Bayta’s Top Five Books of 2021 {Book Club}

“It’s has been a very strange couple of years” is probably the most overused phrase at the moment. It’s true, though, and this season has challenged and changed my reading habits. For many years, I spent a lot of time on public transport and would use that time to read. Then lockdown happened and my reading time disappeared from one day to the next. It’s not that I wouldn’t have had time to read but my normal rhythm had been interrupted and in the midst of all the upheaval, it took me a while to notice that I had pretty much stopped reading. It was only as I took time about a year ago to reflect on 2020 that I realized how much I missed reading and that I really needed to establish new patterns. I’m so glad I did – I love the broad spectrum of voices you encounter and missed those when I wasn’t reading so much.

Since I primarily read fiction, let’s start with my favorites in that category-

A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles – I was rather late to the party (this book was first published in 2016) but was hooked as soon as I started reading. Beautifully written, kind towards its characters, full of both humor and depth – what an amazing storyteller Amor Towles is! Reading about someone living under house arrest for several decades (albeit in a rather large hotel) certainly had a particular resonance during lockdown. That sense of engaging with the world mostly in an indirect way (in his case through people visiting him or the hotel) and learning to establish a different, much more confined life, both felt very familiar! Definitely one of my all-time favorites!

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina – Set in Japan a few years after the earthquake and tsunami, we meet several people who lost loved ones during that tragedy. They are drawn to the phone booth mentioned in the title which has become a place to say goodbye to lost loved ones, a place of connection, healing, and hope. This phone booth really does exist, though the characters and their stories are fictional. Beautiful, incredibly sad, yet full of hope.

Fun fact: it seems I read the UK version as it talked about a phone box rather than a phone booth. Love it when they pick up on these cultural/language differences! Yay for good editors.

The Voice of Melody by Kaylene Powell – This was one on this year’s Velvet Ashes’ book club reads. I wonder how many of you read along? Kaylene Powell tells the story behind the (more famous) story. “The Voice of Melody” paints a picture of life in the whaling communities of Nantucket and centers around the family of Owen Chase, whose tale inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”. Here we don’t go out to sea but rather stay behind with the families, experiencing their hardships and joys. The book offers fascinating insights into a world so very different from my own. All the key events reflect the reality of the lives of Owen Chase and his family. I also very much appreciated the way faith is woven into the story. Again, it feels real (ie messy yet full of beauty) rather than sugar-coated.

So there you have it. Three works of fiction set on three different continents. That‘s how I like it.

And a favorite non-fiction book.

Placed for a Purpose by Chris & Elizabeth McKinney – The tagline “A Simple and Sustainable Vision for Loving Your Next-Door Neighbors” sums it up well. A few of us across Europe read this at the same time and we all found it really helpful both in terms of biblical foundation and practical ideas. The authors are very aware that cultural contexts vary greatly and so they are never prescriptive but rather help us think through our context and how the concepts might play out for us.

In fact, I might actually re-read this as I move into a new neighborhood in January.

Now for some poetry.

Wild Hope by Monique Amado – I can’t say it better than the description on Amazon:

“Poems to reflect on, contemplate with, pray with, sit with, stare out the window with, listen with, be challenged by, be inspired by, be comforted by. If you’ve ever wanted to give up hope, but just can’t, this book is for you.”

I don’t always click with poetry but here, pretty much every single one resonated. The poems express such a depth of faith and genuine relationship with God that only come from walking through great challenges.

And here are two (very quick) bonus categories.

1) The category I wish didn’t exist: books stuck in a box in storage. Earlier this year, I re-read the first two books in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Then it was time to move and so the third one went in a box, to be read as soon as I unpacked here. Seven months later, that’s still not happened (though it will in January).

2) The category I want to read more of: books by local authors about my new host country’s history, culture, etc. Even if I will have to read them in English for now. I read one this year about an event involving both my passport and my host country (and which incidentally I was completely unaware of). It was so helpful getting the Danish perspective on it.

So that’s it – my ‘literary review’ of 2021! What were some of your highlights? And did your reading habits change during the pandemic?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

16 Comments

  1. Rachel Kahindi December 20, 2021

    I ended up reading a lot more during pandemic times. This year, I’ve read 100 books – I read more books in 2020, but there were more short books.

    I had a hard time this year coming up with my favorites. I rated 36 books with 5 stars on Goodreads… I narrowed down my absolute faves to:

    Fiction-
    The Wingfeather Saga (all 4) by Andrew Peterson
    Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis
    Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (also her book Gods of Jade and Shadow)

    Non-fiction-
    Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
    Parents and Children by Charlotte Mason
    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

    1. Bayta Schwarz December 21, 2021

      Wow Rachel – that’s amazing! I have read many of CS Lewis’ books but not that one. Might have to go on my list 🙂

  2. Sarah Hilkemann December 21, 2021

    I love this list, Bayta! I’ve definitely read more in the last two years since I was at home a lot. 🙂 I participated in a Winter Reading challenge to start off 2021 and I think that helped boost my overall count for the year as well. So far I’ve read 59 books this year and I should be able to at least finish one more. 😉

    The Voice of Melody was definitely one of my favorites for this year. I was so drawn into the story and the lives of the characters. It was a really fun way to start off Book Club this year!

