My favorite books of 2021

I love books, and use the Goodreads app because it enables me to log what I have read. I project that mid-year 2022 I will have read 2500 books, although I’m sure I have forgotten some hundreds.

Beginning in Christmas break 2015 I decided to join their Reading Challenge for 2016. I have been doing it ever since. Spoiler! 2021 was the first year that I (just barely) fell short of my reading goal of 104 books; I hit 90 and decided that jamming in a dozen books just to ring that bell was not a good use of my time! Goodreads not only tells me how many books I read, but how many pages (16,295) and how many pages in the average book (181, but that’s badly skewed, given that some were novella and some hundreds of pages).

Overall, I read a lot more history this year than I usually do, although I also read some marvelous fiction.

Here are some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Kazuo Ishiguro fiction. Readers may remember that this Japanese-British man wrote Remains of the Day, which was made into a memorable film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. I decided to read stories I didn’t know the end to: Never Let Me Go is about a near-future dystopia that takes place in an isolated private school of Hailsham. When We Were Orphans takes place, mainly in Shanghai just prior to WWII. He is prolific and has a broad imagination.

Novel made into a movie. New Canadian author Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Also winner, Gary’s Best Book of the Year. Warning: this will not be to everyone’s taste. I saw the movie (a Netflix production by Charlie Kaufman), then rewatched it; then read the book; then watched the movie yet again. I believe I now understand it. The postmodern tale jumps back and forth in time and space, and every 15 minutes or so the two main protagonists change their characters and back stories. Truly “…your dread and unease will mount with every passing page” (Entertainment Weekly). In the film version, viewers will probably recognize Jesse Plemons, but his co-star Jessie Buckley steals the show; she is also in the Chernobyl miniseries. “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I also read Iain Reid’s novel Foe, a “near future” story of alienation.

Bible. I read from the Bible every day, working through Psalms and various books and also the Book of Common Prayer. That’s the minimum. On top of that, I create and manage a reading group on Facebook every year. We spent 2019-2020 reading the entire Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament). This year we did a “language” course, taking two semesters of Latin using the Wheelock resources. In 2022 we are reading some of the Vulgate New Testament (5th century translation).

Spiritual reflection. I reread yet again C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity; also Miracles. If you are familiar with him because of Narnia, I heartily recommend his non-fiction, which is usually written for the non-expert and sometimes were produced as radio talks for the BBC.

Its Own Category. Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden.

People who buy their crafts at Hobby Lobby or have seen the Bible Museum (and they are more or less two arms of the same family empire) will know some of the players. But there is a dark underbelly, with headlines regularly pointing up the ethical and scholarly faults of buying up artifacts and misrepresenting their value or authenticity. Now: it’s easy – too easy – to dismiss this as “The progressives hate the Bible and free enterprise, so they attack the Bible and the prosperous.” Not so, and many of the issues they explore are ones Bible scholars are familiar with.

History. Some fine competitors this year. God, War, and Providence by James Warren explores the relation between the Plymouth Pilgrims, the Boston Puritans, and the native Americans of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Despite the American Founding Myth, the Puritans were never in favor of freedom of religion; they believed in freedom for the right religion (theirs) but not for Baptists, Quakers, and of course Native Americans. Puritan “progressives” would have been those who promoted “tolerance” for others, but never “freedom.” It all came to a bloody end, some of which happened very near to where I grew up in Rhode Island. John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a historical and oral telling of the dropping of the atom bomb. Based on amazing interviews and eye-witness accounts. Read another one of Barbara Tuchman’s dense but fascinating tomes, The Zimmerman Telegram, which traces America’s slow but inexorable slide into declaring war against Kaiser Wilhelm. David McCullough’s first hit was the moving The Johnstown Flood, chronicling how an artificial lake built at a lodge for Pittsburgh’s rich fell apart and killed over 2000 who lived downstream. The Gilded Age by Milton Rugoff explodes the notion that the USA post-Civil War was a land of justice, sharing, equality, and prosperity for all. However, the winner in History is John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Trial. I guess everyone but I has seen the John Adams miniseries and knows he volunteered to defend the shooters, British soldiers stationed in Boston (although Adams Under Fire says the miniseries got it all wrong). What is amazing is that, this was one of the very first trials in all of history to employ secretaries to note down every detail and speech. The book underscores two opposing views: Samuel Adams saw the Massacre mainly as a chance for propaganda and to take revenge on the soldiers, seeing this move as a demonstration of how serious was the desire for American independence. His cousin, lawyer John Adams, saw it differently: justice is justice! and if the soldiers cannot be guaranteed a fair trial, than nobody can; what we really need to demonstrate to all nations is that the colonies believe in justice and law above all. He won the trial, and resigned himself that his career had been wrecked by the bad publicity! But within a few years he was on the committee to compose the Declaration of Independence, telling Jefferson, in effect, You write the first draft. For one, you’re the better writer; also, I am not so popular in some circles.

