2021: The Year in Reading

Photo Credit: Susan Q Yin for Unsplash

(Previous years: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, which has 2015 copied at the end)

I’m writing this post a little later into January than I usually do, and in part it’s because I spent my winter break sick and cranky (not Covid) but also because I’m not sure what to say this time around. I’m not sure how to synthesize 2021 into coherence in my brain, and when I look at the list of books on my Notes app, I have to google the titles to jog my memory. (2022 resolution: write down the title of the book AND the name of the author).

I think my reading is in a rut. I read a lot of great books and enjoyed them, highly recommend many of them. But I was reaching for the same old things, and a lot of them run together. I’d like 2022 to be different (understatement of the last two years) but do not have the energy for, like, a capital P Project. Still if you want to recommend a book from a period or genre that doesn’t usually appear on my lists, I would love to consider it!

Anyway, here’s the list, with snippets of reactions as I can recall them. As usual, there’s a lot of NPR’s “Books We Love” influence here, along with a my special interests: plagues, birds, and this year, gymnastics.

  1. We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper. True crime-ish, I was very into the setting and period (Harvard in the 60s) but it didn’t really come alive for me and I didn’t love the author’s role in the narrative.

2. Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght. Loved this — searching for owls in Russian forests, part bird book part travelogue.

3. Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. I really like Kolker’s work (including the Twitter-breaking “Bad Art Friend”) and this was a gut-wrenching and informative read about a family dealing with mental illness in several of their many children.

4. Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah. Fictionalized story of the group transporting David Livingstone’s corpse across the continent. Might write about it if that were still my job, but without the deep dive it didn’t really stick with me.

5. The Searcher by Tana French. Please go back to the Dublin Murder Squad, this was fine but not my favorite.

6. Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. Two white guys drive across America looking for birds.

7. Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Picked this up from a Free Library after a friend recommended Boyle, and really enjoyed the story of hippie kids trying to set up camp in the Alaskan wilderness.

8. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Science, faith, family. Doesn’t quite have the impact of Homegoing, but might be more readable and intimate.

9. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Chose it for the Philly setting, did not regret it.

10. Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski. I remember flashes of this…queer coming of age in a European forest.

11. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. One of those “I can’t believe I haven’t read this before” books.

12. Birders: Tales of a Tribe by Mark Cocker. I wanted more snarking on birders.

13. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I know other people loved this book, I think maybe gothic fiction is not my jam.

14. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Reread this so I could teach it in my summer course, and am having a hard time capturing how much this book dazzles me. Like, I had ecstasies on reading certain sentences and paragraphs, which is an uncommon reaction for me. I suspect some readers find Hamid a bit too precious with his plotting and style, but I am so here for it.

15. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Maybe Mandel crosses my personal “too precious” line? But I am eager to check out the HBO adaptation of Station Eleven.

16. The Institute by Stephen King. I have now read two Stephen King books, so there are only a million more to go, right?

17. Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker. This one had great propulsion as the author tries to break the Big Year record, which is fun to read even if it’s not the kind of thing I could ever dream of doing, or care to do.

18. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. Haunting and rich. My quick blurbs can’t do this one justice so I won’t try.

19. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. Whoops I’m reading plague books again. Maybe avoid this one while pregnant.

20. Chalked Up by Jennifer Sey. Decided to go all in on gymnastics tell-alls after this year’s Olympics.

21. Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman. Necessary retelling of ACT UP’s work at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US. What Schulman does with oral history here is incredibly powerful.

22. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner that is literally about finch beaks, I dug it but probably has a self-selecting audience.

23. The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths. Love Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books: bogs, bones, awkward interpersonal stuff.

24. The Less Dead by Denise Mina. Just googled this book and do not remember it, but I will keep reading Denise Mina.

25. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. Do you want to burn with rage at the architects of the opioid epidemic? This is the book for you.

26. Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge. The story of a young Black girl with a mother who’s a physician in Brooklyn in the nineteenth century. Vivid and fresh.

