My “Top 10 Books I Read This Year” post in 2021 was one of my most popular, so I thought I’d bring back the list for this year’s reads (in no particular order). The 16 books that didn’t make the list are at the end of this post, including my least favorite book of the year. Enjoy.
Yes, I’m cheating right off the bat. I’m putting two books together. Less came out in 2017 and won the Pulitzer Prize, but I did not read it until a few months ago. The sequel Less Is Lost came out this year, but together they are one big story about the lovable Arthur Less. It’s like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles meets Love Actually. I can’t remember a protagonist who I rooted for, laughed with, anguished over, wanted to slap in the face, and give the biggest hug all at the same time.
Andrew Sean Greer’s bottomless well of metaphors describing Arthur’s chase for affection, self-respect, and the almighty dollar all over the globe (Less) and across America (Less Is Lost) were like new gifts to open at every turn. Warning: do not read this in bed next to a loved one who has fallen asleep because your giggles and your inability to turn your reading light off is going to keep them up into the wee hours of the morning.
These were the buoyancy books in a heavy world. I hope there’s more Arthur Less down the road!
Sea of Tranquility (Emily St. John Mandel) — The Sci-Fi Adventure
It’s not often that a sci-fi novel spanning centuries and various worlds in space can read so delicately in the palm of your hand. I mean, the ideas are big, but the prose is small and accessible. It’s like Emily St. John Mandel is standing right by your side as she whisks you to and fro between epochs, and she’s right there as she presents one of the most complex ruminations in philosophy and theoretical physics. She stitches it all together like she was knitting you a sweater on a rocking chair while telling you a playful story about love, discovery, and connection. What’s more, it’s a quick read. 272 pages never traveled so swiftly through my fingers.
The Overstory (Richard Powers) — The What-Took-Me-So-Long Revelation
The awards for this book go on and on. I concur with all of them. A sweeping novel and love story about, amidst, and atop…trees. It’s an ode to the natural world and a reminder that while trees might seem like immovable bouquets of bark and branches, they are as delicate as sand castles in the surf, and they are our life blood. The anthology-like story isn’t just about various trees, but the human relationships that surround those trees both physically and metaphorically.
“It’s all connected” is an understatement. You’ll never look at a leaf (or a forest) the same way for the rest of your life. And that’s a good thing.
Ann Patchett called it, “The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.” (And we all know I love me some Ann Patchett.)
These Precious Days (Ann Patchett) — The Essays
Speaking of Ann…Undoubtedly, every time I read her I convince myself that I want to be an essayist, but I think what I mean is that I’ll never be able to write like Ann Patchett. Last year I had This Is A Story Of A Happy Marriage on my Top 10 list, and this year it’s another collection of essays, each of which are a world of their own. But it’s the title essay that is bold enough to rattle anyone’s emotional plexus, while reminding us that it’s always “the small things in life” that, like way points, show us where we’re going and why we’re going there.
For me, Ann Patchett is one of the best storytellers of our time. Unflinching, honest, vulnerable, funny; everything we want when someone is showing us a view through their lens.
Bullshit Jobs (David Graeber) — The Everyone-At-An-Office-Job-Needs-To-Read-This Book
I highlighted this book in my last post about Quiet Quitting. I can’t figure out how this book isn’t a bigger deal than it is. The pandemic certainly forced people to rethink their relationship to work, but a few years before it, David Graeber went on a deep dive into what this white collar journey was all about in the first place. And surprise, surprise, it’s filled with redundancy, detachment, and aimlessness. We are told that capitalism roots out waste, and yet the thing propping up capitalism (for those of us unwilling to get our literal hands dirty) is just a popularity contest run by people who don’t actually know what they’re doing.
It’s not just an “emperor has no clothes” kind of book, Graeber challenges us how we can redefine and rethink work in the 21st century. I bet we’d all agree that we need a reset in the white collar world right about now. This book is that ctrl+alt-delete.
Underland (Robert MacFarlane) — The Non-Fiction Book
We treat life and talk about it with our feet firmly on the earth: feeling grounded; from the ground up; started from the bottom. But Robert Macfarlance, one of the best to scribe about the natural world, has written a book about the world beneath our feet. No, it’s not about mole people or creepy crawlies, but about the catacombs, passageways, tunnels, caves, and subterranean layers that humans have escaped to, extracted from, and revered for millennia.
It’s an exploration of a part of the human experience that we just don’t ever think that much about, and yet is utterly profound — the sort of mirror world right below us.
A quote from the book that stuck with me:
The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.
Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).
Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).
Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).
Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.
