We did it, y’all.
Another trek around the star that could’ve melted our mettle but didn’t. We’re here for the party tonight because we kept showing up—for the work before and within us, even as the world spun out around us. Our center held, as it always does. Hallelujah.
My gift to you this New Year’s Eve is a list of 25 books, curated from more than 100, that helped me show up in 2021 when I wanted to shut down. If I could wrap the titles in, say, a pretty Anthropologie box and deliver it to your front door, I…probably wouldn’t because I’m an introvert.
But if I did, it would be beautiful.
And the card attached would say:
Thank you for being a friend,
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She was the girl who survived the ‘Nothing Man.’ Now she is the woman who is going to catch him.
This true crime book within a book is the most original, gripping, well-executed thriller I have ever read. Every page has a purpose; every character offers a compelling point of view. I could gush about it for pages, but I don’t dare ruin it for you.
Get your hands on it as soon as you can. Double check the locks on your house once you do.
Most Likely to Hug at the End
The People We Keep secured a spot on this year’s list for its young protagonist, April, and the found family she collects on her way to adulthood. I wanted to protect April, root for her, and help her get back home.
A book to hug if there ever was one, The People We Keep is a must add to your 2022 TBR.
I have to send you straight to the publisher’s description and reviews because, try as I might, I can’t wrap words around this reading (and listening) experience, the most unique I had all year. As she did in 2017 with This is How it Always Is, Laurie Frankel has given us a gift in Mab, Monday, and Mirabel, three incredible, unforgettable narrators.
You just have to meet them.
There are books you read, and there are books that change your life. This Naked Mind is the latter for me. In wrapping my mind around the psychological and neurological realities of what alcohol actually does to my body, I slowly but surely came to know it as a poison, not a partner, in my life. A must-read for every drinker.
“While tradition, advertising, and societal norms condition our unconscious to believe that alcohol is beneficial, Liminal Thinking and the material in this book will expose that unconscious conditioning and recondition your unconscious, exposing alcohol and giving you freedom.”
Best Young Adult
This believable, feel-good YA rom-com about a 16-year-old navigating identity, friendship and her first job goes down easy and steers clear of the angst and sexy time most YA novels veer toward. It’s fun, heartwarming and I would hand it, without reservation, to any of my three teenagers (provided they read more than their phones which, at present, they don’t).
“But as my mom likes to say, ‘no’ is the end of a conversation, not the start of negotiations.”
Most Memorable Protagonist
We Begin at the End makes this list for its unforgettable characters, namely a 13-year-old spitfire and self-proclaimed outlaw, Duchess Day Radley. This protagonist, you guys. She’ll do anything to protect her five-year-old brother. You have to meet her. Have to. She’s so incredible that readers are comparing her to the Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird.
Fans Stranger Things will recognize and appreciate the Hopper/Eleven vibe that exists between Dutchess and the town’s chief of police, Walk, another brilliantly drawn soul who you need in your life.
“Hope is secular. And life is fragile. And sometimes we hold on too tight, even though we know it’ll break.”
Best Backlist (2016) Romance
The five-star reading experience I didn’t see coming. This brave, intense, and compulsively readable story has deeply flawed characters you can root for as they try, fail, and try again to disrupt familiar, painful patterns they’ve acquiesced to all their lives. Be sure to stay for the author’s note at the end.
Trigger warnings here for domestic abuse, some racy scenes, and fractured family-of-origin relationships.
A quiet novel about a mother and her teenage sons–who she aptly refers to as “the wolves.” Susan captures the nuance of this delicate season of parenting in ways that hit close to home, not just for mothers like me in the throes of it, but for the ones who’ve been there or will one day be.
“He’s sixteen and gangly, with poking collarbones like little car door handles. He wants to be a professional basketball player, but will settle for rock musician. His face has grown long and gaunt, so he doesn’t look like himself but the person he’s in the process of becoming. I tell myself it’s a beautiful face. It’s important to tell myself that many things about teenage boys are beautiful so I don’t panic.”
