My Top Five 2021 Nonfiction Reads

More than half of the books I read in 2021 appear to be nonfiction (tracking and math are not precise) which kind of surprised me.  But I did have a goal of reading a great many books on Saint Paul of which more anon, as they say.  So what were my favorites?

Here are five of the non-Paul focused nonfiction that stood out to me from 2021 (books I read, not that were published last year):

A book that is hard to say “I liked it” given how depressing and challenging it is. I am far from an expert on these things but I found it all too persuasive in its underlying argument about decadence. The chapter Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly depressing. I wish I had a brilliant answer as to how to get out of the seeming cul-de-sac we find ourselves in but, alas, I do not. 

An insightful and challenging book that forces you to acknowledge the challenges our culture presents for people of faith and those who seek to pass on that faith to the next generation. While there is a tad too much jargon in places, and it is also earnest at times, it really is a great outline for thinking about encouraging and inculcating deeper faith in young people and adults alike. The idea of call, community, creed and hope for the future is something I will be chewing on and working out for some time. If you have an interest in youth ministry, church revitalization or just faith in the modern world, highly recommended.

A discursive, and sometimes elusive, meditation on freedom that touches on evolution, history, science, sociology, economics, and psychology, among other things. Thought provoking and a bit haunted.

A mix of personal and historical reflections centered on Juneteenth, this was an interesting read. As someone with a background in history, I appreciated her perspective and enjoyed the way she attempted to flush out her own feelings and approach to history and the complex and difficult issue of race and slavery in America. At times it felt too thin, like it could have dug a little deeper into the history. The arguments, such as they are, come tangentially and through a mix of history and family stories. When I first saw it in the bookstore I was hoping for a short history of the event and subsequent holiday but enjoyed this book anyways. A quick and thought provoking read that brings a personal element to this day and its context.

Honest, playful, melancholy, at times dark, yet hopeful Mackall packs a lot into this short volume. Wonderful exploration of family, history, stories and their impact on our lives. Both a book to read for the content and for the writing itself.


Interlibrary Loan by Gene Wolfe

Having realized that the book I bought was the second book in a series, I finished A Borrowed Man and started back up with Interlibrary Loan.

Hundreds of years in the future our civilization is shrunk down but we go on. There is advanced technology, there are robots.

And there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person, his personality an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

As such, Smithe can be loaned to other branches. Which he is. Along with two fellow reclones, a cookbook and romance writer, they are shipped to Polly’s Cove, where Smithe meets a little girl who wants to save her mother, a father who is dead but perhaps not.

And another E.A. Smithe… who definitely is.

My quick take: Interesting and thought provoking in ways but felt disjointed and confusing at the end. BTW, I also realized that don’t really enjoy mysteries where you are supposed to figure out the clues as you go or novels with layers of meaning you are supposed to peel back with multiple readings if you don’t catch them at first.

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Library Trip: Short Books to Read in 2022

As I have probably mentioned before, despite having hundreds of books to read at home I have been unable to get out of the habit of going to the library and bringing a haul of books home. Yesterday, I made such a trip.

I focused on short fiction (I’m reading Dune and so need some shorter books to read) and found these three intriguing.

Comfort Me with Apple by Catherine M. Valente

I have a love/hate relationship with Valente in some ways. Her Fairyland books are some of my favorite books in the world but the other books I have read have left me cold. And yet, I keep reading…

Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze….

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

Trust by Domenico Starnone

Italian fiction translated by Jhumpa Lahiri?  Sure, I’ll check that out…

Pietro and Teresa’s love affair is tempestuous and passionate. After yet another terrible argument, she gets an idea: they should tell each other something they’ve never told another person, something they’re too ashamed to tell anyone. They will hear the other’s confessions without judgment and with love in their hearts. In this way, Teresa thinks, they will remain united forever, more intimately connected than ever.

A few days after sharing their shameful secrets, they break up. Not long after, Pietro meets Nadia, falls in love, and proposes. But the shadow of the secret he confessed to Teresa haunts him, and Teresa herself periodically reappears, standing at the crossroads, it seems, of every major moment in his life. Or is it he who seeks her out?

Starnone is a master storyteller and a novelist of the highest order. His gaze is trained unwaveringly on the fault lines in our public personas and the complexities of our private selves. Trust asks how much we are willing to bend to show the world our best side, knowing full well that when we are at our most vulnerable we are also at our most dangerous.



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Five Favorite Fiction I Read in 2021

Looking back on the fiction I read in 2021, nothing jumps out at me as exceptional.  Let me rephrase that, nothing struck me as “Wow, you have to read this book!” Instead, there were lots of “Hmm, that was interesting.”  These were books that held my interest but didn’t wow me; books that make you want to drop what you are doing so you can block out a chunk of time to read. Or maybe the pandemic has just taken the luster off of everything…

As an aside, as I mentioned in my 2021 Reading By the Numbers post, with Goodreads, I have a tendency to overrate books; giving 4 stars when looking back I don’t feel like I “really” enjoyed it.  There is such a fine line between enjoying a book and really liking it. Which is why I have been wishing for half stars for many years.

Nevertheless, I did read some entertaining and interesting novels in 2021.  Here are five that stood out:

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures  by Jennifer Hofmann

A sort of dark and gritty espionage novel but with a supernatural element haunting it and a Kafkaesque style. At first it reads like a typical missing person/spy story but then the combination of the paranoia that comes from living in an authoritarian state where the government is spying on everyone, and everyone is spying on each other, plus a mysterious illness (and perhaps a mental breakdown) leads to things begining to spin.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Grabbed this on Kindle for $2 so that is a plus. I enjoyed reading this and found it fascinating but it also felt like there was deeper meanings that I was missing or some key to the whole thing that I just couldn’t quite grasp. I am not really very good at unpacking symbolism and layers in fiction.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Quick but enjoyable read. I really enjoyed the mix of Ghana, futuristic and fantastical elements. Has a sense of the mythological even as it is science fiction.

How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff

More espionage and more dark humor. A sort of noir espionage thriller that is dark and yet with a kind of wit and humor. A psychological exploration of grief and depression through the eyes of a spy. I really like Beside the Syrian Sea so not surprised I liked this as well.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

This was one I struggled with rating. I enjoyed it and found it creative and in some ways insightful. But it was also rather depressing and hard to read at times. My natural prudishness didn’t help given the plethora of F-bombs, etc.  But it kept me reading and a unique and imaginative debut.

I am hoping to offer more detailed posts on each of these books as I go through the books I read in 2021 but given my track record I wanted to highlight them as among my favorites.