My Favorite Books of 2021
And we are back for the FOURTH installment of my favorite books of the year!
To be honest, I read less this year than prior years because on December 27, 2020, we got the light of our lives (our dog, Bertie) and it totally upended my nighttime routine. Turns out it's hard to read when you have to cuddle a puppy to sleep or make sure he poops before bed. For some reason, I also ended up reading many more long books this year (see: Middlesex, Island of Sea Women, etc.). I realize it's an immense privilege to "read less" and still read 3+ books a month, but it's something I do for my own joy. So no regrets on 2021, but I definitely want to get back into a groove of nighttime reading in 2022! This isn't the exhaustive list of books I read in 2021, but they are my top recs. I had to break them down into fiction vs. non-fiction because otherwise I'd never be able to rank them!
Let's hop to it.
FICTION TOP 10
American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins
This one is controversial and that is precisely why I chose it, though not without a lot of consideration and hand-wringing. As a white woman, I do not want to be part of the problem and I know that my feelings around this are less important than those of the Latinx community.
You can read more about the controversy in many articles or watch Oprah's two-part Apple TV+ plus special about the controversy. In short, someone who has benefitted from white privilege is capitalizing on the stories of Mexican and Central American immigrants who have made incredibly dangerous treks across the US-Mexico border in order to escape violence in their home countries.
The story and the conversation it generated are both wrenching, eye-opening, and important. I agree with the criticism (though the "faceless brown mass" line has been grossly taken out of context), and I agree that this author has benefitted from racist systems that have given her this platform when it has robbed so many Latinx individuals of being able to tell their stories (though I think that criticizing the author for only more recently talking about her Puerto Rican identity is not fair, as individual identity is complicated, especially when white culture pressures people to assimilate). But I believe the anger against the author and her book is misplaced, when the real anger should be redirected at systems. And I believe that this is a stunning story that needs to be shared. It's the first time a book has made me cry since I read "The Green Mile" when I was 12. Importantly, I believe readers must engage with the controversial aspects of the story, while also appreciating the work for what it is. It is problematic, and by virtue of being fictional it is not 100% reflective of every experience, but it is a highly compelling, moving story that should not be silenced. I believe this book goes a long way towards revealing the human stories behind the experiences of people crossing the US-Mexico border (even though of course I don't think we SHOULD need fictional stories written by white-passing women to feel empathy towards the people in these situations), and reading and understanding the controversy surrounding it will go even further to understanding the white supremacist systems that undergird our society. You know the phrase "no press is bad press?" That's not quite what I'm saying, but I do think it's on balance a good thing that people are reading and talking about this book, and an even better thing that activists (and regular people) were able to make their voices heard about it and educate on the issues inherent in who got to tell this story and why. My top pick of the year is not just the book, but the book and the very important conversation it stirred.
2. Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
I love this author. I loved "Homegoing" too. From the link: "Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief—a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi's phenomenal debut."
3. Godshot, Chelsea Bieker
About a rural, struggling California town that gets caught up in a religious cult and the teenage girl who, having lost her family to the cult, helps bring it down.
"Drought has settled on the town of Peaches, California. The area of the Central Valley where fourteen–year–old Lacey May and her alcoholic mother live was once an agricultural paradise. Now it’s an environmental disaster, a place of cracked earth and barren raisin farms. In their desperation, residents have turned to a cult leader named Pastor Vern for guidance. He promises, through secret “assignments,” to bring the rain everybody is praying for."
4. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. "A dazzling triumph from the bestselling author of The Virgin Suicides--the astonishing tale of a gene that passes down through three generations of a Greek-American family and flowers in the body of a teenage girl."
I caveat this by saying that I am a cisgender, heterosexual, non-intersex, white, female assigned at birth...but I imagine this book was pretty ahead of its time in terms of talking about intersex people. I certainly learned things. Given the gender transition aspects, it may also provide insight into the experience of transitioning as a transgender person or the experience of family/friends whose loved one is transitioning away from their sex assigned at birth (provided you are clear on the difference between intersex and transgender).
5. The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel
The second book from Emily St. John Mandel that I have read and loved. "From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, an exhilarating novel set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events—the exposure of a massive criminal enterprise and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea."
6. The Leavers, Lisa Ko
"One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. ...Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past. "
7. Evvie Drake Starts Over, Linda Holmes
Think a rom-com but one that isn't overly sweet or peppy. It's got emotional heft. "A heartfelt debut about the unlikely relationship between a young woman who’s lost her husband and a major league pitcher who’s lost his game."
8. In Five Years, Rebecca Serle
"Dannie spends one hour exactly five years in the future before she wakes again in her own home on the brink of midnight—but it is one hour she cannot shake. In Five Years is an unforgettable love story, but it is not the one you’re expecting."
9. Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune, Roselle Lim
It will make you hungry.
"At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home. The two women hadn’t spoken since Natalie left in anger seven years ago, when her mother refused to support her chosen career as a chef. Natalie is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading, with businesses failing and families moving out. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant."
10. Normal People, Sally Rooney
This book was weirdly magnetic but also depressing in the way that you can feel depressed by young, immature love or people who very clearly need therapy. It felt like listening to an emo album all the way through (but in a good way???) and I couldn't put it down. "Connell and Marianne grew up in the same small town, but the similarities end there. At school, Connell is popular and well liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation—awkward but electrifying—something life changing begins.
...Normal People is the story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find that they can’t."
Other great fiction reads:
- The Revisioners, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
- Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead (I love everything he writes)
- The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See (historical fiction about two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective....The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires.")
- Anxious People, Fredrik Backman
- The Searcher, Tana French (beautiful scenery of misty Ireland and a murder mystery!)
- Uncommon Type: Some Stories, Tom Hanks (short stories by Tom Hanks are just what ya need sometimes. The audiobook is narrated by him.)
-Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu (powerful, and I have heard especially so if you are Asian-American)
- Eternal, Lisa Scottoline (historical fiction about Nazi occupation of Rome during WWII, so you know I couldn't resist. It's a little cheesy but I enjoyed it.)
NON-FICTION TOP 10
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, Sam Quinones
This, and the follow-up to it (see nonfiction pick #2), are books that every American needs to read.
This book became a bestseller in 2015 but I didn't read it until this year. It was an eye-opening account into why and how the opiate epidemic happened in America. My day job deals heavily with programs related to substance use disorder and it gave me even more compassion for those struggling with addiction, and a structural understanding of how we got to where we are today with opioids in America.
The book isn't without its flaws, however. The author fails to delve deeply into the difference in response to the largely white opioid epidemic versus the largely Black crack epidemic of prior decades. Additionally, I found some of the hot takes a little too pat, and there were opinions expressed about the laziness of modern society and (what I viewed as) negative judgments about the use of welfare that I didn't agree with. (I read this a while ago now, but I believe one of the issues I had was generalizations about abuse of the welfare system without what I believed to be sufficient evidence to back that up. Without solid evidence, it just feels like the trite, damaging conservative rallying cries of the mythical "welfare queen" and other anti-social safety net rhetoric.) Overall, still a very important read.
Full disclosure: I had the opportunity to facilitate a book group interview with the author in the spring. I decided to do that because the book was so powerful, so it had no bearing on my ranking of this book.
If you don't like reading (although if you've read to here you probably do), watch the new series on Hulu called "Dopesick" for the made-for-tv version of events. It's a great show.
A very important follow-up read to Dreamland, especially during a time when accidental overdoses due to fentanyl-laced drugs are at a devastating and all-time high, and meth and opioids have become a devastating twin epidemic.
"From the New York Times bestselling author of Dreamland, a searing follow-up that explores the terrifying next stages of the opioid epidemic and the quiet yet ardent stories of community repair."
Learn about how and why fentanyl is now in nearly every street drug, and the changes that occurred in meth production that are ravaging entire communities.
Again, like with Dreamland, I do not agree with everything the author says. It feels a little too easy and simplistic to say, like in Dreamland, that we are a society primed for substance use because we've become too accustomed to a lifestyle of convenience, sloth, and sugar. There are also, again, some parts of the book that I would need to see more empirical evidence of to believe, or that I just generally think are harmful generalizations (e.g. is the new meth TRULY the cause of the scourge of homelessness that the author says it is? The author also claims that tents...yes, tents....among homeless populations are a problem because it allows for substance use to happen while hidden in plain sight...but what about the right of homeless people to have shelter?! What is the prevalence of meth-induced hoarding behaviors tendencies? Overall, many arguments feel problematic without solid evidence to support them. I'm not saying this evidence doesn't exist or that the claims are inaccurate, only that it did not feel provided in his two books that I read this year via research studies rather than anecdotal stories.)
3. Hidden Valley Road, Robert Kolker
"Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don's work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965.
...But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?
What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations."
4. Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton
I stifled laughs in bed while trying not to wake up Worth while binge-reading this way too late into the night. I almost cried at at least one point. I also found a quote about love that we are going to use during our wedding ceremony.
An incredibly poignant memoir that captures female friendship and navigating your 20s beautifully.
"The wildly funny, occasionally heartbreaking internationally bestselling memoir about growing up, growing older, and learning to navigate friendships, jobs, loss, and love along the ride."
5. Beautiful Country: A Memoir, Qian Julie Wang
"The moving story of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world—an incandescent debut from an astonishing new talent
...In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive."
6. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong
"As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these 'minor feelings' occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality—when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity. Minor feelings are not small, they’re dissonant—and in their tension Hong finds the key to the questions that haunt her. "
7. Dog Flowers: A Memoir, Danielle Geller
"A daughter returns home to the Navajo reservation to retrace her mother’s life in a memoir that is both a narrative and an archive of one family’s troubled history.
...Dog Flowers is an arresting, photo-lingual memoir that masterfully weaves together images and text to examine mothers and mothering, sisters and caretaking, and colonized bodies. Exploring loss and inheritance, beauty and balance, Danielle Geller pays homage to our pasts, traditions, and heritage, to the families we are given and the families we choose."
8. Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood, Brittney Cooper, Chanel Craft-Tanner, Susana Morris
Young adult. And full disclosure: I did interview the authors on this podcast, but only because I loved the book. It's a book I wished I'd had as a tween/young teen, and it's even more important for young Black girls and girls of color.
If you have young people in your life, you may have asked yourself: how do I teach them to be feminists? How do I explain what feminism is and what it has to do with their lives? For young girls of color, how do I help them navigate the dual forces of racism and sexism?
This book Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood is a resource guide for young feminists designed to help them navigate some of the most pressing issues young people face. Especially geared towards young girls of color and their unique experiences, Feminist AF aims to empower everyone to live their feminism out loud.
9. Hood Feminism, Mikki Kendall
“A brutally candid and unobstructed portrait of mainstream white feminism.” —Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist
"Today's feminist movement has a glaring blind spot, and paradoxically, it is women. Mainstream feminists rarely talk about meeting basic needs as a feminist issue, argues Mikki Kendall, but food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. All too often, however, the focus is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few. That feminists refuse to prioritize these issues has only exacerbated the age-old problem of both internecine discord and women who rebuff at carrying the title. Moreover, prominent white feminists broadly suffer from their own myopia with regard to how things like race, class, sexual orientation, and ability intersect with gender. How can we stand in solidarity as a movement, Kendall asks, when there is the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others?"
"As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on 'a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise' (Elizabeth Gilbert)."
Want to see prior-year book recs?