Last year I read a little less than two-hundred books. That’s a lot, I think, even for me. And because the year’s over, now’s as good a time as any to list the ten best books I read in 2021, in order from the good to the great.
Both nonfiction and fiction are eligible. The only limiting criteria is that the works be in the English language. That caveat is hardly necessary, as I didn’t read enough German-language books last year for it to make much of a difference one way or the other. And my Spanish is nowhere good enough yet for me to have read anything besides primers, and Juan va al Supermercado is not cracking my top-ten.
And now, without further Apu:
10. The Glamour Factory: Inside’s Hollywood’s Big Studio System by Ronald L. David. “Exhaustive” and “entertaining” aren’t two adjectives I’m usually inclined to pair with each other, and yet this time the pairing’s warranted. This guy does such a good, thorough job of showing how the various Hollywood backlots in the Golden Age were their own ecosystems. These worlds-within-worlds had their own strange rhythms, warrened with screenwriter sweatshops and prop departments. Yes, there were cynical calculations constantly being made by the money men with the green eyeshades and the schmattas-turned-producers, but the magic was real, too. It wasn’t uncommon to see elephants convoying beneath a plaster Tower of Babel, or to see cowboys and Egyptian pharaohs in the cantina eating ham sandwiches together. There’s some dishing and scandal, but the proceedings aren’t as sleazy or schadenfreude-laden as those of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Still, did you know Humphrey Bogart was bald, and only a very skilled wig craftsman with a very expensive hairpiece kept us all none-the-wiser?
9. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Dr. Katie Mack. How the hell do you write a book about the end of our universe, the obliteration of everything we’ve ever known, and not have it be a bummer? Dr. Mack has done it here. She explains cool-but-terrifying concepts like the Big Crunch, an unpleasant corollary to the Big Bang that got us all here (according to the background radiation signature, anyway). It’s not all grim and apocalyptic though, as Dr. Mack posits an astrophysicist’s version of the Katechon using calculations I can’t begin to understand. In a nutshell, she says that a “leak” in gravity means that there could be many adjacent universes for us to escape to when things go to shit here. It’s a fascinating, engaging book that’s as wondrous as it is terrifying. And most important for the knuckleheaded layman, it’s accessible without being patronizing, which can sometimes be a problem when the oversimplifications become too simple or burdened with dad jokes.
8. Weird Tales: The Unique Magazine, Spring 1988 George Wolfe, Gene Barr, Others. Did I say I couldn’t include anthologies? Regardless, this one deserves to be on the list. The quality of these stories is uniformly strong, and their content and style’s diverse enough so that it doesn’t feel like slogging through another book of Lovecraft pastiches. A standout tale is what for me is the definitive F. Paul Wilson story. The piece deals with an ancient, chairbound lady who uses a young maid’s body as a vessel so she can have sex with a confused, then mortified handyman; imagine Avatar with a pervy geriatric broad with a headful of blue rinse Youth Dew and you’re in the ballpark. The black and white illustrations are sumptuous, lurid, and the thing is a true pulptastic objet d’art in its own right. I wish I were better at hanging onto things, as this would have been a cool addition to my nonexistent collection. Alas, perhaps it’s better to lend and lose than to horde and let said-collection molder and gather dust, untouched.
7. Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta. I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, though I tend to enjoy straightforward genre forays more than the intentionally literary. I’ll read John Cheever or Raymond Carver and can even admire it. But I’d rather forget the style and focus on getting lost in the content, preferably supernatural or otherwise-speculative. That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for Tom Perrotta, and his gimlet-eyed view of seemingly normal people in the suburbs. He can be both scathing and compassionate, sometimes within the space of a single sentence. His stories about youths struggling with their sexuality in high school evoke that strange, pained romantic ache that still occasionally stirs when I think about my own past. The world of normal people, struggling with mortgages and driving their SUVs, is as alien to me as it is familiar to him. I see these people at the grocery store exchanging pleasantries, or queuing up dutifully at Starbucks, but I don’t know what that world looks like from the inside. Perrotta lets us not just peek but gaze into this seemingly well-ordered universe, where people are experiencing just as many crises as the most desperate, albeit more quietly. “Hanging on in quiet desperation,” is the English way, and Americans prefer the meteoric ascent of Horatio Alger (or even Tony Montana) rather than dealing with the nuances of class. As Paul Fussell noted, we’re even required to pretend class doesn’t exist in most contexts, unless you want to look like a real sorehead. That makes Perrotta, with his keen eye for social hierarchies and no shyness about peeling back the layers, a massive outlier in modern American letters. No, he’s not the only one writing about class but he’s the only modern scribe I’ve found who writes about it without making the experience excruciating. And when you consider that what should be tedious closet dramas are painfully funny tableaux in his hands, that makes him a genre of one. Which is the highest compliment you can pay a writer.
