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What to Read Next (No. 201): my favorite reads of 2021
My annual “Best of” list is hitting your inbox a bit earlier than usual and you likely already know why: supply chain. If you use this list to buy holiday gifts for the people in your life (or yourself!), it’s best to shop now rather than wait until mid-December. The publishing industry has been hit especially hard with a paper shortage and there isn’t much help on the horizon until the new year.
So: buy your books ASAP, preferably from local and independent shops.
Without further ado, my favorite reads of 2021!
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Published: 2020 | Pages: 241
The more I think about Alam’s haunting, affecting novel, the more I love not only the story, but the individual sentences he crafted for us.
Leave the World Behind is a disaster/apocalypse story, but in the absence of a quickly-paced plot, Alam focuses more on the power of relationships and what it’s like to be in the midst of an unknowable disaster, simultaneously living with people you love more than anything and with people you don’t know one bit about.
When a writer can accurately capture your feelings—what the core of your being is thinking and experiencing—it’s incredibly affirming; you feel validated and seen and instinctively say, “Yes, that’s it!” Alam does that in spades in this book.
Though I don’t think this is a novel that everyone will enjoy, I do think that if you like this one, you’ll really like it. I sure did.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Published: 2019 | Pages: 351
A powerful murder mystery that goes much deeper.
Though the crime piece is really well done, the most compelling parts of this superb novel, for me, were the potent and deeply honest portraits of the complicated emotions parents feel, whether their kids are “normal” or not.
There’s always competition, there’s always the thought that the grass is greener for other parents, and there’s always some sense of shame or guilt about the wrong decisions you’re inevitably making—as Kim writes, “We all have thoughts that shame us.”
Highly recommended for readers of all stripes. No matter your tastes, I think you’ll find something you like here.
City of Thieves by David BenioffPublished: 2008 | Pages: 258
“You bring me a dozen eggs by Thursday, I give you your lives back.”
The premise seemed strange at first, but quickly grabbed me: We’re in WWII-era Russia during the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Two Russian boys, on the verge of manhood, are oddly assigned to each other’s company for not quite doing their duty to their Mother Country. Thinking they might be executed, Lev and Kolya are instead sent on a fool’s errand to find a dozen eggs. That’s right: their life and death mission is to bring their superior officer twelve eggs.
This is an intense (and surprisingly funny, at times) story of survival between unlikely comrades. From underground Soviet markets, to a mysteriously well-stocked house in the country, to an epic game of chess . . . Benioff takes us on a wild ride that’s more than just plot driven, but beautifully written as well.
City of Thieves was an incredibly fun roller-coaster of a story. I have yet to find someone who hasn’t liked this book.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Published: 2020 | Pages: 416
The Book of Longings is one of the most compassionate, empathetic, and heartfelt novels I’ve perhaps ever read.
Kidd imagines the life of Jesus’ wife, had he been betrothed. The literary landscapes of Jerusalem and Nazareth and Alexandria are beautifully painted—you can almost taste the dust in your mouth as the pages turn. But of course this book has to be about the characters, and especially that main one, Ana: What would the life of Jesus’ spouse look like? What sort of family would she come from; what character traits would she possess; how would she react to his family, his growing religious movement, and, of course, his brutal death on the cross?
Though I’m coming from a Christian viewpoint, I really think readers of all religious or non-religious backgrounds will find themselves accepting the premise and following along where Kidd takes us.
The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett
Published: 2020 | Pages: 913
At its core, this is a character-driven political novel. How does a small English hamlet cope with changing times? How does it build an infrastructure that can sustain a growing population? What’s a good person to do in the face of a priesthood and a cruel noble class that are hell-bent on nothing but power?
There’s intrigue, there’s murder, there’s a family of brother husbands (as opposed to the sister wives that you’re probably more used to when it comes to polygamy); there’s royalty and there’s leper colonies; there’s Viking raids and even a classic romance story.
The Evening and the Morning has a little bit of everything and represents epic historical fiction at its finest.
I know it wont be for everyone, but you’ll know in the first 50 pages or so whether you enjoy the writing and the story. If you’re eagerly turning pages at that point, you’re not likely to be disappointed over the course of the next 850+. You’ll also be itching to read the rest of the series.
(I also really enjoyed Follett’s Eye of the Needle this year.)
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Published: 2017 | Pages: 338
I was utterly absorbed in this story from the first few pages. It’s about a family—a very loving family made up of mom, dad, four boys who feel like boys, and one little boy who feels like a princess sometimes.
It’d be easy to assume that this book explodes into a family drama—that’s what many authors would do with this premise. Of course there’s some of that, but it’s actually a story about love and what happens when a family rallies around a boy who wants to be a girl and takes on a world that isn’t quite ready for what that means.
What I love most is simply how much kindness, support, and empathy is found within. No book I’ve read has better or more beautifully described parenthood than This Is How It Always Is. Truly.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Published: 2011 | Pages: 384
I’ve hesitated writing about Rules of Civility, for the simple reason that I just adored this novel. Most books I read get a Google Doc in which I take notes and jot down my favorite lines. Rules doesn’t have a Doc because I was so entranced by Towles writing that I never wanted to take a break to type something into my phone.
You don’t need to know the plot—just go read it.
With all of Towles books and stories, the story itself hardly even matters. The journey is so elegantly described, with such carefully crafted characters, that the destination is almost irrelevant.
