Best Books of 2021

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Faye Watkins
Riverhead Books, October 2021. 304 pg.

Unique, strange, dark, smart. Just the type of novel I like. The main character is a writer suffering from postpartum depression who questions her writing career, her marriage and being a mother. Honest depictions of ambivalent mothers (see also: The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante) definitely divides readers.. I’m not a mother and never will be. This woman left her newborn to go to a book event. She’s not particularly interested in being married or in a monogamous relationship either. She grew up in this area outside Las Vegas so she’s revisiting past traumatic experiences. Her mother died of a drug overdose and her father was in the Manson Family. There’s a lot going on and Watkins weaves it all together brilliantly.

I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg
Ecco, January 2022. 

This  was everything I want in a memoir: relatable, honest, interesting, complicated, revealing. Jami Attenberg is one of my favorite authors and I appreciated learning more about her writing career and personal life. She’s lived in so many cool places and done lots of traveling; basically she’s done all the things I thought I’d do by my age. ⁣

Real Estate by Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury, August 2021. 224 pg.

I don’t know how I expected to have any sort of writing success when I’ve become so limited by my anxiety. I’m terribly agoraphobic.  I’ve hardly traveled. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have my own place. I barely have a room of my own to write in. I’m terribly agoraphobic. I’m envious of anyone who manages to have these things because I don’t think I ever will. Of course, that’s what’s supposed to happen as an adult, isn’t it? Booker-nominated writer Deborah Levy didn’t get recognition until she was 50. Real Estate, the third installment of the Living Autobiography series, is my favorite. It’s very journal-like in her recollection of events and chronicling her thoughts. She has a new rented writing shed in someone’s backyard.  Levy  contemplates place, ownership, independence, writing, aging, feminism. She travels to New York, Mumbai, Greece and Germany. She lives in Paris for a year on a writing fellowship. She references literature and film: May Sarton’s journals, the Bergman film Through a Glass Darkly, Little Women, Simone de Beauvoir, the television show Feud, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, Leonard Cohen. 

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, April 2021. 160 pg.

Loved this and found it very relatable. I’m so happy to read novels with main characters over 40! Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors. Lahiri wrote this in Italian and then translated it into English. The central character is single and lives alone. She teaches but remains unmotivated. She wanders-she swims, goes to a coffee shop, goes to a bookstore, goes to a museum and gets a manicure. She does things alone but has interactions and connections. Lahiri writes with an obvious appreciation for solitude.

In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom
Sourcebooks Landmark, September 2021. 405 pg.

Three Black women are linked to a wealthy and  influential white man in Stockholm. Kemi Adeyemi, a successful marketing executive, is hired by Johnny Van Lundin. Flight attendant Brittany-Rae Johnson meets Johnny on a flight and he pursues her even though she’s living with a longterm boyfriend. Muna is a refugee from Somalia who gets a job cleaning offices at Johnny’s company. They’re all navigating in a white world. Told from multiple perspectives, this novel addresses racism, classism, fetishism, tokenism. 

The Last One by Fatima Daas
Other Press, November 2021. 193 pg.

“I hate everything that has to do with the female universe as my mother presents it to me, but I haven’t realized it yet.”

⁣A very personal coming-of-age novel based on the author’s experiences as a young French lesbian and Muslim. The author uses her own name, Fatima Daas, for the central character.  The daughter of religious Algerian immigrants who consider love and sexuality taboo, Fatima struggles to justify her sexuality alongside her religious beliefs as she becomes more independent. ⁣It’s written in a unique style and reads most like a memoir. It’s difficult to know where fiction ends and reality begins. It’s an interesting way to write a novel. 

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
Atria Books, July 2021. 256 pg.

“I can’t get a pet because one day it would die, and I doubt I’d recover.”

Gilda is rather fixated on death. It’s all the 20-something can think about. She struggles with depression and anxiety. After losing her bookstore job, she wanders into a church after seeing a flier for mental health support, and winds up with a job. It’s an interesting place for her to work as she’s not too convinced about the existence of any deity. She’s found herself to be out of place most of the time. It’s thoughtful, relatable and filled with dark humor. 

Backlist titles:

Catch & Kill by Ronan Farrow
Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 608 pg.

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow recounts breaking the story on the seuxal assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. I listened to the audiobook which I don’t often do for nonfiction that’s this long and dense. Being extremely engaging and affable, Farrow tells good stories. It’s detailed and descriptive and takes you right there into the conspiracies, power and patriarchal constructs. 

Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Grove Press, 2020. 320 pg.

Grieving the death of her mother and the end of a relationship,  a struggling writer, Casey Peabody, moves to  Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lives in a garage apartment and makes ends meet waiting tables while working on a novel.She soon leaves her waitress job for a higher paying job with benefits. She’s able to see a doctor for the first time in five years. She receives several startling diagnoses. She starts dating two guys– the hot guy whose kisses make her “melt” and the older widowed writer with two children. A loan collection agency threatens to garnish her wages. As a child, she was a golf prodigy and earned a scholarship to Duke. Then she found her coach father spying on girls in the locker room. Her mother recently died of cancer and she worries about getting cancer herself. She finally finishes her book and sends it out to agents. I love books about writing and writers. I found this relatable, smart and engaging. It’s a novel about creativity, loss, persistence, independence and pursuing one’s goals.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Riverhead, 2020. 343 pg. 

“She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’d walked in a colored girl and left a white one. She had become white only because everyone thought she was.”

The Vignes sisters are identical twins. At 16, they ran away from home. Now, years later, one lives in the same Southern town they grew up in and one lives in California and passes as white. The novel covers the 1940s-1950s. It’s brilliant, provocative, insightful, riveting. Absolute perfection in addressing race, gender, identity, belonging, genetics, ancestry, nature vs. nurture and independence. The story and characters stay with you for a long time. 

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