My Favorite Reads of 2021

Every year I commit to reading at least 52 books. Last year seemed like a notably great year for novels, and thanks to my local library I managed to read an abundance of them. I ended up with 53 reads but here are the best of the best. There were others but I can’t list all 53, can I? Follow me on GoodReads as I pursue the GoodReads Challenge again in 2022.

If you want to purchase any of these books, please consider using my link, where I get a tiny bit of the profit as an affiliate and the organization contributes to indie bookstores! I’m including ‘Zon affiliate links as well if you go that route…

Matrix by Lauren Groff

I do love those novels with bits of history and its characters strewn throughout. I also enjoy religious experiences that don’t insist on the miracles, straddling that line between natural and supernatural, committing to the exceptionalism of some humans who take it on. This is a nunnery led by a reluctant bastard child abbess who finds her greatness where she expected hopelessness. It’s a woman’s world on an “island” in a 12th century man’s world. Great characters, clever story, very satisfying.  Amazon link

Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa

I spent a year in Guatemala. It’s a small country and like the proverbial small world, you tend to run into people. My housemom during a language homestay was a Guzman in Xela, related to the Guatemalan President the CIA drove out in 1954. Waiting for a plane at the airport, I met someone who took up arms against one in the string of more recent dictatorships, and whose parents also were deeply involved in both upper level government resistance and the rebels in the hills. Former soldiers, former rebels, survivors. Another house mom told me about seeing her brother shot dead in the front doorway, of her husband being beaten and questioned… and returned alive — which meant they needed to leave their village as no one would ever trust that he hadn’t collaborated.

This novel is based on actual events and characters, and much of this material is familiar to anyone who has spent some time in Guatemala making friends and acquaintances. I await a review from my most deeply connected friend about how accurate this is, but I imagine other than the imagined conversations and some other details, the history is spot on. It’s a great read though saddening and maddening knowing that so much suffering stems from misunderstandings, ignorance, fear, hatred, racism, good intentions, and just plain greed and lust for power. But if you want to understand the political history of Latin America through the 20th century, this is not a bad place to start. Amazon link

Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

A fresh new way of looking at a painful subject: being Black in the USA. At times crazy, weird and funny, at other times moving, frustrating, enraging, you’ll not encounter anything like this anytime soon. Reminds me of Vonnegut in some broad ways — the use of humor, the human themes, dealing with trauma in an unusual way. Amazon link

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

At its simplest an intriguing story of a single father with a troubled boy “on the spectrum,” but much more a book of ideas, about grief, about the vastness and magic of the universe, about the environment and bad politics (seriously relevant to this moment in history). It rises from fascinating to devastatingly good. Being set in my hometown of Madison, WI gives it a little extra charm too. 🙂
Not an epic story like The Overstory, though the themes are as big or bigger, but more of a personal inner journey. A quick read that won’t leave you quickly. Amazon link

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Brilliant. Threads and returns worthy of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. So much going on here. On living and remembering and protecting memory and it’s inevitable loss, the Baker of books, mother Earth, dualities such as war and peace, of returning home finally. “Forgetting, he is learning, is how the world heals.” It’s long, but the chapters are short and hop around to keep it moving. Amazon link

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

5 on the typical GoodReads scale, maybe 4.5 on the Amor Towles Personal Scale. Like his two previous novels, it engages right from the get-go. So much great stuff here: the arcing story told from varying perspectives/characters; the many backstories/side stories that develop all the characters; intertwining thoughts about life and choices, elements of literature and the Great Hero stories, history and setting of the time period. I felt a wobble in my suspended disbelief a little at around page 420 for a short stretch. But that says something, no? Just the fact that I whipped through this 575-page book in just a few days is telling, and if it was me or the story that hesitated there — who can say? This is another great book, one that will surely come to mind again and again over the years much as Gentleman In Moscow does.   Amazon link

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Set along the edge of the redwoods during a time when logging sustained, barely, rough communities of loggers and their families struggling to get by. When defoliants were sprayed willy nilly without regard for environment or humans. This story takes you inside with brutal honesty and yet sensitivity to the struggles of the characters. I found it all absorbing and the writing is top-notch and beautiful. This is a big book but never let me drift away or not care. Some uncomfortable realities when humankind finds itself at odds with nature but living on a thread. Also, makes me want to run go see the redwoods one more time. Amazon link

Godspeed by Nickolas Butler

Butler’s latest work takes a turn out west with a thrilling page-turner that still provides rich language, evocative description of land and setting, passages you want to slow down for and really savor. Immersive in the subcultures of unentitled Jackson residents and construction contractors. Always thought-provoking, sometimes hair-raising, with solid characters you cheer and groan for. A very satisfying read that sticks with you.

