Top Ten Books 2021

My favorite books of 2021 took me from an African village to the streets of Harlem, two kingdoms and a distant galaxy. Here’s my Top Ten list along with other books I enjoyed (and some that disappointed me).

Are you a fellow reader? Please leave a comment with your own suggestions!

I’ll start with How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue’s powerful story of an African village destroyed by colonialism and corporate greed. An American oil company contaminates the village and buys off the local dictator. Children die. Families flee. A local woman leads a resistance movement. You know disaster is coming but can’t stop reading.

Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad’s memoir of battling cancer, is compelling in a different way, and with a happier outcome. I’ve read other “illness memoirs” but none as raw and honest as this one. Jaouad, the long-time partner of musician Jon Batiste, takes us on a harrowing journey.

Cancer also plays a role in A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris, a tale about a middle-aged man who is deeply disappointed in life. The Great Recession and illness derail his American dream until fate gives him a second chance, with a big — and very surprising — assist from Ferris. 

The hero of Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a Chinese assassin who joins a troupe of magical performers traveling across the Old West, dodging disasters and bounty hunters while searching for his lost love. It’s a Western unlike any you’ve seen with John Wayne.

I was looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle since I loved both The Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys. Once again, he delivered. A combination of family saga and crime novel, Shuffle is a page-turner about a Harlem furniture salesman who is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby features another African American man who is reluctantly drawn into crime. In this case it’s an ex-con who sets out to avenge the murder of his gay son, teaming up with the racist white father of his son’s partner. I enjoyed Cosby’s earlier Blacktop Wasteland and am now a fan.

Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division features a Japanese-American family that relocates to Chicago after being incarcerated in California during World War II. Something terrible happens when they arrive, which their daughter Ako struggles to understand and overcome.

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot has a big twist at the end. I saw it coming but still enjoyed it and everything that led up to it. Her protagonist is a struggling novelist who unexpectedly publishes a huge best-seller, a book whose plot was actually devised by a former student. Will the book’s origins become public? The Plot reveals all with an engaging plot of its own.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is part fiction, part fact and fully impressive. It presents a series of famous thinkers who changed history with discoveries that had profound moral consequences. Labatut combines a breathtaking sweep of science with vivid prose, translated from his original Spanish.

Last on my Top Ten list is Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, a science fiction tale about a school teacher who awakens on a space ship without knowing why he’s there or even who he is. He’s on a mission to save Earth but must team up with an alien whose planet is also threatened. The plot is somewhat ludicrous but always entertaining. I can’t wait for the forthcoming movie version.

All of these books were published this year. I have an even longer list of books from 2020 that I enjoyed but read too late to consider for my Top Ten from last year:

  • Three Hours in Paris, by Cara Black
  • Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick
  • The Guest List, by Lucy Foley
  • The Searcher, by Tana French
  • Writers & Lovers, by Lily King
  • The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova
  • The Secret Life of Groceries, by Benjamin Lorr
  • Monogamy, by Sue Miller
  • A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet
  • A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
  • Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Missing American, by Kwei Quartey
  • Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold, by C. Pam Zhang

(My favorite was the luminous Hamnet.)

I enjoyed some older books, too. Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, Joan Silber’s Improvement and Scott Galloway’s The Four were all as compelling as when they appeared in 2017. Chuck Collins made me think harder about white privilege in Born on Third Base  (2016) and Tom Barbash entertained me by combining the Peace Corps and John Lennon in The Dakota Winters (2018).

With three other books, I was fortunate to meet the authors online through classes I took with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Duke. Sister Helen Prejean, who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, told her own story in River of Fire. Sam Quinones sounded the alarm in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Osha Gray Davidson brought Durham history to life in The Best of Enemies, recently adapted in a Hollywood movie. Thank you, OLLI.

A different trio of books reprised characters or themes from previous work. Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! continued the story of Lucy Barton and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed updated his The Sympathizer. In The Premonition, Michael Lewis highlighted experts who foresaw the COVID-19 disaster, much as his The Big Short featured those who predicted the 2008 financial meltdown. I enjoyed all three of these new books, although not as much as the originals.

