My Year in Books 2021

In 2021, I read just over 30 books. That seems like a pretty good year for me ! Had it not been for TV bingeing, I could have read much more.

When 2020 came to an end, I was about half way through Obama’s memoir A Promise Land which is essentially his apology tour for not having taken greater advantage of his time in office. Nonetheless, the book is highly recommendable, no matter your political affiliation.

And as this year comes to an end, I am currently trying to make my way through the incredibly frustrating biography of Stephen Crane by famed novelist Paul Auster. I really would love to love this book. Sometimes I find myself enjoying it, but most of the time, I am just angry with Auster for making it feel interminable.

So here is my 2021 list in reverse chronological order:

  • Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane by Paul Auster (currently reading)
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • The River by Peter Heller
  • Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain by Matthew Carr
  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
  • Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music by Gerald Horne
  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
  • First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami
  • Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuar
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
  • Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross
  • The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah
  • Orientalism by Edward W. Said
  • Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
  • The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
  • Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist by Heather Augustyn
  • The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean by Gerald Horne
  • Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Writers and Lovers by Lily King
  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
  • American Dirt by Jeannie Cummins
  • This is Happiness by Niall Williams
  • The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan
  • A Promise Land by Barrack Obama

Hands down my three favorite books on the list were The Great Believers, Homeland Elegies, and Blood and Faith. The Great Believers takes us back to 1980s Chicago, the AIDS epidemic, how little we understood about the virus, and the stigmatizing effects on the gay community. Along with Pale Rider and The Last Town on Earth from this year’s list, The Great Believers helped put the current pandemic into perspective.

Over the past few years, I have read so many novels about first generation Americans and the psychological toll they pay straddling their parents’ culture and that of American society. This year these included Homeland Elegies, The Beauty of Your Face, and Transcendent Kingdom. By far, Homeland Elegies is the best I have read in a long, long time. A real magnum opus. In defense of Transcendent Kingdom, at first it read like just another one of the lot, but it turned out to be a richer and deeper novel about addiction, depression and faith.

After having spent a few days in Granada with my family, I couldn’t stop thinking about how after 1492, Spain couldn’t just replace an entire city population with another from one day to the next. That led to Blood and Faith, Carr’s history of how for a over a century after the end of the Reconquest, Spain systematically and brutally ethnically cleansed Spain of its Morisco population. Everyone interested in Spain and even contemporary politics should be knowledgeable about this history.

There were many other books on the list that merit further mention. I highly recommend: American Dirt, The Girl with the Louding Voice, If I had your Face, and The River. It was also somewhat of a Korean themed year between If I had your Face, Island of the Sea Women, and Squid Game. Then the two S.A. Cosby crime stories (Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland), very much like George Pelecanos, were highly enjoyable and excellent fillers between more emotionally charged books.

Finally, a few big disappointments. The Don Drummond biography was poorly told, but at least it inspired me to revisit Ska which I have been playing non-stop ever since. And Haruki Murakami breaks my heart. When I first read through his main body of work, he quickly became one of my all time favorite novelists. Over the years, I have gone back and re-read most of his novels and whenever a new book comes out, I always walk away wondering what I loved the first time around. Like a boxer or politician he should have stopped when he was still great.  

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