My social life suffered in 2021, no thanks to the pandemic, but that just meant I had more time to dive into books.
Here are 15 books I read and loved this year, in no particular order:
Whew, I adored this novel. Probably because Annie’s family is the kind I sometimes wish I were born into: slightly WASPy, East Coast-based, heavy on appreciation of the arts and culture and good food and wine. But Miller is a talented writer, with the ability to braid several characters’ stories into a quiet, seeking, honest novel. Reading this felt like the ideal immersive experience, something I’m often chasing after but rarely find.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
A stunning book, rich in research and beautiful writing. Caste gives important context and historical background to systemic racism as we understand it today. Wilkerson offers some truly shocking details from history (and the recent past) to build her compelling case that America has always known — has, in fact, been built on — a caste system.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength
A delightful graphic memoir about Bechdel’s lifelong pursuit of self-improvement through exercise, from running to weightlifting to skiing and beyond. Bechdel levels up her third memoir with colored illustrations and a sprawling look at self-enlightenment, her own but also that of Beatnik poets and Eastern philosophers. Funny and searching.
Lynn Steger Strong
I gobbled up this novel. I wanted to live inside Elizabeth’s world, even though it was depressing and sometimes claustrophobic.
Strong’s writing is gorgeous: “I want to tell her that I’m scared I’m too wore out, worn down, that this constant anxious ache that I have now isn’t about my job or kids or all the ways life isn’t what it should be, that maybe it’s just me, it’s most of who I am.”
And a bonus easter egg: Elizabeth is constantly reading as escapism, and her many novel references would give any hungry student of literature a reading list for the ages.
I appreciated this book for its data-driven look at so many pregnancy-related decisions that often leave pregnant people feeling like they have no agency or like they’re being infantilized. I returned to it many times to help provide context to medical decisions and to reassure myself that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. (For more in this vein, Oster’s newsletter ParentData offers excellent evidence-based information on pregnancy, parenting, and COVID-19.)
Crying in H Mart
This is a heartfelt, appetite-inducing memoir about love and loss, written by a fellow Oregonian. I knew of Michelle Zauner first through her music as Japanese Breakfast and grew to love her witty lyrics and dreamy indie pop. When I read her 2018 essay in The New Yorker, I knew I’d be snapping up her memoir once it came out. This book would be helpful to anyone dealing with grief or difficult parent-child relationships.
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
Gorgeous. I loved how May made the universal wildly personal — as someone stuck mostly at home craving novel experiences, I fell hard for the stories that brought this book to life.
I can see myself returning to this book in future winters that I’ll experience.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
Complex, sincere essays about writing and discovering one’s identity. This collection paints a portrait of how life can look when one is unafraid to dig into the bigger questions about what it means to be alive. Chee grapples with these questions as he explores different types of work, the intricacies of tarot, and the frustrations and joys of backyard gardening.
Leave the World Behind
I love Alam’s writing voice, how he provides just enough detail and insight to have me feeling a familiar twinge of realization that in the end (if this is what the end looks like, which this past year has taught us that it may well be), neither race nor class nor wealth nor privilege nor youth will save us. Stellar writing on the trappings, comforts and distractions of the privileged life.
An incredibly compelling novel that taught me a lot about the queer and transgender experience, in all of its complexity and humor. The only thing I sometimes wanted was more plot — as much as I love a character study, these characters sometimes felt slippery and out of reach. That title, though? A masterpiece.
In the Dream House
Carmen Maria Machado
Wow. This memoir is flawless — engrossing, entirely original, compassionate, thorough, groundbreaking. I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll follow Machado’s writing wherever she wants to take me, even when (especially when?) it’s a little spooky and eerie and unsettling for reasons I can’t articulate as well as she can.
H is for Hawk
A braiding of grief memoir, nature writing, literary analysis and introspection. Helen Macdonald is funny, openhearted and willing to tell her story as true as she can. I loved her lyrical sentences so much, I didn’t care about the answers to all the nosy questions I’d normally have after reading such a book. I respect a memoir (and an author) that willingly shares the grief journey, no matter how messy and muddled it may get.
Patricia Lockwood has a beautiful, wild mind with a freewheeling brand of homeschooled genius. This memoir is so loving and weird and hilarious. Her writing is laugh-out-loud funny, which I needed last year more than I realized. I particularly loved Tricia’s relationship with her cautious, capital-M mom and the grace that Tricia extended toward her as a key figure in her life, in all her wackiness and concern.
Know My Name
This memoir feels like the future — a searing, courageous account of assault and its aftermath, told with care and deep self-love and uncontainable curiosity by an emerging author and artist. It is a story that we need to hear more often. (I also recommend Miller’s Instagram account, where she illustrates slices of life, bringing incredible humanity and thoughtfulness to seemingly mundane moments.)
I can’t pass up a Maggie Shipstead novel, and this one is her most ambitious yet. It delivers on its promise, hearkening back to the tradition of the epic novel in a time when so many works of fiction seem designed to scratch a very trendy itch of subverting form.
Great Circle tells the story of a woman determined to live a life true to her own desires, and to chart that course at all costs. Daring and deeply satisfying.
Here are ten bonus recommendations:
Open Book, Jessica Simpson
(Yes, really. Especially if like me, you’re reexamining the reductive narratives we sold ourselves about young pop stars in the early aughts.)
The Overstory, Richard Powers
No One Is Talking about This, Patricia Lockwood
Yolk, Mary H. K. Choi
Luster, Raven Leilani
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl
Planetfall, Emma Newman
Smile: The Story of a Face, Sarah Ruhl
Arbitrary Stupid Goal, Tamara Shopsin
A Promised Land, Barack Obama