Book Recommendations from My 2021 Reading List
By Cathleen Freedman
I think it’s nice that we’re all on the same page ahead of this brave, new year: The 2020 and 2021 blur was really, really tough. If these past two years could be succinctly described, I think I would forgo words altogether and just use a :/ with three exclamation points at the end.
Everybody is commiserating over the last two years, but at least we’re commiserating together. Sure, it’s not a great spin, but I’m trying to read in between the black and white lines to find any possible silver lining.
The pandemic also brought me back to reading. It’s not like I never read in high school or college–au contraire! I read a lot! I was reading books from a syllabus, though, with an objective of memorizing plot or factoids that would help in group discussions. Sometimes I’d find a book I loved, but none were read for the joy of reading. Not like I used to. Back in the day, (the “day” coinciding with Obama’s presidency) I could whiz through four books at once. If I blinked, by the time I opened my eyes, I would have already read three chapters. Time moved differently in 2011, and I bent it to my reading whims. Gosh, what a way to live.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi brought me back to the joy of reading for reading’s sake. In September 2020, I saw something online about her writing style and wanted to witness it for myself. Purchasing the book would take money and time, but then it struck me! The greatest revelation I had that day! Society’s most underrated facet! The library!
Harris County Public Online Library, I am your newest #1 fan. You’re my most visited tab, and my favorite app. Between September 2020 and December 31, 2020 alone, I read 32 books… Most of these were e-books. If we’re in the business of looking for silver linings, then I’d point out that it actually took a global pandemic for me to read an e-book instead of a hard copy. Now I’m hooked. E-books are great. They don’t weigh a thing! You can zoom in! Plus, no paper cuts!
I finished 49 books between January 1, 2021 through December 31, 2021. If you’re still reading this article, that means you’re willing to read absolutely anything. So, start 2022 with a book haul. Let me help.
Instead of reviewing all 49 books, I’ll give you customized recommendations. The older I get, the more I realize we all like different things for different reasons. I’m going to (attempt to) offer the most well-rounded yet pointed suggestions for the general public. These aren’t necessarily my favorites, but rather books I think you might like. You’ll see what I mean.
For Those Who Appreciate the Little Things
Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow by Banana Yoshimoto
I’m fairly certain these are side-by-side novellas that come together in one book. You will inhale these stories. I read them during an especially tumultuous week in 2021, and it felt like taking a literary chill pill. There’s a line from the Kitchen/Moonlight Shadow double feature that I used as the dedication in a play I wrote: “...but we’re all brothers and sisters when in trouble.” There was never a more appropriate time for me to read that. Banana Yoshimoto is a wonderful writer. These stories are touching. If you like these two, then definitely keep reading Yoshimoto.
My friend and pen pal during the pandemic, El, recommended Banana Yoshimoto to me. Thank you, El! It’s a recommendation that keeps giving.
For Nonfiction Readers Who Like the Outdoors
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
I’m not technically finished with this book, but that doesn’t mean I am not a huge fan of it. I am taking my sweet time on purpose. Macfarlane is such an incredible writer and thinker. The way this book operates spatially is just marvelous. He is not remotely pedantic, so anyone will understand the geologic ideas he discusses as you embark on this literary journey through time. There’s something for everybody in this. Biology, geology, archaeology, physics, environmentalism, history, adventure, poetry! 5/5 stars. (Which could be given to one of the starless rivers Macfarlane mentions…)
For Poetry Readers Who Like the Outdoors Too
Any collection by Mary Oliver
Pondering on nature in the most gentle prose possible, there’s nothing pretentious about Mary Oliver. Even if you don’t read poetry, I recommend her.
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
This is the universal book I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. John Green writes small essay reviews of different things from the Anthropocene epoch. These synthesized essays are brilliant. They do everything a good comedy special does, but instead of being uproariously funny, this collection is endearingly tender and so human. My favorite chapters/reviews were Diet Dr. Pepper, the Internet, Piggly Wiggly, Harvey, and Googling Strangers.
