My Top Ten Reads of 2021

So you know what lies ahead, this is 2021’s list:

  1. The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. (2016)
  2. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (2006)
  3. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins (2006)
  4. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2005)
  5. Wonder Works by Angus Fletcher (2021)
  6. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (2019)
  7. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020)
  8. Tecumseh and the Prophet by Peter Cozzens (2020)
  9. Under Jerusalem by Andrew Lawler (2021)
  10. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I used most of my “leisure” time in 2021 completing the first draft of my most ambitious project yet: Valley of Wolves, the sequel to my Gypsy Spy novel. Even so, I still managed to enjoy thirty-four tomes from other authors. If you are in the mood to break away from streaming by breaking open a book, this list contains titles worthy of your time and attention.

This year’s list features inspiring neuroscience, sweeping history, on-the-ground views of the war on terror, third world hope, Shawnee courage, classic science fiction, dystopian mastery, and social commentary par excellence. In the past, I have listed my recommendations in the order they were read. I’m breaking from that tradition this year. Though all ten are worthy reads, I’ve stacked the most impactful at the front. Also, I’ve added the publication year next to the author’s name.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. (2016)

This book on neuroplasticity and the innovative therapies used to engage it to prompt the brain to repair itself brought me to tears time and again—tears of joy, amazement, and praise. It is a narrative of the impacts of the avant-garde neuroplastic therapies and the results they have engendered for patients who were given hopeless prognoses. In highlighting neuroplasticity, Doidge exposes the wonders of the Creator’s wiring. From the truth that our cells run on light to the revelation that the ear can reset the brain, I was reminded time and again that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

If you have suffered from any neurological set back (chemo brain, traumatic brain injury, concussion, etc.) or are close to any who have, this book will not only give you hope but ideas as well. From people born with half a brain to severely autistic children, the author highlights therapies that have energized the marvelous brain to function as designed. Read this book. You will be amazed.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (2006)

When the Taliban surged to take over Afghanistan during the current administration’s precipitous withdrawal despite U.S. efforts over more than twenty years to neuter them, I was made painfully aware of my ignorance regarding them. Deciding to remedy my problem, I did a library search on the subject of the Taliban and this little jewel popped up as a suggestion.

It’s not about the Taliban.

It is, however, about one man’s journey to improve the lives of many in areas controlled by the Taliban and others like them. The full title of the work is Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a time. Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber who after a failed attempt to reach the summit of Pakistan’s K2 mountain, got separated from his guide and wound up in an impoverished, remote mountain village and promised to build them a school as a thanks for his rescue. To call what follows next “awe inspiring” would be an understatement. Mortenson’s journey is a testament to what one person committed to the betterment of others can accomplish.

The most profound quote from the work comes from Mortenson’s mouth. “In times of war,” he said, “you often hear leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—saying, ‘God is on our side.’ But that isn’t true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows, and orphans.”

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins (2006)

This was the other title Overdrive suggested I should read. I am returning the favor. Strap on a flak jacket, tighten your helmet, and read this book. Imagine Saving Private Ryan or American Sniper or Apocalypse Now except you’re not an officer or a soldier. You’re just a brave (or foolish) soul without rifle or side arm running through a war zone with a bunch of Marines. Yikes!

This book is front row seat to a confusing and catastrophic conflict. Filkins brings the reader into the offices of officials—U. S., Afghani, and Iraqi—and asks hard questions with no clear answers. But most of all, he takes the reader along for the civilian and grunt view of war. It reads at times like stream of consciousness reporting. His battle fatigue is apparent as the narrative unfolds. Following are some of my favorite lines from the work:

“I went to the Moshin Mosque to remind myself of what I didn’t know.”

“Iraq was filled with people like Yacob Yusef. They weren’t survivors as much as they were leftovers. The ruined by-products of terrible times.”

“For many Iraqis, the typical nineteen-year-old army corporal from South Dakota was not a youthful innocent carrying America’s goodwill; he was a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance.”

Dexter Filkins

“There wasn’t any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers, after all. They could hit a guy at five hundred yards or cut his throat from ear-to-ear. And they didn’t ask a lot of questions. They had faith, they did what they were told and they killed people.”

“…however many Iraqis opposed them before the Americans came into [Abu Shakur], dozens and dozens more did by the time they left. The Americans were making enemies faster than they could kill them.”

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2005)

If you think I was inspired to read this biography because it inspired the mega-hit Broadway musical that Disney ultimately streamed on its nascent platform, well then, you’d be right.

I watched Hamilton expecting not to like it. I failed. Miserably. I read Alexander Hamilton expecting to learn more about the founding of the National Bank and instead found him at the founding of that and just about everything else one can think of when one thinks, “American.”

My review of the work in my reading journal is uncharacteristically concise and short.

Wow, just wow.

Larum Reading Journal

But Chernow’s sweeping view of Hamilton’s life and times deserves more. Though I was blessed with an extraordinary American History teacher in high school, he gave short shrift to Hamilton. I had no idea how instrumental he was in the founding our nation.

Following are some lengthy quotes from Chernow’s masterful work.

“If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.”

“Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years.”

“Hamilton’s besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism. George Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr all came to incarnate that dread for Hamilton.”

