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)!

“Introduction To Poetry”

On Saturday afternoon I head out for a walk under the guise of needing to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. I do, in fact, need to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, but Thomas and I both know that when I say I’m “going to walk to the pharmacy” that’s code for “I’m going out for a walk and there’s no knowing when I’ll be back.”

Needless to say, I take a slight detour at Pegasus Books on Shattuck. In my defense, it’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that Pegasus has been open for in-person browsing, and obviously I have to support my local bookstore (f*** Amazon!!!!!!!!!).

I spend thirty minutes browsing and in every section – philosophy, spirituality, literature, gardening, poetry, critical theory – I see a book I want to take home and spend the rest of the afternoon reading. I wish for not the first time that I had room in my apartment for more books, instead of the already-overflowing few shelves I hacked together in our bedroom. There’s a chance it collapses at some point soon; I keep stacking more and more books horizontally on the top shelf.

My book-browsing is interrupted by the realization that the pharmacy closes soon and if I don’t leave now I’ll fail to accomplish the actual task I set out to do. I hurriedly grab and pay for two of the used books I’ve had my eye on: Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring and Poetry 180, an anthology of contemporary poems.

The mini-haul.

On Tuesday morning I remember that, because Thomas is a student, we have a free subscription to The New York Times. I browse their website and come across this Letter of Recommendation that suggests you read the same poem every day for a month. While not a novel idea, I loved the author’s intention and practice behind it: “I always read my selected poem aloud, to hear the rhythm, and I like to read it first thing in the morning. Reading the poem at dawn, with my coffee, is a kind of meditation. And rereading the same poem forces me to slow down, to hone my observations.”

Over the past few months I’ve strayed further from starting my mornings in a meditative way. I used wake up and read or write; now, I immediately open my laptop to start work, or spend too long on Twitter catching up on the latest apocalyptic news. This letter feels timely – especially since I’d just bought a poetry anthology a few days prior. I resolve to start my next few mornings by reading a poem.

On Wednesday morning I wake up and open the anthology to the first poem, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”

“Introduction to Poetry”

I’ve read it before – shout-out to my favorite high-school English teacher who introduced me to some amazing poems – but poetry will always be better when chosen rather than assigned. In the words of Billy Collins himself: “High school is the place where poetry goes to die.” (I might be one of the few who gained a greater appreciation for poetry in an academic context. To all the high school teachers: don’t give up hope!)

I will spare everyone my commentary on the poem (which would also be ironic given its content) but here are two of my favorite Billy Collins verses I want to share in the hopes others enjoy them as much as I do:

“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

“And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches…”

Little Things / March 2021


In a brief moment of culinary inspiration last weekend I decided I wanted to bake some scones. I’d just had my morning coffee – so the possibilities for my day were seemingly endless and I dreamt my biggest, most wild dreams – and seen an inspiring photo of local produce from Berkeley Bowl.

“What flavor scones should I make?” I asked myself as I sat on the couch, already envisioning the Samin Nosrat I was about to become. I had the essential ingredients in my pantry – flour, butter, heavy cream, sugar – and decided on lemon poppyseed: a classic, hard-to-mess-up flavor that would only require buying a lemon or two from the grocery store. And then – of course, as usual – the moment of inspiration passed before I even made it to the store.

I went for a walk through the neighborhood later that afternoon. I had spent most of the day attempting to read, but mostly ruminating, and sought fresh air to clear my mind. A few blocks from my house I came across a plastic dog bowl placed on the sidewalk with a paper sign taped to the rim that read “FREE” in black Sharpie. Inside the bowl were three large, bright yellow lemons that a neighbor had picked from the ripening tree in their yard. I smiled, picked one up, and put it in my fanny pack (yes, I was wearing a fanny pack).

Lemon x fanny pack

As I walked home with the lemon displayed proudly in the pocket of my fanny pack I felt so blessed. A lemon in a bowl on the sidewalk. It was such a small thing and yet it felt like a huge gift, to have this thing that I’d been “needing,” but hadn’t been able to give myself, brought to me with no strings attached. It was as if someone, somewhere had known that if I were presented with a lemon it might have the capacity to turn my day around.

At home that evening I stood at the counter zesting the lemon over a glass bowl. I grated the frozen butter, mixed in heavy cream and flour, and added just the right amount of poppy seeds. I’m not much of a baker but every time I bake or cook I notice how wonderful it feels to make something from scratch, to shape and create it with my own hands. When the scones came out of the oven looking and smelling just as I’d hoped, I thanked the world for the gift of a lemon that reminded and inspired me to create.


The wildflowers are in bloom!