Now hear me out. I also recommend you try this as an audiobook. John Green narrates, and there’s something so special about hearing him tell you why “Auld Lang Syne” is worthy of 5 stars.
For Someone Disillusioned by Life and Wondering “What’s the Point Anymore?” but Specifically for Romantics Going through a Rough Patch and Aren’t Normally this Bummed Out
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwabb
So I loved this book. I didn’t expect to. But I did. And I love it even more because the people I’ve talked to about it, did NOT like it. What can I say? I’m drawn to the controversial and smitten with the scorned. These people’s criticisms stem from the fact that they didn’t like the characters. To which I say, “Okay, fair, fine.”
The reason I really enjoyed this book is because I adore the idea of living forever…without anyone remembering you. That makes you think! What would you do? Where do you go? At what point would you give into the darkness? My other favorite part of this book is its veneration of art. Addie LaRue is practically immortal, and the one thing that has made her life worthwhile is art. Ahem. “And this is what she’s settled on: she can go without food (she will not wither.) She can go without heat (the cold will not kill her.) But a life without art, without wonder, without beautiful things--she would go mad.” Also, “So much of life becomes routine, but food is like music, like art, replete with the promise of something new.”
This book spans centuries. I’m a fan of epics, so that’s right up my alley. I also love the “Come live with me and be my love” poem and went down a rabbit hole on JSTOR, reading Harvard grad students’ theses on Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Anyway. Please, if any of the above seems appealing, read this book and let me know what you think. Even if you don’t like it. Especially then.
For Anyone Disillusioned by Life and Wondering “What’s the Point Anymore?” but Specifically Someone who is Experiencing a Religious Dilemma OR Someone who Just Really Likes Greek Mythology
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
This book surprised me. First off, I LOVE the myth of Cupid and Psyche. I will consume any adaptation of this myth.
Secondly, I have never been a C.S. Lewis fan. I saw The Magician’s Nephew on a field trip in elementary school and was like, “I can write a better play.” I think I have watched the first ten minutes of Narnia on five different occasions. Just didn’t get into it.
So when I found out Lewis has a book about the myth of Cupid and Psyche, I was at odds. It’s about Cupid and Psyche, so I have to read it. But it’s by C.S. Lewis, so…? Despite my Narnia indifference, I started reading anyway.
Well, it’s brilliant. Probably one of my all-time favorite books. I think I cried. If I didn’t, I will the next time I read it.
This re-telling is from the perspective of one of Istra/Psyche’s sisters. (Names are different than the myth in the book.) The POV is so tender, you understand why Psyche’s sister betrayed her. While reading, I was struck by Lewis's writing. Orual, Psyche’s sister, is so well-developed and thoughtful and fleshed out, and this is abundantly evident because the whole book is from her point of view. I couldn’t believe a man wrote it. I felt this way when I was nine years old reading Dear Dumb Diary. “The female protagonist is just so good, how could a man know what it’s like to think like a girl?!” was my basic nine-year-old craft question about the series. I echoed that sentiment again with Till We Have Faces.
Turns out Lewis had some help from his wife, Joy Davidman. Let me backtrack. Lewis started writing a version of this book in college because he also saw the beauty of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Good taste.) He was an atheist at this point in time and, unrelatedly, stopped working on the book. Decades later, after his conversion to Christianity, he revisited this project. His wife (at the time, very close friend) Joy workshops the book. I think she really helped make this book so wonderful, and C.S. Lewis agrees. He believed this was his best book.
This book is told in two parts. The first part reflects the period of C.S. Lewis’s atheism/Orual’s angst against the gods. The second part is a stunning reconciliation with the gods. Just like in Lewis’s life. Seriously, it’s just gorgeous. I’m convincing myself to re-read Till We Have Faces as I write.
If the theological interpretation isn’t of interest, I still think anyone who likes the myth will enjoy this book.
