Stunning Books of 2021: My Top Ten Favorites

Stunning Books of 2021: My Top Ten Favorites

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, 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.

Oh, the pleasures of reading and writing

Oh, the pleasures of reading and writing

In today’s issue of Creative Sparks I thought I’d share with you several of the books I’ve been reading lately, spanning the realms from shamanism to fiction to poetry (my personal favorite).

May these inspire you to your own fertile explorations into the wide pleasures of reading (and writing! and living!).

If writing has been calling to you and/or you’re feeling stuck in your writing, I’m offering a day-long creative writing workshop, called Romancing the Muse, in Sacramento in May. This is a super fun, inspiring day that will get you fired up to write. Early registration is now open and encouraged. Click here to find out more:

I’m delighted to share the news that my poetic essay “Falling and Flying: Rediscovering Language” was published recently in The Citron Review. Click here to read it.

Read on, dear ones!

To your dreaming and being,

The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise
                                       by Martin Prechtel

RainDustPrechtelThis is a gorgeous, wise, inspired, little book on grief and praise and how we have forgotten how to do either of them well in contemporary, Western cultures. Written in Martin’s one-of-a-kind poetic style and steeped in his perspective as a shaman who lived among the indigenous Mayan people, Martin beautifully describes the gifts of grief and praise and the inseparable bond between the two, and he explains the woes and ailments that beset people and whole societies when we fail to do a good job with our grieving and praising. Highly recommended.


Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe

WolfeTimeRiverAt over 900 pages, this classic novel is a commitment. I read itbecause I watched Genius, which is a great, engaging film about the relationship between the author Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins. Hypnotic, exuberant, excessive, stunning prose that goes on too long and ultimately fails to have enough of a satisfying plot line, this is nonetheless a pretty remarkable novel of one young man’s journey to become a writer. It is really an epic window into America in the 1920s and/or 30s, which is marred by occasional bouts of racist descriptions. I found it rapturous until about page 500, and then it became increasingly a slog. It reminded me of the best that literature can reach for and attain, and it refreshingly breaks so many conventions of fiction. I’m both glad I read it and glad it’s over.


Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World’s Best Poems 

PagliaBreakBurnGiven her high standing and radical reputation as a scholar and cultural critic, I was surprised by how unexciting and unsurprising her readings of these poems are, by and large. I’m about half-way through and not all that drawn in. I loved her introduction, which was the best part of the book, and I’m enjoying the poems she chose and learning some historical tidbits and references about them. If you’re a relative novice to poetry, you would probably enjoy it more and get more out of it. I disagree with some of her interpretations, and she insists on reading sex into everything in ways that often seem absurd and totally forced (no pun intended). Nonetheless, I intend to finish it, as the selection of poems is good, and her readings of them worthwhile overall.


The Shadow of Sirius poems by W.S. Merwin


Now in his late 80s, Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for this collection of his poems from 2008, his second Pulitzer. Merwin is one of America’s major poets and a unique voice. Although the first section in the collection didn’t speak to me as strongly, pretty soon I was taken in by these beautifully-crafted, spare poems, which impressed and touched me with their concision, craft, humanity, vision and elegance, a true master at work.


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