Last year wasn’t all bad. I read a lot of books, some of them quite wonderful, all of them good. 42 books to be exact, including a mix of poetry, books on the craft of writing, novels, memoir, and other non-fiction. And that doesn’t even count the spiritual books and books of poetry that my husband and I read out loud to each other. I also indulged in a rare pleasure—re-reading a few old favorites.
Here, then, are my ten favorite books that I read last year. These books, by and large, were not published in 2021, though quite a few are recent. In some cases, I’m coming late to the party.
These are the ones that brought me the most delight, pleasure in the power of language, grace of new knowledge, and/or enlarged me in some potent way. I hope you might find some gems for yourself among these.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
What an astonishing gift of a book! Kimmerer braids indigenous wisdom with botanical science with the teachings of plants themselves to create a magical book of stories. Captivating and gorgeous, this book takes a clear look at our current ecological predicament but offers so much hope, if we would just listen and follow the wisdom all around us.
These next three books of poetry each enlarged my understanding of the experiences of others in powerful, compelling language.
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Not poetry in a familiar sense, though it’s subtitle is “An American Lyric” and Rankine in a formidable poet, this book won so many prestigious awards, and deservedly so. Hard to categorize, this is a collage of prose poems, short anecdotes, essay-like commentary, art by visual artists, and documentary that paints a vivid, alarming portrait of what it is like on a daily basis to be in a Black body in America. Necessary reading for many of us and a deeply affecting ride.
Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith
Smith is Black, gay, and HIV positive. He takes us intimately into his world with stunning originality and vulnerability, painting an amazing portrait of his experience, contracting and living with HIV, among other things. Full of pain and love, this is a beautiful collection by a poet that has been garnering a lot of attention in recent years.
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, torrin a. greathouse
I loved this extraordinary collection of poems. Another book I wish were required reading. greathouse is a master of language whose poems arrive like shock waves. A trans-gender person, who also lives with disabilities and physical pain, greathouse writes deeply moving poems in astonishing language that opened wells of understanding in me.
Nothing To See Here, Kevin Wilson
What a fun, crazy ride this novel is! Extremely weird, but delightful, Wilson tells a preposterous but somehow utterly believable story with great characters who are dealing with very relatable (as well as some highly unusual) problems. Spontaneous combustion anyone? If you’re looking for a good read, look no further.
A Slow Green Sleep, Jonathan Weinert
Full confession: This book is written by a friend of mine, but that is not why it made the cut. As I read this book of poems, I thought “Yes, Yes, Yes, he’s done it!” This is the kind of book I wish I could write. The language is precise, exciting, honest, and imaginative as Weinert takes on the exceedingly troubling ecologicial crisis we are living with, and reckons with his own feelings and culpability.
Story, Robert McKee
This tome is a classic on the art of writing screenplays but is about story form in general—applicable to novels, short fiction, memoir, plays. McKee, who is revered in Hollywood for his gift as a teacher, spells out a clear, compelling, step-by-step process for crafting powerful stories, and a way to understand why a story isn’t working. And it’s not formulaic. He gives many variations, using examples from well-known films. It took me all year to get through this, but it was worth it.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
This was definitely the most amazing novel I read in 2021. Tartt’s characters and story are so vividly and grippingly portrayed, you feel like you are absolutely there. Heart-rending and also full of resilience and love. I didn’t love where it went near the end. But this was a remarkable tour-de-force of a novel.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
This novel is really a memoir in disguise, and it’s a beauty. Written by a Vietnamese-American poet, this is a searing, stunning, moving story of his youth, his early love, and his challenges growing up poor and gay in an immigrant family. It’s an arresting read.
Keep Going, Austin Kleon
I love all of Austin Kleon’s delightful, wise, little books on creativity, and this one is no exception. The book’s subtitle is “10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad” and hence it’s really timely. Kleon is so good at getting to the essence of things with punchy aphorisms, fascinating quotes and examples from the lives of many artists, and his wonderful signature drawings. He gives you abundant permission to make art and many great suggestions about how.
And, as a bonus, one more:
Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa
I have read this book more times than I can count. I like to read a couple of pages in the morning before meditation. Although he was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa describes, in this book, a clear, secular path to living a more awakened life and helping to create an enlightened society. Loaded with highly-accessible wisdom and practical tools.
If any of these books call to you, I encourage you to order them through your local independent bookstore or your library. If you order online, please consider using either Bookshop.org, which benefits independent bookstores, Powell’s Books, which has a vast collection of new and used books and is a great independent bookstore, or Better World Books, which fosters literacy.