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Turn the page: 2021's Recommended Reads

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Reviewing books is one of the best parts of my job. As part of that job, I’ve read dozens of books over the course of the past year. I freely admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – but even with that degree of curation, there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. I’ve also included selections from my writings about these books (please note that the full reviews are available on our website). Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list – there are literally hundreds more great books that came out this year, exceptional works that I simply never got a chance to read.

I’m not arrogant enough to call these the best books of the year – it’s all subjective and this is just one man’s opinion. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

And now, without further ado, here are my recommended reads from 2021, divided into fiction and nonfiction and listed in alphabetical order.

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Fiction

The Actual Star – Monica Byrne

Byrne follows up her excellent 2014 debut “The Girl in the Road” with a millennia-spanning triptych that marries past, present and future in a manner that’s not quite like anything you’ve read before.

“The Actual Star” is a stunningly realized work of literary fiction. Byrne blends elements of speculative and historical fiction to create a trio of timelines, each a thousand years apart, the individual stories serving to illustrate a fundamental truth of narrative power. The stories we tell, that we pass on, can come to define us in the eyes of those who follow. Flexible and fluid, these tales grow and evolve until they are both of us and not of us.

“The Actual Star” is unlike anything I’ve read. This is a story about what stories can do, about the narratives of life and the way in which they can change through time. Was, is and will be – all are parts of the whole. It is about connections – those we can see and those we cannot – to the world around us. It is immersive and idiosyncratic and without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.

(Read the full review here.)

Appleseed – Matt Bell

“Appleseed” strikes an interesting balance between the bleakness of the characters’ situations and the hopefulness of their actions, finding ways to celebrate indomitability of spirit in the face of odds that become ever more overwhelming. That balance cuts to the core of the human condition, with each story offering a glimpse at that core from a slightly different angle.

The craft and construction here is particularly impressive. Each one of these stories could easily stand alone on its own merits with nary an edit – Bell has built three very real, very distinct worlds, each with their own characters and conflicts – and yet they are all very much thematically intertwined. To create three compelling stories – three compelling realities – and bind them together seamlessly? That’s some first-rate writing, no doubt about it.

This is not an optimistic book – it casts far too many shadows for that – but it is definitely a hopeful one. That might seem like a semantic difference, but to my mind, it is a very real one. Finding reason to hope in the face of seeming hopelessness is a key component of the human condition – a condition that Matt Bell deftly and thoroughly explores here.

(Read the full review here.)

Bewilderment – Richard Powers

“Bewilderment” is a thoughtful and mesmeric tale, one that seeks to plumb the depths of the human condition while also casting hopeful inquiries out into the cosmos. The idea that life – any life – is precious is one that permeates a lot of Powers’ work, but the dichotomy he lays bare here is as effective an exploration of that idea as any he’s yet produced.

And of course, Powers’ own thematic touchstones are present, continuing precepts and concepts with regard to man’s relationship to nature and the environment. “Bewilderment” really digs deep into the idea that no matter how hard man tries to exert his dominion over nature – whether it be the sweeping depths of the greater cosmos or the granular intimacy of the human brain – he will inevitably be faced with the hard truth that victory is not forthcoming.

But how can man accept that truth? And how can he pass that truth on to those who come behind?

“Bewilderment” is a story both large and small, a tale of what it means to connect. It is a thoughtful and haunting book, one that will resonate with the reader; it argues that rather than wage war with the world, we should make our peace with it. Novels like this one echo, their ideas and plots reverberating through our heads and hearts long after the final page is turned.

(Read the full review here.)

Billy Summers/Later – Stephen King

Yeah, yeah – I’m cheating a little here. But when the same guy – Bangor’s native son, no less – trots out two great books in a calendar year, what am I supposed to do?

In “Later” – the first of the two to come out, part of his work with the Hard Case Crime imprint – we get a book that is part coming-of-age tale, part hard-boiled crime thriller and part paranormal ghost story. It’s an ambitious blend, to be sure, but one that King has long since shown capable of pulling off beautifully. His clear love of noir fiction joins forces with his horror bona fides and his still-strong ability to capture the fundamental truths about being a child, resulting in a lean and propulsive read.

