My Most Memorable Backlist Reads of 2021

Like many bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or decades ago. These 19 selections, in alphabetical order within genre, together with my Best of 2021 posts (fiction and nonfiction), make up the top 15% of my reading for the year. Three of the below were rereads.

(The three books not pictured were read electronically or from the library.)

 

Fiction

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the early 1990s in the Filipino immigrant neighbourhoods of the Bay Area in California, this is a complex, confident debut novel that throws you into an unfamiliar culture at the deep end. The characters shine and the dialogue feels utterly authentic in this fresh immigration story.

 

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as jurors until close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. I was instantly immersed, whether in a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or on a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater.

 

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: David is back on Spain’s Costa Brava, where he and his wife Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. This is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage, and a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.

 

A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez: From the little I know of Nunez, this seems close to autofiction, especially in terms of her parents. Identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life makes sense, and this speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. It cemented her as one of my favourite authors.

 

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world, this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. It’s an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment.

 

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Obsessed with Lolita since she was a teenager, Russell decided to tell the teenage girl’s side of the story. She uses a dual timeline to great effect, creating an utterly immersive novel – as good a first-person narrative as anything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written, and the ultimate #MeToo story.

 

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning.

 

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler: Unique in her oeuvre for how it bridges historical fiction and her more typical contemporary commentary. The Antons muddle their way through a volatile marriage for decades without figuring out how to change anything for the better. There is deep compassion for their foibles and how they affect the next generation.

 

Lot by Bryan Washington: The musical equivalent might be a mixtape blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Drug dealers, careworn immigrants, and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these 13 stories. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh.

 

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: I was so impressed by this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more. A perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.

 

Poetry

The Air Year by Caroline Bird: I read this with a big smile on my face, delighting in the clever and playful poems. The impermanence of relationships is a recurring theme. Dreams and miscommunication are also common elements, and lists grow increasingly absurd. I particularly liked where structure creates meaning, e.g. the mise en abyme of “Dive Bar.”

 

Nonfiction

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of its nest. He makes elegant use of connections and metaphors; he’s so good at scenes, dialogue, and emotion – a truly natural writer.

 

Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle: From first migrant in February to last in June, the author traced the D.C. spring of 1945 mostly through the birds that he saw. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook. For me this was an ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel.

 

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: This collection of essays spans decades and lots of African countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. Kapuściński saw many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. I appreciated how he never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences. One of the few best travel books I’ve read.

 

Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer: Lehrer has endured dozens of surgeries for spina bifida. Her touching family memoir is delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and a miniature art gallery, filled with reproductions of her paintings. This inaugural Barbellion Prize winner is not to be missed.

 

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: This sparse volume, the middle in an autobiographical trilogy, has Levy searching for the intellectual and physical freedom needed to reinvent her life after divorce. It is made up of conversations and memories; travels and quotations that have stuck with her. Each moment is perfectly chosen to reveal the self.

 

Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity.

 

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy: We all fail to listen properly sometimes, for various reasons. A New York Times journalist, Murphy does a lot of listening to her interview subjects.  She also talks with representatives of so-called listening careers. This is a short, interesting, and genuinely helpful self-help book.

 

Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams: Williams, then Archbishop of Wales, was in New York City on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. In the months that followed he pondered suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God. He cautions against labelling the Other as Evil and responding with retribution. A superb book-length essay.

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favourites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Snow Falling on Cedars and The Cost of Living.


What were your best backlist reads this year?

Merry Christmas!

(I’ll be back on the 27th with Love Your Library, then I have various year-end superlatives and statistics posts going through the 31st.)

17 responses

  1. I loved Snow Falling on Cedars. It is such a beautiful story. Unbelievably, I was raised in the United States but did not know about Japanese internment camps until reading this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s still hard for me to believe that it happened. I read another novel on the topic later in the year, When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

      Like

  2. Interesting post. Thanks for the heads-up on the Sigrid Nunez. I also enjoy her books, and have added this one to my Wish List.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my third by her, but I have another two awaiting me on the shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do know what you mean about the siren song of the bright, shiny and new. I read the Piercy so, so long ago. Good to hear it’s stood the test of time. And I love your descriprtion of Lot, a favourite of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I liked it a tiny bit more than Memorial.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hooray Anne Tyler and good news about Golem Girl, too. I know I’ve read the Jan Morris, but aeons ago, and should re-read it. I expect I’ll have an Anne Tyler on my best-of – but which one …??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll look out to see which!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Anne Tyler is so good! I need to read some more of her in 2022.

    I want to read Lot and also his novel Memorial.

    I’m mostly backlist in any given year – my best backlist title (and favorite book of the year) was The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard so much about the Wilkerson. One of these days I will find a copy!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope you do, Rebecca. I know you would enjoy it.

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  6. Lots of shared favourites here, although I didn’t read any of them during this year!
    When you’re choosing your faves at the end, are they your faves from this list or from the previous two posts as well?
    I’m not sure if I have highlighted any backlisted books for this year; I’ll look out for that when I’m assembling my summary post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have very few 5* books in any given year, so it’s usually pretty clear which ones stand head and shoulders above the rest. My two favourites here are my overall favourite reads of the year, and I think that has been the case in most recent years, too. I listed an absolute fave 2021 release (the latest Richard Flanagan novel), but I think these two just edge it out.

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  7. I love it when the older books win out over the newer ones – it’s a good reminder not to forget about them, which is so easy to do. I remember loving Snow Falling on Cedars. I bet it would make a good re-read! One of these days I’d like to try Nunez.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whenever I’m shelving in the library’s storage area (rolling stacks not accessible to the public), I think to myself that I should be borrowing more of these older books instead of placing holds on new ones!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! I think that all the time!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Jacqui Wine’s Journal has selected my 2016 #3 “Black Narcissus” by Rumer Godden, Bookish Beck has “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton (#7 in my 2014 list) on her Backlist reads and Kim […]

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