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Top Ten Treehouse Books 2021

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Last year I was so horrified by the New York Times Christmas Book List that I offered an alternative list, which became my most-read blog post of the year, with Station North Books actually promoting the books on its website. Update: Ned Sparrow has done it again - see the augmented Christmas list of Treehouse Books at Station North Books here. This year I'm not going to wait for the NYT to get it wrong. Without further ado, here are three books I read so you don't have to:

Bad Books

Our Country Friends. The normally reliable Gary Shteyngart drops a clunker. Handjobs in bungalows. Anyone who compares this book to Chekhov needs to have their head examined.

Albert [Dürer] and the Whale. Possibly the most self-absorbed piece of art criticism since Eunice Lipton's biography of the model for Manet's Olympia ("...and now I, too, have red hair").

No Time To Die. Not a book, obviously, but still the worst thing that happened in 2021 (and that's saying something).

Good Books (in chronological order):

1. Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938)

Sometimes you just have to bow your head before a master. With the sparseness of Simenon, the casual politics of early Le Carré, and the artful caricatures of Agatha Christie, and at the end a real obscenity. It is not giving anything away to reveal the epitaph of the book's title: "He needed the money."

2. Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them (1948)

Not for everyone, this one. What other book pivots on the new 14th century church music in Ars Nova style? Here is the clerk Henry Yellowlees reflecting on a Machaut Kyrie which he has just sung with a leper and a chaplain: "I could be happy living like that, thought Henry: nursing the music-book among the mutton bones, having forsaken this world to live in the fifth element of sound...Ah, that Kyrie, and the rondeau they had sung after it, and the song with the bass part descending with iron tread at mors de moy! Such music, and such squalor!...never had he seen a house so dirty, or slept in a more tattered bed. But out came the music as the kingfisher flashes from its nest of stinking fishbones." Life in a priory at the time of the Black Death - there's something there for us to learn from. And it's funny as hell.

3. Stephen O'Shea, Back to the Front

Stephen O'Shea, Back to the Front (1996)

The first of two walking books on the list. Stephen O'Shea is an Irishman who writes for a fashion magazine in New York and decides to walk the entirety of No Man's Land from the North Sea to Switzerland, with predictably hilarious results. No, it's better than that: this is an essential work of history, as important to the study of WWI as The Great War and Modern Memory.

4. Lionel Shriver, So Much for That

Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (2010)

Oh, she's wicked. Just imagine how many people would read her if they could stomach her politics (slightly to the right of the average Fox newscaster). But why should a set of firmly held beliefs alienate her from her audience? People read Evelyn Waugh, and he's equally right-wing. Come for the funny, stay for the scabrous send up of the American health care system (read the title again), and wait for one of the great pick-up lines of all time on a tropical island at the end of the book.

5. Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)

Hotels, spies, ballerinas - it has everything you would want in an escapist novel. But you will return to the voice: each moment is cradled like a brandy glass.

6. Raynor Winn, The Salt Path

Raynor Winn, The Salt Path (2018)

There's a pattern here: Schadenfreude with map coordinates. This time the narrator takes us around Cornwall on a 500-mile hike with her dying husband, trying not to spend their weekly subsistence check on pints of beer and Cadbury's chocolate. In its way, Winn's epic trek is a rebuke to the British welfare state, as much as Shriver's book is to American private enterprise.

7. Gavin Francis, Island Dreams

Gavin Francis, Island Dreams (2020)

Did I say I was a sucker for maps? This isn't really a very well-written book - a doctor travels around the world from island to island, sometimes taking his girlfriend with him, sometimes regretting that they've split up, and finds occasion to say pithy things about islands like "lakes are islands in reverse." But the maps are just beautiful (the one on the cover is Treasure Island). One of the best-looking books you could ever buy.

8. Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun (March 2021)

A dazzling return to form by a generally overrated novelist (there's a back-handed compliment for you). Finally you care about the characters in his novels again, beginning with a robot with a peculiar affinity for the Ptolemaic system. Released on exactly the same day as #9 below, but the two books are as different as bread and baking soda.

9. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed (March 2021)

If I were teaching a course in Vietnam next year, this is the book I would bring with me to teach. Oh wait - I am teaching a course in Vietnam next year, and this is in fact the book I'm making my students read, along with Invisible Man and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (Wish me luck.) This is a fantastic sequel to The Sympathizer, a better book in every way, and funnier because it makes fun of French colonialism, an altogether more sophisticated kind of savagery than the moronic attempts at nation-building by the United States. Talk about a soft target: "We navigated through a quarter whose streets were narrower than the average French mind...."

10. Richard Powers, Bewilderment

Richard Powers, Bewilderment (September 2021)

Promise Me Dad for the planetary set. Not really a very good book (his hatred for Trump gets in the way), but bad Richard Powers is still better than anything else out there. I would have photographed the cover from my own copy but I already lent it to my son.

To order these books and the ones selected last year, go to your independent bookstore or click on the specially curated list by Station North Books in Baltimore. Happy reading!

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