Meanwhile, “Billy Summers” is a lot of things as well. It’s a compelling story of moral ambiguity. It’s a rip-roaring shoot-em-up in some spots, a thoughtful meditation on identity in others. It’s a story about not just a writer, but the act of writing – how difficult it can be to do … and how cathartic. All of it built around one hell of a fascinating titular character.

Once more, I beat the drum – Stephen King is the greatest storyteller in modern American letters, one who remains firmly ensconced in the strongest late-career surge in the history of popular fiction.

(Read the full reviews here and here.)

Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” is staggeringly ambitious, a delicately-constructed and beautifully-written work. Each of the places and times contained within – Constantinople, Idaho, deep space – and the people in them could have easily been their own story, they’re realized so richly. On an individual level, they are exceptional.

The historical agonies of Constantinople as the end of empire looms. Two similar but different journeys to manhood in a world whose expectations of masculinity prove difficult to meet. A future where sacrifice isn’t a choice, but an unasked-for responsibility.

But together, they become something so much greater, so much … more.

These shifts from past to present to future and back again should be jarring. Even with the connective device, there should be seams. And yet Doerr threads his narrative with such a light, intimate touch that these disparate elements fit together. Even as we bounce from perspective to perspective, we the reader never lose track of OUR perspective; it’s a stunning feat.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a masterful piece of work. It is ambitious in all the best ways, a centuries-spanning saga that is both intimate and epic, granular and grandiose. Doerr has wed past, present and future – all in service to the power of story.

(Read the full review here.)

The Effort – Claire Holroyde

“The Effort” is one of the earliest reads of any on this list – I read it back in early January – but it has stayed with me throughout this year.

It’s a story of mankind’s attempt to stave off the extinction-level event heading their way, all while dealing with the harsh reality of what it might mean when the fact that the end is nigh becomes widely known. It’s a taut, thrilling story of people committed to saving the world even as the world turns against itself.

“The Effort” is a bit of a paradox, an undeniably bleak tale that still somehow contains small moments of hopefulness. Telling the story of a mission whose best-case scenario is one where only most of the world is in ruins is an obvious challenge – unrelenting darkness and despair is no way to go through life. Yet Holroyde manages to do it while still leaving a few cracks through which light might shine. Not huge cracks, mind you. Not deus ex machina-sized cracks. Human-sized cracks that allow room for small happinesses in the face of massive disaster. Even so, the narrative is infused with an inevitability, one accentuated by the author’s decision to include a tag in each chapter heading that indicates just how many days we are from the end of everything. We’re never not aware.

(A personal note: This book allowed me to forget – however briefly – some real difficulties I was facing at the time. For that, I remain ever grateful.)

(Read the full review here.)

Even Greater Mistakes – Charlie Jane Anders

It’s funny. I usually have multiple short story collections in these year-end roundups – and there are some really good ones this year – but “Even Greater Mistakes” is the only one that wound up here.

The complexity of the concepts explored through the work of Anders makes for thought-provoking reading, to be sure—the author is unafraid to challenge the reader. She is particularly fascinated by the fluidity of gender and the interpersonal dynamics that spring from that fluidity; she also has a knack for finding the (admittedly dry and dark) humor inherent to various flavors of apocalypse. Her ability to wield genre tropes and generalizations in unconventional ways makes every story contained herein an absolute treat. 

“Even Greater Mistakes” is an exquisite collection, an assemblage of outstanding short fiction. Anders is a gifted prose stylist, one with a vast imagination to go with her technical craft. The worlds in which these stories operate are rich and vivid, beautifully realized without tiresome minutiae. With just a few sentences, Anders can clearly and concisely convey her vision of place; it’s a rare talent indeed, but one with which she is generous.

(Read the full review here.)

The Final Girl Support Group – Grady Hendrix

Man, I do love it when authors get meta with genre. Well … I love it when they do it well. And Grady Hendrix does it well with “The Final Girl Support Group.”

