2021 Reading List

As Year 2 of the pandemic rages on, I figured I would read more books since we are stuck at home so often.

Instead, I found myself reading less. Not really sure why. 

I set out to read at least 62 books, which would be one better than 2020. I only got through 42, but I still discovered a new author or two, continued my quest to read biographies of all presidents and managed to read authors from many different ethnicities.

I was introduced to native author Louise Erdrich and immediately read eight books by her, including nearly the entire Love Medicine series which follows a world on a made-up reservation in the Dakotas from the late 1800s to the late 1900s. I cannot recommend Erdrich enough.

2021 also saw the return of Miriam Toews (I read Fight Night this year and it is hilarious), Kazuo Ishiguro (Klara and the Sun was worth the wait) and Colson Whitehead (The Harlem Shuffle was fascinating read, if not on quite on par with Nickel Boys).

I also read novels about Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Ethiopia and Chile, while also learning about the evils of Facebook, the very complicated life of Thomas Jefferson and the new space race made up of billionaires with questionable intentions.

Without further ado, here is my top 10 books I read in 2021 in no particular order with the notes I wrote after finishing it.

  1. The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos (Feb. 1) – the first book of his USA trilogy and I can’t believe I waited this long to read it, considering the trilogy is on every best books of the 20th century list. Fascinating look at the rub between labor and capital in the run up to WWI. Can’t wait to read the next one.
  2. Memorial by Bryan Washington (Feb. 13) – oh man, what an incredible read. A stunning story featuring two gay protagonists, who come from wildly different backgrounds. So much going on in this novel and so much to think about after finishing it. This is easily one of the 10 best books I’ve read in the last year.
  3. Icebound by Andrea Pitzer (Feb. 18) – an account of William Barents’ three trips in the late 1500s trying to find a way over Russia to China, ultimately culminating in his 16-man crew being stuck on an Arctic island further north than any European had ever been. 12 eventually survived and sailed in tiny boats back to Amsterdam. Great read.
  4. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3) – we’ve been waiting 6 years for this book and it didn’t disappoint. Similar to his stunning novel Never Let Me Go, this book explores the morality of technology, robots and what ultimately makes humans unique. I can’t wait to read this again.
  5. The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (March 23) – this was a story to take your time and savor it. Really let Nguyen’s words sink in. I haven’t underlined so much in a novel in years. This brilliant sequel to The Sympathizer is stunning in its exploration of revolutions, refugees, violence, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, communism, betrayal and so much more. Can’t recommend it enough.
  6. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (May 11) – a dystopian novel that is similar to The Road, though written a decade earlier. America has completely collapsed because of climate change and people are left to survive however they can. A group of people leaves LA and begins walking, hoping to start a new future elsewhere.
  7. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (July 31) – the follow-up to the Parable of the Sower and it might be even better. It’s unreal how much this book from 1998 predicts Trump and his Christian minions selling out their religion in favor of their country. It even uses the phrase Make America Great Again. A must read.
  8. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Aug. 10) – this book is both gutting and uplifting. Beautiful, sparing prose that should have won every award under the sun. O’Farrell writes so hauntingly of the plague of death of a mother burying her only son. Add to it the dancing around of the most famous father and you have the best ending of a book I’ve read in a long time. Exquisite.
  9. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang (Sept. 13) – one of the most enlightening non-fiction books I’ve read in awhile. So much insight into how often FB put business over the country, helping lead to Trump, violence at home and abroad and extreme violations of privacy.

It can be summed up with this passage on the final page, “Throughout Facebook’s 17-year history, the social network’s massive gains have repeatedly come at the expense of consumer privacy and safety and the integrity of democratic systems.”

  1. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (Dec. 23) – this is my favorite Erdrich book by far. Just an incredibly inventive, involved story about life, love, the Catholic Church’s relationship to reservations and everything in between, including the power of forgiveness.

Here is my list of Erdrich books ranked so far. I think I have seven more novels by her to go.

  1. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
  2. Tales of Burning Love
  3. Love Medicine
  4. Four Souls
  5. The Round House
  6. Tracks
  7. The Bingo Palace
  8. The Beet Queen

The rest of my list with notes can be found below. Happy reading!

