Friday, December 31, 2021

Favorite books read in 2021

Dear reader, what books did you read this year that you really enjoyed or found most meaningful? Which books had really great writing?

Books I read this year which I rated “excellent”.

Excellent Non-fiction

Stitches: A Memoir, by David Small (graphic memoir)  © 2009.  329 pages.

Do not read the liner notes unless you love spoilers!  Do not even look!

This book was quite moving and excellent.  Adult themes. 

Eleanor by David Michaelis,  © 2020.  536 pages of text. Including footnotes & index: 698 pages.

A biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.  The author tells the story of this amazing woman in an engaging way.  I still think about her house with the moveable walls.

I had time to read this book, which was given to me following the Nov 2020 election, because we did not go anywhere at Christmas-New Year's. A little bit of a benefit in the midst of the pandemic taking things away.

Excellent Fiction: 

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. © 1937.  219 pages.

The dialect is hard for modern readers, but to me it’s important that the main character tell the story in her own way. This is the first (only?) novel I recall reading in which there is an independent town populated and run entirely by people of color. 


Long Bright River by Liz Moore.  © 2020.  492 pages

Excellent plot, compelling characters.  


Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell.  © 2020.  384 pages.

I made it about half-way through, but did not finish this book.  I am including it here because it has truly excellent writing and characters.  I could not handle the subject matter.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.  464 pages.  © 2020.  (Pulitzer prize winner)
Ghosts of the past which should haunt us. I read it on the recommendation of M.W.


And some others I enjoyed quite a lot:

The Boy in the Field, by Margot Livesey. © 2020.  268 pages. Fiction.


Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool (children’s lit).  Published 2011. 365 pages. Fiction.

Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Published 1976.  Letters originally written 1920-1943.  128 pages (many drawings).  Fiction.


The Rope: A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP , by Alex Tresniowski.  © 2021.   335 pages. Non-fiction.


Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.  © 2020.   272 pages. Non-fiction.


Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. © 2014.  257 pages. Non-fiction.

Second readings:

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  By Roz Chast.  Graphic memoir.  


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.  © 2017.  331 pages.   

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James Cone.  © 2011. 158 pages.


In 2021 I finished 62 books, of which:

10 were children/YA books

1 play

1 legislative bill (I do not recommend)

1 book of the Bible

35 fiction, 27 non-fiction. Plus 1 selection of poems.

The Heights They Are Wuthering

About Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

One-sentence summaries of the book:

This is a story of upper class people living on the Yorkshire moors who gaslight each other to death, as told through 3-4 narrators of unknown reliability.

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, who are all named after previous characters, just to confuse the reader.

If left to their own devices, upper class people will be utterly horrible to each other, leading us to draw the conclusion that without the servant class we cannot have civilization.

This book is Lord of the Flies on the Yorkshire moors.

As we read this book, we feel better about ourselves for at least not being as contemptibly horrible to those around us as the characters in the book are.

The moral of the story is:

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but don’t be too long about getting revenge because you will lose interest in it.

If you are going to be awful to your relatives, make sure that the servants are not listening.

Check the weather forecast before going walking about on the Yorkshire moors.

Write your will early on in your life, so that your sister and not your brother-in-law inherits your estate.

My wuthering thoughts

I am worried that I have read an abridged version of this book - printed books say 280-380 pages, but my kindle version (which does not say “abridged” or “unabridged”) had only 119 pages.  But maybe the printed versions are full of commentary and footnotes. 

This is a book mainly about revenge.  It is also about obsession, enmeshment, gaslighting, psychological abuse, physical abuse, and other utterly toxic relationship behaviors.  It’s bizarre to me that anyone could think the novel is about romantic love.  There is no healthy love portrayed here. It makes me wonder what kind of family the Brontes were, behind closed doors, outside of the public eye.

All the characters have such deep flaws that the reader is unable to sympathize with any of them. Usually I give up on such novels, but for some reason I was compelled to finish the book.

The novel might be about racism, but doesn’t treat it head on. 

When I read this book in my youth, I did not like it.  It seemed to just be full of a few people becoming ridiculously overwrought, with lots of sobbing, in a lonely place.  It still is, but there is much more there - this time I noticed the revenge, class, and race themes.  I also noticed the narrative technique.

What was Emily Bronte trying to say?

Taken at face value, Wuthering Heights seems to say that left to their own devices (on the Yorkshire moors), family members are bound to be nasty to each other.  Given the abuse the characters dish out, the ending seems falsely optimistic.  There is no way that people raised in such a toxic environment can end up having a healthy relationship unless they get a lot of psychological counseling.  

Is it a book against the notion that different classes and races can get along?  Against the notion of parental favoritism of one child to the detriment of the other children?

Heathcliff manages, over 20 years, to get revenge, but it is not any good to him.  Maybe the point of the book is that you should not pursue revenge, as it won’t be satisfying and may backfire.