This book about a world in which horror movie slashers are real offers a smart, self-aware narrative, one that does one of the cleanest jobs you’ll ever see in combining subversion of and affinity for the tropes of a genre. It embraces some of the basest impulses of the horror world and turns them on their head by endowing them with verisimilitude. It looks beyond the stories we’ve always seen, and by doing so uncovers a much deeper – and in some ways scarier – tale to be told.

Hendrix also isn’t afraid to get gory and he really leans into the fundamentals to great effect, juxtaposing the violence with moments of emotional engagement and dark humor, giving us a book that always keeps us just the slightest bit off-balance, as if we’re wandering a dark hallway or forest path and not entirely sure that we’re alone.

A great concept well executed; Grady Hendrix shows himself to be a master craftsman here, bringing together an encyclopedic knowledge of and genuine affection for his blood-spattered inspiration to create something surprisingly thought-provoking, deftly funny and undeniably weird. Read this book.

(Read the full review here.)

God Spare the Girls – Kelsey McKinney

A compelling and beautifully written tale, a book that captures the hubris and hypocrisy that can come from institutionalized faith while also finding ways to acknowledge the value that such circumstances can bring. Delicately heartwrenching, driven by sad realizations and quiet humor, it’s an unforgettable read.

There’s a remarkable sense of place here, a blend of writ-large ideas and intimate details that adds up to an evocative encapsulation of the setting. Ever read a book where the prose was so engrossing that you didn’t just intellectually, but viscerally experience the environment? McKinney will straight-up make you sweat ... and just so we’re clear – it’s also a hell of a story.

I can talk about craft and character until the cows come home, but all of that is in service to a narrative that is thoughtful and clever and engrossing as hell. It’s a cliché to call a book a page-turner, but I’d be remiss if I failed to address just how readable “God Spare the Girls” is. Almost compulsively so – McKinney grabs hold of you almost immediately and refuses to let go, drawing you into the story, tempting and challenging and generally doing all the things good writers do

An exceptional piece of fiction, sad and smart and driven by an overarching verisimilitude. What McKinney has created feels like a real place with real people, all while sharing their stories of faith gained or lost or somewhere in-between. Believing matters – but what often matters more is that (or those) in which (or whom) we choose to believe.

(Read the full review here.)

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is an author who defies labels. He’s written speculative fiction – sci-fi and horror. He’s written historical fiction. He’s written immersive participatory nonfiction and literary satire. Really, one of the few descriptors shared across his body of work is “excellent.” As far as previous books go, he’s eight-for-eight.

“Harlem Shuffle” is divided into three sections, set a few years apart – 1959, 1961 and 1964. Whitehead takes us along on Carney’s journey; we’re right there as he deals with the myriad shifts and changes in his world. We’re privy to the choices he makes – both good and bad – as he floats in the gray area between the straight world and the shadows.

Prominent among Whitehead’s many gifts is a remarkable ability to evoke a sense of place. “Harlem Shuffle” is no different, packed with tossed-off details that come together to breathe life into the setting. It’s so rare for a writer to be able to fully transport you, but Whitehead is so good at sending you where he wants you to be that you almost can’t help yourself – you’re going, so you might as well pack a bag.

“Harlem Shuffle” probably won’t be Colson Whitehead’s third straight Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. That likelihood doesn’t change the underlying truth – that this book is fantastic. This is the work of a man who loves and respects the possibilities presented by genre, a man who is unafraid to tell the stories he wants to tell in the manner in which he wants to tell them.

(Read the full review here.)

Hour of the Witch – Chris Bohjalian

Anyone who reads my reviews with regularity knows how hard I ride for Chris Bohjalian, so it’s no surprise that this one makes the list.

Blending historical events with page-turning thrills, “Hour of the Witch” offers a propulsive and powerful tale – Bohjalian at his best. He’s drawing from real history while endowing it with his own propulsive storytelling touch. The resulting narrative is intense and intimate.

