I HAD PRETTY much finished compiling this list of my favorite books of the year when I started listening to Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, The Sentence. I didn’t think I’d finish it before the end of the year, so I didn’t include it. But finish it I did (it was so good I couldn’t put it down), and I just had to place it at the top of my fiction list.
All the top-10 books are audio books. That is how I do most of my book-reading these days. I’m a very slow reader and, besides, at my age, every time I sit down to read, I am overcome with a great desire to close my eyes and sleep. Audio books, on the other hand, I can listen to almost anywhere – while cooking and doing other household chores, while at the gym or walking, and while driving.
Altogether, I listened to 39 books in 2021. I read four. Several, like Bless Me Ultima, were books I’d read before but felt an urge to read them again.
The top-10 list’s authors include three Latinos/Latinas; one native American; three African-Americans; one Asian-American; one Anglo-American and one Italian. Four female writers and six males.
For non-fiction, Conroe native Annette Gordon-Reed was at the very top. That list (of five) includes two African-American women, one native American woman, one African-American male and one Anglo male.
The worst book I read in 2021? A Saint from Texas by Edmund White. White was for many years one of my favorite gay writers and I looked forward to his new novels. But his last two left a lot to be desired and Saint was just downright awful.
Here’s my top-ten fiction books, followed by my top-five non-fiction books. (Unless otherwise stated, the descriptions of these books are from Goodreads (online).
- The Sentence Louise Erdrich
“Who among us hasn’t, in some sense, stolen a corpse and accidentally trafficked crack cocaine across state lines? That is a question you will ponder while reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence,” a bewitching novel that begins with a crime that would seem to defy “relatability” but becomes a practical metaphor for whatever moral felonies lurk unresolved in your guilty heart. … A strange, enchanting and funny: a work about motherhood, doom, regret and the magic — dark, benevolent and every shade in between — of words on paper.” – New York Times
- The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
“This sweeping, brilliant and beautiful narrative is at once a love song to Black girlhood, family, history, joy, pain…and so much more. In Jeffers’ deft hands, the story of race and love in America becomes the great American novel.” —Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone and Another Brooklyn
- Memorial Bryan Washington
A funny, sexy, profound dramedy about two young people at a crossroads in their relationship and the limits of love. Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher, and they’ve been together for a few years – good years – but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple.
- Crossroads Jonathan Franzen
Franzen’s novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and for their keen-eyed take on contemporary America. Now he ventures back into the past and explores the history of two generations. With characteristic humor and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that resonates powerfully with our own.
- The Five Wounds Kirstin Valdez Quade
From an award-winning New Mexico-born storyteller comes a stunning debut novel about a New Mexican family’s extraordinary year of love and sacrifice. As satisfying as her earlier short story collection, Night of the Fiestas.
- Afterparties Anthony Veasna So
Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans.
- Gordo Jaime Cortez
The first collection of short stories by Jaime Cortez, it is set in a migrant workers camp near Watsonville, California in the 1970s. A young, probably gay, boy named Gordo puts on a wrestler’s mask and throws fists with a boy in the neighborhood, fighting his own tears as he tries to grow into the idea of manhood so imposed on him by his father.
- The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrente
Ferrante’s most compelling and perceptive meditation on womanhood and motherhood yet (translated from Italian).
- The Prophets Robert Jones Jr.
A novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.
- Monkey Boy Francisco Goldman
A sweeping story about the impact of divided identity – whether Jewish/Catholic, white/brown, native/expat – and one misfit’s quest to heal his damaged past and find love.
- On Juneteenth Annette Gordon-Reed
Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, this book provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African Americans have endured in the century since.
- Bad Indians: A Memoir Deborah A. Miranda
This book leads readers through a troubled past using the author’s family circle as a touch point and resource for discovery. Personal and strong, these stories present an evocative new view of the shaping of California and the lives of Indians during the Mission period in California.
- Memorial Drive, A Daughter’s Memoir Natasha Trethaway
At 19, Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.
- A Promised Land Barrack Obama
The first installment of the former president’s White House memoir.
- A Carnival of Snackery David Sedaris
Sedaris being Sedaris
Here’s the rest of the fiction books I read:
Martita, I Remember You Sandra Cisneros
Afterlife Julia Alvarez
The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafón
La Sombra del Viento Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Remember Me Mario Escobar
House Made of Dawn N. Scott Momaday
The Prisoner of Heaven Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Short Stories of Ernest Hemmingway Ernest Hemmingway
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
The Angel’s Game Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Bless Me, Ultima* Rudolfo Anaya
Songs for the Flames Juan Gabriel Vasquez
News of the World Paulette Jiles
Cathedral of the Sea Ildefonso Falcones
Give My Love to the Savages Chris Struck
The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You Maurice Arles Ruffin
La Tregua Mario Benedetto
A Star is Bored Byron Lane
Less Andrew Sean Greer
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter Erika L. Sanchez
A Saint from Texas Edmund White
A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemmingway
Horizontal Vertigo (Essays on Mexico City) Juan Villoro
The Best of Me David Sedaris