JANUARY

  1. Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz (Jan. 7) – a deep-dive into the modern day space race between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others. This book took a very difficult topic and dumbed it down so even the science-challenged like me could understand. Pretty interesting stuff.
  2. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (Jan. 9) – what a weird book. An aging novelist becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy while on vacation in Venice. I’m curious as to why it is considered such an important tale, considering its bizarre storyline.
  3. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (Jan. 11) – riveting read about the evil and violence portrayed by both white and black people in post-apartheid South Africa and how the innocents deal with it. Very quick, yet indepth read.
  4. Summer by Ali Smith (January 18) – the final book in a quartet and it might be my favorite one. Such clean writing, yet so much depth to the characters and scenes. The book explores the pandemic, WWII, Einstein, Shakespeare and more. I highly recommend this book and the entire series.
  5. Desert Exile by Yoshiko Uchida (Jan. 20) – a heartbreaking auto-biographical story of one family’s uprooting from the Bay Area to a Concentration Camp during America’s internment of her own people. A riveting book that helps open up a very dark part of our country’s history.

FEBRUARY

  1. The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos (Feb. 1) – the first book of his USA trilogy and I can’t believe I waited this long to read it, considering the trilogy is on every best books of the 20th century list. Fascinating look at the rub between labor and capital in the run up to WWI. Can’t wait to read the next one.
  2. Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (Feb. 7) – absolutely riveting tale about a dystopian future where nearly all animals are extinct. The author weaves seamlessly between timeframes showcasing a hunt for lost family, how someone learns to love and forget and through it all about how we are all migrating somewhere. 
  3. Memorial by Bryan Washington (Feb. 13) – oh man, what an incredible read. A stunning story featuring two gay protagonists, who come from wildly different backgrounds. So much going on in this novel and so much to think about after finishing it. This is easily one of the 10 best books I’ve read in the last year.
  4. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Feb. 14) – an incredibly unique book written like a TV script. Opened my eyes to not only the racism Asians face in America, but how they are treated as a lesser minority. Started as a unique read and ended so, so powerfully.
  5. Icebound by Andrea Pitzer (Feb. 18) – an account of William Barents’ three trips in the late 1500s trying to find a way over Russia to China, ultimately culminating in his 16-man crew being stuck on an Arctic island further north than any European had ever been. 12 eventually survived and sailed in tiny boats back to Amsterdam. Great read.
  6. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Feb. 21) – I can’t say I’ve read a lot of horror novels, but this was well worth it. Four men are chased down by an elk woman bent on revenge for something they did as youth. Part scary, part incredible social commentary. If you like a good murder book, check this one out.
  7. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (Feb. 28) – a book of short stories and vignettes. Some of my favorites were The Mirror, The Seventh Man, Hanalei Bay and The Kidney Stone. It wasn’t my favorite short-stories book of his, but was still enjoyable.

MARCH

  1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3) – we’ve been waiting 6 years for this book and it didn’t disappoint. Similar to his stunning novel Never Let Me Go, this book explores the morality of technology, robots and what ultimately makes humans unique. I can’t wait to read this again.
  2. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (March 5) – captivating book about a man who survived 27 years in the woods in Maine with no human contact. A riveting read that explores isolation, hermits throughout history and what we owe society.
  3. The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (March 23) – this was a story to take your time and savor it. Really let Nguyen’s words sink in. I haven’t underlined so much in a novel in years. This brilliant sequel to The Sympathizer is stunning in its exploration of revolutions, refugees, violence, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, communism, betrayal and so much more. Can’t recommend it enough.

APRIL

  1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (April 9) – really interesting novel about a Pakastani man who goes to Princeton and joins corporate America right before Sept. 11. It tells the story of his eventual disillusionment of America and how it treats the rest of the world. Fascinating book.
  2. Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (April 19) – so much to process after finishing this book. A tale of a boy who is raised not by his father but a mysterious man. The father and boy reconnect for a final journey as the dad died of liver disease, sharing his life’s journey while on the trail. A stunning work, by one of my favorite authors.
  3. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (April 29) – a riveting story about losses experienced by women of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic levels on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Two young girls are kidnapped and the story then follows the lives of women for the next year. The book ends with a devastating twist.

MAY

  1. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (May 4) – a heavy, lengthy read that is different than her Pulitzer-winning Warmth of Other Suns, but just as important. This book explores the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany and shows without a doubt that America has a caste system. A very important book that I encourage everyone, especially white people, to read.
  2. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (May 11) – a dystopian novel that is similar to The Road, though written a decade earlier. America has completely collapsed because of climate change and people are left to survive however they can. A group of people leaves LA and begins walking, hoping to start a new future elsewhere.
  3. The Fifth Dimension by N.K. Jemisin (May 27) – not sure I’ve ever read a fantasy novel that didn’t center on medieval times, but this was worth sticking with to learn the story’s world. Really, really great storytelling with multiple holy crap moments in the final 100 pages. Can’t wait for the rest of the trilogy.

