My Year in Books: 2021
A few years ago I started writing a late-December recap of my reading from the previous year. Here are the links to the entries from 2017, 2018, 2019, the first half of 2020, and the second half of 2020.
In 2021, I read 44 books. Tracking and reporting on the number of books I read in a year is somewhat useful, but only “somewhat”. For me, it tells me that I had a pretty good reading year in 2021. However, being overly focused on the number of books we read can lead us away from big books. Some books I read this year were long and took a while to read (e.g. East of Eden/Steinbeck), and some were short (e.g. poetry anthologies).
For the second year in a row, I tended more toward fiction rather than non-fiction. As always however I sought to flex across a range of genres.
If you’re looking for book recommendations please visit my “Great Books” list here. Some of these 2021 books will be added to that list.
Without further ado, here’s my list of the 14 best books I read among the 44 in 2021, with another 12 in the Honorable Mention category at the bottom.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles — Last year I read Towles’ masterpiece “A Gentleman in Moscow” (and added it to my Great Books list). His newest book, “The Lincoln Highway”, hit the shelves this year. I loved the wise-beyond-their-years characters and the narrative voices (jumping between 3rd person and 1st person) that added humor, poignancy, and heartache to this story of a juvenile delinquent, his little brother, two friends, and their chaotic journey in 1950’s America.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro — One of two titles on this list from the Nobel Prize author. It’s hard to read a “best books of 2021” list this year without seeing this newest novel from Ishiguro, a tale told in a dystopian future where lonely children can purchase and befriend robotic “Artificial Friends”. The story focuses on one such friendship, and gives us a possible glimpse into an AI future where — like today — people struggle with loneliness.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen — If you’ve never read a Franzen book, this is as good a one to start with as any (particularly because it is intended to be the first book in a trilogy). This one is centered on a family in suburban Chicago in the 1970s. The father of the family, Russ is a semi-disgraced associate pastor at a local church. Russ, and his family around him, spin out of control with various challenges arising from mental illness, loss, drug use, adultery, and…well, it goes on. Sometimes I hate the profound dysfunction in the characters in Franzen’s novels, but I had several laugh-out-loud moments because he is so adept at weaving stories of human failure with biting commentary and wit. Like Klara and the Sun, this book is on many, many “best books of 2021” lists.
One Two Three by Laurie Frankl — A powerful work of fiction set in a small town that has suffered from an environmental disaster. My wife and I were in a bookstore in Petoskey, Michigan and struck up a conversation with a customer from Ohio who, like us, was visiting the area. We got to talking about book clubs and she said this book had been a big hit with their club, so my wife bought it, read it, and recommended it to me. I thought it was outstanding and reminds me of how much writing talent there is in the world.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent — This book was published in 2009, so it’s not a recent release. Like One Two Three above, this book is somewhat tied to a trip my wife and took this year. We were in New England and stopped by Salem, MA, site of the infamous Salem witch trials. This book, told from the vantage point of a young but wise girl during that time, gives a glimpse into the hysteria that gripped a town in the most asinine and tragic of ways. I couldn’t help but see some passing similarities between the events in the book and various hysterias in the modern world. I just loved this book.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro — I was on a bit of a “classic literature” kick over the summer, reading stuff from Melville, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc, but couldn’t bring myself to devote the time necessary to read gigantic books like “Anna Karenina”. Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” (later made into a movie) was on several “best classic literature” lists, and I decided to read it — perhaps my best book decision of 2021. This is a story of, and narrated by, Stevens — a butler in an English manor who is struggling with the changes that are happening after the war (namely, the idea that manors with butlers are increasingly a thing of the past). He has profound difficulty understanding his new (American) employer’s strange use of light-hearted banter (“I should point out that just such bantering on my new employer’s part has characterized much of our relationship over these months- though I must confess, I remain rather unsure as to how I should respond.”). More tragic is his inability to acknowledge his feelings for a female colleague who left “the service” but who he believes may be willing to return.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir — A new book from the author of the runaway success “The Martian” (later made into a blockbuster movie with Matt Damon). Weir once again gives us a gripping story set in deep space, but manages to introduce dialogue and drama despite the total vacuum. This is a great read.