His sentences and dialogue—their structure, cadence, effectiveness, and word choice—are as good as anyone in the biz today. I can’t wait to read The Lincoln Highway in 2022.
Carrie by Stephen King
Published: 1974 | Pages: 295
It’s obvious that Carrie is Stephen King’s first novel—it’s just not as tight or polished as later books—but all of King’s hallmarks are there.
What I love about his books, all of them, is that they aren’t just about horror for the sake of horror. They’re all ultimately about courage, friendship, innocence, ostracization, and honesty. That’s why they’re so thrilling and why the pages flip so easily: What does human nature do when confronted with the worst the world has to offer? We fight like hell, usually with the help of others.
It doesn’t mean a happy ending is in store (it is still horror after all), but it does mean that you never close a Stephen King book without some sense of hope or at least a better understanding of human nature—even if you have to search for it a bit.
The Man Who Invented Nature by Andrea Wulf
Published: 2015 | Pages: 406
The first book I finished in 2021 stayed with me the entire year.
We take it for granted that all of nature is connected—one big circle of life. But that wasn’t always the prevailing idea in the realm of the natural sciences. Then came along Alexander von Humboldt. Through his South American explorations and unending research, he ultimately concluded that the entire natural world was connected; each piece was dependent on every other piece.
This book was more than just informational, but inspiring too. I highly recommend The Man Who Invented Nature for just about every type of reader.
A. Lincoln by Ronald White
Published: 2007 | Pages: 679
It’s very hard to write an in-depth, full-scale, 700-page biography. To do so with a fluid, readable, inspiring, and emotional narrative is a feat that even fewer biographers can pull off. Ron White has impressively done just that in A. Lincoln.
I’ve read a lot of Lincoln books (and there’s plenty more sitting in piles on the floor of my office) and I can pretty easily say that White’s 2009 book is my favorite. David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is often considered the leader of the pack, but it’s often dry. Lincoln comes across as a somewhat statuesque character; it lacks feeling.
The best biographies, in my opinion, not only convey facts in an organized way, but provide a depth of emotion that allows you to feel for the subject in some way. A. Lincoln does that in spade.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published: 2015 | Pages: 276
In this manifesto, Elizabeth Gilbert frames creative living as more of a spiritual pursuit than a checklist to be marked off line by line. As much as the how-to is needed (though often just once or twice), so is permission, freedom, and raw inspiration—and those things need refreshing on a regular and continual basis.
Ultimately, in whatever form it takes, Gilbert exhorts the reader to “follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”
Big Magic is as inspiring as it gets.
Bunker by Bradley Garrett
Published: 2020 | Pages: 284
In this absorbing, outstanding book, Garrett profiles not only the bunker builders, but the capitalists—the “dread merchants”—making tons of money by purveying these end-of-times preparations. Each chapter finds Garrett exploring a different aspect of end times “prepping.”
Throughout, Garrett also tackles the philosophical underpinnings of prepping culture. Are these people crazy? Are they on to something? What lies underneath this belief in a coming apocalypse?
Really enjoyed this one and it paired especially well with Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.
The Reading Life by CS Lewis
Published: 2019 | Pages: 171
Published just a couple years ago, The Reading Life is a slim collection of Lewis’ essays, ideas, and even individual quotes about reading gleaned from letters, conversations, etc.
It starts with a few deeply impactful essays about why we read. These were definitely the highlight. Then Lewis makes the case for re-reading the most impactful books (at least every 10 years), he explores the connection between reading and writing, he gives tips on being a more engaged and thoughtful reader, and more.
You’ll also find his opinions on a few of his favorite authors, like Tolkien, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and more.
There are so many delights to be found in this short volume.
On Writing by Stephen King
Published: 2000 | Pages: 316
I haven’t written about On Writing yet for the newsletter, largely because I loved every word of it. Those books—the ones I love without abandon—are always harder for me to write about, for some reason.
In this memoir, King documents how his career as a writer got started, the horrible accident that nearly killed him the year before this book was published, and what he’s learned about writing over his 50-year career.
I took pages of notes from On Writing and, more importantly, my own writing has been far more consistent since reading it. Entertaining and incredibly impactful for aspiring writers (and any fan of Stephen King).
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
Published: 2021 | Pages: 245
I just wrote about this one a few weeks ago and haven’t stopped talking about it.
Four Thousand Weeks is part philosophy, part how-to, part motivational ass-kicker.
To repeat what I wrote a few weeks back: Yes, you need to figure out how to live productively—hold a job, pay your bills, get plenty accomplished, all that jazz. But the real meat of it, the point of living, is to enjoy yourself, be present in every moment, and spend your precious time doing things that make you feel fulfilled.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
Published: 1974 | Pages: 687
I’ll admit up front: I’m not done with this one yet. But I’m really enjoying it and the writing is fantastic. Bugliosi, the DA who tried Charles Manson, goes in depth about the Tate murders (among numerous others), the trial, the mental makeup of Manson’s “Family,” and more. It’s longer than your average true crime book, but the pages fly by and you don’t really notice its length.
While the information is interesting, it’s Bugliosi’s writing that really makes the book shine. This isn’t the lawyerly writing you expect; it’s lively, propulsive, and structured like a page-turning thriller.
Helter Skelter is a classic of the genre for a reason.
Thanks so much for reading! I sure appreciate the time and inbox space.
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