The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.

Vacation Reading

Happy spooky season, everyone! I kicked things off by renting a cabin in Falun for two weeks, where I did a lot of walking (in cemeteries, no less), a lot of reading, and a lot of sweating it out in my own private sauna. I don’t have all of my photos of the walking uploaded and cleaned up yet, and there’s not much to be said about the sauna, but I can go ahead and talk about the reading. Some of these books might be worth their own post, but for now I’ll just stick to bite-sized thoughts.

Parable of the Sower

I watched Sarah Zed’s underwhelming video on YA dystopias a week before I left, so the whole trend of YA dystopias was on my mind as I read this one. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, several years before our current glut of YA, but by industry genre standards it would be slotted as a YA dystopia if it were published today. And yet, it’s clearly a very different (and much better) beast than The Hunger Games or Divergent or whatever else tried to ride that wave. Is it fair to put Parable of the Sower in the same category as them? From a quality and content standpoint, I would say of course not. But from a book-selling standpoint, there is no difference. Consumerism is a cancer.

The History of White People

Extremely illuminating reading. My father’s side of the family came to the US around the turn of the twentieth century from villages that are in the south of current-day Poland, but there is absolutely no family lore about what it was like moving here, or about life or family back in The Old Country, or anything like that. (Making sense of the immigration documents is also a trip, just because territory was a bit up in the air at that point in time.) Painter’s research obviously can’t fill in the gaps of my own  family’s history, but it gave me a broad sense of the historical context of their arrival in America, and a rough idea of what kind of prejudice and problems they might have run up against—something I’d never really reflected on before.

Beyond my own personal takeaways from the book, the examination of the construction of “white” as a middle class signifier and its gradual expansion over the years is a valuable piece of scholarship for understanding American society as a whole.  The only downside is that The History of White People is over a decade old now, and reading a discussion of race and whiteness in 2021 that ends in a discussion of Barack Obama’s presidency rather than Donald Trump’s feels a bit…unresolved. GoodReads indicates that Painter’s most recent book is from 2018, but it’s a memoir rather than any kind of scholarly work. Hopefully she’ll put out an updated edition of The History of White People at some point.

Shards of Honor

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I don’t think anyone really enjoyed it all that much? For me, at least, there was too much romance and not enough sci-fi. Internet rumor mill pegs it as Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, and I believe it.

Becoming Beauvoir

An absolutely outstanding new biography of Simone de Beauvoir drawing on previously unavailable or untranslated material.

The Cyberiad

One of my philosophy professors taught a popular and engaging philosophy of the mind course, or maybe a couple variations on the idea, and one of the texts for it was The Mind’s I, an anthology that included a story from The Cyberiad. My particular iteration of the class didn’t use that book, but I browsed through a friend’s copy out of curiosity. Long story short, one of the selections I always thought was part of The Cyberiad wasn’t actually, so my introduction to Stanislaw Lem was actually Solaris.

So now I’ve finally read The Cyberiad for real. The English edition is an incredible feat of translation; it struck me as I read one of the first stories in it that one of the textbooks or more scholarly anthologies I’d read over the years had highlighted exactly this story so now I’ll have to try to do a little detective work to see what, exactly, they had to say about it.

Un hiver à Majorque

Still the same book as it was the other two times I read it this year. Unlike my previous attempt with the original French, this time I looked up every (or almost every) word I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out from context.

Review: Freshwater

Continuing in my streak of NetGalley books taking precedence over books I read earlier in the year, I really want to talk about Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater while it’s still, erm, fresh in my mind.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.41 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: We follow Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is also a human vessel for an ogbanje (or several of them?), through her childhood, university in the American south, and then adult life afterwards, as she tries to figure out who she is and to navigate through her relationships with the other supernatural beings who reside inside her psyche.

Content warning: There are moments of self-injury, sexual assault and abuse, a suicide attempt, and somewhat gory descriptions of a car accident and surgery.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works; readers interested in literary fiction

In-depth thoughts: My NetGalley copy is an ebook, but it’s times like these I wish I was eligible for receiving dead tree versions because I want to press this book into people’s hands and say YOU NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW. You can’t do that with an .epub file.

I was especially glad for Freshwater, I think, because right before I read it I had finished Ancient, Ancient, a collection of ostensibly Afro-futurism short stories that had way too much blurb hype on the covers for what it actually was. But Freshwater tapped into that vein of timeless urges (sex, death, blood, deities, demons) that Ancient, Ancient claimed to tackle and delivered a coherent, shining python egg of a novel.

