Best Books 2021

When I was a grade schooler in the (ahem) late 1970s, I loved going to the school library at the center of the school building’s top floor. The library room was a pass-through: on one side was a door that led to the 3rd and 4th grade rooms, and on the other side was the door to the 5th and 6th grade rooms. Weirdly, each grade’s two classes were in one big room separated by either an accordion wall or just moveable bulletin boards, and for example, to get to the 5th grade rooms, you had to traipse through the back of the 6th grade rooms. So it was a constant stream of interruptions, with children or teachers or whole classes of children and teachers opening the main door and walking behind the desks of all the other classes; no wonder I have attention-span issues.

UnknownAnyway, back to the library: I fell in love with a certain type of book: realistic stories of kids leading normal lives. I didn’t want to read science fiction or horror or fantasy or anything that was too far out of the real world. The books that got all the attention were the Judy Blume books, specifically Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great, and Superfudge. So funny and relatable for kids trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Those led me to books by another author, Constance C. Greene, and her five “Al” books:  A Girl Called Al; I Know You, Al; Your Old Pal, Al; Alexandra the Great; Just Plain Al; and Al’s Blind Date. There was something about the way she wrote with heart and warmth about characters my age who weren’t idiots that appealed to me, even though I didn’t have divorced parents or live in an apartment building in a big city like they did. I bring this up because Greene, who published 25 books, passed away in 2021, at the age of 96. If you have a grade schooler or know a grade schooler (or are a grade schooler, or act like a grade schooler), track her books down.

I managed to reach my annual “24 books by New Year’s Eve” goal: I read 27 books, or 1 every 13.5 days. These are my top ten:

Unknown1. This Will All Be Over Soon, Cecily Strong. You might know Strong, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, from Saturday Night Live, but this book is not a typical memoir and isn’t a book of funny stories or “how I got famous.” It deals with some heavy topics: the death of Strong’s close cousin at age 30, some painful events from her youth, and a fledgling relationship during the pandemic. I was avoiding reading “pandemic” books, but this one was worth it. Very honest, raw, and unexpected.

Unknown2. Bewilderment, Richard Powers. The multiple-award-winning author (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) who grew up in the Chicago suburbs (is this a pattern on this list?), Powers’ latest novel had a few things going on. This is a story about a father and son dealing with grief; a science-fiction story about searching for life on other planets; and a comment on topics as diverse as climate change and the overmedication of our youth. It took me about a third of the book to figure out what was going on; that’s a sign that a book has my attention.

Unknown3. No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), Kate Bowler. Another searing memoir, this time from a professor of religion who, at the age of 35, receives a cancer diagnosis that puts her life on hold. She walks us through the frustration and absurdity of dealing with her illness; the often misguided suggestions of the “live your best life now” self-help movement; and how to balance hope and despair while facing death.

Unknown4. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney. It seems as if I have an Irish writer on my list every year. Rooney, tagged with the “voice of her generation” label, has already had one novel turned into a BBC series (Normal People). This novel follows four characters: an Irish novelist living in a small coastal Ireland town; her Tinder date/new friend, a warehouse worker; and her two best friends from Dublin, a man and woman who may or may not have a thing for each other. Filled with Rooney’s droll humor, frank sex scenes, class issues, and ruminations on art, aesthetics, and history, it also mirrors Richard Powers’ book (described above) in addressing a generation that feels that the world as we know it is beyond repair.

Unknown5. Stories to Tell, Richard Marx. Memoir from another Chicagoland native (it is a trend!). You might know Marx from his massively successful pop ballads from the late 1980s-early 1990s (“Don’t Mean Nothing,” “Right Here Waiting,” “Hold On to the Nights”) or from his massively poufed hair. You should know him for his ability to speak his mind on social media. This book is the best type of memoir: a rise/fall/rise again story with tons of name dropping (Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Loggins, and a cast of dozens more) and wild stories you don’t see coming, like his dealing with a Covid-like illness starting in 2019, or his band fleeing a Taiwanese gangster on a race to the airport. Good read.

Unknown6. How to Live, or A  Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. This biography examines the life and writing of Michel de Montaigne, whose essays in the 1500s in France arguably were the first time someone wrote honestly about their innermost thoughts and published them for the world to see. There’s a through-line from his writing to the personal blogs and Instagram of today. You have the sense when reading Montaigne all these centuries later of, “how did he spell out what has been in my brain?” Some 250 years after Montaigne’s death, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life.” Bakewell puts Montaigne’s writing in the context of the constant wars raging around his hometown his whole life.

Unknown7. Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor. Kastor, the great American marathoner, writes the story of how strengthening her mind did more for her running career than logging miles ever did. Not just for runners, her backstory is amazing enough (adopted at birth, no one in her family had any running experience, and it was a total shock to them and her when she immediately had success in grade school), but the mind games she lays out would work for anyone struggling with goal setting.

Unknown8. Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman. A great summer read, humorist Hodgman is recognizable as the PC in the old Apple commercials (vs. Justin Long as the Mac) and as a former Comedy Central The Daily Show correspondent. His earlier books were satirical almanacs with made-up facts; this is an actual memoir of Hodgman’s life, focusing on his family’s vacation homes in Massachusetts and Maine. Very funny.

Unknown9. Brat: An ’80s Story, Andrew McCarthy. Best known as a member of the “Brat Pack,” young actors labeled Hollywood’s next big thing; even though McCarthy was in some of what we consider the “Brat Pack” films (“Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Less Than Zero”), he was a New Yorker who wasn’t actually close with any of the other actors he was lumped with. McCarthy, now a travel writer and director, focuses on the early, years-of-struggling part of his career and his difficult relationship with his father.

Unknown10. Yearbook, Seth Rogen. The funniest book I read all year. This memoir is pretty much what you would expect and more from Rogen, an actor/writer/producer: stories from when he was a child, including starting his standup career in middle school; lots of weed smoking; and great vignettes about famous people (his description of two very uncomfortable encounters with Nicolas Cage is a standout, and I’m guessing they will never work together if Cage read this book.)

Books that just missed the top ten: I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, Erin Carlson; Before the Ruins, Victoria Gosling; Good Company, Cynthia D’Aprix; Live Your Life, Amanda Kloots; Paul Simon: A Life, Robert Hilburn.