Other good reads included the Evan Osnos biography of Joe Biden, Simon Rich’s latest collection of humor essays (New Teeth) and the Laura Dave thriller, The Last Thing He Told Me. A guilty pleasure was The Cellist, the latest in Daniel Silva’s series about Gabriel Allon, the Israeli spymaster and art restorer. (This time he foils an evil plot by Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.)

Memoirs? Yes, I enjoyed those, too, ranging from Saturday Night Live to the restaurant business, network news and standup comedy. Colin Jost, David Chang, Katie Couric and Jerry Seinfeld: Thanks for sharing your stories. Anderson Cooper: I wish you’d made Vanderbilt easier to follow.

I had personal connections to three excellent new books. My former Duke colleague, Ashley Yeager, profiled astronomer Vera Rubin in Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond. Dale DeGroff, a family friend and legendary bartender, updated his The New Craft of the Cocktail. Journalist Amanda Ridley featured my sister and her husband, among others, in High Conflict, an inspiring account of people breaking through the political and social barriers that separate us.

Then there were the year’s disappointments. Jonathan Franzen has written amazing novels, but Crossroads was not among them, at least for me. Cecily Strong is brilliant on Saturday Night Live but This Will All Be Over Soon is what I kept hoping as I read her pandemic memoir. I had high hopes for A Swim in the Pond by George Sanders, Blindness by José Saramago, Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee and The Overstory by Richard Powers. All were well-reviewed, but I couldn’t finish any of them. (Sorry.)

As always, thanks to the Durham County Library, through which I downloaded many of these books onto my Kindle.

If you’ve made it here to the end, I invite you again to leave a comment or suggestions for me and other readers. Happy reading for all of us in 2022!

Reconnected on TV

Moldovan national television just reconnected us to the city where we served in the Peace Corps.

On Thursday, it broadcast a story about North Carolinians who served in the Peace Corps, the latest in a series by TeleFilm Chişinǎu about the state’s partnership with Moldova.

Watch the story below or here on YouTube [at 13:14].

We were deeply moved when we saw our former host family, work partners and others on the screen, showing off the projects we pursued together. Most emotional was seeing our beloved Bunica, or Moldovan grandmother, talking to us from her bed.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Romanian, you should have no trouble following along. We think the producers did a great job and hope you enjoy the story, too. “Mulțumim frumos!” to everyone who made it happen.

Telling the Center’s Story

As we give thanks this week, I want to salute the great work being done in Durham by the West End Community Foundation, Inc., which I’ve been fortunate to volunteer with over the past year.

Dosali Reed-Bandele, the foundation’s executive director, and I worked together to produce an updated website, an e-newsletter, new brochures, a texting service and other communications tools to serve the Community Family Life & Recreation Center at Lyon Park, which the foundation administers. The center is located in a historic building that was previously a school for African American students in Durham’s segregated system.

Photo by Thomas Bell

Dosali took the lead on this work along with her colleagues. As she says in a new article by Jeannine Sato, the year-long project “helped our center tell its story more authentically, about both our history and how we now interact with the community.” She and I are still working together on some remaining tasks.

Photo by Thomas Bell

The article describes the collaboration, which was organized by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership. We hope it will encourage other older volunteers to share their skills with — and learn from — local nonprofits. Both sides stand to benefit, both locally and nationwide, as I’ve discussed previously. It’s an opportunity and unmet social need that I hope to pursue in the year ahead.

Dosali has inspired me throughout this project with her talent and commitment to the community, and she’s helped me broaden my understanding of the city I call home. Thank you, Dosali.

[Read the article here.]

Kentucky and Tennessee

Horse farms. Bourbon. Bluegrass. The Appalachians.

That wasn’t all we saw while driving recently through Kentucky and Tennessee.

There were also the three older white couples eating breakfast near us one morning, discussing local politics. One laughed and said, “They’re spending so much, you’d think they were Democrats!”

They didn’t wear masks inside our hotel. Neither did most people in the other indoor spaces we visited, even in some government facilities with “masks required” signs.

