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Best books of 2021, chosen by St. Louis librarians

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St. Louis County Library print book circulation (including audiobooks) for the year-to-date is 6,400,000. SLCL eMedia circulation through the end of November totals 2,657,721.

Hundreds of thousands of books are published in the U.S. annually — and millions globally, according to UNESCO.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, librarians Jennifer Alexander of St. Louis County Library and Kathy Condon Boettcher of St. Louis Public Library shared their favorite books released in 2021. From a book on how fungal networks allow trees to share resources, to a mystery based on the real-life story of India’s first female lawyer, there’s something for everyone on their lists.

They also recommended publications with local ties, including a new coffee-table book that details pro wrestling’s St. Louis heyday.

Their favorite reads are listed below, including brief notes from each of them.

JENNIFER ALEXANDER’S FAVORITE 2021 READS:

FICTION
“The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

  • The beloved author of “A Gentleman in Moscow” writes an adventure novel mirroring classic stories of legendary heroes. Two brothers embark on a cross-country road trip to right a wrong and set up their future. While the plot is twisty, and the characters are entertaining, the real story is about friendship, brothers and home.

“Our Country Friends” by Gary Shteyngart

  • Shteyngart displays his talent for writing comic tragedy in this novel of the pandemic. A group of old friends gather at a country estate to wait out the virus. While they are safely isolated, they still have to contend with long-standing feuds, new and old romances, and menacing neighbors.
Listen: St. Louis librarians share best books of 2021

“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Klara is an Artificial Friend, a human-like robot manufactured to be a companion for a child. The novel is set in a familiar near future, but with several unsettling differences. Readers see the world through Klara’s eyes and limited perception, which holds a mirror to our own view of society. Like other Ishiguro novels, this is a slow and quiet tale with a powerful impact. 

“Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

  • Rooney’s novel presents best friends Alice and Eileen navigating their friendship and their romantic lives. Young people working and dating seems like a straightforward story, but through the characters’ actions and their emails to each other, Rooney tells a bigger story about class, family, ambition and love. 

“Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout

  • Many of Strout’s novels revisit characters from previous books. In this book, Strout writes about Lucy Barton, now 63, and her relationship with her first husband. Strout’s novels rely more on reflection than action, and the quiet musing invariably yields great insight into human nature.

NONFICTION
“A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life” by George Saunders

  • Saunders presents seven classic Russian short stories with conversational essays about each. The first story is presented a page at a time: first text, then thoughts and observations about the story. It is like reading with a wise, kind and thoughtful teacher by your side who points out details in the language and the plot.

“Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law” by Mary Roach

  • This is an amusing collection of stories about humans finding themselves in conflict with plants and animals — and the methods they devise to solve their problems. Roach writes about investigating bear attacks, blowing off the tops of trees to minimize the damage when the tree falls, moose crossings and poisonous beans.

“Wrestling at the Chase” by Ed Wheatley

“Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” by Suzanne Simard

  • Forest ecologist Simard is the inspiration for a character in Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Overstory.” Her once controversial research influences our understanding of trees and forests. She writes of the fungal networks that allow trees to regulate and share resources, and she promotes a view of the forest as an interconnected system, rather than simply a collection of individual plants competing for resources.

“Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide” by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras

  • From the people of Atlas Obscura, an online travel magazine highlighting mostly unusual and little-known places, comes an encyclopedic book of food information organized geographically. There are entries on surprising (and sometimes alarming) regional specialties, food festivals, product histories and many sidebars with fun facts.

KATHY CONDON-BOETTCHER’S FAVORITE 2021 READS:

FICTION
“The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich

  • This is a book I can’t wait to read! Louise Erdich’s novels are always a moment to celebrate, and this one sounds promising. She’s written herself in as a side character: the owner of a small bookstore (which she is in real life) that’s haunted by a previous customer. The narrator is a body-snatching ex-con who just started working at the bookstore upon her release and would like the ghost to go haunt some other place. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band of Indians and writes about the modern Native American experience. Many of her characters reappear in her novels at different stages of their lives.

“Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen

  • This book is the first in a planned trilogy, and it’s set in the 1970s in a fictional small town in Illinois. It’s already gotten quite a bit of buzz since its September publication. Like many of Franzen’s previous novels, it’s long, focuses closely on the characters of one family, and simultaneously celebrates and closely examines the people of the Midwest. “Crossroads” is both the name of a church youth group featured in the book and a reference to Robert Johnson.

