Best Books Read in 2021 Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year

In 2021 I read approximately 80 books. Less than in 2020 which was an exceptional year, when reading basically replaced external social activity and travel.

This year I’m sharing the best reads of the year over three separate posts; the overview and bigger picture seen from the stats here in Part 1 + My One Outstanding Read of the Year, Top Fiction Reads in Part 2 and Top Nonfiction in Part 3. And a few special mentions along the way.

Christmas reads literature in translationMy habit and ritual is to read a book a week, to read half an hour every morning and every evening, without fail. Now that I’m no longer required to fulfill the needs of little people in the early morning, a few pages accompanies my hot beverage to start the day and is like a reliable sedative that ensures I fall into easy sleep at night.

This year, it turns out I read a book and a half a week.

This change in rhythm and habit may explain why I’m reading more nonfiction, less escapism and imagination, more contemplative immersion.

Writing about reading is not only a pure joy it’s a way of decluttering; write a review, get rid of a book off the shelf, donate to the vide grenier!

So thank you to those who read and share the fun with me and apologies for email subscribers if I fill up your inboxes too rapidly at times.

The Stats

Over the years, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more women authors, to reverse a subconscious trend that had been occurring based on the exposure to reviews in traditional types of media. So now you could say I have a conscious bias towards women authors, this year representing 86%.

I know I’m missing out on some great storytelling, but I’ve become a little bit of a literary activist in this respect, so while Dalmon Galgut, the South African writer won the Booker Prize this year, I’m less likely to read The Promise, instead favouring another South African author Sindiwe Magona and her twin autobiographies, To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow, two exceptional titles that deserve to be more widely known and read.

Reading Around the World

In 2021, I read books from 28 different countries, 87% of them were written in English and 13% translated from other languages. As you can see from the pie chart above, the Anglo-Saxon countries continue to dominate, although there was a much greater focus on Ireland than the UK, due to participating in the Brian Moore 100 read along.

The countries where authors originated from were US, Ireland, UK, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, New Zealand, Argentina, France, Canada, Uruguay, Italy, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lebanon, Jamaica, Zambia, Haiti, Chile, Antigua, Iran, Guadeloupe, Mexico, Kuwait, Hong Kong, Trinidad, Colombia, Japan.

Women In Translation

Best Reads of 2021At 13%, this was down on 2020 when 32% of my reads were in translation. This year I spent July/August focusing on a personal writing project so I didn’t participate in the usual Women in Translation August reading challenge.

Below, the breakdown by region.

Read Around the World 2021

Fiction Rules, Nonfiction Rises

Being a big fan of fiction, I was surprised to see this year that my nonfiction reads increased from 30% to 35%. It’s been a struggle to come up with a limited shortlist of favourites, as there were so many!

I read more multiple books by the same authors this year, for example in Nonfiction Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) and Deborah Levy (South Africa/UK), while in Fiction Brian Moore (Northern Ireland) and Sara Baume (Ireland).

Audio Books, E-Books, Paperback or Hardbacks

This year 78% of my reading came from off my bookshelf while 21% were e-books I read on a kindle.

Best Reads of 2021

There has been a significant upward trend in the reading/listening world towards audio books, a change I have not jumped into. I do have a daily half hour commute, but it’s through the countryside of Provence and being present to the local landscape is a pleasurable, mindful lead-up to the work I do.

I think it is interesting and encouraging though, that many are rediscovering literature through having someone read to them aloud, something that each generation has valued, from the radio listening days before television, to podcasts to audiobooks, not to mention the nostalgia of childhood, having stories read to us. I can still remember the excited anticipation of sitting on the mat in primary school, at that hour of the day that the teacher would continue with a longer story that was being read to the class.

What Mood of Book Do We Gravitate Towards?

There’s a new app for storing your reading library called The Storygraph. It’s interesting though I don’t think it matches what I get from Goodreads yet, but one thing it does is analyse your reading by mood and pace. So I have discovered that I tend to read more slow and medium paced books, only 2% are fast paced! So it appears I’m fast at reading slow paced books and slow at reading fast paced? Here’s the breakdown for 2021.

Mood of Book 2021

The three main moods of the books I read according to this are Reflective, Emotional and Challenging!

Outstanding Book of the Year 2021

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAnd so to my One Outstanding Read of the Year, which thinking about it, combines a little of everything that appeals to me.

It is fiction, but based on the real life of a woman, so it has the best of what fiction offers through being able to reimagine a voice and the authenticity of nonfiction in using the life, the achievements, the poetry and self expression of a woman to channel her story. And it takes me to another country and culture, to open the mind and yet observe the universal.

