The 2021 Best Book lists are out and it’s time to plan your holiday reading and gift lists. First, check out the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2021. Here also are the lists from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post list. It’s always interesting to see where there are crossover titles, though I don’t see any broad consensus thus far.
Over Thanksgiving, I finished three books and realized that I had consumed them over four different formats — Audible, Kindle, hardcover and paperback. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m grateful for all these methods of consuming content, and am happy to support great authors any way that I can. All the links in this article go to my local bookstore, Diesel Books.
I picked up a paperback copy of George Colt’s The Big House while visiting my 91 year-old mother, and read it aloud to her (a wonderful experience, by the way). I had to fly home before we finished but the story had its hooks in me, even though I’d read it when it came out years ago. So, I purchased the audiobook through Audible and listened to the ending on my morning walks once back in LA. It’s a terrific story about four generations of a family who summered on Cape Cod, written by one observant grandson on the occasion of the family having run out of money to keep the place up. If you have some New England in you, it’s a loving, nostalgic tour of the familiar.
Because I was in a Cape Cod state of mind, I picked up a highly readable romp about the many-generations of another Cape Cod family – The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – a high-end beach read from the female point of view, much less precious and a lot more chaotic; it’s wicked and fun for devouring on the iPhone via Kindle.
Carting Amor Towles’ latest best-seller (The Lincoln Highway) in hardcover across the country and back is a true commitment since it is a 500 page doorstop that chronicles a ten day escapade in the life of two brothers from Nebraska. The author of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman from Moscow inspires that type of loyalty, but alas the book disappoints. Normally, I skip over media I don’t love – but know many readers will be tempted to pick up this title because they love the author, so I wanted to offer my thoughts. It is an enjoyable read, but overall feels stuck in a boyish time-warp. The chapters count back from Ten to One ( a neat trick suited for a long book), but each contains a few too many plot twists and surprisingly, Towles fails to infuse his characters with any contemporary perspective.
I really loved listening to Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead on Audible – it is a beautifully written caper story that tears through New York with clever delight. Whitehead’s ease with language and detail makes it easy to conjure up the changing world of Harlem in the 1960s.
Intimacies by Katie Kitimura is a cool and elegant story about a woman who moves out of New York after the death of her father for an engrossing job as a translator at the Hague. I was lured to purchase the hardcover book by the lovely cover and as now that it has been named one of the NYT top books of the year, I’m glad it will live on my shelf. It’s subtle and requires close reading, but is worth the effort.
Matrix by Lauren Groff might be my favorite book of the year – the author imagines the life of a poetess lost to history in a 12th Century convent. I adore how Groff blends her own passion with richly drawn characters – this was a worthy journey into the past, with a heavy does of earthy feminism. I will basically follow anywhere she leads and have given this book as gifts all fall, and loaned my hardcover copy out several times.
I’m listening to the Audible version of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, which made several Best of 2021 lists (including on KCRW’s), and is highly entertaining tour-de-force. Weaving several narratives elegantly, author Honorée Fanonne Jeffers chronicles the entire history of an American family, from slavery to present day, focusing on the wonderful character Ailey Pearl Garfield, as she grows up in the 1980s. Jeffers ss a poet first, and a novelist second, and knows how to command her reader’s rapt attention.
A definite holiday read (maybe ask for the hardcover to be under the tree?) will be Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout- part of the ongoing saga that began with Olive Kitteridge – a character who is the rare literary gift that keeps on giving. These are characters you know and love who continue to illuminate on topics of life, marriage, and happiness.
Finally, I tend to ‘read’ non-fiction, scholarly books on Audible – Career and Family is a treatise by Harvard professor Claudia Goldin that tracks how college-educated women have struggled to find balance with their home lives and their careers over the past one hundred years. Goldin takes into account how the pandemic has set women back and argues for a reassessment of “greedy work” if we are ever to achieve true gender equity.