The three contractors at the center of this story are convinced that this one incredible job is going to change their lives and make them rich. I started to think of Steinbeck’s morality tale The Pearl, but Godspeed was never so blunt or contrived. Then it occurred to me: the Treasure of the Sierra Madre. My dim lights came on slowly and I remembered Butler’s dedication in the front of the book… to author B. Traven. And when things don’t go quite right, the story has you cringing for the characters as Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan does. What a great read! Amazon link

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

With real-life parallels to the horrors of a “reform” school with unmarked graves, this novel brings Truth and tells an engaging, often disheartening, story of racism, inhumanity, in/justice, and the endurance of the spirit and the scars. At 210 pages, it is not a cumbersome story, and despite the brutality, which I wouldn’t say is graphic but no less impactful, it is not a book you want to put down or look away from. Right up until the last pages. Tremendous. Important. Enduring. Amazon link

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Really liked this one, and a return to his “problem-solving” plot in The Martian. While that novel stuck fairly close to (nearly) available science and tech, this one was a bit more speculative. I loved the ideas, the solutions, the earth politics in the flashbacks, and the surprises out there in space. The character, a school teacher, could be a little corny at times, and the one time he dropped an F-bomb actually stood out among the million other gee whiz dog gone language. And there was plenty of cause for him to grunt an expletive. The author’s respect for hard science is welcome. I waffle here on 4.5. Fun read! Amazon link

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Can’t say enough great things about this book. The audience is short story writers but any fan of the art of storytelling should enjoy it. Plus you read some classic Russian lit. I marked so many passages to remember and share that I may as well just give copies of the entire book to people. It must be great to be in one of his classes. And extra credit points of a Green Bay Packers reference. Amazon link

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Excellent writing and storytelling. Threads of the story one in the past go back and forth gradually coming together at the end of the book. Each thread has its first chapter and both of them hook you. Then follow some fascinating characters that you care about in a rich and unique natural environment by the sea in Carolina from 1955-70. the star of the show is a poor outcast and abused white girl who is coming of age and nevertheless manages to find her own way when the adults have let her down. The last few pages sort of wavered for me like an amazing gymnast who stuck the landing yet wobbled just a tiny bit. The writing is really great.  Amazon link

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I loved this. Great characters, thoughtful material, a good heart to it. My first Patchett book and I can’t wait to read another. Just lovely. Amazon link

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Quite the way to start the New Year. Phenomenal writing. The long passages of the loss of a child are heartbreaking, the sort of reading you feel in your gut, and words that may move you to tears. Agnes (Anne Hathaway’s likely real first name according to her father’s will) is a fascinating, woman of the earth type, a healer and empath with preternatural senses about people and the natural world. Never afraid to march to her own drum, she’s whispered about by the neighbors and the in-laws. The plague segments, especially the literary version of contact tracing, are all too relevant to real life at the moment. Not to be lost in the story of loss is the perspective of a wife left behind while the husband pursues a greatness we know even centuries later, a situation that seems almost cruel in the moment. O’Farrell puts you in the village of Elizabethan times and makes everyday life and suffering the focus, even unto Shakespeare’s work. What a great book!  Amazon link

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan

Absolutely fascinating, and I daresay, mind-changing. I’d always been a bit curious about psychedelics as they were unfairly lumped together with various hard drugs. Pollan does an excellent job of laying out the history of research, the many apparent benefits not only to afflicted people but to healthy adults, and an analysis of just how the brain works, the ego, consciousness, life philosophy, mystical experiences, and so much more. Then as any good journalist/scientist would do, he goes out an experiences each of the psychedelic medicines under the supervision of therapist guides. The summary is definitely in support of the use of these chemicals, but not in a frivolous recreational manner. I saw a lot of my own worries and bad-thinking habits in here, as well as those of friends, and it made me wonder what an experience such as his might do for me. A fascinating look at a sort of spiritual approach to their use as well as a proven treatment for those suffering from depression and addiction and finding no relief in big pharma solutions. I highly recommend this book. Amazon link

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Fascinating read. The hard science and economics portions of this are quite informative and thought-provoking, imagining in a speculative plot what might happen in our uncertain future with climate change and humankind’s resistance to take action. The plot of the novel follows two main characters through 563 pages, but a fair portion of the book is dedicated to interspersed chapters of isolated incidents that reveal the consequences and various experiences around the globe, summaries of task-forces or summits about what to do, and even just straight up explanations of econ theories and potential remedies. Story-wise, this can feel a little weak, but the chapters (over 100) are short to prevent the book from getting bogged down, and the information in the segments parallel to the plot is worth the read all by itself. A great eco-read with no illusions about how bad things will get, but with enough real human elements and ideas to suggest there may be hope. Amazon link

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