Perrotta also describes action much better than most literary writers. See Exhibit A: a story about an Asian overachieving softballer with a “Tiger Dad,” who hops out of the grandstands when his daughter gets beaned with a fastball. Like Mike Judge, Perrotta comes off more like an ex-athlete than an artiste and something about his roughness is refreshing where we expect the stultifying.
6. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem by Carol Delaney. Here’s another reminder that those chapters of history about which we think we know the most are still occluded with mysteries, unexplored truths, and as-yet unchallenged lies. For some, Columbus is the embodiment of the adventuresome spirit that has animated Western exploration for centuries. For others, he’s a genocidal sociopath whose complete disregard for the Natives already inhabiting the Americas makes him a wrecker of all that was beautiful in this precolonial continent. In progressive theology, he functions a bit like Lucifer in the Bible, the original angel cast down for his great hubris who has damned all associated with him. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. The book is filled with fascinating details, like how Columbus barely avoided being killed in mutiny, or how his dead reckoning navigational skills rival our most sophisticated instruments today. Most crucial of all, the fulcrum upon which this revisionist thesis turns, is that his brother was actually the one who started the brutal killings of the indigenous people. Columbus, sadly, was unaware of this, rotting in prison for failing in the task for which he would later be lauded, and then again condemned, finally subjected to iconoclasm. Madame Delaney circumnavigates the centuries with a brave and intrepid sort of aplomb, without malice or agenda, a kind-hearted conquistador, if such a contradictory thing can exist.
5. Writing your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save our Lives by James M. Brown. “Art isn’t a support system for life,” Stephen King once observed. “It’s the other way around.” No one struggles fundamentally with survival, the question of “To live or die,” quite like the addict. And yet, if this book had only been a tool, a workbook to be completed as part of a therapy regimen, it wouldn’t be on this list. It’s here because the balance between aesthetic considerations and spiritual advice is so perfect. Ultimately its greatness lies in the book’s focus on developing and honing craft as much as on breaking free of the hold of drugs. Brown has the clearest voice and most enviably clean style of any writer currently working. It always pisses me off, because I’m one of those magician’s understudies always trying to find out how the trick is done. But, like Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson, his seemingly simple style can’t really be broken down into its constituent parts by examining it word for word. Take it from me; I’ve tried. It almost drives a man to do drugs.
4. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. I somehow managed to get through not just my undergrad years, but through a master’s program. And yet I spent most of my college days seated in a classroom feeling my time being wasted in excruciating, brain-numbing, and pointless ways. Occasionally I found a brilliant professor who was passionate about their subject. And then, for that short time, the classroom became everything we associate with college in our hazy, ivy-clad, tweed and patched corduroy fantasies of what it should be. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain isn’t so much a book as a master course with a brilliant, shatterpated professor whose enthusiasm for Russian literature is contagious. He makes you care about his obsessions, and does it so ably that by the end of the book, you find yourself sharing his love. This is even more remarkable when one considers that none of my favorite Russian writers (Ivan Bunin, Dostoyevsky, etc.) have pieces in this collection. A lot of lesser-known and seemingly uneventful slice-of-life stories by Turgenev or Tolstoy appear here, tales I would have found interminable slogs without this genius exegesis. Hell, about the only story I dug on its own terms, without Saunders’ scholarly gloss, was Gogol’s old surreal yarn about the sentient, walking, talking nose. Someone (I forgot who) once said that the only sin an artist could commit was to be boring. Perhaps the greatest act a teacher can perform is to take what we might otherwise regard as boring and make it not just tolerable, but actually exciting. I’ve never had this much fun reading about peasants musing about birds while strolling through the woods, or seeing kulaks suffering silently at small train stations in remote villages.
