I read 46 books this year; eight were non-fiction, half as many as last year. This end-of-the year look at what I’ve written about the books reminds me that this was a year of wonderful books that have brought such joy to my life.
About a month after my cataract surgery in August of 2021, I was comfortable reading again. I have found in the last year that books in print are much harder to read, so I have become grateful for the Kindle and audiobooks.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. A book that features a bookstore with a customer so annoying that she continues to be problematic after she dies is going to be a winner for me. One character is Louise, the owner of the Minneapolis bookstore, and yes, Louise Erdrich has a bookstore in that city. Though it was hard to relive the beginning of the pandemic and the George Floyd killing, warmth, love, respect for tradition, and playfulness were present in abundance in this book.
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. This charming tale is set in the mid-80s when François Mitterrand was president of France. He left his hat in a restaurant by mistake and it was taken by a mid-level bureaucrat, Daniel Mercier. He was transformed into a more forceful, successful businessman but left it on a train where it was picked up by a woman who made positive changes in her life. And on it goes.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. This one kept my head spinning: Sunny, a young woman sets out to write a book about a fictitious music duo from the 1970s who are hoping for a revival in 2016. She describes her interviews with everyone who had any connection to the musicians, including a short statement by a current day person, Questlove. Wait, what?
The Promise by Damon Galgut. We learn about all the members of the Swart family in South Africa beginning in the mid-80s during apartheid times through the mid-90s when the country was allowed to rejoin the community of nations. It’s a rare book that can so successfully link the telling of the story of a society to the stories of individual characters.
The Other Madisons by Bettye Kearse. The author’s family admonition was,”Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” Kearse’s mother brought her the box of family history materials when she was 47, married with a daughter and a pediatric practice, so that she could write the book and she did thirty years later. It’s a good one and especially meaningful for me as I live 25 miles from Montpelier and have watched its story evolve over the decades.
The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I found this complicated tale gripping and satisfying. Despite its ludicrous coincidences, I was on board for the whole ride and was pleased to be there.
The Colony by Audrey Magee. Set during The Troubles, the story of an island off the west coast of Ireland that can no longer sustain itself without tourists is interspersed with chapters dryly recounting murders by the IRA and the Ulster Defense Force. An English painter and French linguist each thought they owned those on the island and despised each other. Nevertheless the beauty of the island shines through.
The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter. I don’t read short story collections often, but Jess Walter’s ability to create poignant situations and characters in a few words changes the calculus for me. The beauty of these stories brought me great joy.
The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken. This is a memoir about the author and her mother posing as fiction, or perhaps it’s the opposite, I’m not sure. I loved this book, and this quote is why: “The fictional me is unmarried, an only child, childless. The actual me is not. (The fictional me is the narrator of this book. The actual me is the author. All Cretans are liars; I myself am a Cretan.) No, I’m telling the truth now, I swear. I have a brother, and some offspring, and am married.”
Shutter by Ramona Emerson. I wouldn’t have guessed that a gruesome crime drama would be one of my favorites for the year, but the thoughtful connection between the main character, a young Navaho woman forensic photographer and her grandmother, and the ghosts who insist that she solve the crimes of their murders sealed the deal for me.
Limberlost by Robbie Arnott. This coming of age story is a great one. Ned is a teenager in the countryside in Tasmania during World War II; we learn of the beauty and otherworldlyness of the countryside and the lessons its wildness teaches you. The title was based on that beloved Indiana book of 1909, A Girl of the Limberlost.
Ghosts of New York by Jim Lewis. The collection of vignettes focusing on the seven characters vary in length and the method of writing about them; one was all in the future tense. Their lives stretch over decades but are not told in chronological order. Their connections to each other are tenuous, a gossamer web; sometimes key to the plot, sometimes not. All this kept me pleasantly off balance. And then there are the images of New York City that put you right there.