Mary Deerfield is one of the most fascinating characters to spring from Bohjalian’s pen, heartbreaking and incredibly engaging. Bohjalian’s gifts as a researcher are front and center here as well. His ability to recreate this particular place, both in the nuts-and-bolts scene-setting and the cultural attitudes, is unparalleled – the reader is fully dropped into this world, left to be equal parts fascinated and frustrated by the myriad differences between that time and this one. And of course, there is the prose. When Bohjalian is really cooking, there’s a kinetic energy to his storytelling that is unlike anything else in the realm of popular fiction.

“Hour of the Witch” is another exceptional offering from Chris Bohjalian, one that features the hallmarks of his best work while also breaking new ground.

(Read the full review here.)

Hummingbird Salamander – Jeff VanderMeer

I’ll tell you what folks – if you’re ever in the mood to sit down and get weird with a book, you’d do well to dig into Jeff VanderMeer. “Hummingbird Salamander” is a great indicator of why.

It’s a bleak and dystopian piece of ecologically-charged speculation that marries the seemingly casual world-building at which VanderMeer excels with a twisting, conspiracy-laden puzzle box of a thriller. He’s so gifted at placing character-driven narrative at the forefront while parceling out details about the world in which the narrative takes place—this is just another example of his tremendous talents at work.

Through his vivid imagination and visceral descriptions, he creates people, places and events that lodge themselves in the mind of the reader, sparkling with bright colors that are both beautiful and poisonous. Ultimately, though, the book is driven by the characters populating these worlds that he births.

It’s another exceptional piece of work from the pen of a wildly talented author. His unique combination of descriptive acumen and deeply-held ideology creates fiction that is challenging and thought-provoking. There’s no one else quite like him out there—and that’s a good thing.

(Read the full review here.)

Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

“Klara and the Sun” is a perfect example of literary fiction adapting speculative tropes in service to larger ideas. The truth is that speculative fiction has always been better at allowing room for big concepts, so it’s no surprise that someone like Ishiguro – who is obviously fascinated by those big concepts – to explore that space.

This is a story about connection and what that means, about the difference between the illusion of love and actual love and that increasingly vanishingly small point where one becomes the other. Is it possible for outside programming to become inner truth? Do the trappings of loyalty and affection actually equal those things?

All of this reflected through a near-future lens of societal demarcation and technological expansion, using a skewed vision of a possible civilization to explore concepts that have been with us since the beginning.

“Klara and the Sun” is a masterful piece of fiction, a book that is equal parts thought-provoking and page-turning – a rare achievement indeed. Big questions rarely have set answers, but for writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, those questions are the ones that truly matter.

(Read the full review here.)

Landslide – Susan Conley

Real talk: Susan Conley is low-key one of the most gifted writers in a robust Maine scene packed with talent. Read “Landslide” and you’ll get it.

It’s a thoughtful exploration of the demographic and economic shifts that have been taking place in towns up and down the Maine coast in recent years. It’s a story of struggles—the struggle to make ends meet, the struggle to find fulfillment, the struggle of married life and motherhood—marked by occasional small moments of personal victory. All of it refracted through the prism of one woman’s perspective. Conley sets up shop in her protagonist’s head, giving the reader a first-hand look at the inner strife that comes with experiencing changes that are largely unwelcome and more than a little frightening.

“Landslide” is a thoughtful and unflinching deconstruction of the relatively small world in which one woman lives, digging into what it means to love and to be loved. In this book, love is rewarding, yes, but it is also hard, with the ties that bind us constantly evolving due to circumstances both internal and external. Sometimes, we are hurt by the ones we love and are left to reckon with that hurt as best we can. And yet we love them still.

If you’re a fan of literary fiction – particularly if you have a connection to Maine – and you haven’t read Susan Conley, you might want to get on that.

(Read the full review here.)

The Liar’s Dictionary – Eley Williams

As something of a word nerd, I’m always happy to learn something new about language. And when that new something serves as the foundation of an excellent book?