On Sunday afternoon I sat on a bench by a field of poppies and reread one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry:

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and goes, 
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.


Ben Howard released a new album that I (shockingly!!!!!) have not been able to take off repeat: Every time I listen to his music I think about what a gift musicians are to the world; how talented artists have the ability to make us feel and experience the world more deeply.

I read an interview he gave with Flood Magazine after the album release and one particular quote resonated with me:

“I think I’m always just looking for a little flash of inspiration rather than working on some great orchestral piece, and that kind of became what the record was—it was little fragments. I hate to use the word “vignette,” but these songs are little glimpses of life and of musical ideas. They didn’t even need to be completely finished—as long as the essence is there, it counts.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel about this blog (I am not, by the way, attempting to compare myself to a musical genius!): it’s a place where I can capture my flashes of inspiration – a poem, a wildflower, a lemon on the sidewalk – rather than trying to produce something cohesive or complete.

I’ll leave you with something else he said in the interview that I thought he articulated beautifully:

“I think that’s why I’m always reluctant to spell out every single element of a song, because feelings are supposed to change. It’s supposed to change with interpretation, and that’s one of the most interesting aspects of it all. Meaning can be quite an elusive thing. And actually, the most incredible moment is when you get presented with an image that you can’t get out of your brain, but you don’t know why.”

Happy spring, everyone! May it bring lots of wildflowers and hope.

The world is a beautiful place

I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry in AP Literature my senior year of high school. I can’t remember which of his poems we read (was it “Sometime During Eternity“? “Constantly Risking Absurdity“?); since then I’ve read his poems so many times that most of the words seem familiar.

When I moved to San Francisco I started seeing a therapist whose office was in North Beach. Every week after our session I would walk from her office to City Lights Bookstore and spend as long as I could among its shelves before walking the next few blocks to my office downtown. That was always a jarring transition: from the quiet of therapy and a bookstore to the noisy, crowded office.

For Christmas two years ago my mom got me a copy of Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems. I didn’t remember telling her about any of his poems that I loved, or all the hours I’d spent kneeling by the shelves in the cramped basement of City Lights.

I took the book with me down to Ocean Beach one day and read my favorite of his poems, “The world is a beautiful place,” by the water. It begins:

And then, later:

I read of Ferlinghetti’s death in between meetings yesterday afternoon, during a five minute break in which I was scrolling through Twitter.

In the evening, after work, I took the book of his poems and went out for a walk. I looked at everything and smelled the flowers.

Respite in the Redwoods

Last Thursday morning I went for a bike ride. The best kind of bike ride, in my opinion: one on which I take more pictures than I ride miles.

It was the first day that week the smoke had cleared enough to get outside and I can’t remember ever breathing in the morning air so heavily.

Since then, the smoke has returned, and – maybe related, I’m not sure (so many confounding factors these days!!!!) – I’ve been feeling exhausted and sad.

I’m too tired to write anything of my own but I have spent the past week doing a lot of reading. So, in appreciation for the healing powers of both nature and art, I thought I’d share some of my favorite redwood-related poems and excerpts with you all:

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

Woods are not like other spaces… They make you feel small.. like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast featureless nowhere. And they are alive.”

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods


It’s 5:18am but I get up anyway because it’s easier to start my day tired than it is to toss and turn in bed with only anxious thoughts as company. (No, wait, Thomas is also here…but he’s fast asleep and has been working so hard the last thing I want to do is wake him…)

It’s a quiet morning. The sun hasn’t yet risen but who knows if it will today. Fog and smoke and dwindling hope.


And music. Ben Howard, I think. That sounds about right.

Oh man. I dream of the days where I could cry to live music in public and not just from my couch. Imagine! And now, living less than a mile from the Greek Theatre…my heart aches.

For some reason I think of lavender and how much I love its color. I take out my pastels (ugh, I don’t have the right shades of purple!) and try to create whatever small thing I can.

It feels good to create. Rather than destroy.

Maybe one day I’ll know what I’m doing. Or maybe one day I won’t care that I don’t know what I’m doing.

One day when I have my own garden I’ll plant some lavender. Better yet – I’ll grow a whole field of lavender so that when you look out from my kitchen window all you see is a purple haze that stretches for miles and when you open the door the aroma hits you so strongly you have no choice but to feel free.

TV & Poetry

I like to think of me and Thomas’ brain cell count as a zero sum game: if he’s gaining brain cells, I have to be losing them at the same rate. For example: it’s 8pm on a Saturday evening and he is doing readings for his policy classes. Therefore, in order to balance out his brain cell gains, I must lose the same amount by binge-watching “Love Island.” I don’t make the rules.

