Tag Archives: OverDrive

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!

My Favorite Books

‘Tis the season for year-end lists of favorite books. Here’s mine from Moldova. I downloaded almost all of these books onto my Kindle for free through the online OverDrive system which, as I’ve written previously, is the best thing that ever happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer who likes to read.

 

I could fill my Top Ten list just with recent novels I read this year. My three favorites were Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant depiction of two refugees from a war-torn Arab country; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which captures the brutal insanity of North Korea; and The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s chilling exploration of slavery in antebellum America. All three novels haunted me for weeks.

I also loved Manhattan Beach, which Jennifer Egan sets on the waterfront of New York, showing us a different side of the city while telling a harrowing yet moving family saga. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool are gentler but wonderfully written, with compelling protagonists struggling to make sense of their aging years. Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Sympathizer and Karan Mahajan in Association of Small Bombs both took me to communities I barely knew before. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher was funny and wise. Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl was even funnier. All ten of these novels were a pleasure.

 

I also loved three older novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, whose depiction of a man’s life upturned by accusations of sexual misconduct seemed especially timely now; Redeployment by Phil Klay, rightly hailed as one of the best novels about the Iraq war; and Smiley’s People by the great John LeCarre, who published an acclaimed autobiography this year.

I’ll give a partial thumbs-up to three other novels: Moonglow by Michael Chabon; The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Bohjalian’s book is about the Armenian genocide, and I read it shortly before we visited Armenia. Like the others, I thought it was good, not great. I was even less enthusiastic about Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which was snarkily funny in places but somehow didn’t click for me.

 

I also read some great nonfiction this year. My favorite book was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I know it’s come in for criticism for its depiction of dysfunctional white families in Appalachia, but I found it insightful following our election last year. Arlie Russell Hochschild covered some of the same issues in Louisiana in Strangers in Their Own Land, which I enjoyed but found less compelling. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, was a treat from cover to cover. So was reporter Katy Tur’s recent Unbelievable, about covering the Trump campaign, although its uneven text reflected the haste with which it presumably was written. (Sorry, always an editor.)

I’m in a science book club back home, so I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite science book of the year: Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It wove geology, politics, history and personal stories into a narrative I would have found engaging even if Steve weren’t a good friend.

I’m also a history fan. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis offered a fresh look at how early military defeats under George Washington nearly ended the American Revolution in its early days. In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough showed how the two aviation pioneers were nothing less than admirable, illustrating what’s best in the American character at a time when I needed to be reminded.

 

I’ll also give a hat tip to two novels I read just for fun. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan poked fun at the super-rich families of Singapore and Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version when it comes out next year. Another comedy of manners featuring people with too much money was Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Once again: well-done fluff that kept me turning the pages.

Detective and mystery novels are great page-turners, too, and I read several good ones this year, including books by John Grisham (The Litigators), David Baldacci (The Guilty), Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train) and Jonathan Kellerman (The Murderer’s Daughter). My favorite was Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, which dealt with neo-Nazis emerging from the shadows, in this case in Norway, yet another case of novels unexpectedly touching on today’s news.

Then there were travel and adventure books. I’d missed The Old Patagonian Express by one of my favorite travel writers (and former Peace Corps Volunteer), Paul Theroux. It described his trip across Latin America. Eric Weiner’s entertaining The Geography of Bliss explored why some countries are happier than others, with Moldova featured at the opposite end of the happiness scale. In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker described her adventures as a foreign war correspondent, a tale recently adapted by Tina Fey in the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. David and Veronica James in Going Gypsy and Kristin Newman in What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding described extended trips they made after leaving the workplace. All gave me new perspective on my own recent adventures.

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Among the books I expected to like better but never finished were The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Still Here by Laura Vapnyar; Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The biggest clunker for me was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which extolled the virtues of simplicity and decluttering while bloating a 10-page idea into an entire book.

Finally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, 2017 was the year when I finally got around to reading some of the Harry Potter books. I blasted through both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and am looking forward to reading the others in the year ahead. That is, if I can find time after we get home and start binge-watching all of the movies we’ve missed.

