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Your Say on books that got you through 2021

The past year seemed right for lamentations

I teach general education literature classes, so I’m often in the lonely position of advocating for books among the unbooked. My primary approach is inviting students to engage with texts that have transformed me in some way, and that will be my same approach for these recommendations.

One transformative book for me was George Saunders’s “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain,” a book that analyzes short stories from the greatest Russian writers — Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy. Saunders demonstrates the power of storytelling by illuminating the writing process, where, as he puts it, these stories “started out as notions in the minds of another person, became words, then became notions in our minds, and now they’ll always be with us, part of our moral armament, as we approach the beautiful, difficult, precious days ahead.” Indeed, George.

“Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Irish author Rónán Hession tells the story of two friends in their 30s who increase the goodness in the world by small increments — writing children’s books, visiting the infirm, noticing the beauty of the sky on a cold clear night. There are gems on nearly every page, lines like “the greatest courtesy you can pay someone is to give them your full attention.”

Haruki Murakami’s “After Dark,” which I bought at The Book Catapult (a brilliant indie bookshop in South Park), transpires in a single Tokyo night where you encounter sex workers, punk rockers, alternate universes and Denny’s. As in the best of Murakami, something is always askew — someone is coveting a secret or witnessing something that can’t be explained or withholding their emotions from themselves and others. For a pandemic year, it felt right.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” is a constant in my life. It tells the story of four brothers — one alpha male, one intellectual, one saintly, one deviant — who piece together their father’s murder. But it’s Dostoevsky, so it’s also about everything. The book was written during a season of grief — Dostoevsky had lost his 3-year-old son — so every character is limned by grief. I have this paperback copy with 8-point text and a torn cover and a smell like an old Victorian library. It likewise has gems, like this one: “Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things.” A good reminder in these divisive times.

I’ve also enjoyed some indie books from talented authors — one of which is Kathryn H. Ross’s “Black Was Not A Label,” a book of essays that describe her experience of racial trauma, identity formation and finding her voice. Others include Katie Manning’s heartfelt and lyrical “28,065 Nights,” a poetry chapbook about motherhood, grief and the ache you feel when someone becomes “more story than person.”

In thinking back on this year of reading, many of these books were lamentations, and that’s what I needed this year. It gave me a place to sit with my sadness amid all the loss. Books are important vessels in this way.

Edward Matthews, Bankers Hill

Books old and new that really fit the bill

What helped get me through 2021 was books, bourbon and binge-watching videos. The 1973 film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” starring Robert Mitchum is about a small-time Boston crook who gets jammed up. It inspired me to read the novel by George V. Higgins that the film is based on. It’s the kind of book you read out loud since the dialogue is so authentic. Imagine an Aaron Sorkin script with a Boston accent.

Since travel was even more onerous during the pandemic, reading about other places was the safest mode of travel. James Baldwin’s novel “Giovanni’s Room” is set in the ribald streets, apartments and nightclubs of Paris as a young man explores his morality and sexuality.

Art museums were restricted during the pandemic, so I perused a few art books. One I came across was a biography of “Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open” by Phoebe Hoban. And yes, he is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Lucian was famous for his portraits, nude paintings of celebrities and nude paintings of his own daughters.

With the firehose of news about the stock market, IT and cybersecurity, I read the “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” by Michael Lewis. It is the story of how Wall Street and banks used high frequency trading of stocks to game the economic system to get an advantage over pension funds and small investors. I was shocked they would do such a thing since they are such paragons of virtue.

I committed myself to reading the “Rabbit Angstrom” novels by John Updike. Rabbit peaks as a basketball star in high school. His life is a roller coaster ride of failures, disasters, death, infidelity, intermixed with success, the highs, the lows and something approaching redemption. After reading these novels, I need some Dramamine.

