Around The Year in 80 Books

Posted on: December 23rd, 2021 by

I didn’t intend to read 80 books in 2021 to make for a nice little headline. It just turned out that way. Thanks to a(nother) year of isolation* both willful and ongoing pandemic-induced, my days are highlighted by three daily bibliotivities:

  1. Early morning walk accompanied by an audiobook.
  2. Early evening (shorter) walk accompanied by an audiobook.
  3. Early bedtime physical book page-turning.

You can have a look at each book via Goodreads.

*I recognize my privilege to have this as an option.

The number of books and pages I read in 2021.

Here are thoughts about some of the notable books and genres, grouped into rambling to specific categories. I don’t have a best or (good lord) a ranking from 80 to 1. Buckle up, and let’s ride. I mean, read.

All links go to Support local, independent bookstores!

For those Who Love Extremely Detailed Books About the Most Famous and Transcendent Stars of Music and Movies

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (audiobook)

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (audiobook)

In 2002 I got to see Elvis’ original guitarist, Scotty Moore, play with Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats at Schubas in Chicago. To watch Moore play “Mystery Train” was a lifetime musical highlight. It’s hard to understand how insanely popular Elvis was: the amount of records he sold, the frenzied crowds he drew. This is an extremely detailed look at Elvis’ life up to his time serving in the army. There’s also plenty about “Colonel” Tom Parker as well. If you aspire to be Elvis-obsessed, this is where to start.

If Elvis reached unknown and possibly still unreached heights of fame in the 1950s, the marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made them into the Elvis of couples. Their lifestyle, love, fame, and drinking are something to behold. It also made me curious to see all of the films they made together. I looked for ones on the Criterion Channel and ended up watching a couple movies they did separately: “The Spy Who Came into the Cold” (Burton) and “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (Taylor…opposite Brando!). Both give amazing performances in two wildly different pictures.

For Gut-Wrenching/Heart-Rendering/Unflinching Tales

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart

I was staying at a good friend’s house in Magnolia (Seattle) who has a treasure trove of books. When I went to select a new one, tbh, I prioritized a paperback I could easily carry on my daily walks. Back in the summer days when I would not only listen to an audiobook while strolling, but then sit on a park bench and read a physical book. Double-dipping! (This is how you read 80 books in a year, my friends.) Anyway, Spring Snow takes place in Japan in the early 20th century and was very engrossing and affecting. It’s actually the first of three books and the way this one ended I don’t know if I had/have the emotional fortitude to progress. But this is why you don’t read fluff, eh?

Shuggie Bain came via The Center For Fiction and its A Novel Approach experience, which I gifted to my mom (and myself) last year. A librarian interviewed the two of us separately and then together, picking nine books for each of us to read on our own and three to read together. This was our favorite of the three, though it certainly puts you through the wringer and back again. Bookshop’s blurb says, “A stunning debut novel by a masterful writer telling the heart-wrenching story of a young boy and his alcoholic mother, whose love is only matched by her pride.” So while I say it will wrench your gut and render your heart, Bookshop takes a little from column A and a little from column B and says “heart-wrenching.” Anyway, all your vital organs will be wrenched and rendered. Now how’s that for a blurb!

For Those Who Marvel at the Particular Genius it Takes to Write Short Stories

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (audiobook)

I Hold A Wolf by the Ears by Laura Ven Den Berg (audiobook)

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

During my life in wine I knew a lot of people who loved to drink the stuff, but only quaffed reds. Never whites. (Sometimes sparklings during festive times.)

Similarly, many people love to read novels, but not short stories. They just don’t dig them. To each their own.

I love short stories. Collections of them have been among the best books I’ve read over the past few years. My cup runneth over with love for the genre.

Picture of bookshelves to accompany a story about best books 2021.
Germán Poo-Caamaño via Flickr.

For Those Who Love Trees and The Birds Upon and Within

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (audiobook)

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (audiobook)

Do you know trees talk and help each other out? The Hidden Life of Trees is such a delightful trip, greatly aided by the narration if you are into audiobooks like me. I also learned about the BS of culling downed or “dead” trees, which play an important role in forest habitats and ecosystems.

I love owls! In pre-COVID times, I was planning on taking an owl-watching vacation in Utah (as one does). While said trip would be for spotting tiny flammulated owls, Owls of the Eastern Ice is all about tracking huge fish owls. This book combines my interest in trees, owls, and far-eastern Russia. Now that’s an engrossing troika.

For Those Who Want to Expand Their Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Magical Realism Horizons

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (audiobook)

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna (audiobook)

Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (audiobook)

She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Here are author quotes about the inspiration for each book:

Roanhorse (via NPR): “I have been reading epic fantasies inspired by European settings since I was a child, and while I’m still a fan of many of these works, I longed to see something different. So I wrote it.”

Forna (via Refinery29) : “I actually came up with the idea for The Gilded Ones at Spelman College. It’s just this idea that women, we are seen as objects. It doesn’t matter where in the world we are. That’s why women in my book literally bleed gold. If someone bleeds gold, then you can use that as a basic value, so that’s that metaphor right there.”

Okorafor (via The Verge): “Binti was born out of my own personal struggles with family, my own need to pursue my dreams, my need to see Africa in the future, and my experiences of traveling to distant and vastly different parts of the world in a short period of time. And then that concoction was spiced with several layers of fear — from a fear of my own decisions to a fear of outer space.”

Solomon (via Penguin): “My love of ecology, and reclaiming my place in it instead of outside of it.” 

Moore (via Powell’s): “I knew that I wanted to tell the history of Liberia when I started to write. The goal was to explore Liberia’s history, with its color and complexity, through the written word. In order to do that, I had to, of course, talk about the groups that existed before Liberia was Liberia.”

More books? Here are my favorites from 2019. Including my #2 book of all time! (Whoa.)

More books not from me? Two fellow Seattle folks share their year in reading:

Seattle Pockets

Dana Van Nest


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