(Look: it’s not my favorite show, but I’ve already rewatched “New Girl” twice during the pandemic and I read an entire book today so I’m not sure what else to do with my time.)

I’m feeling lighter-hearted now because it’s 6am and I’m always more optimistic in the morning, but a lot has been weighing on me the past few days. My excuse for watching “Love Island,” therefore, is the same one most would give: it’s escapist. If I can’t be outside or with friends due to a pandemic and wildfire smoke, I might as well live vicariously through the dramas of 20-something-year-olds in Las Vegas.

Most of the weight I’m experiencing is feelings of helplessness; I see my friends (not to mention the world) struggling and I feel powerless to help them. Maybe it’s the pandemic or maybe it’s just life (probably the latter) but so many of my friends are going through tough times and I want nothing more than to make their pain and anxiety and hurt go away. Maybe I feel more helpless than usual because it’s hard to physically be there for others and therefore I’m relegated to sending texts, cards, and small gifts to let them know I’m thinking of them. I sit on my couch and read (or watch “Love Island”) but no matter how hard I try to concentrate on some alternate reality my thoughts inevitably return to my friends and family.

I don’t know what to do with this pent-up energy, this frustration that I can’t flip a switch and make the problems of those I care about go away. It’s not like I had that power before – though I can probably attribute a lot of my anxiety to the fact I can’t accept that as truth – but something about being physically still and confined aggravates it. That’s probably why my most effective form of escapism (or coping mechanism, whatever you want to call it) is being outdoors and exercising. (Jury’s still out on the fine line between helpful and harmful there.)

The sun is finally rising (I think? It’s impossible to tell through the smoke) and I want to end this post with a poem I read yesterday:

I, like most others in California right now, have been dreaming of rain…

My intention for today is to keep the spirit of the rain within me: “to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root, to sink in…”

Poems from Zion

Thomas and I squeezed in a quick lil trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon over Labor Day weekend. We flew in and out of Las Vegas and managed to check just one under-40-pound suitcase for the trip (#SpiritAirlines) in which we brought some hiking clothes, a tent, and our sleeping pads, in the hopes the weather would be warm enough for us to substitute a bedsheet for our heavy and too-puffy-to-fit-in-a-suitcase sleeping bags. We spent the nights camping (fo’ free!) on the side of the road just outside the park boundary — which apparently is entirely legal in Utah (I’m so used to “no camping” California) — and the days driving and hiking and eating baguettes and chugging water because it was a zillion degrees outside and we were living in a state of perpetual sweat. Both places were prettttyyyy magical, but based on what I knew about the parks and myself going into the trip, I expected to feel that way.

Highlights from the trip included:

  • Buying a bunch of bananas at the supermarket upon arrival that we hoped would last us the next few days, only to find that after a few hours in a hot car they’d all turned black and melted in the backseat
  • Substituting river swims for showers
  • Gaming the Zion National Park shuttle bus system by jogging two miles to the third stop on the Canyon route, thus avoiding a three hour wait in the line from the Visitor’s Center to get to the start of the popular hiking trails
  • Eating multiple baguettes accompanied by avocados, peanut butter, canned tuna, and nutella, because baguettes are objectively the best camping and hiking food and can be a vessel for almost anything
  • Ice cream, which is a highlight of life in general but also does taste better when you’re living in a sauna
  • Sunrises and sunsets — again, highlights of life in general, but arguably more impressive when they’re lightning up a canyon

I brought a notebook and jotted down some poems that you can read below, after which you can decide which is worse: my prose or my poetry.


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Heat, sweat, dirt, mouth dry as the desert we drove through —
and then the foreign feel of cold,
hair heavy on my shoulders,
the evening sun painting orange ripples on the water
and the sky glowing softly, a humble mother.

The days are long, a golden road fading into the horizon,
and the water smooths the rocks underneath my feet, slowly, slowly,
covering them like a blanket as the bedside candle burns.

I am dirt and skin and soul together,
here below the sky and the stars starting to show their bright faces,
all of us, together, sheltered in the growing darkness.



Red rocks pressed up against the blue sky
Imperfect in their crooked edges but unafraid to be noticed.
Why can’t I make such a statement

Even in the dark I feel them
Standing there in the quiet but ever-present as my shadow on a summer noon.
Does anyone even know I’m here?

I don’t want to scream but I want you to listen
and know I am important and have something to say,
so that you pay attention even after the sun sets and the stars take over

I’m either noise and shame
Or quiet and heartbroken
I don’t want to live in extremes, like the red rocks pressed up against the blue sky.