In Nashville, at the Hermitage home of President Andrew Jackson, we visited replica houses of enslaved people who picked his cotton and built his fortune. In Gatlinburg, a restaurant owner wearing a cowboy hat vented to us about Joe Biden. As we drove across Knoxville, Lexington, Louisville, Nashville, and the Great Smoky Mountains before heading home to Durham, our radio dial was filled with country music and Christian preachers.

Kenneland racetrack, Lexington

As always happens when we travel, we experienced a world beyond our Blue Bubble. We were visiting Red America but also encountering a diversity more complex than simple labels. America surprises you when you explore it, as we’d seen in West Virginia a few weeks earlier. A young man there told us in a thick accent about the nearby mountain holler where he grew up, not far from where he met his husband.

At dinner on our first night in Tennessee, we were seated next to a group of young professionals holding a Bible study group, discussing Jesus while drinking beers. In Louisville, a couple from Bowling Green told us about the Corvette auto plant where he works. The next day we visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Mammoth Cave and a quirky “Kentucky Stonehenge” in a family’s yard. In Nashville, we chatted with young women dressed up for Dia de los Muertos and ate hot chicken while listening to a band playing country hits on Lower Broadway.

Donny Lee and his band perform at the Lucky Bastard Saloon in Nashville.

We saw sites ranging from Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky to the Parthenon in Nashville. We visited craft stores, ate barbecue, strolled atop the Ohio River and hiked through forests ablaze with autumn reds, yellows and greens. We won some money at the Kenneland racetrack in Lexington but lost about ten dollars more, then visited the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville. We met wonderful people.

It was time well spent as we slowly emerge from our long pandemic lockdown, eager to travel again but still cautious about going abroad. Kentucky and Tennessee reminded us how many places we have yet to explore — and learn from — much closer to home.

In Great Smokies National Park, Tennessee

Finding an Audience

My book about traveling the world and serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer was published just as COVID-19 was closing international borders and the Peace Corps was evacuating its volunteers. How has it fared in the year and a half since then? This post, reprinted from the book’s website, highlights some of the coverage:

Profile in Worldview Magazine

An article in Worldview, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association, featured Not Exactly Retired and considered how Peace Corps service has changed over the decades. It was accompanied by an article from Champa describing how “Many of us were not what Moldovans expected a Volunteer would look like. Together, we showed them that ‘American’ includes many kinds of people.”

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New York Times

The Times mentioned the book while profiling the two of us for an article about how retirees are coping with the pandemic.

‘A Shining Example’

Joe Casey, host of the Retirement Wisdom podcast, called Not Exactly Retired “a shining example of why volunteering is important – and why it can be a unique way of reinvention in early retirement.” His interview with me is on his website.

A ‘Must-Read’ Book

Not Exactly Retired is among the “inspiring, international reads” included on a list for armchair travelers and others. The reviewer called it one of “10 Must-Read Books About the Peace Corps.”

‘Unexpected Benefits’

Another reviewer called Not Exactly Retired “a gift to those who might be thinking there has got to be more to retirement than playing golf, traveling for pleasure, taking up new hobbies, visiting family, or walking the dog. Read and you just might find yourself setting foot on a not so familiar path with unexpected benefits!”

Born for Adventure

An article about the book on the Born to Be Boomers website sparked dozens of comments, including one saying “it is the job of the older generation to turn around and help the next one along. What a great example of that. I’m nearing that time and am hoping to transition to that with grace.”

Love Story, Saga, Guide

Brown Alumni Magazine described Not Exactly Retired as “part love story, part adventure saga, and a guide to finding a fresh act later in life.”

A Second-Act Story

My interview with Andy Levine on the Second Act Stories podcast ranked high on his “Best of 2020” list. His show features people who have made dramatic career changes.

Peace Corps Worldwide

The website, which features books by Peace Corps writers, posted an extended interview with me, discussing my two stints as a volunteer and my writing process.

Lifelong Learning

OLLI at Duke — the “lifelong learning” organization — featured Not Exactly Retired in an online author interview that included an international call-in from our Moldovan “host sister.”

‘Interesting and Engaging’

That’s how a newsletter for older travelers described Not Exactly Retired, saying it encouraged readers to “gain insight into how to plan our own quests.”