Via Negativa by Daniel Hornsby — I don’t know if I can improve upon this description of the book on its Amazon page: “A heartfelt, daring, divinely hilarious debut novel about a priest who embarks on a fateful journey with a pistol in his pocket and an injured coyote in his backseat.”
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy — A beautifully written novel about a wildlife researcher who is tracking the migratory journey of the last of the Arctic terns in a future world impacted by climate change. As you might imagine in a well-written novel, the theme of “migration” applies to more than just the birds she is tracking. If the idea of bird tracking seems too sedate for your reading tastes, know that this is a rollicking adventure set at times on the high seas, complete with storms, rough deckhands, and a brutal crime. Buckle up and enjoy the journey, but remember to be vigilant to the themes that are always lurking just below the surface of the story.
The Deep Places by Ross Douthat — I’ll read most anything from Douthat, who is one of those writers who makes me feel stupid while I’m reading him, but in sort of a good way. This deeply personal book covers his harrowing — I can’t think of a better word for it — experience battling Lyme disease. Ross has talked about how the “kingdoms” of the well and the ill are very separate from one another, and those in one kingdom have difficulty conceiving of life in the other kingdom. The book also shows the degree to which medical science often doesn’t have answers to confusing, debilitating conditions. Douthat writes about the seemingly crazy lengths he goes through to get well, and the deeper spiritual insights that often are part of human suffering.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis — Michael Lewis is one of the authors who I will read anything they write. He has a way of covering a story through the lens of incredible people he interviews over many months, giving us a glimpse into huge stories through the actions of those who were/are at the epicenter. Other Lewis books you may be familiar with include “Moneyball” (financially engineering efficient baseball teams) and “The Big Short” (the irrational mortgage industry’s contribution to the 2008 recession). This book is about the early warning signals that were detected — and in many cases ignored — about the COVID 19 pandemic. As usual, this Lewis book entertains and informs. Postscript: Shortly after the book was released, Lewis and his wife suffered the most unimaginable loss a parent could suffer. This podcast episode with Andrew Sullivan is a great discussion about the book, how Lewis does his work (fascinating), and a raw discussion about the tragedy his family suffered and the nature of grief. I recommend it.
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant — This is a great example of a form of non-fiction I like — the combining of research and story-telling to give us insights in how we behave, and how we can do our best to steer around the many quirks and bugs inherent in the human mind. Many of us accept that a healthy mind will occasionally revisit assumptions rooted in the past, but just as many of us fail to push ourselves to — as the title indicates — “think again”. Being able to re-think and un-learn in a dynamic world is one of the cornerstones of wisdom.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs — I have read a few books written by Alan Jacobs — How To Think is a good one and not dissimilar from Adam Grant’s book above. In addition to his books, I enjoy Jacobs’ weekly email highlighting a few of the latest posts from his blog, which regularly serves up his interesting takes on whatever is interesting him at the time. The title of this book describes its contents — an ode to reading, it’s many benefits, the premature predictions of its demise, and ways in which you might get re-energized if your own reading habit has waned over the years. Jacobs is a professor, incredibly well-read (as you would imagine) and is able to weave all sorts of interesting insights into his writing.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson — This is another great book from a great author. You would think — or I would, anyway — that there is nothing new that could be written about Winston Churchill and the bleak era during WW II. But this book from Larson is highly readable, deeply informative, and was on a million different “best non-fiction” book lists after it’s release in early 2020. It took me about a year to finally read it and I enjoyed every page.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (no links)
- The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova
- A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
- Whale Day by Billy Collins
- How To Avoid Climate Disaster by Bill Gates
- Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (a re-read, this is on my Great Books list)
- How to Grow Old by Cicero
- The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
- High Conflict by Amanda Ripley
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
- The Confessions of St. Augustine (a re-read, on my Great Books list)
- Redeployment by Phil Klay