What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year – not necessarily the 10 best, or those I enjoyed most (though I recommend all on both counts) but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, though some were, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2021. This was, if nothing else, another good year to kick back and read.
They’re listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking, which would be too problematic for books as different as these.
Jessica Bruder – Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017). “Surviving” is the key word here. This is a portrait of a new American subculture, one of people – retirement age mainly but not entirely – who can no longer afford decent housing, owned or rental, and in most cases have run out of housing options altogether; so, they take the road. They work at temp or short-term jobs (at Amazxon warehouses, forest lands, wherever they can find something to bring in a little money) and clump together in vans, RVs or even cars in low-cost places to stay. Many approached it with the hope of finding a freer, more open life; many of them discover something else, something much harsher, a side of America most of us would rather not acknowledge. Written plainly and mostly unemotionally, it was one of the more haunting reads I’ve had in recent years.
Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford – Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (2021). And no, I did not include this just to tick off the state of Texas. There is a broad message here about how and why historical mythologies develop. Especially the why; the Alamo was not quite so big a deal in Texas (where it still is in fact a very big deal) until people began to figure out that emphasizing the central role of slavery in the development of Texas (specifically, its detachment from Mexico) was not especially good PR. For me, once I absorbed the fact (as I had not before reading this) that slavery was abolished in Mexico about four decades before it was north of the border, quite a few historical developments fell into place. Useful history, useful commentary, presented entertainingly. Little wonder certain power people in Texas just hate it.
David Graeber and David Wengrow – The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). Many people may read this as a counter or even a rebuke to among other books Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and the authors (one of them now deceased) might not have had a problem with that, since they took on several keynotes of the GGS approach to broad human history. Take a step further back and you find those books, and others, working together: Each contributing large chunks to a very large puzzle. That puzzle lies in working out of the contours of how human beings got from where they were 100,000 or so years ago, to now – and to what extent those developments, in broad strokes, were inevitable. The Graeber and Wengrow addition to this discussion centers on the useful idea that human development was hit and miss, trial and error, and that we had and still have the ability to construct our societies in different ways. Every attempt at “big picture” human history I’ve seen has been married somewhat by authorial biases, and this one is no exception (Graeber was a long-time outspoken anarchist). But this is one of the most useful pieces of analysis about our history anyone has developed in years. So long as you read it in context …
Mark Harris – Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008). America, and the world for that matter, changed enormously in the sixties, and this book offer an unusual and smart way of approaching that – why the changes happened, the nature of them, and what in many cases did not change. The book’s discipline was to focus on the five movies that were Oscar nominees for 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and, oh yeah, Doctor Dolittle) and work through how they came to be, the sometimes surprising connections between those and other movies (and other developments at large), the debates and arguments over them during and after production, and what all that says about the changes of that day. The movies themselves are interesting enough (well, except for one) but the depiction of the world around them will stick in and broaden your mind more than you might expect. A good slice of history.
Elizabeth Kolbert – Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021). Considering the subject – the impact, often negative but sometimes positive – of human beings on their environment, you might be expecting a doorstop-sized tome. It isn’t; Kolbert’s approach here is to report carefully on several specific case studies (widely varied, from Asian carp to Icelandic gas recycling to the fate of the coral reefs) and then, without overreaching, draw lessons from them. I like the approach, because it allows the non-specialist reader to more easily absorb a complex subject. I also appreciated her attitude; much of the book relates of course to climate change, but she is neither as dogmatic nor as gloomy about it as you might expect; she seems to take a well-informed middle road with some room for hope, sometimes in unexpected places.
Hervé Le Tellier (Adriana Hunter, translator) – The Anomaly (2021). The news reports around this book centered on how it was a massive bestseller in France, where its author lives. But it also deserves strong bestseller status in the United States (where it is mostly set); it is absorbing in some of the same ways the TV series Lost (at its best, and to which it has been compared) once did: You couldn’t be certain where this thing was going, or even what genre you were reading. In the end, as the novel’s title seemed to suggest, it was a genre-buster about blowing iup expectations, even our most human and basic expectations. Getting any clearer than that would constitute a spoiler, which you really should avoid in reading this book. Which, if you’re interested in mind-twisting but highly readable stories, you really should.
Peter Maass (translator) – Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (2011). People who live near industrial oil plants or other facilities most of us would rather be located far from where we are, frequently offer the argument that “it smells like money” – there’s a big economic benefit, and our jobs and society wouldn’t be here otherwise. Maass’ book, thoroughly reported from around the globe, is an immensely powerful takedown of that argument, at least as applies to oi extraction and production. In case after case he shows what has happened in places where oil development came to town in a big way, and what happened during and after – very little of it good, and that’s leaving aside the environmental considerations (which he touches on as well). I’d be fascinated to see a rebuttal to this, but I find it hard to imagine a good one.
David Unger – The Mastermind (2016). As I started reading this I was expecting something on the order of a caper or swindle novel, one set in an unusual location, Guatemala City. The setting was as expected, and in fact much of Central America – and its view of itself from the inside – was expertly delivered. (Don’t let the author’s name throw you; he lived there for many years.) The story was plenty suspenseful, but the book title was somewhat ironic, and just how ironic we could discuss. The tale of a wealthy businessman, based around a real incident involving the Guatemalan government, is worth the read, but so is the psychological suspense, and the human question of what is and isn’t worth giving up, and for what.
Isabel Wilkerson – The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2017). Most people who have read much American history know that in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, millions of Black residents of the south headed north and west, largely in search of better opportunities and escape from Jim Crow. That is, many of us know this as a matter of demographics and social trends, but not more specifically: How the migration worked, what pressured many people not to go, what the migrants found when they reached their destinations, what varied stories were involved in this massive movement. Telling it all would be beyond the scope of any single book, but Wilkerson gives this epic story its due by focusing on a few individual lives, and the details of what happened. Nearly an oral history, it is one of the most affecting works of history I’ve read in recent years.
Lawrence Wright – The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006). I passed on this one, despite its glowing reviews, for years because I thought: “I’ve read all kinds of stuff about Al Quaeda and 9/11; what more is there to know that’s worth knowing that we’re going to see in publication?” Wright’s answer to that is compelling: He tells in remarkably complete fashion the story of where the terrorist organization came from and what it aimed to do, and the environment it developed within. I thought I couldn’t have been surprised by much of what was here; I was wrong.