Looking back at all the books I’ve read in a year is one of my favorite activities. I keep an excel spreadsheet as well as log each book in Goodreads so that my list is shareable. Sometimes it’s hard for me to recall in December what I read in January and these lists are great mental aids for when someone asks me for a book recommendation. I also think it’s a good exercise for the brain to sit down and recall not only the stories, but also how they made me feel.
Still, it’s hard to pick my favorites. I read so widely that it really is comparing apples to oranges. How do you compare a surfing memoir to a sci-fi novel? There really isn’t a fair matrix to empirically judge which is a better book. But literature isn’t about empirical data. It’s about feeling, adventure, understanding, changing the way you see the world, or giving voice to something you always felt but never had a context for. That’s the spirit in which I choose my favorite books of the year.
My Top 5 Books of 2021 in No Particular Order
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (Penguin Press, 2015)
Having grown up in a southern California beach town, surfers and surf culture have always been a part of my life. Though I surfed regularly for about a year in high school, I would never have considered myself a surfer. And William Finnegan’s memoir makes it plain why true surfers are a different breed. Beginning as a young grommet in the 60s when surfers were considered delinquents and going all the way through the present day when surfers are revered as cultural icons, Finnegan traces his development as a surfer. That development is invariably intertwined with his development as a writer and a person. His prose, like his descriptions of waves, is robust, technical, structured, yet fluid like the oceans he’s spent his life in, carrying the reader forward to a satisfying conclusion.
Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger (Mariner Books, 2018)
Elie Wiesel was not only a world-renowned humanitarian, he was a teacher whose classes pulled from religion (including his own Hassidic Jewish background) and literature and prompted his students to ask questions about life and morality, often with life changing results. Ariel Burger was one of those students and had the great privilege of being Wiesel’s teacher’s assistant for years. The experience had a profound impact on his own life and teaching. Burger uses his own notes from Wiesel’s classes, and consults with other students of Wiesel’s over the years, to bring to life the teachings of one of the Twentieth Century’s great thinkers in this moving memoir of a teacher and his student
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (Ballantine Books, 2021)
Ryland Grace wakes up alone on a spaceship (with two corpses) and can’t remember who he is or why he’s there. As he explores his surroundings, bits and pieces of his life and mission come back to him, but not before he discovers that he’s not alone. There’s another ship out there. A ship with its own sole survivor.
Andy Weir’s third novel is an absolute delight. He deftly weaves a hard-science driven plot with a heartfelt relationship at its center. Ryland Grace is the smart-aleck character we’ve come to expect from Weir, but with a twist. In a cultural climate where we currently expect the worst from people, this book gave me hope for what first contact could be, and who humanity may turn out to be too.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (Scribner, 2017)
Lisa See is one of my favorite authors. Her stories just come alive off the page with fully fleshed-out characters and thoroughly researched time periods. This particular story was especially dear to me because it takes place in recent history, history that I’ve lived through and that has touched my life: the opening of China to the West (my dad worked in China during this time and our family spent a Christmas there), the adoption of Chinese babies by westerners (A dear friend adopted two children from China), and pu’er tea (Another dear friend introduced me to this tea in 2009, the time period parts of the book take place in). The story is about a young Akha (one of many ethnic minorities in China) woman, Li’an, in Yunnan province, the home of pu’er tea, who is forced to give up her child. Akha society is fairly closed off from the world. When prospectors come searching for the special pu’er tea, the village begins to open up, and Li’an’s life prospects do too. But will she ever be reunited with the daughter she left at the orphanage?
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (Viking, 2018)
There’s a lot to love about Elaine Castillo’s brave and beautiful story of a queer Filipina woman who escapes Marcos’s rule of the Philippines to live with her uncle and his family in the Bay Area. Hero, the hero of the story, has been toughened by the trauma she has endured, as has her aunt, who is the breadwinner of the family, but there is a tenderness that plays itself out throughout Hero’s relationships in the book, from the young cousin she cares for, to the love interest that steals her heart.
The story itself is a moving portrait of an immigrant community that has little representation in American media, and Castillo makes bold and intentional authorial choices in her use of language that bring the community to life in a way that would not have been possible had she stuck to American publishing’s traditional ways of treating dialogue and non-English languages. Her characters weave in and out of English, Tagalog, Ilocano, and Pangasinan without any translation of the Filipino languages. The result is that the reader never fully understands what has been communicated, mirroring the way real Filipino families communicate. Castillo also foregoes the use of quotation marks for dialogue, the effect of which is an intimacy with the characters, as if their words are their thoughts. These two techniques combine to create a kind of lived tension between the reader and the characters, and amongst the characters themselves, of understanding without ever fully knowing.
Of course, these weren’t the only great books I read this year. Among the other twenty-nine books I read were The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Pillars of the Earth, and The Great Divorce. Take a look at the rest of the list here. I hope that you will pick up one or all of these books and tell me what you think! Happy reading!