The voice and language in Freshwater are captivating and distinctive, experimental without being alienating. This is the first book in a long time where I felt compelled to read more: after reading on the subway, I’d keep reading on the walk back to the apartment and even after I got home, standing in the doorway, coat and hat still on.

As the story deals with a lot of abstract concepts and Igbo mythology in lyrical, image-heavy language, it’s not an ideal novel for English learners to tackle unless they’re already at a reasonably high level of fluency. But if you are, oh man, Freshwater is so, so worth it. I can’t wait to read more from Ezemi.

Review: Crossings

I’m interrupting what would ordinarily be a chronological accounting of the books I’ve read to talk about Crossings, which I just finished a week ago. I’m skipping ahead partially because it was a NetGalley book and I like to be immediate with those reviews and partially because I had a lot of thoughts about it.

Cover for Crossings by Jon Kerstetter
Image courtesy Penguin Random House

Author: Jon Kerstetter

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.24 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: Kerstetter’s journey as a doctor, a combat medic, and a stroke survivor

Content warning: Kerstetter was a combat medic in Iraq and, before that, an NGO-affiliated volunteer doctor in war zones in Rwanda and Kosovo. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality inherent in either of those positions. Expect frank descriptions of gore, injuries and deaths.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works (Kerstetter originally hails from the Oneida nation); readers interested in memoirs; readers interested in the military; readers interested in neurology

In-depth thoughts: I originally requested Crossings from NetGalley because I was in the middle of working on a memoirs project and thought that it would be beneficial to read something else in the genre.

I was also, to be entirely honest, inherently put off by the book based on its content, as a more-or-less pacifist. Ironically enough, that also tilted me towards requesting Crossings, because I think it’s important to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with you. It forces you to critically examine your own beliefs and principles, it builds empathy, and it broadens your understanding of the world. While I can’t say that I now understand the appeal of going into combat or the thrill of engaging the enemy, I at least understand how it was appealing for Kerstetter. Even though the war memoirs were my least favorite part, they were still engaging.

What I found the most powerful, however, was everything that came after Kerstetter’s tours in Iraq: his stroke and the possibility of recovery. Kerstetter gives a clear account of the cognitive impairments resulting from his stroke and also his frustration with them. Here he was, someone who had always loved reading and literature, who had gone through university and then medical school, now struggling to make it through children’s books. War might not be anything I’ll ever be able to relate to, but the effect that old age or an accident might have on my mental capacities is something that gnaws at me.

As America (and other nations) continue to cope with the metaphorical fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts like Kerstetter’s will become invaluable as far as the domestic effects are concerned. How could we have better taken care of troops while they were in combat? How can we erase the stigma of PTSD? Can we better acclimate soldiers to their own crossings: from civilian to solider and then back again?

Book Review: Passing

Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.

Author: Nessa Larsen

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"
Image courtesy Penguin Publishers

Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I have a tendency to avoid really popular books. This is something I suppose I should change if I ever become a full-time gymnasium English teacher, but for now I read for enjoyment and for professional development. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian definitely qualifies as “really popular.” But once in a while all of the hype and praise makes me curious, so when I saw it in the teen section of my local library, I knew that I had to see if it was any good.

 

Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company 

Author: Sherman Alexie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.11 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Plot summary: Junior tells the story of his first year at an all-white high school outside the Spokane reservation, complete with cartoon illustrations.

Recommended audience: This is marketed as a young adult book, but I think adults can enjoy it as much as teenagers.

In-depth thoughts: My only previous experience with Sherman Alexie was “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the movie Smoke Signals. It was homework for my freshman year creative writing workshop. Our assignment was to read the story, watch the movie, and then write about the differences between the two. I don’t remember much about either the story or the movie except that I wasn’t particularly blown away by either of them. That’s probably part of why I put off reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for so long.

Whatever was distant, disconnected, and impersonal for me in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals was immediate and personal for me in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Maybe it has something to do with the universality of high school experience? Even if I’ve never been the only Native student in a white, wealthy high school, I’ve often felt like the only something in high school. Maybe it was Junior’s distinctive voice. Maybe it was just my mood. Whatever.

The illustrations are a nice touch. It has something of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, though not nearly so heavy on the “attempting to look like an actual diary” aspect.