Mountweazel (n): the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and books of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

I had no idea that was a thing, but it is the central theme of “The Liar’s Dictionary” as it unfolds along two timelines – one past, one present – and tells the story of, well … a dictionary. It is smart and sly and wonderfully-written (key when your book is basically about words – where they come from and why they matter). Our relationship to language is literally defined by other people, people whose motivations we don’t necessarily understand or even know.

What’s great here is that I would have happily read either of these stories on its own; each is more than rich enough to carry that narrative weight. Both would have been a lovely individual read, but the impact of the juxtaposition of the two elevates the overall experience. If you love words and the mysteries behind them, then you’ll likely enjoy this book as much as I did.

(Read the full review here.)

Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

I take great delight in Andy Weir’s work. “Project Hail Mary” is a wonderful illustration of why, speculative fiction built on a realistic scientific foundation. Yes, there are liberties – it is science fiction after all – but there’s a fundamental verisimilitude.

This is a story of isolation, friendship and the looming specter of incomprehensible loss—all refracted through a prism of well-researched and joyful nerdery. Weir’s done his homework and then some. He’s obviously passionate about the technical minutiae, but where he excels is in his ability to translate that passion to the page. He finds ways to go on at length about this idea or that one while still framing it within the context of the story. One could argue that he perhaps gets into the weeds a bit, but that’s the thing—that’s where he wants to be. He gets there not by accident, but with intent.

This book is ton of fun, a deep space adventure with room for technical specs and plenty of tension, with a self-deprecatingly sarcastic-yet-capable hero thrown into the mix (as well as some buddy comedy vibes from a most unexpected source along the way). All of it driven by that same delicious blend of curiosity and fear that keeps us looking to the skies in the first place.

(Read the full review here.)

The Quiet Boy – Ben H. Winters

Sad and surprising, “The Quiet Boy” crosses all manner of literary borders to capture these myriad lives. There’s a lot of value in harnessing the tropes of one genre for use under the auspices of another. It’s one of the things that Winters is particularly good at, bringing together seemingly disparate elements with engaging seamlessness. It’s certainly the case here, with Winters taking the framework of the courtroom drama and introducing an assortment of differing flavors and ideas to create something different. And as the narratives progress, those new flavors ebb and flow—sometimes, everything seems rather straightforward, while at other points, things get … weird—subtly and not-so-subtly altering the landscape with abject smoothness, taking the reader along for the ride.

Winters sweeps us up without us even knowing we’ve been swept—it’s the kind of book you fall into, only to reemerge pages later wondering where the time went. Part of that immersion is born of the people we meet.

“The Quiet Boy” delights in its own mysteries, answering questions with other questions and endowing the proceedings with an entertaining opacity. It is a story of legal exploits, to be sure, but it also a story of fathers and sons, of the dual prices of pride and obsession and of the abstract nature of the self.

(Read the full review here.)

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Nonfiction

All of the Marvels – Douglas Wolk

What’s that you say? A nonfiction work built entirely around viewing the entirety of the Marvel Comics canon (and I do mean the entirety) as a single continuous work, one consisting of better than a quarter-million pages? Where do I sign up?

“All of the Marvels” is Douglas Wolk treating the Marvel experience – from the ‘60s up to now – as an almost Proustian look at American culture writ large. Those of us familiar with some or most of Marvel’s output will find a lot that intrigues in these pages. And while you might be able to quibble a bit with beginnings and endings, his demarcations are pretty solid; his analysis of the various foci definitely tracks.

Part literary criticism, part wanton fanboying, part nostalgia trip, “All of the Marvels” is one fantastic read for anyone who loves comic books. Is it a stunt? Sure is – and a hell of a good one. Just an incredible idea. Spectacular. Mighty. It is smart and funny, rife with sharp analysis and engaging ideas. In short, it treats this body of work with genuine respect – respect it absolutely deserves.

(Read the full review here.) 

AMORALMAN – Derek DelGaudio

Goddamn, did I ever love this book. Read it in one sitting when I should have been sleeping. True story.

