Book Club: Favorite literary escapes of 2021
Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.
This year our community book club continued to be a welcoming place for savoring the most interesting and important stories of our times.
Even the riveting conversation in November about the nation’s enduring legacy of slavery became an occasion that brought people together rather than pulling them apart.
To recap our sweeping year of reading, Diego Medrano created this must-see video of our book club stories and storytellers of 2021.
During the past year, the pandemic continued to keep us from travel and adventure. Yet our community book club took us everywhere.
Sometimes challenging but most often a balm, reading provided our essential refuge during the tumult of 2021.
Author and indie bookstore owner Ann Patchett saw her customers struggle to concentrate and settle into books as the pandemic dragged on.
“So many people said, ‘I want a book that is smart and funny and isn’t going to crush me at the end,’” Patchett said during December’s book club night, discussing her essay collection “These Precious Days.”
She suggests a pair of writers whose work fit the bill: Meg Mason’s “Sorrow and Bliss” (“the right mix of salty and sweet”) and Lily King’s “Writers & Lovers,” as well as King’s new short-story collection, “Five Tuesdays in Winter.”
Novelist Lisa See, L.A.’s queen of historical fiction, took refuge in another direction. “My favorite literary escape this past year was rereading ‘The Story of the Stone’ (also known as ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’) by Cao Xueqin,” she says. “I’ve accompanied my reading with listening to a podcast called, aptly enough, ‘Rereading the Stone,’ in which the hosts discuss the history, philosophy, architecture, poetry and just about anything you can imagine related to elite family life in 18th century China.”
Linda McLoughlin Figel, the owner of Pages: A Bookstore in Manhattan Beach, shared “Still Life” by Sarah Winman. “This story of a ragtag band of characters navigating the end of WWII and making their way forward to a brighter, more hopeful future was just what I needed,” she says. “With a not so subtle nod to E.M. Forster and ‘A Room With a View,’ this novel provides all the feels: humor, heartbreak, empathy and fun. I would like to sit at a café table in an Italian piazza or at a bar outside of London with any one of the colorful characters.”
Filmmaker and author Rodrigo Garcia found his escape in two books, one old, one new.
The first was Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” “I hadn’t read it since college, and I read it again in 2020 and again in 2021,” Garcia said. “[It’s] beautiful and moving, prodigiously well-written and human. I have never felt a death in literature as acutely as I felt the death of one of its principal characters. Unforgettable.”
He also loved Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars,” a book of poetry he describes as “lyrical, bold, sexy, intimate and public, mining the future as powerfully as great poets mine their past.” Garcia adds, “After reading it I also heard it on audiobook. Smith’s reading voice in inebriating.”
Pasadena author Lynell George discovered her sanctuary in “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” by Daphne A. Brooks. “It went so many unexpected places and it fed me. I was especially drawn to the under-told stories of trailblazing women who were the collectors, archivists and storytellers. She’s made what has been in the shadows legible. It’s full of stories of creative resistance and persistence. Perfect for this moment.“
Author and book reviewer Paula L. Woods got lost in Mexico. “The book that took me to another place, literally and figuratively, was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Velvet Was the Night.’ Moreno is a genre-defying talent, having written fantasy, a vampire novel, horror-tinged gothic and now a historical mystery set in Mexico City during the student protests of the 1970s.”
Irvine Valley College English professor Lisa Alvarez said her 2021 solace included “The Lockhart Women,” a debut novel by Huntington Beach writer Mary Camarillo.
Alvarez says the book offers an authentic portrait of 1990s Orange County, distinct from the oft-celebrated affluent coast. “’The Lockhart Women’ opens with one of SoCal’s most famous traffic jams: June 17, 1994. Among the stalled cars, Brenda Lockhart, her husband and their two teen daughters, en route from Huntington Beach to Torrance and a company party where Brenda’s husband’s infidelity will come into the open. As her marriage unravels and, with it, her stable middle-class existence, Brenda becomes obsessed with the Simpson trial, a true believer in O.J.'s innocence.
”What better way to escape the pandemic present than to return to the past, even if that past has its own troubles, which of course, also resemble today’s?”
L.A. poet, historian and professor Mike Sonksen says his favorite escape this year was “Not Yo’ Butterfly,” a memoir by Nobuko Miyamoto. “The story begins with Miyamoto in the Japanese American internment camps in her early childhood, to her adolescence in Boyle Heights and Mid-City,” he says. “By her early 20s Miyamoto appeared in the original ‘West Side Story’ film, danced on Broadway and then in the late ’60s and ’70s, she played a major role in both the Asian American and Black liberation movements.
