George Saunders is our first time two-time recipient of the much-coveted Heartlands Best Reads award. Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo haunted and charmed back in 2017, but it was his master class on storytelling that captivated me this year.
Saunders is a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University and he has influenced a generation of great writers in that role. We get a glimpse of his teaching in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: in which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, our Best Read of 2021.
Using seven short stories by the likes of Chekov and Tolstoy, Saunders offers commentary and asides that transformed the way I think about reading and writing. The book also explains why I find Saunders to be an endlessly entertaining and mystifying author. He gives himself entirely to a sentence-to-sentence process so that even he doesn’t know where it’s all going. If the next sentence doesn’t surprise or interest him, it doesn’t get written.
The book will either inspire you to go look for collections of Russian short stories or write your own. Perhaps both.
And with that we’ve rounded up the best reads as we round into a new year. A recap and few more honorable mentions are below. It’s been a good year. Let’s hope 2022 is even better (in so many ways.)
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan: Egan’s 2006 account of the Dust Bowl was vivid, moving, and horrifying.
Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia by Elizabeth Catte: Catte took a topological approach to a shameful chapter in our history and showed the enduring architectural legacy of racial attitudes.
When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd: A personal and philosophical guide to renovating your faith when its going through crisis. In the midst of so much talk about exvangelicals, Zahnd shows a way to hold on.
Once in the West by Christian Wiman: Wiman is a regular on these year-end lists. This 2014 collection connects to his West Texas roots and is just as luminous as his other works.