Best Books 2021
American Lit,  Book lists,  Classics,  Informational,  Magical Realism,  Non-Fiction,  Short Stories

Best Books of 2021

I’ve been quietly obsessed with Goodreads since I was in college. It’s a lovely way to keep track of every book I read and re-read. Last year, I pledged to read 30 books by the end of the year but have cashed in at a whopping 52. Considering some were short stories and I am a literal literature teacher, it’s not actually that big of an accomplishment. I get paid to read.

Before moving ahead to my 2022 to-read list, here are some of my highlights from the last year:

Best Book of International Literature

The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka

I didn’t know what to expect picking up Manicka’s novel. I stumbled upon it in my Ph.D. quest to find a piece of Post-Colonial fiction from Malaysia with “Gothic elements” in it. It did not disappoint. I’d describe this as a Malaysian “100 Years of Solitude.” It’s centered around the family matriarch, an immigrant woman from Sri Lanka, and how her family copes with various forms of trauma and struggle in their adopted home of former British colony “Malaya.”

While the writing is beautiful and the generational links and struggles captivating, a fair warning that this isn’t an easy read. It takes the family through the horrors of the Japanese occupation; while the story may be “fictional,” many of the tales are based on true events. They are hard to sit through.

What I loved most about the story was how it weaved the supernatural with the real, giving the entire novel a feeling of being alive and mysterious. Plus, it’s a wonderful way to plunge into the diverse writers of Malaysia.

Best Re-Read

The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw

I actually re-read quite a few novels this year so it was difficult to choose just one for this category. I landed on Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory because this re-read, far more than any of the others, has shown just how much I’ve grown in my two years in Malaysia.

I picked this book up completely at random in February 2020 at a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur with no clue how long I would be staying or what the novel was about. I read it during those early Covid days in March 2020 and fell in love. I can’t quite completely find the words for this, but reading the novel I just felt something click. This is around the time I decided to give up my apartment in Beijing and started looking for ways to stay in Malaysia long-term.

The story is told from three perspectives and centers around a Chinese laborer–Johnny Lim– in Malaysia nearly the end of British Colonial rule and on the eve of WWII and the Japanese occupation. What is interesting about the narration is that Johnny never gets to tell his own story and many of the details of the three narrators contradict each other. By the end, while we know much more, we still aren’t quite sure what is fact and what is fiction. It’s an interesting exploration of the unreliability of history.

On my second read, I feel much more in tune with many of the subtleties in this book– the mention of specific Asian ghosts, Kellie’s Castle, the history of racial and class relations in this country.

In a lot of ways, this book has inspired me to commit to Malaysia and sparked my desire to apply for a Ph.D. So the re-read was quite sentimental.

Best Non-Fiction

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Once again, this was a tough one and there were “more unique” books on my list to offer. However, I did really enjoy Clear’s exploration of the power of building habits. I have quite the list of 2022 New Year’s Resolutions and I have been considering his advice quite seriously as I embark on goal-setting and sticking to said goals.

One of my favorite pieces of advice is to set very small, sustainable targets to accomplish each day. Instead of trying to write 1000 words every day for a month, just write 200. Instead of trying to take an amazing photo every day, just hold yourself accountable to going outside and taking photos for thirty minutes each day, even if the quality isn’t good.

There’s obviously a lot more in there about habitat stacking and the importance of convenience as well as other pop-psychology tricks.

This isn’t anything revolutionary or mind-bending, but just solid advice.

Best Memoir

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

To be completely honest, I read a lot of great memoirs this year and I’m not actually sure this is my favorite. Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is still one of my all-time favorite books but since it was a re-read, I’ve decided to go for Gottlieb’s memoir of going to therapy after her breakup as a therapist.

While her own journey for recovery was good, what I really loved were the stories from her own patients. It was interesting hearing how she offered them advice and gave insights into their own suffering and coping mechanisms.

2021 was absolutely a year of re-examination for me so this book felt fitting. It validated a lot of how I am trying to be more intentional with my words/actions and less avoidant of difficult conversations and conflicts.

Plus, I read the entire thing so fast. I really couldn’t put it down. I might have cried while eating tacos and drinking a (very strong) pina colada in Mexico. Might have…

Best Young Adult

Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar

Ok, here is another re-read but technically the last time I read this was back in 1998 when I was in the third grade. I re-read this entire series with one of my younger students from China and it was amazing! We would often have to pause reading because she would be laughing so hard (and that would make me laugh, of course)! Honestly, I felt. I really bonded with my student over this book and she really seemed to enjoy reading it together.

These books are totally silly and zany but also quite cute and clever. The entire series is about a classroom on a school that was built sideways (so instead of a one-story building with thirty classrooms, it is a thirty-story building each with one classroom per floor).

The students and teachers are consistently outrageous and you never quite know what is going to happen next.

The best part of all of this is that, back in the 90s, there were only three books in the series. But then I found out the author wrote a fourth book which was released in 2020! It was a 20+ year wait, but well worth it. Anyone with elementary-aged kids should definitely read these!

Best Poetry

Salt by Nayyirah Waheed

I picked this book up a bit randomly at a friend’s house over the summer and read the entire thing in one sitting. I won’t lie, it made me cry.

A lot of these poems are only a few lines long. Maybe that is what is so brilliant–Waheed has packed a lifetime of emotions until just a few words.

Many of the poems are about healing, strength, and the immigrant experience.

An easy, but moving, read.

Best Surprise

All The Names They Used For God by Anjali Sachdeva

I still cannot remember how or why I picked this book up at the library. I think it was recommended to me on Goodreads and I liked the title. But, more than any book I read this summer, this one blindsided me and has stuck with me.

This is actually a series of short stories, and it seems each story is even more powerful than the last. I didn’t love the first two, but there are some stories I still think about on a regular basis. Sachdeva is a master at haunting her readers. None of the stories were particularly depressing or horrific, they have just lingered. Some of them just sit differently on you, needing to be processed and reprocessed over months.

Each story weaves together elements of magic, fate, and the divine and they suck you in.

Beautiful. Everyone should add this to their 2022 To-Read Lists.

Here’s to a happy year of reading, and more great books to explore in 2022!