“Her entire life has been about using art to grow her soul and also open doors for everyone else,” Sonksen says. “I loved the book from cover to cover.” (For more L.A. books, check out Mike the Poet’s extensive year-end reading list at L.A. Taco.)
Especially during the holiday season, my own favorite escapes are audiobooks on my daily walks. I happily tuned out the world with another Patchett book, “The Dutch House,” magically narrated by actor Tom Hanks, and Andy Weir’s latest sci-fi popcorn, “Project Hail Mary,” after seeing my husband devour it.
Right now we all need something that won’t crush us.
January book club
On Jan. 25, Stephanie Land kicks off the first book club night of 2022 to discuss her bestseller, “Maid.” Joined by Times reporter Paloma Esquivel, she’ll also talk about the experience of taking her memoir from page to screen and preview her upcoming book, “Class.”
Land’s story of resilience, recovery and finding her way to a college education is now a popular Netflix series. Check out “Maid” for holiday reading or binge-watching. Then sign up on Eventbrite to join the virtual discussion.
Reading lists: Former President Obama, our April book club guest, included “Maid” on his 2019 summer reading list, calling Land’s book “a single mother’s personal, unflinching look at America’s class divide.” This month Obama shared a fresh list of favorite books, music and movies from being “cooped up” in 2021.
Best books: Books editor Boris Kachka invited four regular contributors of Times book reviews to share their favorite books of 2021. Also, Paula L. Woods connected with some of America’s top mystery book critics to break down the year in crime writing.
Pandemic classic: In spring of 2020, novelist Emily St. John Mandel told us, “I would not recommend reading ‘Station Eleven’ in the middle of a pandemic.” Of course, we dived right in and then welcomed Mandel to book club night. This month, “Station Eleven” the series arrived on HBO Max. “For all their differences, the novel and the miniseries agree that art is sustaining,” says reviewer Robert Lloyd. “‘Survival is insufficient’ is the troupe’s motto, a line, as has often been noted, borrowed from an episode of ‘Star Trek: Voyager.’ Shakespeare, of course, is the right writer for this job.”
Loss of a literary icon: Joan Didion, the celebrated novelist, memoirist and social critic, died Thursday. She was 87. Born in Sacramento, Didion wrote 19 books, including the bestselling novels “Play It as It Lays” and “A Book of Common Prayer.” Her nonfiction includes “Salvador,” “Miami,” “After Henry” and “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.” Two of her last books, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005) and “Blue Nights” (2011), were her most personal. “Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion,” critic John Leonard once said. “Try to rearrange one of her sentences, and you’ve realized that the sentence was inevitable, a hologram.” Here’s a reading guide.
Remembering Eve Babitz. The author who captured and embodied L.A. culture died Dec. 17 at age 78. “Babitz was frequently compared to Joan Didion, who also channeled the spirit of Los Angeles in essays, though in style or affect they were near opposites,” Mark Olsen writes in her obituary. “Among the uproarious, absurdly long dedications in ‘Eve’s Hollywood’ — which also included the eggs benedict at the Beverly Wilshire and the sand dabs at Musso and Frank — Babitz mentioned Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, by thanking ‘the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.’” More: Matthew Specktor’s appreciation of Babitz and her serious side.
RIP bell hooks. Writers and readers also mourned the death of the 69-year-old bestselling writer, poet and cultural critic who brought Black women’s perspectives to feminism. “bell hooks was an extraordinary writer, thinker, and scholar who gave us new language with which to make sense of the world around us,” author Clint Smith wrote on Twitter. “Her work was imbued with a deep commitment to truth-telling, but also with a profound sense of care and love for community. She was a treasure.” More: Lynnée Denise remembers her friend.
Thank you to all our guest authors, interviewers and readers who came together to make 2021 an extraordinary year for our community book club.
We’ve connected virtually every month since spring 2020, and at the end of the year, the L.A. Times Book Club gathered for two memorable in-person events, at the California African American Museum and on L.A. Live’s Rooftop Terrace.
Thanks to all of you for joining us this year and sharing your time, your comments, your ideas and your questions. We heard from readers across Southern California and across the country as you tuned in to meet your favorite authors. And then you gave us the greatest gift by returning again month after month, while bringing family members, friends, students and entire book clubs to join our thriving community of readers. You made our book club a sanctuary and a monthly source of joy.
Tell us: What books and authors would you enjoy in 2022? Please share your ideas, inspirations and your own favorite literary escapes in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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