2021 FAVORITES

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.



FAVORITE READS

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 SunThe 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 SummerPerihelion 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 EldThe 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 RetrospectiveJames 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 ConvergenceContingency 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? 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.



I didn’t finish 2 books this year: McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and McDonald’s Brasyl. The worst book I did finish was Tau Zero by Poul Anderson.

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.

TBR Weighing A Pig December 2021



NON-BOOK FAVORITES

notable 2021 albums

It is becoming my new normal: I hardly bought new music in 2021. There’s a few that stick out though:


Low HEY WHATLow – HEY WHAT  (Sub Pop)

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.


Hour of RagnarokGraveland – Hour of Ragnarok  (Forever Plagued Records / White Wolf Productions / The Oath / Inferna Profundus Records)

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.


Occam Ocean 3Occam Ocean 4

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.

Occam Ocean 3 features Julia Eckhardt on viola, Silvia Tarozzi on violin and Deborah Walker on violoncello, recorded in an Italian abbey in 2019 – reviews here and here.

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.


John Cage Number PagesJohn Cage – Number Pieces (played by Apartment House)  (Another Timbre)

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 Lamba 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.


television

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.

pumpkin & mushroom


Here are my previous year-end roundups: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

If you’re interested in my other favorite lists, they’re here.
Here‘s the index of all reviews, alphabetically by author.

Or click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly / philosophical nature.

24 responses to “2021 FAVORITES

  1. 38,975 views. I just wanted to point out that we’re really really close in numbers 🤣
    I need to reread Gene Wolfe. It’s been many years since I’ve read his series. Maybe this year?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That TBR photo, isn’t that the same one you posted last year? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I should do a count and compare the two. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an overlap of 90% or more.

      That pile is the result of unrealistic expectations about my own reading – my taste has evolved more than I expected in a shorter period of time. That and cheap second hand pocket editions, I can’t see a Herbert or a Silverberg title for 4 or 6 euros and not buy it.

      Like

      • Also, the bigger books tend to stick out more easily, and I don’t pick big books as easily, so at first glance it’s just those same titles there again indeed.

        Like

  3. Maybe this is the year I finally get to The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe (1980-1983). I’ve read and reviewed a substantial quantity of his short fiction (and one of his short stories appeared on my best 15 short stories of the year).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would be very interested in your take on BoTNS. It somehow seems to be somewhat different from what you normally read. For starters it looks like fantasy on the surface, and there is hardly a social component, at least not overtly – it seems to be a book outside of time. I have written a bit on Wolfe’s politics in the review for The Knight, I kept away from it in my BoTNS review. I would love to read your take as an historian on it, if you would try to frame the book in its early 80ies origins. But it is weird, dreamlike, original, etc. so it should appeal to you on that front.

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  4. First, congrats on the huge jump in numbers. That is extremely impressive and the staying power of the posts (over 1000 views) is something too. I hope you’re taking pride in your workmanship.

    and I was wicked glad to see that your review of Dune had so many views. Gives me hope that not all movie goers are brain dead filth lovers 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, appreciated. We will see if those numbers will repeat itself this year. My guess is no, as the interest in Herbert might lessen a bit, and I’ve got only one Dune review left anyhow.

      I do take pride in what I do, yes, it wouldn’t be worth doing otherwise. On the other hand, it’s still a small blog with a niche approach, so it’s not that I think I’m changing the world or even fandom here. I still mainly write for myself, as a way to process what I’ve read, and as a diary.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s great to see you having another successful and creative year. Those are impressive stats indeed. 🙂 I haven’t listened to a new Low album in years, although I always play their Christmas album at this time of year. I’ll give the new one a listen. Best wishes for 2022!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit that when I wrote “first Low album that I’ve listened to I liked” that might have been a stretch, as I don’t think I’ve listened to an entire Low album, I just sampled a few songs from a few albums, but was never drawn in. HEY WHAT is very different from their early work, so be warned 🙂

      I will check out that Christmas album, didn’t know that it existed, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s comforting to see that I’m not the only one saddled with a huge TBR (even though my own is in electronic form and does not take up space…), so every time I will feel guilty about it, I will remember your Great Wall of Books… 😉
    Happy New Year!!!!

