It’s time for my annual posting on my 10 favorite books of the prior year. In last year’s version, I said that 2020 was an “annus horribilis” – the term used by Queen Elizabeth following the death of Princess Diana. Well, I don’t know how to say “2021 may have been even worse” in Latin, but being someone who searches for the bright side (possibly even when there isn’t one), I will say that I continue to be grateful for books. I read voraciously, constantly, no matter how bogged down with work or other things I may be. Books take me away from the world — not always to a better place, but even a negative distraction is a distraction.
So here goes. Remember that my top 10 are all books that I read in 2021, not just books I read that were published in 2021.
- Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Berniéres. This was unquestionably my favorite book of the year and one of my favorite books ever. It’s a story about people on a Greek island and how they deal (or not) with WW II. The writing is brilliant, and the book has so many passages of great wit and great tenderness that I lost count. The book is impressionistic — in fact, it starts out so slowly and disjointedly that I wasn’t sure I could get through it; there are seemingly random details and episodes that don’t flow seamlessly into one another. Then they do, and it’s like the coming together of different themes in a great piece of music — if you’re into opera, think of the final trio in Der Rosenkavalier, which to this day, after hundreds of hearings, still makes me shiver with its beauty. I haven’t used the word “masterpiece” much, if ever, but this is one.
- The Sweetness of Water, by Nathan Harris. I’m surprised that this book didn’t get more buzz, though it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won a few awards. The plot concerns a poor Georgia farmer, his wife and son, and two ex-slaves shortly after the end of the Civil War. The ex-slaves witness an act that propels the plot forward, but I will stop there. Some criticized the plot as being improbable; maybe so, but the writing is so exquisite and atmospheric that it didn’t matter to me. And many of the characters are real people who are appealing despite their flaws. I hope Mr. Harris continues to pursue writing; he’s awfully good at it.
- Native Son, by Richard Wright. I am sure that I was assigned this book at some point, but I never read it. (Please don’t tell my teachers/professors.) It’s considered a classic of American and African-American literature, and rightly so. It’s somewhat dated, but the writing is beyond powerful. If, like me, you blew this one off, go back and read it.
- Broken Harbor, by Tana French. I have avoided mysteries for many years, but Ms. French is a great writer whose mysteries are so much more – no stock characters or plot lines here; rather, they are real, conflicted, imperfect people. Of all the “Dublin Murder Squad” books of hers that I’ve read, this is the best to date.
- I can’t decide between A Net for Small Fishes, by Lucy Jago and The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, so I’ll call a tie. They are both mysteries; the first is based on an actual murder that took place in Jacobean London, and combines political intrigue with a murder mystery. The combination of historical fiction and a well-crafted plot is unbeatable, and the writing is terrific. Korelitz is a gifted writer as well – if you’ve seen the HBO mini-series The Undoing, which IMHO was terrific, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s based on an earlier book of hers. The Plot is phenomenally clever and great diabolical fun.
- Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg. I’ve written before that biography is tough – it tends to be hagiographic or eviscerating rather than objective. This book is precisely the latter; it acknowledges Lindbergh’s brilliance, but not to the exclusion of his failings and idiosyncrasies (of which he had many, including his views of Naziism and Hitler). It’s nearly 600 pages but very well done.
- Empire of Pain, by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is a saga of the Sackler family and its role in creating America’s opioid crisis. Perhaps not as terrific as his earlier work, Say Nothing, but nonetheless impressive.
- Nightmare Scenario, by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, and I Alone Can Fix It, by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. These two books, both by Washington Post reporters, overlap in many ways, but they are scorchers about the handling of the COVID pandemic by the Trump administration and the final year of the latter; phenomenal reporting.
- Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeline Albright. I listened to the audiobook, read by Madam Secretary herself. She’s a great narrator of her own saga, and her saga is fascinating – just think of all the people she’s met and all she’s done – and insightful; it’s not just “and then I did this, and then I did that.” My biggest criticism of this book is that, given how much she has done, listening to her life and all the things she is involved in was exhausting.
- Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott. Based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Times, this extremely disturbing work looks at a family and a child that are in constant crisis, beginning with poverty and drugs and ending in homelessness and more. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that reading the book is literally a nightmare – when the family’s own failings don’t condemn it, the system does; in fact, there are times when the system seems to anthropomorphize into an actual, intentional villain. Despite its length at 500+ pages, I read it in a day and a half, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.
That’s it, aside from a few honorable mentions – Rachel Maddow for Bagman, a story about the decline and fall of Spiro Agnew; American Carnage, by Tim Alberta, the recent history of the Republican party by a Republican rather than someone with a pre-existing agenda; and Stephen Fry, for Mythos, an audiobook and an exquisite hardcover about the ancient Greek heroes – his wit, as well as his spectacular narration of the audiobook, are beyond impressive.
See you next year!