Thanks to the Durham County Library and the Duke University Libraries, together with the OverDrive system, for providing these great books for free. Which others did I miss? I welcome your suggestions and will look forward to reading some of them in the year ahead. If you’re a reader, too, I hope you’ll try some of the books I’ve recommended here. Happy reading in 2018!

Reading in OverDrive

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Before I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in May, after working for 14 years at Duke University, I used to borrow books regularly from both the Duke and Durham County libraries.

I still do, although I no longer check out bound books. Instead, I download electronic versions halfway around the world.

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I just finished reading Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil’s description of the dangers posed by big data, which I’d seen on the New York Times 100 notable books list for 2016.

I downloaded it for free onto my Kindle Paperwhite using the OverDrive “Digital Library Reserve” system offered by both the Duke and Durham libraries, which I access as a Duke retireee and Durham resident.

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-11-22-25-amMore than 2,000 Duke users will check out more than 10,000 books from OverDrive this year, according to Aaron Welborn at Duke University Libraries. Roughly two-thirds will be audiobooks. I mainly check out ebooks since I prefer to use my “headphone time” for podcasts and music.

“We chose to subscribe to OverDrive precisely because we know that our Duke community extends way beyond the campus, and we want all users, no matter how far-flung, to have access to a wide array of e-books,” Deborah Jakubs, the university librarian and vice provost for library affairs, explained to me in an e-mail message.

Working as a community development volunteer in Moldova, in eastern Europe, together with my wife, I certainly qualify as “far-flung.” It’s difficult to find current American books here and I can buy nearly a week’s groceries for what it costs to download one best-seller from Amazon.

The Duke and Durham libraries each allow me to download up to three books at a time, generally for three weeks. Champa and I don’t have a television or a subscription to Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, like some other volunteers. Instead, I usually read in the evening before going to sleep.

“We selected OverDrive to serve Durham residents who prefer to read books electronically or can’t come easily to one of our branches,” Tammy Baggett, director of the Durham County Library, wrote me. “We didn’t have Peace Corps volunteers in mind but it makes our hearts happy to know they are benefitting, too.”

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Since I arrived, I’ve read popular current novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Chris Pavone’s The Expats and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, as well as more harrowing tales such as Delicious Foods by James Hannaham and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I’ve enjoyed short stories by Alice Munro, history from Erik Larson, science from Malcolm Gladwell, humor from Kurt Vonnegut, inspiration from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and thrillers from John Grisham, David Baldacci and Gillian Flynn.

I loved Patti Smith’s book about her friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which led me to borrow a copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles from the Peace Corps library here, shortly before he won the Nobel Prize. One of the few other “hard copies” I’ve read was a terrific short-story collection from George Saunders that one of my former academic advisees and favorite Duke students gave me as a farewell present. (Shout out, Katie Fernelius!)

I’m now finishing up Chaos Monkeys, a book about Silicon Valley, and starting soon on Jeffrey Toobin’s book about Patty Hearst.

Separate from the OverDrive system, I downloaded free copies of more than a dozen classics from Project Gutenberg. So far, I’ve only skimmed a few of them. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a treat since the castle that inspired the book is near where I now live. I keep meaning to read the others, especially while I am in Peace Corps, but I return again and again to OverDrive.

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I told OverDrive’s David Burleigh about my favorable experience and he said, “Yours is a great example of libraries serving their readers even when they’re traveling or working abroad. We’re happy to play a role and make it easy for you.”

OverDrive also allows me to recommend books for my libraries to add and to reserve books currently checked out. As you can see in the photo above, I’m currently waiting on four books from the Durham library, all of which I’m excited to read.

Of course, Amazon and other online retailers would prefer that I buy books, which I did recently with Bessarabian Nights, a new novel by Stela Brinzeanu about trafficking and other problems in Moldova. It’s not in the OverDrive system and I was happy to give some business to the author, who fondly remembers being taught here by Peace Corps volunteers.

If you want to try OverDrive yourself, their home page lets you check whether your local library participates. I hope it does. For me, an active reader living far from home with a limited budget, it’s been a godsend. (I do, however, miss drinking coffee in Duke’s Perkins Library.)