its relevance surpasses the physics faculties around the world. It’s also a great case study for the philosophy of science.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers was a disappointment too. Not exactly a bad book per se, but the story spectacularly fails Powers’ own goals. I wrote a 3000 word piece deconstructing it. As I’m truly puzzled by its ending, I had hoped to generate a bit more debate on how to interpret the book other than as a defeatist story, but so far that didn’t really happen, so if you’ve read it, don’t hesitate to chime in.
As for the other lengthy posts I’ve written this year, there’s 11,800 words on Heretics of Dune, my longest piece yet, and 8,000 words on God Emperor. I also wrote 5,500 words on Gene Wolfe’s The Book on the New Sun, developing a thesis that Wolfe’s literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. If you’re interested, here’s an index of my longer texts, with a short description for each.
To end the book section, a shot of most of my current TBR – art books are not pictured. The non-fiction titles are in the lower left corner. I hoped to present you a picture with less than 130 titles – there were 132 titles in last year’s photo. Hurray: there’s 128 titles on this picture. If I’m honest 3 books I’ve ordered are on the way, and 3 books I’m currently reading aren’t pictured. On the other hand, 6 of the 38 titles I read this year were rereads, so everything considered 2021 was the first year did I manage to restrain my buying a bit. Next year’s target: 120 books.
If you’d like any of these fast-tracked for a review, don’t hesitate to comment. If you click on it, you’ll get a high resolution image.
notable 2021 albums
It is becoming my new normal: I hardly bought new music in 2021. There’s a few that stick out though:
This is the first Low album I’ve listened to that I actually like. They have been around since 1993 – back in the days of ‘slowcore’. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are husband and wife, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It just goes to show how often one’s conception of the world is wrong, for I did not think Mormons would put out such a contemporary sounding album. It’s fresh, it’s beautiful and it’s brutal. A marriage of pop and noise that succeeds on its own terms. The album is on Bandcamp, and if the first two tracks don’t draw you in, maybe hit repeat. After that, don’t bother.
Metal, as you can guess from Kris Verwimp’s cover. Graveland are from Poland and make Bathory-inspired pagan metal with black metal roots. It is their first true new album since 2013’s Thunderbolts of the Gods. Some people complain that Robert Fudali’s synths make his guitar hard to hear. Apparently that was a mistake in the mix, but I don’t mind. Granted, Hour of Ragnarok is not top-shelf Graveland. That would be Thousand Swords & Following the Voice of Blood, but those albums are so brilliant that even second tier Graveland easily gets a spot in this list. Not that I think every Graveland album is immediately second tier, but this one does the trick for me. As always with something as ethereal as music, it’s hard to exactly explain why. For most extreme metal, it has to do with youthful dreams of power, and a vigorous embrace of reality as it truly is – death and negativity included.
Éliane Radigue – Occam Ocean 3 and Occam Ocean 4 (Shiiin Records)
2021 gave us two albums in the Occam Ocean series on the French Shiiin Records. Radigue, born in 1932, worked as an electronic composer for most of her life, but since 2001 she started composing for acoustic instruments, in close cooperation with her performers. It is slowly changing music, fugitive, focused on timbre and resonance.
I’ve only truly discovered Radigue’s music in 2017, and her work is the most important discovery I’ve made the last decade. Radigue will celebrate her 90th birthday in 2022, and I hope she will continue to be active – even if her age impedes travel, and COVID possibly restricts musicians visiting her apartment in Paris to compose new work together.
Occam Ocean 4 was just released at the end of November, and I’ve listened to it almost every day the last few weeks. Recorded in March 2021, in Karlsruhe, Germany, it has Bertrand Gauguet on alto saxophone, Carol Robinson on birbyné & bass clarinet and Yannick Guedon on voice and viola da gamba. The middle track for solo voice takes some time to get used to, and is also the most suprising one in Radigue’s larger oeuvre, but fits perfectly in between the trio and the duo.
It’s hard to pick between the two, and while they might sound similar upon first glance, there is tremendous variation between these releases. Stunning, just stunning.
If you think John Cage is responsible for unlistenable avant-garde dreck, this set proves that he was no emperor without clothes. A 4-cd set with the number pieces for mid-size ensemble shows Cage in full harmonic force. In that respect, it is not unlike Cage’s other late work – he died in 1992, almost 80.
