It’s been quite a year, book-lovers. We thought we’d left COVID-19 behind us in 2020 (remember that?), what with vaccines becoming available and case numbers decreasing. Instead, vaccine
idiocy hesitancy + aggressive variants + inability/unwillingness to deliver vaccines to much of the rest of the world means that COVID is still on our hands for the forseeable future.
One small silver lining to this pandemic mess, if I may, is that so much isolation has afforded many of us more time for reading. I set a personal reading record: over the past 12 months (December ’20 through November ’21) I read 126 books, plus 15 books that I started and didn’t finish. (I used to plow forward in books I didn’t like, as though giving up on them would be a personal failure. No longer. Here’s to knowing yourself, and the value of your time, well enough to quit a book you’re not enjoying). Below are my top 11* books that I read in 2021.
*I know, top 10 would have sounded so much more elegant than top 11. But I couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice any of them in order to whittle the list to 10. Sorry.
11. Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong. I expected this to be funny, based on friends’ word of mouth, but I didn’t know how moving it would be. A 30yo young woman moves back in with her parents to help care for her declining father, and no doubt this aspect of the novel made it more poignant and memorable for me. The writing feels effortless in this book, but that attests to the author’s skill.
10. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Whether you want to talk about race or not, you should read this book. Grounded in research and statistics, backed up with personal experiences of the author, this book explores some of the most fraught and misunderstood topics around race today, including white privilege, micro-aggressions, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter. I think this should be required reading in high schools, colleges, even workplace settings. For added fun, check out this comment thread on Goodreads.
9. I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell. After being blown away by Hamnet (see further down), I was eager to read more of O’Farrell, and for starters, I chose this work, a memoir as told through moments of great peril and calamity. Man, can she write. I am jealous of her ability to choose exactly the right word, phrase, sentence, or image at any given moment. Couple this gift for writing with a fascinating (and terrifying) set of true stories, and you’ve got a winner of a memoir.
8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. A modern classic, but one that I’d missed reading until this past year. I followed it up with his most recent novel, Klara and the Sun. Don’t do this to yourself. Klara might have been more enjoyable had it not felt like the wan, weak, inferior model of Ishiguro’s former work. Never Let Me Go is a masterfully-drawn dystopian novel, which skillfully weaves threads together while peeling back the layers of mystery in just the right doses. This is a love story cloaked in a sci-fi shroud.
7. Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais. I listen to Marais’ podcast for emerging writers, and I’ve benefitted tremendously from her writing wisdom and crackling interviews. This year, I read both of her published novels, set in her home country of South Africa during apartheid (Hum) and the onset of the AIDS epidemic (If You Want to Make God Laugh). Both were excellent, but I’m giving the edge to Hum because of its laugh-out-loud humor. If you listen to the audio version, you’ll hear the book narrated in accents that reflect the characters’ backgrounds, a plus (for me).
6. The One Hundred Years of Lenni & Margot by Marianne Cronin. Never judge a book by its cover, unless it’s this book! The cover is sumptuous, those yellow blossoms popping out of a swirling blue and green background. Set in a care facility, this book centers on its two titular characters, a 17yo terminally ill girl and an 83yo widow, as they become friends through shared stories and art. Be prepared to cry your eyes out.
5. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab. You may have already read this one, which has over 400,000 Goodreads ratings in just over a year of being published (indicating it’s been read by roughly 4 million people). I heard it mentioned by enough agents on their “manuscript wish lists” that I picked it up, even though historical fantasy is not a genre I typically read. Well, the concept grabbed me (17th century France, a girl makes a bargain with the devil in order not to have to marry) and the execution, though a bit slow in the middle, largely lived up to the promise. I fell in love both with Addie and with the lush, poetic writing, which may be too much for some readers, but here felt on point.
4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Another widely-read book, and another book I’d love to see become part of standard curriculum. If you read only one book that addresses the evil and injustice of mass incarceration, let it be this one. Stevenson, a lawyer whose practice has helped overturn many wrongful convictions, tells a number of true stories about people who ended up in jail or on death row for any number of unjust reasons. Reading them, you’ll feel outraged, sad, perhaps hopeless, but you may also be inspired to take action.
3. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. I’m a huge Patchett fan; notably, she’s the only author to make my list both last year and this year. This book, about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, is one of her four nonfiction works, and as an account of female friendship, there is no better model. After reading it, I wrote: “Although we know from the beginning that Lucy’s life will end tragically, the highs and lows of her surgeries, her mania, their writing careers, their friendship’s ebbs and flows, and ultimately, her unwinding, are as gripping as any thriller, as lovely as any romance.”
2. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. I was ready, even eager, to dislike this book, if for no other reason than because of how much I adored Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles’s two previous novels. I mean, can a person really go three for three? No mortal, surely. Happily, and to my jealous astonishment, Towles pulls it off. This book, about a cross-country road trip gone awry, feels like a throwback to midcentury classics, reminding me of Steinbeck with a slapdash more humor (and less realism). Towles bowls me over with his vivid characters and crisp writing, and reading his books is a genuine pleasure.
And my favorite book I read in the past year:
1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It sounds like hyperbole to call this work “flawless,” but that’s how I remember it. The prose is as gorgeous as poetry, without the difficult stumbles that poetry can cause (confesses this infrequent reader of poetry). The emotions are potent, jagged, and visceral, putting love and loss at the heart of the work. Although nominally about Shakespeare’s son, who died as a boy, the novel centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife (and Hamnet’s mother). Do not be intimidated by the Shakespearean setting and characters, nor by how many prizes this book won, nor how much praise has been heaped on it. Just read it.