My Two Favorite Books of 2021
by Jude Joseph Lovell
It is hard to believe yet another year has come and gone. Seems like only just last week I was sitting in a similar place scribbling about my favorite books of 2020. One of those was called Love in the Time of Cholera, and I remember setting my thoughts down with a sense of irony that we were all experiencing a plague of a different stripe, but also nursing a hope that we were most of the way past it.
Not so much. After a year when a global pandemic continued to afflict the world, while we all continued to search for ways to move forward collectively even as we spent increasing amounts of time at some remove, great books continued to be a source of enlightenment, solace, and wonder. At least for this writer.
I am happy to share with readers, by a tradition now in its fourth year, my two favorite books of 2021.
Close Range, Annie Proulx (Scribner, 1999)
Close Range is a collection of eleven short stories all set in the state of Wyoming in the “badlands” of the American west, published at the end of the previous century. The author, Annie Proulx, still flies well under the radar in terms of popularity and commercial success, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the 1990s. But in my opinion Proulx is one of the greatest living writers this nation has and should receive annual consideration by that stuffy Swedish committee that hands out Nobel Prizes every year. If readers do recognize Proulx’s name, it is most likely in connection to an Oscar-winning film called Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation of the final tale in this book, the one that people sometimes dismiss as the “gay cowboy story.” The film version is potent enough, but the written narrative, which is indeed about two gruff ranch hands in the 1960s who fall fiercely in love without meaning to, is one of the most searing love stories you will ever find anywhere. And that’s just one of the striking, sometimes brutal, but magnificent tales in this exceptional collection. The titles of these stories alone are so compelling that it’s hard to forget them before you even read a sentence: “The Mud Below,” “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” or “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” for example. An epigraph to the book captures an old rancher’s wry reflection that “reality’s never been much use out here.” When you finally sit down and read these stories, you find yourself experiencing every harsh winter, vivisected wild animal, bar fight, or lonely journey across an unforgiving ridge as though you were there yourself. Reality does indeed slip through your fingers as you inhabit these strange and beautiful places, “blowing past mesas and red buttes piled like meat, humped and harried,” or traveling alone where “the dazzled rope of lightning against the cloud is not the downward bolt, but the compelled upstroke through the heated ether.” If you have any use for short fiction whatsoever, Close Range is essential—and, incredibly, it is only the first of three volumes of Wyoming tales Proulx has produced. Rejoice!
The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, John Tresch (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2021)
Not many know that near the end of his brief, troubled, but accomplished life, Edgar Allan Poe, renowned for his innovative, gothic literary work, gave a vaunted lecture in New York City that advanced a radical new theory on nothing less than the origin of the universe. The lecture was poorly attended due to harsh winter weather and quickly forgotten. But those who were paying attention were stunned by its hardy challenge to conventionally accepted thinking about complex scientific concepts. The writer and professor John Tresch uses this fascinating coda to Poe’s unique journey as a starting point for a thoroughly original, compelling biography of one of America’s most influential writers. While most of us have some awareness of Poe’s celebrated stories and poetry, including classic works of the macabre such as “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” what may be less known is Poe’s fierce intellect and his propensity for bold scientific inquiry. Tresch freshly examines Poe’s humble beginnings in Baltimore, his difficult relationship with his father, his early but unsuccessful stint at West Point studying engineering, his military experience, and his unabating struggles with insolvency and substance abuse. At the same time, he charts the progress of Western science through one of its most volatile periods of discourse and Poe’s own fascination with and eventual entry into the conversation. The result is a riveting look at a literary master, filled with startling revelations about how he overcame incalculable odds to produce some of our culture’s most enduring works, while at the same time pushing the limits of human understanding. All in a lifetime that was only barely long enough to qualify him as a Silver Sager. Remarkable.
Photo of jacket cover by Jude Joseph Lovell.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.