The Best Books I Read in 2021

It would be hyperbolic to say Goodreads has changed my life, but I do love the ability to easily keep track of the books I’ve read and the books I want to read. Before Goodreads, whenever I came across a book that looked interesting or was recommended by a friend, I would haphazardly type a note on my phone or scribble on a scrap of paper, both of which would inevitably be forgotten or lost when it came time for me to start a new book.

My dad would argue that all the Goodreads functionality I enjoy could be accomplished via an Excel spreadsheet which is…entirely true. I know some people find value in the social element of Goodreads (or satisfaction in leaving scathing book reviews) but the last thing I need is another feed to scroll through. Maybe I’ll say another f*ck you to Amazon – because, of course, everything you love is a subsidiary of Amazon – and move to an Excel spreadsheet in 2022.

But for now, since I have fallen prey to Goodreads, I have at my disposal a curated My Year in Books which you can take a look at if you’re interested in everything I read this past year.

I have mentioned some of these books already in various posts over the past months but I wanted to spend some time aggregating my favorite reads of the past year. So, without further ado:

Maddy’s 10 “Best Reads” of 2021 (in no particular order):

1. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.
I wrote about a memorable passage from this book in a post earlier this year, but that was only one of the many pieces of wisdom Wall Kimmerer shares with us.

Some of my favorite books from the past few years have been those that explore the relationship between modern science and other types of knowledge: native widsom, religion, spirituality. I was obsessed with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, for example, and the way she explores the relationship between her religion and her work as a doctor. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Wall Kimmerer navigates the same tension between what modern science expects of her and the indigenous wisdom she holds: “The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you? ” but “What is it?” No one asked plants, “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?””

I think of how much better the world would be if we embraced and integrated all ways of knowing rather than working so hard to pull them apart; to stop defining “scientific” knowledge as an entirely separate practice that’s constantly at odds with our lived experience and relationship to the world. In Wall Kimmerer’s words, “Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”

As with any of the books on this list, I could write a whole post about this book and what I’ve carried with me since reading it. But if I try I’ll never even finish this list so…on to number two.

2. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.
My judgmental self expected this book to be a “beach read” that would pass the time as an alternative to watching Netflix. I hadn’t read any of Jenkins Reid’s other popular books (Daisy Jones & the Six, Malibu Rising) and didn’t expect this one to have the level of depth that it did, especially about the nuances of love and relationships.

3. Chanel Miller’s Know My Name.
Wow. It’s tough to give words to this one. If I’m honest I put off reading this book for a long time because 1) I was afraid it would be too upsetting and 2) I didn’t think it would tell me anything I didn’t already know, either from personal experience or from reading the news and or other anecdotes shared about similar stories. About the latter I was so wrong. Miller is an incredible writer and the way she gives voice and shape to her experience is brave and powerful. It was an extremely upsetting book (I cried more than once) but not for a moment did I regret reading it.

From the book: “Biden said, You have given them the strength they need to fight. And so, I believe, you will save lives. I thought of the man in the thick black jacket, sitting by the tracks in the foldout chair, hired to save lives. I realized, since I was seventeen, that was the job I wanted. The only difference was that I sat on a chair at home, writing the words that would get you to stay here, to see the value of you, the beauty of your life. So if you come on the worst day of your life, my hope is to catch you, to gently guide you back.”

Thank you, Chanel, for doing just that.

4. Tommy Orange’s There, There.
Yet again I want to write a whole post about this book, I loved it so much. Through the book’s main characters, Orange fights against the stereotypes and perceptions of the Indian experience: ““We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story. What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general, it’s too sad, so sad it can’t even be entertaining, but more importantly because of the way it’s been portrayed, it looks pathetic, and we perpetuate that, but no, fuck that…the whole picture is not pathetic, and the individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity, and there is real passion there, and rage…””

The way he captures the experience of various mental illnesses was another of my favorite things about this book. Through his characters he gives conditions that are usually distilled to diagnoses – depression, anxiety, PTSD – the truth and reality and complexity they deserve! A quick note I jotted down in my journal as I was reading the book: “I love how this book depicts different types of mental illness (eating disorder, OCD, depression) without giving it those names, and instead it’s just people’s experiences of them which makes it seem way more like a human condition instead of some assigned illness that along with it comes stereotypes, assumptions, etc.”

