Reading in the rain: my books of 2021

This year feels like a long sleepwalk into the minefield of the pandemic. There was the promise of normality: dining in, competitive sports and overseas travel. Sure enough, here we are at the end of the year, in a strange halfway zone where we have the trappings of a new normal but none of the assurances. Pretty much like how the year started.

But life still has to go on.

It’s been a year of changes for me. The biggest change of all: moving on from working on the Covid frontline to a more stable, regular job. There has been no travel since the great closure of 2020, and all the posts about Lebanon you’ll see are backlogged and are only now coming out in words. What I have, though, are a classic of my LJ blogging days: end of the year summaries.

I love books. I read them to escape, to take in new ideas, and since I’ve nothing to do when I’m taking a shit.

In 2021, reading feels very subversive. Reading while getting my vaccinations, the nurse told me, “Wow, it’s been such a long time since I saw a book!” And then there was me, reading fiction in between shifts at the test centre, an effective way to calm down when the country is going through an XX-th wave of Covid-19.

So since I read too much, here are my reflections, a summary of my 2021 in the books I’ve read these past 365 days.

*Like all books I read, these titles can be found in Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) system. 


Blue Sky Kingdom, Bruce Kirkby (2020)

The very first book I read this year was a fitting metaphor of the positivity felt after a year of Covid-19. In this autobiographical travelogue, Kirkby and his family take a break from their stifling, distracting lives to spend several months living in a monastery in the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh, India.

This book tries to do a lot of things. It captures the claustrophobic effect of travelling as a family, the novelty of Tibetian Buddhist customs, the intricacy of religious rituals and a somewhat Eurocentric commentary of encroaching modernity in the remote valleys of Ladakh. It’s an entertaining, sensory overload – the kind you expect when one travels for the first time in a while. However, the ambiguous ending reminds me that not all types of travel is seamless and enriching.


My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit (2013)

I read Shavit’s narrative history of the state of Israel a month or so before the latest escalation between Israel and Palestine took place in 2021. I was seeing Shavit’s fears of dislocation and wholesale victimisation of the Palestinians coming true.

A lot has been said about polarisation in society, especially with the pandemic putting people in digital and cultural silos. Shavit’s book was like peering into the rationale behind why all these terrible things were happening. It certainly gave me context into the cycles of violence and, having been privy to how Lebanese usually see their southern neighbours, it was long overdue to see things in reverse.

I had planned to visit Israel in 2020. The pandemic changed that. This book has charged up my enthusiasm for following up on that plan.


Until We Have Faces: Stories, Michael Nye (2020)

Fiction tells and conveys ideas in ways that reportage, travelogues or biographies can’t. A touch of narrative, good writing and imagination makes fiction sometimes realer than reality.

Nye’s short story collection is not character-focused fiction, but character-driven. They react to social media missteps, to learned helplessness and world-changing events. It’s fitting that, in the title novella, the protagonist takes up a brand new job just when the world heads towards crisis. Surely that premise, so similar to my circumstances in 2021 when I read this book, is why I loved Nye’s storytelling so much.


Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning, Peter Stanford (2021)

With Delta raging, ‘travel bubbles’ closed and no possibility to see new places, my reading seemed to shift from the ‘why’ of travelling sometime in mid-2021.

Stanford’s book was an easy, insightful overview of my recent travelling habits: deliberate, meaningful journeys have much in common with pilgrimages. Our thirst for hiking to the highest places, and how religious places seem to be at the centre of most trips, are perhaps some ways in which our journeys are inspired by a search for deeper meaning.


Persephone Station, Stina Leicht (2021)

Once in a while, I like a good, old-fashioned science fiction story. The Mandalorian meets Seven Samurai, with political intrigue and anthropology thrown in. The ensemble of characters was awesome. An immersive page-turner and a good distraction from the real world.

Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor, Stephen Fabes (2020)

When I picked up Fabes’s book in November 2021, I had my fill of gung-ho Europeans writing about long-term travel, whether they be Levison Wood or Guy Stagg (incidentally, both Brits). I thought Fabes experience as a doctor would influence his writing a bit. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Fabes does write about the social, economic and cultural dimensions of health. But he just holds back on his opinion. I would love to hear his take on developing health in some of the areas he’s travelled, especially now with Covid-19.

The book shone in its last quarter, where Fabes described at length what he did post-travel, and the expectations and feelings he endured. It’s an honest, in-depth assessment of what travel does. As he examines his experience, he concludes that if there’s anything travelling does, is teach us empathy, something desperately needed in the world now. Considering he wrote this just before the pandemic hit, his words are prophetic and ironic – especially when travel is one luxury we can’t afford now.


Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, Nadia Wassef (2021)

I will gladly devour any book that gives me a different take on the Middle East. And though NLB classified this as ‘business’, what an unusual take it was!

Wassef is both a bookseller and a fine storyteller, as she narrates the struggles of growing her independent bookstore Diwan with her partners. It’s not so much a memoir as it is a survival guide; not an entrepreneur’s manual, but a story about problem-solving. Maybe she didn’t intend it to be so, but there’s a lot of good advice about getting through change and re-inventing oneself. As someone now settling down into a new job, I loved it.


Ending 2021

In a year of zero overseas travel, this photo of Changi Point is probably the nicest landscape pic I have

This year, I managed to squeeze in 40 books in between my frontline duties and a switch back to my old field of work. And so, my year in books comes a close.

For posterity, as 2022 rolls along, I do hope for the following:

  • An end to Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) and the resumption of open borders for travel
  • Cheaper, more efficient and less invasive Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Covid-19 tests
  • More writers from beyond Europe and North America to share their stories of long-term travel, bikepacking and vagabonding
  • The Lebanese government to wake up, and end the slow-motion nightmare that is the current state of the country
  • A greater ability to adapt, grow and roll with change

If you’re reading this, have a happy 2022!

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