2021 Reading Re-Cap: The Top 10

I tried to choose a favorite but every day it changes so I just listed them alphabetically by author. You should read them all!

Half of a Yellow Sun: A Novel

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published 2008

Kindle, 562 pages

A deftly crafted and unvarnished fictional account of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War which culminated in the creation of the ill-fated Republic of Biafra whose flag featured “half a yellow sun”. Most of the author’s blame goes to British imperialistic penchant for creating arbitrary boundaries. When they combined the north and south together to create Nigeria, instead of a melting pot they got a boiling pot. High-minded Nigerian socialist academics also come under the author’s withering eye. As in any and every war, lives and relationships are imperiled and Adichie’s character development is superb – the reader is drawn completely into the web of war along with them.

Jayber Crow

By Wendell Berry

Published 2000

Paperback, 363 pages

This book was a gift from a friend and what a gift, indeed! Set along the bank of the Kentucky River in the fictional town Port William which is oft used in Berry’s works, this is a book you will inhabit more than read. It’s gentle, elegiac tone was my favorite thing about it. Themes include human frailty, unrequited love, man’s spiritual nature and the importance of community. “There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.” Such a beautifully written book. Please read it.

House of Sand and Fog

By Andre Dubus, III

Published 1999

Audiobook narrated by the author (13 hours 54 minutes, 364 pages)

This is as good as contemporary fiction gets. Well crafted. Every note rings perfectly. It is a novel that turns into a thriller. The setting is California’s Bay Area and the conflict develops when an Iranian immigrant desperate to find a foothold in the United States purchases a house that, due to a bureaucratic error, was mistakenly seized from a young woman equally desperate to maintain her own foothold on life. A finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, the book was also turned into a film starring Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley.

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

By Elspeth Huxley

Published 1959

Paperback, 281 pages

Huxley was six or seven years old when her father impetuously purchased a coffee plantation in Kenya. If this brings to mind for you the theme music for Out of Africa, so be it. Huxley’s passion for the land and its people is not unlike Karen Blixen’s but her observations are made from the point of view of a child, which makes it a much different book. It is a beautifully and thoughtfully written book, and Huxley has a remarkable perspective given the time in which she wrote. She spent her childhood steeped in British colonialism but has a keen awareness that the Kenyans have their own culture and a passion for its preservation.

Klara and the Sun: A Novel

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 2021

Audiobook read by Sura Siu (10 hours 16 minutes, 320 pages)

I was a bit leery about reading this book. I hadn’t been a big fan of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and it seemed that he was wading deeper into the same dystopian waters with his latest novel. And indeed he does, this time, though, he takes a detour into a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence. Klara is a robot designed to be a special friend of a teenager who lives in a time somewhere in the near future when children are routinely “lifted” via gene editing to enhance their educational and career opportunities. I suspect that somewhere down the road this book will be regarded as a harbinger of a skid down a slippery slope in the same way some of us look back today upon Orwell’s 1984. Ishiguro’s greatest accomplishment here is in creating a character that, while clearly comprised of nuts and bolts, comes closer to embodying the concept of a soul than any of the humans around her. Deeply affecting.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

By Robert Macfarlane

Published 2019

Kindle, 495 pages

From the Mendip Hills of Somerset, England to a Time Projection Changer in a salt mine to the network of fungi whispering to trees in the forest to the Paris Catacombs to cave art in Norway, Macfarlane writes knowledgeably and exquisitely about the world that lies beneath. An astonishing read.

Peter the Great: His Life and World

By Robert K. Massie

Published 1980

Kindle, 963 pages

This was a most deserved winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Peter the Great was born in 1672 and before he died in 1725 his curiosity and enthusiasm for all things European resulted in a decisive shift bringing Russia out of isolation and into greater contact with the outside world. After Peter’s 1697-1698 “Grand Embassy” to Europe came to an end, he realized how backwards Russia was compared to the West. Upon his return to Russia, he promptly made all the men shave their long beards. Well, that was a start! He also westernized the Russian calendar and currency. Fascinated with Dutch naval advancements, he created his own fleet of ships, spending months at a time as a shipyard worker. His reign was dominated by a twenty-year war against Sweden’s Charles XII, but he found time to create the city of St. Petersburg from the marshland at the mouth of the Neva River. Exhaustive and compelling, this was a longggggg but invaluable read.

The Last Picture Show: A Novel

By Larry McMurtry

Published 1966

Paperback, 308 pages

This is the great Larry McMurtry’s coming-of-age tale set in a dusty north Texas town in the late 1950’s. I suppose you could say it is “dated” but that just enhances the read. Like Texas, the characters are larger than life. Undisciplined and unrestrained, these are mostly people who don’t follow the rules, and the ones who do seem to blown aside like so much Texas tumbleweed. The children are struggling to become adults and some of the adults behave like children. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film starring Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman and Cybill Shepherd was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards. It’s not a long book, but it cuts deep.

The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave Embattled People

Published 1957

Kindle, 232 pages

Michener just happened to have a front row seat for the exodus of Hungarian refugees into Austria via the Bridge at Andau during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. His interviews revealed the incredible against-all-odds bravery of citizens determined to resist the Soviet Union despite the hopelessness of their efforts. While there was complete Communist indoctrination of Hungarian youth in school, their families secretly provided slender lifelines of truth and when the test came, almost 100% of Hungarian youth hated Russia and tried to destroy communism. Of every hundred Russian tanks burned up in the streets of Budapest, about eighty-five were destroyed by young people under the age of twenty-one. Michener’s prescient conclusion: “There is no hope for any nation or group that allows itself to be swept into the orbit of international communism. There can be only one outcome: terror and the loss of every freedom.” An important read even – and especially – today, as political and military oppression never seems to go out of style.

Warlight: A Novel

By Michael Ondaatje

Published 2018

Paperback, 285 pages

This jewel of a novel was so good I had to read it twice. It’s brilliance is quiet so you have to stay with it, give it time. The first half is setting everything up. Be patient! The story begins by introducing the reader to London teenagers Nathaniel and Rachel. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. And because the plot develops like a mystery, I cannot give away any details for fear of spoilers. I can tell you that it is a coming of age story. That you will read about greyhound dogs and stegophilists (look it up!) That every event and every character matters, so read carefully. And then read it again!

And that’s a wrap for 2021. I’m thirteen books into 2022 and already feel so far behind. Send me your favorite reads so I can add them to my list!

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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