Top Ten Reads of 2021

This is my third year publishing a list of favorites among the books I’ve read over the past year. (Click these links for my 2019 and 2020 lists.) As the world falls apart, and as many of the toxic events of 2020 seem to have become normalized in 2021, reading continues to be a source of comfort and hope. (Movie fans take note, my 2021 lists of favorite movies I watched and re-watched are available on Letterboxd.) As always, this list covers books I read this year, regardless of when they were published. The list is presented alphabetically by author.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch

The first volume of Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy is inspiring and heartbreaking. While MLK is the central figure, it’s very much a history of the civil rights movement rather than a King biography. For everyone, including me, who had little knowledge of the civil rights movement beyond the superficial dichotomy of King and Malcolm X, Parting the Waters is an opportunity to learn about Bob Moses, Medgar Evers, Stanley Levinson, James Meredith, Ralph Abernathy, Vernon Johns, and many others. The second volume, Pillar of Fire, is another of my top reads of the year, and volume three, At Canaan’s Edge, is on my list for 2022.

Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films by James Chapman

I admit, from the generic title, I didn’t expect much from Licence to Thrill, which turned out to be a serious cultural discussion of the Bond films. I’ve been a Bond fan since childhood but I find most discussions of the movies are oriented around production details or childish ranking of Bond actors. Chapman uses the novels of Ian Fleming as his launching point and explores how the Bond films relate to politics, gender equality, economics, and Britain’s changing role in the world after World War II.

Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener

Every facet of so-called “identity politics” contributed to the rich history of Los Angeles in the 1960s, and the LAPD remained corrupt through every part of it. Civil rights, the Chicano movement, gay rights, gender equality, the peace movement, class warfare, gentrification – it’s all there. Maybe Los Angeles today isn’t what it used to be, but it would have been so much worse if not for the courageous individuals profiled throughout this book.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes

The first book of Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy is a rollicking journey set almost entirely in Paris. No one in the broad cast of characters is especially likable but they’re all fascinating and they’re all, in varying ways, a reflection of the rest of us. I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

Carter Beats the Devil is a rousing tale of heartbreak, adventure, mystery, and magic. Gold brilliantly incorporates historic figures and events into his novel. It’s a cliché to call a book a page-turner, but I didn’t want to put this novel down until I finished, and I was sad when it ended, not because the story was incomplete, but because I wanted the adventure to continue.

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm

Most of my reading of history has focused on U.S. history after World War II. I’ve branched out more in recent years and Hobsbawm’s 1994 global overview of the “short twentieth century” from 1914 to 1991 is part of the experience. The historian makes a strong case that every system from communism to capitalism to socialism failed, and he need go no further than quoting Margaret Thatcher to predict our current age of hyper-individualism: “There is no society, only individuals.”

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent

Lent has written an astonishing cultural history that clarifies the many stages of human development from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the present day. We tend to define history according to events, dates, and technologies, but Lent shows us how those events and technologies are often a product of how we see the world. Among other things, science and religion have fed off of each other a lot more than current affairs might imply, so that today’s religious fundamentalists and technocratic libertarians are not that different: they both believe they have all the answers, and they’re both determined to bend the world to their will.

Pale Gray for Guilt by John D. MacDonald

Last year I began re-reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books. The Florida salvage consultant appeared in twenty-one novels over twenty years. Part of the fun of reading the entire series is to see how MacDonald matures as a storyteller, with McGee maturing right along with him. Presently, I’m up to book ten (The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper), and so far book nine, Pale Gray for Guilt, is my favorite. The story is brilliantly told and a classic tale of the true Florida: the biggest crimes are perfectly legal and the little guy never stands a chance. At least McGee is there to pick up the pieces.

The Sacrament by Olaf Olaffson

The protagonist of The Sacrament – a nun ordered to investigate the twenty-year-old death of a Catholic school headmaster – is one of the most compellingly written characters I’ve read in a long time. Even an atheist like me appreciated the nun’s extraordinary test of faith.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the first novel I clearly remember reading as a child. Now it’s an old friend I revisit every five or ten years. Among my favorite novels of all time, it also provided some inspiration for my own upcoming novel, which I plan to release in 2022. I’ve been on many a cave tour over the years, and they always make me think of Tom and Becky.

Honorable mentions:

As usual, I’m making this a Top 15 list by adding five more of my favorite reads of the year:

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 by Taylor Branch

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

Whatever you plan to read, have a safe and creative 2022!

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