Favorite Books for 2021


This year I read 43 books, fewer than usual. Though I recovered quickly from cataract surgery, I wasn’t comfortable reading for a month. I read 16 non-fiction books; perhaps the higher percentage of non-fiction this year and last will continue.

Intimations by Zadie Smith. The author wrote this short book of essays in May 2020 and noted that many books would be written about the pandemic. In those early days she wrote that she read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations with the attitude she brought to reading instructions for putting together a flat-pack table. I have listened to the book (read by her) several times and find joy and some comfort.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride. Set in Brooklyn projects in 1969, the characters abound:  Bum Bum, Sportcoat, Hot Sausage. The confluence of hilarious set pieces, brilliant plot twists, and an unambivalent look at racism was wonderful to behold.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. This close reading of seven Russian short stories forms the basis for a course he has taught to MFA students at Syracuse University for many years. It’s brilliant as well as fun, especially if you don’t have to take the exam.

Tangled Up in Blue by Rosa Brooks. What impelled this Georgetown Law School professor to become a volunteer D.C. policeman has been hard for her to explain. Fortunately she decided to write a book and the message for me was that the training police receive creates situations that makes them more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. As I was reading this book, it was chosen for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two stories intersect; one is about Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who did in fact derail the work of Senator Arthur Watkins to undo treaties with the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, the other features an appealing young woman who displays great cunning and determination to care for family members.

Here We Are by Graham Swift. The main action occurs in the late 1950s in a vaudeville show at the end of the Brighton Pier, but the story reaches back to wartime Britain and forward to near the present day. I applied the word “enchanted” to the story.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. This fictional book features the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary with women’s viewpoint at the forefront of that work and the events of the time, late 19th through the early 20th century.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. Visits to seven historical sites reveal how the story of slavery is told. For me the most poignant was a visit to Monticello; there and in one other location the narrative has changed but visits to other sites were discouraging. Smith is an appealing and clear narrator.

The Magician by Colm Tóibín. The fictional account of Thomas Mann’s life gives us both the personal story of a unique talented person and a German man’s perspective on Germany in the 20th century. There were many anecdotes that surprised me. Maybe you too didn’t know that Mann’s older brother wrote the book that Marlene Dietrich’s movie The Blue Angel, was based on.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. It was the magical calming effect on me of the story of a man in his mid-50s whose life was filled with rage and grief set in the Netherlands that I can’t explain. At the time I was reading it, I was waking in the night and found this book to be a balm.

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. The novella in this book of short stories was a brilliant debut for this Charlottesville writer. It managed to be both polemical about race and have a vibrant compelling story.




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