My Books of 2021

An old friend texted me last week to ask why I hadn’t done a post on books I read in 2021. There is no particular reason; I did such a post in 2019, but I don’t think I did one last year. But it is fun to think back and try to reconstruct my reading over the last year, and some of our readers may be interested in my reactions to books I have read recently. So here goes.

I am getting old enough that I want to re-read books that I read a long time ago. Sometimes I enjoy them as much as I did the first time, or more; other times, not. In 2021 I re-read Anna Karenina, traditionally one of my favorite books. It is terrific, but this time I thought it was marred by a flawed ending, i.e., everything following Anna’s death.

I read Nabokov’s Ada when it came out in 1969, and have re-read it once or twice since. I returned to it in 2021 and found it still highly enjoyable, especially the early chapters. If you haven’t read Ada, you should check it out.

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite writers. I hadn’t read Tess of the d’Urbervilles for a long time, so I picked it off the shelf and read it again. It is fantastic.

George Eliot is terrific, too. I read The Mill on the Floss for the first time–not sure if that was 2020 or 2021–and thought it was great. A few months ago I re-read Silas Marner, which is really good. It is probably wasted on a lot of high school students, but with hindsight I am impressed that public high schools thought it was suitable for us.

The Charterhouse of Parma is an old favorite. Did I enjoy it as much as the first time, 25 years or so ago? Not quite, but I still recommend it if you haven’t read it.

Lament For a Maker is a terrific murder mystery by Michael Innes that I read 35 years ago. To call it a murder mystery sells it short; I enjoyed it almost as much the second time as I did long ago. I read a couple of other Innes books in 2021 that were not as substantial.

When I was a kid I loved O. Henry’s short stories. I bought a volume of them last year and read quite a number. My impression now is that there are some gems in the collection, along with some dross. But they are well worth dipping into if you are not familiar with them. “Shoes” and “Ships” are a good place to begin, along with many more famous tales.

Of the books I re-read in 2021, my favorite is Kristin Lavransdatter, the trilogy that won the Nobel Prize for Sigrid Undset in 1928. Set in Norway in the 14th century, Kristin is not only one of the greatest works of historical fiction ever, but, in my opinion, one of the foremost novels of world literature. Why did Undset set her books in the 14th century? I think because she wanted to depict life that is more intense, and in some ways more serious, than what we experience today. In my opinion, the four central characters of the books–Kristin; her father Lavrans; her husband Erlend; and Simon, to whom she was once betrothed and who later becomes her friend–are among the best-drawn in all of literature.

Of course I read a lot of new books too in 2021. I finally read the Aeneid in a lively translation by Robert Fagles. It is a tremendous book, with the familiar problem that the first half is considerably more engaging than the second.

I have been absorbed by ancient history in recent years, so for Christmas 2020 my wife gave me Mary Beard’s history of the Roman republic and early empire, SPQR. It is excellent, and the subject is endlessly fascinating.

My high school debate coach has one of America’s more remarkable book stores in Watertown, South Dakota. A couple of years ago I got a bargain price on a complete set of the Harvard Classics there, and last year I read The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. It is great, and it probably accounts for much of how we remember the Italian Renaissance. Among other things, I learned that Shakespeare’s plays set in Italy–most notably Romeo and Juliet–were ripped from the headlines. An insult in the streets, swords drawn, cousins summoned, a brawl, someone is stabbed and dies, our hero is exiled from the city: this happened, and Cellini was in the middle of it.

I don’t read a lot of books about current events–too much of a busman’s holiday. But Mollie Hemingway spoke at my organization’s Fall Briefing, and I read her book Rigged, about the 2020 election. It’s not about voting machines, but it gives a clear sense of why and how the election was, in various ways, fixed.

When I was a kid I read a great many books. Some were classics, like The Story of a Bad Boy–still a favorite, many years later–but most are not remembered as serious literature. I devoured the Hardy Boys, and read countless sports books. I can still remember the titles of some of them–Circus Catch, Rookie at the Hot Corner, Southpaw Jinx, Full Court Press, and many more.

