Best Books I Read in 2021
2021 may have sucked for society, but at least it was a good, high quality reading year for me. Continuing my belief that I would enjoy hanging out with Barack Obama, four of the books on my list are also featured on his end of year favorite books of 2021 list. Unusually for me, historical fiction was a strong theme — perhaps a good year to escape to another era? Though I was humbled to realize that historical fiction might be starting to include my high school years. Each of my non-fiction picks were at least in some part a memoir, with several giving a unique twist to the form and two heavily incorporating history. Perhaps 2022 reading will be bring me back to present day?
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
Bored teenagers and disaffected parents on vacation are confronted by a series of catastrophes, including a plague and a hurricane (which seemed eerily appropriate for our pandemic times given it was published May 2020). Narrated by Evie, one of the teenagers, it’s a scathing look at what parents are leaving behind for their children. Easy read, but you can miss a lot if you don’t stop to think about the ideas Millet is putting forth.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
I rarely name an absolute favorite book of the year, but this year, yes. A heartwrenching tale of motherhood in the 1580s, and Agnes is married to a guy named Will Shakespeare. Lots of little details for lovers of Shakespeare, but you don’t need to be a fan to be deeply moved by this book. You may need tissues by the end.
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
Seems like a YA book on the surface, but its picture-perfect details of high school in 1989 make it really make it a book for Gen X, recalling when we first started to grapple with feminism, prejudice, and power — while perfecting our complex, high-volume hairstyles. One of which, “The Claw,” becomes one of an actual character in the book…and one of the most entertaining.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Who would have thought that a minimal plot feminist novel about an 12th century Angleterre abbess struggling with power and femininity could be compelling? Some will find this book slow (and plotless) but I found it amazingly well- crafted. Groff captures the pace of cloister life and the deep internal landscape of the lead character that reads more like a very well-researched biography.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Only at the end of the book do the individual story strands, loosely connected by a Greek fable, truly weave together, but it is worth it. Stretching from 15th century Constantinople to a spaceship in the future, the beginning reads like David Mitchell, but once the characters bloom, you recognize Doerr.
Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu
Owusu’s intense memoir about living “stateless and motherless” spans from her childhood to her 20s, not only covering her unique culture-bouncing upbringing but exposing what it did to her psyche as an adult. Definitely not light and relaxing but deeply affecting.
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wong
Wong channels her childhood self to recount her experience as an undocumented immigrant in New York City. Wong provides the innocent perspective of a child trying to make sense of Mei Guo (the name for America in Chinese means “beautiful country”).
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
Memoir of a mid-life discovery that our identities aren’t fixed. Wizenberg pursues a new path that challenges what she holds to be true about her life and her family. An interesting mix of reflective and provocative, many readers may not agree with Wizenberg’s decisions, but it is beautifully written.
In My Blood by John Sedgwick
While tracing his genealogy to understand the roots of his own depression and mental illness, Sedgwick also covers the history of New England in tracing the story of his remarkable family, starting from Theodore Sedgwick, member of the Continental Congress, to Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol’s muse. Fascinating look at colonial-era Berkshires and the history of treatment of mental illness.
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller
Part science history/part biography/part memoir, Miller’s book is incredibly hard to categorize. Miller tugs you down the rabbit hole she herself went down, following the fascinating and disturbing tale of taxonomist David Starr Jordan to meditate on whether stubbornness and persistence can truly create order out of chaos, and at what cost.