A rarity, a work of thoughtful, honest self-awareness that isn’t quite like anything I’d ever read before. And believe me – that’s a good thing. It’s a story of truth that is unafraid of untruth, which might sound contradictory, but when you delve into DelGaudio’s words, it makes perfect sense.

This book is magic in multiple senses of the word. It is magic because it is narratively transportive, a book that sweeps the reader up into the world being created, pages crammed with vivid storytelling. But it is also magic in the performative sense, in that it is also about the art of stage magic, specifically sleight-of-hand. And it is magic in that it allows its author to reinvestigate his own history, to use the perspective of the present to change his view of the past – a transformation of both the man he is and the man he once was.

“AMORALMAN” is a memoir unlike any other, beautifully written and brilliantly conceived. Derek DelGaudio is an artist whose work defies categorization.

(Read the full review here.)

The Baseball 100 – Joe Posnanski

I love baseball history. And yet, as much as I love baseball history … Joe Posnanski loves it more.

And so we get “The Baseball 100,” a wonderful collection of snapshot essays, purely distilled amalgams of both memories and numbers delivered with the unique aw-shucks humility and elevated dad humor of Joe Posnanski. His reverence for the game, his sheer unadulterated love for it, runs through every one of these 100 pieces. From inner circle Hall of Famers to names that might not be as familiar to the casual fan, Posnanski counts us down through the greatest of all time.

I was always going to dig “The Baseball 100.” I’ve been enamored of baseball history for going on 40 years and I’ve been an admirer of Posnanski’s work for close to half that time. I’m fully in the bag for this one. It’s a wonderful exploration of one man’s thoughts on the greatest of all time. But here’s the thing – it’s ALSO a fantastic entry point for those just starting to engage with the sport’s past greats. Each of these essays provides a delightful combination of deep-dive wonkiness and straightforward celebratory joy – a perfect combination for anyone who loves baseball.

It’s a cliché to say this, but clichés exist for a reason – “The Baseball 100” is an absolute home run.

(Read the full review here.)

Downeast – Gigi Georges

As someone whose wife hails from Washington County here in Maine, I was a little apprehensive about “Downeast” – we’ve all read books where outsiders have dropped into a place and shaped its narrative through their own perspective. It could easily have been the usual dreck featuring someone from elsewhere (who believes themselves to know better) parachuting in for a few weeks or months and slapping together a story that confirmed what they believed they already know. Part of me feared it would be.

Instead, we get a thoughtful, nuanced look at a deceptively complex place and the people who live there. What Gigi Georges has done is make a good faith effort to drill down into the cultural bedrock of Washington County and share the warts-and-all results of her labors. The book is honest in both singing the region’s praises and acknowledging its faults.

Far from poverty tourism or half-baked cultural anthropology, “Downeast” engages with the lives of its subjects from a place of respect and egalitarianism. There’s no sense of superiority on the part of the author here, no effort to place herself above the people about whom she’s writing. And that eye-to-eye engagement is why this book works.

(Read the full review here.)

Finding Freedom – Erin French

Anyone who has dined at the legendary Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine knows what a fascinating figure Erin French is. But when you learn the story of how she got here? That takes it to a whole new level.

“Finding Freedom” is a marvelous read, an emotionally charged story that is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. The fact that French is almost as good at putting these stories on the page as she is the plate is both impressive and ultimately unsurprising.

Did I cry while reading “Finding Freedom?” Absolutely, and not just during the “sad” moments. Sure, there are tragic events that elicit tears, but the surprise for me was how moved I was by some of the snapshots of joy. When she talks about the connection she feels with those she feeds, of food as representative of something both greater and granular … the tingle of emotion is undeniable. Happy tears are something of a rarity, but French’s passion brings them forth.

Sharing something as honest as “Finding Freedom” has to be difficult, laying oneself bare and putting a warts-and-all account of a difficult journey. But in pushing through that difficulty, Erin French found her passion, her voice, her soul.

(Read the full review here.)