    Here are a few of my other favorites for 2021:
    What is a Girl Worth by Rachel Denhollander
    That Sounds Fun by Annie F. Downs
    The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
    Essentialism by Greg McKeown

    I just realized all those are non-fiction (other than the Voice of Melody)! I love reading fiction but it takes a lot to impress me I guess. 😉

    1. Bayta Schwarz December 21, 2021

      It’s funny how I’m never really drawn to non-fiction. I read them more as a discipline rather than for pleasure. I’m sure the book by Rachel Denhollander would be fascinating. and heartbreaking.

  3. Michele December 21, 2021

    I hadn’t thought much about how Covid affected my reading habits, so that was interesting. I think I read more during the first six months, being on lockdown alone. But then I came to America and started homeschooling my grandniece, which took a LOT of time and energy. I was at her house by 5:30 most mornings to babysit, as well, and I realize now that my main reading time is before bed in the evenings- and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open most nights for that year, so that did slow me down. Here are my top 3 non-fiction and top 3 fiction for 2021:
    Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (Thank you, Amy Young, for this recommendation! Amazing story of President Garfield’s election and assasination)
    The Making of Pioneer Wisconsin by Michael Stevens (collection of letters and articles from earliest settlers of my home-state)
    Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (pretty sure this was also recommended by a VA friend at some point- story of a few families and individuals in a Mumbai slum, which happens to be chronicled the same years I was living in North India).
    A Yellow Raft on Blue Water by Michael Dorris (follows three generations of Native American women- very well-written novel)!
    The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (finally got to this ‘modern classic’)
    Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes (my first time reading this author- won’t be the last)!

    1. Bayta Schwarz December 21, 2021

      Oh gosh super early starts would do that for sure! And the book by Michael Dorris sounds super interesting!

    2. Sarah Hilkemann December 22, 2021

      Michele, I read Destiny of the Republic a couple of years ago with my in-person book club and loved it! I knew nothing about President Garfield before that and it was a fascinating read. 🙂

      1. Michele December 22, 2021

        Right? I have always said I have trouble voting for anyone for president because you have to be a little messed up to actually want that role- and here’s a guy who really DIDN’T! In the context of the pandemic, I also found it interesting that American doctors were so slow to accept Lister’s antiseptic methods. You can see I’m a little jealous you did this in a book club… It’s a book I clearly want to discuss with EVERYBODY! 😉

        1. Sarah Hilkemann December 23, 2021

          The medical aspect was really interesting. They made the comment that if he had been wounded on the Civil War battlefield, he probably would have survived because the wound care would have been less invasive- which is sad and fascinating. With the medical knowledge/standards we have today, I kept thinking, “What in the world are you doing?”

    3. JoyH December 22, 2021

      Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is such a good book. I recommend it to people who might be interested.

      Boys Without Names is another set in poor India, but is fiction for YA. It is very good, though, in showing real life. As my daughter read it she told me that parts of it were ‘scary’ for the characters, but because it was fiction she knew it would come out okay.

      1. Michele December 22, 2021

        Thanks for the recommendation! I am still in South Asia, so I’m guessing it would be another good one for me– adding to my list now! 🙂

  4. Phyllis December 28, 2021

    I’m late commenting here.

    Bayta, I had to laugh when I saw A Gentleman is Moscow on your list. I’m kind of famous in certain circles for my opinions about that book. 😛

    Placed for a Purpose is on my list to read. I really enjoyed a book that I think might be similar: You Are There, by Robert Campbell.

    I read 80+ books this year, which is a good amount for me. I’m going to aim for 100 next year, but I do think quality is better than quantity.

    1. Bayta Schwarz December 28, 2021

      hahaha! Well, I have managed to infect quite a few people already with my enthusiasm for it 😉
      I have no idea how many books I read this year but definitely far fewer than you! That is seriously impressive!

      1. Phyllis December 29, 2021

        What did you love about it? (For the record, what I hate is the unrussian feel of it.)

        1. Bayta Schwarz December 29, 2021

          True. Apart from needing the context of the revolution to set up the scenario, it could have been set pretty much in any European capital.
          I love the way the story unfolds in a quiet, undramatic way, yet the characters all grow and change so much. It’s such great storytelling! And so well written which brings me so much joy.
          But it’s also ok not to like it 😊

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