I read two books that provide insight into the human heart and mind. “War: How Conflicts Shaped Us,” by Margaret MacMillan, is a study of how humanity seems to be hard-wired for conflict and that few, if any, societies are immune. Kind of depressing but illuminating. Along those same lines is “The Memory Monster” by Yishai Sarid, a story about a historian who lectures tour groups on Nazi methods of torture in the concentration camps and it eventually drives him over the edge.

Then there is John Le Carré. His novel “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” is the gold standard for spy novels. And a darn good movie starring Richard Burton. While other authors of that genre usually put the adventure and ideology at the forefront, Le Carré shows the human toll exacted by espionage and the organizations that are meant to protect countries. In the coming year, I plan to read his last novel, “Silverview.”

Speaking of 2022, I plan to read Michael Connelly’s latest on Harry Bosch, “The Dark Hours,” and “Until the End of Time,” by Brian Greene, to find out what’s up with the universe.

Mike Stewart, Spring Valley

Electrifying book is a call to climate action

I am recommending and gifting the book, “Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook For Our Clean Energy Future,” by Saul Griffith, published by the MIT Press.

It views our climate emergency as an opportunity for lasting change and describes a plan to save our environment while improving our quality of life in the process. It avoids the dreaded draconian approaches where we have to sacrifice our modern lifestyle and those of us who survive have to return to an agrarian society.

No new technology has to be invented; we just need to focus on electrifying all of our energy demands and satisfy them with clean renewable energy supplemented with storage.

The upsides include: households save money on energy, millions of high-paying, satisfying new jobs are created, we stop using polluting fossil fuels, and our children and grandchildren have a bright future.

The primary caveats are that electrifying has to be done quickly and completely.

The book is available on Amazon as a hardcover or a Kindle.

Dennis Griffin, Carlsbad

Americans should fight less, learn more

We citizens of the United States found a lot to fight about during 2021. We’d have fought less had we known more. I didn’t fight with anyone. I was busy reading about what others were fighting about.

I read about China. Against dire warnings of catastrophic consequences in the face of a militaristic China, there is Jonathan D. T. Ward’s “China’s Vision of Victory.” I was struck by how different conceptions of time affect how Americans think about China. We think in two-year election cycles; the Chinese think in hundreds of years. As some folks have remarked, the U.S. has the watches, but China has the time.

Yuri Pines’ “The Everlasting Empire” offered two mottos that permeate Chinese history, one that is instructive regarding our understanding of China, as well as our responsibility for our own country: “Stability is Unity.” The other is, “All Under Heaven.” The first represents we the people pulling in the same direction. The second represents 5,000 years of a largely united Chinese history. I spent some of 2021 trying to understand what appeared to be our recent discovery of China and remembering that discoverers define the discovered on the discoverer’s terms. I wondered about the extent to which our discoverer’s terms are inaccurate.

Hilary Spurling’s “Pearl Buck in China” includes a comment from Buck, wife of a Christian missionary, that resonated for me with respect to both China and the United States: “We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority.” Her word, “hidden,” means a sense of racial superiority that can reside within us, unknown to us. Perhaps that accounts for the resistance to what is so obvious about our racial divide.

Related to our resistance, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “Racism Explained To My Daughter” is laden with examples of responsibility for the racial divide in our country. He refers to how “fear, anger, guilt and a sense of white-skinned entitlement commingle to drive wedges between public words and private actions.”

I spent a fair amount of time during 2021 grappling with that one because the year found me reading Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” and “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Robert Reich’s “The Common Good,” Jane J. Mansbridge’s “Beyond Adversary Democracy” and Stephanie Kelton’s “The Deficit Myth.” We citizens of this constitutional republic found a lot to fight about, curiously over possibly ill-informed perspectives on our racial divide, economics, international affairs and how the pandemic seemed to make some of us exercise a frightful misconception of what freedom means. The titles in this paragraph could serve to inform those of us who want to be informed.

This meander through a sample of my 2021 readings ends with two titles without which most any other readings have little use. I read again “The Federalist Papers,” specifically Numbers 10 and 29, and the United States Constitution.

Leif Fearn, Bankers Hill

We’ll have more reviews next week.