My 14 favorite books of 2021. Satisfaction guaranteed.

The year 2021 is one most of us would just as soon forget. That benighted year couldn’t even let Betty White celebrate her 100th. That was cruel. 

Personally, I found some comfort while stuck inside with my old pal, books. I’m a reader, always have been, always will be. I can’t understand people who actively disdain reading; you might as well say you’re not a fan of breathing.

This week, facing yet another year of Covid-inspired panic, I thought I would share the best of my 2021 reading. (It’s all non-fiction, folks. To me, the real world is so much more interesting than the fake world.) I guarantee that you will find something you like here. If not, you can have your money back!

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe

If you want to know where the opioid crisis killing thousands around the world began, look no further than the Sackler dynasty. In Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe reveals just how the American Sackler family took a small pharmaceutical company called Purdue – whose biggest previous product was a laxative – and turned it into a multi-billion dollar pill factory. The first generation of the family created and marketed the sedative Valium, and made a tidy fortune from it. But it was the second and third generations that came up with Oxycontin, a staggeringly powerful pain killer that the company ruthlessly peddled to doctors. But the company lied about the product, claiming it was non-addictive (it was exactly the opposite), and denied the damage it was doing even while thousands died. As Keefe writes: “The (lawsuit) document was studded with meeting minutes and board representations and internal emails, and it presented a catalog of breathtaking venality”. Vernality is a perfect description. You won’t be able to read Empire of Pain without becoming enraged.

On Animals, by Susan Orlean.

Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker (don’t let that dissuade you) has compiled a dozen or so her essays, all about animals, and all educational and sometimes LOL funny. This is the kind of book you can pick up and read individual essays over and over because there is so much detail in each article, and in easily digestible form. I get all my books from the library, but this is one I would add to my personal collection. 

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach

In a similar vein, Mary Roach, a bestselling popular science writer, takes an in-depth look at nature at odds with humanity. Occasionally serious but most often fun, Roach travels the world in search of killer trees, visits hamlets terrorized by leopards, and finds out how they clear gulls away from St. Peter’s Square. 

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of the Godfather, by Mark Seal.

The Godfather is considered one of the best films ever, but when it was in production it had all the earmarks of a fiasco. The director, Francis Ford Copolla, was a near unknown with two flops to his credit. Stars Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall were near nobodies. And its marquee name, Marlon Brando, was all washed up. Even the studio, Paramount, was on the verge of bankruptcy. How a potential bomb became a cultural touchstone is a must-read for movie fans.

Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records by Peter James Carlin.

Warner Records put the artists first, and introduced the world to the most remarkable roster in popular music history – Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, Prince, REM, the Grateful Dead, Van Halen, and so many more. And to think it all started with Bob Newhart! Fans of popular music will devour this book.

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, by Joe Posnanski

If you’re into magic, and especially the remarkable life of Houdini, this book’s for you. If not, just skip to the next selection. 

The Bomber Mafia, by Malcolm Gladwell

The star social psychologist/historian/philosopher delves into the morality of war, specifically the air war of WWII. It’s a short book, but powerful. Gladwell, digging deep into the archives, paints a picture of two ways of waging war. Which was the better approach? Read this excellent book and decide for yourself.

Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman 

The world is a terrible place, right? Humanity is greedy and selfish and basically awful, correct? Not so, says Rutger Bregman. In this carefully researched and eminently readable survey of thousands of years of human history, Bregman sets out to prove that humans are actually hardwired for kindness. Sounds like Pollyanna stuff, but it’s not. If you are discouraged about the world in general – and who isn’t? – Humankind might be the antidote.

A Libertarian Walks into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

One of those ‘only in America’ stories, this is the bizarre but true story of a bunch of libertarians who attempt to take over a New Hampshire town. Let’s just say … it does not go well. But the book is a delight, a times funny, at other times just plain sad, but always fully American. And you’ll learn about bears, too!

Dr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers, by Ed Skive

Peter Sellers’ star has dimmed since his premature death, but Ed Sikov brings this tremendously talented, deeply disturbed actor back to brilliant life. An excellent biography of a talented and troubled man.

Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill, by Robert Lewis

News junkies, and people who care about how the Canadian media operates, will devour this wide-ranging look at the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the men and women who gave us the news. Lewis will make you long for the days when daily newspapers really mattered.

Humans: A Brief History of How We F—-ed it all Up, by Tom Phillips

British journalist and humourist Tom Phillips takes readers on a fascinating, sometimes infuriating, sometimes hilarious account of the history of human failures – and boy, are there lots of them. From the shah who thought it was a good idea to pick a fight with Genghis Khan (it wasn’t) to the American who first put lead in gasoline despite the known fact that it was a deadly poison, Phillips covers a lot of ground in a scant 282 pages. Humans is both fun and disturbing.

There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America by Amy Argetsinger. 

I have no idea why I decided to read a book about the Miss American pageant (maybe because my mother was a contestant, way back in the 1930s), but I’m happy I did. I can’t say I’m a big beauty pageant fan, particularly since they removed the swimsuit parade (hey, I’m a guy), but I found There She Was to be an enlightening, behind-the-scenes look into the all-American pageant world.

Lessons from Lucy, by Dave Barry

Reading Lessons from Lucy was like reuniting with an old friend. I first started reading Dave Barry 40+ years ago, and I was an immediate fan. I admit that my writing style owes more than a little to Barry’s unique cadence and smart silliness.  In Lessons from Lucy, written when he was 70, Barry tries his hand at a sort-of self-help book, with basic life advice he gleaned from his beloved and lovable old dog Lucy. Even though some of it is tilling well-used ground (anybody who has been writing humour for decades is going to repeat himself), Barry still makes me laugh out loud – until the unexpected last chapter, where his daughter contracts a life-altering disease. If you’ve read Dave Barry in the past, you’ll like Lessons from Lucy. If you’re new to him, give it a read then look into his massive library of previous works. I’ve got a few on my bookshelf that I am now inspired to read again.

By Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas is a lifelong Albertan, award-winning writer and reporter, and a former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.

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