My Favorite Books of 2021
These are the books I actually read this year, even if they were all written earlier than 2021.
Let’s start with the novels:
“Brooklyn” is a slim book that provides a beautifully textured portrayal of life in early 1950’s New York City. The story’s protagonist is a timid young Irish woman named Eilis who goes to Brooklyn for work and grows into herself, landing in some romantic hot water. I had to put the book down at certain points towards the end and walk away from it because Eilis was driving me crazy with her decision-making. But I loved her character, and this book!
This book was phenomenal. Short and so well-written. It’s about two young people who could be together in a durable relationship, yet mistaken assumptions and a fear of vulnerability consistently disrupt their connection. I read nothing for several days after I finished this book, because I just kept thinking about it.
Unlike my first two novels, this book is long and tracks an epic journey. But wow, does it take you to another world — mostly the small towns of Virginia and North Carolina during the Civil War. I started this book over a decade ago and put it down, but picked it up again because I remembered the writing was superb. And reading it this time around confirmed my previous impression — the sentences and imagery are gorgeous. The central theme here is a love story between Inman, a wounded Civil War veteran, and Ada, an aristocratic woman who moved to his hometown, though I actually found the most interesting storylines in several other sub-plots — in particular the dynamic between Ada and her “ranch-mate” Ruby.
The Irish writer William Trevor is probably my favorite author. He died five years ago, but I still read a novel of his every other year, and this year I read this one. The story depicts an intimate glimpse of an evil man’s attempt to lure an innocent woman to her death, and for much of the novel I just felt like I didn’t want to spend time with such grimness, however well-crafted Trevor’s work is. BUT…the final 10–15 pages were stunning. They flipped things in a way I did not see coming with a glimpse of how joy and redemption can persist in the most bleak and evil circumstances. Trevor is a a master storyteller.
This is a fast read that puts a young girl into the center of a traditional western thriller. No great insight into life here, since like most westerns the whole ride is wildly implausible. But there is a lot of crackling dialogue and overall terrific entertainment. I will definitely be giving this book to my daughters when they turn 15 — the main character Mattie Ross is a force of nature.
I haven’t technically finished this book yet, but it’s early December so I know I’ll do so before the year is up. How do I know I won’t put it down? Because this is my 4th time reading this book. I hated this book the first time around in high school because I didn’t understand it (17 years old). I loved it in college, reading it on my own after a professor taught my class Austen’s Persuasion (22 years old). I read the novel again in an adult night-class at Stanford and loved it even more, under the guidance of a professor who layered in terrific historical context and even a compelling Marxist interpretation (28 years old). And of course reading it now, Pride and Prejudice is again fantastic (43 years old). I don’t have room to discuss it all here, but even if the Elizabeth-Darcy romance is a bit old news at this point, I’m newly appreciating the subtlety of some of the subsidiary elements, like Elizabeth’s relationship with her best friend Charlotte.
Now to the non-fiction:
Vivian Gornick was 80 years old when she published this book a few years ago. I’m almost 44 now, and I think she’s become my role model for how to age, let alone how to write. I adore this style of writing — a mix of present day musings, dissections of past relationships, open expressions of pride and anxiety about how she has lived her life. Not everything lands for me, but why would it? She’s a socialist woman in Manhattan who has led a pretty different life from me. Yet somehow her orientation towards life and writing speaks to me on a fairly deep level.
Two books from the same author! First off, I really love the structure of how Abigail Thomas crafts her books. Similar to Vivian Gornick above, Thomas writes in short sketches that go all over the place. Some chapters are one paragraph long, and none are more than three pages. She writes wonderfully about past romantic relationships — several of which were difficult experiences. She possesses a remarkable willingness to look at her life candidly, and these books are full of insights about family, friendship, and other random things.
A very good book about the life of an artist. I’ve always liked both of Jeff Tweedy’s bands (Uncle Tupelo and Wilco), yet surprisingly this book didn’t make me want to go back and listen to them. Rather, I liked the book instead for its honest treatment of his own challenges- particularly his pain killer addiction — and the glimpse it gave into the life of someone who creates music. I also like how Tweedy discusses his full life, and doesn’t focus just on his music career trajectory.
This is the second memoir from the now-deceased journalist Russell Baker. I enjoyed his first one “Growing Up,” which covered his working class childhood in Baltimore, and I liked this one even more, which covers his adult life and journalism career. Nothing fancy here, just good writing full of whimsical anecdotes and insights about moving through life. This stuff is my reading bread and butter.
This is the book I’m most surprised ended up here. Carney is a conservative political writer, and I’ve lost interest in reading most political stuff in the last year, from any ideological standpoint. But I heard Tim Carney interviewed on a podcast and he said some really interesting stuff, so I check out this book and it turned out to be great. It’s about people and communities, and he makes really insightful points about what makes us happy and how our individual well-being is closely tied to the social circumstances we find ourselves in. For example, we know religious people are on average happier than non-religious people, but the happiness bump is actually only limited to people who physically attend church each week. Make you think…
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