The Year 2021 Retrospective #3 - Books

Well, it was a good reading year again, thanks in part to me picking back up with Audible, giving me an audio book a month (although it usually takes me more than a month to listen to a book, so I paused the sub and later rejoined with a book / every other month).

I noticed some interesting trends in my reading this time. A number of these were actually story collections. Secondly, I have a ton of books bought on my kindle and bookshelf that I haven’t gotten to in years, so I made it a point to go back and give favor half the time to these long-awaited reads, and it paid off. Finally, in a couple of cases I’d be half-way through a book and decide, yea, I’m done. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, in fact I was, but for other reasons I’ll tell you when it’s time.

In the fiction category I read 24 books, five of which were story collections in some way. Eight novels were audiobooks (always unabridged, anything else is a sin).

My favorite of 2021 by far was
The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers. It won the Pulitzer Prize the year it came out. It deserved it. Every story in this interrelated collection is about trees. The stories don’t immediately connect but do eventually. Unlike a couple of other collections I’ve read recently where I’d lost interest, I never did here. Each was so well written, with such fascinating characters in unique situations and emotion. When the stories begin merging it had more of a novel feel, but I could not put it down. Did not want to put it down nor wanted it to end. Something resonated with me on the subject perhaps, or the writing. Or whatever. It has become one of the top 10 favorite books of my lifetime, no question, maybe even top five.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories
by Raymond Carver. This thin little book of stories by famed short story writer Carver was an impulse purchase purely from the beautiful cover (and admittedly I thought I was buying a collection from Raymond Chandler). The stories were very slice of life but simple, and beautiful, and each left you hanging with a single emotion which had played out. Loved this little book.

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis: I have read quite a lot of Lewis in the past few years, but ironically still haven’t read his most famous non-fiction book Mere Christianity. I still haven’t. But I did read The Great Divorce, non-fiction disguised as fiction so it goes in this section. An absolutely brilliant, clever allegory for salvation. How people in a literal Hell are allowed to take a bus and go to heaven, and the reasons they give for saying no. At times amusing but often pretty frightening how accurate his insight into people’s motivation can be. Lewis has, over these past few years, become one of my favorite authors.

Authority: Southern Reach Trilogy, Book 2 by Jeff Vandermeer: One of my favorite films of the past few years has been ANNIHILATION (2018), based on the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. Or so I thought. I was struck when reading the first book last year how different it and the film were. Finishing the second, I’m understanding that the filmmakers used elements from all three volumes. Authority was… how do I put this?... if someone could write a coherent novel but have it read like one of my weirder dreams, this would be it. It gets inside your psyche, with very little action. It’s a brilliant novel for the sheer uniqueness of it. Is it bizarro fiction? Close, but I would categorize it as dreamlike fiction written by a madman (no offense, Jeff). Loved it and am jumping into the finale this coming year. (side note: Bronson Pinchot was the perfect narrator for the audiobook).
Others I enjoyed: The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George (obscure title written and narrated with such light joy and brevity I let myself get swept up in the story, which never got too deep, and French locations; All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, (another Pulitzer winner I got to finally get caught up with, the stories of a German soldier and blind French girl in WWII, tremendous writing with unexpected turns); All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot (one of my Mom’s favorites it’s really a series of vignettes disguised as chapters, and some scenes might turn your stomach they’re pretty graphic - he’s a local farm veterinarian be aware).

Abaddon's Gate & Cibola Bun (The Expanse Books 3 & 4) by James S.A. Corey – got hooked on this series about a year or so ago, and the story has gone in a fascinating direction with the ol’ Protomolecule. Volume 4 wasn’t my favorite (some motivations of characters can’t be forced), but it’s leading the story in fascinating directions and I look forward to reading the next one. I guess the series finally ended with volume 9? I have a long way to go.

Mystery Road
by Kevin Lucia is a special Cemetery Dance novella I was so glad to finally be able to read. Honestly a simple but visually striking story, with real people and a lot of heart. I’ve always loved Lucia’s stories and would put this one at the very top of his work.

