A number of you reached out asking for my 2021 book recommendations (including fantasy fiction). I have to say, I had more misses than hits in what I read this year, but there are a few books that really stood out.
Here are my top five books of 2021, along with 9 other good books I read this year.
My Top Five Picks of 2021
The Overstory by Richard Powers: (2019 Pulitzer Prize winner) this book was magical. It is, ostensibly, about trees and our relationship to them. It follows a seemingly-unconnected group of characters across multiple decades. I found myself transported to another world and I loved inhabiting it. The book made me look at trees, and our relationship to nature, in a new way. This was definitely the best work of fiction I read all year – though it did take me about 100 pages to get into it.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: this book is the story of the Great Migration in the United States, the exodus, spanning more than five decades, of more than six million Blacks from the South. Isabel Wilkerson spent more than a decade researching the book and she tells the story through three protagonists: Ida Mae Gladney, a former sharecropper who left Mississippi for Chicago in 1937; George Starling, who left Florida for Harlem in 1945; and Robert Foster who left Louisiana in 1953 to become a doctor in LA, and who became, among other things, Ray Charles’ physician. The book has such narrative beauty that it reads like a work of fiction. And, from an educational perspective, I’m embarrassed to say how little I knew about the Great Migration and more surprised still that I had such a narrow understanding of the lived Black experience in the U.S. in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights movement: not only the day to day realities of Jim Crow but also the amazing hardship and bravery of pulling up roots and setting them down again in new, often hostile parts of the U.S.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb: this memoir was breathtaking in its honesty, its poignance and its humanity. Lori is a psychotherapist who, at the start of the memoir, is dumped by her boyfriend. She starts seeing a therapist named Wendell for “a few sessions” to work through her grief, but finds herself digging much deeper into her own emotional life. Gottlieb shares her own struggles while also telling the story of four of her own patients. This book was equal parts surprising and beautiful.
Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates: Coates frames this book as a letter to his 15-year old son, describing the experience of being Black in the United States. Coates describe the systemic and institutionalized racism in the United States, drawing powerfully on his own experience and perspective while paying homage to the work of James Baldwin. Shortly after finishing this I also read Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power which I recommend just as highly.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: (2020 Booker Prize Nominee) Emira is a 25-year-old Black girl who is hired by a white blogger and public speaker, named Alix, as a babysitter. At the start of the novel, Emira is detained by a security guard in an upscale supermarket when she’s “caught” dancing with three-year-old Briar, Alix’s daughter. The incident is recorded by a white bystander, Kelly Copeland. Emira is a powerful narrator and first-time author Kiley Reid has an exceptionally deft touch in exploring the complexities of the relationships between an ensemble of leading characters and the different worlds they inhabit. She also has a wicked sense of humor.
Nine Other Good Books I Read in 2021
In case you’re looking for a longer list, here are some more that didn’t crack the “best” for me but were still good reads.
The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern: this one nearly cracks the “top” list, it’s a novel about Les Cirque du Reves, a magical circus that only opens from sundown to sunrise. It is escapist and magical and just plain fun.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: a beautiful novel about “Hamnet,” the young twin boy and son of William Shakespeare who died of the plague at age 11 in rural Stratford-upon-Avon in 1596. The names “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” were interchangeable, and this story centers around Hamnet himself, life in rural 16th century England, and his mother Anne’s experience of grief and loss. The book is a moving piece of historical fiction and is a wonderful read.
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith: this is a powerful work of nonfiction that explains the centrality of slavery to American history through Smith’s personal experiences with various landmarks across the U.S.: Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola (a maximum security prison near New Orleans), and Blandford Cemetery (the final resting place for tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers). Smith writes beautifully and he invites you to see these places through his eyes. In so doing, he shares a new perspective on slavery, on race, on American history, and he makes so much that is invisible visible.
The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon: a friend said this was one of his favorite books, and it’s sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, so perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. The book is set in 1930s Barcelona and is a fun, escapist thriller about a boy, Daniel Sempere, who sets out to find the lost novels of the author Julian Carax. Many of the characters were great and I loved the historical setting, I just felt like the book never really came together for me as much as I’d hoped.
The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab: another fun fantasy fiction novel, this one about Addie Larue, a girl who, by mistake, makes a deal with the Devil and who never ages. We follower her life from 1714 to 2020, and it’s fun to watch her through the centuries. At times, though, the novel felt a bit too Groundhog-day ish for me—not only does Addie never age, but how she shows up and engages with the world is also a bit repetitive. Still, it was enjoyable enough.
Rodham and American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld: each book is a fictionalized account, one of Hilary Clinton and one of Laura Bush. Rodham is the better book, and it imagines a world in which Hilary Clinton never married Bill Clinton and in which she wins the Presidency in 2016. I enjoyed both books, though I had a bit more trouble following how fictionalized or not ‘American Wife’ was and its purpose seemed less clear than that of ‘Rodham.’ Still, they were interesting and original.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: this book was a NYTimes bestseller and on lots of ‘best of’ 2020 lists. It’s the story of Nora Seed, an unhappy woman who has the chance to visit a place between life and death—the Midnight Library—and explore the many lives she didn’t live. I enjoyed many parts of the book, and the various paths Nora explored…it just didn’t ever become more than the sum of its parts for me.
The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallaway: this book is a classic, published in 1972. It explores the psychology of tennis—and, really, of any sport—and, more specifically, how the mind and body interact when we compete. The simple, big idea that I took away is that, for sports we’ve played for a long time, our bodies actually know how to do all the things we want them to do, so our minds’ job is to focus on what we want to do—for example by watching the tennis ball and deciding where we want it to go—and not spending any mental energy thinking about the minutiae of technique. After I read this book, my squash game improved immediately and significantly, and mostly that was because I spent a month just trying to see the two yellow dots on a flying squash ball (which is nearly impossible).
As you can see, I had a good year of reading though I was let down a bit by my various attempts at escapist fantasy fiction (in fact, I just finished reading the three part Wildwood Chronicles which, after 1,000+ pages, was mostly a disappointment). Fortunately, I’ve also gotten to read all seven Harry Potter books again, more than once, at bedtime with my 10 year old daughter—this time the beautiful, large-format ones illustrated by Jim Kay—and I love them each and every time.
I hope this list sets you up for some good reading in 2022, and if there are books that I’ve missed that you love, please let me know!