“Reading Project Hail Mary is like going on a field trip to outer space with the best science teacher you’ve ever had—and your class assignment is to save the world.”
– Ernest Cline
I don’t even need a whole hand to count how many sci-fi books I’ve read as an adult; I’m too much of a realist to go near them very often. After hearing Project Hail Mary, Weir’s follow-up to The Martian, contains as much heart and humor as it does science, I decided to pick it up and finish it no matter what. Thankfully it’s as entertaining and endearing as everyone says. I loved it.
Most Highlighted Lines
From the publisher: “Kate Bowler believed that life was a series of unlimited choices, until she discovered, at age 35, that her body was wracked with cancer. In No Cure for Being Human, she searches for a way forward as she mines the wisdom (and absurdity) of today’s ‘best life now’ advice industry, which insists on exhausting positivity and on trying to convince us that we can out-eat, out-learn, and out-perform our humanness. We are, she finds, as fragile as the day we were born.”
I’m not sure which is more impressive here—the wisdom or the writing quality. I exported SIX pages of highlighted notes from my Kindle. I’ll be gifting this book to all the people in 2022.
Best Historical Fiction
I’ve long been able to trust Susan Meissner to deliver me to place and time unlike my own and find easy footing there among characters who feel like friends. Her 2021 release was no exception. I dove in and found what I was looking for—an immersive ride through San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake recovery beside a cast of complex, resilient heroines whose unexpected solidarity is a thing of beauty.
I emerged from the last page healed and helped by a story well told.
Most Important Non-Fiction
This book is so hard. “Choose not to look, however, at your own peril.” Just when I thought I was enlightened to the atrocities of slavery and systemic racism, Isabel presents new stories, perspectives and another, more insidious, layer of reality to confront: Caste. Read this one slow, but do read it, in whatever format is easiest for you to take in dense, weighty, oh-so-important content.
“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”
Best Celebrity Book Club Pick
Reese Witherspoon got this all the way right.
To be clear: At the start this presents as a rich-people-behaving-badly-and-having-lots-of-open-door-sexy-time situation. But then, wow. It evolves into something so much deeper, more tender, and more tragic. Its depth sneaks up on you. Good stuff.
“We drag our past behind us like a weight, still shackled but far enough back that we never have to see, never have to openly acknowledge who we once were.”
Only Rowley could set two kids and their GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) together in their grief and make it buoyant. Put this story in your veins. It’s pure joy.
“Grief orbits the heart. Some days the circle is greater. Those are the good days. You have room to move and dance and breathe. Some days the circle is tighter. Those are the hard ones.”
This buzzed about memoir is worthy of the hype. Michelle’s tribute to her mother, her Korean heritage and the food that connected Michelle to both is powerful, painful and profound. Trigger warning for those who have a lost a parent to cancer.
“In many ways, food was how my mother expressed her love. No matter how critical or cruel she seemed—constantly pushing me to be what she felt was the best version of myself—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.”
A history book that infuriates and enlightens in equal measure. It’s required reading, as Sean Michael Lucas says, for those who live and move and have our being within American evangelical denominations and churches. I bought a hardcopy to keep as a reference, but ended up listening to most of it on audio because it’s a tough hang. I’m reserving my thoughts about it for face-to-face conversations because there is just too much to unpack, but I can’t stress enough how important it is that everyone who has come within even an arm’s length of white evangelical subculture read this.
“A much needed and painstakingly accurate chronicle of exactly ‘where many evangelicals are,’ and the long road that got them there.” ―Tom Cox
Best 2021 Romance
Seven Days in June “is a hilarious, romantic, and sexy-as-hell story of two writers discovering their second chance at love.” I loved its likeable characters, the shade it thows at the publishing industry, and how the protagonist’s life with chronic illness was informed by the author’s lifelong struggle with debilitating migraines. If you enjoy author interviews, this is a good one with Tia Williams.
