I’ve chosen my 15 fiction and 15 nonfiction favourites (coming up tomorrow) from 2021, along with a few poetry selections at the end of this post. Two of my picks are graphic novels!
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.
The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.
Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles: A love for their Colorado homeland inspires women’s environmental activism in a linked short story collection. Hope and perseverance are watchwords for Boyles’s characters, many of whom are single mothers or unmarried women. Nearly half of the stories center on a trio of feisty sisters. This reminded me most of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s early fiction set in the Southwest. It got me eagerly awaiting whatever Boyles writes next.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain: I almost never pick up a thriller, but my love for McLain’s earlier fiction attracted me and I ended up loving this. Really, I can’t imagine a better take on the genre. Anna Hart is a detective who, fleeing tragedies from her past, throws herself into the linked mystery of three missing girls in California. The book is rich in atmosphere: McLain’s love of the coast and forests is clear, and the fact that the book is set in 1993 means that Anna has to rely on old-fashioned policework rather than technology.
In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.
Heartstopper, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman: This super-cute series was my summer crush. I liked this best of the first four. I admired how Oseman works in serious issues teens might face but has still created something so full of queer joy. While Charlie has been figuring out when to tell Nick he loves him, Nick has been working out how to confront Charlie about his anorexia. They learn that love doesn’t solve everything, but that a friend or boyfriend can be there to listen. Oseman really brings out the supporting cast in this volume, too.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.
Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers: As environmentally aware as The Overstory, but with a more intimate scope, focusing on a father and son who journey together in memory and imagination as well as in real life. Neurodivergent Robin is a scientific marvel and an environmental activist. Theo studies other planets that rival an ailing Earth, and another state allows Robin to reconnect with his late mother. When I came to the end, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. But as time has passed, the book’s feral beauty has stuck with me.
In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales by Véronique Tadjo: This creative and compassionate work takes on various personae to plot the course of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–16. The suffering is immense, and there are ironic situations that only compound the tragedy. Tadjo flows freely between all the first-person voices, even including non-human narrators such as baobab trees and a fruit bat. Local legends and songs, along with a few of her own poems, also enter into the text.
If I had to pick my novel of the year, it would be The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Field Requiem by Sheri Benning: Benning employs religious language to structure her solemn meditations on the degraded landscape of Saskatchewan, a place where old ways have been replaced by impersonal, industrial-scale farming. You can hear the rhythms of psalms and the echoes of the requiem mass. Alliteration pops out from lists of crops and the prairie species their cultivation has pushed to the edge of extinction. This is deeply place based writing. With its ecological conscience and liturgical sound, it’s just my kind of poetry.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is also just my kind of poetry.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
These 2021 releases I read from the library stood out to me for daring to suggest that sometimes children aren’t little angels and parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
“Do you wish you weren’t a mother?”
“Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.”
A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator, this is in the same vein as The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, and A Good Enough Mother. I hardly ever pick up novels that fit into this genre, but these were all well worth making an exception for. The Push feels closer to literary fiction than to crime. Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. Now reduced to being a stalker and an impersonator, Blythe vows to write everything down as evidence, taking care to note when she first had cause to question whether Violet was normal. A daddy’s girl from the start, Violet never bonded with Blythe and admitted to deliberately hurting other children in her preschool. But how much of what happened next was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed?
The inkblot design of the cover cleverly evokes classical psychological concepts and experiments. A key topic the novel explores is how trauma is passed down through the generations: Blythe had worried that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood, chiefly because her mother and her grandmother both abandoned their daughters. “Blythe, the women in this family, we’re different. You’ll see,” her mother had warned. The exchange between Blythe and her mother that opens my review reiterates her suspicion: some people just aren’t cut out for parenting. Blythe can’t dismiss her daughter as evil because she knows how much guilt rests on her own shoulders, and because she doubts that she saw what she thought she saw. Moreover, the fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood: she’s seen how wonderful it can be, but also how it can turn bad. The nuance sets the book apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Yet it’s in short, page-turning chapters, so it reads very quickly and would make a great book club selection.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
At its best, autofiction is an intriguing blend of memoir and fiction, all of it true and universal in appeal. Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moments here and there, all in a mere 180 pages – could hardly be more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, but both are equally dedicated to the unique alchemy of crystallizing fatherhood by illuminating its daily heartaches and joys.
Years ago, “the writer” and his wife were presented with a choice. When genetic tests indicated mosaicism, they terminated their first pregnancy. Instead of a little girl, they later had a baby boy who presented his own challenges, including delayed development and possible ASD. Years later, the abortion still haunts “the father.” He attempts to exorcise his shame (the title = how Anaïs Nin defined it) by volunteering at an abortion clinic. Escorting patients to and from their cars, ignoring the taunts of protestors, he lives out his conviction that you can never fully know what others are going through and why they make the decisions they do.
Davies gets the tone just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing the things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to – starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. Soon after the writer’s son is born: “He feels about himself for love, the way he might pat his pockets for his wallet and keys. Do I love him yet? Is this love?” As the boy grows into a figure of pathos: “All the things they’ve imagined him growing up to be: A basketball player, a fireman, a chef. [vs. what he actually seems to be] Allergic, friendless, autistic.” Davies also has a gift for zinging phrases, like “the deification of babies” and “the baby-industrial complex” of Babies R Us.
But what I most loved was the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life. “All the coin flips. All the what ifs. Like the litany of prompts he uses in writing class. Heads and tales.” The writer has a background in physics (as Davies himself does), so often brings up Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor – in any situation, things might have gone either way. Now that the possibilities have narrowed to one and the path has been started, what will you do? The treatment of luck, in particular, led me to think of this as a cross between Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. The style is similar to Jenny Offill’s; another similar and nearly contemporaneous release is Brood by Jackie Polzin.
I know I read The Fortunes back in 2016 but I retain virtually no memory of it. Davies’s prose, themes, and voice stood out much more for me here. I’ll try his novel The Welsh Girl, too, maybe even for book club later this year. This is an early entry on my Best of 2021 list.
“this is also what the internet is for, he thinks. If online porn universalizes shame, social media universalizes judgment. Both exercises in self-gratification.”
“An older colleague told him once cats were baby substitutes. ‘They weigh the same, they sleep on you, they roll around on their backs kicking their legs in the air. They mewl.’”
For more on abortion from a male perspective: The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto.
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents.
Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:
More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.
- [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]
- Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
- Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.
- Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.
- Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.
- St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
- The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).
- There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.
- There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.
- Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.
- Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.
- “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.
- The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.
- An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.
- A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.
- The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.
- Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
- There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).
- There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.
- Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.
- Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!
- A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).