Christianity is totally bashed.  The obvious Christian (servant Joseph) is a judgmental supercilious creep, and the rest of the characters pretty much reject Christianity.  Is Bronte trying to say that if you reject Christianity, violence, despair, and death will result? Or that Christianity is useless in bringing about good relationships in families?

Was Bronte writing against traditional notions of masculinity?

Maybe W.H. is an allegory!

I have an inkling that Bronte may have intended the book as an allegory about human existence or human civilization.  A novel is deemed an enduring classic if it makes useful commentary on the human condition.   If W.H. is about human civilization, then what does it mean that Catherine and Heathcliff say that they exist one within the other, or that one cannot exist without the other?  Perhaps the enmeshment of Cathy the Elder and Heathcliff is not a weird psychological derailment of the relationship, but is instead a statement about how our human passions are the same, regardless of skin color, and those passions always exist in humanity.

If it is such an allegory, does the reconciliation of the family - through Cathy the Younger and Hareton - imply that civilization can be reached through forgiveness of past wrongs?  Is Bronte saying that yes, we humans can tame our monsters within?  By offering forgiveness, ceasing to point out each other’s faults, and teaching one another how to read, can we learn how to live peacefully with each other?

Joyce Carol Oates seems to agree with the notion that W.H. is an allegory, in this essay

Emily Brontë’s sense of the parable residing beneath her melodramatic tale guides us throughout: for we are allowed to know, despite the passionate and painfully convincing nostalgia for the Heights, the moors, and childhood, evinced by Catherine and Heathcliff, that their values, and hence their world (the Heights) are doomed. We acquiesce rather to the lyricism of the text, than to its actual claims: the triumph of the second Catherine and Hareton (the “second” Heathcliff), not only in their union but in their proposed move away from the ancient home of the Earnshaws, is a triumph that quite refutes traditional readings of the novel that dwell upon its dark, brooding, unconscious, and even savage energies.

Economics and world events are not central

There is little in Wuthering Heights about how difficult it was to make a living on the Yorkshire moors.  As far as I can remember, the two families are fairly well off and never experience a crop failure, storms killing their livestock, or other economic setbacks.  At the time the novel was being written (1840s) there were a series of crop failures, the industrial revolution was pulling workers from the countryside, and Charles Dickens was writing about poverty.  In the 1780s to 1801, when the novel is set, what’s going on is revolutionary war in the American colonies, revolution in France, the industrial revolution.  But Bronte sets the novel on the lonely moors, allowing the plot to ignore what is going on in the larger world.   It’s sort of like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with all the action confined to a small island, except Heathcliff/Prospero turns to the dark side.

The book leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  

Many readers would view unanswered questions as another characteristic of a classic.  It gives book clubs a lot to talk about.

  • Where did Heathcliff come from?  Was he Earnshaw the Elder’s son through an affair? 

  • Is Heathcliff mistreated because Earnshaw the Elder favors him, or because he is dark-skinned, or because he is a sudden intruder into the family?  

  • Is Nelly telling the truth?  Has Lockwood changed the story that Nelly told him?  Why does Bronte use 2-3 layers of narrators?

Am I all wrong about Wuthering Heights? Looking forward to the discussion at book club.

First Lines: Nov-Dec 2021 edition

There is a fair amount of winter in my book selections this time.

In November I completed reading two books and one set of poetry selections, curated by a wonderful and conscientious member of book club.  In December, I finished 6 books, of which two were children’s literature.  

Herewith, the first lines: 



Book 1

It was a cold December weekend in Chicago, and I was excited.  One of my best friends was getting married, and to top it off, he had asked me to officiate the wedding.


Book 2

I lost an arm on my last trip home.  My left arm.


Book 3

The Moon And The Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary

The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility

Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.

Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

I simply cannot see where there is to get to.


(that was just the first stanza of the poem)



Book 4

It was one of Paul Stuart’s friends who said to him, “I can’t stress this enough, you know: breathing is important.  Really important.”


Book 5

Finally, it was the freshmen’s turn. Ten of us—nine Democrats and one Republican—wandered around the big hall, surveying where we might sit. We talked about location: which row to sit in, whom to sit next to, which desk was closest to the front—it was all perhaps a bit too reminiscent of high school.



Book 6

Christmas House, North Pole

22nd December 1920

Dear John

I heard you ask daddy what I was like and where I lived.  I have drawn me and my house for you.


Book 7

I still remember the very first time I heard about Fannie Lou Hamer.  It was in spring 2008, when I was a senior at Binghamton University, and I was taking a course on the American civil rights movement.


Book 8

___ 1801

I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.

Book 9

So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871.  The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister’s first funeral and I knew it wasn’t her last – which is why I left.

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White, by Daniel Hill.  © 2017.  221 pages.

I read this for my church’s Matthew 25 Initiative group, which is focusing on anti-racism.  I found it to be a meaningful and helpful book.  Our group’s coach recommended it, and I also recommend it to church-going folk.