Whether by choice or by circumstance, loneliness marks stretches of all our lives. For this novel’s 84-year-old protagonist, the grooves worn by sadness and isolation are deep. By forging a new path alongside others committed to ending loneliness in their community, he gives us hope for brighter, more connected days ahead.
All the Lonely People is the timely, touching triumph we could all use right now.
“You’ve got to refuse to give up on people even if they’ve given up on themselves.”
I’ve read an absurd amount of cancer memoirs; however, this one is on another level precisely because of what NPR said about it: “Jaouad’s book stands out not only because she has lived to parse the saga of her medical battle with the benefit of hindsight, but also because it encompasses the less familiar tale of what it’s like to survive and have to figure out how to live again.”
Suleika writes from a place of dual citizenshipinthe kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the wellwith such skill and perspective that you’ll have a hard time putting her story down. Along the way it just might inform your own posture toward mourning and gratitude.
I’ve read a lot of books over the years about the power of gathering around the table, but never one as biblically grounded, thoughtfully structured and generously offered as Come & Eat. It’s a reminder of all the ways Jesus used meals to love the lost and an invitation for us to do the same.
“The table in our homes is still one of the most vibrant places we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus and love others. Our tables should be places where we are deployed as his missionaries. They are more than a structure to carry a meal. Life can be born at the table when we simply serve our guests a meal, encourage them after a long day, and receive them the way Jesus received Mary Magdalene–tenderly, acceptingly, joyfully. The table can be a vibrant life source, creating disciples with the strongest of devotions to Jesus and revealing a love to people who have never met Jesus. If we will commit to show up, Jesus will show up. He is so faithful.”
Best Essay Collection
Beloved novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett shows her mastery of the craft in this collection of warm, affectionate and deeply personal essays about topics ranging from her three fathers to forgoing motherhood to the writers who inspired her plus the especially moving piece, These Precious Days, about her unexpected friendship during lockdown with Tom Hanks’ assistant, Sooki Raphael.
“Having someone who believed in my failure more than my success kept me alert. It made me fierce. Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at a very early age to give up on the idea of approval. I wish I could bottle that freedom now and give it to every young writer I meet, with an extra bottle for the women. I would give them the ability both to love and not to care.”
No matter the size of the personal or professional gatherings you lead, this book will, as its blurb says, forever alter the way you look at your next meeting, industry conference, dinner party, and backyard barbecue—and how you host and attend them.
“Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.”
Best Backlist Gem
Three weeks before her husband’s death from cancer, a small plane carrying two pillars of Carole Radziwill’s support system—her best friend, Carolyn, and her husband’s cousin, John F. Kennedy Jr—plunges into the ocean en route to spend the weekend with her. Before the world learns they’re missing, Carole’s lost her world. What Remains is their story, one I won’t soon forget.
“Ultimately what remains is a story. In the end, it’s the only thing any of us really own. Some people write to explain their lives, others to escape them. I write partly out of a compulsive habit to keep things organized. Partly because our story is all that remains of our lives together, and I was afraid of losing that, too. But this is a story of my life, not THE story. Who could ever begin to tell it all?”
I said to my husband while inhaling this story about the unlikely friendship between 17-year-old Lenni, and 83-year-old Margo, “I’m so happy right now. This is such a Kristenbook.”
Loosely defined, a “Kristen book” is a heartbreaking, ultimately redemptive story about finding meaning in difficultly.
This is that and so much more.
“Death doesn’t look so big from close up.”
Best Look Inside
House Lessons so much more than a trip inside the century-old, trash-and-rat-infested house Erica and her family renovated in the Pacific Northwest; it’s a window into who we can become when we recognize our homes for the quiet partners they are, or could one day be. Whether renovating a house or building a life, this book, like the loveliest of welcome mats, is waiting for you.
“Time is not the enemy of beauty—in fact, it’s often quite the opposite. Time is what gives a plaster wall its luminous glow and then softens the wood of a canister into the shape of your palm. Time is what gets you past the first rush of love and into the parts that actually sustain you. And time gives you the chance to gather perspective, to see your life from the altitude of experience—a blueprint, continually subject to change.”