Book Reviews-plus:
Dee Wilson's best reads of 2021

Some of the books on my list were published in 2020, but I read the books during 2021. The Sigrid Undset novel was published in the 1920's, and was released in an English translation in 2020. I have written lengthy reviews of several of the books listed below and brief reviews of others which I would be happy to share with anyone who does not already have these reviews.    

 

Fiction 

 

Subdivision (2021), by J. Robert Lennon, is one of the best crafted, deeply intelligent and funny novels on an otherworldly theme I've ever read. It's an odd story of a nameless female main character who takes up residence in a boarding house run by two judges, both named Clara, one of whom is harsh and the other compassionate. With the wise guidance of a handheld computer, the woman at the center of the novel explores the subdivision which has many unusual features, including a Tempter and a Death Tower that contains a probability well. This book is not for everyone, but it's a fascinating account of a person both forgetting and remembering her past life, as she gathers courage for the next step associated with a cosmic windstorm.  This is the only novel since college that I read and then reread slowly, underlining key passages. Lennon is an outstanding writer of weird mysteries; in Subdivision he has outdone himself and just about every other living novelist in depth, craft and deep structure. 

 

Olav Audunsson: Vows, by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally (2020), is volume 1 of a novel about a young nobleman in 13th century Norway. Undset is one of the world's greatest novelists, best known for her historical novels, Kristin Lavransdtatter and The Master of Hestviken. I lack words to give adequate praise to this novel about a young couple who violate the social norms of their time to marry, and who pay an enormous price for their actions. Undset's depiction of the ethical codes of the Middle Ages and of conflicting ideas that emanated from Christianity is terrific.  Undset's ability to vividly portray intense suffering, ethical conflicts and temptations and of the meaning of exile is extraordinary. She is among the handful of the greatest novelists in any language.   

 

Oh William! (2021), by Elizabeth Strout, returns to the main character -- Lucy Barton -  of one of her previous novels who accompanies her ex-husband to Maine to find a sister newly discovered through a genetic search. This seemingly dull premise is the occasion for moving and convincing reflections on the mystery of intimate others whom we believe we know well, but who are full of surprises.  Strout's larger theme combines with her method, i.e., that every person (including ourselves), event and relationship is subject to reassessment and reimagining until death do us part. On the novel's last page, Strout writes: " ... Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves. ... Except, a little tiny, tiny bit, we do. But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries is what I mean. This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true."  

Lucy Barton's humility is equaled by her discernment which operates like a delicate surgical unmasking of character, which only deepens the mystery of subjectivity and personal relationships. 

 

Deacon King Kong (2020), by James McBride, follows the aftermath of the shooting of a young drug dealer by an aging church deacon, Sportcoat, who is losing his memory and does not remember his violent act. This novel, set in Brooklyn, is funny, violent, street smart, surprising and wise, in equal measure.  The most unexpected character is this urban tale of karma is romantic love which appears suddenly and unpredictably in the lives of persons stuck in dead marriages. McBrides's ability to imagine the mental life of men, women, young and old, gangsters and law abiding citizens and to combine drama, comedy and acute social observation is beyond impressive. Reading this novel was pure pleasure.

 

Non-fiction 

 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an astonishing book about fungi and their ability to survive in just about any environment, including outer space and in the depths of the oceans, as well as their extraordinary mental abilities. Sheldrake discusses the ability of fungi to solve problems, make decisions among alternative courses of action, respond flexibly to circumstances, compute and integrate huge amounts of data from vast networks and engage in economic transactions with plants.  It is not too much to say that this book is a revelation regarding the intelligence --and perhaps sentience - of organisms who lack central nervous systems but engage in a host of complex mental operations. I discussed Entangled Life at length in my articles on the Biology of Mind, which I sent out earlier this year.  

 

Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind (2020), by Peter Godfrey-Smith, is an important book regarding the development of mind and of subjectivity in animals. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher with notable scholarly virtues, including clarity regarding sources and the habit of distinguishing between knowledge and speculation. He is also an engaging and insightful observer of animal life, and has written an entire book on octopuses and these creatures' decentralized nervous systems. Godfrey- Smith, like many other scientific experts and philosophers, is gradually feeling his way (so to speak) to an expanded conception of sentience in animals; and he considers at length the possibility that some insects and fish have subjective experiences.  Metazoa contains much fascinating information on a wide range of subjects, from the capacity of single celled bacteria to use electricity to control traffic at the cell boundary to the electrical nature of brain processes and the social life of fish. This is a must read for anyone interested in the biology of mind and of the foundations of consciousness.  I discussed information and perspectives from Metazoa in my three articles on Biology of Mind.  

 

Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America (2021), by Eyal Press, is about the dynamics of ethically questionable "dirty work" that American society wants done while knowing as little as possible about the work itself, e.g,, prison guard for mentally ill prisoners, drone pilot carrying out assassinations of alleged terrorists thousands of miles away, or working in a slaughter house killing animals for meat consumption. Press has written a great book destined to become a sociological classic through in- depth interviews with former employees morally injured by these jobs and through graphic descriptions of job requirements. One feature of "dirty work" is that the public is not curious, or inquisitive, regarding what goes on in these jobs, but offers muted criticism (at most) when information is provided by whistle blowers or media exposes.  "Dirty work" is thankless, unpleasant, (often) morally compromised and potentially morally injurious to those who perform it, yet is implicitly tolerated by all social classes.  Until I read Press' book, I did not understand why in past years I was rarely, if ever, asked about my work as a CPS caseworker or supervisor; rather people at social gatherings might say, "I don't know how you do that" as a means of stopping further conversation about the subject.  Child welfare in this society is "dirty work," while the apparent unpleasant features of policing is a subject of endless fascination in TV series, movies and novels.  

