It was another good year to read a book: Steve Pfarrer’s favorite reads of 2021

Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2022 3:03:18 PM

It’s that time of year again: naming my favorite books of the year. Like last year, I did a lot of reading in 2021, at least in part because of a highly contagious virus that shut down so many things — and whose newly minted variant now threatens to shut down things again.

These books, listed in no particular order, were primarily published within the last two years, though there are a few older titles I came upon that I really enjoyed.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss — This slender novel, named a Best Book of 2021 by NPR, The Guardian and The Times of London, offers a Robert Altman-style look at a range of vacationers in a rain-soaked Scottish summer camp. One by one, Moss reveals their inner lives with a mix of melancholy and dry humor, while also evoking the power of nature. The novel covers one day, beginning at dawn and ending at night with a dramatic event that will bring her characters together.

I hadn’t heard of Sarah Moss before reading a review of “Summerwater,” but I found her writing so sharp and illuminating that I read two of her other books: her debut novel, Cold Earth, and her memoir of living and teaching in Iceland for a year, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland. Both are highly recommended.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner — Donner plumbed a wealth of sources to put together this haunting profile of her great-great aunt, Mildred Harnack, an American woman who, alongside her German husband, became a committed opponent of the Nazis while living in Berlin before and during World War II. Teaching English to Germans during this time, Harnack enlisted some of her students as well to fight the Nazis — a fight that ended in 1943 after the Gestapo arrested and executed her, her husband and several others in their circle.

“All the Frequent Troubles” also offers an excellent snapshot of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, as the openness of life during the Weimar Republic gives way to fear and tyranny under Hitler and the Nazis. Written in the present tense, the book becomes something of a thriller — though we sadly know the ending — and an homage to Harnack, in which Donner’s goal is, as one critic puts it, “to write her heroic forebear back into history, to bring her back to life.”

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki — Ozeki, who lives in Northampton and teaches at Smith College, says she’s a slow writer — her last novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” came out in 2013 — but her books are worth waiting for. “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is a funny, big-hearted story that serves as a broad canvas for exploring many themes: the wonder of books, the trials of adolescence, the ecological and spiritual effects of rampant consumerism, and the interdependence of all beings.

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre — A neighbor of mine loaned me this 2018 book, and I read it pretty much nonstop over a weekend. It’s a true account of how KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, disillusioned with the Soviet Union and communism, became a double agent, working for Great Britain’s intelligence service in the 1970s and 1980s. He helped unmask Soviet spies in Western Europe and, through his knowledge of the Kremlin’s inner workings, also helped defuse a possible East-West nuclear confrontation in the mid-1980s.

Gordievsky nearly lost his life, though, when his cover was blown by, of all people, a disaffected CIA agent who was selling information to the Russians. It’s one of the many twists and turns in what the late John le Carré called “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

“The Spy and the Traitor” led me to two of Macintyre’s other titles: Agent Sonya, a profile of a German Jewish woman in the 1930s-1940s turned Soviet spy, and The Englishman’s Daughter, a story of what happened in a French village, occupied by the Germans during WWI, where three English soldiers tried to hide. There’s great narrative history writing in all of these books.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yonder — A wry and weird novel about a stay-at-home mom who’s fighting depression; she’s given up her career in art to look after her young son while her husband, a tech guru, spends much of his time on business trips. Then the exhausted, unnamed mom finds hair on the back of her neck, sees her canine teeth sharpening, and develops an acute sense of smell and a craving for meat; soon she’s running at night with a pack of dogs.

Or is she? One of the appeals of “Nightbitch” is the way it uses myth and magical realism to explore, with both humor and anger, the real-life dilemmas faced by many professional women when they become mothers. In this book, The Boston Globe writes, “art crawls out of motherhood with an exhausted, sweating, blood-strewn, but joyous howl.”

Stolen by Richard Bell — A gripping account of how several free young Black boys in Philadelphia in 1825 were kidnapped by slave traders and sold into bondage in the South. As grimly as that story begins, there’s also a remarkable finish, in that four of the five youths eventually made it back to Philadelphia.

Bell, who teaches early American history at the University of Maryland, has done some exhaustive research in unearthing this story and fleshing out profiles of the five boys. He also shines a light on the “Reverse Underground Railroad,” a network of human traffickers and slave traders who sent thousands of free African Americans to the South, fueling slavery’s growth in the run-up to the Civil War.

150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown — I’ve read other Beatle biographies, but this wide-ranging portrait of the band has a number of anecdotes and accounts I’d never heard, like the time John Lennon was invited to meet his teenage fantasy, Brigitte Bardot, but was so unnerved by the prospect that he could only do it while tripping on acid (Bardot wasn’t impressed). A very funny, kaleidoscopic look at The Beatles and the impact they had on the world.

The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel — The epic conclusion to Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s rise from commoner to right-hand man of King Henry VIII in Tudor England. I read the first two volumes last year, and this final book, though a bit long (750 pages), was just as absorbing. Mantel has created a memorable, complex character in Cromwell and written as good a historical thriller as one can find.

Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature by Jordan Fisher Smith — This 2016 book uses the death of a young man, killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park in 1972, as a means for a broader examination of our fraught relationship with nature. Smith, a former park ranger and forest fighter, looks at how our public lands have been managed — or mismanaged — in our often-futile attempts to remake wilderness in the name of preserving it.

I’d also like to give a nod to some excellent books by valley-based authors, or writers who have a connection here, that I wrote about this year: The Burning Blue by Kevin Cook; Floaters by Martín Espada; The Bad Immigrant by Sefi Atta; Taking Residence by Wally Swist; and The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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