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  7. Thanks for the reviews. I particularly enjoyed your piece on The Book of the New Sun. I may even finish it this year! Best wishes for the new year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My pleasure! If you do finish it, don’t hesitate to comment with your own take. How far in are you? All the best for 2022!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! I’ve read the first two volumes but haven’t progressed rapidly. I read the first 4 or 5 years ago and the second one 2 years ago. I haven’t felt compelled to crack through them and find the works themselves—beautifully written—encourage one to take it slow and linger in any case. Still, no excuse for not getting to the end of the first sequence, so yes, I will endeavour to finish them this year…

        Liked by 1 person

        • In my experience they enhance eachother, so you should be in for a treat. Reading Ada Palmer´s debut atm, and it seems that serie is similar: intricate & meticulous world building that takes its time to blossom, and a close attention to writing style that encourages slow reading.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for the year-end wrap-up. On top of the books, I especially appreciate the music. Like all cultural artifacts these days, there is sooooo much music on the market. Rather than standing in a music shop with a finite number of choices before us, we are swimming in an ocean of choice. It’s always good to have someone who can point in the direction of a landmark or two to see how things sound.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very welcome, it’s always fun to write. And thank you too, I just saw your posts, I’ll add the Suzuki to a digital shopping basket for sure, and check out the novel of Elizabeth Hand, and the Brian Ruckley – a new name for me. What is true for music is true for books too, and I’m glad there are a few trustworthy people online that manage to read a much bigger chunk of what is published each year. I think I only read 2 fiction titles of 2021.

      As for music: I’ve been a voracious listener since my teens, but the last 5 years or so been less and less inclined to check out new stuff. Most of what I listen to is fringe for most people, some of it extremely so, but some of the things I listed should appeal to anyone with a bit of an adventurous taste. At least, I hope so.

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  9. Wow, congrats on those stats, Bart!!! That’s very impressive!
    It also gives me some hope for the state of internet and mankind, as your reviews tend to be even longer and more exacting than mine, and I’ve heard my share of “why don’t you write easier” stuff 😉
    Bitches Brew brings fond memories. While not my favourite, it has for me a kind of special synergistic energy and the assurance of an accomplished master.

    That TBR is huuuge! Can’t believe you actually have physical copies of all those books.

    Congrats on a great reading and blogging year, and all the best for 2022, Bart!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really? You’ve had people asking you write easier stuff? If you don’t mind to elaborate, in what context was that? Still, this blog remains niche, and the question obviously is whether all those people have actually read those long Herbert reviews fully. But I can’t say I’m not happy with the traffic, it’s encouraging indeed. On the other hand, I’ll be glad to start Chapterhouse in a few weeks and be done with that project, it has consumed quite a lot of energy. I hope Chapterhouse doesn’t need a long review – my guess it’s just Heretics 2, so I can just leave it at that and not repeat myself. 🙂 I might do one more full series retrospective post though, we’ll see.

      As for that TBR, most of those are second hand finds, and especially the vintage paperbacks haven’t cost that much. It’s also the result of over 7 years collecting, so in that light it’s not that big. I’m sure there are people with much bigger piles. On the other hand, it’s also a bit of a wall of shame, as it’s also a testament to my inability to restrain buying and maybe more importantly be a realistic judge of what I’ll read or not. I’m pretty sure I won’t read half of them ever, as my tastes evolve, etc. But I’ve learned that now, and I’m less of an impulse buyer today.

      As for Miles: I have lots of favorites, depending on mood. Definitely a master – I think because he is so well know sometimes people forget how special is overall output is.

      Best wishes to you too, Ola!

      Like

  10. I was glad to see The Book of the New Sun on your list. I have very fond memories of that one, which I read in a two book version. I keep thinking I’d like to reread it one of these days, so I’m happy you rated it 5 stars even as a reread. And we share a number of books on our TBR. Three that quickly stood out that have been sitting on my shelves unread for far too long are Latro in the Mist, The Dervish House, and The Years of Rice and Salt. I also have some Guy Gavriel Kay, though I don’t recall now which ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pretty sure you’ll like it a lot when you reread it too – it’s the kind of book that merits a rereading.

      I’ll read Latro one day, but I think my Wolfe for this year will be Urth of the New Sun and maybe The Wizard, and that will be about it. But next year… We’ll see how it goes. As for the McDonald, I’ve tried Brasyl in 2021 and DNFed, so I’m a bit reluctant to start Dervish House, even though I think it will be a better read. As for KSR, I’ll first read Pacific Edge to finish that trilogy, probably somewhere in February, but after that it might very well be The Years of Rice and Salt, and since I try to read 2 or 3 of his books each year, chances I’ll read it somewhere in the summer. I’ll keep you posted!

      Liked by 1 person

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