Modern fiction. Madeline Martin’s The Last Bookshop in London: A Novel of World War II was another Audible book, and Karen’s favorite from 2021. It is the story of a timid young woman who moves from the countryside to London in the fateful year of 1939. The Last Bookshop in London: A Novel of World War II: Library  Edition: 9781665068567: Martin, Madeline, Maarleveld, Saskia: Books

Not a reader herself, she gets a job in a bookshop and comes to love literature. She takes books to the bomb shelters to distract and encourage people who were living through the Blitz. She summons up her courage to join the Air Raid Precautions, to monitor bomb damage, report fires, and rescue the inhabitants. The publisher’s blurb is: London, 1939 – A city torn apart by war – And brought together by books. It has some tough scenes – people do perish in the bombing – but I would think it’s okay for young adults and teens.

Erik Larson books. Karen and I got listening to his Audible stories while driving around the Northeast this past summer. He has the ability to weave contemporary historical events together to bring them to a stunning climax. For example, Thunderstruck was the story of how Marconi invented the wireless, allowing ships to transmit messages en route – and caught a murderer who was in mid-transit from Europe to America! The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America puts together the story of how Daniel H. Burnham whipped together the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, while at the same time H. H. Holmes was renting rooms to its visitors – and becoming America’s first mass murderer. Holmes was originally from Gilmanton, New Hampshire, a few miles from where we once lived.

Classic Books. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Dubliners, and Ulysses I read for the third time each. Carmen by the French author Prosper Meremée (1845); also Samson Agonistes (1671), a play about Samson by John Milton of Pilgrim’s Progress fame.

American fiction that deals with race. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is one of the best of its genre, tracing a boy growing up in New York before WWI. Excellent story, although no book of this kind can ever top Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright is – and let’s not use the word lightly – unique, about a Black man who is wrongfully accused of murder and who takes refuge in the sewers beneath Chicago. This novel was not published in his lifetime but is now available.

Book from another religion. Over the past few years, I have done the Koran, the Upanishads, the Book of Mormon, and others. This year it was Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy (1875). This suggested itself because I used to drive by her birthplace when we lived in New Hampshire; and also, because Christian Science is conceptually related to the modern Prosperity Gospel. Both fall in the philosophical category of Idealism, which means that reality as we see it is malleable to the person of faith. In Christian Science, Christ did not die for our sins, since sins can be eliminated by our right thinking. From chapter 1 – “God is not moved by the breath of praise to do more than He has already done, nor can the infinite do less Deity unchangeable than bestow all good, since He is unchanging wisdom and Love. We can do more for ourselves by humble fervent petitions, but the All-loving does not grant them simply on the ground of lip-service, for He already knows all. Prayer cannot change the Science of being, but it tends to bring us into harmony with it.” In other words: don’t pray, just get your mind right. My take on the book is: at 700 pages it is extraordinarily and unnecessarily long and repetitive, and it was my longest book this year. It can be read here, although I would recommend just dipping into a few pages if you want to get a sense of it. Today Christian Science, which used to have a huge influence, particularly in New England, is struggling for its very existence due to plunging membership

Theology. N. T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography (another Audible) was just excellent. Wright is controversial in some evangelical circles; he receives more criticism than he deserves. Our friend Tod recommend that I look at The Ethics of Belief by William Kingdon Clifford (free online, 1877). This was an eye-opener, and highly relevant to 21st century America. He demonstrates how claims of data, fake news, political and religious truth, need to be tested. Intellectual humility and a willingness to be discerning are the keys. Had he lived now he could have written “How Not to Spread or Accept the Lies of Facebook.” I also read all the shorter works of 2-3 century AD theologian Tertullian., remember that name!

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