Beyond Black There is No Colour : The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener not only is my favourite and One Outstanding Read of 2021, but surely it is one of the least publicized and underrated books of the year.

Forough Farrokhzad, poet, mother, feminist, film-maker, radical, was one of the most iconic dissenting voices in modern Iranian history.

Maryam Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life, loves and losses, in a way that no woman in her country before her had ever dared.

At only 150 pages, Diener has chosen certain events in Farrokhzad’s life from her childhood, marriage, her success with poetry and its contribution to the dissolution of her family life, her love for her son and the way she pours herself into her creative output, including film.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

It’s Outstanding and like nothing else I have read this year. This is the one slim book that rises to the top of the pile for me, one that haunts the reader, that leaves a legacy, that cuts a path for other women to step in to and follow.

And so next up My Top Fiction so 2021…

Did you have one book that stood out from all the rest this year? If so, share it in the comments below.

Beyond Black There Is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener

I’m often on the lookout for the little known female voices outside the mainstream, some will be in translation, titles and authors I haven’t heard of, women who have lived a different experience, shared their insights, who might have left earlier lives behind, who illuminate stories that deserve sharing.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Books We Burrow

The Story of Forough Farrokhzad

And so I stumbled across the Iranian writer Maryam Sachs, whose book Without Saying Goodbye (2009) had been translated into English from French Sans te dire adieu, about an Iranian exile living in Paris working in a bookshop.

I then learned her name had changed to Maryam Diener and she had written a book about the iconic feminist Iranian poet and film maker Forough Farrokhzad, Beyond Black There is No Colour (2020).

So here is one writer who left an earlier life, writing about another who was pushed from hers, but who enabled through her poetry and film, other Iranian women to dare to express their own sincere thoughts and words.

Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life and loves and losses, in a way that no woman before her had ever dared.

She sought expression for her depth of feeling, wanted to talk about it with others, and would also follow that same passionate way of being in the world into film making, casting aside more structured plans, to again follow her heart and allow others to have voice through her work.

Forough Farrokhzad, The Rebel Poet of Iran

Rebel Poet of Iran feminist revolutionaryFarrokhzad (1935-1967) published poems that radiated sensuality, plunging depths of emotion, challenging the patriarchal conventions of society and transcending the acceptable boundaries of women’s expression, let alone commit to paper and public record. She wrote of love without shame, removing the invisible but ever present mask the culture adorned women with.

It brought her into the limelight very early on, but also exposed her to jealousy and judgement as her work sparked controversy inside and outside intellectual circles, with dire consequences on her marriage and family relations.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

Book Review

This slim 150 page book is split into 7 parts, part one taking up the first 50 pages encompassing her childhood, her marriage, her early success with poetry and its role in the dissolution of her relationship. What really brings the entire book alive is the use of the first person narrator, the “I” voice.

Diener has raised the voice of Forough Farrokhzad and rather than talk about her, steps aside with the utmost respect and allows her to speak to us of her life.

The book opens on the day Forough is on her way to the UK Embassy to pick up her visa. She is wearing big sunglasses and an old dress that belonged to her sister Pouran, one that makes her feel protected because it belonged to her closest sibling. As she pauses in front of her favourite shop and admires the notebooks and pens displayed in the window, writers will recognise the yearnings of a lover of words.

At the sight of the notebooks lined up in the window I feel the same flurry of anticipation for clean pages, fresh ink and new beginnings. If only I could crack myself open like a new book, and know that there were hundreds of blank pages waiting to be filled.

Alarmed, she suddenly sees her ex-husband and forgets her task and begins to follow him, leading us to a moment of humiliation by a man exhibiting his power and revenge over a woman and thus we learn of the terrible estrangement and loss of custody of her little boy, whom this man forbids her to see, ever.

My sin was to pursue a career as a poet and to desire an identity beyond that of wife and mother. As a result, I am not worthy of being a significant part of my son’s life anymore. I was written off for daring to believe I could exist as an individual rather than simply an extension of my family.

Family Influence Can’t Stifle Creativity

Her father was an army colonel and managed his family like a troop of soldiers, including the morning exercises. However it was he who attached great importance to education and inspired her love of literature.

I had an urge to mark myself as different, and to say exactly what was on my mind. I constantly wanted to show my father that I was an individual with thoughts and feelings, rather than just a soldier following his orders.

Her sister was two years older and married at 18 and it was at this wedding that she met Parviz. Their meeting, connection and early period of being together seemed so promising, despite her father’s reluctance towards the match.