The Night the Lights Went Out – Drew Magary

Drew Magary’s “The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage” is the story of a fateful night a few years ago when the author suffered a massive and still-unexplained brain injury, one that led to his brief (but very real) death, followed by a medically-induced coma. It’s also the story of what happened when he woke up, as well as of the people who were there to witness what happened during that stretch of time before he came back. Not to mention his ongoing efforts toward some kind of recovery.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot of darkness to be explored here. And make no mistake – the shadows run deep in some sections of this book. But here’s the thing – Magary has developed a unique voice over his years of online writing (you can currently find him doing his thing on the excellent collectively-owned website Defector, which you should 100% subscribe to), a voice that is sharp and sly and self-aware and perfectly capable of mining humor and heart from the bleakest of ores.

“The Night the Lights Went Out” is a meditation on survival, refracted through the skewed prism of a gifted smartass.

(Read the full review here.)

Tacky – Rax King

Rax King’s essays are smart and crass and unapologetic and wildly entertaining, bringing together cultural criticism and the personal essay and combining them into something that is greater than the sum of their parts. By digging into the specificity of her own connections to these seemingly innocuous and/or inane things, King takes the reader on a journey that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.

There are those who might argue that the poignancy and impact of King’s personal explorations are somehow dulled by the pop cultural framework she utilizes, but those people – snobs that they almost certainly are – will have entirely missed the point. It is because of that framework that we can gain a truer understanding of the stories King seeks to tell.

There will almost certainly be references that don’t resonate with you over the course of these 14 pieces; I know there were a couple that simply went over my head. But that’s the point – we like what we like and who gives a damn what anyone else thinks?

King is a gifted storyteller who is unafraid to aim those gifts squarely at herself – a rare combination. So pull on your snakeskin pants, order up a Crispy Chicken Costoletta and crank up the Creed – Rax King will take it from there.

(Read the full review here.)

Tall Men, Short Shorts – Leigh Montville/Wish It Lasted Forever – Dan Shaughnessy

This is another cheat where I’m combining two entries into one. The truth is that I loved these books – both about the Boston Celtics, albeit different eras – despite not really being that much of a basketball fan. It’s indicative, I think, of my general affection for sports history and the iconic figures who changed the landscape of their respective games, regardless of what those games actually are.

“Tall Men, Short Shorts” is a killer basketball book, the story of a series that remains in the conversation for best NBA Finals ever, despite being over a half-century in the rearview. But it’s also a look back by a remarkable writer, one whose inflated ego gradually settled into the humility and self-awareness that would let him become one of the best to ever do it. I won’t say that this is the best union of subject and author ever, but I’d be hard pressed to name a better one.

“Wish It Lasted Forever” is a remarkable, close-up account of one of the most iconic teams in the history of one of the NBA’s most iconic franchises. It was a special time for the Boston Celtics, featuring a handful of guys who to this day are among the greatest to ever play the game. And thanks to Dan Shaughnessy, even those who weren’t there in the moment are gifted with an intimate portrait of that team.

(Read the full reviews here and here.)

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy – Arik Kershenbaum

There’s a lot of speculation about aliens, life beyond this planet. But so much of that is built on the mere question of existence. Say they ARE out there – what might they look like?

That’s where “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy” comes in.

The book strikes a fine balance, going into enough depth with the science to engage intellectually while never forgetting the fundamental fun that comes with this sort of speculation (the Douglas Adams allusion of the title is undoubtedly intentional). Dr. Kershenbaum gives the impression of a scientist and academic who has managed to maintain his sense of wonder, making him an ideal creator for this sort of work. He takes his flights of fancy, to be sure—and a work like this needs those flights—but even when he sails into the clouds, his feet remain firmly planted upon a foundation of sound scientific thought. Again, it’s all guesswork, but it would be difficult to find a more educated guesser than Kershenbaum.

All in all, a pop science delight, a book unafraid to have fun with its premise even as it refuses to lower its expectations of its audience. It’s as thoughtful and engaging a set of hypotheses you’re likely to find on the subject.

(Read the full review here.)

Last modified on Thursday, 02 December 2021 13:01

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