Notable books read in 2021

According to Goodreads, last year I read 62 books! The shortest book at 112 pages was a book of poetry by Scott Cairns: “Anaphora.” The longest book was Diana Gabaldon’s first in her Scottish Highlander series, “Outlander,” at 850 pages. The average book length was 314 pages (around my ideal book length). The most popular book was Delia Owen’s “Where the crawdads sing,” which was read by at least 2,627,916 people on Goodreads. The least popular (read) book was “Sussex, Kent, and Surrey” written in 1939 by Richard Wyndam (only 19 people had that on their “shelves.”)

This year, my favorite books tended to be non-fiction. I read a lot of wonderful novels, but because I wrote about some of them in other blogs last year, or they were popular books that were raved about by many (such as Maggie O’Farrell’s lovely Hamnet), I will only highlight one book of fiction that I enjoyed last year, that may not be as well known.  Usually I profile 10 books, but this year are only 8. And one of my new years’ resolutions for 2022? Find more wonderful novels to share with you this time next year!

Here are some of the most delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking books I read last year:

Dinner Party with the Saints: the People Behind the Halos / by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker. This was a very charming book, with the supposition of a dinner party in heaven, with a variety of saints, some more familiar than others. Their interactions with each other are quite humorous. Each chapter introduces another saint into the story, and then gives historical background on them. As each saint brought a dish to the dinner party, a recipe was included. Mostly I loved the glimpse of a kind of heaven I could look forward to – a gathering of friends over food and drink, with lots of love and laughter, and special guests. Published by Paraclete Press, one of my favorite publishers.

Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters / by Jennifer Wilson. Nancy Jordan recommended this one to me. This thoroughly entertaining book epitomizes one of my favorite genres, where a family from the American suburbs ends up in a quirky little village in Europe. Written with great humor and pathos, Jennifer Wilson, weaves a story of a family’s cultural immersion into Jennifer’s ancestral village, and how some of the family members adapted better than others.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith / by Timothy Egan. This book is such a great blend of travelogue and religious history (which is sad and depressing), as well as an internal journey for the author. I also liked how at various times Egan’s son, daughter, and wife walked with him, to give an added element of interest. I had never heard of the Via Francigena before, so that was fascinating to learn more about – although I may never walk it, I can certainly walk it vicariously, through this marvelous book.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation / by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. This was a title I just couldn’t resist. This book is a must read for anyone (like me) who cannot fathom how Christians can vote into office someone who is the antithesis of all who Christ is. Kristin Kobes Du Mez presents a fascinating history of the past 75+ years that brought us to this point in time, into a rabbit hole of the Religious Right’s support of the view of Jesus as warrior and thus the cult of masculinity, along with racism and anti-feminism. I think my jaw dropped on every page, and I was so shocked to read about people I had grown up knowing about. What makes the author so credible is that she also grew up in the same faith I did, and although she teaches at a Christian Reformed university (which I attended briefly in the early 80s), she is able to take a historical view of the phenomenon which brings us to where we are today. Definitely not a separation of church and state in our history of a country, at least in the past century. I will be contemplating all I learned in this book for many years to come.

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch / by Erin French. Years ago Michael and I took a road trip for my birthday to the Maine towns of Union, Hope, Liberty, and Freedom (see September 2014 blog post). There’s not much to see in Freedom, but we walked around a little, and stopped by the Mill at Freedom Falls. We peeked in the windows and saw a sign for “The Lost Kitchen” and learned about this new restaurant, which was on the verge of opening up, but didn’t think much about it. Since then, though, the reputation of the restaurant has grown exponentially, and now it’s the place to be, for an ultimate culinary experience. A friend gave me Erin French’s cookbook, and when this book came out I was the first at the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association to check it out. I really loved reading this book, and found it to be a page turner – more than that, it was beautifully written. Obviously Erin French is as good of a writer as she is a cook (which it seems like she thinks of herself, more than being a chef). This is probably the most popular book on my list, especially here in Maine, but it’s worth an extra shout out – because it’s so good!

On the plain of snakes: a Mexican journey / by Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux makes my list for the second year in a row. After re-reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, I bought this book for Michael for us to read together. If you’re looking for a travel book to make you want to visit Mexico, this is not it. But if you’re looking for a fascinating read to give you insight into the complex country of Mexico, you will want to read this book. Initially the book is pretty depressing, as the first part is about the border, and all its sadness and drama, but it does get better. And actually, by the end, it almost makes one want to visit Mexico, although with caution. Of course, we love “Don Pablo” and his writing, so this was a great read, although quite horrifying in parts. But Paul Theroux has so much respect for the Mexican people, and continues his relationship with them even after the book is published – by the end of the book we felt so enchanted with the country and the people, and if we ever make it back there, we’ll have a better basis for understanding the culture and history of our neighbor to the south.

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers / by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver. This was a serendipitous find (at the Portland Public Library’s free shelf).  I had read another book by Lillian Daniel, and was excited to see that she was one of the authors of this wonderful book. I enjoyed both her essays and Martin Copenhaver’s essays about the ins and outs of being a pastor, especially of a larger church. The writing is so good – funny but with great depth.

Garden spells / by Sarah Addison Allen. Another serendipitous find at the Portland Public Library’s free book truck out on Congress Street.  I had never heard of the author but was taken in by the cover (see, you can judge a book by its cover) and the title.  I like this book so much that after it was over, I reread favorite parts of it (always a good sign).  It’s totally my kind of book – quirky garden, interesting characters, good romance, food, humor, great setting, and just really lovely all the way through. I’m looking forward to reading the next book (and possibly last?) book in the “Waverly family series.”