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!

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