27. The Plague Year by Lawrence Wright. Bah. Entering year three, this does not age well.

28. The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse. Creepy stuff happens in a creepy hotel.

29. The Home Place, by J. Drew Lanham. A Black birder’s meditations on his land and life, works well as a series of essays to dip into when you want to ground yourself in the natural world a bit.

30. Seven Days in June by Tia William. I’ve seen this listed as a romance, but I wouldn’t call it that. Which is not shade to romance novels, I probably read 50 of them this year. But what Williams is doing is a little different, and I enjoyed it.

31. The Turnout by Meg Abbott. Meg Abbott and Tana French occupy the same space in my mental bookshelf, which is: I will always read their new work, and if it doesn’t quite live up to their early work, that’s ok. This one is about sisters who run a ballet school and an ill-fated Nutcracker season.

32. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Creepy-fun social horror set in the publishing world.

33. Of a Feather by Scott Weidensaul. A history of American birding, if that’s your thing, it is my thing.

34. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Books. Another plague book, this time actually the plague i.e. the Black Death. More fun than it sounds!

35. Matrix by Lauren Groff. Along with The Glass Hotel, a book written by an author I’ve been in the same room with! Plunges you into a Dark Ages nunnery, more fun than it sounds.

36. The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths. Not a bird book! Another Ruth Galloway mystery, take me to the bogs.

37. Pilgrim’s Way by Abdulrazak Gurnah. After years of waiting for the Nobel in literature to go to an East African author, it goes to one I’ve never read? Horrible cringe! I am rectifying myself. This was more readable and intimate than I expected.

38. Zorrie by Laird Hunt. I’m annoyed that this stark interior portrait of a lonely midwestern woman was written by a man, but there it is. If you read Radium Girls, you’ll see some connections here.

39. Still Life by Louise Penny. OK, here goes. Many of my best reader friends love this series, but I struggled to finish this and won’t be reading any others. The fatphobia just leapt off the page at me. So many characters described by their body size, and the larger they were the more grotesque the descriptions. I just don’t need that in my life. I’m bummed, because I was so excited to have a long juicy series in front of me. Are women writers of this particular generation ok? Cause Penny is not the only one with this problem.

40. The English Teacher by Lily King. Novels about angsty privileged white poeple are plenty, and typically I avoid them, but Lily King got to me. I loved Euphoria a few years back, and this story of a spiraling single mother who teaches at a preppy boarding school was hard to put down.

41. Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford. This memoir of a Black girl growing up in Indiana is on a lot of “best of” lists, and for good reason. I’ve been following Ford on social media for years, and her voice is so refreshing and down-to-earth. Happy to see this book get published to such acclaim.

42. Writers and Lovers by Lily King. More angsty privileged white people, and this time they’re writers! How is this not the most annoying book in the world? I enjoyed it.

43. Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. If you are a jaded evangelical who’s been listening to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, I recommend spending your time with this book instead. Stunning social history of evangelicals that shows how Donald Trump was not the exception but the full expression of the darker tendencies of contemporary white Christianity.

44. Off Balance by Dominique Moceanu. More gymnastics tell-alls!

45. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue. Totally different than her first book, Behold the Dreamers. About a West African community fighting back against a petrol company poisoning the landscape, with some unexpected detours.

46. Any Way the Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell. I had a hard time keeping track of the many threads of this faux-fan-fiction turned canon queer Harry Potter-esque trilogy capper caper. But I will keep reading Rainbow Rowell.

47. Love, by Toni Morrison. I almost forgot to read my annual Toni Morrison novel, but I was sitting by my bookshelf in the last week of December and saw this one hiding there. As always, a rich delight.

48. The Feather Quest by Pete Dunn. One last bird book. Although the most memorable part of this book was when he describes having a meal in a diner with his wife, and noting that while he ordered bacon and eggs, she made “the healthy choice” of a stack of pancakes. The book was published in 1992, which just goes to show you how wacky and ephemeral our notions of health are.




Writer, reader, educator, sometimes tour guide.

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Nicole Cesare

Nicole Cesare

Writer, reader, educator, sometimes tour guide.

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