The Latecomer (Jean Hanff Korelitz) — The-Family-Drama Book
I was not surprised to learn that this book is being made into a TV Series. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s stories seem ripe for it. If you’ve watched The Undoing and/or The Plot on HBO, those were adaptations of Korelitz’s book: You Should Have Known. And now, she has given us The Latecomer. It’s a grand sweeping story about siblings and family all through the intricacies of IVF, and how freezing embryos pauses time for some but not for all. Under that umbrella we have all the pillars of any novel you want to dive into under blankets on a rainy day: high society in modern-day NYC, class struggle, privilege and race, grief and hope.
Allegra Goodman of the NY Times may have said it best by calling this book, “A Gilded Age novel for the 21st century.”
The way part one of this book barreled towards its climax was one of the most uncomfortable, yet must-see dramas I’ve read in a while. Un-put-down-able. I’ll be there with my popcorn when the show comes out.
Last Best Hope (George Packer) — The Making-Sense-Of-Our-Political-Times Book
I read a lot of The Atlantic. My three favorite writers are: Derek Thompson, Anne Applebaum, and George Packer. But i’s the latter whose words over the past few years I’ve uncontrollably gobbled like a hungry hungry hippo. Wherever he leaves them, I’m there to pick them up.
While most of us share a collective numbness to the political and tribal factions speeding towards the edges of our ideological universe, Packer’s small but mighty book presents to us a way to think about where we are as a nation and how to adjust course. He splits the country into four “versions”; at least one of which we all can identify with: Real America, Smart America, Free America, and Just America.
The problem is that neither one of those slices is strong enough to sustain a democracy worth fighting for. Packer distills down what pieces of each can be the framework for forging ahead as a nation. Sharp, challenging, and enlightening prose from someone who doesn’t seem to write, as much as he seems to handpick the least amount of words that provide the most oomph, all without coming off as if he’s doing so.
The Swerve (Stephen Greenblatt) — The History Book
What if one story could change the world? What if one story, literally, did? Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and on and on, The Swerve is a story about how the discovery of the poem by Titus Lucretius Carus, called On the Nature of Things written in the 1st century BCE, ignited a way of thinking that still illuminates the western world today.
Throughout The Swerve we follow the tireless work of a papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who in the early 15th century discovered On The Nature Of Things, bringing to light the school of Epicurus and the notion of personal happiness and self-expression. This certainly challenged the pain/suffering/penitence grip that the church had on European thinking throughout the Middle Ages. I was blown away to learn that over two thousand years ago Lucretius was talking about how the universe was made up of atoms that do not need involvement from gods. Revolutionary thinking to say the least!
On The Nature Of Things was the spark that fueled the Renaissance, swerved European thinking, and directly inspired such minds as Galileo, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Thomas Jefferson.
The Swerve is the story of how it all happened.
How To Do Nothing (Jenny Odell) — The We-Need-This-Right-Now Book
If books could be spirit animals, this would be mine. Sure, I sing a tune of getting things done, and finishing what you start, but at the heart of it all is intentionality, of owning your verbs every moment of the day. How To Do Nothing is not a book about learning to escape to a commune or figuring out how to game the system, but of how we can take, even mini steps, towards carving out time for things we choose to do, not just the things we respond to. It’s a call, not for lethargy, but for purpose, even in our silence; because to do nothing on purpose, is friggin hard. As Jenny Odell says in the book.
We know we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations — and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found…Our very identity of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care in the same way.
I loved everything this book is and stood for in this manic, attention melee of modern life.
Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr) — The Other Book Through Time And Space
Where the Sea Of Tranquility ventured across time through time travel, Cloud Cuckoo Land is about how people and stories connect through time itself. Anthony Doerr (author of the Pulitzer winning All the Light We Cannot See) takes us from Turkey in the 15th century at the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul), to a POW camp in North Korea in the 1950’s, to a library in Lakeport, Idaho in the early 21st century, to deep space on an interstellar vessel in the 22nd century.
It’s a book about a boy and a girl, and about a different boy and his mom, and a man and his friend, and a girl and her dad; all held together by an old tale that expanded their idea of what life might be, while reminding them that what makes any of it possible are the connections we make with each other.
It kind of felt like an adult children’s book. I don’t mean that in any disparaging sense, but in a wondrous sense. The conflicting feelings I had racing towards the end of this book was like wishing away the violet afterglow of a magical sunset just so I could see the beauty of the stars. I was caught in between wanting to know how the stories all weaved together, while hoping it would never end.
When it inevitably did, I looked up, smiled, and wished I could start it all over again.
The books I read this year that didn’t make the Top 10 list:
Beneath The Scarlet Sky
The Lincoln Highway
The Mosquito Bowl
Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (My least favorite)
What If? 2
The Dawn Of Humanity
The Windup Bird Chronicle
The Glass Hotel
Happy Go Lucky
The Invisible Life Of Addie Larue
Figures In A Landscape
The Sports Gene