2021 was a good year for reading new books: libraries reopened, and I got to go inside of them! On my rare in-office days, I went to the big library on campus and browsed the bestseller shelf as afternoon sunlight slanted through the tall windows. I crouched in the newly added book section because most of the new fiction goes on the bottom two shelves. Sometimes I wandered the stacks and picked out a couple of older books in cloth bindings.
It felt good to be back in the university library, but my neighborhood libraries became a critical part of my reading cycle. I loved discovering my local branches, even when I had to walk a mile in the sweltering August sun because closer branches were closed. I loved meeting my neighbor for afternoon coffee and walking to the biggest neighborhood branch, where there is a tiny park with perfect vibes and a book return box where I could chuck finished books on my way home.
I read 55 books in 2021, not including textbooks, re-reads, or literary magazines. It was a good, bittersweet year for finishing series: I read the final installments of the S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy (Empire of Gold), Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries (Fugitive Telemetry, but really I think Network Effect should be considered the final book), John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy (The Last Emperox), and–at long last–the conclusion of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels (The Mirror and the Light). Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series is not yet complete, but I was psyched to delve back into that phantasmagoric world with Harrow the Ninth.
Of the rest, these are the books I loved the best.
I learned about many of these books due to the Rewilding Our Stories Discord server. Join us if you want recommendations and opportunities to talk books with some real eco-nerds.
In order from “This is happening now” to “This could be the future”:
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Appleseed by Matt Bell
Honorable mention to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is definitely NOT fiction, but which is unlike any other book on my list. It was the first book I read with my ecofiction book club, and it absolutely transformed the way I think about nature and my responsibility to it, or human responsibility to it. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who loves parks, forests, gardens, and other coevolutions of humans and plants.
I guess I read memoirs now
I put off reading In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado for goodness knows what reason–because it’s a memoir? because it’s about domestic abuse?–but now that I’ve read it, I think everyone should. Read it if you have ever been in a relationship, yes. But read it if you love reading, because the book’s short stylized chapters make such revealing observations about literary genres–and dancing around with different techniques is not a distraction from the story but utterly necessary to it.
Speaking of making me rethink memoir: shout out to The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo for that reason, and also for getting me psyched about foraging park berries.
Is it social satire if it’s also earnest and strangely sweet?
Luster by Raven Leilani is the kind of incisive, moving social novel I only wish I could write.
Definitely give the surreal Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino to a bride-to-be in your life, and sit back to watch the chaos you’ve unleashed!
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connis Willis is every bit as charming and funny as everyone says, absolutely jam-packed with literary and historical jokes.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a luminous, breathtaking portrait of a life well-lived and well-loved.
I loved Dune. I don’t know what to tell you. It has its problems, but also so many ideas that I think it holds up well to critique–that is, I think critiquing it makes the experience of reading it and watching the movie even richer. It’s rich text.
While I have you, I am going to recommend the few newsletters I allow into my jealously guarded inbox. I learn from them, I enjoy them, I encourage you to embrace them.
Pome curated by Matthew Ogle
The Slowdown curated by Ada Limón (also available as a podcast!)
Richly readable biweekly culture studies
Culture Study by Anne Helen Peterson goes all over the place–wellness, celebrity, labor–and it’s always terribly interesting and incisive.
Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith is also wonderful, and mainly focused on unlearning diet culture.
Weekly-ish climate updates
Hot Take by Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt
HEATED by Emily Atkin
Monthly newsletters on writing craft, with prompts
The Art of Flash Fiction by Kathy Fish
Happy new year. Happy reading.