 

Invisible child: poverty, survival and hope in an American city (2021), Andrea Elliot, is another outstanding book with a misleading title. The book's main subject, Dasani,  was highly visible both inside and outside her family from an early age due to her parentified role, strong personality, intelligence and athletic ability. Dasani was a 'star child' in a severely poor family of 8 siblings in New York City, a family afflicted by periodic homelessness, food insecurity, parental substance abuse, DV, and the occasional incarceration of both parents. One of the compelling stories of Elliot' book concerns Dasani's opportunity to escape intergenerational poverty and substance abuse through acceptance into the Milton Hershey residential academy in Pennsylvania, a pathway to college and social privilege. The cost to Dasani and her siblings of Dasani's selection by the meritocracy is a theme of invisible child. After years of doing little or nothing to help this family,  New York City's child welfare system busted up the family through legal action and foster care placements, with dire results for some of the children. The city's child welfare system and juvenile courts are Elliot's villains, given the negative emotional impact on the children of lengthy separations from one or both parents, sibling separations, multiple placements, maltreatment of some of the children in foster care and the stubborn refusal of authorities to acknowledge failure and change course. However, the painful story of invisible child goes way beyond a morality tale about family separation. It is a story of a family's fate whose members are powerfully connected to one another by early nurturing relationships, despite abject poverty, substance abuse, family violence and criminality.  Elliot tries for a happy ending through family reunification which feels false. The book's deepest theme is that family ties can save, redeem or create devastating harm to children. Dasani's story and the story of her siblings is not over, though by book's end, one child has been indicted for murder, another much younger boy is suicidal, and Dasani is hunted by a gang who intends to kill her as payback for her street fighting defiance.    

 

The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness (2021) by Suzanne O'Sullivan, is about extreme cases of psychosomatic illness, i.e., functional neurological disorders (FND), including immigrant children in Sweden who have been asleep for months or years, American diplomats who have suffered brain injury from mysterious sounds, persons of all ages who have fallen asleep, had seizures or seemingly became crazy after traumatic losses, or for unknown reasons. O'Sullivan interviewed or examined persons afflicted by FND in several societies around the world. She writes with clarity and insight regarding specific instances of FND and about general issues pertaining to the relationship of mind and body in disease processes. I recently wrote a lengthy review of The Sleeping Beauties which I will send to whomever requests it.                             

 

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (2021), by George Packer, is one of the most insightful books regarding the U.S. political divisions, culture wars and changing class structure published in recent years. Packer classifies America's political and cultural divisions in four categories: free America ( the ethos embodied by Ronald Reagan), real America ( the part of Trump's base that has come down in the world economically and socially in recent decades), smart America  (corporate America and universities) and just America ( liberals and social justice advocates).  Packer's discussion of how the alliances and conflicts between and among these four groups has realigned both major parties is discerning and balanced, though his proposed solutions are no more plausible than anyone else's. Still, Packer's analysis is a big step forward to the cultural goal of "know thyself."   Packer also has interesting things to say about the dominant polarities of American culture, especially the polar opposition of kindness and cruelty, so evident in U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. 

 

Don't Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo (2021, by Mansoor Adayfi is one of the most disturbing and infuriating books I've read in recent years. It is difficult to write even a brief review of this book using temperate language.  Adayi, a Yemeni student in Afghanistan, asserts that he was sold by an Afghan warlord to the CIA after 9 /11,  and was then systematically tortured by the CIA in "black" sites and then by interrogators and guards at Guantanamo for 9 years. According to Adayi, torture included mock executions, beatings, attacks by dogs, genital searches (including anal searches), use of painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and other methods designed to induce insanity, force feeding, and much more. Ayafi asserts that guards and interrogators also routinely desecrated the Koran, behavior that often led to general mayhem.  According to Adayi (whose account is much like other former inmates at Guantanamo that have been reported or dramatized recently), these practices were business as usual at Guantanamo, where members of al-Qa'eda were held with persons from many countries captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan or sold to the CIA with fictional stories by warlords. Interrogators at Guantanamo were determined to exact confessions and actionable intelligence at any cost except (apparently) death or obvious maiming of prisoners.  Adayi and a group of other prisoners fought back, destroying cells, going on prolonged hunger strikes, throwing urine and feces at guards, inviting beatings.  It seems miraculous that anyone could survive the treatment dished out in full measure by guards and interrogators for years, and some prisoners died. Adayi had no legal representation for years because he was believed by interrogators to be an al-Qa'eda commander, a fictional story confirmed through torture, according to Adayi, who describes most Guantanamo personnel as cruel and demented  (men more than women), determined to vent their rage for 9/11 on prisoners.  Adayi was released from Guantanamo in 2015  and sent to Serbia after Yemen refused to accept him.  Adayi's account of how he and other prisoners survived Guantanamo with their sanity and humanity intact is inspiring, whatever one thinks about the prelude and politics of their imprisonment at Guantanamo.      

 

Other notable books: The American War in  Afghanistan (2021), by Carter Malkasian; The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix (2021) by Howard Markel; Nightbitch (2021), by Rachel Yoder; What's Eating the Universe (2021) by Paul Davies.  

 

-- Dee Wilson

deewilson13@aol.com