‘Repurposing’ Your Life

The Career Pivot website and podcast featured Not Exactly Retired in an online interview conducted from Mexico. Host Marc Miller said the book showed how older listeners might want to “repurpose” their own lives.

Inspiration for Librarians

Circulating Ideas, a podcast for U.S. librarians, interviewed me about my work at a Moldovan library and described how Peace Corps Volunteers have assisted libraries worldwide.

Rocking a Retirement

Did we miss our grandchildren? Did we worry about getting sick? Kathe Kline asked these and other questions while interviewing me for her Rock Your Retirement podcast. She called Not Exactly Retired “an inspiring story.”

Bloomer Boomer

That’s the name of Andy Asher’s podcast about people thriving in the second half of life. He interviewed me about the book.

Visit the book’s website to order a copy or learn more.

Magnetic Memories

Peru, Kathmandu, Cape Town, Hawaii.

For decades, magnets from these and other places have spread across our refrigerator. This past week, I moved them to our bedroom, out of sight from guests in our kitchen.

We started the collection without much thought. While other travelers collected plates or snow globes, we bought magnets, one per destination. They’re usually the only thing we bring home.

By the time we left to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in 2016, we had more than 100. We returned home with still more.

We didn’t amass the collection to impress others. We meant it for ourselves, as a mosaic of memories. 

We don’t want anyone to perceive otherwise, so we’ve now made it more private as we prepare to replace our refrigerator. I mounted a whiteboard on our bedroom wall and arranged the 158 magnets with U.S. destinations on the left, international destinations on the right and a Peace Corps magnet in the middle that previously adorned our refrigerator in Moldova.

We know how fortunate we’ve been to visit these places. If you ever visit us and want to see the magnets, just ask. I can tell you a story about each one. For example:

Now known as Utqiaġvik, Barrow is the largest city on Alaska’s North Slope. I traveled there one summer to write a magazine story about a science education project for Native Iñupiat children. I remember being unable to sleep at night because it never got dark.

My favorite memory of Berlin didn’t involve the conference I was attending. It was the taxi driver who helped me find the house where my mother grew up before fleeing with her family, prior to the Holocaust. He took several photos of me there.

To reach the Palace of Gold in Wheeling, we drove through a West Virginia neighborhood with pickup trucks and American flags. Only then did we arrive at this Hare Krishna center with its peacocks, incense and chanting. It was quite strange, but we’re glad we went.

I had a free afternoon during a scientific meeting in Rio. Instead of going to fancy shops or beaches, like many participants, I took a walking tour of a favela, the densely populated home for many poorer Brazilians. I met wonderful people there.

What I remember most about Traverse City, which we visited during a drive around Lake Michigan, was buying tickets online for a Judy Collins concert from a local television reporter. When we picked them up, we noticed they were labeled as being free. Presumably the reporter got them as a promotion, then sold them to us. Nice work if you can get it.

So, yes, there’s a story behind every magnet. If any of mine spark a memory about your own travels, please share it with a comment.

‘Nomads’ in the Pandemic

They’re “senior nomads” who travel the world full-time. When the pandemic hit, some were stranded overseas. Others kept traveling . 

In this new article for Next Avenue, I share some of their stories.

Many of these older vagabonds have been traveling for years. Debbie and Michael Campbell have a blog (and more recent book) that inspired Champa and me when we were considering our own “not exactly retired” journey. We chose a different path but share their sense of adventure.

The first part of the article follows below. The full article is online at Next Avenue, which is part of the PBS system.

Once More, With Feeling

“What’s it like to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in your twenties and then again decades later? David Jarmul takes a deep dive into that topic in his recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps. He ‘teases out a striking contrast between his service in Nepal 35 years ago and in Moldova in the age of Trump,’ says Marco Werman, host of The World on public radio.”

So begins an online article in the Spring 2021 issue of WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.

Accompanying it is an article from Champa describing how “many of us were not what Moldovans expected a Volunteer would look like. Together, we showed them that ‘American’ includes many kinds of people. As Peace Corps looks to its future, its Volunteers need to fully reflect our country’s diversity.”

Versions of both articles also appear (without all of the photos) in the magazine’s new printed edition, shown below.

Join us on the journey.