For those who Liked Percy Jackson and Want Something More Serious and Grown Up
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and Circe by Madeline Miller
I read these at the same time. It took around 70 pages for me to really get hooked. Up until that point, I liked the book(s). But after I hit the 70 page stride, I was enamored. Madeline Miller is a fantastic writer. All of the hype is worth it. I rarely admit that about popular things because I only say that when it’s true. I struggle to pick a favorite between the two. I change my mind often. I’m going to say, right now, Song of Achilles is my favorite. I was very familiar with the myth of Circe, but I’m not sure if I knew about Achilles and Patroclus. It doesn’t matter. I feel like I know them too well now. Let me share this casually brilliant line from Song of Achilles. It’s one of many. “He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you didn’t. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”
I believe an HBO adaptation of Circe is under way. I’m surprised there isn’t one for Song of Achilles, though.
For Anyone Coming of Age and Has A Lot of Feelings About It
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I had seen the movie version with Logan Lerman and Emma Watson, but I didn’t read the book until this year. I treasured it. If you like *Catcher in the Rye*, you will like this. If you didn’t like *Catcher in the Rye*, I still believe you’ll also like this.
I recognize that a lot of you have already read *Perks of Being a Wallflower*, but I think you’d benefit from a re-read. To reference a line from the book, you might even discover that, “It really was a great one. I think I’ll even think so when I’m older.”
For Dark Academia Fans
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Also a fairly well-known book, so I’m probably just another person telling you to give it a go. I loved the reading experience because I was so immersed. I felt like I was in middle school again, waking up early to finish a book I started the day before and neglecting dinner because I was so focused on the next chapter.
For the Nosy
Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour by Rickie Lee Jones
My grandfather always said that when you read biographies or memoirs, you live another life. It’s a way to experience someone else’s world. In that case, I lived a life as the legendary hippie Grammy-winning singer-songwriter (triple) double-hyphenate Rickie Lee Jones.
Last Chance Texaco might be my favorite memoir ever. Jones is an incredible songwriter and, as it appears here, memoir writer. Her life is excellent fodder, sure, but I was taken aback by her honeyed prose. I think I’m going to play her song “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking,” which, if anyone can find her version of it on SNL, please let me know.
For Those Who Like New Fiction and Texas Authors
Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann
This is yet another myth-inspired read. Imagine the Roman gods as an old-money Texas family in a fictional town outside of Houston. That’s Olympus, Texas. I had so much fun reading this and lost my mind when I figured out the names. (I.e. “Peter” = “Jupiter,” Say it to yourself. Ha! Yeah, I know!)
On this note, I wrote a TV pilot script earlier in 2021 about the Greek gods in a family comedy. I’m going to recommend anyone who’s interested read this, too 😎
For Those Who Like New Fiction and British Authors
You People by Nikita Lalwani
A short book about immigrants and outsiders “seeking asylum in a pizzeria,” among so much more. I like The Guardian’s review of the book and Lalwani. “...this is a writer who is very interested in compassion, how it manifests, and the nature of its limits.” This definitely comes across.
For Those Who Want to Read My Favorite Author and Won’t Tell Me if They Don’t Like It
I technically didn’t finish a Helen Oyeyemi novel in 2021. (I’m reading Peaces slowly and trying to soak it up.) But I’m such a sucker for her writing that I want to mention her anyway. I want my love for Helen Oyeyemi’s writing to be well documented and known by all. Now, before I continue, let me explicitly say this. Not everyone is going to like her work. In fact, you might not like it. Don’t let me know. I think Boy, Snow, Bird is her most accessible book, but you still might not dig it. (My favorite book of hers is Gingerbread.) One of my favorite pastimes is listening to Helen Oyeyemi interviews where the interviewer does not understand her writing. There was this one interview where the interviewer said something like, “In White is for Witching, you meant…” and then said whatever they thought the scene was supposed to be about. And Helen cut them off and said, “No. That’s not what I meant.” They moved onto the next question.
For Healing by Means of Magic, Words, and Flowers
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
Not only is there an Amazon Studios adaptation of this novel that will star Sigourney Weaver, Absolutely Anything has also interviewed the author of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart! This is a book of trauma, healing, and bushels of flowers wrapped with the most gorgeous string of words. I could go on, but I think our interview with Holly Ringland herself will be enough to convince you.
Find the interview here!