Books I Loved In 2021

I am an enthusiastic practitioner of the art of looking backwards, of cataloguing all of the things I have experienced for an archive nobody ever asked me for and making conscientious notes for a test I’ll never actually have to take. These habits only really serve me well one time of year, and thankfully that time is now, because it is Best Of season. All across the internet, and probably also between the pages of plenty unseen diaries, lists assessing the sundry offerings of 2021 are being compiled: the best memes, and the best tweets, and the best of everything else.

I come to you, predictably, with my list of Best Books. Except I feel uncomfortable with the word “best”, for fear of offending all of the many other deserving books I read this year, so instead I am going with the more explicitly subjective qualifier of “Books I Loved.” Love, of course, is always complicated, and so it means different things for different titles. Some of these books made me laugh and some of them made me cry and one of them made me cry because of all the laughing. I was educated, entertained, and enraged at various points during my reading year, which is I think all I can really ask from a bunch of words on a page.

Social media played a more active role in my book life this year, after I made an effort to become a more faithful member of the Goodreads community while also being pushed by various algorithms towards Booktok and Bookstagram. Mostly this has forced me to come to the sobering realization that I read far less than most of the people in the book nerd world— some of these people are reading between 200-300 books in a single year! This is almost six times what I accomplished!— and am therefore perhaps a book nerd fraud, but I do appreciate the curation these communities provide.

I hope my little list can do something of the same for you, that reading these little Valentines to all the books I loved moves you enough to add them to your version of the other kind of list I most love to compile: a To-Read List.

The Devil and the Dark Water (Stuart Turton)

The theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean played in my head the entire time I spent reading this book, which was easily the most adventurous thing that happened to me during the locked-down early days of this year. With characters as darkly layered as the mystery they’re forced to solve, this book has suspense, and supernatural elements, and the power to absorb all of your attention for an entire day.

The Splendid and the Vile (Erik Larson)

A historical recounting of the London Blitz as experienced by Winston Churchill and his inner circle, this is non-fiction that reads like fiction, probably because Winston Churchill was a more eccentric character than even the most imaginative of novelists could ever hope to create.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Taylor Jenkins Reid)

I’ve found a lot of the most hyped-up books on “Booktok” to be disappointing, but this one deserves every one of its rave reviews. Reid has a talent for building up thick mythologies for the fictional celebrities she writes about, for making you fully believe in their legendary careers. This realness can also be felt in how her characters love and make mistakes, and how they sometimes apologize for both of those things and sometimes do not. A moving and surprising portrait of a life that feels as real as any you’d find in an actual biography.

A Life On Our Planet (David Attenborough)

Almost certainly the most important book I read this year, and undoubtedly the most stressful, this work by the great David Attenborough is a frank and concise description of all the damage we humans have wrought upon our planet— particularly to the oceans, the rainforest, and the arctic. Though the data of our destruction is staggering, the 94 year old legend remains confident that we might yet undo it, if only we find the collective will.

Uncanny Valley (Anna Weiner)

So much of the way we all live our lives now is due to a bunch of pretty strange people living in a deeply strange city in California, and this memoir does an excellent job of communicating that strangeness in an insightful and lyrical way.

Boyfriend Material (Alexis Hall)

I would caution you against reading this one in public because almost every page of it contains at least one sentence that had me at turns cackling and howling, but otherwise there are no caveats to my enthusiastic endorsement for this romantic comedy— emphasis on the comedy. But, with declarations like “you remain the thing I have most chosen for myself”, also emphasis on the romantic.

House of Earth and Blood (Sarah J Maas)

Sarah J Maas and her multiple bestselling book series have been wildly popular for more than a decade, but this year was the first time I gave her a try. In attempting to compel my friends to join me, I have described her style of storytelling as “Marvel movies for people who loved Twilight” which might sound dismissive, but as a dedicated poptimist I mean it as an exultant form of praise. And if that’s not enough, this book also distracted me during a Bruins playoff game— I can think of no higher compliment than that.

Butter Honey Pig Bread (Francesca Ekwuyasi)

The equivalent work of an artist who only paints with the brightest, boldest colors; or a chef who finishes every dish with Maldon salt to draw out more nuanced flavors, this Giller Prize nominee is a celebration of life in all its bounty and its cruelty. A depiction of how people eat and cook and love and hurt, and particularly how they cook for and eat with the people they’ve loved and hurt.

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

A memoir from lawyer/activist Bryan Stevenson that describes his years-long struggle to free Walter McMillian, a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to Death Row, while also examining the structural societal failures that allowed such an injustice to occur. Many of the stories in this book— stories of racism and poverty and abuse and hate—are painful to read, and the fact that we live in a world where this kind of brutality is possible could make a reader cynical. But what triumphs over that is the fact that we also live in a world where people like Bryan Stevenson are doing the hard and important work to create change, and with that one can’t help but be hopeful.

Win (Harlan Coben)

Myron Bolitar has been a cherished figure in my reading life since I was a teenager. The Duke basketball star turned sports agent turned freelance detective is perennial bestseller Harlan Coben’s most iconic character, and following him through a mystery has always been the most reliably entertaining and surprising way I know to spend an afternoon. This one isn’t a Myron book— in fact he is only ever mentioned in it and never appears— but it’s the first book told from the perspective of his longtime best friend, the monied, mannered, and vaguely psychopathic Windsor Horne Lockwood III. This means the mystery is just as twisty, and the characters encountered are just as lifelike, and while the main character drinks scotch instead of chocolate milk, the pages turn at the same risk-of-papercut speed.

Empire of Pain (Patrick Radden Keefe)

I’ll admit to being daunted by the heft of this book, knowing that all of its 535 pages were concerned with the tragedies of the opioid crisis and the family dynasty that was built largely on the back of it. But my apprehension was unfounded, because this impeccably researched work of journalism somehow reads like pure genre, at times horror and at times thriller, with a soap operatic cast of characters who act with a callous self-interest that is otherwise only seen on Succession. Unfortunately the Sackler family, insulated as they are by their own wealth and privilege, might never receive the poetic justice they would if they were the villains in a work of fiction, but at least here Keefe has laid out their vicious greed for all to see.

Beautiful World, Where Are You (Sally Rooney)

I adored Sally Rooney’s second book, the instant classic Normal People, but viscerally despised her first one, Conversations With Friends. Perhaps that isn’t fair— I despised most of the erratic and narcissistic characters within that book, but her writing remained impressive, her habit of plainly stating all that is most embarrassing and unsightly about being a person trying to live in this world and potentially connect with other persons. It is a gift that is put to better use in this, her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, in which her characters are still self-centered and fickle but easier to empathize with because they all clearly would like to be better people. Or, at least, be less bad. Chapters are punctuated by letters between the two female protagonists in which they express various anxieties over the state of the world and the diminishing common good and what the internet is doing to all of us, and yet I would still consider this to be Rooney’s most optimistic book to date. (But Normal People is still my favorite.)

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