It was this transfer of her affections to this man she would marry that inspired her early poems, however once married and living in her husband’s family home she would encounter the disapproval of her mother-in-law who thought she ought to give up personal ambitions and literary expression. The poems rapidly found an audience, acclaim in literary circles but also attracted malevolent gossip, which her husband began to listen to (along with his mother) and eventually resulted in divorce.

My poems spoke the truth – they were how I lived – whereas other poets tried to apply the morals set by society and religion. I saw new possibilities for Persian poetry.

The Poet Becomes Film Maker, A New Medium for Her Message

The middle parts are often only a few pages long, marking various transitions in her short life, her nine months in Europe when she flees Iran enable her to gain a different perspective but also make her realise she can’t be away from her family and her son.

Her return and a job interview with The Golestan Film Unit introduces her to her great (but complicated) love; her moving from secretarial work into the creative aspect of film making bring her the opportunity to direct and produce a documentary about a colony of lepers, her award winning film The House is Black (1963). (It won the Grand Prize for documentary film in the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1963).

While the men wanted a film to break down people’s fear of leprosy and awaken the governments responsibility to them, Forough had additional ideas.

Although it would be about the leper colony of Bababaghi, the film would also explore the fact that great trouble and suffering is caused when we reject certain parts of ourselves and bury our unwelcome feelings, rather than facing up to our problems and searching for a solution. The story of a community being rejected due to a lack of access to proper medical help would draw wider attention to how societies are willing to condemn anything that is different to themselves, rather than to confront their fears of the other.

Once they walked around and engaged with people her ideas continue to evolve, abandoning the script and deciding instead to dedicate their time to just that, meeting and engaging with people, experimenting with editing and expressing social upheaval in a documentary style, creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, allowing for flexibility. Her experience at the leper’s colony became even more personal when she adopted a boy from one of the families living there.

She achieves a level of social critique in the film by never directly staging or directly naming an image in the text. The absence of the words leprous, leprosy or leper is turned on its head when coupled with photography. While leprosy is never directly named in the poetry, its symptoms are: inertia, indecision, stagnation, empty desires – in short, the same symptoms she sees plaguing her society. Social ills are shown by way of visual metaphor. Roxanne Varzi

Thirty-one years after its release in 1962, in 1993, The House is Black would win the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival. The following words of her poetry accompany part of the film, heard/seen here in the trailer.

There is no shortage of ugliness in the world

If man closed his eyes to it, 

There would be even more.

Who is this in hell

Praising you, O Lord?

Who is this in hell?

Our being,

Like a cage full of birds

Is filled with moans of captivity.

Like doves, we cry for justice…

And there is none.

We wait for light

And darkness reigns.

Forough Farrokhzad Beyond black there is no colour

Photo by Cliford Mervil on Pexels.com

It is in this film that darkness sets the mood of isolation, beyond the closed door where these people live, far from everyone else, disconnected from society, out of reach of people’s understanding.

Blackness will be a leitmotiv that thread and echoes between different scenes. There is an expression in Farsi that says, ‘Beyond black there is no colour.’

The Joan of Arc of Modern Persian Poetry

The book is absolutely wonderful, a heartfelt tribute to an astonishing woman, one of those souls whose life was cut short, just as she was making headway, but also with that characteristic of certain extraordinary beings who come into their human lives for a short period, who work prolifically from a young age, creating an abundant output, as if they know that the window of opportunity for them is short, and there is no time to waste.

Highly Recommended.

Forough was the Joan of Arc of modern Persian poetry. Many worshipped her, but at the same time her bold rebellious voice angered male critics. She talked openly about her feelings and desires, challenged the repressive norms and expressed her despair about the social system of Iran. For more than a decade, she was the centre of controversy. The day she was killed in a car accident at the age of 32, the whole country mourned her loss. She became a cultural martyr, a myth, a sacred figure, the most beloved, respected and popular modern poet. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Purchase a copy from an independent bookstore in the UK here

Further Reading

Interview: A 4 minute introduction to Forough Farrokhzad by Sholeh Wolpé

The Paris Review: Feminize Your Canon: Forough Farrokhzad by Joanne Scutts, Nov 19, 2020

Guardian Article: Former lover of the poet known as Iran’s Sylvia Plath breaks his silence by Saeed Kamali Dehghan

New York Times: Overlooked No More: Forough Farrokhzad, Iranian Poet Who Broke Barriers of Sex and Society By Amir-Hussein Radjy

Film Review: The House is Black -The Other Face of Beauty by Karthik Keramalu

Pictura Poesis: The interplay of poetry, image and ethnography in Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black by Roxanne Varzi