The last (for now, at least) thing I loved about this book was that a lot of it took place in Oakland. Another note I scribbled in my journal while reading: “I love reading books about places I live/have lived or been…you can picture in your head the exact BART stop that’s mentioned, or the underpass, or the park. I love that it makes me think of the stories of the people that I see every day on the BART or sitting on their bikes at those parks; what is happening in their lives? All of the stories and the city that brings those stories together, the city that is home to those stories.”

5. Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist.
Ah, man, this book had everything: historical elements that taught me something new, emotional and psychological elements that made me reflect, exciting plot twists that kept me fascinated.

Miller explores the questions I am always asking myself: “We started talking about the ideas-words divide. How hard it can be to watch your words fall flat, kersplat, before another person. How lonely it can feel inside a head with ideas you can’t figure out how to spit out. And the dangerous power of the few who seemed to understand you. I told her about my obsession with David Starr Jordan, the earthquake, the sewing needle. “So it’s sort of about why,” I said. “What drives a person to keep going?””

She understands that the way we interpret the world can’t easily be distilled into objective truth because we as humans will always be susceptible to our tendencies; for example, the need to distill the complex into something simple to make sense of the world: “That “fish,” in a certain sense, is a derogatory term. A word we use to hide that complexity, to keep ourselves comfortable, to feel further away from them than we actually are.” If I could count the number of times I’ve tried to make things “black and white” in my head in order to avoid having to sit with the discomfort of nuance…lol.

6. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
A book that I should have read much sooner! I loved its blend of history, humor, creativity, and compelling plot.

A favorite passage: “If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread out on top of it.”

7. Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man.
“Did she want to put her life in the hands of other people? Could she ever achieve her dreams if she remained dependent on pleasing her family? Perhaps her life would be more than it was now if she hadn’t tried so hard to live up to her grandparents’ opinion of her. It was more important to honor her own values in life, to live her own dreams and her own vision, than to allow others to choose that path for her, even if standing up for herself was terrifying.”

8. Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This.
Ack, I want to write a meaningful reflection on this book but it would take too much mental energy so I will save that for another day. Long story short: I appreciated the way Lockwood turned this dry and cynical – and very thought-provoking – reflection on the internet and culture into a book that left me with some hope for myself and for the world. Though I probably just wanted to be reassured that there is some semblance of humanity and emotion left in this world…

Way too much of this book (in a good and bad way) hit extremely close to home, so reading it was an exercise in trying not to feel too incredibly attacked and shitty about myself. A few example passages:

“Her stupidity panicked her, as well as the way her voice now sounded when she talked to people who hadn’t stopped being stupid yet.”

“What had the beautiful thought been, the bright profundity she had roused herself to write down? She opened her notebook with the sense of anticipation she always felt on such occasions—perhaps this would finally be it, the one they would chisel on her gravestone.”

“It was a mistake to believe that other people were not living as deeply as you were. Besides, you were not even living that deeply.”

“After this I will be able to be nice to my mother, but she never ever was. After this I will be able to talk only about what matters, life and death and what comes after, but still she went on about the weather.”

9. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things.
I avoided anything Cheryl Strayed for a while (I still haven’t read Wild) because I was afraid that if I liked it it meant I was just another nature-loving white woman preaching the privileged “go find yourself in the wild!” gospel…which is pretty much true and something I judge myself for a lot. So, of course, I loved everything she had to say and the advice she had to give, and I will probably be reading Wild and enjoying it at some point soon.

10. Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman.
I hadn’t read any Louise Erdrich before and now I’ve added all of her other books to my “want to read” list. Her prose was absolutely gorgeous and, similar to Braiding Sweetgrass, it gave me an even deeper appreciation for the wisdom of native and indigenous peoples (aka: why does western culture and capitalism and the white man suck so much).

“Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people—political figures, priests, explorers—and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. This confusion of the chimookomaanag between the timelessness of the earth and the short span here of mortals was typical of their arrogance.”

“Because everything was alive, responsive in its own way, capable of being hurt in its own way, capable of punishment in its own way, Zhaanat’s thinking was built on treating everything around her with great care.”


And now…on to another year of good reads (and maybe not Goodreads)!

2 responses to “The Best Books I Read in 2021”

  1. I’ve read 6/10, and I’ll have to put those other 4 on the top of my list. the Patricia Lockwood I bought to start this week. I thought Braiding Sweetgrass, Know My Name, Book Thief and There There were the best- I didn’t like A Woman is no man and Seven husbands as much.

  2. Thanks, Mads, enjoyed reading this. Very appropriate that I get a mention for my use of Excel rather than my reading accomplishments (or lack thereof). To remedy the latter, I just signed up for Goodreads. Love, Dad

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