JUNE

  1. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (June 4) – it’s been awhile since I read a series straight through, but these books are good enough — and confusing enough — that I figured why not. Book 2 lived up to its predecessor right up to not knowing who the narrator was until nearly the end. Very fascinating world that Jemisin has created. Can’t wait to dive into Book 3!
  2. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (June 7) – what an incredible read! The way the story arc wraps up is amazing. A brilliant ending to a trilogy steeped in magic, yet also a parallel to our current time in regards to climate change, caste systems and systemic racism. Extraordinary books.

JULY

  1. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham (July 6) – an insightful and relatively easy read that was at once to broad brush on both his political life and his incredible moral failings. Certainly worth a read, but should not be the only book one reads about Jefferson. 
  2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (July 13) – an incredible read that stays true to the history of Greece’s best fighter while also imagining an entire life for him to lead. Really brings the battle for Helen to new life. Can’t recommend enough.
  3. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (July 31) – the follow-up to the Parable of the Sower and it might be even better. It’s unreal how much this book from 1998 predicts Trump and his Christian minions selling out their religion in favor of their country. It even uses the phrase Make America Great Again. A must read.

AUGUST

  1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Aug. 10) – this book is both gutting and uplifting. Beautiful, sparing prose that should have won every award under the sun. O’Farrell writes so hauntingly of the plague of death of a mother burying her only son. Add to it the dancing around of the most famous father and you have the best ending of a book I’ve read in a long time. Exquisite.
  2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Aug. 11) – after reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, I figured I should reread Hamlet. O’Farrell’s imagining of the backstory behind the writing of Hamlet, made the ancient play an even better read. 
  3. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Aug. 15) – this is the first Erdrich book I’ve read and I’m wondering how that is possible. A story about what binds a family together and what can so easily tear it apart. It also shines a light on the continued injustices committed against the indigenous community.
  4. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Aug. 27) – a horrifying, brutal tale of the second Italian invasion and war in Ethiopia. A remembrance of the women soldiers who helped force the Italians out of Africa and have mainly been forgotten by history.

SEPTEMBER

  1. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang (Sept. 13) – one of the most enlightening non-fiction books I’ve read in awhile. So much insight into how often FB put business over the country, helping lead to Trump, violence at home and abroad and extreme violations of privacy.

It can be summed up with this passage on the final page, “Throughout Facebook’s 17-year history, the social network’s massive gains have repeatedly come at the expense of consumer privacy and safety and the integrity of democratic systems.”

  1. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (Sept. 20) – an East of Eden-esque story following three generations of two families tied together by Native blood, marriage, adulterous relationships and more. Each chapter follows a different character and leaves you wanting more from their world.
  2. The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich (Sept. 24) – the second book in the Love Medicine series. It was a very quick read and offered some interesting characters, but they were less redeeming than the characters in the first book of the series. Still, a good look at life on the Plains throughout the 20th century.
  3. Tracks by Louise Erdrich (Sept. 26) – So many twists and turns and surprises in this book. It is so interesting and Erdrich’s world building is top notch. Add in the insight into Native Americans and her ability to explore relationships, families and the Catholic Church and you have a master at work.

OCTOBER

  1. The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich (Oct. 3) – the fourth book of the Love Medicine series and one of the best. Erdrich is masterful in her ability to mix modern day Indigenous Peoples life with the history and lore of her ancestors.
  2. Fight Night by Miriam Toews (Oct. 20) – I had no idea Toews could be so uproariously funny. This book ranks right up there with Women Talking in its deeper meaning. Just an incredible exploration of what it means to be human and the battles we all fight within ourselves. 

NOVEMBER

  1. Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich (Nov. 4) – a slow burn that became a wildfire the last 200 pages. Her best book I’ve read so far. The depth of the characters, the ties to the series and the description of relationships throughout make this a must read.
  2. Normal People by Sally Rooney (Nov. 6) – strange, but quick read. At times it felt like Marianne and Connell were clones from Never Let Me Go but didn’t realize it. Some very sharp commentary, but overall not sure it’s anything better than just a quick read.
  3. The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez translated by Natasha Wimmer (Nov. 9) – a haunting work of historical fiction painting a vivid picture of what life under Pinochet and his police was like in Chile. The book explores how the deeds of violent police can reverberate for many, many years.
  4. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Nov. 27) – a crime thriller about Harlem in the late 50s and early 60s. Not only a quick read, but an interesting commentary on family, community, capitalism and how so-called civilized society leaves so many people behind.

DECEMBER

  1. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (Dec. 23) – this is my favorite Erdrich book by far. Just an incredibly inventive, involved story about life, love, the Catholic Church’s relationship to reservations and everything in between, including the power of forgiveness.
  2. Four Souls by Louise Erdrich (Dec. 28) – a compact novel about one of the most interesting characters in Erdrich’s world, Fleur Pillager. From abandonment to revenge to the emptiness of what follows, this is a fantastic read.

– Craig Craker

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