One of the best releases in contemporary classical music I’ve heard in years, and I’m not the only one to think so: a few reviews here, here and here. This one is particularly in-depth. As always, there’s more information on the site of the consistently excellent label Another Timbre. Slow, soft, thoughtful, beautiful music.
Honorable mentions to Absence by Keith Rowe on Erstwhile Records – a recording of his final live performance in 2015; to twice by Yan Jun & Zhu Wenbo on Erstwhile as well; and to Muto Infinitas by Catherine Lamb – a 50-minute duo composition for bass flute and double bass on Another Timbre.
Also just released are records by Michael Pisaro-Liu and Vanessa Rossetto & Lionel Marchetti: Revolution Shuffle and The Tower (The City), and they might deserve a spot here too, but I haven’t listened to them yet, as they were stuck in customs clearance.
older music discovered this year: highlights
This year my main discovery was the electric work of Miles Davis besides Bitches’ Brew. Somehow that had been a giant hole in my Davis collection all these years. I gobbled it all up in funky feeding frenzy that lasted a few months. I’ll mention On The Corner (what a record), Agharta, Dark Magus and We Want Miles. The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions box set is also worth hunting down.
My interest in Anthony Braxton was also rekindled again – most notably with 2 albums that showcase two very different sides of the composer & multi-instrumentalist. A quiet, delicate side, with a 2017 solo saxophone live recording in Victoriaville, one of only 3 of such performances since 2012. And the bustling, over-the-top side, with the spectacular 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011 on Firehouse Records, 3 cds of a septet with Taylor Ho Bynum, Jessica Pavone, Jay Rozen, Aroon Siegel and Carl Testa. It’s Free Jazz within the boundaries of open composition taken to the extreme, with each of the septet’s members playing iPod too – simultaneously drawing from Braxton’s full recorded oeuvre, resulting in swirls of juxtaposed sound. The fact that they manage to pull off something coherent illustrates their mastery, and the robust versatility of Braxton’s compositional techniques. But I admit it takes a bit of perseverance to get acquainted with this music, because most uninitiated will only hear energetic chaos – not coherence.
As with Miles, somehow I never ventured beyond the first four seminal masterpieces of Swedish extreme metal pioneers Bathory. I remedied that, and I think 1991’s epic Twilight of the Gods might be my most played album of 2021. It’s not as raw as their earlier offerings – even fans of Metallica could dig it.
Finally, there’s New Zealand’s Aldous Harding – an indie-folk singer-songwriter, something of a cross between Nico and White Chalk era PJ Harvey. Her sophomore album Party and her latest Designer (from 2017 and 2019) are corkers. Here are three songs, live on Tiny Desk – authentic theatrics included.
To my surprise s5 of Rick and Morty was excellent – we know what to expect from the show by now, yet most episodes continued to showcase creativity. The third season of Succession didn’t disappoint either, even though at first I felt it to be more of the same – the final half of the season was as spectacular as ever. These two shows prove the familiar needn’t be something inherently negative.
Scenes from a Marriage, a remake of a 70ies Ingmar Bergman series, provided a parable for love in these times: about unrealistic expectations and a disconnect with a healthy, grounded life. It does so just via talking heads. Charles McNulty’s review in the LA Times showcases a similar lack of realism & imagination from his side: as if the couple shown could not exist in reality.
Nothing else sticks out, but I did (more or less) enjoy Mare of Easttown, the BBC’s submarine police procedural Vigil and the Dutch over-the-top crime series Mocro Maffia.
Hockney & Humus x Hortense
I was absolutely blown away by the double exposition by David Hockney in Bozar, Brussels. Works from the Tate Collection, 1954-2017 was nothing less than a career retrospective, and The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 was even more brilliant in a way – even though some detractors can’t appreciate the new medium that is the iPad. I’ve written about two Hockney books here, including one about the 2020 Normandy period.
The same November day we also visited Humus x Hortense in Brussels, a restaurant run by chef Nicolas Decloedt. A couple of the dishes nearly made me tear up – a rare accomplishment. Brilliant food can be so emotional, there’s hardly a thing I like better. The restaurant ended up on the 9th place of some influential yearly list of the world’s best vegetable restaurants.
Such a wonderful day in Brussels deserves a mention in my 2021 round up.