Halfway through 2021, I retired from teaching at VCU and set out on whatever this next chapter may bring. The books listed here (only three of which were actually published in 2021), have informed and inspired me along the way. Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:
Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War (Grove Press): I knew Gellhorn only as Hemingway’s second wife, but discovered her brave and brilliant war reportage while trying to process our pullout from Afghanistan. The essays in this book (D-Day invasion, Nazi concentration camp liberation, Vietnam, etc.) focus on the grunts and civilians, not the generals, and in every hard-won line Gellhorn’s love of mankind and hatred of what we do to each other gleams. Of late, there seems to be a much-belated effort to recognize female war correspondents. Gellhorn’s book, for me, was a revelation.
Ted Goia – Delta Blues (Norton): I have a wide bookshelf of musicophilia ranging from early jazz to post-punk, and have written young adult biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Presley. This book bowled me over. Goia is a masterful musicologist, who devotes a chapter to each of the leading pioneers of country blues, while weaving in pretty much everything known about the evolution of blues music from slavery days to the present (and making the case for blues as the lodestone of American popular music in general). He’s a dazzling writer. The chapter on Howling Wolf, whose childhood was a horror, is alone worth the price of the book.
Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper). Gob-smacked. You may think you know this story, but believe me, there’s a surprise on nearly every page of this beautifully written book that pulls together research from nearly every scientific field to tell the tale of how weakling bipeds on the plains of Africa raced to very quickly overrun the planet. It’s not pretty, but wow.
Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped from the Beginning (Bold Type): I launched into this 600+ page history of white supremacist oppression in America in 2020, during the Floyd-Taylor protest marches, and finished it early this year, having learned so much about how – since the 1600s – racism has served the masters, been encoded in law, and continues to color our lives today. I’ve read several books on this topic of late; so far this one’s my favorite.
Ted Kooser — The Poetry Home Repair Manual (U of Nebraska): Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, subtitled this book Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and it’s all that. So many instructional writing texts float on theory or fluff, but this one focuses on communicating one’s observations clearly and interestingly. I’m taking his well-grounded advice to heart, reworking some of my clunkier poems and enjoying the effort.
George Saunders — A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House): My old friend, the author Paul Witcover, gave me two of the books on this list (dude knows me well). This one is a retirement present subtitled: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The master teacher here is witty, insightful author George Saunders, and the method is reading short works by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol, glossed by Saunders to goose you along in better understanding the mechanics and the magic of fiction writing (like Kooser’s book, all in the service of clear communication).
Suzanne Simard – Finding the Mother Tree (Knopf). One of my fave books from last year, The Hidden Life of Trees, propounds a “wood-wide web” of nurturing communication among trees and other forest plants, which led me to this remarkable book by the scientist who discovered that network. She explains her forest experiments, devotedly studying nerve-like synaptic root systems, and promotes the notion of “mother trees” that have a sort of memory shared with saplings to protect them from disease and trauma. Clear-cutting, she argues, kills the mother trees, so new growth is weaker, less resilient, and prone to failure.
Jack Trammell and Guy Terrell – Civil War Richmond (History). You may know Trammell as the Democrat defeated by the aptly named Dave Bratt in a Virginia 7th District Congressional race. You may not know that he’s a noted sociologist and historian who has written 20 books. This new one, co-authored with Virginia poet Guy Terrell, digs deep into the maelstrom that was our sleepy capitol city during the Civil War, attending to untold stories of free and enslaved Black people, the wounded and sick, and those with disability or gender differences, while challenging what we think we know about where we live and how we got here. (Lots of gripping photos, too.)
Douglas Wolk — All of the Marvels (Penguin). As a kid in the 1960s, I haunted our local drug store for the early issues of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and pretty much anything Marvel every month. My kids have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that interprets those comics in interesting ways. So when my fellow geek friend Paul sent me this book, oh what a rabbit hole I fell into! Wolk says he’s read all 27,000+ Marvel comics; in this book he pulls together the key themes of what he calls the “epic of epics”. Fortunately, there’s an MCU app that stores most of these comics online. Currently spending way too much time on my iPad, re-reading the old comics to follow Wolk’s inspired guidance.
David Young – Du Fu: A Life in Poetry (Knopf). There is no greater poet than the ancient Chinese wanderer Du Fu (used to be Tu Fu). I have three translations of his work and always carry one with me on my own travels. This new version (2019) serves as a sort of memoir, the poems freshly translated, then arranged chronologically in sections introduced by notes on what the poet was up to at the time of their composition.
Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this very odd year! Share a comment, if you will, about your own perusals. Happy Holiday Shopping to you – let’s all buy this year’s holiday gift books from local indy bookstores – after all, Jeff Bezos is rich enough, ain’t he?
Here in Richmond, my favorite bookstore is Book People, owner David a kind and devoted bibliophile.
In Charlottesville, New Dominion Bookshop on the downtown mall is my go to.
btw, Washington Post’s list of Ten Best Books of 2021.