And aside from the stories, Saunders’ observations about aesthetics and musings on his own life are also worth their weight in gold, or at least worth quoting and remembering.
3. Writer of the Purple Rage by Joe R. Lansdale. There’s a big difference between humorous writing and funny writing. “Humorous” involves an intellectual reaction, the mind responding to something and categorizing it. Funny is what we call something when it elicits laughter, an involuntary reaction that’s hard to get even from a movie or standup comedian. And in the theater or at the club, the performers have the advantage of plentiful audio and visual cues. It’s much, much harder to write something that’s funny enough to make you laugh. This collection—with its stories about rednecks lighting themselves on fire, battling alligators, and accidentally chopping up groundhogs—is simultaneously funny and horrifying. I may have read one or two better books this year, but nothing else gave me this kind of pleasure. How many books can you classify as painkillers, works that really make life with all of its myriad boredoms, disappointments, and agonies somehow more bearable? Also, like his forebear in short mass market tales of terror, Richard Matheson, Lansdale is ten parts talent to zero parts pretension. He’s so entertaining (and occasionally gross) that you forget he’s brilliant, and has a serious soul to go with the wicked sense of humor.
2. About the Author by John Colapinto. There’s an interview with Mr. Colapinto in the back of my copy of this book in which he says, somewhat shamefacedly, this book took him fourteen years to write. I don’t know why he’s embarrassed. If it had taken him forty years to write something this good, this scandalous and suspenseful, it would have been a life well-spent. This is an uncomfortably honest book about jealousy, insecurity, and the horrible things humans are willing to do in order to be respected, and even loved. Every horrible act committed by this book’s protagonist makes us love him more, and root him on that much more vehemently. What kind of genius does it take to make us cheer on a plagiarist who steals his dead roommate’s manuscript and claims it as his own work? He doesn’t even alienate our sympathies when he goes on to woo said-dead roomie’s girlfriend.
About the Author is sick, beautiful, and ingenious. That rare, perfect book, without a wasted word. You can race through it in twenty-four hours but would do well to slowly savor it. Regardless, you’ll probably want to read it again at some point. I know I already do.
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. My buddy had been nagging me for a long time to read this, but I’d held off for a while. It’s over a thousand pages, and, like much of the American public, my interest in Westerns waxes and wanes in cycles I don’t quite understand. I was deep in the “wax” phase when I finally capitulated to my buddy’s demand. I started reading, expecting a sappy, romantic book about the closing down of the frontier, something like the literary equivalent of a Hallmark movie on the sunkissed range. Instead I got probably the most epic and compelling tale of human endurance I’ve read since James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. McMurtry’s ability to put the reader in the heads and souls of all of these men and women is remarkable. He goes from poignant, minutiae-laden tiny moments in bedrooms or saloons—showing us a prostitute’s thoughts or a pianist’s desires— out onto the wild expanse of the plains. It really gives the reader the sense that this is what people mean when they talk about a “God’s Eye View” of things: these sweeping, breathtaking vistas, cattle drives, and battles on the one hand, and the rare tender moments where people lay their souls bare, if only silently to the stars. Every twenty or thirty pages or so, following these characters about who I came to care and in whom I came to believe, I would just shake my head. Then I would curse myself for a fool for putting off reading the book so long. My buddy was right. This thing is a fucking miracle, and it restored my waning faith in what literature can do when the writer really gives a damn and tries to their utmost. An epic that earns the oft-used but nigh-never warranted mantle.
Lonesome Dove is not just in my top ten for the year. It’s in my Top Ten for All Time.
And that’s all she wrote. See you jamokes in 2023, if we’re both still here, and the world’s still here with us.