My Best-of Book List for 2021
Updated: Apr 2
I like year-end best-of lists. Reading others’ lists is a fun way to learn about things I’ve missed. And thinking about my own best-of list helps me take stock of my year. Looking at my 2021 reads, I see several themes emerging.
I’m not sure that reading qualifies as process work, but that’s what I’m calling my voracious appetite for books that helped me transition from stay-at-home mom to empty-nester. These were books written by women about their own midlife transitions. Oddly, I feel almost repelled by these books now, the way you might be repulsed by the foods you ate while convalescing after an illness. But they offered invaluable support when I needed it, so I will gratefully list the top three: A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson; Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor; Crossing to Avalon by Jean Shinoda Bolen.
I liked memoirs before 2021, but this was the year that I developed a huge appetite for them. I enjoy meeting the minds of people as they explore their past, their family, their conditioning, their strengths and shadows. Top picks:
Hold Still by Sally Mann. It has creative tidbits: “something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.” And there are whiplash-inducing turns in which violence, death, disease and decay erupt into the narrative. Sally Mann embodies the Plutonic ability to look unflinchingly at the darkness.
Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin is about growing up in her family’s restaurant, “a forum of philosophy and hot sauce.” It’s an homage to Willy, their family friend who “must have been with two thousand girls just on Morton Street. Married women, young, old, white, black, long-term, short-term, crazy, sane. They all loved Willy, and when I say loved I mean fucked.” And her father Kenny Shopsin: “The only foreign word besides puta my dad taught me was anchovy. Anchovy is Italian for shitty little fish.” The book is funny and heart-rending and, because it’s dominated by two unpredictable, unconventional men, it’s full of surprises.
Bright Precious Thing by Gail Caldwell has the matter-of-fact rhythm of a country song. “Curiosity beat out fear by a millimeter, every time, and sometimes only by that. I left the man who shattered my happy autonomy… I left the woman I had loved a few years later; I ran to and then abandoned the graduate program that honed my mind as sharply as feminism had honed my heart. Through it all I clung to whiskey to give me courage, which worked marvelously until it didn’t, and it’s failure was the size of a crevasse, monstrous and deep and the biggest danger of them all.”
(I also read The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes which are such amazing reads that everyone has talked about them already, most particularly in the 1990s when they came out. But they are bar-setters for memoir. Read them if you haven’t already.)
Especially of women writers who are also, often, avid readers and quote collectors. Hermione Lee is the biographer queen, if you ask me. Her books Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life were my two favorites this year.
Books on Writing
I never stop talking or thinking about The Art of Memoir. (“...even I can grant myself permission to run buck-wild down the page with sentences dumb as stumps and few glimpses of anything pretty.”)
I also read three of Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing, my favorite (maybe everyone’s favorite?) being Writing Down the Bones. (“Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much.”)
My Security Blankets
I get low-grade anxiety when I can’t look forward to curling up with a good mystery in the last hour before bed. I’m extremely picky about my mysteries. I like a mystery series in which I get the comforting pleasure of hanging out with a keenly insightful, intelligent and kind detective who has the situation well in hand even if we are in the dark; a detective who is a cross between psychopomp and Mary Poppins. Henry Gammadge (“Gamadge, always rested by platitudes, had relaxed in his chair.”) and Miss Silver (“Miss Silver, smiling at him from the other side of the hearth, her hands busy with her knitting, remained a stable point in an unsettled world.”) were my absolute favorites this year.
Books of Essays
In no way page turners, books of essays do let me enjoy brief dips into an author’s mind over the course of many months. Favorites this year:
MFK Fisher’s Last House (Fisher was a fan of detective fiction as well, and had this to say about it: “Jacques Barzun, in his introduction to The Delights of Detection, says that ‘the emotion called forth [by detective feats] is that of seeing order grow out of confusion.’ This is something, of course, that gives courage and reassurance to no matter what type of woman, and I feel especially sensitive to it because of my wishful dependence upon a better order than my own.”).
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind (“I used to be too respectful to disagree with Tolstoy, but after I got into my sixties my faculty of respect atrophied.”).
Fiction of the Non-mystery Variety
Weather by Jenny Offill was my favorite new work of fiction (“And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.”). Otherwise my favorites were old favorites I reread again: Excellent Women, Hotel du Lac, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, A Room with a View.
I don’t tend to gravitate toward hard sciences, but a well-written book with a scientific foundation on a subject that appeals to me (we’re getting into a pretty small niche here) can be a game-changer. Reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. All the self-help books I’d read that urge playing big and living out loud fit the mold of what Cain calls “the Extrovert Ideal - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” Cain reassured me that, as an introvert, I didn’t fit naturally into that mold and I didn’t have to. Whew.