2021: a year in books

This is the first year I’ve actually written down (or at least attempted to write down) every book I’ve finished reading over the course of the year. It’s been a good exercise. 

Looking back at the list now, I feel a lot of gratitude. These authors poured their hearts and souls into each of these books, and the results are beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring, challenging. 

And there are just a lot of them. Every book on my list is one that I found worthwhile enough to read the whole thing. (And I’ve been getting more comfortable setting down and leaving unfinished books that I’m not enjoying or learning much from, or that just aren’t a good fit for what I’m interested in right now.) 

I’d like to share some of my personal favorites from the year. With a huge caveat that taste in books is very personal, fickle, sometimes arbitrary. I make no claim whatsoever to name THE TEN BEST BOOKS of 2021, or any nonsense like that. (Can anybody, really?) I only know what I like and what I’ve connected with. 

So, appreciation expressed and caveats acknowledged, these are my favorite books that I’ve read this year! In no particular order, complete with a totally-biased sentence or two (or five) describing each one. Enjoy!

Nonfiction (top 3)

-Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Check out my super chill book review for all the thoughts.

-Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (Brittney Cooper)

I was super impressed with Cooper’s analysis of gender and race and America and everything—and also with her ability to write academically brilliant sentences and paragraphs that also drop colloquialisms and swear words at exactly the right moments. Who does that? Brittney Cooper, apparently, and she’s brilliant at it. Like Mediocre, I feel like Eloquent Rage does a great job of intersectional analysis. Everything’s connected, and you can’t talk very well about race without also talking about gender, and vice versa, and I appreciate writers who deal with this really well.

-Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Audre Lorde)

A classic must-read (in my opinion) that I hadn’t read until this year. I wish Lorde’s words from before I was born didn’t feel so prescient and relevant today, but here we are; and they’re very much worth reading, for anyone interested in making any kind of feminist and/or antiracist progress.

Nonfiction (honorable mention)

-Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the MeToo Movement (Tarana Burke)

Thoughtful and thought-provoking memoir by the real-life superhero who was doing the work of the MeToo movement a decade before it became a viral hashtag.

-Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning (Cathy Park Hong)

Fascinating mix of memoir / cultural commentary / historical storytelling. Explores a lot of things that often get lost in race-related conversations that become a little too black & white.

-Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (Imani Perry)

Beautiful writing; loved the idea of framing reflections on race and America and such as an extended love letter to the author’s two sons.

-Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit)

Contains the essay that inspired someone on the internet to come up with the term “mansplaining” several years ago…and lots of other great essays, too. 

-So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)

Excellent introduction to all things race-related in America.

-Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (Katherine May)

Maybe this is an odd thing to say about a book that’s about wintering (i.e. the times in life when things move slowly, and when sad and otherwise difficult feelings come to the surface), but I found this book delightful.

-Why We Swim (Bonnie Tsui)

The fact that I’m a swimmer might have something to do with this, but I found this book delightful as well. I enjoyed having my view of swimming expanded far beyond the pool and the four Olympic strokes, to include things like shellfish diving, cold water swimming (ice mile, anyone? Just kidding, I’m good), and samurai swimming.

And, of course, honorable mentions to all the books I’ve done “super chill book reviews” for:

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (ed. Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga)

Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)

Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience (Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Rebecca Solnit)

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X Kendi)

Well, I tried to keep this list short, but there are too many good books out there. It’s not my fault, really. Fortunately for you, I haven’t read as much fiction as nonfiction, so this part is shorter…

Fiction (top 3)

-The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett)

A multigenerational family story tracing the lives of two twins from a small town of mixed-race Black folks in the South, one of whom leaves everything behind to start a new life passing as white.

-Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

Life among teenagers and their families in a super-planned-suburban-utopia-type community is…complicated. I liked the set-up of starting with a dramatic climax and then walking back to unveil the year-or-so-long story leading up to that climax. And I liked the author’s explorations of class tensions. 

-Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

A story of young womanhood and love and immigration and home and such, split between Nigeria and the U.S.

Fiction (honorable mention)

-Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman)

People describe this one with words like charming and “up-lit” (literature with uplifting, positive themes?), but I felt like a lot of this book is pretty intense, and parts are quite sad. But I still liked it and thought it was well done.

-Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

Loved the beautiful scene-setting in the salt marshes of North Carolina, along with the page-turning mystery / murder trial aspect of it. But I wasn’t remotely emotionally prepared for HOW FRICKIN SAD so much of it was. So, if you haven’t read it yet…be prepared. 

That’s all I’ve got. Read any of these books? Loved them? Hated them? Feel indifferently toward them? Have complicated feelings about them? I’d love to hear! 

Book recommendations are very welcome as well—what have some of your favorites been this year?

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