2021 is in the Books!

Who doesn’t love a good read? Or a bad read, really.* I certainly do and I spent a lot of my time in 2021 with my nose in a book or four. Here’s my little chance to tell you which of those books I loved the most in 2021. Maybe something will jump out at you. There are fewer things more intimate (and personal) than choosing the books you want to read. Welcome to my book world.

Old Town Books is the best. One of these books was for my darling wife, Cheryl. You guess which one.

Methodology. 2020 was the year I switched predominantly to paper books again and began to give myself reading goals each month. 2021 was the year I put these goals into regimented practice. I set an annual goal of 50 books for 2021 and began each month by choosing three or so books from my To Be Read piles and shelves. The selection was typically fiction, nonfiction, and (my own category combining topics like Buddhism and ecology) “exploration.” Most of the books I purchased at the wondrous Alexandria independent bookstore Old Town Books, but I also had a handful acquired previously and sitting around for years begging to be read or pilfered from Cheryl’s collection. I also had an audiobook going as well for commuting, walking, hiking, driving, and chores. With very few exceptions — including a huge one I’ll get to below — I completed my monthly reading goals on time. My trick? Public social media commitment. I’m pretty sure the amount of people keeping track of my monthly reading posts was an integer between one and three. But one of those numbers was me. And I cared deeply about meeting the goals I proudly announced around the first of each month. So without further ado, from my first completed book of January 2021 (Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi) to my just completed December read (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), here’s what emerged from the year of reading as my top accolades and recommendations.

My Favorite Novel of 2021. I knew Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet was going to be the most amazing and affecting book I would read in 2021 a dozen pages in. Do you know those times when it feels like a book casts a spell on you and each sentence seems to float in your consciousness even when you put the book down? I don’t feel this often, but I felt it with Hamnet. O’Farrell’s writing is superb, her creativity mind-blowing, and her treatment of the source material — the few facts known about the life and family of William Shakespeare — sensitive and loving. This is fan fiction the way it is never been written before. It is a love song and an invention. But in that, it is also a gift to all who cherish Shakespeare, an oh so timely treatment of death in the midst of a pandemic, and a penetrating romance and struggle of a marriage. I know Hamnet made a lot of best of the year lists in 2020 and I was a tad late in getting to it. But I’ll never forget it. This is one I can imagine rereading with the same sense of wonder.

Runner Ups. I’ve already written about them. 🙂

My Favorite Nonfiction Work of 2021. In a year in which I read Barack Obama’s The Promised Land and Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (among others), Les and Tamara Payne’s The Dead Are Arising stands out as the most memorable nonfiction read of the year. I had never read the Autobiography of Malcolm X or seen the Spike Lee movie, though I am very inclined to do so now. For me, The Dead Are Arising was my first serious introduction to Malcolm X and the times he lived in. What struck me the most about the book was the way the Paynes captured the era and the dynamics that produced and killed Malcolm X. It reads with both gripping, personal intensity and meticulous journalistic realism. If you are a person who ever wondered more about Malcolm X and his place in the 20th century, this is a necessary book to pick up.

Runner Up. Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest was my number one “tree” book of the year. As such, it easily could have been featured as my favorite read of the year. Simard details her amazing achievements and research breakthroughs, some of which were the inspiration for Richard Powers’ The Overstory, alongside a powerful account of her life and family. It was the combination that really made the book a truly special read. It handily stood out from several similar books I read this year, including Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Douglas Tallamy’s The Nature of Oaks, and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and the Heartbeat of Trees.

My Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021. I read (and listen) to a lot of science fiction and fantasy. It’s a beloved and comforting genre for me and I can’t get enough. This year I started the Expanse series and love it enormously but will focus on it a bit more next year review-wise (as well as produce a write up of all the Star Wars: High Republic books I’ve been working through). For 2021, it was Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth that really caught my attention as some of the best speculative fiction of my year. Though pitched, somewhat in jest, as YA “lesbian necromancers,” these books and their title characters were so much more. I love it when I get to read something fresh and innovative. Better yet if the writing and character development is top notch — and funny. As you can imagine from such a superlative category, these books are both. What really helped earn Muir top billing is how stunningly different the sequel was from the first volume. No spoilers here. Just read them and get excited for more from her.

Runner Up. I waited for all three of Joe Abercrombie’s The Age of Madness trilogy books to be published before reading them together this fall. They easily could have been my top genre selection because they were just so damn good. So bloody “back to the mud” good. If you haven’t read any Abercrombie, go treat yourself to The Blade Itself and keep going. This “final” trilogy showcased the writing prowess, humor, and heart that makes the world he built, and the characters who make it spark to life, so special. Abercrombie somehow merged edgy, dark, sassy fantasy with a deft handling of political elements from both the French AND Russian revolutions.

In conclusion. When you read more than 50 books and select a few here and there to highlight, it feels like a great wrong to those you don’t mention. To all those books, I apologize. You were part of my 2021 too. I’m not sure how fitting it was that I closed the year out with Infinite Jest. I honestly started this 1,000+ page behemoth in August thinking I could get through it that month and stalled after 200 pages. It haunted me for the latter half of the year before I cleared my time to commit to finishing it in December. I finished it. It took a lot of willpower to do so. I am glad I read it, like a climber is satisfied to have bagged a difficult peak. It is a work of genius, no doubt. But the density, complexity, and ideology of it proved quite a challenge, even for a 40-something white cis male that is its likeliest target demographic. (Not that Wallace would have allowed the concept of target demographic to apply to his work.) I loved my reading challenge and enjoyed each month. I have a new goal in mind for 2022. Read and follow along to find out.

The Virtual Book Shelf of 2021:

*The worst book I read this year was hands down Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Ascendancy. Book II: Greater Good. Sure, you might be none too shocked to see a Star Wars book earn this demerit. But honestly, most are pretty decent. This one was so bad I barely finished. And I won’t read the final volume. But like I said, even a bad book is a good read.

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