“Hamilton was an American prophet without peer. No other founding father straddled both these revolutions [political and economic]—and only Franklin even came close—and therein lay Hamilton’s novelty and greatness. He was the clear-eyed apostle of America’s economic future, setting forth a vision that many found enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail. He stood squarely on the modern side of a historical divide that seemed to separate him from the other founders. Small wonder he aroused such fear and confusion.”

Last but far from least, Chernow includes Hamilton’s confession on his deathbed:

“I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

alexander hamilton

Wonder Works: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher (2021)

Angus Fletcher is a PhD with dual degrees in neuroscience and literature. Yeah, if I met this guy at a party, I’d probably say, “You had me at hello.”

This work combines two subjects I am fascinated with: story science and neuroscience. The author not only takes us through literature’s innovative history, he explains how the rhetorical devices work on the brain. Fletcher’s writing is exquisite and he practices the devices he highlights throughout the tome. He hooked me early on with this literary and neural view of courage:

“… to Old French and Latin wordsmiths, courage wasn’t a stoic virtue or a rational choice. It was a feeling that collided with the terror that rushed through our veins in times of danger, counterbalancing one emotion with another, and rousing us with the psychological desire to hold our ground.

[This] insight has been extended by modern neuroscience. The neural origins of courage start deep in the primordial center of our brain, where there sits, ensconced upon a drop-shaped double throne, the coward despot known as our amygdala. As soon as our amygdala senses danger, it panics.”

Courage blooms with the addition of another ingredient. I would finish the thought, but you would do better to be brave and read the book.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell (2019)

If you know me, you know I love Malcolm Gladwell. I consider him to be one of the most articulate thinkers of our times. In this work, Malcolm (I’ve read so many of his books—and took his MasterClass on writing and listened to all his podcasts—that I think of myself as being on a first-name basis with him) begins with Sandra Bland, moves into spy rings, exposes truth-default theory and the cost of suspicion, looks at suicide and coupling, moves to crime and policing, and returns to Sandra Bland and the tragedy of strangers misunderstanding one another.


Some favorite bits:

From the Author’s Note: “Sometimes the best conversation between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger.”

I write spy novels. Malcolm has this to say about spies: “The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us.”

While explaining myopia theory, he provides these insights about inebriation: “When you are drunk, your understanding of your true self changes…Alcohol isn’t an agent of revelation. It is an agent of transformation.”

And what of the role of benefit of the doubt regarding strangers and familiars alike? Malcolm drops this jewel: “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.”

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (2020)

The prequel to The Hunger Games, the story centers on Coriolanus Snow, the villain of the original trilogy. In my humble opinion, no one succeeds at making the anti-hero likeable quite like Stephen R. Donaldson. Collins comes close. I wonder if she ever considered making Lucy Gray the protagonist, though it’s understandable why she chose Snow. If she didn’t do as well as Donaldson in making the villain likeable, she definitely beat George Lucas at the task of showing us the early life of the tyrant. The songs and mockingjays steal the show. I have no idea how many were original compositions, but all were placed well and had meaning.

My favorite lines:

“The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty.”

“Staring up at the towering rows of seats made him feel diminished to the point of insignificance. A raindrop in a flood, a pebble in an avalanche.”

“Sejanus appeared in another brand-new suit, with a rumpled little woman in an expensive flowered dress on his arm. It didn’t matter. You could put a turnip in a ball gown and it would still beg to be mashed.”

“‘Then be kind, Coryo,’ she snapped. ‘And try not to look down on people who had to choose between death and disgrace.’”

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation by Peter Cozzens (2020)

If you like me only knew the name Tecumseh because of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, it may interest you to know that his father gave him the name because he admired the Shawnee chieftan.

I confess to a woefully ignorance of serious native North American history, which is one of the reasons this book intrigued me. Dealing with the years leading up to and following the War of 1812, it provides insights to the dealings and cultures of the tribes of the Old Northwest along with highlighting a period of American History I am unfamiliar with. Though the Prophet is the vehicle of the tale, Tecumseh is the hero―a leader all admired. The British, the Americans (the Long Knives in Shawnee parlance), and the various tribes held him in the highest esteem. Histories of noble courage lift us all and this is such a history. Their dream was hopeless, but they fought for their hope nonetheless.

Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler (2021)

As a history of archaeology in the holy city, it is a vivid illustration of the different world views that clash above ground. If nothing else, in searching for the remains of Herod’s temple, the archeologists have thus far proven Jesus’ words to be true when he said, “there will not be left here one stone upon another.”

Two quotes prove the poignancy and difficulty of the subject matter. The first comes from Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann who in 1937 said, “There are now two sorts of countries in the world, those that want to expel the Jews and those that don’t want to admit them.”

Later in the book, this observation is made: “A dozen years before the Soviets built the Berlin Wall, Jerusalem became the world’s most divided city.”

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

A story as old as I am, Dune remains for me the masterpiece of the genre. I consider the original trilogy to be science fiction’s equivalent to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in stature and influence. I’m not prone to reading the same fiction book twice. This is perhaps my fifth reading of Dune in the past forty years. It was like visiting an old friend.

I make much of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s and Stephen King’s influences on my writing style, but Herbert’s Dune left its stamp on my voice, something I had not recognized until this reading. Shamelessly head hopping and introspective, its style guided my writing of Gypsy Spy.

If you are a fan of the book and haven’t seen the newest film adaptation, I highly recommend it. If you haven’t read the book, well then, you are in for a classic treat.