Those books were not great literature, but I am forever grateful that I read them. Much of what I learned about life came from relatively humble children’s books that may now be forgotten, but to which I owe an eternal debt.

That habit of reading a lot of popular fiction alongside great works has persisted. In 2021, popular fiction included returning to some authors from the past. For example, Agatha Christie. I read 10 or 15 Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries last year. They are good, and offer a fascinating window into English culture over a period of several decades. The mysteries, as such, are entirely intellectual puzzles–Who had the necessary 30 seconds to commit the crime? Who is actually a person from 20 years ago who has a motive to kill the decedent?–with little or no emotional coherence. But they are fun, as evidenced by the fact that Christie has outsold every author other than Shakespeare and the Bible.

I read several P.D. James books as well. My reaction is pretty much the same as when they were newer several decades ago. They are pretty good, but don’t really grab me. But a pretty good murder mystery is worth reading.

I have followed several popular series for a number of years. Thus, as Penguin has translated and published Simenon’s Inspector Maigret books, considered by some to be among the classics of modern French literature, I have downloaded and read them. The pace has slowed a bit, but I read five or six Maigret novels in 2021. If you want to understand France, Simenon is a good place to start.

C.J. Box–Chuck to his friends–is a novelist whose books immediately rocket to the top of the best-seller lists. His principal character is Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden whose commitment to doing the right thing often lands him in trouble. The Pickett books come out once a year, and in 2021 it was Dark Sky. As always, I digested the latest Joe Pickett in a matter of hours.

Chuck’s Cassie Dewell series is also excellent. Watch for a new installment in 2022. Or start from the beginning with Back of Beyond and The Highway, one of the more riveting books I have ever read.

Gillian Bradshaw is an ancient historian and also a novelist. I read her first two books, The Lighthouse at Alexandria and The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, about the Empress Theodora, many years ago, and enjoyed them. I learned last year that she has written quite a few historical novels in the intervening years, and read four or five of them. My favorites were The Sand-Reckoner, about Archimedes, and Render Unto Caesar.

Bernard Cornwell is probably the greatest historical novelist now working. In 2020 he published War Lord, the 13th book in the Last Kingdom series, featuring a tenth-century Saxon warrior named Uhtred. I read War Lord last year. I have greatly enjoyed this series and highly recommend it. Cornwell also returned to the Richard Sharpe franchise with the first new Sharpe book, Sharpe’s Assassin, in a number of years. It is set just after the Battle of Waterloo and is very good, as you would expect.

Brad Thor is one of the most popular thriller writers. He is in the category of writers about whom I say, “It ain’t Shakespeare, but…” There is a reason why his books, starring the lethal Scot Harvath, have sold many millions of copies. In 2021 Thor published the latest Harvath book, Black Ice, set in the far North. As usual, Thor is one step ahead of the headlines.

Michael Connelly has sold many millions of books featuring Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch. The Bosch books have been turned into a very good television series on Amazon Prime. A few years ago Connelly introduced a new character, a woman detective named Renee Ballard, whom I like a lot. She has several times teamed up with the now-retired Harry Bosch, as in 2021’s The Dark Hours. It’s good.

No doubt I am forgetting some, but that is probably enough.

One more note–I didn’t read as many history books as usual in 2021, in part because I spend a lot of time listening to history lectures through The Great Courses, via I have a rather long commute to my present office, and after a couple of years of listening to top 40 country, news talk and sports talk for at least an hour a day, I decided I needed to make better use of my time. So I started listening to history lectures. It was one of the most lifestyle-enhancing decisions of recent years. I think all of the lecture series I have listened to have been good, but if you are new to the Great Courses and looking for somewhere to begin, I would recommend anything by Professor Kenneth Harl of Tulane.

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