“Dune: The Lady of Caladan” by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

  • The first “Dune” novel was written by Frank Herbert and came out in 1965. There have been many, many more since then, and Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert has taken up where his father left off after his passing. The younger Herbert has written eight so far. “Lady of Caladan” is the second in the Caladan trilogy. “Duke of Caladan” is the first, and “Heir of Caladan” will be out in 2022. This is a great gift for all the “Dune” geeks in your life.

“The Root of Everything and Lightning” by Scott Alexander Hess

  • “The Root of Everything and Lightning” is a pair of novellas by Hess, a St. Louis native and Lambda Literary Award Finalist. “The Root of Everything” is set in the early 1900s and follows a German immigrant to rural Missouri who finds work in a lumberyard. The story follows members of the family through time to Stanford, a young closeted gay man who leaves Missouri for New York City. In “Lightning,” another family story, Bud is faced with the opportunity of leaving Fayetteville, Arkansas, to ride horses in New York. Both stories are written in lyrical, spare prose and feature themes of family, forbidden love and hope.

“The Bombay Prince” by Sujata Massey

  • The most recent of Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry mysteries is based on India’s real first female lawyer Cornelia Sorabji. All three of the books in the series have earned significant praise and awards. The books are set in 1920s India, and the descriptions of the food, cultures and people of the time are absolutely sumptuous — and the mysteries are a delight as well. In “The Bombay Prince,” the citizens of Bombay are awaiting the arrival of Edward VIII, Prince of Wales, when a student is found dead. The story is set against the backdrop of unrest due to tensions between the locals and the colonialist British, along with the excitement surrounding the messages encouraging Indian independence by the controversial Mohandas Gandhi. Readers are transported to this vibrant time period with excellent writing.

“The List of Unspeakable Fears” by J. Kasper Kramer

  • I’m including a “bonus” children’s book because it’s OK for adults to read juvenile literature, and this book could not be more timely. Essie is terrified of nearly everything, and her “List of Unspeakable Fears” has the potential to expand exponentially when her mother remarries a German doctor following the death of Essie’s father from tuberculosis. They move to North Brother Island in New York, where Essie’s stepfather runs a quarantine hospital. In this book, readers will meet the real Typhoid Mary and learn how people in 1910, much like folks of today, mistrusted vaccines and the expertise of doctors. Throw in a ghost or two, and adults and children alike won’t be able to put this book down until its satisfying conclusion.

NONFICTION
“Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood” by Danny Trejo with Donal Logue

  • This is not a tell-all book filled with dishy secrets, and I think that’s why I picked it up and read it in the first place. It’s a great story of the road to sobriety and Trejo’s mission to help others along the way. I loved his take on Hollywood, as he’s an insider in the sense that he’s seen it all and done it all. (I loved reading about how many projects he’s been in and his take on “b-projects”: They are a source of work and income for everyone involved and nothing to be ashamed of.) But Trejo is also an outsider with his understanding that he’s still seen as a tough guy and a fixer, even though he left his life of crime behind him decades ago.

“100 Things to Do in Missouri Before You Die” by John W. Brown and Amanda E. Doyle

  • This is the ultimate bucket-list book for Missouri attractions by two of the most knowledgeable folks in the state! Amanda Doyle is the go-to expert on all things St. Louis, and she’s teamed up with John W. Brown, who loves talking about all the great things our state has to offer. This is a great gift for anyone looking for ideas for day trips or weekend trips that won’t involve having to hop in a plane. 

“You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism” by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

  • Lacey Lamar describes her Midwestern experiences of “everyday racism” with the help of her sister, writer and performer Amber Ruffin. Written with humor, without shying away from the topics presented, this book is written primarily for a Black audience — as opposed to being an anti-racism tool for white readers. However, there’s lessons to be learned for anyone who picks up this book, as it details both the micro and macro-aggressions Black women experience every single day. 

“Every Day is a Gift” by Tammy Duckworth

  • “Every Day is a Gift” is a memoir by Senator and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs and suffered severe injuries to her arm in 2004. She discusses those life-changing experiences, as well as her early life as a biracial daughter of an American Marine father and Thai-Chinese mother who hated standing out and moved frequently. Inspirational but never sentimental, this is a great book for anyone interested in modern military history and current events told from the perspective of a trail-blazing woman.

“The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” by Dave Grohl

  • Not a true memoir or dirt-dishing tell-all, this book is what the title promises: a collection of stories about the experiences of being a musician from a man who can’t believe he’s lucky enough to call himself that. We’ve read all the wild stories of life in the rock ‘n’ roll world; there’s nothing bad about getting the sweeter side from a man as affable as Grohl.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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