The Hungry Earth by Nicholas Kaufmann – a back to basics, old-fashioned (and at times pretty gross, maybe I have a thing against fungi) horror novel. Small town overrun by alien fungal spores. Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Stranger Things. One of Nick’s titles seems to make this list every year.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has been on by TBR list forever, and another Pulitzer winner for good reason: writing, imagery, stellar yet very slow paced plot, and extremely depressing. You get to love the main character, miserable as his life is. Partly his fault and a series of events but in the end, man … midway through this massive tome everything seems to work out perfectly for him so I stopped reading. After weeks of being with this kid, to see him reach a point where if it ended then, would be a happy ending, I stopped. My choice. There’s enough misery in the world. I’m sure everything works out.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac – finally got to this classic. Kerouac could write! Such natural rhythms and beat (no pun intended). It was a year of not finishing books I was enjoying. The main character, ostensibly Kerouac himself, was a drug-infused, uninspired lump of a person with very little motivation except to wander and see what random moment in life might be around the corner. In moderation this can be a good thing, but he had no moderation. It was tough to live with this guy for too long so 3/4 through I decided to go back to the responsible world and left him to his drug-addled adventure. Still glad I read this.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler – another classic but so, so dark. Considering when it was written I can understand how Butler thought the world could fall into this crumbling dystopia. Her writing is enviable, so beautiful (and wonderfully narrated on Audible). Another really depressing story, however, so not sure I’ll continue to the next in the series.

I need to end this article. Other fiction books I read and enjoyed last year: The Sirens of Titan: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut – quickly Kurt’s 60’s sci-fi novel was fun and weird and I keep forgetting how great a writer Vonnegut was, not to mention unconventional; The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan – I had this book forever, finally caught up with this classic Christian allegory on audiotape. There’s a reason Classics are Classics. Way ahead of its time – written in 1677 it was pretty simply written and talked of some pretty suggestive (both sex and sin in general) stuff for a puritan era book); Sight Reading
by Daphne Kalotay – an impulse buy on vacation last year because of the cover though interesting story of some self-obsessed characters;
Rogue Protocol: The Murderbot Diaries 3 by Martha Wells - enjoying Wells’ series but these were short novellas that the publisher charges full book rates for so that fact finally began o irritate me – this entry feels more like filler though compared to the amazing first two volumes; Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories: An On Spec 25th Anniversary Retrospective edited by Walston, Hammond & Marston; Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang; Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher - so many books in this series, wanted to see what all the fuss was about - fun, and well written, I can see the appeal; Long Way Gone by Charles Martin and Well of Furies (Predator Space Chronicles, Vol 1) by Craig DeLancy – was pleasantly surprised by DeLancy, catchy opening, good characters and interesting universe.

I read ten Non-Fiction books as well

Stand-Up Comedy: The Book by Judy Carter – got this in my stand-up class in ’20 and it’s a great introduction to the craft.
Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication by Andy Stanley & Lloyd James – a great book on how to simplify and structure sermons so the main point isn’t lost in too many points!
The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova – I liked this. Prefer Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction more, but am a major fan of the late Ben Bova’s book. There is a lot here to help ons craft, though.
The Love Dare by Alex & Stephen Kendrick – good book on building bonds with your spouse, Linda and I did this together. 40 points, one a day. Really good and insightful.
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller – one of favorite Christian books is Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. SfGKW has his trademark humor and relaxed style, maybe a little more serious showing a little more maturity.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
by Dee Brown – I was one of the first generations to actually be taught, occasionally, that the “Indians” weren’t always, if ever, the bad guys in the Old West expansion, and this book likely had a lot to do with it. Covering the expansion but from the Native American perspective (they still used term Indian in the book), you come to realize how miserable life was for them, because of our ancestors.
Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will by Kevin DeYoung – a short, decent book which is a good kick in the pants to not lay around the house and wait for God’s direction, but do something and know that He’ll back you up. As long as whatever you’re doing lines up with His nature. Louder Than Words: The Power of Uncompromised Living by Andy Stanley – I think I enjoyed this but honestly don’t remember much about it. Bad sign, I suppose, lol.
Author's Accountability Planner 2021 by 4 Horsemen Publications – loved, loved this workbook for writers to track my words written, projects, etc for writing every day. Takes a couple of minutes, maybe 10 once a week to summarize. Kept me on my toes and was like having a writing coach beside me. Highly recommend you jump into the 2022 this year
There were some I didn’t finish not for the reason sI might have given above, but that they just weren’t clicking for me. Some of the bigger names, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia… I just couldn’t get into it, try as I might because everyone was raving about it. Also, tried one more time to read the final installment of the Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke and got about a third of way in, but there really was no plot, just the character discovering the wonders of civilization 1000 years in the future. I have a feeling the ending, from a couple comments seen now and then, would have been an answer to the obelisks which would have been a letdown (think INTESTELLAR or where Scott is moving to in the ALIN prequels), so maybe it’s better not to bother. I like Clarke’s writing, normally, it’s simple and to the point, but this one just didn’t work. There were others I dropped but everyone’s mileage varies so I won’t mention them. Besides this has gone on long enough. We’ll see what adventures await this year.


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