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.)
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.
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.”
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?
(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.)
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. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- I read two novels about the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl at the same time: Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth and When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain.
- Two novels in a row were set on a holiday in Spain: Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and The Vacationers by Emma Straub.
- I encountered mentions of the removal of the Edward Colston statue in God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald and I Belong Here by Anita Sethi on the same evening.
- Characters have the habit of making up names and backstories for strangers in Ruby by Ann Hood and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon.
- The main female character says she works out what she thinks by talking in Second Place by Rachel Cusk and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler.
- A passive mother is bullied by her controlling husband in Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and Female Friends by Fay Weldon.
- Two reads in a row were a slim volume on the necessity of giving up denial: What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri (re: racism) and What If We Stopped Pretending by Jonathan Franzen (re: climate change).
- Expressions of a strange sense of relief at disaster in Forecast by Joe Shute (re: flooding) and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (re: a car accident).
- The biomass ratios of livestock to humans to other mammals are cited in Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green, and Bewilderment by Richard Powers.
- Two Booker nominees referencing china crockery: An Island by Karen Jennings and China Room by Sunjeev Sahota (yep, it’s talking about the plates rather than the country).
- Teens sneak vodka in Heartstopper, Volume 3 by Alice Oseman and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.
- Robert FitzRoy appears in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute, and is the main subject of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson, a doorstopper that has been languishing on my set-aside pile.
- Dave Goulson’s bumblebee research is mentioned in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, which I was reading at the same time as Goulson’s new book, Silent Earth.
- Reading two cancer memoirs that mention bucket lists at the same time: No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler and Year of Plagues by Fred D’Aguiar.
- Mentions of the damaging practice of clearing forest to plant eucalyptus in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute.
- Mentions of mosquito coils being used (in Borneo or Australia) in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
- Different words to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
- A brief mention of China and Japan’s 72 mini-seasons in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles: this will then be the setup for Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian, which I’ll be reading later in September.
- Beached whales feature in Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.
- A chapter in No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler is entitled “Flesh & Blood,” which is the title of the whole memoir by N. West Moss that I picked up next – and both are for Shelf Awareness reviews.
- A description of a sonogram appointment where the nurse calls the doctor in to interpret the results and they know right away that means the pregnancy is unviable, followed by an account of a miscarriage, in Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
- Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane quoted in Church of the Wild by Victoria Loorz and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Blue has been the most common colour in my themed summer reading, showing up in six out of the 20 titles. In the two books I’m reviewing today, it’s used somewhat ironically, with a YA memoir subverting its association with conventional masculinity and a Women’s Prize-longlisted novel contrasting idyllic holiday weather with the persistence of grief.
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson (2020)
“you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving”
Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson knew he was different. He preferred Double-Dutch to football, called his classmates “Honeychild,” and begged for a pair of cowboy boots instead of the sneakers everyone else coveted. His effeminate ways earned the expected epithets. Even though he had plenty of LGBT precedents in his own family – a gay older half-brother, a lesbian aunt, a trans cousin – and his beloved Nanny assured him he was loved for who he was, he didn’t publicly confess his identity until he got to college and felt accepted as part of a fraternity. In fact, there are three instances in the book when, as a teenager, he’s asked directly if he’s gay and he denies it. (Do you hear a rooster?)
Johnson is a warm, earnest storyteller and deftly chooses moments when he became aware of the social disadvantages inherent to his race and sexuality. His memoir is marketed to teens, who should find a lot to relate to here, such as dealing with bullies and realizing that what you’ve been taught is comforting myth. In the “‘Honest Abe’ Lied to Me” chapter, he discovers in middle school that Lincoln didn’t actually support racial equality and questions whether landmark achievements by Black people are just conciliatory tokens – “symbolism is a threat to actual change—it’s a chance for those in power to say, ‘Look how far you have come’ rather than admitting, ‘Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.’”
The manifesto element of the book lies in its investigation of the intersection of Blackness and queerness. Johnson is an activist and wants queer Black kids to have positive role models. He knows he was lucky to have family support and middle-class status; many have it harder, getting thrown out and ending up homeless. Multiple chapters are devoted to his family members, some in the form of letters. The structure didn’t always feel intuitive to me, with direct address to his cousin or grandmother coming seemingly out of nowhere. The language is informal, but that doesn’t excuse “me and so-and-so” constructions or referring to “people that” instead of “who”; young adult readers need to have good grammar reinforced.
I also questioned whether the author needed to be so sexually explicit in describing his molestation at the hands of an older male cousin (he has about a zillion cousins) and losing his virginity at age 20. Then again, today’s teens are probably a lot more sexually knowledgeable than I was 20+ years ago. All in all, I wondered if Johnson is more successful as a motivational speaker than a writer. I think his occasional bravado (he closes his introduction with “This is the story of George Matthew Johnson. This is a story for us all.”) would come across better in person than in print. Still, considering I couldn’t be much further from the target audience, I found this a sweet and engaging read. (Public library)
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (2020)
“Incongruous, the situations we found ourselves in. To be talking about such sorrow against the backdrop of a Mediterranean summer.”
SPOILERS in the following; otherwise it would be difficult to say anything other than that this novel is a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. When I read a synopsis, I thought it would be Sue Miller’s Monogamy with the roles reversed, but that’s because the blurb makes it sound like there were secrets in David and Mary Rose’s marriage that only emerge after her death in a plane crash. I was on the alert for something sordid and earth-shattering, but in fact this is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage.
David, a foreign correspondent on Dublin’s television news, always put his career first, his sophistication and wicked humour masking the wounds of an emotionally chilly upbringing. Mary Rose, a hospital midwife, was the perfect foil, deflating his pomposity and calling him out on any unfeeling quips. Her loving nature was the soul of their relationship. Now that’s she gone, David regrets that he didn’t take more seriously her desperation to have children, a desire he didn’t share. His voice, even flattened and numbed by grief, is a delight. For instance, here’s how he describes Irish seaside holidays: “Summer to us was freezing your arse off on a windswept beach, with a trip to the ice-cream shop if you were lucky. Of course, they never had the ice-cream you wanted.”
The novel is set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Against his friends’ advice, he’s decided to come back alone this year. Although most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here, there is also a present storyline running underneath. Initially subtle, it offers big surprises later on. These I won’t spoil; I’ll only say that David’s cynical belief that he’ll never experience happiness again is proven wrong. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated. This reminded me of Three Junes and also, to a lesser extent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. (Public library)
Coming up next: Pairs of green and red titles.