Book 2

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler.   Published 1979.  264 pages.

The narrative frame of this book is quite interesting; trying to avoid spoilers (I hate spoilers) I will just say the book takes place in two time periods, the 1970s and the early 1800s.  Butler wrote it in response to young black Americans minimizing the horrors of slavery and claiming that if they had been enslaved, they simply wouldn’t have tolerated this or that.  The main lesson I drew from the book was that normalization of an unacceptable situation is what often happens.   This was the December selection for one of my book clubs. They all appreciated and praised the book.


Book 3

Poems of Sylvia Plath, selected by a friend in book club.

Brilliant poet.  She met a tragic end.   It was good to read and mull over the poems in book club - I got a lot more out of them through the discussion than without it.


Book 4

The Second-Worst Restaurant in France: A Paul Stuart Novel (2nd in Paul Stuart Series), by Alexander McCall Smith, published 2018.  259 pages.

A light-hearted read.  A sequel to My Italian Bulldozer.


Book 5

Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America, by Sherrod Brown.  Published 2019.  366 pages.

Uplifting and utterly discouraging all at the same time.  The current senior Senator from Ohio writes profiles of 8 men elected to the US Senate who (most of the time) fought for what I believe to be good policy and against what I believe to be damaging policy.  The discouraging part is how often they failed, in the face of nasty opposition in what Brown portrays as conservatives’ firm ties to supporting the interests of big business and working against the interests of regular folks.  

Side note:  his wife, journalist Connie Schultz, spoke at my daughter’s graduation.  I read this book on the suggestion of one of the Senator’s constituents.


Book 6

Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Published 1976.  Originally written 1920-1943.  128 pages, with many drawings.  

I read this for the other book club, for our December selection.  “Father Christmas” wrote these letters to Tolkien’s children each Christmas season.  As someone who wrote morning notes to my youngest child every school day for an entire year, I found an affinity for the whole project. The book is charming. Note that there are an unexpectedly large number of explosives stored at the North Pole.  

I got the Kindle version from the library, and read it on my desktop, so that I could see the drawings in color and in a large enough size to see the details.  If you can get a hardcover copy, that’s probably the best, but our library didn’t have one and I am forbidden from acquiring physical books unless absolutely necessary.  Don’t bother reading it on a small b&w kindle screen.


Book 7

Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, by Keisha N. Blain.  Published 2021.  209 pages.  The author is Associate Professor of History at University of Pittsburgh.

Hamer was a brave leader in the civil rights movement, but differed from many of the other leaders of the movement - she did not have the same education as others.  She famously said, “For three hundred years we’ve given them [white people] time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want a change in this society in America.”  This was in response to white people suggesting that gradualism was the best approach to gain civil rights.  

For her actions seeking the rights that should have automatically been hers, her fellow citizens inflicted disrespect, harassment, violence, beatings, sexual abuse, and more indignities.  But she kept on working for justice.  

She tied her own civil rights to the rights of everyone else. “Until I am free,” she boldly told the mostly white audience members at the University of Wisconsin in 1971, “you are not either.”  Her message to America was: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”  Vice President Kamala Harris quoted Fannie Lou Hamer in her acceptance speech.


Book 8

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.  Published 1847.  208? Pages.

I am trying to decide if this is the best book I read all year, or the worst.  This is not an inbetween book.  I read it for book club - I am leading the discussion in January.  I think the discussion will help me.  I can’t stop thinking about the book, which perhaps indicates that it is truly a classic.  Your thoughts on this book are greatly appreciated. 

More at this link, including one-sentence summaries and The Moral Of the Story, according to me. 

Book 9

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake.  Published 2013.  272 pages (Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, Newbery Honor )

A murder mystery which takes place in 1870s Wisconsin, with the arrival of a large flock of passenger pigeons precipitating the events of the book.  Enjoyable characters.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

History of These United States, the month of December

Selections from the Equal Justice Initiative History of Racial Injustice calendar.  I’ve chosen historical items from after 1900.

Dec 10, 2009

Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, police officers face federal charges for covering up murder of Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez by white teens spewing racial slurs.

Article from several years later in 2012.

Dec 13, 1918

U.S. government declares Indian Sikh man born in Punjab ineligible for U.S. citizenship because he is not a “free white man”; U.S. Supreme Court later affirms in U.S. v. Third.

Dec 16, 1945

Days after a Black family refuses to leave their white Fontana, California neighborhood, an explosion destroys their home and kills all four family members.

Dec 25, 1956

Civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth survives Ku Klux Klan bombing of his Birmingham, Alabama, home - the first of five attempts on his life over the next seven years.

Dec 28, 1956

Rosa Jordan, a pregnant African American resident of Montgomery, Alabama, is shot in both legs while riding a desegregated bus after the Montgomery Bus Boycott.