Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Favorite Reads, 2021

The year is drawing to a close and as I look back over my reading for the year, I realize I’ve fallen short of my goals. But it’s for good reasons. In 2021, I was fortunate to have an increased amount of editing work, which means I was reading future books rather than those already on the shelves. Also, I read a fair amount of student papers, and even started writing another novel. I’m grateful for all of these aspects of my reading and writing life! In the tradition of this blog, here are the stats for the year.

In 2021, I read 28 books—down from 44 in 2020 and 30 in 2019. This year’s leisure reading included 14 novels, 1 short story collection, 6 memoirs and 7 graphic novels. The graphic novels are, of course, novels, but I distinguish them as a separate category this year so I can give the format a little plug here. My typical procedure for my end-of-year list is to choose my five-star reads and this year, there were only six. In no particular order:

Echoland by Per Petterson (1989)

Per Petterson is one of my favorite authors, and I was surprised to find a novel of his on my shelf that I hadn’t read. The international, translated version of Echoland was released in 2016, but the novel was originally published in Norwegian in 1989. Petterson’s writing, for me, evokes a depth of feeling similar to the work of other favorites—Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson—a quality that is difficult to explain. He quietly presents everyday moments in their resplendent glory. Haruf called it “the precious ordinary.” These writers strike a chord for me, some universal understanding about life’s struggles and joys and questions. Echoland didn’t disappoint. A coming-of-age story, the novel follows Arvid, a 12-year-old on holiday in Denmark. Arvid has the energy and observational skills of young adulthood, and a fair amount of unbridled longing—for answers, for adventure, for autonomy. There’s a strain of grief in his family, and Arvid is awakening as a sexual being as well. And Petterson creates a mood of apprehension and expectation that brings the reader right along. It’s a remarkable novel.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) 

This National Book Award finalist by one of our great American masters is considered by some to be one of the best ghost stories—if not the best—written in the 20th century. Adaptations abound, such as the 2018 Netflix series. The novel involves the named house, and four main characters who have arrived to investigate the paranormal activities within. Reportedly, Jackson was inspired after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers.” The resulting novel is about the house, but it’s really about the four characters and their pasts, motivations, and relationships. And it’s a spooky read, one that evokes a mood you won’t soon forget. I read this novel for my Summer of Houses project, and wrote more about it here.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)

I had many thoughts when I finished this new novel by the acclaimed author of one of my favorite, all-time novels, The Remains of the Day, but the main one was simple: How did he do that? And by “that,” I mean, how did Ishiguro manage to write an entire novel from the point of view of an “Artificial Friend”—an unique and objective persona on the outskirts of human feeling and insight, and yet, manage to keep this reader enthralled and entirely engaged? The novel begins in a store, where Klara and the other AFs await purchase by a family. As she interacts with humans, Klara’s innocence and moldability act as a mirror in which humanity’s foibles and strengths materialize. The novel raises existential questions: what does it mean to be human, to love, to lose ourselves? What are the best parts of being human, and the worst? And it does all of this while presenting a plot with twists and turns. I’ll think about this book for a long, long time, and how it reflects and interacts with Ishiguro’s other books.

Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan by Deborah Reed (2020)

The more I think about that Petterson novel, the more I realize I probably left it on my To-Read stack on purpose, waiting for a calm period of time when I could fully enjoy and absorb it. The same is true for this novel by Deborah Reed, which I purchased as soon as it came out but waited for the right time to read. The author and I have been acquainted for some years; early on, we bonded over our mutual love of Haruf, Petterson, Robinson, and her writing, for me, lives in the same realm and always touches me on some visceral level. This novel presents Violet Swan, a ninety-three-year-old artist in the last chapter of her life. She lives quietly on the second floor above her only son and his wife, painting abstract, colorful versions of comfort and calm. But a storm is brewing inside Violet, and the arrival of her beloved grandson sets in motion a string of events and the unearthing of memories she has kept hidden most of her life. It’s a stirring novel, full of soul and purpose and what Ms. Reed’s writing always means to me—that nurturing of an innate recognition of the feelings and complexity of our lives. This story and these characters are expertly drawn and continue to walk around in some corner of my mind.

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (2020)

Almost American Girl is a memoir that begins with the teen Robin, whose life in Seoul, Korea, is disrupted when her mother announces a move to America. She leaves her friends and life behind, abruptly dropped into a place where she doesn’t speak the language or know the customs. Her relationship with her mother ruptures and she’s cut off from the world of comics she enjoyed in Korea. Robin’s story echoes the struggles many immigrants face, and it makes insightful observations about identity, gender expectations, and the power of artistic expression. Ha wrote and illustrated the book in muted colors that reflect her experiences, both in Korea and her new home, and the confusion of arriving in a foreign place and trying to make connections. If you haven’t dipped your toe into graphic/illustrated books yet, this would be a great place to start.

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds (2020)

Will is a teenager who’s just lost his older brother, Shawn, to what appears to be a gang shooting. Boys and young men in Will's neighborhood are taught three rules: No crying, no snitching, and always get revenge. So Will grabs a gun and sets out to avenge his brother’s death. Long Way Down takes place during the elevator ride in Will’s building; at each floor, he’s visited by the ghosts of men lost to gun violence. As they tell their stories and advise Will, he goes through a rollercoaster of emotions as he decides whether to live by the rules or not. This graphic novel version is an adaptation of Reynold’s 2017 award-winning book of the same name, and it’s truly enhanced by Danica Novgorodoff’s illustrations. She presents watercolor images that bleed through panes and create an eerie, memorable effect. Another highly recommended entry to the world of graphic novels, if you’re interested.

And speaking of graphic novels, here are some more recommendations. I read mostly in the YA and Middle Grade categories, because of the Children’s Literature class I teach, but I’m looking to expand more into adult offerings in the new year.


The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (2020)

Tien communicates with his Vietnamese immigrant mother through the fairy tales they read together. She struggles with English, and he struggles with coming out. This beautifully illustrated novel is touching and lyrical, a true reading experience.


Daytripper by Fabio Moon (2011)

This unique book presents several versions of the life of Bras de Olivias Deominguez, and several versions of his death. Each chapter starts at a different point of his life, demonstrating life’s possibilities, joys and sorrows, and in the end, the tenuousness of existence itself. Uniquely, brilliantly illustrated.


American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2008)

A ground-breaking, acclaimed book that reads like a modern fable. Three distinct characters come together in unexpected ways in this novel that touches on Chinese history, immigration, and self-realization.



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